Tuesday 25 October 2016

Camino Day 14 - arriving in Santiago de Compostela

We're in Santiago de Compostela at the end of our two week, 320-kilometre, walking adventure. We covered 20km and we did the distance in around six hours, including stops.

Our final day on the trail was perfect. We enjoyed what was possibly the warmest and sunniest weather that we've had in over a week and a route that was enjoyable, despite being so close to the city.

Letting mom and Ashala have coffee before we set off worked a treat. They shot out of the café and charged up the first hill, making excellent time on the wooded tracks. With trees on either side, there wasn't much in the way of scenice views and little to photograph. But it is pretty walking on tracks through trees and enjoying the greenery and mosses. These tracks are also softer underfoot than walking on sidewalks and tar roads.

We passed through San Payo and then stopped in Lavacolla for a sandwich. We got enormous baguettes! One would have been enough for all three of us! We all ate a third of our rolls and had the other two thirds wrapped to take away. They were crazy big - like for three meals. We gave them away tonight to a pilgrim with a dog asking for money and another beggar in the city.

As we neared the city we were more on tar and could all feel it in our feet. We stopped past the big monument in San Marcos,  which was built to commemorate the visit of Pope John Paul II. The monument didn't do much for me but I did like the huge metal plaque/sculptures on each of the four sides.

From the top of the hill where the monument stands, "medieval pilgrims first espied the cathedral towers". I looked but didn't see them.

We continued down, dropping into the outskirts of the city and into sidewalks and roads and crossings and traffic lights and cars and people.

The newer parts are neat and tidy and we stopped for a quick drink near the start of the old city before making our way through.

And then, we saw it... one of the towers of the catedral peeking out between buildings.

It took us a few minutes to get through to the plaza where we admired the cathedral, posed for photos and greeted Camino friends.

At the Camino office we collected our Camino certificates. They translate your name into Latin and, interestingly, mom and I have the same name on our certificates - Elisabetham. My name, Lisa, is now a stand-alone name but it is actually derived from Elizabeth and is a diminutive or nickname of Elizabeth, much like the name Beth. My parents didn't know this when they named me and it wasn't until I was a few years old that someone commented on this. In any event, my name has the same root as my mom's and thus we have the same name on our certificates. I didn't expect this at all. Very funny. Her certificate is the one with the neater handwriting.

We're staying at a really nice private albergue that is a five-minute walk from the cathedral. Being Santiago, we're paying 16€ per night  (usually 10€ for a private hostel) but this is still a better deal than 50€ for a room (35-37€ for a single person) at a simple hotel. This albergue, Roots&Boots, seems really organised and our dorm, with 6 bunks, is pleasant. I can see the upper parts of the cathedral clearly from our first floor window - directly in line with my top bunk.

We hooked up with Ashala's friend, Dawn, for a walk about town and a light dinner. They met on the route earlier - before we even started. Dawn has been here for a few days so she knows the good spots.

This is our last night with our new friend, Ashala. She is heading off to visit Finisterre ("end of the earth") and zero kilometre point tomorrow (by bus). She has been on the route for a few weeks more (around 45 days), having started in St Jean. She has walked the full 790km traditional French Route.

We have had such fun together and it has been a pleasure to have her company and to build a friendship. I have no doubt our paths will cross again and with Facebook, the world is a small place.

On Wednesday, Mom and I will explore Santiago and its buildings that date back to the 17th and 18th century. We'll go to the noon mass in the cathedral, which should be interesting (all in Spanish) and we're hoping to see the big ball thing swing (I'll explain about this tomorrow). Parts of the cathedral date back as early as 1188!

We return to Madrid by train on Thursday and look forward to seeing our friend Jeremy and his family. We'll explore Madrid on Friday, enjoy the Prado Museum on Saturday and start flying home on Sunday morning. Whoosh!

For now, a good and long sleep.

Monday 24 October 2016

Camino Day 13 - woodland tracks to Pedrouzo

Our second last day on our Camino de Santiago journey from León to Santiago de Compostela was smooth and largely uneventful - in a good way.

From our lovely municipal albergue in Ribadiso we went steeply up into the big town of Arzúa (3km into the day) where we stopped for coffee. We meandered on the Camino route through the town, out the old part and back on to the woodland tracks.

The weather today has been glorious with a partly cloudy sky and little wind. In next to no time our jackets were off and by noon we were down to our short-sleeved tee layer.

Defined villages along the way today were few - instead there was an interrupted chain of farms mixed with wide forested tracks.

My recollection of the day feels totally out so I just asked mom and Ashala what they remembered.

"That's a tough one," says Ashala.

The photos on our cameras help to trigger the memories.

I petted two horses this morning. I remember it being this afternoon;  the photos show it was this morning just out of Arzúa. Doh!

We stopped for coffee at A Calzada.

We saw a lot more graffiti by "Julius". He was on this section on 3 September 2016 and seems to have put in a lot of mileage, travelling through the night. One marker had a date and "at night",  another had the time as 02h15. Another at 04h45...

We looked online tonight. I'd like to find the guy. If I found him in person I'd use his permanent marker to draw all over his body. We've seen other comments by peregrinos and one in particular had a great suggestion - he should be brought back here and made to clean every one of the route markers and signs that he has defaced.

We liked Boavista, a hamlet that hardly has a label in the book. We peeked inside an old house and saw a man on a scaffold working on the walls. He has done a great job so far.

"Muy bonita," I said. Very pretty.

"Mucho trabajo," he replied. Lots of work.

We finally got to see the inside of the grain storage 'houses' (hórreo) that we've been seeing for days (see photo below). Mielies (corn cobs). The doors on these were open, probably to let the wind blow through to dry them.

I got hold of some sweet green grapes.

We got some delicious, ripe figs for Ashala. The colour of these (I've found two varieties) are different to what she is used to so she hadn't recognised the ripe ones.

Later on today there were some information boards that highlighted a few of the historic sites. One of these was a fuente (drinking water font). The board said it used to have a statue in it. The statue was dates 1600-something (like 1656) and it was stolen in something like 1998. Stupid people.

We also remembered the little cluster of purple flowers that caught our eyes,  'nests' of mushrooms,  pretty flowers, lots of trees, the scent of eucalyptus trees and a magnificent jasmine variety with the sweetest smelling tiny flowers...

The final section into Pedrouzo seemed to take an age. On the book it was listed at 2.7km from the previous village... it felt like it took an age to get here. But, we were spot on target on my prediction and we were at our municipal albergue by 15h00.

I made two phone calls this evening - both in Spanish. I am no way proficiently conversant but I am getting better at 'getting by'.

This albergue is ok. It has absolutely none of the charm of last night's spot, which was one of my favourites of our journey. A couple of our Camino friends are here too and some will be staying at the same place in Santiago tomorrow night.

We'll be out of our albergue here in Pedrouzo (also known as Arca O Pino - satellite town of Santiago) around 8am to start our final stage. We're in for just short of 20 kilometres to the catedral.

Tomorrow's route looks fairly tame. We've got eucalyptus forests to start and then later, as we approach the city, we'll have more tar, crowds and busloads of people. We've got a steep uphill and downhill after midway.

We won't make the 12 noon mass at the catedral but there is one at 19h00. Apparently the cathedral is a sight to behold and there is a lot to see in and around it in the old city.

Buenos noches, mis amigos

Sunday 23 October 2016

Camino Day 12 - hills and valleys to Ribadiso

Our route today has again been fabulous. I can never get enough of forests, winding lanes and moss-covered stone walls. I got all of this and more today.

We left our albergue in Palas de Rei with our rain jackets on as it had rained most of the night and there was still a light drizzle. Within a half hour the drizzle had stopped and we didn't get rain for the rest of the day.

Coming out of Palas de Rei we were caught up in a tour group of Spaniards and, we think, possibly also the Japanese tour group. There were so many people on the trail!

We got into the first town, San Xulián (3.5km), and ducked into a café. The owner was just about to close but he left us in and made coffees and hot chocolate (for me). Today he closes his place for the season and said something about going to Brazil until the season opens again.

This stop got us clear of the groups - thank goodness. I did speak to the one tour group guide and what I could figure out from him is that he takes more mature clients out in the Camino route. They can't walk the whole thing so they go by bus and walk some sections - which I'd figured. He spoke in a rush of Spanish so I couldn't quite get all of it. So he is a local version of what the Japanese and Koreans are doing.

This was a really sweet hamlet and from here we meandered through farmlands, forests and more hamlets - and over a medieval bridge or two.

I carry the guidebook in my hand to read what they have to say about hamlets we're passing through. Coming up to the medieval bridge crossing into the village of Furelos, I read the following:

"The route brings us to the main road opposite the Romanesque Church of San Pedro & San Roque beside it's famous 14th Century stone cross reputed to be the oldest in Galicia 'Cruciero do Melide' - Christ in majesty facing us and Christ  crucified on the reserve".

"We best not miss that," says Ashala, totally deadpan.

We howl with laughter.

It is fair to say that we have seen hundreds of churches and hundreds of crosses (it feels like it!!!). Even the smallest hamlets have a small stone church. Incredible!  We go into very few. I can confess to have rung two church bells.

For much of the time we had blue sky overhead but with very dark clouds threatening. On the walk into the big town of Melide, where we stopped for lunch, a strong, cold wind came up and we were sure that a storm would hit.

Our guidebook said very little about the place where we were planning to spend the night so we weren't sure if there would be much in the way of a place for dinner. Having lunch was a safe bet.

Leaving the town the dark clouds were still ahead but fortunately we didn't get caught in any storms. Instead we enjoyed the green fields and trees and stone houses against this magnificently dark background.

Mom remembers the route from O'Cebreiro as being flat (another man here who is doing his 4th Camino has a similar recollection) but it is anything other than flat. The route profile is deceiving and even though it shows gentle and undulating gradients, in reality there are some steep uphills and steep downhills every day. As the guidebook says of the section from Melide,  "We cross several shallow river valleys during these final stages so our path is more arduous than the contour plans suggest". Indeed!

We needed to make good time through the villages of Boente (where I really had to work to get a bunch of grapes from a high vine outside an abandoned house - Ashala got a video of this) and Castañeda to get to our end at Ribadiso.

This section, especially the last three kilometres had a lot of climb. Two days ago were thinking of staying there but after that climb we're glad to be on the other side of the hill  (steep up and down).

A small medieval bridge over the Rio Iso led us straight into our albergue for the night. This is my favourite of all of the municipal albergues thus far.

This one is in a reconstructed pilgrim hospital - one of the oldest still in existance. It dates back before the 1500s and has changed hands a number of times. A rental agreement in the 1700s included a proviso that the buildings are to be maintained. In 1992-1993 the municipality renovated to turn it into an albergue for pilgrims. It has won awards for environmental architecture.

We had a delcious dinner (their lentil soup is highly recommended) at the adjoining café-bar and are snug in our spacious dorm. I love being surrounded by old stone walls.

We have been marveling at the construction of old buildings. The thick walls were made to last and often more than 600 yrs later they're still standing. I have no idea how the stone masons cut the stones - especially the corner stones and also the curves for the walls. (Note to self to read up on Wiki when I get back.)

We clocked almost 26 kilometres today!

Tomorrow is shorter at around 22km. The book says we start with a steep climb up to the first town (a big one), which is 3km away. I've only just read this so I haven't told mom or Ashala. All they know is they get their morning coffee at the town - perfect motivation. Coffee in the morning; beer in the afternoon.

The book does say that the middle section "we have a largely level path with just three shallow river valleys".

As we get nearer Santiago (less than a marathon to go) an energy is kicking in - like at the café tonight between Camino friends. Nonetheless, the distance still has to be covered and we still have two seven-hour days ahead of us.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Camino Day 11 - ticking off kilometres to Palas de Rei

Today was one of the most bland routes that we've had in the past 11 days. That said, we had a great walk and the 27 kilometres from Vilachá, past nearby Portomarín and to our destination, Palas de Rei were smooth.

We left Gordon's Casa Banderas a little after 8am, having eaten a tasty breakfast and a mug of tea (for me). We said goodbye to our German and French friends and a fond farewell to Gordon and set off through this little hamlet.

Portomarín is a big town (2000 population) only 2.5km away. We decided to skip the short jaunt through town - so save mom and Ashala going up the steep steps into the town and then a certainly steep descent back to the main road.

What we thoroughly enjoyed was the walk across the bridge to the town. The river was dammed downstream from the town in 1962 to create a reservoir. Before then, the town existed on the river banks. They moved the church and several historic monuments brick by brick to the town's new location higher up on the hill.

What is really cool is that they left all the stone houses and over the past 50 years the water flowing through the dam has mostly washed the walls away leaving ruins and stones that litter the river bed. 

At the moment the dam is pretty much empty (the river is running but no dam to speak of) and so the ruins of the town are clearly visible. You can see where the roads and the houses were. At the start of the bridge they have an information board, which had a few photos of the old town. It must be good fun to walk down there among the ruins (nice orienteering variation).

After a steep uphill,  the rest of the route was mostly a gentle uphill on trails - and through very few villages.  

After about 10km we hit the village of Gonzar and stopped at the cafė there to get coffee and to buy bocadillos (sandwiches). They're really big so we each at a half and packed the rest away to eat later.

Onward through Ventas de Narón, where mom spent a night last year. And then through a bunch of loose hamlets. These settlements are pretty and the scenery was more interesting than that of this morning.

The weather continues to be excellent. Although the grey, overcast sky does nothing for my photos, it is absolutely perfect for walking. We seem to have missed a light shower, which had passed and left the roads wet further along. The weather is predicted to be similar for the week.

The town we're in tonight, Palas de Rei, has a great feel to it. Population is around 4,500. While I liked Astorga and wasn't taken by Ponferrada, I really didn't like Sarria. This town has a bit of energy.

We're staying in a private albergue, Buen Camino. It is nice and spacious and it has a bunch of small rooms. We have a room for just the three of us, which is nice. It has a pleasant view too. There are also nice areas with tables and chairs and the shower was hot and strong.

Municipal albergues in this province charge 6€ (it was 5€ in the previous province). Private albergues are 10€. They vary in size an may sleep as few as 14 people or as many as 120.

I think this is the second or third private albergue we've stayed in. Some may only have a few beds, like Gordon's place. Others are bigger (this one can sleep 41).

Seeing so many people on the route yesterday and today we were really worried about availability, especially as municipal hostels are first-come, first-served. Chatting to a fellow peregrino, he said the municipal in Portomarín last night had very few people. So we're confident of getting a spot tomorrow in Ribadiso at the municipal.

I haven't had much opportunity to really practice my Spanish other than the regular greetings and well wishing and ordering food.  Last night Gordon phoned a few places for us to reserve our accommodation for tonight and tomorrow night. As we'll end up in a different location tomorrow, I phoned the lady to tell her that we would not be staying with her. In Spanish, I understood her and she understood me. On the phone one can't use gestures and so I was super chuffed.

Mom and Ashala both did so well today. I was a bit worried about mom's left thigh, which has been troubling her for a few days on the steep descents. We were also in for one of our longest days yet. As we had little in the way of steep descents, she was fine and we all kept a good pace to have us in Palas de Rei before 5pm (around 8.5hrs - including stops).

We've also got a longer section tomorrow at 26km to Ribadiso. There's a big town at about half way,  Melide (8000 population) where we'll stop for lunch and them just have snacks for dinner at the albergue.

Friday 21 October 2016

Camino Day 10 - dew and spider webs to Vilachá

We have had the most magnificent walking weather. Mist, that shrouds the landscape in a soft veil; cool temperatures that are just warmer than 'cold' and even 'warm' (when you are walking) and no rain. These conditions make the passing of time deceiving as noon feels like 7am.

We set out in the dark, at 8am, from Barbadelo. We met up with Ashala (she was staying at the albergue up the hill).

The track today has been fantastic - mostly wide trails and stone-walled lanes that wind through forests. Quite undulating and very pretty.

We saw a load of spider webs today - pretty with their dewdrop jewels. The web construction caught our eye - like a hammock.

The settlements we passed through today were really small. Along the route there were a couple of cafes, which serve coffee (and some snacks and light meals)  to passing peregrinos. Not a single place with a tienda (shop).

The book describes these settlements as "straggling hamlets with no clear boundaries". These are very much working dairy farms with more tractors than cars and with cow-farm scents everywhere. It is magnificently green and scenic.

The distances passed pretty quickly and we saw a lot of people on the route - many who would have started off today from Sarria.

We passed through the '100km to Santiago' distance marker - took photos - and continued.

Edible finds included apples, pears and berries. As I have a good stash of chestnuts, I had to resist the urge to pick up more. There are so many magnificent chestnut trees all over the place!

We are staying in Vilachá tonight. This is a small settlement 2.5km before Portomarín (a town). This is the place where, five years ago, mom met the South African guy who was in the process of setting up an albergue. Casa Banderas, has been running for five years now.

We have spent a good deal of the afternoon chatting to Gordon, learning about how he ended up starting an albergue here, about renovating and fixing up this old house, which has original walls that date back 1000 years (plus later add ons), about life in this small hamlet and a dozen other topics.

It took him a few summers to transform this place, which had great walls but no floors and rotten wood all over. It hadn't been used in 30 years. We've seen some of the before photographs. Incredible. He did all the work himself, with the exception of the roof. The original main beams are still there but the ceiling and slate roofing is new.

Our dorm, with four bunks, is spacious and divine. I've got a bottom bunk tonight (I usually get the top). There are five of us here - me, mom, Ashala, a German lady and a French lady. We'll have dinner here tonight. From the smell coming from the kitchen, Gordon is cooking up a storm.

I asked him about his cooking. Like most of the private albergue owners, he does everything. Cooking, cleaning and all - he has no hired help. He says he cooks the same meal all the time. As peregrinos are only here for one night, it doesn't matter. We had a good laugh. He says that sometimes he needs something different to eat and then he makes something else.

This is hard work, seven days a week for the summer season. He's looking forward to a rest.

This village has a resident population of about 40 people.

We've been curious about so many things, like the wildlife. We've learned that there are bears here - small, berry-eating bears. There are also foxes and wolves and deer. There should also be squirrels, which he has heard about but never seen in his 11 years here.

He will be closing up the albergue soon. He closes over winter and returns to South Africa for a few months, coming back here for the Camino season in March. He says it gets really cold here and one time when he stayed here in a winter month, just to heat his one room, it cost 300 € for a month. A flight to south Africa is 600 € so it is well worth heading to warmer climates for the winter.

We'll chat to him more over dinner and look forward to learning more about life in rural Spain and also what Camino was like before it became popular - sounds like it was my kinda fun.

As I finish up this post it is now after the delicious dinner and we've had some great conversations, especially as Gordon first did the Camino in 2002. A lot has changed since then. More on some of these discussions in other posts to come.

We'll be going through to Plas de Rei tomorrow and fortunately have accommodation booked (with thanks to Gordon). With more people on the route there are more places that are booked and taking a chance to get a bed at a municipal hostel, where we have been mostly staying, could be risky as it is first - come, first-served. And we also need to know where we are staying for the night to get mom's bag sent through.

It is going to be a long day tomorrow at 27km. Mom says that with regular stops she will be good for it.

Ah... Julius, the graffiti property defacer (see yesterday's post)... I saw a date on something today - he was here on 1 September 2016. Here is an example of his work on a new (in the last year) route marker (see photos below). The other two women staying here (French and German) have also noticed his marks and commented that they have seen them for days and days. That's how noticeable his marks are - and how many. Often his name, sometimes just the symbol. I must have seen at least four today.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Camino Day 9 - misty forests to Barbadelo

After an excellent sleep at our municipal hostel in Triacastela, we made it through the town and up a steep climb in the early light of morning. We chose to do the route via San Xil, which has more 'natural pathways' and less tar than the Samos route.

For much of today we walked through forests veiled in mist. Peregrinos ahead of us would be gobbled up ahead while those behind would suddenly emerge. Add huge trees and you get quite a magical experience.

The first section passed really quickly as we worked our way through quiet and sleepy hamlets. There weren't many early locations for a coffee stop so it was only when we got to the village of Pintín that we stopped.

This is cattle farming area - dairy definitely and probably beef. There are lots of bright green fields and stone walls as well as a very cattle scent in the air.

Much of the next section offered more downhill, which mom is really not enjoying.

By early afternoon we had reached the big town of Sarria (13,800 population). We first walked through a newer part of the town first and then into an older section. Mom stayed at a café for a drink while I hit the town to find a farmacia to get mom a compression thing for her thigh muscle. I walked the town flat and found four pharmacies. Only one had an adjustable knee support, which I got for her. It helps a great deal.

30 minutes later I got back to her and we headed the rest of the way through the old town, heading for the next village - Barbadelos. Actually, it barely is a village. No shops but there are three albergues and a big church. 

Every little settlement, even if it has two houses, one barn and a fuente (water fountain) has a church of some sorts. It really is quite incredible.

My foraging of chestnuts today was limited. I couldn't resist picking up a couple of big ol' delicious looking ones but as I have a bag of them stashed, I really don't need any more. Again, the place we're in has a decent kitchen - with not a single pot nor utensil. Tomorrow, perhaps.

I found a delicious red apple and we ate some honey-sweet figs this morning. I found a few blackberries here and there.

We're staying in the municipal albergue, which we wouldn't recommend. We have stayed in many of them and have had some excellent places, like last night in Triacastela. This one... no personality and one too many bunks (5 and there really shoukd only be 4) in this room.

Just up the road is a private albergue, Casa Carmen, which is a better option. For 10 € more it has more personality. Our friend, Ashala, got through here later than us but met us for dinner at Casa Carmen. We were also joined by our South Korean companion from the other night, Jun. He is absolutely charming and very funny. We had an excellent meal together.

Over these past few days we've made a number of friends - familiar and friendly faces who we see regularly throughout the day and share a word or two. We're all.on a similar schedule

Yesterday I made a new friend, James from San Diego.

We were on a downhill and I was walking with mom. James and another fellow (Italian) came past us and both guys were walking gingerly down and both had knee guards on their left knees. I watched how James was walking (the other guy had subsequently passed him) so I caught up to him and gave him some postural tips to relieve the pressure and impact of the descent on his knee. He tried it and off he went.

I saw him later again in the day and he gave me a big wave.

Today I was taking a photo of a cow and had just walked away. I turned to talk to mom and this guy had just arrived. He looks at me and says, "Lisa!". He smiled and as he approached he opened his arms wide to give me a hug.

"You saved me! Now I am walking just fine downhill how you showed me. I can walk anywhere!"

So sweet. Sometimes I waver, unsure whether to 'interfere' and say anything. If the person is someone like James, who tries it and it works, then my 'interference' is well worth it - 100 times over. It could be the difference between walking into Santiago after a month on the road or taking the bus.

Looking back through photos from today to choose some to post, I can hardly believe that some photos taken were only this morning. It feels like days ago, not just 12 hours ago. Time moves strangely here and the villages are very much a blur.

I make a point of photographing each village name so that I have a point of reference in my photo order.

Graffiti... There is a lot of graffiti around and there has been the whole way. I'm talking about graffiti written by peregrinos. It is usually on rocks and signs - usually a person's name and the year written in permanent marker.

Who goes on a pilgrimage with a permanent marker - premeditated graffiti? And why write on distance markers and rocks for hundreds of kilometres?

Yesterday (or the day before) we saw a name 'Julius' and '16 with a curly symbol written on a sign. I've now seen it dozens of times and sometimes just the curly symbol. Julius, if you ever read this, you're an idiot.

While the route has mostly been litter-free (with the exception of post-urination wipe-off toilet paper all over - disgusting!!!), this graffiti definitely counts as visual litter.

Tomorrow we have a short day - around 15km as we did an extra 4km today. Also? We'll be stopping about 2.5km before Portomarín to stay at an albergue run by a South African guy. My mom met him by chance in 2011 just as he was setting up his albergue (it wasn't open yet). It is listed in the new edition of the guidebook and I've left a message on his phone to say we'll be coming.

Tomorrow morning we'll hit the '100km to Santiago' mark (currently at 107.5km). I said to mom today that I'll need to return to do the section from St Jaume to León to be able to properly have 'done the Camino'.