Bishop Stephen's pilgrimage

to Santiago de Compostella

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19

Day Nineteen – fantastic to be alive

I again woke early and set off while it was still dark. Breakfast was a banana and a few pieces of left over ham. The climb out of the Lourenza was steep, a portent of what will follow throughout today. As the sun rose, I found myself walking above the cloud. I was on a narrow mountain path and below me the valley was shrouded in mist. There were some fantastic spiders webs along the way. And lots of mushrooms.

At just after 9.30 I arrived in the beautiful little Galician city of Mondonedo. It was market day, and there were stalls set out in front of the fabulous 13th century cathedral.

I had a coffee in the square. The Cathedral opened at ten, so I went in and said my prayers. There was a peaceful, prayer filled simplicity and austerity to the place, one of those churches where – for me- it is easier to pray. After twenty minutes a tour party arrived to break the stillness, but it was time for me to set off anyway. A truly lovely cathedral in a lovely little city.

The walk from Mondonedo up into the mountains and heading south was utterly beautiful.

Today has been one of those days when it is simply fantastic to be alive. The sky was a brilliant blue. I was surrounded by birdsong. The walking was hard, but after nearly three weeks of walking I am the fittest I have been for at least thirty years, and with my feet so much better than they were, the kilometres slipped by.

At one point, breathing in the fantastic view and feeling the heat of the sun, I simply had to share it with someone, so ‘phoned home and just told Rebecca how very good it was to be alive. I know it is a terrible old cliche, but life really is a gift to be enjoyed, not a problem to be solved. And even though I have discovered on this pilgrimage that it is still possible to be driven while you are walking, that is I can still very easily let the targets of where I am going to stop for lunch and where I am heading for in the evening, control the day, today it really was different. It was simply a day to enjoy the glorious giftedness of life, and to dwell in each passing moment as the theophany it is.

Nevertheless, the walking was still hard. After lunch there was a steep, steep climb and I arrived at Gontan mid afternoon. A cold beer and snooze on my bunk at the Albergue helped.

Today is Michaelmass, but sadly no mass at the parish church in this little town. Dinner was another surprise as I waited to see what the little bar/cafe in town came up with: a delicious Scotch broth type soup, followed by egg and chips. Plenty of angels doing their stuff today.

Snails

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A gathering of snails on one of the signposts on the Camino, obviously conferring on what direction to take.

As I know to my cost, taking a wrong turn can have serious consequences.

Even more so if you’re a snail, I guess.

Day Eighteen – walking inland

After a deep and restoring sleep, I woke early and left early. Breakfast was a large pain au raisin, left on a tray by the hotel reception.

It took a little while for my body to shake off the sleep, and the pack felt heavier than ever for the first mile or so. But I soon got into a good rhythm of walking and the little roads and country paths of Galicia propelled me along, and the new innersoles in my boots made the path more forgiving.

Galicia feels different. I am now walking away from the coast, and therefore away from an area buoyed up by tourism and relative wealth. As I walk inland it is noticeably poorer and sparser. I walked on one road this morning for more than an hour and a car did not pass me in either direction. The gaps between each village are longer, and the amenities at most villages non-existent. I will have to be more careful about carrying supplies. I passed only one cafe in nearly 16km of walking.

On virtually every other day so far, there has been one in most villages and every five or six km. Fortunately, I went to a small supermarket in Ribadeo last night and bought bread, cheese and ham and made it into two big sandwiches which will do for lunch and dinner tonight if need be. I also have my tin of sardines. Although I ate emergency tin number one in Gijon when I had a rest day, and couldn’t face going out, emergency tin number two is in my pack.

Actually there was another little cafe in a tiny village which I arrived at at lunchtime. There was quite a gaggle of pilgrims there, and we chatted about blisters foot ache, the mountains to come, and other issues of common interest. I walked for a little while with Eva from the Czech Republic and Gabby from Germany.

Today I have seen lots of mushrooms, and, in one field, seven or eight beautiful large puffballs. I’ve only ever found and eaten a puffball once. When I lived near Reading I found one growing in the field near our house one morning while I was out walking the dog. What I do remember is that it tasted delicious. If there had been room in my pack and I had the wherewithal to cook it, I would certainly have picked one today.

I made really good progress in the afternoon and walked into Lourenza at just before three, this was further than I had planned to walk today. The new soles are really helping.

On my way into town I passed a man making and selling little wooden yellow arrows. I bought one from him for a couple of euros.

Lourenza’s reason for being is the tenth century Benedictine Monastery, which is a national monument in Spain. Parts of the building share an architect with the Cathedral at Santiago – which I hope to see in about a weeks time.

There was space at the Albergue. I got a bottom bunk, which pleased me. My daily ritual of washing myself and then my clothes followed. Then a cold beer. Dinner tonight was a bit of a let down after previous days, only a bar doing not very pleasant pizza, though extremely nice tapas while I waited. If only larger helpings of the tapas had been on the menu.

Tomorrow the serious uphill walking begins.

Day Seventeen – no room at the inn

Today has been another 30km day. When I awoke it was overcast and drizzly. Nevertheless, I made good progress, and reached La Caridad by mid morning.

I did a good thing today. In La Caridad I went to a Pharmacy, where I was served by a lovely Spanish woman who was keen to try out her English. I bought some plasters and some of those gel insoles which runners use in their trainers for the inside of my boots. The blisters are on the mend – though I still need more plasters – but in the past few days my feet have taken a real hammering. A lot of the walking is either on roads or on rough, uneven and stony paths. I find that each day after about four or five hours walking my feet really beginning to ache.

I said Morning Prayer in the church opposite the Pharmacy (it was open) and afterwards put the new inner soles in my shoes. They seem to be making a difference.
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I didn’t really have much food with me today so bought a banana in a market, and was glad to see a help yourself box of apples for pilgrims along the route. I stopped and had a nectarine and some water before trudging the last few. Figueras, The last town in Asturias, before crossing the Ria de Ribadeo into Galicia, Ribadeo itself, and what will be the last leg of my journey.

The footbridge across the river runs along the side of the motorway across a huge viaduct as the river opens into the sea. It was a vast and fantastic view.

When I got to the little Albergue on the other side of the river, it was full. I suppose this had to happen one day.   The next one was another 7km, so I decided this was God’s way of telling me to have another night in a hotel.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to book in somewhere; neither is it very expensive. I am staying in the heart of a beautiful little Galician town. After a shower and a rest I went in search of a beer and also ended up going to Mass in the Church of Santa Maria del Campo. Spanish churches are gloriously ornate, this and the other one I visited in the twin were no exception, chock full of imposing statues of the saints and larger than life size tableaux from the gospels; I even saw Judas kissing Christ.
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It seems that the menu of the day is always a very safe bet in Spanish restaurants and today for my nine euros I had more fish soup (oh, but who could tire of fish soup), then meat balls. And wine. A whole bottle! And coffee.

Day Sixteen – snoring and false trails

There was some formidable snoring going on in the Albergue I stayed in last night. I know we all snore, so there is no point in getting annoyed by it, but I didn’t get to sleep till gone two, such was the earth trembling velocity of the thunderous cacophony of snorting and grunting that I was surrounded by.

Neither was Saint Therese of Lisieux’s advice when she slept in the dormitory in the convent with a lot of elderly nuns to think of the snoring as music much comfort. I am not holy enough for that.

I got up early, and left while it was still dark. The walking began with a steep climb out of Luarca, but climbing above the town I stopped and watched the sunrise.

It was very beautiful. The birds were singing. Below me the town was coming to life, and the sun was soaking the sky pink and blue.

I stopped for a coffee mid morning, and despite the signs being wonderfully clear round here, still managed to get myself lost. I’ve suspected for a while, that for disaffected Spanish youth in these parts a fun pastime must be to paint yellow arrows on the road so and send pilgrims off in the wrong direction.

I think I must have followed one of these false trails. I trampled alongside a cornfield, crossed a railway line, still thinking I was close to the actual path, and then found myself caught in thick bracken and brambles. After wandering around for ten minutes and getting well and truly scratched and stung, I retraced my steps back to the road.

I reached Navia by 1.30, stopped for a beer and crossed the river at just after two. I am staying in Jarrio at a nice little guesthouse which will hopefully mean a good night’s sleep. The €9 menu of the day gave me fish soup, beef, rice pudding and a whole bottle of red wine.

Tomorrow, if all goes well, will be my last day walking along the coast. It will soon be time to turn left and head south towards Santiago.

Praying for Church Army

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Day Fifteen – dinner adventures

Last night’s dinner was an adventure. It was one of those restaurants where there is no menu, the waiter just comes and tells you what is on offer that night. He reeled off a list of things, and I nodded enthusiastically at some and shook my head disdainfully at others, but wasn’t really sure what I was ordering at all, though I have come to learn the words for ‘soup’ and ‘fish’ and was pretty sure these might be brought to me.

As it turned out, I had a really excellent fish soup: once again, the pot was brought to the table and I could helped myself to several bowlfuls. Then I had fish and chips. Not quite what I was expecting, but it was two beautiful hake steaks and a big portion of proper chips on the side.

It rained heavily in the night. When I set off this morning at just before eight, it had cleared, though still wet, and for some of the morning on hillside paths, muddy. It was and up and down sort of morning, passing close to several beautiful and secluded beaches. I stopped and said Morning Prayer at one of them. I would have had a swim, but actually getting to some of the beaches was quite hazardous. My weekly phone call from BBC Essex came through, and it was good to chat to them about my adventures as I walked along.

At lunch time I walked with Barbara from Slovenia for a short while. She works as a translator, so her English was excellent. I had a sandwich sitting outside a church near Queruas, and then a lot of road walking in the afternoon as I trudged into Luarca. It was a very hot afternoon, and this was hard on my feet. It was good to arrive and I got one of the last bunks at a hot, smelly and crowded Albergue. I have walked 32km today, my furthest so far, but it means I am well on course for Santiago.

Luarca is a lovely little fishing town with a beautiful harbour. After a shower and a snooze – though nowhere to hand wash and dry clothes – I went to a lovely pastry shop for coffee and cake. The coffee in Spain is unfailingly excellent. Much better than in France. Always hot. And half the price. The coffee and cake – a kind of ‘patisserie tapas’ which arrived with the coffee was €1.30. And, of course, light years ahead of the U.K. I have been in Spain nearly two weeks and not seen a single Starbucks, or anything that might even pass for a chain. O praise ye the Lord!

And sorry to keep going on about food, but when you’ve been walking with a pack on your back for eight or nine hours, dinner really matters, and Spain is the place to be if you like fish. I made way down to the harbour in Luarca, found a nice looking fish restaurant, ditched the phrase book, and just ordered the €17 set menu and waited to see what arrived. A crab mousse, grilled stuffed mussels (with cheese!), and a big tuna steak and salad later, I was more than happy. All with a lovely view of the harbour, a bottle of wine and (at last) some of the local cider to start with. I though I’d better drink some before I leave Asturias.

BBC Essex Interview – 25 September

Listen to the BBC Essex Sunday Breakfast that was broadcast on Sunday 25 September.

apples

Day Fourteen – apples

I again set off just before dawn and walked into Muros de Nalon, a steep climb for the first bit of the day. The sun was rising and they were setting up a small market in the town Square. I bought myself a nectarine.

During the past week many of the towns I’ve passed through have bars called a ‘Sidreria’, which I assume just means cider bar. This is apple growing country – there have been plenty to scrump – and the local drink is a kind of ‘ champagne cider’, that the waiters serve with great panache, holding the bottle up high in one hand high and the glass low down in the other, and pouring the cider from a great height, and, I suppose, airiating it as it goes down.

But today the landscape seems to be changing. I still have the sea to the right of me, and most of today an autoroute as well, which I keep crossing over and under, but the countryside is more sparse. There are loads of Eucalyptus trees. They are springing up everywhere. I’m sure this can’t be a good thing.

I have replaced my three Italian ladies with three American ladies. I met them in the Albergue last night. They are from Minnesota. However, one is much faster than the other, and the other day when the Camino split she went left towards Oviedo, and the other two went right along by the sea. By the time they realised they were on completely different roads, it was not worth backtracking, but there is a way back to the Camino Del Norte from the Camino Primitivo, so the slower two just waited up for two days while the other one performed her circuitous catch up. they left really early today, and I passed them on the road about mid morning. One of them was way ahead of the other two.

At lunchtime I stopped at a bar in Soto de Luina for a beer and a sandwich. Great excitement: my phone was running out of power, so a first chance to use my solar panel charger that has been on the back of my rucksack soaking up the sun since I got to Spain. I managed to get it all running properly – no easy thing for me, I am to technology what King Herod was to child minding – and it did the job.

I reached Novellana where I am staying the night by mid afternoon. It being Sunday tomorrow, I was wondering where I would go to church. I even looked up Novellana on Wikipedia to see if it had a church. It didn’t tell me one way or another. Yet as I arrived, there was the church right opposite where I’m staying. I’m in a very rural part of Spain, so Novellana is part of a team of at least six churches. I checked the service times at each one on the notice boarding the porch, and Novellana’s turn for Mass was 7.30 on Saturday evening. Couldn’t be better.

I had a bath. Bliss. Tried to see if I could get a swim. I’m next to the sea, but no beach. (Without a walk that is, and I don’t want any more of that today). So a snooze, a beer, Mass (with loads of people there for such a small place) and I’m now waiting for the restaurant to start serving food at nine.

Day Thirteen – dogs and technology

I set off earlier than usual this morning: just after 7.30. The churches seem to be open round here, so I said Morning Prayer in a large one on the edge of the medieval part of Aviles. For the first time since I began walking, the signs are not so prevalent. I was walking nearly an hour before I saw my first yellow arrow. Though this may have been because I took a wrong turning immediately!

Thankfully, the online map on the Camino del Norte app saved me. I don’t know how the pre-digital pilgrim with no sense of direction would have managed.

When I was chatting with Sebastian the other evening, he told me how he had popped into an Internet cafe during the day and caught up with what was happening in the world, it’s horrors and it’s confusions. He said he knew he had to go back to it at some point, but he didn’t want to. I don’t think it was so much that the walking had been an escape from the world, though it does feel like we are under the radar as we walk from town to town and find time used up with each step and then with the other things – eating and sleeping – that keep life going, but that this way of living suggests that there might be another way for all of us. It was, I think, this he was grieving for. Walking today in the warm September sunshine and through many little and lovely hilltop villages, I can’t help feeling the same way.

There are lots of dogs along the way. Most of them are chained up. But I had a scary moment today with one that wasn’t. A large angry looking one.
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There aren’t so many pilgrims. Yesterday, I saw just one fellow pilgrim all day, and today no one until the last half hour as I walked into Muros de Nalon. It was my three Italian ladies who beckoned me from further down the path and said goodbye. They are walking the Camino in stages, spread over several years. They fly home to Italy tonight.

I am spending the night at an up market Albergue: still bunk beds, but a bar and food and a garden you can sit in.

It was really good to sit in the garden with a cold beer knowing I would not need to go in search of dinner tonight. Though I do seem to be surrounded by some fairly loud Americans. And dinner when it arrived was really good.

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