La Rioja
Sep30

La Rioja

Travelling through Navarre, one of the basque regions, it would have been easy to mistake it for Tuscany or Provence, rolling gentle countryside punctuated with tall cypress and beautiful villages. No evidence of poverty or hint at the overall Spanish predicament. Since entering Rioja, the land of the vine things have changed. Logroño had a dusty depressed feel with attendant deprivation. Even the grand river Ebro (Spain's largest) could only muster a slight flow despite being full. Saturday night was a usual Spanish release of colour and display. Everybody out in their finest especially after the early Americans had gone to bed. Logroño also saw the first concrete example of EU folly. In the faded old quarter sat a great newly minted building. It was a great piece of architecture matching the old building with avant grade urban new. Inside was a great looking exhibition space housing the Rioja wine museum, except it didn't, it was entirely empty and dusty. A very old man told us it was finished two years ago and had laid empty since. A plaque with the EU starry rosary had a Euro number with an improbably large number of zeroes after it. What folly. The villages have become noticeably scruffy and unkempt, with a weary poverty in the air. The people are less friendly and less sure. We did spend a lovely time in a little village called Ventosa, hosted by a Dutch woman in an Albergue. We both manged to grab bottom bunks, luxury. She had a somewhat stern demeanor but I suspect she had a heart of gold. There was no doubting her Catholicism, judging by the volume of holy objects. She was organised, 2 washing machines, a dryer, a small shop selling vegetables and a well equipped kitchen to cook them in. All life's essentials. The village was verging on the desolate, even the new buildings. She was helping people out from 1pm until 10pm with lights out, very impressive. The last couple of days have been cooler with a few drops of rain. We managed 34km yesterday. This is a feat for us, especially after getting lost which cost us 2km extra. Everybody still gets up pretty early, so we found ourselves packed and ready to go at 7.30am, in the cool dark. There was a smudge on the Eastern horizon that promised dawn but was no help in navigation. After 30 minutes we managed to convince ourselves that we should be much closer to the motorway a kilometer over to our right over the silent vineyards. We deviated. A mistake. We followed several small vineyard trackers, a steep bank,...

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Gothic Chicken Coop
Sep30

Gothic Chicken Coop

Chicken stories are not common to me but here's one that tickled me. About a thousand years ago three German pilgrims arrived at santo Domingo de la Calzada, a young handsome man and his parents. At their inn the landlords daughter offered herself to the son but he rejected her roundly. Feeling vengeful the daughter hid a valuable cup in his bag and then proclaimed him a rotten robber. The son was taken to be hanged and his grief stricken parents went to stand at the bottom of his gallows to say goodbye only to find the local hero Santo Domingo standing beneath their son supporting him with his shoulders. The parents raced over to the judge who had presided over the whole thing : ” Our son is not dead!” ” Bah” replied the judge ” That man is as dead as the roast chickens on my dinner plate”. Well at this point the chickens revivified and flew up. The son was released and a miracle was said to have occurred. To mark the event a pair of live white chickens reside in a specially made gothic chicken coop incorporated in the cathedral, they've been there for the last thousand years – a couple of replacements are put in every 2 weeks. So we saw them today, one of the oddest things to find in a church to date. I wonder what happens to the old holy chickens? Pollo tonight?...

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Suffering.
Sep27

Suffering.

By popular request. I feel like a biblical leper having to show just how much suffering we are going through. I'm sure you will agree that 30km on feet like these is pretty heroic. The Rioja does make up for it though!  

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Autumn stroll.
Sep27

Autumn stroll.

We have managed 69km over the last few days. 3 days ago, traversing windmill ridge we were tempted to say it was hot, but drew the line at pretty warm. We both agree that the last 3 days have been hot, confirmed by the thermometer at 32 degrees as we walked / hobbled into Viana today. We have developed the generic pilgrims limp. It can represent any pathology but seems to result in shuffling short strides and an inelegant hobble. Even the fit young things passing through develop it, despite their strenuous efforts at denial. The only people immune seem to be the ones who are into their second thousand kilometers. Astonishingly we have met three such people in the last couple of days. Each one around 60 yrs old and each a woman. One left walking from her front door in the Bauges mid August, the other very similarly from further South at the same time and finally a very ordinary American woman who set off from Toulouse averaging 30km a day 5 weeks ago. None of them looked athletic in the slightest. I am a bit behind blogging due to tiredness and lack of time! Julie Creagh warned us about this, and I take her point. Every day you have to catch up with previous contacts and then find time to add in all the new ones. It is totally impossible to predict who you will meet again and who will disappear. Very few emails get exchanged and an open fatalistic attitude is required. Today we beat all previous records with a 7.25 am start, despite a last minute panic about a lost camera that was miraculously found at the bottom of my rucksack. We sayed in an Albergue run by evangelical Christians who were on their day off. They left the place in the charge of 3 very earnest young American voluntary workers. Nice place, good food but we were both in top bunks in a small room of 8 people all of whom snored as far as I could tell. Even getting up at 6.30 only one other was in bed, all the others were on the road in pitch black. The previous two days we have been slowly leaving the Pyrenees behind. The hills are lower, the soil drier and the air hotter. We have been slowly exiting the ancient and noble Basque speaking region of Navarre. Yesterday lunchtime we passed a sign saying how pilgrims of old had appreciated the wines of the region. A little further on we came to the wine fountain, only for pilgrims. Edwina, one of our travel mates...

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Milk & Honey
Sep24

Milk & Honey

It's basically a very smart City Pamplona or Iruna as the Basques call it. We walked out of the characterful old town, grabbed an expensive pair of Teva sandals (Ellen's big toes are sore) and walked through smart blocks of flats, through the manicured University campus. Ellen even felt emboldened to walk over a roundabout and not the long way round, what a rebel she is becoming, she looked charmingly delighted at her rebelliousness. We had walked through bleak misty high Scottish moors, craggy lush Cornish valleys, but the Pyrenees had one more challenge before we hit the milder Navarra plain. One final dry hot ridge. After a rejuvenating coffee in a small village at the bottom we phoned ahead booked 2 bunks and went for it. A little warm and fewer pilgrims. The ridge was marked by a line of countless wind turbines catching the air coming off the mesita plain. This is the first time I have been so close to so many of the white monsters. I feel a comment about the noise is apposite here. I don't have great hearing and from a distance I became aware of a subliminal throb. I assumed it was from the motorway miles away. As we approached about a kilometer the throb differentiated into a distinct very low frequency sound. I think it was the sheer alienness that disturbed me. I really would not want to live nearby. We reached the summit of the edge. A great rusted memorial to us pilgrims and a ragged line of white turbines. One of those vista display objects showed the landmarks to the south west prospect. We were heading for the third village along. A little daunting but hey ho the signs said 11km, no problem. The first 2km were down a dusty steep rocky wide path. No time to look around lest we trip. As the gradient levelled we realised that the book was correct. No Pyrenean traces left. We were in a land of rolling tilled earth interspersed with vineyards. This is a land of milk and honey, this is Tuscanny or at least my romantic image of it. To cap the experience a thoughtfully positioned vineyard right next to the camino offered us it's choicest grapes. I picked two modest bunches. During the first grape we looked at other in absolute agreement. Delicious is the correct word. They were cool, honey and subtly tart all mixed into one small thirst quenching bundle. I won't bore you further. You could take your pick of the three villages. Each excellent, beautiful churches, well kept houses, an overall feeling of proud understated...

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Getting into the groove.
Sep21

Getting into the groove.

Early start yesterday. Loads of people up at 5 yesterday much to our and the Irish girls disgust. Wouldn't mind but it doesn't get light until after 8. Consequently a bit tired and it was still damp drizzly rain. Managed over 20km with only 400m of climbing. Tired and a bit footsore last night. Clobbered by a typical elderly Spanish lady on arrival in Zubiri. She dragged us up to the top of a block of flats, so we had a private room with double bed and a shower. Reunited with fellow pilgrims, drinking beer in the street, all better with the world again. Later start this morning, great breakfast in corner cafe, ready to go. Better routines may start today. Each of us will listen to a Michel Thomas cd as we go along. We need to get to grips with the language, it gets embarrassing lapsing into French all the time. Lovely to hear from you Judy, it feels as if we've been away for ages already, and I'm missing you… What's the gossip? You can tell me everything I'll keep it to myself and its not as if anyone is listening in.. Ellen: Funny to be with so many different nationalities some of whom have never been to England, there's a real cheerful sort of refugee spirit going on , some of the conversations are quite personal and revealing. So many Irish as well, we had a heated debate last night on the merits of British/ Irish/ American tv comedy which was quite telling. Our bocadillos have arrived, time to strap on the old burden and move. Last night we followed a recommendation to the best tapas bar in town. Approaching the bar I was predictably struck dumb by the Que Que from one of the many keepers of tapas ranged behind the teeming bar. To buy time I negotiated two manzanilla sherries whilst attempting to make some sort of order out of the cornucopia of tapas delights in front of me. The relief was short lived as the queen of tapas quizzed me further. I relented and asked for cuatro tapas Por Favor. She looked me square in the eye, we both knew I was copping out because of my lack of Spanish. The mayhem of tapas activity surrounding us both seemed to fade to a background hum, a decisive moment, I held my gaze, a brief smile from her and it was done. Without further ado she leapt on the surrounding customers, devouring their orders, but I was in there. She remembered. The wine appeared, whilst my back was turned so did the firsts...

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We made it.
Sep19

We made it.

Sounds like we were lucky, other dormitory dwellers say their sleep mates were up and endlessly organising their rucksacks at 5.00. Our two other sleep mates were far more civilised, seven o clock for them. The slightly bossy landlady was shocked by our lack of sleeping bags. Dirty people in Spain she exclaimed buy some extra light sleeping bags in shop opposite, can't possibly use the verminous Spanish blankets. We obeyed and were no doubt fleeced for our super lightweight sleeping bags. Jerry our first Irishman started our early pilgrimage experiences with style. Not a man of huge numbers of words, but those he spoke were very useful. He explained that in hostels when eating the ubiquitous pilgrims menu we would be presented with a bottle of local wine. The complication was that this was per group. He was fine being a group of one, but in a spirit of true pilgrimage camaraderie he explained we would only get one bottle between the two of us! But the situation was easily resolved by both of us initially sittings on separate tables, claiming our bottle, then rejoining. We have now completed our longest, highest and greatest height gain leg of the whole trip. It's literally all downhill from now on. Nineteen miles and a 1277m climb with a pack in drizzly fog. I'm sure you're thinking just how heroic this is, especially as Ellen agreed not to use a taxi to take the bags, she was heroic. I think we both agree however that heroism only got us less than half way to lunch. To our surprise, the steady trickle of fellow pilgrims became a supportive and very chatty river. I have already lost track of all the nationalities we have spoken to. To use a cliched word, it was indeed inspirational. Made more so because most were older than us and were certainly not the fell leaping lot you find in the Lakes. This is exemplified by the 70+ year old South African widow who fell on the way down to the monastery ahead of us. She was carrying a rucksack heavier than mine and had basically run out of energy. She looks well now sitting next to us drinking coffee in the local bar. Somebody has done a good job selling the camino to the Irish, probably the most common nationality. Followed closely by the Americans. Chatting really helps as you walk along. Even with all the chatting, Ellen managed to avoid us getting lost when we were in danger of me taking us along the wrong route. I was even a little disparaging of her navigational abilities...

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St. Pancras station
Sep18

St. Pancras station

Some unintelligible announcement overhead as we get into our Eurostar seats, I'm feeling hot, a bit flustered and obviously unfit. Head to toe in lycra/ polyester/ nylon – I crackle with static when I move quickly. This time tomorrow we shall be walking out of St Jean Pied de Port looking at a 3 thousand ft climb spread over 20 miles….so far this morning we've walked from Regents Park to St Pancras and I was puffing already, plus the rucksack straps are oddly painful- is this because I'm not used to them or the bag is too heavy? State of health underlined by streamlined young men shimmying by on their pre work runs all looking scarily focused, successful and bouncy, it's not seven o'clock yet! I think the problem is that I've not really slept, too busy thinking about the lads on their courses, plus I haven't had a coffee yet....

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Northern Lights
Sep14

Northern Lights

We have left Jake and the city behind us now. He was rather more a young trout than a tadpole. All passive and glistening in our hands, until gently dipped in the clear exciting waters, hands parting, a flashing dart for freedom. Lovely to see Michelle and Andrew with their twins Findlay and Archie in the Traverse theatre bar, centre of Edinburgh cultural life. Posters of Russell Brand staring Messianically down at us, proclaiming a future gig. Michelle is a director of a prestigious Edinburgh gallery and an old flat mate of Ellen’s, no guessing the topics of conversation. After another civilised cafe breakfast, and a slightly weepy goodbye, we headed off. Goodbyes were much better than last year’s horror. A much more together, happy and sorted Jake. The heavenly GPS lighthouses finally agreed we were heading South. After driving through blinding rain and watching a sizeable branch sweep off a tree across a whole motorway and smash into us, we made it to Liverpool, before we make the final push South....

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Pilgrims preamble
Sep13

Pilgrims preamble

We appear to be going in the wrong direction. We are now in Scotland, offloading eldest offspring to his new swanky Edinburgh flat. We met his two whiskey connoisseur flat mates who greeted us warmly and helped us move the caravan load of goods and chattels that Jake has amassed. After dropping off first load, drove up to Dunfermline to collect the next load he had left at Julie’s parents house. Interesting social situation, meeting her parents. Very sweet family, but they are oh so young, how involved should we be? We managed to get lost and flashed on the way back to town without Jake. Decided to leave car fully packed and retreat to a bar and get a takeaway. It has been 18 years since we left the city I knew like the back of my hand. Long enough to get lost navigating through it, but not so long that the comforting familiarity has diminished in any way. It helps that it is so different from Truro, no comparisons need to be made, they each stand on their merits. Edinburgh really is uniquely grand in its Northern loftiness. I still feel privileged to have stayed here with such good purpose. Tomorrow will involve some sorting Jake out and then exploring. Sunday finally brings a Southern orientation to our journey. We arrive in St Jean Pied de Port in 5 days...

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