The road out of Sevilla

It is normally the kiss of death to say that a journey is going smoothly, as I did when looking at a whole region full of olive trees out of the train window. We took an early morning taxi to Liverpool airport, Ryanair to Malaga, a suburban train and then a “medio distance” train across olive stuffed Andalusia to Sevilla. Finally a walk across Sevilla to the hostel. It all went very smoothly indeed. Sevilla seems to be stuffed full of glorious old buildings and young people. Our experience of Sevilla seemed at odds with the terrible youth unemployment statistics. There were art schools, music schools and enormous public and religious buildings. The food was also great. Ellen thought Sevilla had all the attractions of Florence but without the deathly crush of tourists. This morning we ventured into the Cathedral. It was as if somebody had joined four or five cathedrals together and then knocked down the walls. There were altars and chapels everywhere. The guard stamped our pilgrims credentials and I watched a mass and allowed myself a little holy moment, while Ellen explored. After a great breakfast we walked for about 5 hours. Fairly typical outer urban stuff, slowly giving way to a beautiful parched Andalusian landscape. The only impression of note was that it was cool, windy, grey and occasionally damp. Ring any bells. Tonight we are in a private hostel with bottom bunks with old Italian and French men for company. I do mean old. I'm looking out at a “papelleria” with a queue stretching down the street. They really like their paper in this town. Buen Camino along your own way. Paul...

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A Way? To Florence..
Apr10

A Way? To Florence..

You could say we have arrived in Tuscany, even though we crossed the border back in the mountains. Whereas it has been built up, busy and working, the scenery is now gentle hills, random collections of pencil like cypress trees punctuating olive groves and ancient buildings. This is romantic Tuscany. We are staying in a great hill top monastery in a village called San Miniato, Florence without the tourists. We have a day extra to kill waiting for the Dunnes to arrive, so we can start the four day hike to Sienna. They have been lured by the leaning tower so we will fill our extra day touring the local vineyards. Another big touristy city lacks appeal, compared with our present circumstances. You may notice from the map that we skipped a bit. When we left ancient Pontremoli we spent another day on roads. Very little care is taken protecting soft flesh from solid metal, both by road designers and drivers. It is noisy and a little scary, especially the lorries which pass close enough to blow your hat off. The route occasionally takes you away from the road but only at the expense of a gratuitously large detour along paths that are very difficult after the recent rains. We arrived after a long day to a very warm welcome in a small hotel in Villafranca. It was kept in a state of perfect military cleanliness, fresh flowers in the rooms and on the tables, all supervised by an energetic eighty year old perfectionist. At lunch the restaurant was full of working men with working boots, sat at tables with frilly table cloths and posh cutlery all tucking into great food, served by a platoon of middle aged women wearing frou frou hair nets. It was about the only perfect thing about Villafranca, which appears to have suffered from large factory closures. It was obvious that the next three days would be urban and along roads. It would also be Easter and everything threatened to close. The roads really swung it. We took a train to Florence and booked a cheap hotel which as it turned out was great, central, quiet and warm. I had never been to Firenze (Florence) and I wasn't disappointed. Pretty amazing place, but we were unprepared for the shear weight of tourist numbers. It made just walking about difficult. The whole of the USA seemed to have decamped over to Italy. We pondered on the Via Francigena (VF) and what it means. Whereas the route to Santiago was definitely a Camino or way, you couldn't really say that about the VF. The Camino was...

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Italian Mayors
Apr02

Italian Mayors

Knock knock. In he comes anyway. Someone just knocked on Ellen's door, opened it and then scarpered when she said hello. Naturally Ellen was scared and wanted me to sleep in the same room as her. To set the scene. We are in a monastery, rather a huge edifice. With at least 70 or 80 separate rooms and two Benedictine cappuchine monks in sole charge. It is situated overlooking the charmingly ancient town of Pontremoli (trembling bridge), our first stop in the region of Tuscany. I suspect that because Ellen changed rooms, her light drew the attention of one of the brown clad monks. Anyway she is a bit spooked. We have managed to cross the Northern appennines in the last few days. We left you in the city of Piacenza, well and truly situated on the Po valley flats. We arrived rather tired after seven straight days of walking. The tourist information was luckily both easy to find and very helpful. Given the dire weather warnings for last Wednesday and Thursday we decided to sit it out and stay in a couple of slightly expensive B&B's run by efficient middle aged ladies. Wednesday delivered the weather we had been led to expect, unrelenting heavy rain. Thursday did not rain at all but was merely grey and chilly. We were committed to staying put so we mooched around all day.   Meanwhile Ellen's feet, whose condition are a constant news feed, had become to much for her. More about this in a later fascinating post, but she finally succumbed to a pair of very un-Ellen like pair of livid blue Nike trainers. Since then barely a whisper has passed through her lips regarding the feet. The old heavy rigid coffin shoes were committed to the great shoe pile in the sky, never to bother the feet again. She does look an interesting sight, bright blue shoes purple trousers and a bright blue jacket.   Which brings us to a pilgrim's dilemma. We had two more days of flat to go, around 45km. This is in itself not a problem however we were running up against routes. The route spent a considerable amount of time on narrow, quiet roads. There are no quiet Italian roads. To counter this the modern route planners would contrive a most inefficient route that involves multiple unnecessary detours around huge fields thus increasing the distance walked considerably. Paul Haines who did the trip last year said he took the quicker road option most of the time. I now see why he did this. He said that quite a few people didn't like or feel safe...

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Flat lands.
Mar23

Flat lands.

Just finished our 6th day of walking. Flat would describe the underfoot conditions pretty well, although some minor hillocks have been introduced to the mix of paddy, farms, towns and enormous factories. I’ve just been informed that Ellen’s feet are improving. Despite Ellen’s murmurings that a restaurant was nearby, I insisted that turning left out of our abode tonight would lead to food. The mighty extra three mile evening food forage proved unsuccessful. We then found a lovely pilgrims restaurant 50 meters to the right! This didn’t even lead to an argument and Ellen’s feet held up. We haven’t quite fully understood food yet. It seems that if you order a coffee they give you food as well. If you order a beer you also get food. The more beer you order the fancier the food becomes. If you order food you get extra unasked for food. Last night we declined a pudding after a lovely filling dinner, only to be presented with a large custard doughnut, on the house!! These flat days have merged somewhat. Had one chilly, windy and drizzly day yesterday. We stopped early as just too chilly. Today an otter swam with us lazily along a dyke. Ellen swore to a beaver ( mmmmm) and a rather regal Italian hare finally decided to saunter off when we got too close. The birds and butterflies continue to delight despite being unnamed. We have seen no pilgrims but we have found that a venturesome Scott who set out from St Andrews passed through only 2 days ago. We have been forced into commercial accommodation more that we would have liked. Church beds seem to be non existent. Our two non commercial nights have been organised by rather civic minded parochial local government bodies. We are in a small town called Orio Litta, a short hare’s lope from the mighty Po, which we must cross tomorrow. The guide book made it clear that rooms were thin on the ground. Ellen courageously rang ahead last night, and was left unsure what she had achieved, our Italian being what it is. As we walked over the fields to a slightly elevated town, after 27km on the road a man suddenly hailed us from immediately behind. He gave us a bit of a shock. He was on a mountain bike dressed head to foot in cyclist’s Lycra, helmet and sunglasses. He introduced himself and said he was fore warned and had come to guide us in. He was very chatty and friendly. The ancient beautifully renovated civic centre was to be our home for the night. The tower (later to have...

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Flat Earth
Mar20

Flat Earth

If an Italian ever tells you something is flat, check he doesn't come from the Po valley. If he does then he will certainly know a thing or two about flat. I half expect to walk past the headquarters of the flat earth society. The highest we have been is our second floor hotel room. We have two more flat days to go. We spend our days lazily meandering around huge paddy fields. Dotted about are industrially sized farms, islands of dry land not protected by height but by defensive ditches. The towns are the same, no high ground at all just bigger ditches. This is unspectacular but prosperous land. Given there are only the first stirrings of spring, no obvious buds on the trees, the whole region has its own charm. I always think that it is very hard to make flat lands attractive. You can't hide your dirty architectural linen in a convenient fold in the landscape. However the sheer intensity of work that has gone into the making of the landscape lends it a certain charm. Literally every square inch has had several machines working on it. The irrigation system defies imagination in its complexity. It must look amazing in a couple of months time when the Alpine snow melt fills these fields. There are several thousand square miles of paddy fields. Beware of the mosquitoes! We are struggling to name one of the larger field birds. It is some sort of large spoonbill / egret / heron / ibis. It is white with black legs and bill, with a natty black rim around its otherwise white wings. Ellen reckons it is an Ibis, I err on the side of a spoonbill. Either way it's a startling bird. The flat lands were not able to hide an afternoon surprise today. In between towns the path took us across the railway and main road that we had been following all day. At a distance I could make out a plastic white chair with someone sitting on it just before the very level crossing. Strange I thought. As I drew closer it became clearer that a black woman was sitting on the chair together with plastic bag at her feet and chatting away on her mobile phone. Buon Giorno I said. She smiled. Then I noticed on the other side of the crossing and over the road another black lady on a similar cheap white plastic chair. We were in the middle of nowhere, just a dusty track, a few trees and cars streaking nearby. At the same moment that I saw a battered scruffy red umbrella on...

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Vercelli
Mar19

Vercelli

We got here with no problems at all. We seemed to float our way through Europe on some sort of benevolent cloud. The plane left Manchester early and arrived in Milan early. We strolled straight on to the express train to the terminus in the centre of Milan. Alighting the smart express we were bundled on to the neighbouring train by very helpful Italian folk, with no wait at all. Two very well turned out woman in the chilly station concourse guided us down Galileo street to our hotel. Not a hitch all day. The Hotel Valsesia ( valley of the river Sesia ) was in a 1950’s time warp. Dark and a little musty with its wiring of variable quality and certainly all on show. In its favour it was relatively warm with Garibaldi era radiators, clean and quiet we being the only guests. The owner and his wife were enthusiastic in their welcome and we were brought up sharp by our almost total absence of Italian. A few words of French, Spanish and English escape our lips, but Italian would have been more use. We are working on it. We wandered around the attractive well kept city. As is usual in a new country the mind gets going on comparisons. Differences between here and home or Spain. There is definitely a Latin style shared with Spain. We settled on an early evening drink in one of the thousands of cafes. Chocolate shop and cafe, cheese shop and cafe, ice cream shop and cafe, bar and cafe. You are never far from a cafe. This one was a bar. Along with the drinks a large tray of Spanish style tapas also appear. Ellen was enthusiastic about this development, especially as they were gratis. Cafes don’t serve meals so we went to an excellent pizzeria just down the road. Prosecco was served by the carafe, again Ellen approved. All looking good so far. Just a little quiz. In the spirit of radio four the unbelievable truth, which of the following statements is untrue.. There are a lot of cafes. There are even more handbag shops. Not many training shoes to be seen. Everything is very expensive. We spent the night in a Police station. Lorry drivers are very polite to pilgrims. There are no fast food chains at all. All will be revealed in a later post....

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Cultural differences?
Mar19

Cultural differences?

Sitting here in my usual early evening lakeside position. Slightly early for a beer. Chatting to a totally charming and disarming old lady who sells beads. She is a 1959 Tibetan refugee, and as is the way with all Tibetans she is sweetness and happiness personified. Therefore she does a roaring trade, disarming any tourist that comes in her path. As she says if you have to do business, do happy business. Having dinner on a balcony last night, stumbled on one of those rare places that rises above merey very good up towards the sublime. As it got dark a motorbike procession passed down the street. Honking horns,Tibetan banners general raising of tension. Some sort of political unrest? A riot on the way? Police loitering menacingly. The waiters arrive leaning over the balcony shouting excitedly as well. WE WON. WE WON. We beat the Bangladeshis. Cricket…….  ...

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Hippy Dippy Pokhara
Mar16

Hippy Dippy Pokhara

Feel like I'm on a Thai beach. Himalaya in background and Sun going down fast over the lake. Today was Sunaday, a day off and 'Holi', day a religious but mostly fun day marking Spring's beginning. Consisted of everybody buying bags of coloured dye and throwing or smearing at anyone they passed. Naturally the Nepalese youths and oddly all ages of Westerners were most enthusiastic. It's a colorful place today. My hippy dippy cafe by the lake has been overrun by the cool, young, hippy festival crowd. Dreds are a must. Sitting bewitched by an American girl tranced out to the music with a hoop. She is the real deal. She has transcended the hoolahoop and gone way beyond. Quite a dance sight. Us oldies are easy to please. Meanwhile I'm reading about Schopenhauer. I think he would have approved. More about Lumbini to follow. Just caught in the youthful moment of the present!  ...

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Varanasi
Mar13

Varanasi

It's me Paul this time. I think it's better to write a few days after being somewhere, distance lends a certain completeness. ( Judy I know you like the relationship stuff ) We are getting on fine together as good travelling companions, but with a few what is the meaning of life conversations as well! I'm writing this next to a beautiful lake, in the Himalaya with tantalising white glimpses of the highest peaks in the world. Thinking about Varanasi and our time spent there. After giving up trying to get a train, only one a day and booked weeks in advance, we cheated and flew. Obviously now the Indian middle class mode of transport. Brand new Airbus, one of dozens continually taking off and landing going literally everywhere in India. Western priced planes with western priced fuel and no shortage of business. India is indeed a land of twin economies. Met at airport by our driver. This totally takes the hassle out of arriving at new places. Now Indian roads are scary places. Like most Indian phenomena, not designed for Western sensibilities. Dangerous and with absolutely no rules whatsoever. Don't believe any advert for a second hand car with only one careful owner in India. If you could choose a driver you would do so on the basis of age. Being old and still alive is a reassuring thing. Ours was young, with a young mate at his side and not only was he mad like the rest but he was fast and mad, and I'm sure closer to death than his older colleagues. Wo. There was no vehicle or place where he would not overtake, I was forced in the end not to watch, a bit like closing your eyes at the dentist. The roads became increasingly narrow and busier until gridlock set in. He finally abandoned the car and grabbed our bags and we hurried off through narrow lanes where only feet and small mopeds ventured. It was quieter, getting dark. Glimpses of everything and anything. Total diorientation. Finally a dark passage, a few loiterers, slight unease and rush into a doorway. We had found the Shiva Ganges Guest House. Presided over by a small elderly Brahmin lord. He was Mr fixit extraordinaire. “It is a pleasure to serve your every need sir. It is my duty to see you want for nothing” with a slight rocking of his head. This was his mantra, repeated many times, and actually true insofar as he literally could fix anything. We had an AC top floor immaculately clean huge room overlooking the whole of life that is the Ganges....

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The return of Lumbini
Mar11

The return of Lumbini

Yes Lumbini part two, as Ellen signposted I'd like to say something too. Not much to look at in Buddha Nagar the small commercial hub. Even Clint Eastwood would have wafted through and not paid much attention while drifting the high planes. Maybe a gnarled old gunslinger chatting to a colleague too young to be dead yet. We chose our room cheap and got what we paid for. Chose the Lotus cafe for beer and food. Does anybody do bad food? Chatted to some lovely Canadian women and a Thai guy. They came from the equivalent of Cornwall, prince so and so Island in the Far East of Canada. It gets very cold there. Back to Lumbini, the only example I know of a Religious United Nations setup. Some bright visionary brought up the land surrounding the Buddhas birthplace, a sizeable chunk of the marshy mosquito and malaria infested area of Nepal called the Terai. It's a long slither of land separating the Himalaya and the Indian hoards. It gets pretty steamy and grows most of the food. The purchaser did some extensive land and waterscaping and set up 40+ lots so that each country's Buddhist tradition could set up their own temple. You have to hand it to the Buddhists, great idea. Imagine Christians contemplating a similar setup. We hired bikes to get around the site. The whole place is only slightly down at heel. Lots of guards. Loads of non-urgent building work going on. Some sumptuous temples. We chose the most pristine, which of course was German funded according to the gate keeper. The only blades of grass out of position were those that had grown a little in the hour since they were last cut. The large heavy prayer wheels ran as smooth as a Merc. It was beautiful in a kitch way. The Puja that Ellen described was in full flow. After a few seconds settling in at the back with other Western gawpers the atmosphere could be appreciated. Obviously a holy and venerable place. But interestingly not holier than thou. The young boy monks shifting fiddling and nudging with big grins. Teenager monks whispering jokes to each other. The lama often just looked around cleaning his glasses. And in amongst all of this a tall lanky youngish monk was slowly going round all the assembled dishing out tea from a huge tea pot. Then I saw that as well as the usual cushion to sit on and small table to place holy words most monks had a collection of other goods including tea cups hidden under the desks. This was a living service, a...

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