Saturday, 15 December 2018

Living in Santiago was not my plan

My plan was to retire to live in Seville. I had been going there during the summer for some years. I’m a church organist and I played regularly in the Church of San José in the Barrio Santa Cruz. Seville was everything I wanted and I looked forward to lazy days sipping chilled sherry under the orange trees. I had promised myself that when I had enough money to satisfy my needs, if not all of my wants, I’d change from doing the difficult executive jobs which had been my life for a long time to a quieter more sedate existence. Remember that ambition as this story develops! 
My plan was to make the Big Change at the age of 50. The children were grown and I was secure. But there was just one last job to be done, one final challenge and so the Big Change was delayed. One evening I went to dinner with friends. “Come and see what Jenny has been up to,” said Graham as he pointed to a map on the wall. There were pictures of Jenny walking along a line across the top of Spain. They explained over dinner that Jenny had walked the Camino to Santiago in stages. Jenny told me about meeting other pilgrims, blisters, albergues, the towns through which she passed and her arrival in Santiago. I’d vaguely heard of Santiago de Compostela, and I knew a little about Saint James, but I had never heard of the Camino.

That conversation sparked off hours of research on the internet and more hours of daydreaming. But that final job was demanding and four years passed before the daydreaming became a reality. I played for the great Feast of Mary, Mother of God in Seville on 1 January 2007 and the next day I set off to walk the Via de la Plata to Santiago. I looked back. “I’ll return to live here,” I thought, “this Camino is the bridge to that future.”

That journey on foot was about the most powerful experience of my life. I met no other pilgrims for three weeks. I spoke little Spanish and communicated with a phrase book. My company along the way was a wave from a lone shepherd and an astonished welcome in some villages. Having spent my youth on the Scottish hills I had packed far too much – including a flask, powdered hot drinks and a short wave radio!  Inevitably blisters appeared despite my preparations and I started disposing of unnecessary gear. I’m aware now that I started to also deal with some of my other baggage: the resentments, the bitter memories, the aftermath of divorce, a job that went badly. I found myself praying, really praying, for the first time in years. On a dark morning as the sun came up over the horizon on the long meseta I felt joy and freedom like never before.  I was proving to myself I could do this. Make this physical journey. I was venturing into a new land, coping with a language I didn’t know. I was almost self sufficient. In that moment I knew that if all of my anxieties came to pass – if I lost those who loved me, my home, my money, then I could pack a rucksack and survive with very little. That feeling has never left me.
My arrival in Santiago was emotional. I waited in a long line to go up the stairs at the Pilgrims’ Office, full of anticipation, and although my treatment at the desk was cursory, I was overjoyed to receive my Compostela. I went off to the Cathedral for Mass and I was deeply moved that the pilgrims had made it their own. Rucksacks were piled against the walls. Pilgrims sat on the altar steps. The organ began and in the priests’ procession I saw boots and bare legs beneath some of the albs. The Botafumeiro was wonderful.  At that Mass I realised deep in my heart that Santiago was where I wanted to be. I believe that this set off the chain of events which followed.

I knew I wanted to walk more and I decided on the Camino Inglés. Marion Marples of the CSJ supplied some walking notes and asked if I would up-date them.  As I started work on that first guidebook I also started a blog. I had only ever written management reports in the past and this was an incredibly refreshing development.  I’m secretly quite shy and so I adopted the pen name Johnniewalker. Well I’m Scottish and I like a dram! However my idea was that the CSJ could produce a series of low cost guidebooks written by pilgrims for pilgrims on a voluntary basis – anyone could be Johnniewalker. However the name stuck.

I was playing the organ in a church in Clapham staffed by the Redemptorist Order. One of the priests there was appointed Director of their publishing company. I explained to him that one of the questions in my mind during that first pilgrimage was how I could adequately explain the experience to people.  I concluded that writing about the experience was only part of the answer. An explanation needed photographs of the wonderful scenery, and prose better than mine, to describe how powerful it was. He was very interested and agreed to publish a booklet in that style. It was the 25th anniversary year of the CSJ and so I asked 25 members from over these years to contribute a reflection which I matched with a photograph and some prose, usually from scripture. The first Spiritual Companion for pilgrims was published and given to members as an anniversary gift.

Soon more guidebook writing projects and Caminos followed and I eventually resigned from my full time position. I started to spend more time in Santiago and became the first long term volunteer at the Pilgrims’ Office. One day, one of the staff, Danny, who has become my best friend here, explained that his family had an apartment which they didn’t use. I went to see it. It had been the home of Danny’s partner’s grandmother who died. His partner’s mother inherited it and having totally refurbished it she then died. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms with views of the spires of the Cathedral, it was like the Marie Celeste. I started using it on my visits, but I could not deny that the arrows were all pointing in one direction, and so I rented out my property in London and some 8 years ago I moved to Santiago to live for most of each year.

In total I volunteered in the Pilgrims’ Office for 7 years, during which time I started the Amigos Welcome Service to improve the reception to the city for pilgrims, particularly English speakers. For the first three years this service was supported and funded by the English speaking Pilgrim Associations, including the CSJ. The volunteering programme is now part of the mainstream activities of the Pilgrims’ Office, funded by the Cathedral of Santiago. I also founded the Camino Chaplaincy, which recruited volunteer priests to provide daily Mass in English in the Cathedral of Santiago. Such was the success of this ministry, the Cathedral now provides this service permanently through the offices of a priest appointed to the Cathedral staff. Just in the last year I’ve been delighted to initiate and help establish the Anglican Camino Chaplaincy.

At one point I was playing the organ for two Masses in the morning and the two evening Masses in the Cathedral, and I realised that my life had become quite the opposite of what I had dreamed of in Seville. I retired from the Pilgrims’ Office and these days I concentrate on writing and updating the CSJ guidebooks and walking more Caminos plus, in recent years, the Way of St Francis from Florence to Rome and the 88 Temple route on the Japanese Island of Shikoku. I also now play in the Jesuit Church of San Agustín in Santiago, which is very rewarding.

I love living here and, as you have read, there is plenty to do. Life isn’t all writing, music-making and eating in the many excellent restaurants here. In the pilgrim season I have lots of visitors and there are always pilgrims needing help and assistance. That might be visiting an English speaking pilgrim in hospital, helping find a stolen rucksack, taking a pilgrim to the dentist or even welcoming the four Irish pilgrims who rowed from Ireland! Each week brings something different. 
I think that Santiago is a city of two seasons. From around the middle of April the pilgrims start to trickle into town. By July and August the city is full of pilgrims. I’ve moved house and from time to time I can hear the pilgrims cheering in the Plaza Obradoiro. I now live on the route to Finisterre and every morning I wake to the familiar sound of walking poles click, clicking outside the window.

Pilgrims only stay in the city a day or two at most usually. When they are here they are still in the Camino routine and tend to go to bed reasonably early. However Santiago is also a University City and as the Pilgrim numbers reduce in October the students return, and I assure you they don’t go to bed early! The city then takes on a different ambience. I’m lucky that I live in a very quiet area.

Twice a week usually I go to the Abastos market where I have a regular butcher and fishmonger. I buy fresh vegetables from the ladies who have been up since dawn digging up produce in their fincas. My friend Maricarmen has too many hens and every week or two she hands in eggs. They have the most golden yolks I’ve even seen.

It isn’t all splendid though. The winter months in Santiago are cold, dark and very wet. It rains prodigiously. This is the time when I go walking usually in the South of Spain, where recently I’ve been exploring new routes in Andalucia. It is also the time when I benefit most from having a group of close friends. Gallegos are a diffident people and it takes them a while to trust foreigners, but when they do they are as open hearted as their fellow Celts, the Scots!

My plan was abandoned a long time ago for another Way, from which I get out much more than I put in.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

A story for Semana Santa - Holy Week

Daybreak. Sevilla.

The noise of a door slamming woke me. I had fallen into a deep sleep having tossed and turned all night. I am leaving to walk the Camino to Santiago today and every time my eyes had closed either anxiety or excitement prodded me awake. My rucksack stood against the wall. I looked at it wondering if I should unpack and repack it again to see if there was anything I had missed or anything that could be left out. I laughed to myself. I’d done that a dozen times already. As I reached into the wardrobe to get the clothes I would wear I caught sight of the black robe hanging there. Memories.

This was what I wore as a Nazareno in one of the many processions in Seville during Holy Week. I had worn it proudly even although some of my friends taunted me that the tall hat made me look like a member of the Klu Klux Klan. I was proud to belong to the Hermandad de la Macarena, the brotherhood or confraternity which each year prepares and then carries the statue of the Virgin Mary called the Macarena through the crowded streets of Seville. There are 55 brotherhoods in the city and they carry over 100 pasos which are platforms with statues or scenes from Holy Week. This is the week when the Church remembers the events of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Some of the brotherhoods date as far back as the 13th Century. The processions of Holy Week are a long held tradition. It starts today.  Excited as I am about my Camino I have also felt the build up in the town over the last few days. Over 1 million visitors occupy every available bed and cram the streets. Every day there are processions leading up to Holy Thursday when La Madrugá begins. This is 24 hours of continuous processions to mark Good Friday the day of Christ’s death.

I was born into the Hermandad de la Macarena. It is the most important of all of them. The image of the Macarena is famous throughout Spain. My father, his father and grandfather before him were all involved in the brotherhood. People looked up to them. My dad had been the Capataz, the one who directs the paso and gives orders to the costaleros, the dozens of fit young men who carry the float on their shoulders. Often they are hidden underneath. I also performed various roles myself as I was growing up. When I was learning the trumpet in school I was in the band which plays la marcha procesiónal as the paso moves on. I have also been a monaguillo, an altar boy, and also a penitente. Penitentes wear somber robes to symbolize that they are atoning for their sins. In some brotherhoods they walk with their feet bare. Some others wear chains and manacles on their ankles.

The brotherhood meets during the year. The membership is only men. From time to time girls, usually students, have tried to join or even start their own sisterhood. They got nowhere. People just laughed.
Belonging to a brotherhood means learning the traditions. How things are done. There is a pecking order and families like ours who have been involved for generations are the most senior. Members of the brotherhoods each have a heavily embossed metal keyring which they hook over their trouser pockets. It is like a membership badge. Members drink together after meetings when the selection of who will do what next year is planned in meticulous detail.

The churches with pasos have a brotherhood and the local priest is the chaplain. I remember when I was very young the priest came to speak to us about our responsibility to keep the tradition of the brotherhood going. He said we were especially blessed to be brothers together and that what we did was important to God. My chest swelled with pride that year when I was chosen to carry one of the incensarios which sent billows of incense into the air. There were magical moments. We were processing through the narrow streets of the barrio when there was a strange whispering through the crowd. Then they fell to complete silence. From a balcony a man started singing a saeta, a soulful ballad about the Vigin Mary’s suffering as she saw her son put to death. Everyone was transfixed as his voice soared through the narrow streets. As we set off again the capataz whispered in my ear that one day I would be the Presidente of the Hermandad. I was happier than I ever remembered.

I don’t know when the change started to happen. I began to find brotherhood meetings boring. The arguments were petty. Debates about the colour of the ropes holding the canopy over the statue went on for weeks. The election of a new Presidente was like a general election. People took sides. There were rumours about the private lives of the likely candidates. Three of the older and most senior members approached me and asked if I would stand for election. I was flattered and I thought about it seriously. So seriously I decided to speak to a priest.

I hadn’t been to confession for many years. In fact apart from the one or two occasions when the Brotherhood went as a group I didn’t even go to church. In truth I wasn’t sure whether I even believed in God anymore and there were certainly things about the church I didn’t accept. As I waited at the door of the Cathedral for it to open a figure approached wearing a hat, a rucksack and carrying a stick. This was one of the pilgrims we see in Seville from time to time. He looked at the ground and I followed his gaze. There was an arrow inset into to pavement. It pointed across the road. I looked and there on the wall opposite was another arrow pointing right. I watched as the pilgrim followed the arrows until he was out of sight. I decided what to do there and then.
I told everyone that before I agreed to stand for election I would make the pilgrimage to Santiago. To a man they said they thought I was crazy. But I set out.

36 days later I sat in the Cathedral of Santiago surrounded by other people I had met on the way. With some I had formed life long bonds. These were my fellow pilgrims. Along the way I had realized that I wouldn’t find the God I had lost in a theatrical tourist attraction carried through the streets of Seville but in the kindness of strangers and the tenderness of new friendships.

I never did stand for election. When I got back everything seemed different and I felt I wanted other things, including walking another Camino. You see I’ve joined another fellowship now. I have no idea who the other members are that I have yet to meet but I know they will be there along the way.

This morning as the drum sounds and the processions start I wish them well. I have to go by a different road.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

A story - The benefit of the doubt

The benefit of the doubt

As the pilgrims filed into the albergue they were too busy finding their place for the night to notice the scruffy man sitting on one of the beds. His head was down, seemingly minding his own business.
This was Paco. 53 years of age. Originally from Valencia, he had fallen on hard times and like all Spaniards, he knew about the Camino to Santiago and the “free” accommodation for pilgrims. Over the years when times were tough he got a credencial and took to the Way. He knew he could wash and sleep and often the rucksacks of the pilgrims made rich pickings.
In truth Paco hated pilgrims. They were too good to be true. All fresh faced and full of the milk of human kindness, their enthusiastic camaraderie and public displays of friendship were just too much.
He felt the same tonight as he sat on his bed. He could see them in the kitchen preparing a meal, smiling, being nice to each other. He watched them sit down to eat with his resentment kindling. A pilgrim asked them to hold hands and say grace together and Paco’s bitterness rose like bile.
However when one of the women began to serve the food an image of another woman, his wife Anna, serving the family at table, flashed through his mind.
Then Paco heard them talking together. It was like Babel, many different languages, and yet somehow they were communicating. At the end of the meal they went upstairs. As Paco heard them begin to sing he was drawn to the sound. The room was lit with candles and a fire burned in the hearth. Their faces glowed. He hung back in the shadows.
Memories flooded Paco’s mind. Anna, the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood marrying Paco the most eligible boy. The boy with prospects. Setting up home, being promoted to manager of the factory. His two daughters. The loves of his life. The bittersweet memory of reading them bedtime stories. Tear pricked his eyes as he could almost smell the scent of soap and freshly laundered pyjamas when he kissed them goodnight.
As the pilgrims sang their songs scenes from Paco’s life appeared before his eyes like a fast moving film. Work pressures, money worries, his sick mother. Having a few beers after work which soon became many. Fights with Anna then spending more time in the bar than at home. Anna’s ultimatum – clean up your act. He tried so hard. To go straight home. To stop drinking altogether. He even joined a gym.
But soon he was drinking more than ever. Everything got worse. Paco shuddered as he remembered the lost nights, the infidelities, the borrowed money. The debts mounted. The bank sent an eviction notice which he ignored. Then another.
His colleagues at work had been saving up to send one of their terminally ill children to Disney World. A final gift. The cash collected over months was in the safe in the factory.
Paco told himself he would borrow the money to pay a few months’ mortgage and replace it before it was needed.
To celebrate the solution he went for a drink. He awoke next morning in a bed in a seedy hostel. He had only vague memories of who he had been with. The money was gone.
Public disgrace. House repossessed, his wife filed for a divorce, unemployed and charged with theft he could almost have coped with the derision. He couldn’t cope with the look in his daughters’ eyes.
Reviled and rejected Paco took to the road. He hated himself and other people in equal measure.
He was brought from these thoughts when the pilgrims started to sing again. He knew enough to make out some of the words, “Amazing Grace, saved a wretch like me, lost and found, blind but now I see.” Then as the pilgrims held hands and began to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” the long forgotten prayer came to Paco’s lips. He mouthed the words to himself.
There in the candlelight an idea slowly emerged in his mind…then it came with a rush. He would do the pilgrimage himself. Start tomorrow. Atone for his sins. Make a fresh start. He wouldn’t steal in albergues and he’d stay sober. He would do it for Anna, for the children, for the dead boy whose money he stole. He would do it for himself. He would walk with these pilgrims. Talk to them even. Maybe their enthusiasm for life would rub off on him. He planned to clean his clothes and smarten himself up for the morning.
The official with the stamp turned up later than usual and he joined the queue to get the sello on his Credencial, with a new resolve. He was now a real pilgrim. He handed over his Credencial with confidence.
“This last stamp is for an albergue on another route two days ago.” The official then proceeded to examine every previous stamp muttering the different dates in disapproval. "This albergue is only for real pilgrims," he said.
Paco was aware of the restless queue of tired pilgrims behind him. He tried to explain, " I wasn't a real pilgrim before but I want to be one now," he blurted. With a weary look the man handed him back his credencial and looking past him said "next please, this man is just leaving."

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Via Serrana final days

These final days have almost been washed from the memory by the prodigious rain which has fallen in Andalucía. There is a friendly rivalry between Galicians and "Los sureños", the Southerners. The Galicians think that the people of the south are too loud, dramatic, over the top. They disparage their way of speaking where words are diminutised routinely. So a beer becomes una cervecita and a plate becomes un platito. Actually this sits rather well with we Scots where we use the word "wee" with several meanings, so "After I'd been out for a wee drink I had a wee fight with the wife" means just the opposite!

But at the heart of the North/South tension is the weather. The southerners think that northerners are as cold as their weather and Galicians are just jealous of the weather in the south. Until now.

My friends in Málaga say that when it rains they can count the drops on one hand. Not in the last week or so.

Over a substantial breakfast in the Hostal Bobi (we had to tell them to stop bringing food) we looked again at the weather forecast. It hadn't changed and rain was forecast for the next few days. The streets were wet but the promised downpour didn't materialise which was just as well because the arrows were not clear at the exit of the town and we took some time to find and record how best to join the route. It is worth saying though that in general the route is very well waymarked and many of the yellow arrows were fresh.

We decided quickly that the route couldn't possibly be 12 kms along the side of a busy road and after some backtracking and searching we found the way through disused farm buildings and as we walked along a path through the olive grove an arrow appeared. All was well.

There followed an unremarkable 4 kms by the side of a busy road before walking through fields and entering El Coronil. The Hostal Don Juan is one of the options and was very pilgrim friendly with a place to hang washing and clean boots. The woman said that there are many pilgrims in better weather.

Next morning we were up and out to walk the 20 kms to Utrera. The great plain surrounding Sevilla stretched before us as far as the eye could see. This is the meseta. The dark clouds which had been glowering at us passed over and shafts of sunlight lit up the ploughed fields. From far off we saw the dust rising as a horse drawn carriage approached. This was like a scene from a Western. As it drew close we saw 6 mules pulling a cart with father and son delivering sacks to a local farm. They stopped to chat and the father explained to his son that we were pilgrims walking to Santiago. He pointed North with a gesture that it might be as far away as the moon. Then they were off.

We continued to enjoy the monotony of walking the meseta. I think that there is a particular beauty in the rhythm of walking these straight paths the destination in the distance growing closer at a glacial pace.

Much later in the day as we entered Utrera the son of the horse drawn pair we met earlier passed us on a homemade contraption comprising a sledge pulled by a mule with a kitchen chair for a seat. He shouted encouragement and also some surprise that we had got this far.

We checked into the Hotel Vera Cruz which was the most expensive of this Camino. We ate well locally and breakfasted well. However the weather was breaking and our luck with the weather did not hold. There are some 33 kms from Utrera to Sevilla on flat roads and paths. Many would do this in one stretch. We decided to stop in the cummuter town of Dos Hermanas. The rain was heavy and icy. I could have coped with that but I found much of the way amongst the ugliest I have ever encountered including 8 kms straight along the side of a railway line where we had to pick our way through mountains of litter, rubbish which had been dumped illegally and at one point an open sewer. This section has little historic authenticity and let's hope that the Amigos and local councils find a better way.

The following day was a quick march in basically a straight line into Seville. Arrival came as some relief as the rain was literally bouncing off of the roads.

In summary. I found this a wonderful route in spite of the early challenges and the ugliness of the final kilometres. Waking from Jimena de la Frontera and then again from Ronda I encountered stages as beautiful as any I have walked. The route is not "historic" and in parts substantially follows local hiking trails. There is a train line linking the towns in the early stages meaning it would be possible to be based in either Jimena de la Frontera or Ronda and to either skip or walk the most demanding stages without carrying a full rucksack. This plus accurate milages and accommodation will be described in the walking notes which will follow.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Tunnels, vultures and sleeping in the station

Tunnels, vultures and sleeping in the station

In the TV series Victoria the Queen's steward, Penge, invests his life savings in shares in a new railway line. It went bust. This was at the time when there was a massive expansion of railways in many countries. Spain was no exception and just as in other countries many infant railway companies became bankrupt. So throughout Spain there are tracks abandoned and railway buildings in ruins. In recent times some of these have been reclaimed for modern purposes.  On arrival in Olvera we checked into rooms in the Olvera Station Hotel. A modest and comfortable hostel it has been built around the shell of what would have been the station. It also has apartments attached formed in former railway carriages.

The welcome could not have been warmer. They showed us to our rooms and explained that being still in the winter season the restaurant didn't open in the evening. We were starving. "Can we eat now?" and although the cook was soon to close up we were invited to dine in what would have been the station waiting room. This was a station which had never seen a train stop because the tracks had never been laid.

The menu? Oddly we were served a delicious beef stew with potatoes to start. It was a huge portion. They understand the hunger of walkers at the end of the day. Then came fish and a freshly made salad, then a dessert of deep fried sweet French toast dusted with icing sugar and topped with pistachio ice-cream. With a drink, bread and water the total calories in the meal was 275 calories and the bill was 9.50 euros per person. Only one of these statements is true! It was fine cooking at the cheapest price ever. A room with three hot radiators (clothes washed) and a full size bath (Ahhhh) was 30 euros.

Next morning after breakfast we set out to walk the 20 kms to the next little station hotel situated 2 kms before the village of Coripe. I was delighted we were staying there because of the reported sharp elevation in the last few kilometers. Looking forward to a day without hills we then discovered it would be a day of railway tunnels. 20 of them to be exact. The stations had been built and the tunnels driven through the mountains but alas they had never seen a train. The longer tunnels had been fitted with lighting and instead of railway tracks a gravel path stretched out before us. Had the line survived this would have been a scenic journey because as we walked out of each tunnel we were treated to surprise after surprise as different aspects of the vast landscape were revealed.

Soon we reached the Peñon de Zeframagón Nature Reserve where over 200 pairs of vultures live in a colony on the craggy rocks of the gorge. And there they were! 40, 50, 60 soaring high and circling overhead. A wonderful sight.

We tramped on this almost level path greeting the occasional cyclist but never meeting any other walkers. At the end of the day we arrived at the Station Hostel. More modest but just as welcoming. Here the rooms were 20 euros each. Eugenio and his wife Maria could not have been more helpful. They also don't open in the evening but they were happy to serve an early dinner which was perfect. We were the only ones there whereas in summer they serve 80 lunches a day.

10 hours of sleep later we reassembled for breakfast and then set off up the hill to Coripe. It is uphill but what would have been a real pain at the end of a 20 kms day was a breeze with fresh legs. 30 mins later we passed two families having breakfast on the pavement in the sunshine outside a village bar. Errrr, breakfast outside at 10am on 23 February!

Then followed 20 kms of sublime walking under clear blue cloudless skies. By 3.30pm we were walking into Montellano our next stop. A horse and rider were clip clopping up the main street and when we got slightly lost we asked directions at a bar where there was a special outside section for the horses and riders who were being served their drinks whilst still mounted.

Soon we were in the Bar/Hostel Boby. It was as if half the local community was having lunch. Every table in the huge dining room was full. The air was filled with laughter and shouting. Children played games in around and under the tables. The owner and his son are about the most friendly people we've encountered in a Camino full of friendly receptions. From the name and the raucousness of the huge bar we didn't know what to expect of the rooms in the Bar Boby. We needn't have worried, around the corner there is the hostel with pristine rooms, comfortable beds and each room with a shower and a full bath! After a quick change we were back downstairs to eat. Thankfully things were quietening down. "What's on the Menu?" The owner started reciting a long list. "Please just feed us" we pleaded. Off he went. The usual bread, water and drinks appeared. Then two salads topped with fresh trout appeared. "Compliments of the house". He disappeared again while we munched only to reappear with two steaming bowls of potage, a delicious thick soup of garbanzos and meat.    Then roast chicken and chips appeared with a tray of various home made sauces. By this time I was filling up quickly. Unabashed he was back again.. "Postre, postre, you must have postre, we have ..." and off he went again with an indecipherable list. The Big Man elected for ice cream cake and I asked for a coffee. "Coffee? No postre? Have fruit.. Orange, apple, pineapple, banana?" "OK, thanks give me a banana please." Of course two fat bananas soon appeared with a mountainous portion of cake and ice cream for the Big Man. "Coffee, coffee! Get the señores coffee" he shouted, "and bring these liqueurs over here". Soon the bottles were lined up at the end of the table. Vodka with Carmelo, Hierbas from Galicia, a chupito of whisky? Why does this happen in Lent? I swear he was crestfallen when we refused. We asked for the bill and he rubbed his chin deep in thought. "60 euros please". It must have been my raised eyebrows because he immediately explained, "that's 20 euros each for the rooms and 10 euros each for food and drinks... And breakfast tomorrow is included, of course." Of Course! Get me a horse. I'm moving here.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Simply the best - whew!

The last few days have passed quickly as the rhythm of the Camino has become established: get up, breakfast, walk all day, shower, wash clothes, eat, sleep and repeat. In saying that there has been nothing routine about this route which has some of the best views and finest walking of my many caminos. However there are some caveats. So far there have been two or three stages which are not for the faint hearted, unprepared or inexperienced pilgrim. I also think that the way this route has been designed using local hiking trails in the National Parks which may be suitable for day walkers isn't always safe or comfortable for full rucksack carrying pilgrims.

The best, or should I say, most testing example of this is the 12 kms stage from Colmenar to Cortes de la Frontera. "Only 12 kms?" I hear you saying. That's what we thought until discovering the stage entails walking up the side of a steep gorge which is 100 metres deep. The route goes up one side then plummets down to the bottom so that you can then walk up the other side which is even higher although perhaps easier to walk. Using wire ropes as hand holds to pull yourself up this stage takes several hours longer than the 12 kms distance suggests at first sight. This national monument is affectionately called the Cañón de las Buitreras ("Vulture's Nest Canyon"). For some the most exciting part is going through a tunnel and crossing the Puente de los Alemanes, the German Bridge across the gorge. Don't look over if you are afraid of heights. In fact in one You Tube video I watched a man was crossing on hands and knees! But the vistas are of course gorgeous.

The first part of the next day to Benaojan was shrouded in early morning mist and when the sun broke through a vast green valley opened before us bounded by mountains on either side. The train track ran parallel to the walking path and soon we were in the picturesque village of Jimena de Líbar. We ate our sandwiches on a bench and just as we were set to leave the local bar opened. We stopped for coffee and chatted to the owners a husband and wife from England and Denmark who have made their life in Andalucía. The area is very popular with day walkers and the husband showed us the Wikiloc tracks he'd recorded. "Do you know the Cañon de los Buitreras?" We asked. "Oh yes, " he replied, "I was so scared I had to cross the German Bridge on hands and knees and some blighter put a video of me on You Tube!" Yes, we know.

The path continued and we followed the yellow arrows. Then came a sign in Spanish and English. The English read, "Use extreme caution there is danger of falling." I thought this was a bad translation meaning "there is a danger of landslides or falling rocks". I was soon to discover the danger was of me falling off the narrow ledges often with the aid of hand ropes. We walked high above the valley and the river below until we reached Benaojan. Next day was straightforward to Ronda although at one point it looked tantalisingly close when the path descended rapidly and we had a long slog back up again. As you can see in the photo Ronda is very beautiful. The following morning the skies were clear and blue and we enjoyed the vast panoramic views as we descended from the cliff top town.

I've concluded that the folk who designed this route must have been youthful Olympic athletes because the distances recommended are prodigious and frankly too much for me. So rather than the long stage to Olvera we decided to stop after 20 kms in Setenil de las Bodegas. This was the best decision so far because we discovered it is a quite beautiful and magical pueblo blanco built in terraces with many houses built right into the rockface. It is surrounded by dozens of homemade wine cellars, the bodegas, which sprout from the rock.

By splitting this route into bite size portions we've been able to recover from the exertions of some stages which felt like getting on a step machine for several hours. We've also been able to explore ways of walking round one or two portions which may make the route inaccesible to many pilgrims. These will be described in the walking notes which will follow.

Leaving Setenil this morning I felt that we had discovered a very special place which otherwise we might have missed.

Then it was on to Olvera. "Only 14 kms" but with several elevations enough for a good cardiovascular workout. We saw the town nestled on the hilltop and just below it the pueblo of Torre Alháquime. They sat there perfectly like siblings of different sizes. Of course the way to Olvera was to climb, climb, climb up through the steep streets of Torre Alháquime then up again to the hermitage of San Isidro. Thankfully the way flattens out from here. I hope.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

High hills and castles in the air

La Línea de la Concepción to San Martín de Tesarrilo (28kms) to Los Ángeles /Jimena de la Frontera (20 kms) to El Colmenar

The route from La Línea to Seville is 234 kms long. We've planned two weeks walking with the intention of making a full set of walking notes available at the end. Therefore these blog posts are just my thoughts as we go along - the details will come later. I promise!

For the last few years I've been exploring walking routes in the South of Spain. In Andalucía in particular. Málaga and Córdoba to Merida, Valencia north on the Camino Levante, walking along the coast line of the Costa del Sol. I find the people extremely friendly, the weather fabulous if at times too hot and the scenery stunning. In particular I love the Pueblos Blancos, the villages which seem to grow out of the hillside where every house is painted white. Some even have elevators to help the locals come and go.

As well as maintaining the guidebooks which the CSJ publish to raise funds I've been thinking about how to make some of the lesser known routes more accessible to more pilgrims. When my friend Alan told me about the Via Serrana from La Línea to Seville I was hooked.

Leaving wet and cold Galicia everything seems to change arriving in the South. However despite the better weather I find La Línea de la Concepción a depressing place. It is like a run down commuter town, which I suppose it is since a large percentage of the population work in neighbouring Gibraltar.

The route to San Martín de Tesarrilo is some 28 kms with about a third on the road. Also for a first day is has a couple of nippy little elevations. The 28 kms is easily cut down to size if you wish by walking the first 8kms to the village of San Roque and bussing or taxi back to La Línea to resume next day.

Overall for these first stages the waymarking has been good and we've only had to search for the next arrow once or twice. The local Amigos have done a great job. The first tile is on the wall of the modern church of Santiago in La Línea and soon the arrows point the way out of town to the first little white hillside town of San Roque. The patrón Saint of pilgrimage!

Soon the countryside opens up to orange groves and lush fields. Whilst Andalucia can be a dry arid place in the height of summer at this time it is abundantly green as far as the eye can see. Looking back above San Roque the Rock of Gibraltar still punctuates the horizon and in fact even today in the hills high above Colmenar it could be clearly seen.

Accommodation in the village of Secadero next to San Martín de Tesarrilo was just excellent. Spotlessly clean rooms in a modest hostel with private bath for 15 euros. Dinner in the local bar was potato salad, green salad, pork chops, chocolate cake, wine, water and bread for 10 euros.

Moving on early next morning the air was cool and crisp and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Soon I became aware of the sounds of this Camino, the chorus of bells from the herds of deep brown dairy cows grazing in the fields, the neighing of the many beautiful horses we passed as this is equestrian country where polo is the local sport. As we rose higher I was struck by the sheer luscious greenness of the hills and deep valleys. This could be Scotland - albeit with different vegetation. As the day passed we saw Jimena de la Frontera on the hillside. A perfect Pueblo Blanco topped by a moorish style castle. At night it is lit and shines across the campo.

We are basing ourselves here for three nights to walk the next stages and return by train. These etapas are tough and staying in one place means we can carry less making taking notes, and walking up stiff elevations easier.

One point to make is that there are few points to stop for coffee or top up with water. Pilgrims on this route need to plan ahead.

Today walking from Jimena de la Frontera to El Colmenar was tough however the rewards came early with beautiful views of the white town sitting in the sunshine in all its splendour. Soon we were into proper mountain walking as we rose up and up. There were fantastic panoramic views which were the reward for two stretches of 200 m ascents in 2kms. There was some shade afforded by trees which also housed hundreds of chirping birds. After the first ascent as I stopped to draw breath high on the mountain a tale wagging dog approached accompanied by a deeply bronzed leather skinned shepherd.  I don't know who was more surprised but I got the distinct impression he thought we were crazy as he pointed the way... Arriba, arriba, arriba...up, up, up!

More later!