Thursday, 26 February 2009

Letter to a fellow pilgrim about to walk the Via de la Plata

Dear Lillian
You're about to walk the Via de la Plata. Good choice! I loved it. What you say is true that when people talk about the "Camino" they usually mean the Camino Francés. Of course that route is popular because of the infrastructure built up and the frequency of stopping places. But there are many other routes and I chose to walk the Via de la Plata first. It was very rewarding. I loved walking alone and meeting local people in rural Spain. When I came to walk the Camino Francés it was rather a culture shock meeting so many other pilgrims!
The route starts in Seville. One of my favourite cities. It has a huge Cathedral and networks of narrow streets particularly in the Barrio Santa Cruz right in the centre. It is also just a few kilometers from Jerez home of the world's finest sherry producers. Therefore the Southern region boasts a huge number of sherries both dry and sweet - I love them both. My favourite dry white is Manzanilla served ice cold (available here!) and my favourite sweet sherry (una crema) is Canasta. You will love the richness of Andalucian cooking and that richness continues as you trace the border with Portugal on the way up the first half. You'll be reaching up and picking oranges and lemons off of the trees as you walk along the streets of Sevilla and Zafra as you make progress North.
The route has none of the man made rituals like the Cruz de Ferro but it has many secrets which you will discover. It is more demanding physically but you are now an experienced walker and you will cope very well.

The guide book says that for the first etapa an option is to get the bus back to Sevilla and the out again the next day. Thereafter it takes over. You might visit the Roman ruins at Italica and after that you will look back on the steep ascent just before you cross over the mountain to Castilblanco de los Arroyos and wonder at the distance you have travelled.

Reach the peak of the hill outside of Monesterio, and on to Zafra and understanding why it is called the other Seville - visit the Parador for coffee or stay the night! It is a converted Castillo in the centre of town.

You will see the Roman town of Merida from along way off then you cross the most wonderful Roman bridge into town and as you leave Roman ruins mark the way. Stay with Ana and Elena in Aljucen or go on and stay with the Monks at Alcuescar. Then Cacares, a hill top medieval town, romantic, beautiful - I wish I had taken a day off there.

Then on to some of my most favourite places - the scenery is fabulous – like walking on top of the world…man made lakes, sunken villages, really demanding walking, Carnaveral, Galisteo... Carcaboso - call in at the bar Via de La Plata - walk under the lonely but huge single roman arch not far from there at Cáparra...and keep on until you are ascending and ascending to Banos de Montemayor - if someone told you it was Switzerland you would believe them. Stay at the albergue at La Calzada de Bejar and look back in wonder.

Then on to Fuenterroble - try to meet Padre Blas the priest who is a huge supporter of the Camino. When I stumbled in there last January he was working on his own digging the foundations of an extension to the albergue. He's a fabulous guy and close friends with Domingo and Anita of the Casa Anita you will meet later in the journey. Then climb the Pico de la Deuna - count the wooden crosses on the way up and wonder how they got them there!

Then to the university town of Salamanca - visit the Plaza Mayor and weep. The most beautiful Plaza in all of Spain. See the medieval graffiti the students used to write in blood and the modern versions in paint. Cubo del Vino...Zamora...foward you will go. They are all beautiful Gorgeous scenery, lakes, ruins...and at Puente Quintos I sat on the river bank and had lunch...alone...gazing all around...the wild flowers. Heaven. You'll see.

At Santa Marta de Tera meet Domingo and Anita and taste the free wine (it is horrid, but smile). And then on to do some of the finest and most memorable walking ever. A couple of the stretches are really quite tough going, much more so than the Camino Francés, but of course by then you will be as fit as a butcher's dog, to use a quaint English saying, and you'll be running up the hills.
Then to Ourense. I really liked Ourense. I was bone weary when we got there and my friend had developed bad blisters. We decided to stay a day or so before the final push into Santiago. We found a really nice little hostal and when the very helpful woman realised we were pilgrims and one was injured she made sure we had a bath in the room - such luxury.
The next day my friend hobbled down to breakfast and afterwards I asked the woman what we could do in Ourense just to relax. She did that thing which many smokers are able to do: talk and exhale smoke at the same time. Her explanation came through the cloud. "Ah..." she said knowingly..." you two need to take the Camino Cholesterol"...she went on to explain that there was a route they stroll down by the river when we had a choice to either jump into the river for free or pay a little money to jump in. She must have seen the look of astonishment on our faces because she quickly went on to explain that there are thermal pools at the river side. Off we went with our hiking shorts and sandals - to jump in the river.
At the end of the Camino Cholesterol were several rock lined pools in the river full of people and just beside it with an entrance fee of a few Euros the most beautiful Japanese Zen Garden. We paid. There were three pools - hot, hotter and sleep a sauna and steam room, cold pool ...showers. This is a pilgrim’s paradise. No talking is allowed and all you can hear is tinkle of soft music.

Check it out: I think it cost 3 Euros.
At this point I had walked 900 kms so when I saw a sign advertising a leg massage for 8 Euros - did I resist?

With thanks to Howard Nelson who took these photographs for sharing his experience of the Via de la Plata with me before I departed

Friday, 20 February 2009

Before you give up anything for Lent...

Costumes and crepes

What is it about the Spanish that whenever there is something to celebrate they seem to go over the top? For example the great processions during Holy Week and Easter are famous the world over. In Spanish cities thousands flock to see processions coming from every quarter carrying solemn candlelit statues accompanied by people dressed as penitents often with chains on their bare feet.

Holy Week comes at the end of Lent, that period of 42 days commemorating the time Jesus spent in the desert before his passion, death and resurrection. For many Christians Lent is a time of solidarity with Christ’s suffering and so people give up some of the pleasures they usually enjoy such as alcohol or chocolate.

And so the flamboyant Spaniards in this Catholic country facing a period of even hypothetical deprivation can’t resist some serious indulgence before it begins. We have the same in the UK with Shrove Tuesday but in Spain they don’t just devote a day to eating some pancakes they devote several days to all sorts of celebrations. They call it Carnival; a time for special menus, Carnival Soup, eating out, dressing up in fancy dress. In some places they have cavalcades through the streets and some towns have their own customs. In the Galician town of Laza they have their own strange traditions such as throwing lives ants at each other in an “ant fight” and running through the streets with lighted torches of hay while people throw dirt out of the window in a ritual act of purification.

These practices don’t go on everywhere but the one common denominator is over indulgence. Even herein my modest little hostal in Santiago I’ve been spontaneously served Filloas at the end of every meal this week. Filloas are pancakes made without milk served with honey and sugar. The Carnival menus are on display in all restaurants. Here you can enjoy the traditional Galician dish Cocido. The contents are listed: pig’s ears, cheeks, lips, bacon, ribs, tail, chorizo, beef and a little chicken stewed with chickpeas and potatoes.
I was having supper last night in an empty restaurant when five air hostesses arrived followed by a pirate, a Mexican guitarist, two ghosts, a hippie and assorted others. This was a group having their Carnival night out early to avoid the weekend crowds!

As we would say in Glasgow: See the Spanish. See enjoyment. They love it.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Pilgrim People

A life in the day of María Josefa Eiras Díaz
Coordinator, Pilgrims´Office, Santiago de Compostela

María´s name is in the usual Spanish form: first name, father´s family name and then the mother´s maiden name. She is known simply as Mari.

Mari was born and brought up in Santiago. Her parents moved there after they met and married in the little Galician village of Aldegunde which has 5 houses. Her mum lived at number 1 and her dad lived at number 3. She lives with her parents in a flat in the barrio Sar about 15 minutes walk from the Cathedral but she will move out in May when she marries her financé, Jesús.

Over the last 10 years the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago has steadily increased. Pilgrims are welcomed in the Pilgrims´ Office run by the Cathedral authorities where the staff under Mari´s direction check that they have travelled at least 100 kms by foot or 200 kms by bicycle before issuing the Compostela- the certificate of completion.

In 1999 the Cathedral advertised for volunteers to help in the Office and Mari who was studying languages at the University of Santiago applied. She was successful and for a year she was in charge of the Pilgrims´ Left Luggage, a service they still provided at a modest cost of 1 euro per day.

In addition to Spanish and Gallego, Mari speaks French, English and German.

After a year as a volunteer and a year in France to study she returned to Santiago and the Cathedral authorities remembered her. The Director of the Pilgrim´s Office or to give him his full title, the Canon Delegate of Pilgrimages, is always a priest from the Cathedral. The Director of the day Father Jaime invited her to apply for a paid job. He also gave her a little advice. “If you want this job Mari,” he said. “Take your CV and pray with it at the Tomb of Saint James”. Mari adds with the slightest blush, “I did just that”.

Divine intervention or not, she got the job and after a while was promoted to be one of the two coordinators in the office. She shares this responsibility with Eduardo and they work in two shifts. Mari usually covers the late session.

Mari gets up every day at 8am and has café con leche and fruit. After doing her email she settles down to study advanced English. Her ambition is to become an English teacher in a public school. Spaniards employed in public, pensionable jobs are called funcionarios. This is a much prized appointment as it is generally for life and makes getting an hipoteca or mortgage easier. Mari is preparing for the Oposiciones, the test, to see whether or not she will be accepted.

Whereas breakfast was light, lunch is the more the traditional 3 courses. Usually the family has a starter of soup followed by meat or fish finishing with fruit.

After lunch Mari makes the 15 minute walk to the Office where this year they expect to receive about 120,000 pilgrims. Next year is a Holy Year when the 25th July Feast of St James falls on a Sunday and they expect 250,000 pilgrims to arrive.

Mari supervises a staff of 8 people. Everyone is employed by the Cathedral mostly on temporary contracts of 9 months because of the funding which comes from the Government. One of the things Mari does is work out a rota for the staff team so that the office is always covered.
At 11.50 am every day a member of staff takes the previous 24 hour statistics to the Sacristy in the Cathedral. This enables the priest at the beginning of the Mass to welcome 3 pilgrims from Valencia who walked from Sevilla, 1 pilgrim from Scotland who walked from Roncesvalles and so on.

Mari thinks she has the best job in the world. She works with a fun team. Each year they try to walk a bit of the pilgrimage routes themselves and Mari would love to take a month off to walk from Roncesvalles.

Above all Mari loves the interaction with the pilgrims who come to the Office. Some don´t want to talk about their experiences and others can´t stop. Whilst she recognises that some older pilgrims make special efforts and some other pilgrims walk prodigious distances the aspect which impresses her most is always the commitment of pilgrims to the experience no matter the length of route.

On the other hand some pilgrims expect the pilgrimage routes to have full tourist facilities and complain that there are no public toilets every kilometre or so.

Then there are the “trampas”, the cheats. Mari shakes her head as she describes pilgrims who hitchhike, or get the bus or park minibuses or cars round the corner from albergues and turn up for their Compostela. She thinks they are simply sad people. “What´s the point of having a Compostela if you have cheated?” she asks.

But the Cathedral authorities are aware of albergues being used by tourists and hikers who have no interest in the pilgrimage experience. They are also aware that some unscrupulous tour companies and travel agencies running bus trips are selling their own Pilgrim Passports as part of a package deal. Therefore from January of this year they are only accepting “official” Pilgrim Passports – either the one available in Spain from Cathedrals, pilgrim associations and albergues or outside Spain from recognised Confraterities or other pilgrims organisations.

Trampas are in the minority and Mari has some lasting memories of other pilgrims. Mari talks fondly about a young German woman, “She had no connection with religion and didn´t believe in God. She had some difficulties in her life and friends suggested she get away from it all by walking the Camino. When she reached Santiago she asked if she could be baptised. Her view of life had changed." A fellow pilgrim who had walked with her became one godparent and Mari was the other. They will be life long friends.

Marí laughs as she recounts some humorous stories of pilgrims. In summer a queue forms in the office. One of the staff said to woman standing in the in the queue beside a man “you come with me and my colleague will see your husband.” The women replied, “He isn´t my husband, I have no idea who he is.” A year later they returned, married, to get a photograph taken at the spot where they met. Mari says this is not a service they offer everyone!

After Mari closes the office she goes to dinner at around 9.30pm. Her favourite is a dish of lamb ribs. In her spare time she is an enthusiastic salsa dancer with a secret longing to learn the tango. She is a fervent reader and currently on her beside table is a copy of Blindness by José Saramago.

Does she have three wishes? “Si," she replies lapsing into Spanish to list the traditional, “Salud, amor, dinero y tiempo para disfrutarlos”. Health, love and money…and time to enjoy them!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

El mundo es un pañuelo

El mundo es un pañuelo

“The world is a handkerchief” is the Spanish way of saying, ”It’s a small world.”

Today proved that for me…

I arrived in Santiago yesterday afternoon on a turbulent flight from London. The flight was busy and I was glad to find an aisle seat and it was quite a coincidence to find that I was sitting beside Laurie Dennet an active member of the Confraternity of St James in the UK. Laurie was one of the 25 contributors to the little book, Roads to Santiago which I put together. She was reading a guide to the Camino Levante which she is translating into English. I have ambitions to walk this route which begins in Valencia so we had a good chat which helped take my mind off the lumps and bumps as we approached Santiago.

The sun was shining and I enjoyed walking from the bus station to my hostal. Hopefully a sign of the good weather to come this week.

There had been no pilgrims on the flight and it was immediately obvious that there aren’t a lot around Santiago either. In fact there aren’t a lot of people in general. The students are sitting examinations and Gallegos take cold weather seriously and stay indoors. It is strange to see this city which is usually bustling with street cafes and entertainment so quiet.

I want to work as a volunteer in the Pilgrims’ Office as often as I can and perhaps for a sustained period during the next Holy Year. This week is to be my induction and yesterday evening I reported to the Pilgrims’ Office where one of two coordinators Maria José introduced me to my new colleagues for the week. They were very welcoming and explained the background and process.

Each year over 100,000 pilgrims arrive in Santiago and report to the Pilgrims’ Office to receive their Compostela – the certificate of completion.
To qualify for the Compostela pilgrims who have walked need to have traveled at least 100 kms on foot and those traveling by bicycle, 200 kms. Their pilgrimage is recorded in a Pilgrims’ Passport or Credencial which they have stamped wherever they stop, in bars, albergues, churches, or tourist offices.

The process in the Pilgrims’ Office is straightforward. They told me what to do:

Welcome the Pilgrim
Check they have traveled the requisite distance by looking at their credencial – focusing on the last 100 or 200 kms
Get them to fill in a form which collects information for the annual Pilgrim statistics – where they started, what route they have followed and so forth
If they are going to the next Pilgrims’ Mass enter their details on another sheet so that their country of origin and starting point can be read out at the beginning of the Mass
Stamp their credencial twice – at the beginning and end with the sello (stamp) of the Cathedral
Write their name in Latin on the Credencial (books of names provided!) and present it to them

In summer there can be long queues as pilgrims arrive in the morning so they can attend the Pilgrims’ Mass at 12 noon. In February they are few and far between and we all sat about for an hour this morning before the first pilgrim arrived. “Go on John” they said, “Write your first Compostela”. So I set to the task as described above.

This pilgrim was from Korea and he had walked the Camino Francés from the border with France. He had walked through dreadful weather conditions and was very proud to have reached his destination. I turned over his Credencial after looking at the stamps and there in the front in neat handwriting was the name. “Rebekah Scott – Moratinos”.

Yes, THAT Rebekah. Rebekah my friend from the internet Pilgrims Forum who had edited the new Guides I’ve written to the Caminos Inglés and Portugués. That Rebekah with whom I had dinner in Madrid after New Year and of course that Rebekah whose blog Big Fun in a Tiny Pueblo I and many others read regularly. Rebekah and husband Paddie have settled in a tiny village on the Camino Francés and this Korean pilgrim had met them.

The icing on this particular cake came when I said to the Korean pilgrim, "It has been great talking to you, your English is very good." He replied, " And you're from Glasgow in Scotland. I'm a Pastor and spent 6 months in a church in the East End!"

A very auspicious beginning to the next phase of my adventure.

with thanks to Ivar Reke for the photograph of the queue of pilgrims

Friday, 13 February 2009

A story from the organ loft…

Next week I’ll be in Santiago working in the Pilgrims’ Office and visiting with friends. I’ll meet with Ivar who runs the internet based Pilgrims’ Forum I'll also see Joaquin the organist in the Cathedral.

I’m an organist myself and I must confess that I am deeply jealous of Joaquin. He has one of the prized jobs in the church organ world. When he applied for the post he was interviewed by a panel of 9 people including 3 professors of music!

Every day he plays twice. At 9.30 in the morning he plays for a Solemn Sung Mass sung by the Chapter of Canons of the Cathedral. They begin by singing the Office of the Church as they have done for centuries and then on with Mass. Whilst very few people attend the Mass is very beautiful.

Joaquin plays again at 12 noon every day. From his perch high above he has a clear view of the entire church. He also has a TV screen on which he can watch the action on the altar and there is a telephone link between the organist and the cantor – so Joaquin and the nun who is singing can talk. I’m sure they would never say things like,” I wonder when this sermon is going to finish?” Oh really?

Very few of us have the chance to play to a packed church every day but that is exactly what happens in Santiago Cathedral. From 11 am onwards the Cathedral starts to fill up. Pilgrims arrive with rucksacks just in time for the Pilgrims’ Mass, tour groups arrive and very quickly every seat is taken. People jostle for position. They sit on the floor or at the base of columns. Some days almost 2000 people. There is always an air of expectancy.

A few minutes before Mass the nun who sings rehearses the congregation in some of the short responses which will be sung during the service. Then Joaquin begins the introduction and the Mass begins. Wonderful.

On the days the botafumeiro flies it almost reaches the level of the organ loft. The effect of the incense on the more delicate parts of the organ have been a worry for 200 years – but it is still flying and the organ is still playing.

The organ in Santiago Cathedral

I invited Joaquin to visit me in London and to play at the Thanksgiving Service for the 25th Anniversary of the Confraternity of St James. He had never been here before and had a whale of a time seeing the sites.

For a long time he has been fascinated with Westminster Abbey, its organ and musical tradition. I suppose fuelled by seeing Royal events on television. At home he has a collection of CD’s of recitals on their organ. So in advance of his visit to London I wrote to the Master of the Music, James O’Donnell and told him about Joaquin’s visit. He could not have been more welcoming.

So on the appointed day we took Joaquin on what he thought was just a tour of Westminster Abbey. After seeing round like tourists I asked him if he would like to attend Evensong and hear the organ and choir. His eyes lit up. What he didn’t know is that they were going to treat us as honoured guests with special seats in the Choir and then a guided tour of the organ itself after evensong.

Westminster Cathedral Organ - Joaquin gets a shot!

Evensong in the Abbey is usually attended by 200 people. To crown it all as we sat waiting for the service to begin 1000 people processed in carrying banners to celebrate a Ukrainian memorial. The procession was replete with priests and bishops in eastern robes. Splendid.

As he watched the great procession from his seat where during a Royal Wedding he could almost touch the Royal family, I turned to him and said, “Surely you’ll let me play in Santiago now, Joaquin?”

We’ll see.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Wet weather Camino - Welcome back Ian and Rosie

When we talk about walking the pilgrimage routes we often only remember the fanstastic weather and scenery like that depicted in this photograph by Colin Jones of the CSJ. This is a section of the camino between Simnacas and Ciguñela on the Madrid route.
But the weather in Spain isn't always sunny and perfect. Winters can be just as harsh as Scotland in places and in Galicia it can be even wetter - if you can imagine that.
So...congratulations to Rosie and Ian who have just completed the 5 day pilgrimage route from Ferrol on the North West Coast of Spain down into Santiago. It was rain all the way but this pair of intrepid pilgrims made it.

Rosie approaches Hospital de Bruma at the end of a long wet day

Enhorabuena - Congratulations

See more of their exploits here:

Sunday, 8 February 2009

To cut a long camino short – story 2 - Happy Hogmanay

Happy Hogmanay

Well January is finished and memories of New Year are fading. This year I celebrated in Madrid and I visited the nun who used to sing at the daily Pilgrims’ Mass in Santiago. She used to regularly sing the Hymn to St James when the Botofumeiro, the great censer is flown Listen to her in action:

Back to New Year. When I was young I witnessed many family parties and since then I’ve always thought that there is something unedifying about Scottish people who seem to get more Scottish around New Year.

First of all we have our own name for it - Hogmanay - a time of unbridled drinking, emotional regrets and tearful hopes. Although I accepted that people in other countries MUST celebrate New Year I always thought it must have been either invented by the Scots or at least we must have a very long term lease of it.

Surprise, surprise. I discovered a few years into my love affair with Spain that Noche Vieja - the Old Night - was a perfect equivalent... only better compared to what Scotland has to offer. In Madrid this year that meant a traditional dinner with loved ones and friends at around 10 pm followed by eating 12 grapes, one on each of the peals of midnight to bring mucha suerte in the year ahead followed by the entire city being shrouded in fireworks which thundered for at least 45 mins.

Whilst I am not one for New Year inspired highland dancing, shortbread, bagpipe music or speaking with an even more unintelligible accent rolling every "r" possible - I do believe in some traditions.

One such is the gift to friends and neighbours of a lump of coal, some shortbread and a bottle of whisky: so that they may always have heat, drink, food and good luck in the year which begins.

A couple of new years ago I was in Seville and I mistimed a meeting with friends on the last day of the year and I found myself in a typical Spanish corner bar - 12 people and it was full. As festivities progressed I established that my friends would turn up later. Not wanting to carry my little bundle around for hours I explained to the lady behind the bar in faltering Spanish that it is a custom in Scotland to "first foot" - to be the first person across the threshold to give traditional gifts and wish good luck for the year to come. I handed over the gifts to an obviously astonished landlady. Drink was taken and the evening passed memorably as most New Years do.

On returning some months later I happened upon the same little bar. On entering I sensed a frisson...waiters bowing..."Hola Caballero"...hand shakes...a table cloth! The Dueña appeared with a bottle of chilled wine...kisses..Gosh. "Muchisimas gracias para los regalos de suerte al año nuevo" she said..."we won the lottery in January". The sight of the diminutive owners of the little bar negotiating the narrow streets of Sevilla in a 4X4 SUV will remain forever.

This year the same gifts have been given only this time the wish in return is Buen Camino - perhaps better than winning the lottery.

Room for Everyone

Within days of starting our pilgrimages we met people of all ages from many different countries. We also met: those who had prepared and those who hadn’t, people with huge rucksacks and those with almost nothing on their backs, people who were shy and those who were outgoing, pilgrims who believed in God and those who didn’t, people who were happy and people who were sad, people who had changed their lives and others who were happy with life the way it is. We met people who had lost partners and couples walking with their children. We met those who had experienced broken hearts and many who were falling in love with life.

We all walked the same road and when we got to Santiago Cathedral there was a place for each of us. Every one.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

To cut a long camino short - story 1 - the language barrier

The language barrier

I put a lot of time and effort into planning my first Camino. I intended to follow the Via de la Plata from Seville to Santiago de Compostela and I intended to do at least half in January. It was a deliberate choice. I knew I wouldn’t meet many, if any, other pilgrims and I wanted to experience the long hours of solitary walking. I also knew that I would need to speak enough Spanish to make myself understood on a day to day basis and also enough to deal with any emergencies. I had been taking Spanish lessons for some time and I increased these in the months leading up to the first steps being taken on the Camino.

My Spanish teacher was a young Spaniard from Galicia who took my plans very seriously indeed although I suspect he thought the concept of a 1000 kms pilgrimage by foot a little more than eccentric. Locissimo was a word I learned early in the process. As the departure date got closer he prepared various scenarios that I had to deal with: asking complicated directions including yellow arrows and trees and boulders; finding an albergue then if it was full, a hostal, and if that didn’t exist, a hotel; calling 112 in an emergency and so on. I swung from elation to depression as one minute I was trying to secure a bed in a very nice hostal and the next I was phoning emergency services to tell them I had a broken arm/chest pain/ fever etc.

Knowing that the days are short in January I was worried that one day I might get lost in the darkness and I asked him to rehearse with me what I should say if I saw a light in the window of a little finca and knocked on the door to ask for help. He shrieked with laughter. “This is rural Spain“ he said. “They will shout, “who is there?” in a dialect you won’t understand and when they hear your accent they will assume the worst. The wife will order the husband not to open the door and the husband will fetch his gun – you have to realise that they will not understand you and you will not understand them.” With that he launched into a high pitched, singsong and totally unintelligible take off of the accent of a rural farm worker.

Now, I had been taking lessons for some time. My teacher and I were having long conversations. My friends in Spain were impressed each time I visited at the progress I was making and so even with this advice I was pretty confident I could get by in most situations. This of course in complete denial of the reality that as a Scotsman living in London I frequently speak with an accent that people don’t understand even with both of us ostensibly speaking in English.

And so it was in my “fluent” Spanish I wished happy New Year, good luck and goodbye to my friends when I set off on 2 January. I had walked a couple of the first stages earlier and so I started in Guillena a small town outside Seville surrounded by farm land. 100 yards into the Camino I heard a voice behind me. I hadn’t a clue what he had said and I turned to encounter a wee old man, his deep brown face wrinkled with age and the sun, with the sweetest one tooth smile carrying a small basket of apples. “Hola” I said. He appeared to ignore this and simply said again what I assume he had said previously. Only this time I thought I detected the word “camino” in the rapid stream of noises he directed at me. I said “Si” and I was relieved when he patted my shoulder approvingly. Encouraged by this exchange he then let forth another burst and I knew in an instant I was in difficulty. He fixed me in his gaze and this time I ventured a much more tentative “Si”. He was by now clearly assessing my sanity so I even more tentatively changed the “Si” to a “no?” He nodded approvingly at the latter. To this day I have no clue what he was saying. He then launched forth on a speech. It could have been about anything from the instability of the Spanish economy to the price of fish. As we walked along the street he dispensed apples to other old men sitting on benches, to a passing child and he never stopped talking to me – at least I assume he was talking to me.

And then he pointed. There it was. The first yellow arrow leaving the village. That wee man became the first of many strangers along the way who pointed me to where the arrows are. Sometimes I understood them, sometimes not – often they didn’t fully understand me. But they welcomed my efforts to communicate with them and responded with warmth and generosity. Many things transcend spoken words – smiles, gestures, kindness. The Spanish are diffident and shy but make the first move to say Hello and their faces light up.

I followed the arrow and as I turned back he was giving another apple to another old man and he lifted his hand high in an encouraging goodbye. I had begun.

A winter Camino

Almost as soon as I heard of the Camino to Santiago de Compostella the ambition to walk the route grew in importance in my mind often at an alarming rate. I have long been in love with Spain and travel there several times a year usually to Andalucia and to the beloved Sevilla. (Have you been there? The photo is my street in the Barrio Santa Cruz)

Therefore when I decided to give up a long held career to seek a different way of life, walking the Via de la Plata from there seemed an appropriate right of passage.

As I was intending to walk the first half of the route in January I took a long time to plan this winter camino. I made extensive use of the message boards on the internet and the published guides in particular the detailed and invaluable guide by Alison Raju. The Confraternity of St James in London could not have been more helpful and put me in touch with someone who had walked that way before. As it turned out almost without exception the route is well waymarked by local Amigos.

My main task before the start was to select good equipment, the most essential of which was a modern and very effective layering system of clothes. I debated questions such as should I take a down jacket or make do with a fleece plus good rain gear? As it turned out I heeded the advice which pointed out that Spain in winter can be as cold as Scotland and thankfully I erred on the side of more not less.

For many years I have spent New Year in Sevilla and so on the 2 of January I set off from Guillena having walked there with friends the previous couple of days. I wanted to break the journey in Salamanca some 518 kms on and I arrived there on 20 January.

Before starting I was aware that in January it doesn’t get light until about 8.15 and sun sets just after 6pm. One of my best decisions was to take a short wave radio with me to listen to the world service in the evenings rather sit around a local bar until dinner. What I hadn’t accounted for was a thick, freezing morning fog for around 15 of the days which I simply had to walk in or I wouldn’t have got anywhere at all! Most mornings it was simply me and the yellow arrows as if walking in a bubble, utterly tranquil. A bright body light made walking on roads safer and fog is so alien to the Spanish even they drove more slowly and carefully. Sometimes by 10am, sometimes as late as 12.30 the sun would break through, burn off the frost and fog and the day would give birth to a clear landscape and rising temperatures. Like walking in two worlds on the same day.

I found very good accommodation all along the way although some of the information I had been given in advance proved not to be accurate. January is the month when works are carried out on albergues and Casas Rurales. Eventually I simply put my trust in the arrows, the obvious awareness of the route amongst the locals, the goodwill I was experiencing and the fact that I was soon confident I had enough Spanish (and money!) to get me out of most difficulties. Very quickly I learned that whoever I was staying with could not only top up essential supplies of food to be carried next day but would also check that the hostal at my next destination or two was open. I was delighted on several occasions when people were expecting me!

The only deviation from the albergue, hostal or Casa Rural being thrown open and a hot meal cooked was in San Pedro de los Rozados nearing the end of phase one. The Casa Rural was closed...the albergue had obras but I was directed to a bar where they confirmed that these facilities were closed but then said "But don't worry you can stay with my granny" and so I did!

I only met one other pilgrim in the whole time and that was only for 5 minutes in Monesterio. A Spanish chap from Seville who is doing the VdlP in day trips. He had just arrived by car and was setting off for the day to get the bus back again to his car. Very quickly into the Camino the routine and rhythm became established. Sleeping a deep sleep, rising early and preparing for the dawn to start. And then the walking simply took over. It is difficult to describe but the simple cadence of putting one foot in front of the other for many hours each day seemed to create its own world in which I actually didn't think about anything else apart from vistas of where I had been and where I was going. I had expected times of deep reflection when in fact my experience was that despite the physical problems I experienced it was in fact the most mentally restful and refreshing thing I have ever done.

In fact on the walk into Salamanca I had mixed feelings about the gradual invasion of the other reality to which I was returning.Deep, penetrating, freezing morning fog was the issue for me. I soon realised it was just like walking in Scotland - normal precautions had to be taken, people had to know where I was leaving from and where and when I was to arrive. On this route at this time with no other pilgrims, few locals and diminished visibility a mobile phone was essential and in lots of towns and villages internet access was available to check weather forecasts. I had discovered with some relief beforehand that the emergency number 112 works throughout Spain even if there appears to be no network available from individual mobile telephones.Fortunately I had appropriate clothing with me. For many hours I simply walked with just the arrows to guide me. And they certainly work.For me it is a route to be walked again at another time as it will have a different personality. But each day had its own treasures no matter how little I could see. The rare farmworker stopping his motor bike for a chat or 6 or 7 hours without seeing or meeting anyone else at all. Coming across isolated parishes where they actually sang during Mass. Some of the best walking and sun filled scenery ever when the fog lifted. Taking off two layers of clothes to start the climb up to Pico de la Duena only to see banks of fog rolling towards me. More clothes than ever put on, hat...gloves...climbing only to the eerie swooshing of the unseen windmills which merged like giants out of the fog...then breaking through into the most gorgeous sunshine above the fog and clouds like flying in an aeroplane where the ground could not be seen.

One of the few disappointments was visibility of only 100 yards or so in the descent down into Salamanca...alas the famous vistas escaped me, this time.I loved seeing another Spain, far simpler than the sophistication of Madrid and Sevilla. But also a poorer Spain, more depressed. Like rural Scotland where the only ambition young people have is to leave. Many farms abandoned and as if every second house is for sale.

Yet this old, old route prevails and I did feel a deep sense at times of the continuity of pilgrims through the ages. Crossing a simple Roman bridge in a field, passing a roman milestone and then walking under the Arch at Caparra standing proud like a monument to the feet which have passed that way before.

However some events are unlikely to happen again. As I trudged across the impressive Roman bridge into Merida having walked 44.4 kms in 11 hours all I wanted was a hostal, a hot meal and bed. “Hola peregrino!” a voice cried from among the on coming pedestrians. This was Anna who had completed the Via Frances and was visiting friends in Merida. Despite not speaking English communication was immediately established. Realising I needed to rest she marched me off to the Parador. All four stars of it. “El Jefe, por favor” she requested at reception. When the manager appeared she explained in a demanding voice “ This courageous pilgrim from Scotland has walked a long way into your city, please give him a good room at a good price”. And so they did. He instructed the receptionista to give me a room at less than half price, including breakfast plus stamped my Pilgrim Passport with great ceremony. Alas Anna was not there as I walked into Cacares… 518 kms walked and now I have considerable impatience to get started again in April when it should only be rain I have to deal with!

With thanks to Howard Nelseon and the CSJ Picture Library for some of these photographs