Saturday, 17 October 2009

Viva Santiago

What a powerful force this Camino has.

I’ve been really busy recently with a number of things. I’ve been helping out a small local charity that has been going bankrupt, I’ve been dealing with family things in Scotland, I’ve been playing the organ at more things than I should have agreed to, I’ve been proof reading Laurie Reynold’s most excellent new guide to the Route from Lisbon to Porto. I’ve been corresponding with pilgrims on camino and at home. I’ve been visiting a 91 year old Shakespearean actor. And I’ve been lunching a lot.

What I haven’t been doing is writing this blog. And I’ve been missing it.
I haven’t been short of ideas or stories. In fact I had the most fascinating lunch with Janet, a pilgrim from Adelaide who was visiting London having completed a Camino of 2000 kms from France to Santiago. I recorded our conversation so I could write some of her stories. She taught me yet again that the simplicity of life on pilgrimage is what draws us to it in the first place and it is what keeps us going back for more. I really enjoyed meeting her. More of that conversation later.
I also had lunch with Piers Nicholson. We met in the Athenaeum one of these old, splendid London gentleman’s clubs although nowadays they admit women, of course. The membership of the Athenaeum is exclusive and is reserved to the refined, dignified and intellectual. Piers is all of these things. He is also a well walked pilgrim and he developed the website which now receives 1.5 million hits every year.
Piers is a retired scientist who now spends his time making high class sundials and he recently walked the Camino del Salvador with my friend Rebekah Scott. I have enough stories from that conversation to fill several blog posts. But I’ve got to write them!
Being away from the blog for a couple of weeks has been strange. Too busy to think about it and too busy to write I still felt strangely guilty that some of the stories going round in my head weren’t being written down.
I resolved to put that right on my birthday. Today!

One of the stories I was going to write about is the Priest and Altar Boy. I’ve been mulling it over for a while. The world is in such a sad state that the very title nowadays has a sinister flavour to it. Whereas in fact the Priest and the Altar Boy or Crego e Monaguillo in Gallego is one of the finest white wines of Galicia. It is produced in a vineyard owned by the family of Galician Priest Padre Ernesto and his godson, who used to serve as his altar boy, is the manager of the winery. Hence the Priest and the Altar Boy, a delicious award winning wine.
I was introduced to this wine in a Galician Restaurant in Clapham. I’ve been going there for a few years now. One day I was at my office in the City in London and I hailed a taxi to get me home quickly. London taxi drivers are notorious conversationalists. Usually extremely opinionated on every subject under the sun. My driver that day was no exception. As we drove through Clapham he asked if I went to any restaurants in the area. “Oh yes” I said, “ I’m fond of Spanish food and I usually go to La Rueda”. “La Rueda?” he asked incredulously, “ Oh you don’t want to go there…you MUST go to La Terraza on Bedford Road, that’s where all the Spanish people go.” He went on to explain, “My dad is Spanish and he almost lives there, they even have a Menu del Dia!”That started a fine tradition of Saturday lunches after rehearsals and dinners on high days and holidays. Don Antonio the Jefe de la Cocina is a man of profound wisdom and gentleness and all of them from owners to waiters have the warmest of welcome and the liveliest sense of humour.
On Saturdays the “boys” congregate. 15 – 20 middle aged men drinking beer, eating Menus of the Dia, chatting, joking at the bar. Families arrive in considerable numbers. Children run around smiled at benignly by the adults. Frequently regulars have to squeeze in because there is a party of 80 odd people eating and dancing to celebrate a first communion or a great anniversary. La Terraza is home to many. It is so Spanish even the most English feel compelled to try and speak in Spanish. My scallop shell hangs proudly on the bar. But more than that it is truly Galician. Caldo, delicious stews and copious fish and sea food constantly flow from the kitchen and more than a few local Scots and Irish people have made the Celtic connection and their accents can be heard amidst the Spanish and Gallego. This is where the Confraternity of St James celebrated a 25th Anniversary lunch and will do so again on 28th November.
And so last night having played for the Feast of St Gerard me and the big man who was singing hastened to La Terraza for a pre-birthday supper. They were delighted to see us. “Caballeros, we have a surprise for you this evening!” they said, and a few minutes later we were introduced to Padre Ernesto in the flesh. During the introductions it was established we were pilgrims. He was delighted with my concha brought from Santiago hanging on the bar. “What’s that you’re drinking?” he enquired. We explained it was the white wine of the house. “Not nearly as good as Crego e Monaguillo” we explained with a smile, “but cheaper!” He laughed and went off to join a gathering crowd of people. The next moment the waiter placed a bottle of Crego e Monaguillo in front of us. “A gift from the priest” he explained. Well I have to say that’s the second time a Spanish priest has bought me a drink. That’s twice more than Scottish priests ever have!

I was delighted. What a nice introduction to my birthday. I was in mid sentence when I stopped speaking. My jaw dropped. I looked over my friend’s shoulder at the figure in the doorway and I thought I was seeing things. The last time I’d seen the man standing there was on the feast of St James, sitting on the throne in Santiago Cathedral as the representative of the King delivering his greeting to the Archbishop and all of Spain. This was Alberto NÚÑEZ FEIJÓO, the President of Galicia. In La Terraza. Well you could have knocked me over with the cork from the bottle of Crego e Monaguillo.
More so when as if on a state visit he was introduced to us as pilgrims and friends of Santiago. He was genuinely delighted and having toured the restaurant to meet various people he returned to give us a final embrace before he went to dinner. Giving us both a hug he declared “Viva Santiago”. Indeed.
“So señor,” said Don Antonio, ever the joker, “this is only the evening before your birthday…tomorrow we have the King of Spain coming to lunch.”

I can’t wait. Viva Santiago.


  1. Delightful post Johnnie - and Happy, happy birthday!!

  2. Great posting again Johnnie! Loved seeing Janet there. You know, she was my inspiration when I walked from Le Puy. I had talked to her by phone in Oz a few times before I left, and anytime I found the going tough I would just tell myself, 'Janet did this- it is possible-' I had read about Piers on Rebekah's blog- what a remarkable man. And did you see the King of Spain on your birthday? Nothing would surprise me! When I 'eventually' reach London, I will expect to go to lunch at La Terraza- unless of course you are in Spain walking at the time!!!

  3. What a great story, John; how lucky of you to be present in such a cheerful place. We need a spot like La Terraza here in Tally.
    Looking forward to hearing of your birthday anniversay day events.

  4. Fantastic read!! Thank you so much for sharing and wishing you belatedly the very happiest of well as many more! Karin