Tuesday, 16 November 2010

English breakfast

I love being in Spain and I particularly like to walk the routes less travelled such as the Camino Inglés. I can understand the attraction of the busy Camino Francés but these days perhaps it is a little too commercialised including cafés advertising English Breakfasts as if the medieval pilgrimage route was on the Costa del Sol or the South Coast of England. I prefer a quiet way with homemade Spanish food in the evenings. So when I saw a week free in my diary and a flight to Santiago for £36 I couldn’t resist.
But I had some choices to make: Should I walk the Camino Inglés to up-date the Guide book ready for next year? In the time available should I walk from A Coruña in 4 days or Ferrol in 5 days? Or should I stay in Santiago and help out in the Pilgrims’ Office with the surge of pilgrims expected for the Pope’s recent visit. Two e mails made up my mind. First was a prescient note from Mari in the Office saying that numbers in the start of the week leading up to the Pope’s visit were half that of the previous week. Pilgrim numbers were dwindling. Secondly I got a note from a pilgrim who had walked the route from A Coruña and had got “horribly lost”. Since with this route and the Guide this is nearly impossible the decision was taken – off to A Coruña.
I like A Coruña a lot. It is the seaside resort of choice for Spanish people and you will rarely hear an English voice. It is the more authentic starting point for the Camino Inglés with records showing that pilgrims from Northern Europe would arrive there by boat for the relatively short walk of 75 kms or so to Santiago. However since it doesn’t meet the 100 kms requirement to qualify modern pilgrims for a Compostela a second branch of the route was designated from Ferrol which is approximately 118 kms from Santiago. The route from A Coruña is very straightforward, nowadays well waymarked, and passes through beautiful hamlets and miles of pastoral countryside. The first Guide in English to this route had been produced by a member of the CSJ. There were no arrows or signs and simply using the main churches and common sense they had discerned the route medieval pilgrims might have taken. They described this in the Guide and when I came along a few years later I walked “their route” and up dated the directions and information. Having spent two days exploring what could have caused the pilgrim's confusion I discovered that at some point either the local authority or local Amigos had waymarked a route which in parts is substantially different for a few kilometres. I’m pleased to say it is now sorted out and the new version of the Guide will avoid any confusion. Promise.
Because pilgrims can’t get a Compostela for walking the route from A Coruña it isn’t known how many start there as the numbers are not registered. Certainly in the previous times I have walked that arm of the route I haven’t met any other pilgrims and I have been struck that local people didn’t really know much about it. But the Camino Inglés has been growing in popularity over the last few years and here are the numbers of pilgrims who walked from Ferrol:
2000 - 98, 2001 - 131, 2002  - 181, 2003 -  260, 2004  - 3,096 (Holy Year) 2005 - 651, 2006  - 804, 2007 - 1,085, 2008 - 1,451, 2009 - 1793,  2010 - so far this year - 6,000 (Holy Year)
I set off not knowing whether more pilgrims had left from A Coruña than before but I noticed a difference as soon as I started walking. One or two people even in the city smiled as I went past with my rucksack. A van driver at traffic lights sounded his horn and waved “buen camino”. The route goes past the beautiful Parish Church of Sigras with an historic pilgrim hospital and is then out in open countryside. Passing a little cottage a man dressed in overalls emerged from the garage adjacent. He responded to my greeting with, “Hola, de donde es usted?” “Soy de Escocia” I replied in Spanish. He continued in broken English, “but if you are Scottish why are you walking the English Way?” He asked laughing at his own joke. This was Guillermo who 20 years ago lived in Inverness in the North of Scotland learning welding. “near Loch Ness, but I didn’t see the monster” he laughed again. He confirmed there had been many pilgrims passing his garden gate this year and after a little wished me “buen viaje”.
Apart from his warmth there were other clues that the route is more popular. The waymarking has significantly improved and the tradition of passing pilgrims placing a stone on top of the waymark was more physical evidence that told me that pilgrims have indeed been on the route. There was none of this four years ago when I first walked. In a bar the owner gave me coffee and asked if I needed anything to eat. “Are you walking to meet the Pope?” she enquired. I explained that I was walking to avoid the crowds going to Santiago to see the Pope. She lamented the effects of the economic crisis in Spain on small rural communities but she said that this year in particular there had been a lot of passing trade from pilgrims. Further on I encountered two signs a few kilometres apart which I hadn’t seen before. The first was offering to buy Gold from the villagers of Galicia. I think this is a powerful symptom of the recession. No less so but perhaps a more attractive response further along the route was a new sign advertising “Horses to rent”.
Signs and notices are often very good indicators of what is going on in places and along this route local people could not fail to see the increase number of Camino signs and yellow arrows. Sadly, I also saw the beginnings of the “DO NOT” approach which I hate on the very popular Camino Frances. Here is an example. Rather than saying “Pilgrims if your are wet, please come in and shelter” the sign says “Pilgrims, don’t come in if you have wet ponchos and rucksacks”. The route becoming more popular has its downside.
I was thinking about all of this when José, the shepherd appeared from behind a hedge. It was one of these conversations when total strangers talk as if they have known each other for years. His English was excellent and José explained that he had worked all over England as a waiter for almost 30 years when he had been forced to return to the village in Galicia where he was born to look after ailing parents. “They are both dead now” he said, “it is just me. I have the house and a pension from England”. We chatted for a while. “José, what do you make of the pilgrims?” I asked. “Without the pilgrims who do I talk to? He asked. “The sheep?
I arrived in Hospital de Bruma in the company of two lassies from Madrid who had walked from Ferrol. I had a fond reunion with Carmen and Benino, the wonderful hospitalera and her husband. For those not sleeping in the albergue or who want food Benino has painted blue arrows showing the short walk to Meson do Vento and my hostal of choice, the highly recommended O Meson Novo. There I was greeted warmly. “El Señor de la guía esta aquí” I heard them say. This is a family run roadside bar and hostal which has rooms which are not only half the price of the hotel across the road but are also double the quality. When I first arrived at the O Meson Novo 4 years ago I asked if they provided food. They looked glum. “We really don’t do meals but we could do sandwiches or a ración for you” they said. In fact they produced a splendid meal of delicious boiled ham, french fries and fresh salad. The following year a couple of us arrived cold and hungry. “Do you have any soup to start with?” I enquired. “I may have a packet in the kitchen, would that be alright?” The lady was hesistant. When it was served she had obviously added things like pieces of real chicken. Fabulous. This time I sensed a difference. I checked in and showered. It had been a long day. When I got downstairs the lady said, “now sir, what do you feel like eating…just ask and I will prepare it?” What a difference. “Have you had many pilgrims here since I saw you last?” I asked. “Lots”, said Don Antonio who fetched his wife and they spoke in the English they had learned 25 years ago when they worked in Leeds, “oh yes, a busy year, we like the pilgrims, many of them have your guide, we try to help them if they have problems, if they need to make phone calls or if they need informations.” Then with chests swelling with pride they announced “and we can now do English Breakfasts if you wish, – bacon, sausages, tomatoes, fried eggs, fried bread. Oh yes, the English Breakfasts, we do them here.”

Something is happening on the Camino Inglés.


  1. Perhaps an English Breakfast is simply a way to feel that they're offering more hospitality, a gift from them to the pilgrims passing through. A small touch of home. A very sweet post, and I loved the comment, "who would I talk to .. the sheep?" Somedays that might be the better option! Gracias! Karin

  2. Sheep and (some) pilgrims may in fact be very similar -- smelly, woolly-headed, but mostly harmless.


  3. the call of the Ingles next year with Meenakshi is getting deeper. now for the discernment of which branch ...


  4. English fry-ups! Whatever next! Yorkshire pudding? Strong tea with milk?