Saturday, 28 May 2011

A letter from a place in La Mancha

Dear Friends
When I read Cervantes many years ago I never thought I´d see the land he described in Don Quixote. For the last few days I´ve been vividly reminded of the story as I have walked along streets with the name through little villages in this southern region of La Mancha. When I met the man himself I could hardly believe I was here. It is day 11. We have walked 276 kms of this 1300 km route and we have stopped in a town called La Roda to rest, do a washing and plan the next steps. I´ve found a Locotorio with a dodgy internet connection and a dysfunctional keyboard so I thought I would let you know how we are doing. Thanks to everyone who has emailed me.
We arrived in a bustling Valencia on Monday 16 May. It was hot and the place was full of tourists. We had considered staying a day or two to explore the city but the combination of English voices and the magnetic allure of the Camino made us decide to set out the next day.
Having carefully dissected the weighty guidebook supplied by the Amigos Association we went to the Cathedral for our first sello. The giggling nuns couldn't believe we were undertaking such a long journey and were incredulous at our invitation that they join us. As we soon found out whilst the pilgrimage to Santiago is known throughout Spain there are so few pilgrims on the Camino Levante we have been treated to curious uninhibited stares for the last 11 days.
On leaving Valencia we were soon out in open countryside as over the next days this Way revealed its initial characteristics. This is a long, epic, blockbuster of a route where the vistas sweep to the horizon. It can only be done poco a poco as each stage has its own challenges and rewards. Some days have been hard. They have all been exciting. Quickly the days have started running into each other. What day of the week it is is largely irrelevant on camino and I had to ask today what date and day of the week it is!
The first days we passed rice fields which stretched for miles then acres of green, lush orchards where our passing shoulders brushed trees laden with nectarines, oranges and plums of many varieties. It has been hot walking with many stretches without shade counterbalanced frequently with the bubbling sound of water rushing and gurgling along seemingly endless irrigation channels. Fields of ripening wheat sitting at the bottom of mountains bedecked with lines of windmills give the impression that this is truly a land of plenty. As we go along farmers ploughing rich ochre soil and workers bent at backbreaking picking wave or stop to chat. Our destination seems incredible to them. When they hear we are both from Scotland they laugh as if we really must be joking.
Whilst inevitably in the bigger conurbations people are less spontaneous with us the engagement of local people in our pilgrimage has been the most moving and arresting aspect of our journey so far. Each day we have met people whose open hearted generosity has made us wonder what will come next. Let me describe some of it to you.
We´ve been welcomed into churches and homes along the way. In Almusaffes the priest gave me the biggest hug when he heard we were pilgrims. Farther on a big, gruff farmer in blue overalls chomping a fat cigar grunted “hola” in return. A moment later he called us back to give us themost delicious oranges. In another village church we discovered the women of the pueblo leading a Eucharistic service. They beamed to find pilgrims with them. “Hug the Saint for us” they shouted after us as we left. In Xativa the hostal owner came to meet us to show us the way. “This is a good thing you are doing.” He said. In Vallada one afternoon temperatures were soaring. We took a chance and pressed the doorbell of a casa rural which had a sign saying works were being carried out. The lassie who answered said that she didn´t have a room but could let us have a self-catering apartment. This was the same price as the hostal the previous night. Homemade dinner,breakfast and packed lunch made this the cheapest stop so far. In the albergue in Almansa we met Willy from Austria and a sullen,silent Italian man. We never saw the Italian again. Alas a couple of days later Willy, veteran of the Camino Frances and the Via de la Plata decided this route was not for him and departed. Passing field after field of red poppies as we entered the next place a man came out of his house and asked if we needed anything. “Cold water, please”. He invited us in to meet his family who were finishing lunch. We took the water gratefully but had to turn down the offer of fresh creamcakes. We slept in the convent that night welcomed by the delightful nuns. I counted the entries in their visitors book. Only 90 pilgrims had stayed in the last three years including a greeting from my friend Andy.
We then braced ourselves for the unavoidable 38.5 km stage to Higueruela. For this and some other stages we had to carry the water and food we needed for the day. Our budget is 1 litre each for every 2 hours walking. Go figure the weight. We set out early and our shadows were long in the light of dawn.
After an hour or so we encountered a pilgrim walking towards us. Was this some hardy soul walking home from Compostela? We asked ourselves. No, this was a Valenciano who was giving up. “This route is too hard and I have blisters,” he said miserably. We continued on and it was a beautiful day of walking. At around 27 kms just as our feet were throbbing in the full heat of the day the waymark told us to turn Left and walk the final 10.7 kms on the road. Grimacing we set to it. A while later a car drew up being driven by a doctor on call. “I´m a member of the Amigos of the Camino in Albacete. Do you need anything?” he asked. No sooner had he driven off when the police drew up. “Be careful,the national cycle race will pass soon.” So it did. The cyclists went whizzing past with full entourage including press and TV. I wonder if they even noticed the two baking pilgrims walking slowly up the road.
Just as the heat and the length of the stage were making us despair we came accross a group of partying young people.They had set up a picnic table laden with beer, sprits and refrescos at the side of the road.They had obviously been celebrating the cyclists passing by. In any major city of the world we would have given such young people a wide berth but this is rural Spain.They called us over, were astonished at our pilgrimage and insisted on sharing with us. We refused the proferred whisky or vodka but greedily consumed the lemon fanta with ice. “Only 2 kms to go” they shouted as they waved us off.
As if to welcome us there was a full blown fiesta in the village with procession and marching bands. The band appeared in the restaurant later and played until late. That night we slept soundly in the comfortable albergue. We were delighted as we discovered it has a freezer and we were able to freeze all of our bottles of water for the following day. This meant as it slowly melted we had cold water to drink until the afternoon. This has long been one of my crazy business ideas for the Camino Frances. Somone will do it!

We´ve met three other walking pilgrims in this first phase. Two gave up and the Italian disappeared.
On the way into Albecete we met Eneco who was clocking up an average of 100 kms a day on his bicycle and yesterday just before I chatted with Jose the shepherd three other cyclists rode past at speed.
Our daily routine has become established. Walking separately for a period of prayer and reflection in the morning and afternoon. Scouting out the arrows together when necessary although to be honest this has been seldom on this perfectly waymarked route. Sharing the costs of accommodation for hostals and company for each other in the evenings for Mass and dinner.
Physical problems have been minimal.One negligible blister for me and a couple of days of walking in long sleeves and trousers for the Big Man due to his unenthusiastic use of sunscreen. All fully recovered.
We´ve kept our kit to a minimum which has been difficult for a route which will take the best part of 7weeks. For example that´s 7 weeks worth of prescription drugs we´ve both had to to carry.
My biggest bonus has been my Kindle and I am slowly working through the 12 books I bought for this pilgrimage journey. Yesterday I downloaded DonQuixote to browse again. After all I am in La Mancha.
I hope you are all well wherever you are. I´ll write to you again whenever I can.
Buen Camino
Psyou can see more photographs here


  1. Fabulous! Thank you so much. A new Camino to look forward to :-) Bravo for doing so well in such a warm and sunny weather!
    Buen Camino!

  2. I am thinking of you daily and keeping you in my prayers. Let´s meet up in Avila!

  3. That's a tough route, Johnnie, and the landscape looks stark. But the experiences you've been having, and the people you've been meeting, sound invigorating. Good luck, and Buen Camino!

  4. Enjoyed reading this post and seeing your pictures. Sounds pretty tough, but your're tougher,Johnny! No mountains yet, eh?

  5. Estupendo! I'm reading this - and looking at the photos - with a few tears as I remember my own journey on the Levante 18 months ago. It's amazing to see the difference in season - I walked through late summer and autumn when all was burned brown. Go well, and many prayers,


  6. If you like the way to Santiago, if you like Galicia, I offer this countryhouse
    in a natural setting, is an opportunity, INEXPENSIVE Galicia and charm, its gastronomy and its people.