Saturday, 16 July 2011

Letter from Santiago de Compostela

Day 56 of the trip, day 50 walking
Dear Friends
On Monday morning we breakfasted well in Ponte Ulla 20 kms from Santiago. We were keen to get going but also reluctant to leave. This was the last day of a long camino in which we had walked almost 1300 kilometres in 50 days. During the last few days I’ve felt like an astronaut returning to earth. Whilst deep in the pilgrimage everything seemed very simple. The daily routine. The simple pleasures. Walking mile after mile through the heat and rain. Being rewarded with good company and cold beer. Praying regularly and realising that life can be simple. Two sets of clothes. No suits, no ties. I also realised this time apart would not be special if I lived like this all the time and in the last days my mind has gradually filled with a kaleidoscope of camino memories I want to write about, the usual family concerns, bills to be paid, things to be arranged, starting work in the Pilgrims’ Office, planning music in Pontevedra.
Above all I want to tell everyone who is interested that if you want to experience a Camino in the way that pilgrims did on the Camino Francés 30 years ago, don’t hesitate – go and walk the Camino Levante right now. The number of pilgrims setting out from Valencia Cathedral remain small but each year they are growing. Go now whilst pilgrims still remain an unfamiliar sight to local people along the way, where people respect pilgrims and go out of their way to help us, where you are more likely to have a drink or a meal bought for you than to be ripped off for having a foreign accent. The signage along the entire route is generally excellent. There are few albergues but lots of other types of accommodation. During the camino we slept in convents, houses, albergues, lots of cheap hostals, 10€ per person being the cheapest for an en suite room with TV. We also slept in some unusual places...I’ll tell you more about that another time. Promise.
Over these 50 days we walked through rich countryside with crops abundant. The market garden of Spain. We walked through meseta, the long, long miles of Castilla La Mancha where every village has a castle. I passed several which I thought might very well do Johnnie Walker as a country retreat. The landscapes were as magnificent as the welcomes we were given. This truly is the land of Don Quijote. We slept in a convent where the Mother Superior asked us what a walking pilgrimage was like. We explained the daily routine walking separately with the Big Man usually taking the lead. “Well, he has longer legs,” she observed wryly, “maybe you are just a Scottish version of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza?” You can guess who is who.
In the first half of our pilgrimage we watched weather reports avidly and planned our days to try and dodge the storms and instant deluges innocently called chubascos. We walked fast when storm clouds gathered through intense humidity and were lucky to only be caught once or twice in the entire journey. The truth is we could have got wetter in Scotland at the height of summer.
Some of the stages were demanding but stamina grows quickly. After the flat plains of La Mancha we walked up to the village of Cerebros where hang gliders soared above us. The next day saw us going as high as them as we reached the top and the half way mark on our journey.
As well as the lush countryside and the open hearted local people we also saw another Spain. A country where the prolonged economic crisis is taking a heavy toll. There are literally thousands of building projects, large and small which have stopped in mid construction. The high levels of unemployment the consequence of over-lending for projects which could not be sustained. Parts of Spain are becoming littered with half built buildings. The “creesees” is on everyone’s lips, but one result is that some prices have dropped and others are being held constant. There isn’t a lot of cash around.
We also saw a Spain where in places drugs are a rising problem. Why should Spain be any different? So too are the problems which are being stored for the future by the rising levels of immigrants particularly from China and the Islamic countries. Every pueblo has a Chinese Bazaar and some of them are aggressively competitive. For example there is an outbreak of shops calling themselves El Corte Oriental using virtually the same corporate house style as that Spanish institution the Corte Inglés. The Chinese run “Cortes” sell everything from shoes to fresh bread at astonishingly low prices. In Toledo a local businesswoman brimmed over with resentment. “There is an invasion of these people” she said, “working for low wages, selling things at low prices, putting us out of business”. Yet market forces prevail and the same Spaniards who resent the wave of immigration queue each morning waiting for El Corte Oriental to open to buy bread and search its bargains.
In many places too intolerance is bubbling to the surface. In this country where the image of St James slaying the moors is a national icon they still have traditional re-enactments of the Spanish people repelling and expelling the people of Islam. In Mallorca and in Murcia to name only two places one group of Spaniards black up their faces to be slain or imprisoned by the defending white population. The long held sensitivity to Moslems is being pointed up in sharp relief as the number of people moving from Arabic countries increases. One of the sights I most enjoying seeing is that of the families and older people gathering of an evening or Sunday afternoon in the Plaza Mayor. In some Plazas in the South it was obvious there is now a Moslem corner. The divisions are obvious. “Look at their women wearing veils” said one Spaniard. Another complained, “and in this Catholic country, they want to build a mosque!” Strange thoughts in a country where Moslem women wore veils for hundreds of years and many Catholic churches and cathedrals are built on the sites of more ancient mosques. But blacking up your face and pretending to kill Moslems is no answer to the integration which is badly needed. I had to smile when I came across a building with the design of a “mosque” it was even called the “Mezquita” or the mosque. Grotesquely sacrilegious to some eyes this building had been a nightclub. Now for sale. The crisis!
We walked through all of this Spain, some days from dawn to dusk. A land of many parts with many languages and peoples. We met few other pilgrims and before Zamora when the route joined the Via de la Plata the only others we met were those walkers who turned back and cyclists racing forward. We met one cyclist who said that he had to be in Santiago on the 11th of June. Our plan was to arrive on the 11th of July!
The greatest gift of this Camino was undoubtedly the people. Our quiet companionship with each other and the blessing of company in the evenings on such a long journey. The local people we met who cherished what we were doing. Being joined by our friend Rebekah for some days. We walked out together one morning at dawn the three of us praying quietly as the light of the new day revealed the countryside around us. I have 943 photographs and just as many stories. I will tell you some of them in the days and weeks to come.
A life-long task for me has been trying to sort out my “needs” from my “wants”. That ambition has been central to this pilgrimage. I lived more happily than I expected with only two sets of clothes carrying everything I needed on my back. The message of the little I need to live was driven home in all sorts of ways. Meet Angel who with a very mischievous smile assailed us one day. The temperature was soaring. The day before 46 degrees had been recorded in the North of Spain. That afternoon felt just as hot. “You two are very brave walking to Santiago in this heat” he said. “And you are Scottish!” he hooted. He had lived in the same pueblo all his life. I asked him how many sheep he tended. He replied, ”Just enough for me to live.”
“Valiente” (brave) was what the nuns in Valencia Cathedral called us when they gave us our very first sello. It was what the lady called us as she stamped our credenciales in Ponte Ulla. It was a word which was to be repeated all along the Camino. Yet, in truth we didn’t feel brave at all. The word was used yet again at Mass in Silleda two days before our arrival. An elderly couple, both with walking sticks, approached. “Are you pilgrims? Where have you walked from?” they asked. When we replied they insisted on touching us. “Will you two brave pilgrims hug the Saint for us?” they asked. “It will be a  privilege”, we replied. Our Camino was indeed a privilege. Bravery had little to do with it.

However on the last day as we approached Santiago such humble thoughts were cast aside as we marched proudly into the city. We passed through a pueblo where flags adorned the streets and people danced in the Plaza to live music. “How did they know we were coming today?” We joked. In reality it was a village fiesta. Then over the rise of the hill we saw the spires of the Cathedral. Just as our pace quickened fireworks boomed and exploded high in the sky. We laughed at the scale of the celebration of our arrival. Then we realised it was the rehearsal for the fireworks display on the Feast of St James on 25th July. One thing however which must have been God-sent just for us was the bagpipe tune Scotland the Brave the gaitero played as we entered the great Plaza Obradoiro to mark our final destination.

The Saint hugged, tomb prayed at, final sellos and Compostela obtained we made off for a celebration drink. Joaquin, the cathedral organist, popped in. We told him of our triumphant entry into the city. “Ok,” we said, “flags, bands, dancing and fireworks might just have been a coincidence ... but the bagpipes playing Scotland the Brave must have been meant just for us”. Ever the realist he replied, “I don’t want to disappoint you two brave pilgrims but he’s been playing that tune over and over for days. I’m sick of it.”

Until next time. Thank you all for your messages and support.



  1. You were 'valiente'. I'm glad your Camino was a privilege... It is such a privilege to read your thoughts, John. Thank you.

  2. Perfect! Looking forward to hearing more...thank you!!

  3. Congratulations!!! Been checking the site and wondering where along the route you may be. Looking forward to your stories, as and when you are ready to tell.

  4. Amazing story! Waiting anxiously for your next post!
    Thank you.