We rejoin Seamus Murphy as he walks the Camino del Norte. You can read the first part of his journal in the Autumn issue of Shamrocks & Shells. We hope you enjoy.
Day 12 – September 11th, 2016
Soto de Luiña
This is the Camino we remember forever, the simple sunlit woodland path leading down to a hump-backed medieval bridge. The scallop shell has been the Camino symbol for over a thousand years, with the hinge end pointing to Santiago. Some villages have real shells set into walls to show the way. I saw a brownish black squirrel here today, a big one twice as big as a grey. I saw one like it in the Pyrenees a couple of years ago.
Late start today, extracting maximum value from my dear hotel. I considered making a few sandwiches from the lavish buffet breakfast, but the Wee Binnians made a holy show of themselves with that carry-on in a hotel in Wales nearly 20 years ago and I’m still traumatised with embarrassment. No sign of Senorita Eyebrows at reception but the manager came out himself and in person to expedite my checkout. There was a lot of fawning and scraping and did I enjoy my dinner? Yes, they do a mean octopus ala Galego. He followed me out across the car park and shook hands with me and wished me Buen Camino. They teach advanced arse-licking at the catering colleges here.
And then I got lost – right outside the hotel. I walked down to the roundabout in the village hoping to see a scallop sign, but nothing. There was a pilgrim about my own age at a café and I approached him waggling my Camino guidebook, the internationally recognised symbol for stupid pilgrim lost. He pointed me back up the road I had come down. Since he really looked the part, says myself to him: ‘Sind Sie Deutscher?’. He gave me an absolutely withering look, tapped his chest and said one word: “Polak”. All right, Irlande “nul point”. He pointed at me inquiringly and I used the Spanish term “Irlandes” (fada on the e), giving the ‘r’ a good roll otherwise people think you are a Dutchman. He looked at me without a trace of a smile and said: “You look Englander ha ha ha.” He was entitled.
He passed me an hour or so later in a hill village accompanied by a younger woman, much younger. Where the hell are these oul fellas getting them? Is there a Camino office I don’t know about where you can apply? Will they take an Irish bus pass? Could I get two? So many questions, but my Camino guide has nothing on this. I’ll have to Google it – Caminochicas is I believe the appropriate search term. OK, maybe she was his daughter, but I like to extract maximum drama from all situations. As George Bernard Shaw possibly said, a dirty mind is a joy forever.
He did, in fact, have a tiny bit of German and tried to explain they had walked from Irun on the border but he didn’t know the word for fifteen and kept repeating ‘ funf funf funf’ until I got it. I worked it out later: to get there in 15 days was 35 km a day. Christ, I feel so inadequate.
Dogs dogs dogs. You are walking in a heat daze through a little village and a savage brute the size of a four-month calf lunges at you through a fence putting the proverbial crossways in you. They are chained up like scrapyard dogs should be but they are prepared to risk strangulation just to take a lump out of you. And they are everywhere. Lots of dogs in town too and people walking dogs with muzzles. They are fond of greyhounds and those horrible white albino ones that look like big rats. And pugs – I never really thought about the phrase pug-ugly but they are absolutely horrible. Frau 40K said the other day that they looked as if their face had been pushed into a wall really hard.
Of course, I shouldn’t really have called her Frau 40K because she’s Dutch so it should have been Vrouw 40K I think. Except that’s not right either because she was never married. She lived with a man for 15 years but it wasn’t working for either of them so they broke it up nine years ago although they are still friendly. And a lot of people ask her why an attractive woman like her with a mane of chestnut-red hair is still on her own, worst of all her own sisters, but she made a conscious decision to find happiness on her own doing the things that make her happy, especially travel. And she likes her job in hospital administration because she can do shift work and build up her leave allowance for travel. Funny enough she’s never been to Ireland.
How did I get on to that? Why does everyone keep bringing her up again? I told you, she’s gone, it’s over, not that there was any it, and I’ve moved on – at a steady 20km a day as a matter of fact. I guess I’m just a 20km kind of guy.
Day 13 – September 13th, 2016
Ballota Santa Maria.
Today was hot, around 28 degrees, but most of the route was in hilly woodland with deep, damp valleys cooled by lots of streams. I have to be careful to stretch my calf muscles in the morning, otherwise, the plantar tendon in my left foot tightens and shortens after a couple of hours and it starts hitting the ground harder and flatter than the other foot. Pretty soon I start listing to starboard, lying over to the Kildare side as they say in Dublin, and that’s not a very good idea when you are carrying a heavy backpack.
This morning I was plodding along the road, head down hat down, vaguely wondering whether my beard grows faster in the heat, when a woman feeding pedigree goats started shouting and running after me: “Señor, Señor”. I had walked right past a scallop shell and yellow arrow and was merrily plodding on into the great blue yonder. Muchas gracias, Senora. Pedigree goats have little yellow eartags.
On the track down towards La Playa de Silencio – such names – there was a man in front with a SatNav. He had earphones in but I could still hear the female voice telling him in German: “Go 80 meters, turn left on road, go 50 meters, cross road, take path on right” and so on. Just imagine, a woman to tell you every time you take a wrong turn. What’ll they think of next? She probably tells him he should ask someone for directions. He probably takes it thick and ignores her, using the picture-no-sound strategy.
Last night in Soto de Luina, the woman who served dinner in the hotel was the dead spit of Michelle Gildernew. I think maybe the sun’s getting to me, must remember to wear the hat more. I went up the village to the bar and who landed in but the Australians, Stewie and Kev and Bev, and they had another woman with them whose name completely escapes me. This was delivered as a sort of Morecame and Wise act with the straight man setting it up and the other delivering the punch line – then they would switch roles for the next howler. They had brought a Frenchman down from the hostel or the albergue as us Caministos call it. He had a moustache and John Lennon glasses with pebble-thick lenses and therefore bore a faint but nonetheless alarming resemblance to Heinrich Himmler. He had excellent English but said very little, listening intently with a rather puzzled expression, doubtless trying to follow the twists and turns of the Strine dialect. Then I had a sort of insight: he was a cultural anthropologist who realised he had a unique opportunity to observe Australians out of their habitat, trying to adapt to an alien environment. I must remember to Google new research papers from the Sorbonne when I get home.
Day 14 – September 14th, 2016
It was the thunder that woke me. From the window, there was a magnificent display of lightning on the mountain ridge, fork lightning that we rarely get in Ireland, the kind that used to spook the cattle and start the stampede in the old Westerns. Down at the breakfast buffet, it was like the eve of Armageddon. The French and Spanish cyclists were clacking around in those awful cycling shoes terrifying each other with weather forecasts on their mobile phones: deluge from 8am, steady rain thereafter for hours. It was well after eight and the road outside was barely damp. A Brazilian father and daughter who do triathlons together seemed to have difficulty with the concept of rain. I wasn’t wild about it either – there’s a limit to the amount of gutters you want on a loanan – but if we didn’t walk in the rain we wouldn’t be doing a whole lot of walking in Ireland.
The rain actually came in about 10.30 and soon showed it was down for the day. I was facing Force Nine gutters and it was running off my jacket and onto my bare legs and down and into my boots. I plodded on up the hill and down dale and had one cup of coffee and plodded on until about 2pm, thoroughly pissed off. It got heavier and I took refuge in a half-wrecked bus shelter as I crossed the main road. God’s good and his mother is very decent. I was idly reading a torn timetable when I looked up and there came a bus, a lovely big white bus. I took it about 10 km into town here. It’s still pissing down at 7pm.
Sometimes on the Camino, you can hit upon a culinary gem. It won’t be in the fancy restaurants In the cities or the pavement bars in the tourist spots, it will be in the little places where you will think yourself lucky to get a stale sandwich for dinner. It will be in a place like I stayed in last night, a roadside bar with a few rooms above. When I walked in hot and exhausted, I asked for a glass of white wine. They often serve wine in small beer glasses here. Yer man poured a generous portion, took another look at me and heeled some more into the glass. Cuanto? Cinquante, 50 cents. I can’t afford to go home. The Free State old age pension would cover a fair amount of drink here.
And when you find your culinary gem there won’t be a large menu with English/French/German subtitles. There will be a greasy laminated card in Spanish only with ‘Menu del dia’ and ‘Platos Combinados’ which means a meal of courses. Pay attention, you won’t get far on the Camino del Norte if you don’t get yourself a little bit of Spanish or at least show you are prepared to make the effort with your phrase book and Collins mini-dictionary. You won’t be served by a hip young barista working his way through college who hopes to improve his English on a summer job. It will be a local woman with sore feet who doesn’t give two flying ducks where you come from, she just wants to figure out what the hell you want for your dinner to put in her order so your man in the kitchen will stop roaring and shouting at her. So learn a few of the standards when you do see a multi-lingual menu and write them down. (The people at the next table are watching me typing furiously on the Asus Notebook. I think I look a bit like the mature Ernest Hemingway). Work out your favourite first and second courses and watch out for Menu del dia or Menu Peregrino for a fixed price and most importantly with ‘pan, postre y bebidas’ which means bread, dessert and drinks included. All across this part of northern Spain, there are various versions of the absolute regional classic, bean stew with black pudding and chunks of bacon or pork swimming in it. They call it cocida, pota de montaña or around here pota Asturiana. Last night’s was the best yet. They came out and put a pot on the table which would feed a family.
There was a woman at the hotel that I met back on my first full day out of Santillana. I’m going to call her Georgina; this is a form of publication and I do like to dabble in a bit of defamation. She’s no spring chicken, wouldn’t tear at the plucking as they used to say, about my own cut in other words. I then thought she sounded Irish and was off the previous day’s Ryanair flight. She explained that that is how a Newfoundland accent sounds after 30 years in Australia. She is on what we call Camino Light: hotels are booked ahead and baggage shipped by a company while she walks with a small day bag. She’s a fast walker but her much older husband is just doing an hour or so a day. We had dinner together and talked about the children from around Slieve Gullion who are buried in St John, Newfoundland: they died on the ice when the SS Hannah coffin ship out of Warrenpoint foundered and the passengers were abandoned by the captain and crew. She had heard the story as a child and confirmed what I had heard, that Irish was spoken in St Johns well into the 20th century. My grandfather Francie Murphy heard Irish when he was pahveeing there in the 1920s.
You’ve all seen calamari on a menu, like elastic bands in batter. I ordered it after the bean stew last night noting that it was cooked ‘isu tinto’, in its own ink with no batter. Delicious, but then Georgina pointed out that half my face was black. Her husband, who has travelled a lot in Spain, told me it has a similar colorant effect on the whole digestive system but I have nothing to report in this area. We had two full bottles of wine between three of us and they both had dessert. €10 a head. The hotel cost me €23 with breakfast.
They have all sorts of quaint agricultural machinery here, including a few draught ponies. There are walk-behind knife-bar mowers for the small mountain pastures, like what was called a Howard Scythe many years ago, and old Iron Horses with wheeled seats that can be hooked behind them. And there is also the good old method. Yesterday crossing a mountain valley I heard a sound from my childhood, the rasp of sharpening stone on scythe blade. First the rapid circular movement up and down both sides of the blade to remover the burrs, then the slow, rhythmic heel-to-point strokes on the bottom side only, with special attention to the last three inches to the point which do most of the cutting. You didn’t interrupt a man when he was sharpening a scythe. And that sound across the valley took me back almost 60 years, to my father mowing the corn in Dunnes Wee Field and Rosaleen – the eldest – lifting and tying for him: I was too young. Then Seamus Maginness down Morgan’s Pad got a tractor and he cut the shafts of a horse reaper and hooked her on and went on the country. Then all my father had to do was ‘open round’, mow a track around the ditches the width of the reaper so as not to lose crop. And that, gentle reader, is how mechanised agriculture came to Dernaroy in the shadow of Slieve Gullion.
I was thinking again about those awful clackety cyclist shoes. Wouldn’t they be great for Riverdance? Imagine a whole line of them skinny, bony-arsed stick insect people in lycra with advertising on it, hopping and lepping with chins in the air and thumbs pointing down. It’s amazing the shite that goes through your head when you have nothing to do all day but walk.
Day 15 – September 14th, 2016
Thought for the day – on this Camino, it’s bad news when you see a motorway disappearing into a tunnel. It usually means you are going to have to go over the top of something that civil engineers considered too tough for the internal combustion engine. I’m in a little ‘pension’ above another bar by an amazing coincidence. Lots of these little hotels, charging €20-30 for ensuite rooms. Heading out shortly to hunt for dinner, fancy another octopus. The one I got in Villaviciosa was great, not sliced or chopped like the calamari (and that should have been ‘isu tinta’, feminine) but just a whole octopus on a slab with a few roast spuds. I kept expecting it to grab the fork or my hand.
By the way, I don’t know the Spanish for clags but they have them and they got me.
It rained for 20 hours solid yesterday, getting steadily heavier. We left Luarca at daybreak today with new dark clouds rolling in from the Bay of Biscay and spits and spots and a cold, cold wind: I had to dig out a fleece for the first time. The sun came out briefly about half eight and gave it up as a bad job about nine, but it was good walking in the cool air and good time was made to the first pit stop at Villapedro about 11, which was actually my breakfast as I was running on strong coffee only until there. It was time for the tortilla, the solid slab of potato omelette that sets you up for hours. There were four German lads there, very young and fit, who said I had been getting in front of them for three days. They must be getting lost all the time, everyone on the Camino passes me.
The real rain kept off until about 1pm, then it was relentless – and two more days are promised. There was some flooding of tracks but most of the off-road sections today were on higher ground.
The French cultural anthropologist passed me in the rain. With a floppy bush hat and a huge orange poncho flapping wildly around him he didn’t look one bit like Himmler. Don’t know where I got that from.
The natives are friendly. Farmers driving by actually wave their whole hand at you, not like in Ireland where they just lift one index finger precisely 30 millimeters off the steering wheel. Older people greet you with the formal “Buenos Dias” or the Asturian “Bon Dia”. From younger people, you get the less formal “hola” which is somewhere between hello and “well, how’s she cuttin?”.
On the Camino Frances last year I was struggling up a steep street, in Sarria, I think, in about 27 degrees. There was a group of young women at a pavement café, fetchingly clad, very drunk and very loud. Suddenly one of them ran out, clapped the back of my rucksack and said “Animo, animo”. I wasn’t sure I liked the sound of that but the whole crowd of them started cheering and shouting “Animo, animo”. My dictionary says it means ‘to have courage’, be of good spirits or some such. I discussed it with some Spanish speakers and came to the conclusion that the most accurate rendering in our idiom or vernacular would probably be something like “keep her lit”.
When the rain started seriously today I was on a narrow paved road through farmland. A local man caught up with me wearing one of those disposable macs in an alarming canary yellow. He had a big golfing umbrella advertising Banco de Santander and he insisted that I shelter under it too. So we walked along practically arm in arm, chatting about the weather and the crops in the field which were simply amazing, and whether Rajoy and the Partido Popular would be able to cobble together a working majority before we got on to the football. Well, we could have been talking about all that, I hadn’t a clue what he was saying but I nodded sympathetically whenever he stopped for breath, which Spaniards don’t really seem to need to do very much. Then we came to a crossroads and he pointed down the road to the right. I thanked him and turned that way but he jumped in front of me and began pointing at another road going straight on and saying a load of stuff. He said something about the road to the right again and I had another go, but he was having none of it. By this time we had both done a few circuits of the crossroads – OK, smart lad wanted – it finally dawned that he lived down to the right and was going that way, but I should go straight on without benefit of umbrella. And it occurred to me that there we were, in the rain, in Spain, dancing at the crossroads just like De Valera told us to. All right you tiresome pedants, I am aware that De Valera did not actually mention either dancing or a crossroads in his famous wartime speech. But the thing is, the people of Ireland have decided he did.
There are quite a few wee grey Massey Fergusons about, all driving so slowly that I do be tempted to leap into the link box. I have my trusty old Nokia 6210 in the bag because it has a fantastic FM radio. For the boring bits on roads I have it tuned to Radio Classica Espana and then I step it out along the hard shoulder to Beethoven’s Fifth. But I have to keep returning because of the mountains and sometimes I get woeful Spanish pop stations – and don’t get me started on their TV. And sometimes I get Radio Maria which is something else, it has people sending in requests to hear hymns. The broadcasters sound like priests, they have that sort of slow Maynooth delivery style.
Since we got a few miles of motorway in Ireland we have nearly lost the run of ourselves. Every day here I see engineering projects that probably cost as much as the whole Dundalk bypass. I’m walking by a river in a deep gorge on the original rough-cobbled Camino track and somewhere on the hillside is a winding 19th-century road. Above that is a broad highway built in Franco’s time and soaring higher still in great spans of concrete is a motorway built in the last 10 or 15 years. Across hills and into villages I was looking at yellow metal posts with flat plates at the top, thinking that there were an awful lot of bus stop signs. They mark the routes of a network of gas pipelines. They are delivering gas into little towns and villages and through every hole in the ditch.
Time for dinner. I keep looking out for opportunities to photograph some cute Spanish asses, although it can be tricky to get close enough, I heard one braying this morning.
Day 16 – September 15th, 2016
There’s a fine wooden cross with Camino direction sign just by RinTinTin’s house. I was thinking a lot about Dame Julie Andrews today: the rain, the rain – in Spain, in Spain. I didn’t spend good money to come here to get pissed on, sure I can get it at home for nothing. Nice hotel with a fine view of the harbour, but all the showers-in-baths are absolutely lethal, not a slip mat or grab rail in sight. They really should think about us senior citizens, ‘nosotros geriatricos’ as they would call us. When I was coming into town there was what we are probably no longer allowed to call an old folks’ home, ‘una casa geriatrica’, and it was called Parquema – and I thought, that’s very good, Park Your Ma, special rates for long-term parking, that could catch on. By God but you need a laugh after walking five hours in pelting heavy rain.
I hardly left my room in Navia yesterday because of the rain. Took a run out for something to eat at about eight and there seemed to be one decent restaurant. Unfortunately, Georgina and the husband were sitting there totally on their own, only customers. I ducked out and went to the bar beside my pension, which turned out to have a very nice little restaurant out the back. I had a casserole of sliced octopus, prawns and chantarelle mushrooms, delicious. Wine a bit pricey at €2 a glass.
This morning a bar was open and I got coffee and an overbaked croissant glazed in so much sticky goo that you have to eat it with a knife and fork, and was on the road by 7.15. There was some more lightening. An Austrian woman caught up with me walking very fast, but she slowed down for a bit of craic and told me she was afraid of the lightning, she was going to throw away her poles if it got closer. I said good for her, but I had a metal knee. She looked at me in real horror, mumbled something on the lines of ‘you’re on your own kid’, and took off up the road like, well like lightning I suppose. Ah well. My father told me to look out for fast women and slow horses. Don’t know about the women, but the 1966 Grand National took care of the horses and gambling in all its forms when I lost two shillings on an absolutely sure thing. I don’t do the Lotto. My son Alan, who has big letters after his name, says the Lotto is a special tax on people who failed maths, which I did and he very definitely didn’t. I don’t even like buying raffle tickets but they blackmail people like me shamelessly with good causes.
By now I should really know the Spanish for “that dog will not touch you” but I suppose I don’t be concentrating. The most dangerous time is just after dawn when they let out all the weak-willed and the feeble-minded to take all the mastiffs and wolfhounds for a wee run and make sure they do the business, at both ends. Here they rely on chaining a lot more than training and there is no way these owners are in control of the animals. I always release the bag straps and get the rucksack onto one shoulder, ready to swing. It’s a barrier of sort and if the brute comes near me he’s going to find out what 10% of my body weight moving at speed feels like.
Yesterday at first light before the rain came on there was a man out looking at the maize crop and I swear he was singing. Maybe that’s how he gets the maize to grow, singing it Asturian slow airs in a fine soft baritone. Then the dog spotted me and came to investigate. It was like a Labrador on steroids, but shaggy – I think it was a Pyrenean mountain dog. He wasn’t attacking, in fact, he was a big soft slab of a thing, but I didn’t know that – and anyway, a brute like that could lick you to death. And the Spanish baritone standing up in the field mumbling “vamos, vamos (let’s go)”.
For a variety of reasons I decided not to bring walking poles on this trip, but sometimes on these dog encounters, I regret my decision. Because if I do finally get ripped to pieces before I die I’d just like Towser to know what it feels like to get four foot of walking pole shoved up his arse with nothing but the rubberised grip and little webbing wrist strap left hanging out.
Us walkers can get a bit theological about poles. There’s the scientific school that claims you can shift 20-40% of the body weight from knees to shoulders but that can really only matter on the descent. My view is that poles should be reserved for downhill because your leg muscles are better at the job than your arm muscles. But why anyone would want poles on flat, even ground I just don’t know. And yet they come long in their dozens and hundreds on the Camino, tip-tapping along the road like Blind Pugh. On the Camino Frances there are so many people it can look like mass synchronised cross-country skiing – which is, incidentally, really boring. I took it up when I lived in Stockholm. The skis, poles and size 42 ski boot are all resting in a shed in Co. Louth if anyone wants them. You could always tell where I came down even a slight slope by the parallel ski tracks and the arse-shaped furrow between them.
The problem with rain, apart from it being wet and miserable, is that you don’t pay enough attention to where you are going, with head down and in my case, the glasses misted up. I took half a dozen wrong turns and had to do backtracks today. I came to a house where a horrible whippety thing with long fangs threw himself the length of his chain and snarled at me. A woman opened a window and shouted at me. And I was thinking, yes missus well do you know where you and your miserable rat-faced hell-hound can go, when she came running out in her slippers and a coat over her head in the lashing rain and took me back down the road to show me where I had missed my yellow arrow and my Camino turn. People are great, even the ones with ugly dogs.
This is misery, what you might call sheer drudgery. What I do is that I think of a song or sometimes a poem suitable onto my situation and sing it to get a good walking rhythm, then the tune stays in your head and keeps you trotting. So all together now:
“Won’t you come in Barney McShane out of the rain
And sit until the sun comes out again,
We’ll cuddle up together and talk about the weather
Barney dear – come over here
Och sure come in Barney McShane out of the rain.”
Day 17 – September 16th, 2016
A wet loanan with whins and bracken on the bank but the eucalyptus trees are a bit of a giveaway. We’re in Galicia now and right away you see that the horreos – the old grain stores — look a lot different and are smaller. But the farms are bigger as are the herds of dairy cows. There is more silage made in pits here but they don’t have old tyres on top, they use long sandbags. Today they were spreading slurry that would clear your sinuses for you. The land is so valuable that they don’t bury people in it, they put them in nice filing cabinets like these at San Martin Pequeno, but oddly enough not alphabetically as far as I could see.
I just want to thank all of you who took part in that rousing chorus of Barney McShane yesterday. It made an impact and the rain did stop, for a while. It resumed today but on nothing like the same scale or persistence.
Yesterday was bad. I was ready to throw in the towel but it was soaking too. Eventually, I decided to do a taxi hop into the next big town, Ribadeo just over the border into Galicia. The lady at the hotel reception there copied all my passport details into her computer and made me sign two separate forms as they do here, then she reneged on her earlier quite firm declaration that she did not speak any English and told me that her son has spent next summer no last summer – eventually she settled on the summer immediately behind her back – in Irlanda, Doobleen as a matter of fact, and he thought it was .. words failed her but she threw hands and eyes to heaven. I suggested great, but no, more hand movements so we agreed her son had a wonderful time. I had a sudden sharp vision of young Pablo legless on Meeting House Square, throwing up into an overflowing rubbish bin and wondering what ‘bruscar’ meant. It seems everyone was so friendly and helpful and helped him get a room and a part-time job and told him where to get the bus. There were people behind me wanting to check in and the water from my poncho was making a puddle on the parquet, but I was the Irish ambassador receiving her gracious compliments on behalf of the Irish nation and the dead generations. Then I switched to being the director of Bord Fáilte and suggested she should go there herself, bring the extended family, and she said she was thinking of it.
In fact, it gives you a real kick when you hear this sort of thing and I am hearing a lot of it, this year as previously. We may not be very nice to each other but at least we can be kind to complete strangers.
Talking of young fellas from Spain visiting Ireland: 2 years ago at the start of the Camino Francés I came over the Pyrenees and down into Roncevalles, the first village on the Spanish side, and I was absolutely buckled. At the café I fell in with a few lads from Belfast I had been drinking with the night before on the French side. There was a middle-aged woman behind the bar and an extremely Spanish-looking lad of 20 or so, like a figure in a Velasquez painting, serving the tables. He lifted glasses from our table and then asked: “Are you Irish?”. Little point denying it. “Do you know the Erasmus Programme?” says he with an impeccable Midlands accent. Not personally. “Well” says he, “I did me Leaving in Mullingar last year.” He waved to the woman behind the bar. “That’s the mammy, this is her place, sure she paid for the whole thing.” We gently enquired as to his opinion of the town and fine people of Mullingar. He shook his head vigorously. “No, I didn’t like it. Full of knackers.” We agreed that if the Erasmus Programme was achieving such high standards of finely tuned cultural acclimatisation, then it was indeed deserving of the support of the European citizenry.
I made 28km today, not really by choice since there was no accommodation in between, but there is no doubt that you get hardened as you go further, and perhaps much more psychologically. You get to accept the boredom and just batter on. We have gone from about 50% of the Camino route on road to a lot less than 20% now.
A Danish couple caught up with me, you can tell them a mile away, that look of complete innocence abroad. They are always so relieved and pleased to meet someone who speaks their language. There was a young German couple and she was just done – he took her rucksack and carried it on his chest while she struggled on, not far from crying I would say. Good job she picked such a big strong fella.
But these Galicians need watching, no wonder St Paul had to write them a couple of sharp letters. I told you sometime that the scallop shell symbol always points the hinge end towards Santiago. Not in Galicia it doesn’t. In a move designed to enhance regional autonomy, the Galicians turned the whole shell around so now the spiky lines point the way. Now they may have done that a thousand years ago or so, but I only found out this morning after I had done a circuit of Ribadeo backways in the dark. Eventually, I found a morning bar open and had breakfast – more embalmed croissant, I’d kill for a bowl of porridge – and the barman told me about the shell. Now you don’t believe everything you hear from a barman at twenty past seven in the morning, but shadowy figures with rucksacks were already passing his door heading back the way I had just come. And when I checked the guidebook there was a warning on the previous day’s page. But there was little checking of the book in the deluge.
When you mention St Paul, nearly 40 years ago when I was teaching in Banbridge Tech my Head of Department was Archie McKelvey, subsequently to become County Grand Master of the Orange Order. Archie was good craic and he told me about serving his time as a fitter in the Big Yard after the war and teaching Sunday School in the Sandy Row. There was a Forty-Kyoung lad who thought St Paul was the best man in the whole Bible so he was, and it was all to do with the Epistle to the Ephesians. In the following discussion, it gradually dawned on Archie that the lad, indeed the whole class, thought St Paul had taken a pistol to the Fenians.
So last night in Ribadeo I found a sports shop and bought a real Camino poncho, almost to my ankles with the big hunchback extension to cover the rucksack. It’s like walking around in a two-man tent and when I tried it on in the shop I had some trouble getting out of it again, but we got some rain today and it proved effective. I also bought an overpriced umbrella in a Chinese bazaar as the pound shops are called here. It’s not hard to overcharge for umbrellas when it’s coming down like welding rods right outside the shop window. In fact, I suspect your man has the tills rigged to add a Euro to the price of all his umbrellas for every 50 millimetres of rain. Which reminds me of a pub in Carlingford but I’m saying no more.
Day 19 – September 18th, 2016
We are three days in from the coast, high in the mountains and this gig is getting tougher, but the biggest problem is the scarcity of accommodation. If you land into a village and can’t get a place to stay, your next option might be further than you are fit to walk. And we are hearing of the day-bagger tours block-booking the pensiones and hostales which are really zero-star hotels. I thought my goose was cooked good and proper last night in Abadín, but that was before I met Michaela.
Anyone doing this route should arrange one overnight in Mondonedo, a beautiful little town. The plaza in front of the cathedral, with cafes in the cloisters, looks like a film set. We are deep in Galicia and now the road signs are all in Galego, all the j’s replaced by x’s. Now and again you spot an old bilingual sign with the Spanish version blacked out with spray paint – remind you of driving into Stroke City from the Strabane side.
The sun was turned on yesterday after a four-day break, which was needed because everyone has a bag full of dirty and now slightly damp clothes. Close to five o’clock, I limped down into the twin villages of Gondán-Abadín, Galicia’s answer to Ballybofey-Stranorlar. I saw Lars and Anita Pedersen from near Copenhagen who routinely pass me out late every morning, sitting outside a bar. They had two big beers and with 23km behind me, I needed one too. There were two old Californian hippies there who both looked like Willie Nelson and they told me they had just got the last room above the bar but the barman spoke Galego to them. Lars and Anita on the daybagger tour were booked into the pension I was heading for which could mean pressure on rooms. Then two German women – one tall, one pretty, not mutually exclusive categories – stopped to ask directions to the hostel – my guidebook showed it on a square a couple of hundred meters away. So there’s me from Dromintee speaking Danish at a Galego-speaking bar in Spain and Germans are asking directions from us in English. That’s the Camino. But it was time for me to scoot across to Ballybofey and see if I could get a room. As I passed the hostel they were putting the Full sign out; I later heard the pretty German woman got the last bed. The pension I was aiming for looked locked up and the attached restaurant was clearly closed. Then someone shouted the classic greeting ‘hola peregrino’: it was the tall German woman from half an hour earlier standing at a bar on the other side of the main street. She shouted in English: “Would you like to share a room with me tonight?” She wouldn’t want to try that in the real Ballybofey. She came across and rang a doorbell on the pension and said: “The woman here is very difficult, she wants 57 Euro for a room with no breakfast but if you will share I can get us a good deal.” The thing about Michaela is that she just doesn’t take any scheisse. This one came out with a face on her like a dog chawin’ a wasp and Michaela hit her with a torrent of pretty fluent Spanish. After a bit of humming and hawing she turned to me and said – “for you, 20 Euro” – and I mandated her to close the deal. But she wasn’t done: I heard mention of clothes and washing: “This woman will wash and dry our clothes for 5 Euro each, ready in three hours.” Things were looking up and so was I because with her I had to.
Soon we were back in the bar across the road looking for dinner. Her name has four clear syllables n German – Mich-a-el-a – and she works for an engineering company in Paderborn that makes gearboxes for heavy vehicles like mining dump trucks and excavators. She studied Spanish in Santiago in the late 1990s which I suppose puts her well into her 30s, but I’m no good at guessing women’s ages anymore unless I spot their bus pass.
The bar gradually filled up with people we knew from the trail. The Danes were in and the two Willie Nelsons. Didier the French anthropologist sat at the next table and I greeted him in French. Michaela said he was the most German-looking man she had ever seen. And then there was Pat and Mary from Dublin but really culchies. He’s from Caaavan and he couldn’t look more like a retired Guard if he was still wearing the hat. Given the age profile and general demographics that means Mary has simply got to be a nurse. I can see it now – they met at a dance in the Garda Club in Harrington Street about 1970 when he was just out of Templemore and he left her back to the Nurses’ Home at Vincents Hospital in his old VW Beetle, the original chastity chariot. They rarely miss Mass and they are rock-solid Fine Gael.
On the pilgrim menu, the lentil soup with chunks of pork was brilliant but the calamari was the usual. We finished the bottle of wine and then Michaela slipped me the key to the room and said I should stay for a while, she was going to pack her bag. When I got back my clean laundry was folded on my bed. She said: “You know there might be the same problem in the next town. I have booked us beds in the hostel in Villalba, I hope that is OK with you.” Like my laundry, my immediate future is sorted. But I won’t be walking with her – she can do 40K too.
Day 20 – September 19th, 2016
Michaela slipped silently out of the bunk next to mine and out into the pre-dawn mist for a 42km leg that would take me two days. They come, they go – all you can really do is send them on their way with a smile on their face. From this day forth she shall be fondly remembered as Mammy Longlegs.
The lights in the hostel came on at 7am and a small to medium-sized panic then ensued. We live in fear of losing things, leaving them behind us, and the morning packing of the bag is always fraught. I have already lost my earphones, high-end kit from Around-a-Pound. The problem is acute in hostels where storage consists of the bit of floor between the bunks. You take your valuables into the bed with you and everything else gets a bit mingled. Once in Pamplona, I put on the socks of the Spanish guy opposite and he chased me down the stairs to get them. This was more serious – I couldn’t find my glasses. At night I always put them somewhere safe but there is nothing more dangerous than a safe place. I have a fallback in the shape of prescription sunglasses, but I’d rather quit and go home than look like the kind of prick who wears sunglasses indoors.
They turned up eventually, in the washbag. As I went out to shave, the big German lad who sometimes carries his girlfriend’s rucksack was standing in the aisle, tall enough to lean into her bunk. She was whimpering and moaning softly so I knew exactly what they were at, first thing in the morning. He was taping up her blisters.
We’re up at the 500-metre level now but for now, the going is fairly flat. The climb up from sea level in one day was really, really tough. Every day the Pedersens from Copenhagen pass me out at a lope or a canter and it’s starting to irritate me. But the other day on a steep rutted mountain track where the gradient must have been 40%, I passed them. They were leaning on a wall gasping for oxygen like a couple of goldfish that got out of the bowl when I went by, short stubby legs pumping away like the pistons in a Morris Minor.
I inherited the short legs mainly from my grandfather Wee Joe McAnally. Somebody said to him sometime that it must be a holy tarra having wee short legs like that. Ah well, says Joe, as long as they come up to my arse. Amen to that. As far as I could see Michaela’s legs ended up in the same general area, but they took a lot longer to get there.
Sometimes when you pass local people – a man feeding cattle, a woman washing her windows – they give you a sort of sideways look, half nod and half smile, like you might give to somebody with a wee want – ‘duine le Dia’ – who can be humoured but should not really be encouraged. You can nearly see them thinking: “Well God help your wit – but sure good luck with it anyway.”
Doug from Oregon is young but he wears a trilby hat and he has one of those little skinny beards like an Amish farmer. He told me of a group called Celtic Women that he’s really into like?, especially the one called Meadhbh – Doug didn’t make much of a hand of that. He is learning to play the bodhran – he did a lot better on that one – and he would like to visit Ireland real soon. I told him that he should go down to County Clare and just land into the sessions in Milltown Malbay or Doolin or Lisdoonvarna, that the musicians are always really glad to see another bodhran player. And I told him to google ‘Seamus Ennis bodhran’ for some really good advice and pointers on the best way to play it.
Ann is a primary teacher from New Zealand that I may be having dinner with later. She has walked from Irun and has also done 40km days, but she has slept outdoors in a bivvy bag when she couldn’t make it to the next accommodation. She doesn’t really look the bivvy bag type but these things can be hard to call. You meet a lot more dogs on the loose here in the mountains, lying in front of houses and on side roads and tracks but they are pretty friendly. There was one long stretch with any number of huge dogs that didn’t even look at me, although some came over for a sniff. Sometimes they would walk a bit with me – like Alannah McCooey’s dog that would go a piece of the road with anyone. They would follow me to some invisible boundary and stop, then another dog would pick me up for a bit. I started to think they were escorting me to the parish boundary. In the middle of it, all was one dog that was chained, an alsatian. I hadn’t talked to anyone since breakfast so I stopped for a chat.
“Well Rover,” says I pointing at the chain, “you must be one bad bastard. “ He nodded and growled. Amazing the way they pick up languages. There was another that could be mistaken for a cow and he stood in the middle of the road and barked but showed absolutely no signs of aggression. I walked on and when I got closer he quit and came alongside and sort of bumped my leg as friendly dogs do. I walked on and when I was 20 or 30 meters away he started barking really loud. I stopped and he gave me a look that said – I’m only doing my job, I have to bark, why do you think they feed me? Further on there were big dogs chained up with wee dogs loose to do their running and barking for them. Maybe they were serving their time.
The landscape here is fantastic and more than half today’s run was on woodland tracks, the rest on very quiet roads. There was a bridge from the 1100s and for those who like traditional funerals there is a nice line in Gothic filing cabinets for burials.
Day 21 – September 20th, 2016
It’s cold up here in the mornings. Sometimes in the dark and mist before we can judge
the weather we think we hear thunder in the far distance, but then we note that the sound is too regular. It’s the HGVs going over the flexi-joints on the motorway viaducts which span valley after valley, 10 -12 kilometers away. Our Seán who is lost elsewhere in Spain right now mentioned Tomas El Rojo in dispatches – the legendary Red Tommy McAnally, our uncle, son of the aforementioned Wee Joe. It was from Tommy that I acquired a culturally transmitted affliction that still baffles medical science, in fact, they haven’t even got a name for it. I refer to the powerful and at times overwhelming compulsion to pick up pieces of baler twine and blue rope lying on the road, roll them tightly and stuff them in my pocket. Red Tommy was an avid yet discriminating collector of roadside treasure. Many’s the time he stopped the bike and lifted me down off the crossbar so I could get my own little piece of rope to bring home. That’s how it starts, so simply, innocently even. I have it under control now, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to lift the rucksack. But it can’t be cured, only managed so that it does not interfere unduly with a normal lifestyle. But sometimes here, when the sun climbs higher and burns the mist off the treetops, I spot something blue in the verge and I can feel my hands begin to twitch.
We have hit a great run of good hostels, which is good since there is nowhere else to stay. The one in Baamonde last night was great although the sink-plug cult had been at its dastardly work. It had a nice garden and facilities for both hand and machine wash and most amazing of all it had clothes pegs on the line, two for everyone in the audience. The WeeFee was another matter. When I tried the connection a page came up that looked like ransomware, the sort of fake government site that threatens to reduce your PC to a puddle of molten plastic if you don’t send them 200 Euro in six minutes. It looked official enough in the name of the regional government, La Xunta de Galixia, and when I clicked a Spanish-language button it led me to an English-language button where I learned that if I signed up to the terms and conditions and did not use the link for commercial or political purposes and supplied a mobile number the Xunta would text me a username and password that would live for 24 hours. I tried all that and didn’t get in – I was losing the will to live so I went across the road to the café bar to write my e-pistol to the e-fenians. They’re not making a Xunta out of me.
It turns out that Ann, the teacher from New Zealand, is in fact English and only moved out there 15 years ago, which explains the rather puzzling absence of Antipodean intonation. When we met on the trail yesterday she told me she had hardly talked to anyone in four days for various reasons. We walked together for the best part of an hour. When we got to the edge of Baamonde I said I was pulling off the road for a rest and to change to sandals as the feet were killing me – but if she was behind in the conversational stakes we could meet for dinner later. Well, she wasn’t too sure, had to find the hostel and figure out what she was doing, etc. – didn’t actually say she had to wash her hair, but whatever as the kids say.
But later when I came back from the café bar, she came down the stairs and said “Oh, I’ve been looking for you everywhere. Have you eaten or are we still OK for dinner.” Now I was dead cool, OK, just said sure, if you like – there’s one restaurant in town and it starts serving at 8:30. That was more than an hour away, but I met Doug from Oregon who told me that the two Willie Nelsons had started their Camino in Cracow – yes, the one in Poland. So they are not from California and close up not all that hippy, more like the type of elderly gent one might see clambering stiffly from a classic Harley Davidson. In fact the taller one, Kurt, is actually an Austrian who has been living a long time I n New York. The other guy Ted is from the Deep South but this ain’t no Okie from Muskogee, in fact this guy very probably did burn his draft card down on Main Street. He owns a hostel on the Appalachian Trail – “bout 400 miles up, in the Carolinas” – where Bill Bryson stayed briefly while writing ‘A Walk in the Woods’. He reckons Bryson’s book was OK but the film was crap but all us old-timers say that, for me the jury’s still out on Gone with the Wind. I asked him if it was true that half a dozen hikers a year get killed by bears on the trail. “Yeah, but that’s just stoopid folk.” I thought that was a tad harsh – and it begs the question of how the bears managed to devise and administer an appropriate intelligence test deep in the woods. “But you know,” said Ted, “that guy Bryson, he didn’t walk the Appalachian, not all of it – he only walked about half.” I suppose a man of 70 or so who has walked from Cracow is entitled to be a bit judgmental, but half of the Appalachian comes in marginally shy of 1100 miles – miles!
So we went to dinner and it was good, the restaurant was like a 19th-century private dining room. I’d been binging on octopus again lately and I had the hake. We shared a bottle of white and she told me lots of interesting stuff but this is still an open chapter so I am constrained. Let’s just say we were having a lot of fun when suddenly the waiter came back and tapped his watch and said ‘albergue’ – hostel. It was precisely six minutes to lights out and the door locked at 10PM and we had a village to cross. When we got there the door was locked. I spotted Doug from Oregon and he came down and opened a garden door – that probably means he hasn’t had time to google Seamus Ennis. As we crept along a darkened corridor Ann whispered that maybe we could walk a bit together in the morning – and we did.
A woman stopped me on the road to show me an oak tree that is more than 500 years old.
Postscript – September 23rd, 2016
Sobroado dos Monxes
My friends (a few) and relations (many, many), some of you know that I had to abandon my Camino trip suddenly because of family circumstances. It was in Sobrado dos Monxes, two days and a wee bit short of Santiago de Compostela. That left stories untold, characters only half developed, plot lines dangling. Back at home, I am getting flashbacks that I have decided to share.
On my last full day, I crossed the trail summit of about 760 meters in a little place called Travesa around noon. Now it would be gently downhill for a day and a half to the plain and the end of the Camino del Norte at Arzua where we would meet the main Camino Frances. The two old codgers that I call the two Willie Nelsons – Ted and Kurt – were sitting on a low stone wall taking a rest, and so would you if you had walked from Cracow. It was warm and the sweat from their balding heads was running down and glistening on their dirty grey ponytails. “You know”, said Ted from Appalachia in his deep, Good Ol’ Boy drawl, “Kurt and me, we been poppin’ uppers and downers. They’re beta-blockers for the heart attacks on the way up and anti-inflammatories for the knee joints on the way down.”
I took this photo of a Spanish family last year on the Camino Frances. the child in that buggy was on his third Camino, they told me. Now he’s a year older and another Camino under his belt and I have visions of him growing to manhood on that gravelly track. If anyone has a number for the Galician social services perhaps it’s time to give them a wee call.
The stumpy legs that Wee Joe McAnally bequeathed me are fine on the steep mountain tracks, but they’re not a lot of use when you are trying to get up onto a Galician bar stool. For some reason they are exceptionally high and have no rungs down at a level I could get my foot on. As for getting off again, it is akin to bungee jumping and quite simply bereft of human dignity. The bar stools would suit the Dutch: Dutchmen are now officially the tallest in the world and the women are not far behind. On a really hot, windless day a couple of Dutch pilgrims going by at speed can create a nice bit of turbulence.
They are lifting the spuds in Galicia this week. On the smaller plots, they split the wide drills with a double-sided furrow plow behind a tiny tractor like a ride-on mower. In the larger fields, tractors tow an odd-looking little machine which skites the crop up onto a spinning mesh belt which drops the spuds out in two tight rows to be lifted by hand. I’ve never seen one of these before but then what would I know? If you don’t live in Fingal or the Glens of Antrim or Ards Peninsula you have probably never seen potatoes being harvested. At some point in the last 20 years, Ireland became a net importer of spuds – and no government fell. Yet treason this surely must be.
The differences in farming practices are striking, but so are the similarities. As soon as I got into central Galicia I noticed farmers carrying four-foot lengths of bright blue semi-rigid plastic hose, cows’ arses for the slapping of. Many of the cattle farmers are women and they wear the sort of old-fashioned brown shop coats that Paddy Nicholas used to have, or like Ronnie Barker in the Four Candles sketch for those who cannot relate to the more parochial example. There was one woman who bid me a good day as she pushed a massive barrow-load of cow dung from a shed. She was well fit for the wheelbarrow, what in my youth would have been referred to as a quare hoult. She was wearing classic short green wellingtons and that made me think of the Adelphi Dancehall in Dundalk where we used to disport ourselves disgracefully in the Late Palaeolithic.
If you got off with a girl from ‘de town’ you could walk her home, to Cox’s or Fatima or even the odd time to one of the big houses on the Dublin Road. But the country girls wouldn’t look at you if you couldn’t jangle the car keys. So we would walk around behind the girls lining one wall to see if we could detect the tell-tale red track of the short wellington on the back of their leg.
Patrick Kavanagh wrote about the universality of the themes of rural culture. I found myself wondering if some young Spanish lad had once sneaked around behind the lady with the wheelbarrow in a local hall for a quick peek at her calves. Thirty years ago when I wrote for the Irish Times from Copenhagen there were five million people in Denmark and up to 15 million pigs. The exact number was hard to pin down because very few of the pigs survived a full year. I visited quite a few pig farms and every time, at some point the farmer would say to me in Danish: “We have a saying in Denmark, you can use everything from a pig except the squeal.” I couldn’t tell them that we had that one in direct, word-for-word translation in Dromintee.
I knew that the Dutch had even more pigs in a smaller land area, and then a German colleague in the International Press Centre told me about the Slurry Widows. The Netherlands practises the most intensive agriculture in the world and was an early adopter of environmental controls. There was a vast amount of pig slurry and a very small area of arable land to spread it on, so a licence to spread was almost as valuable as land. A lot of the arable farmers were part-time and for tax reasons they put the slurry licence in the wife’s name when they went off to work in the towns. Gradually many of these couples separated or divorced, the man went off and the woman may have rented out the land but she held onto the slurry licence, the key item in the custody battle. The farmer co-ops often organised dances in the village halls where the Slurry Widows came to find a new man, copies of the licences in their handbags. Did you see the size of your wan’s slurry tank? It makes looking for the track of a wellington seem quite urbane and sophisticated.
Somewhere about Baamonde I walked for about three hours through unending oakwood, alone in a sort of long dream, lost in thought so I hardly noticed the kilometres ticking by. Then I came out on a main road, but there was little traffic and in any case there was a nice sandy track alongside. But after ten minutes the track stopped dead at the border with A Coruna province and I was out on the hard tarmac. There was a white line close to the edge and I walked along that for a bit, but then the relevant Johnny Cash song came into my head and wouldn’t go away. I like Johnny Cash and it’s a fine song, but just try marching to it some time. I was tripping over my feet and I had to get it out of my head and the only way to do that is by actually singing a more powerful song which is more rhythmically appropriate.
I opted for that great hit from the American Civil War, ‘Tramp Tramp Tramp the boys are marching’, but I didn’t know enough of the words so I threw in a few verses of ‘God save Ireland cried the heroes’, written to the same tune a couple of years later, and even a couple of snatches of ‘Vote vote vote for De Valera’ which probably dates from the 1930s. There may also have been a little hand and arm action going on, just to let the brass section know when to come in. It worked a treat and I was stepping it out in style and quite engrossed in my little musical compilation, so I didn’t hear the two Koreans coming up behind me. Well, I presume they were Korean, the only Orientals that you see on the Camino in significant numbers although no one seems to be able to explain why. The thing is, in Oriental cultures it is possible to express worry and concern without ever letting your polite smile slip. So the two of them were grinning like donkeys eating thistles when they asked me in passable Spanish if I was all right and everything was OK. Si si, muy bien, muchas gracias, no bother at all. They kept looking back for the next kilometre. It could have been worse. I could have been trying to remember the step sequence for the Siege of Ennis.
Most people do the Camino on the installment plan, a week and 120 km a year, and most don’t do it sequentially, in fact, a lot start with the last section of the Camino Frances. They fly Aer Lingus to Santiago, take a train out 112 km to Sarria and walk back in over 4-5 days. When you only have a week you have to have targets and some scheduling. All the Camino Light day-baggers are on a schedule. But on the Camino del Norte there is a higher proportion of long-haulers with full packs. They fly to Biarritz in France to do the full 900 km trek from Irun or cut it a bit shorter by flying to San Sebastian, or to Santander as I did. The long-haulers have only the vaguest of schedules consisting of a ticket home at some distant date, so there is room for a bit of serendipity. You need to be open to a bit of serendipity if you want to have the Classic Camino Experience or CCE.
The CCE is made up of the following: an excellent meal of several courses: at least one dish you have never heard of in any language; served up in some highly unlikely looking location; copious amounts of red wine, which they serve out of the fridge in Galicia; all for €9 on a pilgrim menu; followed by a long discussion involving at least three languages on where we all come from and what in the name of good God we are all doing here.
Now and again these discussions touch a little upon meaning-of-life issues but religion never seems to be mentioned. The recurring themes are that people heard of the Camino from a friend who had done it, or they saw the Martin Sheen movie ‘The Way’. But that’s usually what put the idea in their head; the decision to book a ticket was triggered more by life events. In my case, so many of my hillwalking friends had been on the Camino that I was fed up listening to them and being excluded from conversations loaded with references to obscure villages and Spanish dishes. But what made me book the ticket was indeed what might be called a life event: my knee operation in 2013 which left me with a shiny new titanium joint. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but when it was over and six months later I found that, yes, I could get up the mountain and with a bit of care I could get down again, I thought I should road-test it properly. The most common answer to the question “why are you doing the Camino?” is “to see if I can do it”.
These people aren’t athletes, they are probably a bit above average fitness levels but not much, and they come in all shapes and sizes and ages. It’s not just a physical challenge. Walking for six to eight hours a day is extremely, mind-numbingly, excruciatingly boring and you have to be able to cope with that, day after day.
So there we were, myself and Ann the primary teacher from New Zealand, tripping along and chatting about this and that but unfortunately no word of the other at all. It was a short, 14km hop to Miraz (pronounced Mee-raththth, the Spanish are mighty lispers and hissers) except for the iron men or women who reckoned they could take on the full 42 km to the next possible layover at Sobrado. There had been a lot of talk the night before about there only being 28 beds in Miraz’s only hostel and at least twice that number of pilgrims on the road, so many of them had left very early – the race for beds. This is where the serendipity came in. The Camino signs were bad approaching Miraz and we never found that hostel. We found another one, a new one which nobody had in their guidebooks but we didn’t know that at the time. So we were very surprised to find it empty except for the big gentle German lad and his blister-footed girl. A young man called Xavier showed us around and seems to have assumed we were a couple; I suppose everyone over 30 looks the same age to him. The new dormitory was bright and airy but it had something I had never seen in a hostel. The bunk beds consisted of a single upper bunk and a lower double bunk, what the Spanish would call “una cama de matrimonio”. He was airily assigning us to one of those when I noted the alarm on Ann’s face and quickly told him we would need two bunks. So he told us to take a double bed apiece and if the place filled up he would evict us into the upper bunks. He said he had a supermarket, which was pushing it a bit but he did have an excellently stocked garden shed. But best of all, he had a café bar alongside the hostel and he told us that his Mama would cook a full pilgrim menu meal for Euro9; “You don’t like her food, you don’t pay.” I saw the lady in question later and quickly ruled out non-payment as a serious option. No need, because by God that woman could cook. There were five of us for dinner; myself and Ann, a Dutchman who had some German but said practically nothing in any language, and a German couple who turned out to be definitely not a couple.
Try to imagine a slightly younger and much thinner Victor Meldrew complete with intense over-the-glasses stare and fixed opinions on pretty much everything. In my mind I called him Wiktor. As for the woman, I must freely admit I completely misjudged her on first sight because I deal in lazy stereotypes. This is partly a hangover from decades in journalism but mostly I do it because it’s such fun. There’s a certain type of German Hausfrau who dominated continental campsites when my kids were small, and you can meet a younger, fitter version in every hostel on the Camino. They generally have short hair and glasses and seem to regard camping or hostelling as an opportunity to demonstrate exemplary housework skills. If you ever get near the washtubs or clothesline you may get the impression that they are taking in laundry from the surrounding villages. All those beach towels on the deckchairs – I know where they get washed.
Ute had the short hair and glasses but she wasn’t like that at all. OK, she’s an accountant from Aachen which is perhaps not the best qualification for a party animal, but she had a tremendous stock of funny stories about things that had happened on her many Camino trips. When Wiktor went to bed she said she had teamed up with him a couple of days before because they walked at the same pace but she would get ahead in the morning because she couldn’t listen to him any more; it seems he shared more than just looks with Meldrew. She talked quite a bit about people she had known who walked the Camino to think about or make big decisions of all kinds. Ann went very quiet at that point.
It was a beautiful, warm evening and Ann and I took a couple of unfinished wine bottles to the garden terrace. Then it all poured out. She had come back to England because her father was terminally ill and when she got there she found her mother was not speaking to him. She got the impression that he had made some sort of confession about some event many years before. Her father died after a couple of weeks and the mother refused to get involved in funeral arrangements and persisted in trying to turn Ann against her father even after she and her siblings had buried him. It was hopeless and now she was totally estranged from her mother and at a loose end in England with two months leave of absence from her teaching job in New Zealand still to run. Someone told her about the Camino and off she went. So what had she figured out? That she didn’t want to teach any more and she didn’t want to live in New Zealand. I knew from earlier conversations that there was a husband, also a teacher, and three girls ranging from 16 to 25. In all references to the past she said “we”, but every time she spoke of the future it was “I”.
This woman coming out of bereavement was walking the Camino thinking about career change, emigration and divorce. But for a woman well into her forties she was shockingly naïve about the logistical challenges she would face. She would prefer not to live in England but somewhere else in Europe but she has no languages and just didn’t see England was the only place she was likely to be employable. She is also a bit of a technophobe and fails to see that some ICT skills are now required in pretty much all walks of life. And most of all – she’s not assertive enough to push her way into a new career and elbow a few people aside if need be. Over the several days that we walked and talked, when we touched on these sorts of difficulty she would say: “yes, you’re right, you’re right.” I have shared my life with a number of fine ladies and if I got a “you’re right” out of any of them once a year I would think I was doing well. At one point she said: “I’m doing this to toughen myself up.” She’s going to need toughness.
The next morning we walked together for about an hour and then she pulled ahead. I didn’t know it then, but that was to be my last day on the Camino. I wish you well, Ann the Primary Teacher from New Zealand, but I worry about you. And yes, I liked you.
The crude beehive hut in the picture looks like it might just be the prototype for the more elaborate hórreos or grain stores.
I left the Camino at 7:15 on a Thursday morning by bus from Sobrado to Santiago. There was a café bar by the bus stop on the square which had opened for coffee and croissants at 6AM. The square and indeed the whole little town was completely dominated by the massive monastery, parts of which dated to the year 965. It had a pilgrim hostel then and it still has one. From my breakfast table on the pavement I could see shadowy figures emerging from the great monastery arch at the other end of the square, walking poles clicking, head torches bobbing, drying socks and underwear dangling from the rucksacks.
The huge green neon cross above the farmacia gave them a ghostly pallor as they passed the fountain and turned out onto the main road. As the bus pulled out I saw a dozen more in the headlights, crossing the road and heading down a gravel path into the woods, and my heart went with them.
At about 7:45 the bus stopped in the main street of Arzua. It was light now and we were sitting opposite the junction where the Camino del Norte merged with the Camino Frances. The northern route is a sideshow, there are probably at least 20 times as many pilgrims on the Frances. By the time we left town I had spotted a couple of hundred. Two more village stops and then we were on the dual carriageway. It was nearly nine by the time we crossed the Santiago ring road and then it was like watching a crowd streaming away from Croke Park.
In my head I was already home, in our bus culture. I said ‘gracias’ to the driver as I got off and he gave me a funny look. Nobody else in the whole wide world, nobody but us, thanks bus drivers for doing what they get paid for. From the Estacion de Autobuses I climbed a steep street to the heights of the Parque Montane. It was back-to-school week in Spain and a woman wearing tight jeans with the knees out was dragging a crying child in a neat red school pinafore along the path. Suddenly the little girl broke away, threw her schoolbag on the ground, stamped her little foot on the stone slabs of the path and shouted: “No, Mama, no no NO!” The woman picked up the schoolbag, walked on a bit and sat on a bench and lit a cigarette. Good on you Mama, round one to you.
I reached the summit and there below me, about a kilometre away, were the magnificent twin spires of the cathedral, final destination for the tens of thousands of walkers. I walked down and around steep cobbled streets until I found a plaza, or praza in Galego, that I recognised and headed up through the narrow streets of the old town towards the cathedral.
This was my third visit to Santiago but I don’t really like the place very much. Everything you see is dominated by the symbols of the Camino, particularly the scallop shell, but you will look hard for its spirit. For example, I’ve never seen a nine-Euro pilgrim menu there. It’s really more of a Camino theme park aiming to fleece the better-off tourists who come to watch a little bit of pilgrimage. There are plenty of pilgrims but there are far more standard tourists getting bussed from hotel to hotel.
First, find an internet café to print my boarding card. But the one I used last year is gone – they are dying out – so I try to remember where the tourist office is. The young lady there who carefully records the nationality of everyone who comes through her door directs me out of the old city again to one below a one-arm-bandit establishment, but it doesn’t open until 10:30 so I look for a quiet café. A woman of about my own age at the next table who is reading an English-language guide to Santiago says: “Excuse me, but did you walk?” Did I what missus? She wanted to know what it is like. My plane was not until five and I had time on my hands so I answered her questions for half an hour. English, living in America, on a tour with her husband but thinking more and more about walking, and there is no way her husband would do it with her. I told her lots of people, including women, do it on their own and bringing an even marginally reluctant partner would be a disaster. You hear from time to time of couples who walked the Camino together to patch up a troubled relationship. About as sensible as having another baby in those circumstances.
On the great square in front of the cathedral there were people milling around in their hundreds. There were tour leaders holding up brightly coloured umbrellas and leading groups of people listening to translation kits and small groups of Asians with selfie sticks, and there were stalls selling engraved scallop shells and every imaginable type of scallop merchandising. You can actually buy a T-shirt with nothing but a yellow arrow symbolising the trail markings. And everywhere you can buy traditional wooden pilgrim sticks. Who buys them in front of the cathedral? Certainly not pilgrims – their journey is over and you can’t take something like that on a plane.
And of course the pilgrims – they are everywhere, sitting on the steps of the cathedral, a line of them on the low wall in front of the Parador hotel. Originally a ‘hospital’ as hostels were first known, it was opened for business by Queen Isabella of Castille in 1492. Single rooms are 248 Euro so it is not for the class of pilgrim with no arse in their trousers. There were pilgrims sitting against the wall of the police building and just sitting on the ground in ones and twos and small groups. Some of them were sitting on their rucksacks, which is such a no-no for us seasoned old hillwalkers that I felt like telling them off – that’s how you get toothpaste in your underwear. Many of them were hugging each other and quite a few were very emotional, some even crying. It takes an average of five weeks to do the Camino Frances starting from St Jean Pied de Port in France. For five weeks you pursue a single goal day after day, hour after hour, mile after mile. And then suddenly, right here in the middle of this great square, it’s all over and a lot of people feel sort of empty. Yes, it’s emotional all right. Maybe I cried too, just a little, not even sure what for, maybe for all of them, my fellow pilgrims. Maybe my bladder’s too close to my eyes as my mother used to say. Deducting for bus hops across cities and a taxi hop to escape the monsoon, and adding a bit back in for getting lost and rerouting and one deliberate scenic deviation, I had walked about 470 km over 21 full walking days. My average was a bit down on earlier trips but no wonder – I had climbed a cumulative 6300 meters which is equal to doing Carrantouhill twice a week for three weeks, or three-quarters of Everest if you prefer. I’m thinking of setting up the Camino Association of Oul’ Fellas with Gammy Knees. But when you have done a walk like that, if you have an ounce of imagination you think of the ones who came from Ireland a thousand years ago. Santiago is the early Asturian/Galician rendering of the Latin Sanctus Iacobus, Saint James. Irish pilgrims sailing from Dublin to Bordeaux left the city through St James’s Gate to walk down to the ships on the Liffey. That’s why you can still get the first stamp in your credencial or Camino passport in the gatehouse of Guinness’s Brewery. In our part of the country you can get it at the church of St James in Grange, near Carlingford. For Grange was once Templar property as was Santiago. And if you have enough imagination you’ll think of those who made this great journey a thousand years ago without benefit of Ryanair or Aer Lingus or Viewrangers or SatNavs or guidebooks or even a decent map. They generally slept on the stone floors of the local churches on straw if there was any and some of them begged for their food. And when they got here to this square and heard Mass, they turned around and walked home again. Some bought new clothes in Santiago and then walked on for four more days out to the ocean at Finisterre where they burned their old clothes on the beach as the sun went down into the Atlantic, and watched all their sins going up in smoke with the clothes.
When I had booked my ticket the night before – from the bar in Sobrado, using its WiFi which comes free with a cup of coffee – my screen said excitedly “one ticket left” and I thought that was just annoying marketing shite. But when I saw the check-in line at the Aer Lingus desk in the airport it was like the last flight out of Saigon and they were putting cabin baggage in the hold because the plane was so full. There are no direct flights to Britain or the US from Santiago so all the English and Scottish and American pilgrims go home via Dublin. In the long line for the bag drop as they kicked rucksacks and duct-taped bundles of walking poles along the floor, with most people wearing shorts, it was easy to spot the pilgrims. They were the ones with the backs of their legs sunburned, the left a bit more than the right because we had walked from east to west. On the plane I sat beside an American couple of my own age who looked like tourists but not only had they been on the Camino, they were serial offenders, recidivists. As we crossed the coast at Wexford I remembered a great ball of blue baler twine I had seen on a fence post the day before and I thought: I should have picked up one little piece and brought it home in memory of Red Tommy, maybe even put it on his grave. Next year Tommy, next year, I promise. I’m going to start in Irún and somewhere in the Basque country I’ll find a piece for you.