We spent last night in Poitou-Charentes. The bustling Ferme du Puy d'Anche is one of few B&Bs that seem to welcome dogs. It's very much a working farm. This tree was the only thing dead about it. Apart that is from us, after a long journey - with the prospect of a further nearly 500 miles to drive today, before we reach home.
Setting off from the Gers after breakfast, we drove North and in just less than three hours arrived chez old friends for lunch. They live in London during the Winter months, and in Entre-deux-Mers from April to October. Lunch was a little late, but it was good to see them (when eventually they turned up, with both food and a new microwave to cook it). Meanwhile, there being plenty of books to choose from, I enjoyed reading some of Volume 3 of John Ehrman's life of the Younger Pitt. He hadn't long finished writing it when we went to lunch with him and Susan in the garden of their beautiful house halfway up a mountain in Corfu.
My rucksack contained just one light jersey for Spain - a mistake, in view of some of the temperatures in the first fortnight. Arriving at Caroline's temporary home in Castiillon-Debats, I found on the bed a new thick jersey, hand-knitted by her, and put to immediate use. It had been work in progress for a while - she estimates 20 years. Very warm now!
I had visited the ancient capital of the Béarn by myself in April 2009. Caroline and I stopped off there for some lunch today, on our way out of Pau, where Caroline had picked me up from the station. The 12th Century cathedral houses contemporary mosaics and capitals (including a Flight into Egypt), one of the loveliest of carved Annunciations (in the sacristy) as well as later royal tombs and a modern Saint-Jacques with a surprised look. This imp is one of several curious modillions supporting the apse roof: you need to sleuth your way around the outside to find it!
Amongst the fellow-walkers I managed to track down yesterday were four whom I met up with outside S. Martin Pinario. The Austrian-American couple I mentioned earlier were off to the far West, back home to Nevada, while my young Danish friends would be around Galicia for a little while longer. I meanwhile have travelled 11 hours East, right across the peninsular to Irun. Here I have found excellent fish for supper accompanied by the obligatory football (the result disappointing for the Spaniards).
Not having done my homework, I didn't realise that the train was, during the first three-quarters of an hour, taking me back on my tracks. But I did remark on how mountainous and wooded were the provinces of both Pontevedra and Ourense: no wonder I took six days to walk it!
Having first walked on part of the Camino de Santiago nine years ago this month, I finally arrived here yesterday afternoon, and have duly collected my "Compostela" from the Pilgrim Office. More important, I have given the statue of St James behind the high altar in the cathedral the traditional hug, and heard the priest saying the noon Mass read out beforehand that - amongst many others from different starting points - one pilgrim, British, arrived yesterday from Salamanca.
It was a strange feeling, getting up this morning and not having to pack my rucksack and walk anywhere today, following the yellow arrows and being greeted with Buen Camino as you go along. Instead, there has been the task - not that easy - of finding the others who have been on the same route, to say goodbye and have a final beer with them. Casa Manolo is the place for a last pilgrim menu, and six of us ate well there after Mass (no botofumero alas, today).
Along with a crowd of people who have arrived on other routes, I´m staying in a fine old 19th Century house, nowadays an albergue rejoicing in the name Roots & Boots (one of a small Spanish-owned chain). The window of my second floor dormitory looks out onto the cathedral´s West front, about 500 metres away: a perfect position, and ideal for joining the queue at the garage entrance of the Parador, where free meals are given to the first ten pilgrims: I had dinner there last night, and breakfast this morning.
None of those who have been to Galicia before can believe that we´ve had eleven consecutive days of sunshine: it´s really too hot today for much sightseeing, so I´m enjoying the peace of the albergue garden and preparing for an early departure to the station tomorrow morning, and my long train journey to the French border.
Being in Santiago at last, I read that 1500 years ago the philosopher Boethius wrote, “To see Thee is the end and the beginning. Thou carriest us and Thou dost go before, Thou art the journey and the journey’s end.” Likewise, “In my end is my beginning”: the final sentence of Eliot’s East Coker is echoed on the exterior of the cathedral by alpha and omega appearing in reverse order. And by the palindrome quoted in Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: La ruta nos aportó otro paso natural (the path provides the natural next step).
Today I was meaning to go a bit nearer to my goal than in fact I managed. It´s an easy walk until the last bit, but that involves climbing 200m within 4 kms. As a gang of other walkers were sitting in the sunshine lunching late at the bottom of the hill, I joined them: the lunch was a good one, especially the fish - you can tell we are getting nearer the sea. Generous quantities of wine were thrown in, and that made it an easy decision to stay the night in a room above the restaurant. I´m not the only one to change their plans, and reserve the steep bit for the fresh air of the morning: we should still be in Santiago by early afternoon.
Ponte Ulla is a small town on the North side of quite a sizeable river. I´m sitting not far away from the end of the (local) road bridge, and can see the motorway bridge high above, further upstream. Downstream, the view is dominated by two even more enormous viaducts, one for the original railway (still very much running) and the other for the rare AVE trains that thunder by occasionally between Santiago and Ourense (rarae aves indeed - I haven´t heard one all day).
There´s been plenty of real birdlife on this Camino, especially since entering Galicia. As usual I find I don´t know many of the names, but more often than not I´m woken at cock-crow. The cuckoo is omnipresent. I´ve seen hawks and heard woodpeckers at work, and then of course there are the cranes. So, what with that and all the varieties of animals, trees and flowers, I have enjoyed these three weeks plus as much for being in the natural world as for anything else the pilgrimage has brought me.
Less than 50kms. from here to Santiago! I should be there on Monday therefore, and am very glad not to have given in to the temptation to catch that train last Saturday.
I was staying next to another station last night. What a difference a week of good weather makes! My raincoat has remained unused apart from when every item of clothing was needed in the unheated albergue of the Monastery of Oseira the other day. What an amazing place that is, the Escorial of the North! It makes Ampleforth Abbey´s plant look puny. Five of us visitors were shown round by a diminutive Cistercian artist, Fray Luis. One of a community of only 14 - several of whom are elderly or infirm - he is in the process of illustrating the Bible, book by book. (I must look up the weblinks when I get back.)
Oseira was a detour from the direct Camino, but worth every extra km., not only for Vespers in the Abbey, but also for the wild and remote feel of its neighbourhood. The name comes from the bears (ursa) which the early monks, or their predecessors more likely, frightened off when the valley was first settled.
Today, the route has boxed and coxed with the dual carriageway, but on the whole, there has been little tarmac to tire the feet: more often, there is a sandy (or muddy) track in the woods above or below, and away from, the main road, which you don´t even hear. A track that was in existence long before the 21st Century! A few kms. before here, it led me across a 10th Century bridge, slung high over the Rio Deza, with its original paving stones, an extraordinarily tranquil place.
Caroline and I stayed a night here five years ago, when we were Interrailing - a great city, with boiling water spilling out from hot springs and a long Roman bridge, which I shall walk over tomorrow. Rather different from our hotel room in 2008, I am sleeping tonight in one of the 18-bed dormitories converted out of part of the old St Francis Convent, high above the Cathedral. And it´s a lot fuller than previous albergues, as quite a number of people start their Camino here: you can qualify for a Compostela (certificate) in Santiago so long as you walk at least 100 kms., and there´s just over that to walk from Ourense.
I remember many phrases often repeated by my late headmaster Fr. William Price when he taught us European history, one being that the climate in North Spain was nine months Winter and three months Hell. We seem to have just crossed the threshold here in Galicia: last Friday was so wet and cold that I was thinking seriously of giving it all up - a thought encouraged by the fact that the albergue in A Gudiña (where I spent that night) was right next to the railway station. But since then the weather has changed completely, the landscape is transformed (you can take in your stride even those bits where you still need to paddle), and today as I walked through the outskirts of the City, I would have done anything for an ice cream.
This is one of those place names we find it impossible to pronounce, as the receptionist at the Parador made clear to me this morning. I had an eerily comfortable night there, a complete contrast to "normal" life on the Camino. The breakfast buffet would have been sufficient to feed every pilgrim walking the Via de la Plata from Seville to Santiago at the present time, I´d guess.
As I prepared to launch forth with my rucksack, the rain, which had looked intermittent from my balcony, started to pour down with a vengeance, and there seemed to be no wind to blow the cloud along as in previous days. So, heeding the various health experts I´d consulted about my leg - I always enjoy that phrase you read, "He´s been advised by his doctors..." - I decided to give myself a further rest day, and caught a taxi the 11kms. here this morning. En route, I saw, battling through the rain, the Australian with whom I´ve walked from time to time since Zamora, so we stopped and gave her a lift too. (She thought she was about to be abducted.)
The economy of Requejo must have benefitted considerably from the work on the new Madrid-Vigo AVE line: you can see the enormous tunnel entrance in course of construction over to the left of the village. For lunch, alongside a dozen railway workers in their yellow jackets, I had Caldo Gallego for the first time, a rather delicious soup, followed by trout cooked with bits of ham - as tasty as anything provided yesterday by the Parador, at less than a fifth of the price.
Tomorrow, it´s a total of 19kms. to Lubian, with a climb of 320m over the 10kms. to the (1360m) pass at the Portillo de Padornelo. Because of the AVE works and the rain, we are advised to walk on the road - comparatively boring, but then the scenery is magnificent and there is next to no traffic.
As I am nearing the halfway stage of my walk, and have endured a fair amount of excruciating discomfort during the cold nights along the way - no heating at all the night before last for instance - I have lashed out and taken a room in the Parador here. It´s a particularly welcome break from the routine of albergues as I seem to have picked up an injury to the tendon in my right leg, probably through having had to walk more than 30 kms. yesterday to find somewhere to sleep.
So I haven´t done a lot of sightseeing in this interesting-sounding town, and am not sure how I shall be feeling like walking on tomorrow. The good thing is that there´s a bus if necessary, the Camino running parallel with the main road into Galicia: we are now getting near to it.
Setting off today from Asturianos, the track was the muddiest yet, more like a river in fact. I skirted parts of it by climbing into the field, brushing my way under the trees. After about a km., the rain started, so I went to put the cover on my rucksack - but where was it? I tuck it in as a matter of course behind my shell. Had I been careless enough to leave a bit hanging out, so it had caught on one of those trees? Faced with carrying a wet rucksack for another 10 or more days, there was no alternative but to go back and look for it. No sign though; and my leg was hurting, and the rain looked set in. Time for some hitch-hiking, I thought to myself, but still I had to struggle on to the next village before anyone would stop.
Arriving here eventually, I started to unpack everything from the damp rucksack - and there was the rain cover, safely stowed away into a pocket I didn´t know existed, behind my shell.
It´s a grey old Sunday here in Spain, but there hasn´t been more than a sprinkling of rain - just enough to justify stopping and putting on my mac. Last night´s stay in Tabara was one of the best so far: a very pretty large village, with lots of people about - unusually.
I traipsed up to the municipal albergue, which is a km. from the centre of the village; but it was filthy, so I took instead one of the rooms at the restaurant by the main square, a wise decision (and an extremely good €18 worth).
Though there was a Mass at Granje de Moreuela the previous evening, Tabara had none save at 1pm today, by which time I was well on my way here to Santa Croya de Tera; but what it lacked in Mass it had in football - available on every screen possible.
The walking has been easy today, 22kms, quite a bit shorter than yesterday. Only the last few hundred metres have been along the road: the rest on sandy tracks, now well dried out after the great rains. There are wild flowers beginning to come through, but the cistus bushes are nowhere near in flower. All around are encenas, but no animals of any sort to be seen amongst them. (I did hear a donkey braying in Tabara last night though.)
Just over the river from here is a village with a wonderful Romanesque church, its particular interest being the 11th Century statue of St James as a pilgrim, the earliest known one. Others and I were given a tour of both the church and its lovingly-created museum - all, a local effort - by a villager (named Celestina, but decidedly unelephantine).
Casa Anita is a private albergue, and a different kettle of fish altogether to the previous one of that sort I stayed in last week. I have just been shown where the beer glasses are kept - in their own cold fridge! What luxury! The eponymous Anita started up 13 years ago, and now one of her three beautiful daughters runs it - a tight ship. Generously, we were all invited to join in their family birthday celebrations.
En route here, there were attractive signs recommending Casa Anita to us, one of them by a delightful shelter with table and stools inside, beside the track a couple of kms. back under a large oak tree - the work of Anita´s husband. This is the sort of thing that makes being on the Camino worthwhile: a spirit of hospitality is so often evident, even if not universally forthcoming: there are some po faces as well as the smiley ones.
Amongst my fellow walkers today have been a French couple, an Austrian-American couple, a Spaniard and an Australian. All very friendly, but nobody so pressing that you want to get away from them.
70 kms. walked so far - more than 400 to go to Santiago still. I´m in Zamora´s amazing public library at the end of a rest day - no progress along the Camino. But I seem to have walked as far as on previous days, getting happily lost in this old city. It has 23 Romanesque churches, including the Cathedral, and several worthwhile museums: the one I liked least was the Semana Santa Museum, full of all the tableaux which were being carried round the city last week - seeing them in a Museum is altogether less moving than seeing them move slowly through the crowds with that plangent music and the smell of incense. Salamanca isn´t as celebrated for its processions as Seville, but you can´t miss them, nor should you try to.
I´m now nicely baffled about what I have and haven´t seen, and about to retire to the Albergue for supper and I hope an early night. (I hoped that last night, but - as one does in Spain - got caught up in the football.)
As with most days since I started from Salamanca on Saturday, it´s been showery, and none too warm. The rain in Spain seems to fall mainly on the Camino, which is waterlogged - to a far greater extent than in April 2010, when we walked from Seville to Salamanca. I gather I´m lucky not having had to take my boots off yet, and wade across an overflowing stream or two. The Duero here in Zamora has spilled right over its banks, right up to the road, a brown spate rushing between the arches of the Roman bridge.
Perhaps it´s the weather, or maybe the state of the world, but there are fewer pilgrims than three years ago, but I´ve shared accomodation with some interesting people already including a Japanese jazz drummer and a song writer from Berlin - not on the same night. We all agree it´s very hard to see how Spain is ever going to recover from its economic crisis: in spite of massive public expenditure (no doubt authorised from Brussels) on infrastructure such as this library, nothing much seems to be happening anywhere, and there´s nobody around in the villages or countryside.
Walking is a great way to see a country, even if like me you struggle with the language. The birds don´t require translation, nor the flowers which are beginning to peep through. And it´s majestic scenery for the most part as I wend my way North.