IntroductionThe blog below is a collection of my sketches completed at the end of every second day walking the Camino de Santiago, otherwise known as the Way of St. James, or el camino de Sant Iago in Spanish.
The actual walking took me 22 days in late August and September 2016, starting out from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees, and walking nearly 800 kilometres (km) to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic coast of North-West Spain. That's rather quick by most people's standards - 33+ days is the norm - but it suited me to walk briskly and push myself daily beyond the relative comfort of 20-25km. As a seasoned long-distance trail runner, I've developed a fairly high threshold for physical pain, which can be very mentally therapeutic - up to a point!
The traditional pilgrim way is on foot, carrying all your 'worldly goods' - which is what I did, with around 6 kilograms plus water packed into a small 20 litre mountain marathon- style backpack. It allowed me the freedom to choose where to stop and tested my faith that there would be lodgings available in the evening. This flexibility is lost if you have your backpack transported as it requires that you book ahead, which I never did.
Its also possible to obtain a Compostela - a certificate of completion - by going on bike, but, as with attempting to run the route, you may miss some of the beauty of the landscape and the spirit of the inner journey, which takes time. And travelling alone allows many hours for self-reflection, something that I couldn't fail to take advantage of at this point in my life where my child rearing days have fundamentally come to an end and new challenges and a new direction are needed.
I managed to pick up some of the native language, but wished I'd tried harder and earlier beforehand to learn the core verbs and sayings. Gaining a better grasp of Spanish in the future is one of the more practical goals I've come away from the Camino with.
Out there in the wilderness of the high plains of the Meseta, I connected with myself in a way I hadn't for many years - if ever. And I have a new purpose and vitality now so that I make as much of the final stage in my life as I possibly can.
Out on the Camino I met some wonderful and colourful characters. Being a bit of a loner, I didn't spend much time walking with others. In addition, one of my core goals of the journey was to live frugally and avoid excess food and and alcohol altogether. I managed to achieve this by keeping out of cafe bars in the evening, which rather limited my opportunities for making new friendships.
If you have the time and interest, please continue on to read about my experiences as they occurred. I haven't edited the sketches at all other than to correct grammar and fat-finger mobile phone typing. Therefore please make some allowances for the prose written in the spirit of the moment!
28th to 30th August 2016
The journey to Stansted was uneventful until the late night train out of London Liverpool Street with the group of self-confessed potheads and drunks travelling back to their town in Harlow for some more partying. "Look, its Crocodile Dundee" said George-Michael-on-steroids. Then he fiddled with his two day old nose piercing and the stud fell out. Its not great seeing a man try to put an earring back in his nose. He said he was going to get his nipple pierced soon. One of the girls advised him not to: "I had to take it out - I've still got a big lump there". Classy.
It all calmed down at Stansted, where I bunkered down for the night on a cold, hard marble floor. Number of bruised bones = loads. Total minutes sleep = 0.
The plane didn't crash (its a fear that goes through my head every time). In fact I've never yet travelled on a plane that's crashed, so I must be getting lucky. But the wheels did bounce a bit on landing. Obviously not the ones designed by my Dad.
Biarritz was hot, and my data roaming I'd set up the previous day didn't work, so I was badgering my wife to check my emails for train ticket info. All sorted thanks Julia, and a bus ride to Bayonne was followed by a scenic mountain train journey to St Jean Pied de Port, travelling and chatting with a lovely English middle-aged couple Ken and Rose. Sort of like Ken and Mandy (my youngest daughter's "in-laws") but not so refined.
This charming French border town has a beautiful narrow medieval street on a steep incline that houses the Camino Office. They were all very kind and pointed me up to the municipal hostel (albergue) at No. 39. Unfortunately I arrived too late, and it was full up. They sent me down the hill to No.36. The next 14 hours or so were some of the strangest of my life.
The lady albergue owner was completely bonkers. The house was full of unusual artefacts, and she apparently was a disciple of Zen. There were 10 cats and two dogs - with smells to match, and the owner proceeded to bark out all sort of rules to me. You must do this, don't do that. She even had a book of rules - with illustrations - to accompany the lecture. Don't wake up before 7am. And you have to leave my house between 6pm and 7:30pm while I prepare my own dinner. So I paid my 10 euros for my bed, received my Camino Credencial stamp and went out and explored the old castle and the town in the rain for a couple of hours. Just before 7:30 she opened her front door again and I wandered back in - only to be given a dressing down for coming back too early. Anyway, I had an early night as I was in significant sleep deficit.
Amazingly I awoke at bang on 7am, then the rest of my dormitory of eight peregrinos (pilgrims) followed suit. We were all quietly - or so we thought - sitting on our beds gathering our things and packing our bags when the owner came in and shouted at us for being too loud. She basically told us to pack our bags downstairs in the entrance hall and get out. I asked the multilingual lady for water, but apparently this was the one English word she didn't understand. What a place. We were all bemused, but it was quite an experience!
So at 7:30 I set off down the street, collected some water from the fountain outside the church and then up, up, up towards the 1,450 metre coll (mountain pass) we all had to climb. I ate some breakfast on the way - yogurt and banana bought yesterday plus baguette and croissant fresh from a boulangerie (bakery) in the town.
I enjoyed the day immensely, although the steepest section after an hour or so really got my heart pumping. I must have met around 300 peregrinos along the way. All sizes, abilities and nationalities. Hardly any British, although I thought a couple drinking Irn Bru might be Scottish. They were Dutch and had heard about the magical revival powers of the Scottish second national drink.
On and on, up and up. I tried playing my whistle, but there wasn't much breath left in me from the walking. I crossed the border into Spain, and at the top of the coll I bumped into Ken and Rose who had walked a few kilometres the previous evening to make today a bit easier. They were eating lunch and kindly gave me some bread and Dairylea spread. I must have been hungry - it was delicious. Anyway, I quickly descended into Roncesvalles, and booked my bed (12 euros) in the very nice albergue (spelt the same as in France but pronounced al-ber-gay, rather than al-berg). My lunch of bread, cheese and an apple was quickly devoured and then I explored this characterful old border town - which apparently has only 30 permanent residents. I read that the rear of Charlemagne's army was slaughtered here by the Basques as the French retreated back towards the border. I guess he must have done something pretty bad to warrant that. What comes around... eh, Charlemagne?
Anyway, I still haven't succumbed to the French bier or the Spanish cerveza, and so far the two days has cost a little over 30 euros. I brought some dried pasta packet meals with me and tonight this will be my fayre, along with a little Emmental cheese left over.
30th August to 1st September
For some reason I just couldn't sleep on Monday night at Roncesvalles. Maybe it was the coffee, or perhaps because I'd finished walking by 1pm and my body was too rested (even I'm unsure whether I'm serious or joking here). I think I managed around 2 hours, and awoke to the shuffling of peregrinos' bags around 5:30am.
By 6:40am on Tuesday I was out - in the dark of night for another 40 minutes, and stumbled with occasional use of my little head torch and spotting the dim lights ahead from others' lights. For a short while I caught up and walked with Meleka, a Croatian living in the US. She was 57 and said she thought I was mid-thirties! Then we bumped into Ken and Rose - who as usual had stayed in a hotel a few km past Roncesvalles. The next 15 minutes went by very convivially - but I pushed on after a village and Meleka stayed with the other two. Was it my company or my speed of travel. They said the latter!
After a climb had levelled out, I took out my whistle and had a self-conscious play for around 20 minutes - even though no one else was anywhere near me. As it happened, since the day's start, I'd passed a dozen or so walkers and didn't meet another one for hours, just on the approach to Zubiri after 22km. Here was the recommended stopping point for the day, but it was only 10:45am so I bought some lunch and cracked on, with the aim of reaching Arre, a small town 18km further on, just 5km before Pamplona.
Still I met or passed virtually no one except two mountain bikers from Denmark who criss-crossed with me for maybe 20km altogether. And I had the company of a local dog who temporarily adopted me for half an hour - with his hippy owner walking the same speed but behind us. The dog would barge past me on the narrow trail then stop and sniff, for me to pass and repeat many times.
Again an early rise - around 6am. On reflection I didn't really plan yesterday very well, and spent most of it completely alone, passing very few. However, today was better, although the first hour approaching Pamplona was in the dark, and I was following a recommended alternative route alongside the river that didn't have the normal excellent Camino signage. But I managed to find my way ok.
Once in Pamplona I stopped at a cafe and had breakfast of an espresso and a small wholemeal baguette. The city was throbbing with peregrinos and also locals on their way to work. I didn't really stop to admire the buildings - and set off down the road, catching up the many walkers who'd begun their day in Pamplona.
I really enjoyed today; I could see for miles beyond and backwards because of the vast rolling countryside. Every few kms I'd stumble into another village and then up and down again before the next one. Even though I was slower than yesterday, I was still passing all the Pamplona starters, with no one passing me for a second consecutive day. I wasn't rushing today (I admit I probably was yesterday). and my whistle was given a really good airing - less self-consciously than yesterday, with a new tune worked out.
Just a couple of kms before my day's finish I happened across a village parade. Men in all-white were pushing huge religious statues on rollers along the road - accompanied by a marching band and lots of little children - also dressed in white. It was a great sound and sight.
After a day of around 26kms I arrived in Puente la Reina just before 1pm. Although feeling a little guilty in stopping so early, the heat was becoming intolerable - around 34 celcius - so I had made the right decision.
The albergue is opposite a church and run by them I think. Its only 5 euros to stay - but its superb - and full of happy, friendly people.
Isaac's just come over to lend me some needle and thread. Not for a blister but to mend my frayed bum bag. Still no cerveza or eating out. The four days has cost me a total of 65 euros so far - including board. Hopefully I've lost some weight as well.
2nd to 3rd September
Friday was a nice, easy day. Just as well because my feet were bruised and very sore and I really needed to help them get better rather than worse.
Once I'd negotiated exiting Puente la Reina still in the dark, the path made a steep climb towards the first village en route. I thought I'd passed everyone again and would be on my own all day, but near the top of the hill, I could see a hand waving to me from ahead. It was Thomas from Norway who I met last night.
To cut a long story short, we walked together for the remainder of the stage, reaching Estella by noon. Thomas was very good company; he'd actually walked the Camino in just 21 days [edit: 23 days if you include the two days spent resting his sore feet in Leon] only two months ago. Now he said he was trying to take it slower and enjoy it more. We chatted well and the time went quickly - it was good to have company for a change. The whistle was given a good airing, with encouragement from Thomas and others we passed or walked with from time to time.
It was so hot, and with there being a long uphill climb after Estella, we cut our losses and stopped there for the day - 22km altogether. We checked in at the municipal albergue, 6 euros for the night. I was lazy all afternoon and then met up with Thomas again, who recommended we buy a salad and share it for our evening meal. What proceeded was a huge feast of salad, boiled eggs and tuna. Very nice too.
But I was beginning to get just slightly claustrophobic in mind (if that's possible) though. Thomas took my email address in order to send me a photo he'd taken of me earlier. But when I checked, he'd sent over maybe a dozen or more pics of me. I didn't realise I was so photogenic! Then after the meal he talked about arrangements for setting off together in the morning, and the loner in me starting thinking "hold on a minute"! It felt a bit like we were an old married couple.
As it happened, the person in the bunk next to me got up at 5am, waking me up and so I just got up, packed and went on my way by myself at 5:30am. I felt relief, although I understand the reader may just think I'm anti-social! I'd be happy to meet up with Thomas again on the Way, I just wasn't ready for what seemed to be a twinning up arrangement.
Today, Saturday - was supposed to be even hotter than yesterday, so I was glad of the early start. It was actually a great day and quite eventful.
The first quirky observation as I was leaving the old town area of Estella and climbing the main road through the suburbs was that there were quite a few youngsters walking the opposite way down the hill - all very polite and some wishing me buen camino. It couldn't be an early school day because it was Saturday. Maybe they were on their way to work? In fact as I approached a heaving bar, throbbing with the sound of loud music, I saw my answer as there were a couple of hundred teens still partying at 6am. The juxtaposition between our activities and body clocks was enough to make me feel ancient! But I was pleased for them to be having fun at their age.
The next fascination was stumbling across the Fuente De Vino - or wine fountain. I'd read about this - but being there in the dark early morning made it even more unusual. Its a bodegas (wine brewery) run by monks, I believe. Sticking to my aim of avoiding alcohol - not withstanding that drinking at 6am is the road to ruin - I didn't partake. It was funny though seeing an American man try some and when i asked him how it tasted, without seeming at all self-conscious, professed loudly that "it's fucking wine". Roger, got that.
A little while after, still in darkness, as the gradient increased, I found a Camino way mark and pushed on. In fact, as I later realised, I'd taken the steep, scenic route. Perhaps not so scenic in the dark, up and up through a tiny forest trail, thinking that if I missed a turning I would get completely lost. It was so spooky - I didn't pass another soul, but with my ultra running experience I actually enjoyed it! Eventually I came out of the forest near the brow of the hill and then enjoyed a fabulous rest of morning on my way to Los Arcos - 22km walked.
This was the town recommended for an overnight stop in the guide book but it wasn't quite 11am and although it was getting hot I wanted to push on and use some more of the day. My feet were better than yesterday, and I was in a good frame of mind.
Not long after leaving Los Arcos I bumped into three groups of Italians, including the couple who I met at the spooky albergue where I'd been all alone for a while in Arca a couple of days ago. The man was muscly, very Italian (good) looking and very friendly. Impossible not to like - and envy! When I asked a question about his wife, he explained that they were married for six years but no longer so. But they still managed to walk the Camino together, even though they both listened to music through earphones and seemed to walk along silently.
The last 12km of the day had no water stops, no shade and the temperature apparently hit 37 celcius. It felt like it was a desert out there - almost all along off-road dirt paths. My water supply was depleting rapidly and I was becoming exhausted. Sweat was dripping off me and my feet were by now so sore. But, I was enjoying it. Says something about me I suppose. Bit loose in the head department :-)
Finally I reached Viana, my destination after 38km today. What a beautiful old town, built high up on a mound, with spectacular views all around from the 12th Century walls. In order to reach the municipal albergue, I had to walk along a long narrow street full of bars with locals, tourists and peregrinos relaxing with beer and wine. It was tough but I kept going :-) Albergue Andres Munoz is another very old building attached to a grand, roofless church. I'm totally spoilt with such immense accommodation buildings and for so little cost. I treated myself to a peregrino menu meal out tonight because the supermarket was closed early for Saturday. I ate a three course meal of mixed salad, grilled chicken and melon, with bottled water option instead of the inclusive glass of wine. I demolished every plate. Now time for a good sleep and hopefully a cooler day tomorrow - maybe with some rain even.
4th to 5th September
I was sad to be leaving Viana - such a beautiful old town, where it seemed the whole village had come out to dine and drink the previous afternoon.
Redicilla del Camino is not on my list of all-time favourite places to stay and I couldn't get out of there quick enough. But not before a rather late observation that one of the two cyclist chaps in the albergue was in fact a senora. Complete with tattoos and body piercings and a rather stocky physique she cut a formidable figure.
Having said that, I was quite glad to have left the dormitory of the albergue. The hospitalero had put me in a room full of big, gruff men and there was no conversation. What there was though was a riotous orchestra at 5am when the first one's phone alarm went off all trumpets blazing. Then the next at 5:30 and one shortly after. No sleep for the wicked I suppose.
So I hit the road and arrived 10km down the road at Logrono (population 155,000) early - just as the sun was rising. Stopping at a cafe I bumped into Luciano and Maria - a couple I'd met previously. They are a few years older than me, and also covering quite a distance each day. I think they worked harder though because they were much slower and spent many hours more on the road.
The rest of the day was spent toiling along in 36 degree heat. Well 36 in the shade - of which there was none out here. My leather Aussie hat may or may not look cool, but its saving my life out here.
An uneventful day starts to get interesting as I arrive in my destination of Najera (pronounced Nahera) after 39km travelled. A beautiful old town with my first albergue donativo, ie you give a donation for your stay. As much or as little as you can afford.
This donativo has perhaps been my favourite albergue so far. The hospitaleros on duty have all been peregrinos at times, with one journeying on the Camino trail all the way from Belgium to Santiago - a cool 2,500km in three months. Wow. They were all lovely and the atmosphere in the albergue was great. Being a Sunday all the shops had shut early, and I fortuitously scrounged some spare donated food and cooked a surprisingly tasty pasta in tomato sauce. Then at night all peregrinos sleeping in one quite modest-sized room housing 90 bunk beds. I managed a couple of hours' sleep.
Today was a fairly uneventful day. I was planning a lazy 21km, stopping at Santo Domingo de la Calzada (St. Dominic of the Roadways - who dedicated himself to improving the route for pilgrims in the 11th Century). Its a beautiful old town - but I'd arrived just after 11 and felt I should get more from the day, and so trudged on to complete a hot and sweaty 32km, arriving in the tiny town of Redecilla del Camino. I'm now "just" 552km from Santiago!
The albergue here is supposed to be a donativo, but the donation is fixed at 5 euros. Some linguistic licence taken but its not exactly a king's ransom. However the contrast with last night's hospitality is stark: the lady warden here is completely disinterested, the place is run-down and she's been gossiping with another local for around 3 hours non-stop now without seeming to catch her breath!
There being no shops in the town I'm afraid I repeated last night's routine with some more pasta and tomato sauce left in the cocina (kitchen). Mother and wife please be assured I've had some good fruit (apple and orange) and protein (salami and chorizo - ok not so good) already today. It'll be a quiet night tonight as there are only a couple of cyclist guys and me here.
6th to 7th September
Advance warning: parts of today's sketch may become a little heavy-going!
I set off early and headed for the town of Belorado (pop 2,000) 10km away, arriving before the few shops around had opened. By this time I was famished and really in need of some breakfast, yet found myself heading out of town without replenishment. I stopped a local man of around 60, stocky, bald and weathered in appearance - a bit like my old Granda. He was loading his car just outside his apartment as I enquired: "Senor, por favor, pan?" which I think translates as sir, please, bread? To which I received a sympathetic and wordy reply and a pointing of finger diagonally backwards from where I'd come. However, the language barrier proved beyond us for any real comprehension.
So I thanked him and headed back in the general direction recommended, and found a square with a cafe bar open but nothing else. I popped in and ordered an espresso and asked the barman for pan. He shook his head and pointed up a small cul-de-sac over the road and so I finished my drink and trudged up there. I saw a man gesticulating in my direction to come his way, and as I arrived closer, I realised it was the same man who I'd first asked about the bread. Unbeknown to me, he had driven here and waited while I sipped my coffee and then he led me into a tiny olde-world bakery that didn't appear to normally cater for the retail trade. The kind gent then spoke to the baker, ordered two loaves still warm, paid for them and gave me one. When I tried to pay, he insisted I wouldn't, raised all five fingers on one hand and said "cinco Caminos" (five Caminos) while gesturing to himself with his other hand. This old peregrino recognised the hunger and need of a new one, and took it upon himself to help me.
What a lovely act of kindness, and when I found the route again and passed his apartment, his car was back there. He'd stopped his work just to help me.
With that, I demolished the bread and wandered towards the next town of Villafranca Montes de Oca, where I was the recipient of further kindness, albeit dished out in a motherly, scalding way. A woman with a thick Irish accent instructed: "you need to put some cream on your legs - they're very red". I'd run out of sun cream the previous day but luckily located some at a local store and applied it forthwith... as instructed.
It was just as well I layered up, because after Villafranca, the Camino rose steeply up into a hot desert-like wilderness. Even though I reached 1,000 metres altitude (similar to the peak of Ben Nevis) it was unbearably hot and with very little shade. After several more kilometres, the path descended slightly to the remote but spectacular church of San Juan de Ortega (St John of Nettles, a disciple of Santo Domingo of Roadways, and who carried on his good works repairing and building the Camino for peregrinos). Attached to the church was an alburgue where, after 36km walked, I stopped for the night. With no provisions around, I splashed out on a communal meal and sat with a young Irishman and two mature Brazilian ladies. The hearty meal consisted of garlic soup, pasta as a second dish, a main course of pork with salad and fries and a yogurt to finish off. There wasn't a scrap left on the plates when I'd finished.
Deviating for a while from the factual, the Camino gives you plenty of time to think while you're trudging along. Its waymarked very well, so your brain is left to think about life every day, day after day, for hours on end. A luxury I've never really had to such an isolated extent before.
During the first few days, I concluded that I wasn't always kind and tolerant In my normal daily life - usually when stresses or problems strained my equilibrium. By that I don't mean I'm never kind and I'm always intolerant. But no matter how hard you try, you have many interactions with people during a single day, and if you're kind 90% of the time but slip into negativity for just 10%, its that latter unkindness that those close to you naturally remember. In fact, it only takes one slip from goodness for it to start to go wrong. So if you do good deeds, show you love someone many times in a day, but upset them or shout out an unkindness just once, then that person will go away remembering above all the unkind act, thinking you may hate them, and liking or trusting you a little bit less than before.
Why is this important? Well I suppose I've always been more concerned with doing as many good things in a day as I can possibly fit in, rather than necessarily worrying if a few of those things go wrong along the way, or unkindnesses are said that could be avoided.
So firstly I need to understand the importance of always trying to be kind and tolerant - without fail. And carrying that through into my daily life - each and every day.
But the last couple of days have been spent thinking about sustainable kindness, if I can use that phrase. Kindness won't work long-term if its false - or built of straw like the first little pig's house. We all know what happened when a bad storm brewed: the house built on straw blew down. Kindness needs to be inbuilt - or if you like built of stone or brick like the third little pig's house. After all, it survived all manner of storms and strains intact. Sorry about the fairytale analogy - it came to me high up in thin-air solitude this morning!
So how is sustainable kindness achieved? We've all had experience of call centre staff. A very few are rude or abrupt but most display kindness. Yet this latter group further subdivides into those seemingly being nice through gritted teeth and those who genuinely seem to want to help us however short, stressed or rude we are. They are displaying sustainable kindness, and I've concluded on my travels that this is what I need to do. I must really want to be kind in all situations, so that my kindness survives the rough and turmoil of daily life.
But how to achieve this? I guess I need to look at each occasion where its gone wrong, study the reasons and then try to build a new template for dealing with these situations. But at the core needs to be an understanding that those around you have a good heart (just like we all think we have). They may be different in character or upbringing, have different needs and wants and may also not always interact well under stress. But they are all good people and all mean well, and so always finding a way to instinctively and genuinely treat all those around you with kindness on every occasion will lead to happier lives and relationships. Plus maybe I could slow down on life a little to put less stress on myself - and others! Learning how to do this will take some time, but it has to be the right way forward.
Back to today's Camino; a pleasant first half walking in isolated moors gave way to concrete walkways and busy traffic as I approached Burgos, a large city of 180,000 inhabitants, and still high up at 900m altitude. A steady day of 26km was enough for my aching feet. Still, now I have only 490km remaining to reach Santiago!
True to form I've booked into the municipal albergue which has a 16th century frontage but a modern hostel behind. There's no wifi, so hopefully I'll get to send this draft sketch when I go outside shortly after this little siesta. Just a stone's throw from the albergue is the vast and spectacularly ornate Burgos Cathedral, which I'm shortly to visit.
Just a final thought, Spanish siestas seem to last from 1 until 4pm. If English or American companies introduced this concept into the working day, they'd probably last only an hour - or maybe even just 30 minutes. Only a Spaniard truly knows how not to rush.
8th to 9th September
You'll be relieved to hear that no advance warning of heavy content is needed for this latest update. And while the rest of Burgos - from the sounds of things - partied into Wednesday night, true to recent form I bunkered down for an early night.
I'd planned for around 30km Thursday and set off at 6am, weaving my way through the narrow Burgos roads, just about following the flecha amarilla (yellow arrows) guiding me out into the countryside. Near the perimeter of the city I caught up another early riser - a young lady by the name of Belinda from Bristol.
She kept up with me - four eyes better than two to keep on the route in the dark. As we started chatting and as the day broke I found out she wasn't so young - 57 in fact!
Belinda had recently retired as a primary school teacher, apparently not enjoying the best of relationships with her Headmaster in latter years, and with first her younger sister dying and then her mother she'd had a pretty rotten time of it by all accounts. Still, she seemed glad to talk, and it made the time pass very quickly.
Before we knew it, we'd climbed up onto the Meseta - an unpopulated plain at around 900m altitude that is breathtakingly calm to walk along. Wheat crops on the better ground and barley and oats on the higher, poorer soil. We even had a chance to show our first aid skills along with two Danish women - as a young South Korean lad flung himself off his bike spectacularly descending a dangerous loose earth pathway. He wasn't going that fast but still managed to cut his hand, and three mother hens and I sorted him out.
Shortly after, down in the village of my original destination, I took a break with the three ladies. Belinda's feet had had enough with 30km, but I was feeling good so bade my farewells and carried on another 11km to Castrojeriz, a beautiful small town at the base of a high hill-top round with a 10th Century ruined castle overlooking all around. 41km walked - my longest daily total so far.
For some reason I always seem to head for the municipal albergue in a town. They are usually cheaper than private ones, often with greater capacity and a pleasant atmosphere prevails. Ok, they're cheaper!
Castrojeriz albergue was delightful. I'll paint a caricature: imagine Murray [edit: our young climbing friend] less two stones, 30 years older but still with very pronounced upper arm muscles and the sleeveless vest to display said litheness - climbers arms definitely. Add to that an eccentric, wiry, grey beard sprouting out in all directions maybe 20-30cm and you have the wonderfully kind hospitalero (warden). He didn't seem to speak English but with sign language he showed me all the facilities including free tea bags (a first on the trip), milk in the fridge and fresh, delicious bread.
I purchased some fruit for desert, and cooked up a free dish of pasta, tomato sauce and pungent fresh garlic from the albergue's leftovers. One of the best overnight stays along with the Najera municipal donativo.
Today, Friday has been a day spent alone. An early steep climb out of Castrojeriz up onto the Meseta for the final time. Instead of soul-searching, today my mind turned to earning a living. I concluded that the business idea I partly developed two years ago - to provide a walking companion service on the West Highland Way - wasn't a bad fit for me at all, but needs some tweaks in order for it to work better. However it develops, I need to get some temporary or short-term work when I return.
My new ideas today are to broaden the scope to Trail Companion, and walk on any trail in the UK as requested, so long as it makes sense. It will be much more interesting this way, and hopefully I'll gain more business as well.
Alongside the Trail Companion, on the same website, I'm thinking I could develop an online shop, something I've long fancied trying. Initially selling trail accessories such as mosquito spray, net hats and perhaps branded Trail Companion shirts and fleeces, it could develop further into general trail clothes, tents, etc, if the idea takes off.
With the addition of the shop, this adds an additional income stream when I'm on tour or when there's no companion business.
Anyway, you didn't log on to hear all about my wacky money-making ideas. But at least you have an idea of how I occupied my day.
Descending off the Meseta was a bit of a come-down In more ways than one. The midday sun became strong and the trail hot rather soul-less. I added an extra kilometre to the day in order to leave the roadside and take a more scenic riverside path.
Finally, after 39 hard kilometres I stopped for the day at another small town, Villalcazar, and booked into the municipal albergue (you guessed), a tiny, extremely basic donativo with squeaky bunk beds.
Just my good fortune as I looked for a shop, a bar had the key live TV footage of La Vuelta D'Espania cycling time trial. I ordered a jamon (ham) and queso (cheese) bocadillo (sandwich) and sat in the bar for an hour watching the finale. Froome absolutely nailing it to beat Quintana by over two minutes. I think that still leaves him behind but by not very much.
Anyway, the dog's been walked, fed, watered and watched the cycling. It's all good.
10th to 11th September
Villalcazar has to be among my favourite albergues. Basic facilities but a wonderfully warm atmosphere.
The hospitalero was very quiet - most probably shyness - but he looked after us well and late in the evening he pre-set a lovely continental-style breakfast and provided milk in the fridge and real coffee for the morning.
But the real warmth came from the peregrinos. I'd guess I'm 20 years older than anyone else that stayed, with most of them aged 25 or under. Everyone was so friendly and had such a positive outlook - a vitality about life. A group were cooking a communal meal and invited me to eat with them, but alas I'd already eaten. Upon request, for Marsha from Russia I made a cup of English tea from my personal store, and showed her how to cock her little finger up - like the Queen no doubt does - when sipping it. In return she presented me with something resembling a black boiled sweet. Apparently you soak it in water and it makes a flavoured drink - and then remove it to repeat for friends. I may leave that until I return to the UK.
So feeling tired yet relaxed I set off later than normal at 7am Friday. A twilight walk into Carrion (think Carry On Camping) and then an 18km stretch along an old Roman road, now pedestrianised for the Camino. The area is a flat wetland, and I read that the Romans had to transport an estimated 100,000 tonnes of rock from elsewhere to build the raised road. It's still intact after 2,000 years of quite heavy use.
It was along this road that I had a slightly uncomfortable experience. As usual I overtook many peregrinos, but at one point ahead I could see a man and a woman seemingly walking together. But as I approached the lady sped up quite significantly to keep up with me - and then engaged me in conversation. So I assumed they weren't together. She was a tiny but athletic French lady of 62 years, and we chatted away quite pleasantly for some time.
Then after a while the man she had been with caught us up, spoke briefly as he was introduced just as "a friend from France" and then he sped off ahead - no mean feat given my tempo. He was far from diminutive, a great tall stocky man. He walked further and further ahead and then I twigged and suggested to the lady he might be upset. Yes she agreed, and so I realised I was being played off by one or both of them. I politely invited the woman to catch him up, and I slowed down abruptly and markedly to a pace I was unused to. The funny thing was, he didn't turn round and she was practically running after him with her oversize rucksack. Indeed after a while I heard her screaming his name.
Shortly afterwards, I passed them as they had stopped to rest upon entering a village and politely bade them buen Camino, not that I was too enamoured with whatever relationship politics they were playing out. In fact I saw them later at the overnight albergue. He came up to me and patted me on the shoulder as I was sitting reading, and said "no problem" to me. Well maybe not, but what if my sun-dulled brain hadn't figured out their tensions when I did and had carried on chatting for much longer. Maybe then he would have had a (bigger) problem. I kept out of their way all evening!
I'd walked 32.5km and my feet went on strike as I entered the small village of Terradillos de los Templarios, the name giving a hint of the past history in this area of the Knights Templars (more of this below). The albergue was privado, ie privately run, with a well-appointed bar and restaurant, and I had to practically starve until a small shop opened at 5:30 in order to avoid blowing my daily budget on their bar and menu. I'm afraid I didn't take to this place at all. I'm not sure what it was, but after the camaraderie of Villalcazar, this place made our hotel in Mallorca seem the epitome of taste and restraint. The clientele - possibly peregrinos - were mainly German and Dutch and they spent the afternoon and evening seemingly in competition to see who could drink, smoke and eat the most. I kept out of the way and had an early night. They didn't even have the Vuelta cycle race climax on the large screen in the bar!
Knights Templars were Christian warriors who, in the 1500's, fought back the Moors (the Muslims from the Middle East) who had conquered Spain a few hundred years before. The Knights Templars eventually crushed the Moors and returned Spain to Christianity. A feature of Knights Templars churches are that they are plain and either round or octagonal in shape - so that the Devil has nowhere to hide! St James was buried eventually in Santiago de Compostela, and at the foot of a statue of him in the Cathedral are the carved heads of slayed Moors soldiers!
Not wishing to hang around the albergue privado any longer than necessary, I was up bright and early Sunday morning and set off at 5:50am. A Belgian and I played leapfrog for a couple of kilometres until we luckily found an early morning bar selling amazing coffee. I've transitioned from Espresso - a small quantity of intensely flavoured black coffee -onto cafe con leche - a larger drink with hot whisked milk - mainly for the protein it gives me.
After the stop, Rob the Belgian and I walked together for around five interesting kilometres. He's 68 but very strong and fit. He's a 1 hour 33 half marathoner from a few years back, so quite a bit faster than me. Rob told me that three years ago he'd walked the Camino in very stormy, wet weather, and after ten days had decided to divorce his wife! Upon reaching Santiago he returned home and followed through with his decision. Apparently she got the family home and they became amicable after the separation. In fact he returned and painted the house, whereupon his now ex wife asked him to move back in. He didn't!
After we both stopped to take photos, I walked on ahead, quite sensitive to not overstaying my welcome with company, or maybe not fully at ease with him. Maybe this wasn't my best move because the day turned into quite a slog, and my feet were blistering up and quite painful - an occupational hazard on El Camino. I could have done with some company.
With 31km traipsed, I stopped at a tiny municipal donativo albergue in a town called El Burgo Ranero. Like the surrounding region this is quite a poor community, and in fact the albergue walls are made from a mix of straw and clay. I read that this is called the Adobe architectural style. Also from reading the guide book it appears I now have "just" 350km remaining to reach Santiago.
This donativo is of the type run by an organisation of Camino volunteers. Speaking to the resident hospitaleros, Monika and Polly - both from Canada and of early retirement age - they will run the hostel for two weeks as volunteers giving back to the Camino community. These two are very friendly and helpful and only too happy to share their Camino experiences.
Just a little insight into my normal daily albergue routine on the Camino, which varies little from day-to-day. In the morning I will often get up around 6am, wash my face, clean my teeth, toilet, get dressed, pack and head off usually by 6:30am.
When I arrive early afternoon after 6-8 hours of walking, I get my Camino Credencial stamped, pay any dues, take off and store my walking shoes and find a bed. Hopefully I arrive in time to claim a lower bunk, but sometimes not.
Then I head straight for the douche (shower), where I wash myself and all my walking clothes, get dressed and hang the wet clothes outside, where they invariably dry in a couple of hours. Normally I'll then rest, write up my diary or if famished, buy or cook something to eat if there's a microwave or cooker. My speciality is to cook any available pasta from peregrino left-over food, and further cook for a couple of minutes in simple tomato sauce, often found in cartons left in the fridge. Of course in return I leave a donation or some replacement items.
I'm now just 37km from Leon, a city with a population of 130,000 . Not sure if I'll reach it tomorrow but I actually fancy a stay in a large place for a change, so tomorrow may be a long day.
12th to 13th September
Sunday evening in the municipal albergue in El Burgo Ranero was most convivial. I spent a relaxing couple of hours with Adolpho and Gonzalo from Spain and Dung On Song from South Korea. The men were mid 60s and the young lady in her early 20s. It was a good mix, and I asked to join the Spaniards on the walk in the morning, as they were only walking 20km or so. My foot was bruised and blistered and I thought a gentle day would help. Such plans of mice and men!
Adolpho and Gonzalo were using the bag carrying service similar to the West Highland Way, and dropped their large rucksacks off sometime after 7am, to pick them up at Mansilla 20km away at the end of their day's walking. It was nearly half past seven when we set off, and immediately I thought to myself that it wasn't going to work. The men were so slow, I just couldn't see myself ambling along all day like this - even with a limp - and so I shook hands, wished them buen camino and moved on alone.
Just before Mansilla, I caught up with Dung On. She'd set off at 6:30 and was also stopping in the approaching town. Dung On has this endearing mannerism when you answered her questions of saying "Aaaaaaahhh sooooo!", like you'd just explained the theory of relativity or some quantum physics to her, rather than a simple point about the route or such like.
I said goodbye to her at Mansilla because my foot temporarily felt a bit better, and energy-wise, I felt I hadn't yet put in a decent shift.
Regrets, I've had a few, as Frank Sinatra sang in My Way. The decision to carry on being one of mine. Today became extremely painful. I needed to drain a blister and hadn't, and so I was walking on bruised feet all day. And the afternoon sun was baking me because I'd left the albergue much later than normal. Still, I trudged on towards Leon, the route becoming increasingly industrialised as I neared the city perimeter. In addition, I noticed how poor and shabby the majority of it was. Still, it was a good experience to see this side of Northern Spain I'd not really encountered before.
Even when I thought I'd reached Leon, I still had to amble through 5km of suburbs to reach the centre. Leon has existed since the Romans inhabited it in 29BC and is steeped in history. All my efforts were worth it though after 37km for the day as I bumped into a couple of peregrinos who guided me to the Santa Maria de Carbajal Benedictine convent albergue. This proved quite an unusual experience for me, as it was run by nuns and priests.
I actually really enjoyed my time there. The extremely sociable Dan and his wife Caitlin from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, took me to an optician to fix my glasses, which they did for free. A lens had fallen out yesterday and had cracked in the corner, and the optician inserted a missing screw to clamp the frame together. When we returned to the albergue via a tienda (shop), we enjoyed some good communal time in the cocina (kitchen) with a Canadian, two Italians and a Lithuanian, before I retired to the luxury of wifi signal in bed and a catch-up online.
An amusing experience occurred at 9:15pm, when a middle-aged nun in full habit and veil came into the dormitory ringing her bell calling the peregrinos to evening prayer. I only had my boxer shorts on! Poor woman. I wonder if the nuns fight for that duty?
Again on Tuesday morning I planned an easy day... and it didn't quite work out that way. After fixing my blister last night, I set off with the intention of limiting my distance to the 21km in the guide book itinerary (I've only managed such restraint twice so far on the Camino). But the foot felt a lot better, and a Yorkshire lass I passed suggested it would be better to go 5km further, for a nicer day tomorrow.
The first mile out of the centre of Leon was spectacular. The French-style Gothic cathedral I passed as dawn broke is truly awe-inspiring.
The remaining route though was unglamourous - adjacent or nearby a busy road all day. Still, I learnt how they irrigate the crops with their miles and miles of concrete trough channels descending from the hills and with tributary channels and sluice gates to direct the water into the fields.
Unfortunately the extra 5km coincided with my first rain in Spain. Walking in the rain doesn't keep you warm as easily as running does, and with minimal layers on, I caught a chill. By midday I'd completed the 26km and arrived at San Martin del Camino - the most basic of municipal albergues. According to the guide book I have 284km remaining. The book has 12 itinerary days left and I have 13 days before my booked flight on 27th September, so if I just keep to the recommended daily mileage I'll be fine. Some hope!
I really do need to go out and get some food - but I'm tucked up in bed fully clothed, writing my sketch and with a bit of a chill on. Being very lazy.
14th to 15th September
Wednesday was what I would call a transition stage. It took me from the urban outlying towns near Leon, out via the historic town of Astorga and on into the wilds, in preparation for mountains the day after.
I immediately had a spring in my step. Literally, in fact, as my feet were sound and my legs feeling strong like tree trunks. The pain and drudgery of Leon was behind me in more ways than one.
Still early morning, a few kilometres into the day, as I walked in the dark along a narrow path claustrophobically hemmed-in by overhanging trees, I approached a couple of peregrinos. With the nearby noise of the main road, and thinking they probably couldn't hear my approach, I waved my small head-torch to try to alert them. It didn't work. As I drew level with the lady and wished her buen camino, she let out a piercing shriek and jumped out of her skin! I must admit it was very spooky out there. Realisation dawned all around: it was my friends, the beautiful Italian couple, and after the initial shock we warmly greeted each other.
A short time later I came across a welcoming looking desayuno (breakfast) bar, and warmed up by treating myself to a delicious over-sized hot croissant filled with tomato and cheese, plus a cafe con leche. The Italians joined me a short while later and for the first of two consecutive days, convinced me to walk further than I'd intended.
I didn't see them again that day but we actually stayed 20 metres or so apart in the evening at separate albergues in Santa Catalina de Somoza, 32km for the day completed.
This was a remote village, far removed from civilisation, with a new, rough scrub land terrain 1,000 metres above sea level. I felt happier here, although there was no tienda (shop) in the village and I had to dig deep into my pockets to satisfy my hunger with a delicious - but small - paella before the big climbing day tomorrow.
Thursday arrived - I'd planned 37km to Molinaseca until I bumped into my Italian friends again, who were going that bit further into Ponferrada, a much larger town. It made sense so I amended my target.
The first 11km were fairly flat and a good preamble in the dark and twilight, saving the daylight for the magnificent climb ahead.
Around 7:30am I approached a small, run-down village called - I kid you not - El Ganso . It had a ramshackle Cowboy Bar complete with corrugated roof that reminded me of the dirty, malevolent bar in the film Desperados. True, I'm no Antonio Banderas, and I didn't carry a guitar case with or without machine gun, but I felt the vibe nevertheless. I looked out for Salma Hayek and signs of a library but alas I was disappointed!
After the initial 11km I arrived at Rabanal del Camino, at the foot of the climb, and located the Albergue Guacelmo, which I'd found out is run by the British Confraternity of Saint James. I cheerily greeted the hospitaleros, who were clearing up after the departing peregrinos. In return they offered me a tempting cup of tea (declined) and a sello (stamp) for my Credencial (accepted).
The next 26km to Molinaseca was truly one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever encountered. It commenced with a long but steady climb in biting cold, damp and wind up to the summit at 1,505 metres. But I was moving quickly and well wrapped up on my core and extremities, and I was inwardly warm and happy.
Here at the top, in visibility of no more than 20 metres, stands one of the abiding symbols of the pilgrim way of Saint James. The simple tall Cruz Ferro - the Iron Cross - below which was a small mountain of hundreds of thousands of pebbles and rocks.
Tradition has it that each peregrino lays a small stone brought from their homeland, and adds it to the great pile that is a witness to our collective journeying. In addition, it is a time of reflection and regret for sins inflicted on the world and also a time to make a wish for the future.
After some time reflecting on some of the wrong and hurtful actions and mistakes I've made over the course of my lifetime, I turned to a wish for the future. It was appropriate I thought to wish my nephew Alex and Rosie a wonderful wedding day on Saturday and a happy and fulfilling life together.
I have to say I was immensely moved by my short time at the Cruz Ferro - a time I'm sure I'll never forget.
The trail continues on a plateau at 1,500m altitude for another 8 wild and windy kilometres, and then descends sharply to 1,000m in the space of just 3km. I couldn't help myself, I just had to run the descent, which was on a rocky 2m wide trail, surrounded by heather and bracken. Just like the hilly trails of the Scottish Highlands - and with a climate to match. I ran and ran on this difficult, technical descent, but with my years of experience on the West Highland Way I was sure and fleet of foot.
By the time the descent flattened into the mountain village of Acebo, I was exhilarated and metaphorically on Cloud Nine. A further 7km of steadier descent involved in part a "race" with two Italian men, whose natural machismo wouldn't let me overtake them without a fight.
We arrived neck-and-neck at Molinaseca, a picturesque small touristic town down at 600m altitude. After that, over the course of the next seven dreary, road-based kilometres I frequently wished I'd remained there, but once I found the purposed-built modern donativo albergue in the suburbs of Ponferrada, I was glad I'd made the effort, which numerically adds up to 42km, and emotionally and spiritually so much more. Santiago is now 206km away.
16th to 17th September
The large donativo albergue in Ponferrada was nice but the hospitaleros were a little strange; all seemingly too eager to help and it came over as rather fussy and unrelaxed.
A 60-something American called Thomas was volunteering there, and he was so overly helpful it was painful, plus he was so far into my personal space I could hardly breathe. I kept having to back away. Yet when night time came, a man's voice was keeping me (and probably others) awake by talking loudly and incessantly on his mobile phone in the nearby common room area for well over an hour. In the end, at around midnight, I got up to go to the toilet and saw that it was Thomas. So I whispered pleadingly for him to quieten down. The reply was unexpected - and very slurred: "just shut the fucking door then". A large half-empty glass of red wine sat next to him rather apologetically, as if to say "sorry friend, he's drunk". I just left it, but in the morning I played the situation through again and thought that I've probably been like that occasionally. Its not nice but that's how drink can affect people - especially when already highly strung.
In the morning, before I'd even left the city boundary, I bumped into my Italian friends, who had stopped early the day before at Molinaseca. Today would be a very long day for them as we all headed to Trabadelo, 35km for me and 40km for them. I found out his name is Mauro, hers I've yet to master - something like Ditsydia [edit: not at all like that as it transpired].
Later on I almost saw a large snake. "Almost", because a lady I was passing saw it. By the time I'd got my phone out to take a photo, slippery Sid had slithered swiftly and safely South. Shame.
After 25km I walked though the beautiful and ancient town of Villafranca del Bierzo. I should have stopped there for the night, but Mauro had earlier said they were heading 10km further on. Its fatal for anyone to say something like that to me - I then always raise my target! The extra 10km was tough. Harsh concrete underfoot alongside a main road, recently being relieved of most of its traffic with the addition of a new motorway, complete with overhead flyovers and tunnels. When the Camino route did venture into villages, the difference between neighbouring properties was stark: one would be pristine and adorned with beautiful flowers, yet the next would be a slum in need of complete renovation and some even in danger of collapse. The pattern repeated itself many times over.
When I finally arrived in Trabadelo, I ignored the first few albergues and walked 500 metres up the road to the municipal at the other end of the town. People there seemed abrupt and no one smiled. I paid my 5 euros to the impatient lady at the bar and found a bed. But as I was about to undress for a shower, I thought to myself: "I'm not happy here, life's too short". So I walked back down to the first - private - albergue I'd seen that had people eating outside and secured a bed there. Then went back up to the municipal, packed my bag and finally back down to the privado [edit: I did in fact recover my 5 euros from the municipal albergue after some effort].
My intuition and intervention was justified. The new place was lovely and my Italian friends and others that I'd met at Ponferrada all turned up and it was a most pleasant evening in good company.
Today, Saturday, commenced with 10km of flat walking, the first part still on the concrete roadside, then diverted to minor roads where it became much nicer. Just before the climb is a small village called Herrerias at 705m altitude, where - if so inclined or needed - you can hire a caballo (horse) to haul you up the ensuing very steep narrow track to the small hamlet O'Cebreiro at the top. It levels out at 1,300m altitude, a steady 600m climb over a 7km distance. I was in my element - seeming to sprint past everyone effortlessly. I find this so much easier than traipsing along compacted pavements.
As you may be able to tell from the name O'Cebreiro, we're now in Galicia, the Gaelic part of northern Spain, sharing language, customs and relative poverty with some of their Irish, Welsh and Scots cousins.
At the top I was indeed above the clouds, although they were some way away as the day was bright and warming up. I rang both the cars travelling up the M1 towards the family wedding in Halifax, and I also had a nice chat with my Dad In Coventry. My own day was fabulous, although I still had another 20km to go before reaching my destination of Triacastella (three castles) back down in the valley at 670m altitude. On the way down, along a hemmed-in narrow track, I suddenly came across a herd of cows - complete with horns - walking towards me. In the rearguard keeping them in line were two Alsatian dogs. It was obviously my lucky day, so I just looked away, held my breath and squeezed past them without incident. What a townie I am!
The descent was on hard track and my feet were grumbling away at me by the time I shuffled into Triacastella and found a nice modern albergue to rest my limbs. 40km walked today and now with just 133km remaining to reach Santiago de Compostela.
18th to 19th September
I didn't get much sleep at all in Triacastella. The loudest snorer in the world (now that I've lost weight and stopped drinking) was giving his finest rendition and I lay awake wishing I was at the family wedding party in Yorkshire and feeling quite alone.
So Sunday morning was a sluggish start, and my sleepiness made me go the wrong way out of the village. Luckily, shortly after, because I couldn't see any way markers, I checked the map, realised my error and retraced my steps.
Yet again I bumped into my Italian friends, Mauro and Tiziana - as I now know she's called - for a short while. Mauro mentioned that he was going to book their flights that evening, and as the day progressed, I began to query my original plan to carry on to Finisterre - the End of the World- after Santiago.
After 18km I arrived at Sarria. This town is significant as it is the starting point for many - in fact most - peregrinos. The rules for obtaining a Compostela in Santiago - in effect a certificate of completion - state that you must have walked a minimum of 100km or cycled at least 200km. Sarria, at 115km from Santiago - is the final town before this milestone.
I didn't see many walkers in Sarria as they had all started earlier. However, as I progressed rapidly on up a steady but long climb towards my evening destination, I began to pass many new peregrinos. One large Spanish group were recanting prayer together - the first time on the Camino I'd encountered this.
Another change in the Camino is that I passed many, many local dogs - all off the lead and nearly all being Alsatian or German Shepherd breeds. Anyone who knows me knows my canine fears - but these all seemed to be content with their last meal - and resisted any urges they may have had to try pink British flesh.
Near my destination I skipped energetically past an Englishman with his two European (Romanian as I later discovered) companions. Not far enough out of earshot I heard the Englishman say to his friends that my enthusiasm was a result of having just started at Sarria. With a broad smile on my face I turned round and said I was on Day 20 and had started at St Jean in France. He uttered profuse apologies as I chuckled to myself on my way.
I stopped at the last albergue before the descent, at Ferreiros (meaning blacksmith), 32km for the day, 101km away from Santiago. The bar took the privado albergue bookings, but when I pulled a face at the 10 euro cost, the kind lady directed me 50 metres down a side road to the local Xunta ("municipal" in Galicean) albergue, where I managed to save a whole 4 euros! After showering and washing my clothes, with my good fortune I treated myself to a mixed salad. It was delicious but again disappointingly small.
One major change I made while I was there was to amend my flight home. After chatting with Mauro earlier, I realised I just didn't want to hang around Santiago for five or six days or to walk to Finisterre before flying back to Stansted on 27th. So I checked my options and booked a cheap early morning train to Madrid for Thursday, and a flight from there to Birmingham on Friday. The total extra cost of £85 will be negated by five days' less food and lodgings spending in Spain [edit: the money still somehow disappeared - Santiago is an expensive place].
Just as I was finishing my meal the three walkers I'd passed pulled in for the evening, and I had a really nice chat with them. It turned out that the Englishman is married to the Romanian lady, and the other one is her brother. An odd mix but they all seemed happy. The brother was old enough to remember the communist days of Nicolae Ceaucescu. It wasn't all doom and gloom, he recounted: cultural life was much better then as there was little "fun" to distract them. Although I gathered Ceaucescu could have taught George Osbourne a thing or two about austerity - long after it was necessary.
In the evening I returned to the bar and treated myself to a Peregrino menu dinner at 9 euros: warming Galicean soup of potato, white beans and cabbage, fried chicken and chips and a yogurt. It was simply delicious.
I was again on my own in the albergue for a few hours before a nice Spaniard turned up. This was his seventh Camino - all starting in different places. Then three very pleasant young Italian ladies arrived and that was it for the night.
I'd set my alarm for 6am Monday morning and with no one else stirring, I grabbed my things and packed in the dining room. For some reason it always takes me precisely 30 minutes each morning on the Camino to dress, toilet and pack.
So at 6:30 on the dot I set off in pea soup fog high up in the hills with 90 minutes of darkness, rocky descents and loose Alsatians to really spook me. You'll be glad to know I survived unscathed and after an hour bumped into a German man and shortly after - would you believe it - my Italian friends yet again. I mentioned to Mauro and Tiziana that I was going to try to get 40km done today, and their pulled faces indicated to me that they wouldn't be doing the same. Hopefully I'll see them one last time in Santiago on Wednesday if not before. Meeting them regularly has given me a real lift: Its quite lonely sometimes on my own out here.
Not long after 8am I descended into Portomarin over the narrow-pathed vertigo-inducing bridge. On leaving the town I was amazed at all the peregrinos I saw. Throngs of them setting off for their day's pilgrimage. Over the next hour I must have overtaken around 300 walkers, with the stream reducing to a trickle as I progressed rapidly along. By the time I reached the town of Palas de Rei, only a few had preceded me there, sitting outside the restaurants with their nice lunches and inviting-looking glasses of cerveza (beer). My habit though is to walk through and only stop once I reach my daily destination. This usually entails around 7 hours of broadly continuous walking. I'm quite unusual amongst peregrinos in this regard.
I finally stopped 6 or 7km past Palas de Rei, at a tiny hamlet called Casanova, no less, and settled in at the Xunta (municipal) albergue. Once again there was no tienda (shop) so I treated myself to a large mixed salad dressed in a mountain of olive oil, followed by hot black tea and a bar of dark chocolate. I don't think I'll need an evening meal tonight.
For those interested in the numbers, I walked exactly 40km today, leaving 61km remaining to reach Santiago. The hope is that tomorrow I'll managed another big day, leaving a relatively short walk into Santiago on Wednesday so that I can immerse myself in this wonderful city for much of the day.
20th to 21st September
Well Tuesday was supposed to be just a transition day - getting the kilometres done to set me up for a grand finale the following day.
But it didn't happen that way. True, it started off to script: I walked and walked... and walked. Candidly I didn't enjoy the terrain. The guide books would describe the trails as beautiful, I'm sure. But these sunken paths with hemmed-in borders provided no view at all. I wondered if they were sunken because of the millions of feet treading their way over hundreds of years?
Twenty kilometres passed, then thirty, thirty-five and eventually forty - and my stop for the night. I don't know what happened but I must have misread a sign that was trying to take me off the Camino onto the approach road into O Pedrouzo. It was a couple of kilometres further on when it dawned on me that I'd sailed right past the town, having walked 42km so far.
So go back, yes? No, of course, no! Never go back in life, especially if your feet won't forgive you next morning.
Being the wooden-headed, stubborn mule that I am, I carried on towards Santiago. A further 5km on, I came across a bar/hotel, and half-heartedly asked if they had a bed. "No we're full, but we can get a taxi to take you to our sister hotel and you can sleep there - 45 euros please". Er, no thank you!
By now I was beginning to get excited - strange as it may seem. I could envisage me making it into Santiago - maybe around 7 - 7:30pm. I read from the guide book that the Credencial Office that awards you your Compostela certificate remains open until 8 or 9pm. I was motivated - and my feet were sore but holding up.
Three hours later one tired but elated peregrino arrived into Santiago de Compostela. As is the way with these larger cities, the suburbs and city take forever to pass until finally it was there: the Cathedral. I was so happy, and took a selfie to celebrate the moment.
Then I made my way to the Credencial office, where I joined a queue of fellow peregrinos. I appeared to be the only new entrant - everyone else was in civvy clothes. But then how many other idiots would walk 61km in 12 hours to arrive at 7pm?
A young English brother and sister were immediately behind me in the queue, and they were very helpful and supportive. He'd started from Sarria, 115km away, and she'd joined him for the last three days. But instead of feeling smug I realised how lucky I was to be able to spend as much time as I needed to complete the Camino.
After around half an hour it was my turn to see the official. He grilled me (nicely) about my journey. "22 days, you've cycled, si?" "No senor, I've walked." "Bravo!"
I received my Compostela - written in Latin, with a Latin version of my first name added. I was thrilled. Its just a piece of paper... but so much more. The official shook my hand and wished me "buen camino".
Afterwards, I retraced my steps back to the Cathedral, and the busy bar area just above. A kindly Scots couple from Aberdeen took pity on me, asking about my day and my Camino. I said I needed to find a bed, and they took me a short way to a hotel they were staying at and helped me secure the last room available. I still had the presence of mind to check the room out first and barter slightly down from 55 to 45 euros. The sting in the tail was that it was on the top - fourth - floor, with no lift. But for some reason I bounded up those stairs, strong from 22 continuous days averaging 35km walking per day.
I took a leisurely shower, washed my day clothes for the 22nd and last time, changed and went out. I'm quite proud that I was selective enough to pass at least two bars before I succumbed and found a nice small place to chill and enjoy a couple of beers of Estrella Galicia. It was nice, but I was tired. In fact the beer made me feel feint, and so I retired to my room and had a good sleep.
What a luxury it was to wake up late and refuse to get up! And I also took a morning shower. Bliss!
Once a long time ago I was accused at work by influential people of resisting change. It stung because in the business world this is of course a big insult: "That man's not prepared to move with the times."
This morning, Wednesday, I resisted change yet again and returned to the previous evening's bar for breakfast. Cafe con leche, croissant and tostada (toast). Yummy. And guess where I came back later?
Around 10am I retraced my Camino steps of last night for 2-3km to see if I came upon my Italian friends Tiziana and Mauro. Mauro messaged me last night to say they still had 23km to walk. But I didn't come across them, and so I returned to the hotel, packed my rucksack, left it at reception and checked out.
Asking questions in life is a good thing. Especially if you're stuck in the wrong queue at the Cathedral! An American group behind me who were waiting to see the statue of St James put me right and guided me to the right queue for midday pilgrim mass, and gave me a tip to sit at the sides so I could see the swinging incense urn.
Once inside I secured a fantastic position. For some reason not many people wanted to stand up (sore feet?) but I was fine with that and enjoyed a premier position very close to the central mass area.
Firstly, a strict sounding multi-lingual official warned us not to take photos before the end, and then a nun with the voice of an angel warmed the congregation up and taught or reminded us of the songs we needed to join in on.
The the priests arrived in full regalia, and the mass took place in Spanish. It was very solemn and structured, and included beautiful singing and organ playing. Near the end, when all the Catholics came up to receive the mass, I admit I was a little overcome by the occasion.
Finally, some of the priests then swung the incense urn, which was most spectacular. At this point it seemed we were able to take photos, and I had the presence of mind to record the dramatic display on video.
Afterwards I looked all around the Cathedral for Tiziana and Mauro but to no avail. So I went outside and scoured first the plaza and then I ventured down to the Credencial Office but still couldn't find them.
I gave up and returned to the Cathedral, and then I spotted a familiar, spiky hairstyle in the distance. It was Mauro and Tiziana, and I ran and met them. As it happened, they'd just arrived in Santiago at that moment, and Tiziano just broke down in tears. It was an emotional meeting after such a hard journey. We collared another peregrino to take a photo of us, and then went together back to my bar and relaxed over a few beers.