A Travellerspoint blog

First day on the Meseta

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Burgos was yet another beautiful city. Spacious and unpretentious, ancient and modern at the same time. I'd felt the same about Pamplona and Logrono. Was it that the architects, town planners and city fathers of each generation were heavenly inspired and loaded with pesatas or was it that the Camino brought me to these cities in a different way. Normally I arrive in a new city by car, bus or train. I have no sense of the place until I arrive into a car park or bus station, hardly the most inspiring of beginnings. Most often I am not quite sure where I am in the city and have a task to complete, sometimes it is pleasurable, sometimes not. An entry into the city on the Camino is different. You walk into it; slowly slowly you transition into it. You get used to it's smells, it's buildings, whether the people look at you or respond to your smile. The fact that you are walking into it means that you have some orientation before you arrive. For me, one of the thrills was spotting the spire of the cathedral or cathedrals from a distance. You knew that was where the Camino was taking you, albeit slowly slowly. Pamplona, Logrono and Burgos are all ancient ones, built by a river for defensive purposes and thus overflowing, with bridges and defensive city gates. So the final thrill of arrival into the city was to cross the river over some ancient bridge, enter through some splendid huge, solid city gate and a few minutes later, arrive in the central Plaza towered over by the Cathedral. Pure magic. But fair play to the modern city planners, the cities remain spacious and airy and welcoming. Pamplona deserves special mention. They have some fantastic modern architecture right next to the ancient stuff. Not only does it work, but it adds to the old. I was impressed

In Burgos I stayed in the Davina Pastora Albergue, a small little room with 13 beds above a chapel. When the chapel bell rang every fifteen minutes the floorboards gently shook. Far from being annoying, it calmed the senses. Which could not be said for the 3 Korean men who were amongst my fellow pilgrims. The Koreans are usually the very essence of politeness and good manners. These 3 had obviously missed going to charm school. During the night they switched the main light on and off on many occassions, failed to shut the door when they were having a pee and when they arose at 5am, had a full scale and heated debate on something. I was raging. When you are raging at 5am, it is hard to get back to sleep. So at 5.45am I was out of the alberque and rapidly pacing through the streets of Burgos in the dark. The next stage of the trip was through the Meseta and I think I was feeling a bit nervous of what was to come. So, pounding through the streets in the dark seemed like the best way to block it out. Twenty minutes later I was greeted with the customary 'buen camino' by an increasing number of pilgrims going in ther opposite direction to me. When the 7th or 8th had passed me by I realised I was going the wrong way, heading back to St Jean Pied du Port. Ooops, glad I spotted that in time.

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The Meseta is a high plateau covering a fair part of central spain. It is reputedly incredibly hot and inhospitable. Very few people choose to live there, they say the only thing that seems to flourish is unending fields of barley, wheat and oats. I had heard that this stage of the Camino (from Burgos to Leon) was incredibly dull, mind numbingly dull infact and that the intensity of light and heat could be quite overwhelming. I wasn't looking forward to it at all. I had images of myself evaporating, or melting into a puddle of wax at some godforsaken spot in the middle of nowhere. To die so early into my 2 year career break would be so unfair, so I vowed that after 2 weeks of dawldling, I would move up into third gear. And so, after turning to face the right direction, I speed off towards Hornillos del Camino, my first sleep stop on the Meseta. What followed was utterly magical. Yes it was just a path through barley and wheat fields, but there was something about the vastness, the emptyness, the silence and the light that was so so special, so bloody elating. Give me more of this I thought, I don't want it to stop. And then out of nowhere a village appeared. It had been hidding in a depression in the plateau. It was Hornillos. It had one long empty street, the same sense of hushed silence and emptyness. In my head the soundtrack from a spaghetti Western was playing and tumbleweed was rolling down the street. There seemed to be no one there. And then I arrived at the Albergue next door to the Church, where it seemed half the world's population were queued up for a bed. It was 11.15 and the Alberque didn't open till 12.30. 11.15!!!! How the hell did I get there so fast? I didn't ponder long on that question, but congratulated myself at having turned into an Olympic speed walker overnight and promptly went for a beer. (The church, the bar and the Alberque all within 20 metres od each other, what more could a girl ask for?) I loved Hornillos, I can't quite describe why. I think it's somethying to do with the 'atmosphere' or 'energy' which is created by the heat, the high altitude and the emptyness. Honestly, it felt a bit like being drugged. After the usual daily routine I awoke at 5pm and stumbled out of bed to go outside for some oxygen. I happened upon those poor poor Pilgrims who had been walking during the middle of the day. Dear God, they were in a bad state, a bit like the zombie movie of the first night in Roncesvalles, but minus the water. Apparently this is the same every afternoon; the heat builds up to unbearable levels and as there is no shade and no water, people become very dehydrated and unwell. I was fine and dandy and high on whatever drug was in the air. I had a sociable early evening and then disappeared off into a field for a couple of hours to contemplate my navel. At lights out time I knew I was in for a rough night. Not only were the dreaded Koreans two bunks down from me, but my bed was next to the entrance for the kitchen, an entrance with no door. That meant I would be awoken as soon as people arrived there for brekkie, often as early as 4.30am. That was it. If you can't beat em, join them. I was going to get up early, walk 30 km and try and get a place in one of the famous Albergues, St Nicholas in Itero de la Vega.

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Posted by noratheexplorer 13:18 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The sun came out and the party began (but lights out at ten)

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After a further day of rain, the Spanish sun came out in all it´s glory. The previously grouchy and soggy pilgrims were quick to blossom into happy and sunburnt versions of their former selves. The walking was beautiful; from ancient village to village, along little paths through fields and meadows scattered with wild flowers. Poppies where everywhere, especially amongst the fields of wheat. Occassionaly blasts of the scent of honeysuckle and what I thought was Jasmine could almost knock you off your feet. And loads of wee birdies scurrying across your path. I know it reads like a huge cheesy cliche, but their is no other way I can put it. Honestly, it was like heaven, like magic. I was besides myself with happiness, feeling so priviledged to be there and to be alive to what was going on. I am writing this some three weeks later, from cold, wet and windy Galicia. I tell you, it seems like a dream ( a dream in which I am not wearing all my smelly unwashed clothes on top on each other in a bid to keep warm). As always, the most special time for me was walking during the first hour or two of the morning. I don´t know if that fits for anyone else, but for me their is always something more magical about the air and life that time of the day, as well as I myself being more open and alert and alive. Given that at home I am rarely able to crawl out of the cot before 9am, being up with the larks is so special.

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Later in the blog I will no doubt devote much time to ranting about dormitory life and in particular, being awoken from 4.30am by 'bag russlers'.For the time being I will calmly state that I was generally up by 6 and walking by 7. My first cafe con leche would be consumed anytime between 8 and 10 after which, the next main event in my daily life was the initial sweat of the day . This began with the sweaty moustache, moving to the sweaty forehead, then the back and then a stage which is best described as completely drenched. By 11.30 it was time to get some food, find some shade, take off the boots and enjoy. I tell you, the pleasure of knowing you were up at the crack of dawn and had been out in nature with no agenda other than putting one foot infront of the other. Pure magic. During that first week I needed to be finished walking and out of the sun by 1 or 2 at the very latest. And so began another routine, the ´what happens when you get to the Alberque´ routine.

Here goes. Of upmost importance is getting your clothes washed. This normally involves filling a bucket with cold water, lobbing in a dash of travel wash, or a bit of soap if someone has left it behind by accident. The gear gets dunked in it, sloshed around for a minute of two (which is always a minute or two too long for me, I hate hand washing) and then rinsed. I am under no illusion that this process cleans the item in any way, it is all psychological. But psychology will have to do when there is no hot water or intensive wash cycles, never mind a washing machine. When I put on my top the next morning, a brief whiff of ´clean´ remained for maybe 2 minutes, after which the pong returned and I get a great whiff of what I smelt like yesterday and the day before and the day before......... But I digress. After the washing has happened it is crucial that you rapidly find somewhere to hang it up in the sun. This is ensure it is dry for the next morning. If you stay in an Alberque with little or no outside space, the sunny spots are at a premium . So speed is of the essence and deep breath can be heard once you have pegged your items to the hot spot and the day can proceed at a more leisurely pace. Normally I would have a shower first before going for a snooze, but in that first week, pure physical exhaustion is an everyday reality and often you creep into your sleeping bag fully odourous. So with an aching body, you enter a delerious sleep for at least a couple of hours before waking up absolutely ravenous. In that first week it was usually about 5pm by the time I got up again. I would stagger out of the Alberque to be almost knocked over by the heat, which always seemed to have intensified even further since I retreated indoors. I´d be in a small village, sometimes with a population of less than 50, no shop, no nothing with the exception of a church which of course was always locked. What is a girl to do before the door is locked and lights are put out at 10pm?

And thus a strange time warp experience would begin. It started gently on the first night in Obanos. I found Obanos a beautiful, calm, serene village with a glorious open plaza overlooking the surrounding country side. There seemed to be no-one there, just a possey of dive-bombing swallows. Thank god there was a bar, so I knew I would be fed that night. After about 5 seconds of deep breathing and contemplation in the plaza I headed straight to the bar and ordered a small beer, modest girl that I am. Ten minutes later a hobbling bearded boy arrived at the table, Connor from Dublin. He bought me a beer and I bought him one back. Then John from Brazil arrived. I had met him that first night in Roncevalles, he was quite camp and very entertaining. He had been walking with Connor, so more beers bought etc etc. Some food was eaten, we were joined by the other 3 Pilgrims who were staying in the village, some of whom chatted, some of whom were silent. Then suddenly it was 9.55. And like hobbling Cinderellas, we all rushed back to the Alberque before the all important 10 o´clock lights out time. It was my first time being in a dorm with only men. I will be polite here, but need to say that the previously silent John from Germany was no longer silent. And I am not referring to snoring. At various points in the night I thought we were being assailed by gun fire, fighter jets and bulldozers. I am now almost 4 weeks into the trip and John still holds numero uno position in the flatulence sweep stakes.

The time warp thingey was even better on the second evening post rain. I didn´t even need to leave the Albergue for the party to begin. When I staggered downstairs who was at the bar only Ian from England and Dermot Number 1, from Carlow, both of whom I had also met before. I behaved myself and remained on Coke (full fat, teeth rotting Coke is sooooooooo delicious and I allow myself at least one can a day, sometimes 2. I am walking on the wild side, Man). The population of Lorca is about 20 and there is nothing in the village other than the 2 Alberques. This means that the Albergue´s prepare a meal for you in the evenings. Occassionally this can be a nightmare, especially if you are surrounded by sour faced Frenchies, but I will reserve my venom for lemon sucking French people for another time. So, arround the table are the 3 of us English speakers, 3 German girls who shared the room with me without making eye contact, 2 Italians, 2 French ( 5 out of 10 on the lemon sucking scale) and a Belgian. The Belgian is about 60 and is a bundle of energy. He has walked 50 kilometres ( I can manage 22 tops) that day and is babbling like a mad man. I don´t know what language they speak in Belguim, so am unclear who can understand him. Next thing he whips out a box of condoms from his bum bag and I think makes sign language to one of the German girls about his intentions. Much hilarity ensues and inbetween courses, humour evolves that would make ´Allo ´Allo and the Benny Hill Show blush. Even I am entertained. Dear God, even the French start to laugh. About an hour later I make my exit, a big thunderstorm is coming and I want to see the fork lightening. So I am standing in the street and who comes out of the other Albergue only Connor, who tells me to come in quick as another Dermot was in full swing. Now Dermot Number 2 was something to behold. A skinny stretch of a man in shabby clothes reciting Patrick Kavanagh. I thought he might be a Vagabond, not that I really knew what a vagabond was. I asked him if he was a wandering minstrel, he replied that he used to work for Aer Lingus (oh the reality of life is not so romantic). He then began singing, followed by more poems then more singing but thankfully no dancing. I was mesmerised. And then it was 10 O´clock and the night was over again. I was having a ball.

Estella was next, a beautiful town in full swing due to Fiesta time. Then Los Arcos. I bagged a bed in a lovely posh Albergue where amongst other things I met 5 different Irish women ( a sign of things to come, it really was like Paddyville at one point). That night the village were having their annual running of the bulls. Bloody hell I thought, what´s the chances of meandering into a village and stumbling acros that. I think that is one of the beautys of the Camino, your only job is to put one foot infront of the other and see where it takes you. And it takes you to amazing landscapes and people and food and festivities with no effort at all. You just stumble upon them. For the bulls, the circuit around the village was sealed off by large wooden gates, so the option was there to watch safely from a distance behind the gates. After 2 minutes I´d had enough and climbed over the gates, only loosing a little of my dignity (one´s hips wouldn´t be the most flexible after a days walking). I sat on a bench beside an old Spanish man, I reckoned that if the bull came towards us yer man would be an even slower jumper than me and hence an easier option for the bull to gore to death. And yes, the bull did come within arms length of me on a number of occassions and yes I was frightened. The reality was that I found the whole thing very pointless. Those poor animals just running round a circuit with people goading them. Then them loosing the rag a bit, running a bit more, falling over (apparently they can´t run curves????) and on and on and on, for two hours. Yawn. I went and had a massage from a funny looking Spanish man called Jesus (of Los Arcos, not Nazereth).
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Then it was Vianna, another beautiful town with beautiful buildings on an elevated position overlooking the surrounding countryside. The weather was glorious and I was utterly utterly happy. Paddy´s army had continued to grow and much to my amusement (40%) and horror (60%) I learnt that I would be sharing my very large dormitory (with 3 tiers of bunk beds) with 36 transition year students from Wexford. I reckoned their were now more Irish people in Vianna than in County Leitrim. It was at this point that I met Cornelius. Let me explain. For over a week I had repeatedly heard about Cornelius, reputedly a 76 year old Irish man just recovering from prostrate cancer. Con was said to walk the Camino every year and to be the very essence of intelligence, chivalory and wit. As I was heading to the shower I noticed that Dermot Number 1 had luckily bagged the bottom bunk and beside him was a skinny thing who appeared to be talking very loudly. I said hi to Dermot Number 1 and was instantly bombarded with a monologue from the aforementioned skinny one, a monologue in which every detail of his life (in which I was not interested) was recounted to me. Thus I heard about his age, his health status, his wife´s health problem, how much money he raises for charity every year, what brand of toothpaste he uses, his favourite brand of biscuits, his IQ score 40 years ago and on and on and on and on. My jaw was on the floor. He stopped and fair play to him, asked me why I was walking the Camino. I paused to compose my reply. Bad decision. Thus began another torrent of information about his life (his children´s mental health problems (I wonder why? No I don´t wonder why), his dog´s IQ score, what he had for dinner last January 14th etc etc). He then joked that I would be on the top bunk as I, as a woman liked to be in control. Oh, that was the last straw. And thus began a war. The only war of my entire trip. I locked horns and began battle with a 76 year old. It only lasted less than 24 hours and it was very childish of me, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I learnt 2 things. Firstly that just because you are 76 and walk the Camino every year does not necessarily mean that you are wise. Secondly, that I do occassionally love a good fight. Oh and that at times I am a brat.

The next morning I walked to Logrono. It´s a beautiful, small and friendly city on the river and the centre of the wine trade in La Rioja. I was there last September when I walked from there to the next city along the Camino, Burgos. It´s just over 100 kilometres and takes about 5 days. I decided to not repeat it again ( I hear the majority of the male readers gasping in horror and the majority of the female ones thinking, sensible girl. I took the bus instead. Result.

Posted by noratheexplorer 12:02 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The rain in Spain fell mainly on our Jane

First (sogging wet) steps on a 900k walk

For the few of you who don't know, I've been very excited about walking the Camino Frances for a very very long time. It is the most popular of the 12 pilgimage paths that lead to the tomb of St James in the city of Santiago De Compostela, in the North West of Spain. It's an ancient 780k footpath that has been walked by pilgrims for at least 1200 years. In fact they reckon the Druids tip toe-d the same route a very long time before the Christians got their hands on it. Their pilgimage was to pay homage not to St James, but to the Sun and ended 100k west of Santiago, on the Atlantic coast at a place called Finesterre. Finis meaning end and terre meaning earth. At the time they thought the world was flat, hence they walked to where the sun went down, to the end of the earth. Those who know me are well aware of my tree hugging tendancies, hence my own journey will take me to Finesterre, a total of 980 k, I think.

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My starting point was in the french village of St Jean Pied de Port, a small place completely jam packed with hundreds and hundreds of nervous pilgrims, waiting to begin their journey. The bugger factor is that the hardest 60 k of the pilgrimage are the first 2 days from St Jean. Basically you are crossing a very high Pyerenese mountain pass, without nothing between St Jean and the next village, Roncesvalles, about a 7 hour climb away. On arriving at my hostel I promptly decided I was knackered and rather than beginning the ordeal I would take a rest day! Dear God, my lack of drive is a source of constant amazement to me. So the next morning I checked out of the hostel at 7am (you are booted out at 8), found myself another place to dump my bag and started to wander round. About 10 seconds later the heavens opened and torrential rain, thunder, lightening and hail stones the size of my finger nail began their attack on the town. By 11 there was no let up and as I has nowhere to go until the hostel opened at 2 I decided the only thing to do was to get drunk. This is very unusual behaviour for me. However I reckoned it would pass an hour or two and even better, I could put the afternoon in by sleeping off the vin rouge. And so the festivities began. I turned up at my (catholic) hostel with stained teeth and red wine breath and duly crawled into my sleeping bag where I had a great 3 hour doze. I awoke to find the dormitory had begun to fill up. 2 men in their fifties were unpacking their rucsacs. Marc had started his pilgrimage in Antwerp, a mere 3 months walk away. Geey was a light weight, he had only been on the road for 6 weeks. They told me I looked tired, had I had a long walk that day? I told them I had walked the equivalent of around the block and then delibarately got drunk. Ah they said, you must be stressesd, has work been difficult for you? I told them I had jut got back from 2 weeks of slobbing around in Greece. Oooh they said and walked away. I don't blame them.

The rain pelted down all night but lured us all into a false sense of security when it morphing into drizzle when we left at 7am. Sure we'd be grand, the worst was over.

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Within ten minutes the crazy rain returned, within an hour my rain gear completely gave up and I was drenced to my underwear. It was 5 degrees, the wind was howling, I was unfit, had an 10 kilo pack on my back and it was steeply uphill all the way. That was for 8 hours. All I had was a bannna and a pack of chocy biscuits to eat. My hands were so swollen and stiff with the cold that I wasnt even able to open the biscuits. Now all that would have been slighty acceptable if I were climbing a mountain in Ireland with my winter walking gear. But this was feckin Northern Spain and in mid May. Of course everyone was in the same boat. A lot of people had never been up a mountain before, many were wearing trainers, many in flimsy little showerproof jackets. Dear God, I was one of the lucky ones. When we arrived at the Pilgrim's hostel, called an Alberque the scene in the dorm resembled something from a zombie movie. Bunk after bunk littered with bodies in various states of exhaustion. Those who were up were hobbling. Every available space was hung with dripping wet clothes and that doesn't just mean our rain gear. Despite our rucsacs having waterproof covers, our gear was soaking, clothes, pyjamas, towel, sleeping bag, the lot. Imagine taking off your wet clothes, having a shower and drying yourself with a wet towel before putting on wet clothes. It was not pleasant I can tell you. But I was lucky, my sleeping bag was only wet at the bottom. The great thing was that we were able to maintain humour about our situation. Later that evening as we hobbled around their were many raised eye brows, smiles and giggles. We had gone through a bit of a nightmare and there was probably more to come, but we were all in this together. ( I later heard that on the previous day a horse had been struck dead by lightening. On the subsequent day there had been snow and high winds and a number of people had to be air lifted off the mountains. In other words, we were lucky with the weather!!!). As expected the rain failed to let up during the night and as we were booted out of the Albergue at 7am, clad in damp clothes and wet socks and boots, I think you could describe the collective spirit as low. It was still lashing out of the heavens, but we knew the climb would be much much less severe that day. That was correct. Unfortunately we hadn't figured on paths that were now ankle depth in mud and streams that had swollen their banks. Now I'm not talking about the Ganges here, just little rivers that were no longer little, little rivers that we had to walk through On many an occassion we had to just walk through, literally up to our calves. So to say our feet were wet would be an under representation. So in the lashing rain we squelched and slid along muddy paths and walked through streams, but knew in our hearts that when we hung up our stuff that night, the worst would be over (unless a bad case of trench foot kicked in. Suddenly I was a big fan of Wilfred Owen again). And 7 hours later it was over. We arrived in Zubiri, booked into a private Albergue where I had the luxury of an 8 beddded dorm with 2 showers, a loo and no men (ie bearable levels of snoring). I had a lovely hot shower and headed to the closest bar where within minutes I had vinto tinto, meatballs and pimento peppers stuffed with salted cod. And then more vinto tinto. Two german women turfed up and more vino tinto ensued. They were good fun, so we had more vino tinto to celebrate. The bar filled up with more and more pilgrims, all in a celebratory mood. It was like party central. Yet again it was the sense that we had all been in the same nightmare together and had survived it. More vino tinto. And at 80 c a glass who could blame us.

Posted by noratheexplorer 04:01 Archived in France Comments (1)

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