Monday, June 21, 2010

Arca - only 21km left!!!

It´s honestly hard, very hard to believe for me, but the morning after tomorrow I´ll be in Santiago! Today is the last walk, about 20km to a monastery well within Santiago but outside the old city walls. The following morning I´ll walk through the gate into the old city and start all the procedures there for the compostela and the visit of the cathedral (a very high security operation as up to 1900 pilgrims arrive every day and its a prime target for terrorist threats - no bags allowed, x-rays, etc.). So, technically, I´m arriving today, and on wednesday I´ll cease being a pilgrim.
I am full of very mixed emotions. On the one hand I´m so excited and happy to be arriving, on the other terribly sad to leave my life as a pilgrim behind. I wish I could´ve written more often in my blog as I have hardly had a chance to describe the amount of wonderful things I´ve seen and experienced. My overall feeling on most days was that of incredible happiness. The beautiful landscapes, birds, flowers, churches and encounters with people from the areas and other pilgrims, it was worth every bit of hardship - and the camino isn´t easy, it´s hard.
It has changed now since Sarria, it´s full of pilgrims doing just the last 100km. That´s just a week´s holiday for people from Spain: 5 days walking (20km per day) and 2 days in Santiago. Though they´re now suffering with stiff muscles like we did at the beginning it´s impossible to even imagine what it means to struggle along more than 800km to reach the desired destination - and I wouldn´t want to miss this experience for all the money in the world! The camino since Sarria has become very commercial as well, and people don´t greet each other any more - well, I still do, and so does Paulo, a guy from Brazil with whom I´m walking the last two days and about whom I´d love to tell you more, but my money is running out and I need to leave. So many things I couldn´t tell you about, I hope you got a little idea of what I was up to, and maybe you want to try for yourself. For me it´s been amazing, and a religious, spiritual and cultural revelation. Though RTE were trying to sell the Camino as a great holiday destination on their holiday show I truly believe that it is something that´ll call you - and take your time! Don´t race through it, you´ll miss so much it has to offer. On my card it says: "Go your path with courage, have no fear of being criticised by others, and most importantly, don´t get paralysed by your own doubts. " I´ve seen the camino transform lives here - handicapped people loosing their fear and becoming self confident, shy people blossoming etc. etc. I´m the most lucky person to have had this opportunity. See you all later!!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Portomarin - crossed the 100km mark, and saved a hawk!

I can´t believe it - I crossed the 100km mark!! I´ve actually walked more than 700km at this stage and have a little less than 100 ahead of me! If anyone at this stage uses public or any other form of transport your not entitled to the Compostela at the end. The last 100km are a MUST if you want the Compostela (or the last 200km if you´re a cyclist). So therefore it´s really important to be in top condition once you reach that all important 100km mark. All of that went through my head when lying sick in my bunk bed in Villafranca. The people in the albergue wanted to drive me up to the top of the mountain the following morning, to O´Cebreiro, but I felt so much like a cheat! It´s a pretty steep climb and hadn´t I trained extensively in the mountains between Oviedo and Leon for stuff like this? On the other hand maybe I should allow myself another day rest for my body to really recover?
The next morning I felt much better and asked them not to drive me all the way to the top but to La Faba, about 6km below the top. At least I wanted to walk that bit up, and what a great walk it was. Steep uphill with an amazing view of the surrounding mountains. Sunshine with a little cloud and a light cold wind blowing, absolute heaven. When I remember how I huffed and puffed climbing up the Pyreness, and now? One dose of Ventolin and I am good to go - I think I´m actually very fit at this stage :))
I crossed the border into Galicia and a while later O´Cebreiro eventually came into sight: the village with the Holy Grail! Well, not actually thee grail, but nevertheless the GALICIAN GRAIL, I suppose that´s impressive enough. Legends has it that one windy , snowy night a farmer came all the way up to O´Cebreiro to attend mass. The priest, not impressed with the low attendance rate of "1" didn´t want to celebrate mass but the farmer was a bit pig headed, as farmers are, and insisted. Then the wine turned to blood and the bread into flesh, and thus revealed the Galician Grail itself. And it´s still there and you can take a close look!
Apart from the Grail it´s an absolutely enchanting village: round (!)houses with thatched roofs. I had originally planned on staying there and taking care of my tummy, but since it was only slightly cramping I decided to move on across the mountains and not to feel like a total wimp. I walked actually 17km that day, to an amazing albergue, furnished with thick logs on the inside. Even the bunk beds were made out of logs and the windows were all panoramic with an endless view across the mountains. I slept like a baby. The next morning the view was gone. We were engulfed in clouds and I could see the early risers from albergues before this one march by in rain ponchos and big jackets....., while I enjoyed my brekkie with a hot chocolate ;) It cleared up though and the walk that day was almost easy. Apart from my insides I have hardly any pains in my legs or feet any more. I´m well used to the weight of my backpack and if I hadn´t had the twitchy tummy with the heartburn everything would´ve almost been 100%. But you can feel that things have changed: way more people are on the road and the fight for sleeping places, the getting up early, the rushing and running has even more increased. I am still determined not to let all this craziness affect me. I´m still the last to leave the albergues and I might arrive at 6pm if that´s the way it is. I trust to find a bed, and if not, I have my tent with me. But queueing at the door of closed albergues from before 1pm on to secure a bed and get into fights with other pilgrims, running past everything that is beautiful or interesting, no, that won´t happen to me. What´s the point of bringing your everyday stress onto the Camino?!
The next day I found another great albergue, the day after all was full and I slept in the tent. A frechman lost his nerve and screamed for a taxi to bring him to Portomarin. After all the walking on old roman mountain paths and mud he just couldn´t hack it any more. And so I crossed the 100km mark the following morning. I still can´t believe it - I walked 700km, across mountains and plains, through forests and fields, while the countrysides were changing, people´s dialects were changing, types of buildings changing, miles falling away behind me, and now Santiago is so near! While walking down towards the big lake of Portomarin I saw a bird on the side of the road ahead of me. First I thought it was a goose because of the sheer size but then I realised it was a hawk. Hit by a car with a badly broken wing. Now, I know a little about hunting birds and how to handle them, and totally love them. So I was able, with the necessary precautions, to pick him up and to carry him towards Portomarin. A spanish guy had joined forces with me and together we tried to find out if there was a veterinarian in town. Unfortunately for the beautiful bird there wasn´t, but a woman showed us the way to the Guarda Civil. The policeman there called the animal welfare and they said they would send a vet over within the next 30 - 60 min. I do hope they were able to stabilise his wing for healing. He wasn´t hurt anywhere else on his body and a he was a young, strong bird. He was just too young and silly to know he couldn´t compete with a car....... Here, have a look - and until next time. Keep your fingers crossed for my last 100km!! :)

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Villafranca - I had it coming ;)

Well, I guess I was asking for it. No, actually I wasn´t asking for it at all, but I had it coming. The next morning after El Acebo I marched in the direction of Ponferrada, quite excited about the prospect of visiting the Templar´s castle there! It was mostly downhill in slight drizzle on old roman paths (love them!!) and at some stage I was walking through the "Nightingale Valley" which was as lovely as it sounds. Huge old trees everywhere which must´ve seen thousands of pilgrims in their lifetime, tall, blooming broom bushes and the mountains as a backdrop. Walking through Molinaseca I couldn´t take the advice and bath in the river.... My guide constantly tells me "have a dip here", "there´s a good spot for bathing" and I´m just thinking "yea, well, NOT since I bought a bathing suit! I bloody jinxed it!" Anyways, when I arrived in the albergue in Ponferrada I was the last lucky pilgrim who´s washing was being accepted for washing and drying, hooray! That, on the other hand, meant that I didn´t really have anything to wear now....., apart from my little summer dress. Since I really, REALLY wanted to see the Templar´s castle I slipped into that with a little jumper and jacket over it, bare legs and sandals - and went out into the flying rain. Though everyone looked at me as if I wasn´t the full shilling I really enjoyed the castle, though it was.., yeah well.., very cold and wet. And afterwards I still had to find the post office and do some other running around. The next morning I felt even sleepier than usually and while walking I started to get stomach cramps. I didn´t pay much attention to it as I was walking through absolutely gorgeous countryside: soft hills covered in wine fields - the Bierzo wine growing region. The weather was nice too but when I finally reached Villafrance del Bierzo - the little Compostela - I did something I hadn´t done before: I stayed in. Stayed in the albergue and didn´t move. Now, Villafranca is called the Little Compostela because since the middle ages pilgrims, who couldn´t make it any further due to sickness, could receive the Compostela here, after walking through the "Door of Forgiveness" at the side entrance of the (romanic, 12th century) "Church of Santiago". The door is closed normally but apparently will be opened on July 25th, the feast day of St. James. Last year 4 pilgrims actually received the Compostela here, after much scrutiny of course, and this place is unique as there´s nowhere on the pilgrims route another place that offers this indulgence. The Church of Santiago is for some reasons considered to have the same spiritual grace as the Cathedral of Santiago, at least when you have severe health problems. So normally I would´ve been out there in a flash but instead crawled into bed with a burning head which was even more red than ususally (I seem to sport a red head, don´t ask me why...) In the night I suddenly woke up puking, same the next morning plus a blazing headache. I had managed to catch a full blown tummy flu - guess with the cold and all that crowding of people it´s easy to catch a virus. Anyways, I had to stay in the albergue (normally you MUST leave after a day, you can only stay when you´re sick) . At this stage I really want to thank my medical team. Aha! So you didn´t know I had a medical team on stand-by, but I do! My parents!! They´re both doctors and whenever something goes wrong I try to describe the symptoms and get advice through the phone. Of great help and peace of mind, for example when one, like me, suddenly discovers a blister UNDER (!!) the big toenail! Didn´t even know one could get a blister there (but unfortunately my right shoe is about half a size too short.....) My father´s advice was: "Drill a hole in the nail to relieve the pressure from under the nail." Ah..., yeah? Thankfully I could do the same from the front of the toe, but I was ready with my knife to do some serious surgery! ;)) So here is a BIG, BIG THANK-YOU to my parents!!!!! The best medical stand-by team ever! XXX

Back to Villafranca: I needed to look for a pharmacy, so I dragged myself out of bed, finally looked at the church (which is absolutely beautiful in its romanesque simplicity) and then walked into the heart of the little town, where there was a market in full swing. I found the pharmacy, and also this: pulpo. That´s octopuss, and just like you have beergardens in Bavaria you have `Pulperias´ in Galicia (though technically Villafranca´s not yet in Galicia). I´m always open to try new things, and I will (I promise!) try pulpo at some stage (already had it in Logroño in its ink, but not like this here..), but if you feel like puking, have a weak stomach and a headache, the sight of someone cutting up an octopuss with scissors is the last thing you want to see. I fled the scene, and slept for the rest of the day.
Have I grossed you out enough for this time? So sorry, I´ll try and be more considerate in my next post. :)))) Enjoy your lunch people! hehehehehehe.....

Sunday, June 13, 2010

El Acebo - the worst day ever!!!

It happened to me, the worst day ever. I was told it would come, that some day I´ll just stand there and wonder why, or at least feel totally lost and miserably. But, even with my leg hurting like hell on the Camino de El Salvador, and believe me, it DID, I never came close to crying. But here it came, heavy and hard : the worst day ever. As mentioned before, it had started raining in Astorga. The next day it wasn´t any better. Everybody wrapped up tight and I got my long-johns out and was incredibly happy that I hadn´t been able to send my rain coat ahead to Santiago as I had planned (the post office at the time only opened only between 1pm - 2pm, so I just motored on, parcel with the jacket in a bag). Now I opened the parcel again and thanked my lucky stars! That day I met YangJi, from Korea on the road, an absolutely lovely girl. We clicked instantly, and YangJi takes about as many pictures as I do, which was brilliant as we both would more or less exclaim in unisono: "Oh wait, I HAAVE to take a picture of this!" We motored through the rain, which wasn´t going to stop us from making a little detour to a little place called Castrillo de los Polvozares, which apparently is totally enchanting. Our detour though involved taking the wrong field path, where the grass eventually grew higher and higher, which meant that our pants and boots got more and more soaked (remember, it was still lashing rain!) until the path suddenly ended and we found ourselves in the middle of a couple of fields. Since we still could hear the road and didn´t feel like backtracking all the way, we decided to cut across all those fields to eventually get to that road which would hopefully lead to somewhere with a warm bar. Well, you should´ve seen us hauling ourselves over stone walls and fences, through thigh high dripping grass, passing a sleeping "wolf" and actually appearing like drowned cats on the roadside, hilarious... BUT - just a few 100meters ahead was that little town! If we´d stayed on the path beside the road we coul´ve been long there, and dry-ish, but we were convinced to have found a brilliant shortcut or the right way anyways...., well the main thing was we were there. And.... everything was closed. Why was I even surprised? This town apparently lives a lot on tourists with its cobbeled streets and restored little red sandstone houses with green shutters. All that rain meant no tourists, so no business, so let´s shut everything down. We were dripping and had so much hoped for a warm bar to dry off in, and then, with a very loud ringing noise, the bread van arrived and a very helpful woman, buying bread, led us to a restaurant which was actually open. They were so nice inside and we almost managed to dry off completely, helped by huge bocadillos and hot caffee/chocolate. (A bocadillo is a sandwhich. And if you´re thinking of a flimsy, overpriced thinny, soggy little thing like you´d get in Ireland you´re sadly mistaken. Here you get a massive, half a baguette with f.e. cheese about 1 inch thick for roughly about 2 Euro!) By the time we got on our way again, the rain had stopped and we marched talking and laughing (and taking pictures) to Rabanal, where we arrived around 6pm, quite a bit later than anticipated. Unfortunately we had to part the next morning. YangJi had found her former korean marching partners here in Rabanal (which must be a lovely, lovely place when it´s sunny - gorgeous little mountain village!) and needed to walk further than me, so we parted with a lot of hugs and heavy hearts. And that´s how the worst day ever started....... (swelling music....) Outside was a rainstorm. I kid you not, it was a veritable storm. I was the last to leave the albergue (again) and continued packing the rest of my stuff under a big oak tree. When I put on my rain poncho over the rain jacket it pulled on me like a big top sail. As soon as I started to walk I felt the rain flying into my face like sharp little needles. It was impossible to look up. I tried to tie the poncho tighter around me and began my march. Bent down, leaning forward against the wind, I looked at the tip of my boots and maybe a meter ahead. The countryside was spectacular. I believe this must be one of the most exciting walks of the Camino - in good weather. Around me was pink and white heather in full bloom, big yellow broom bushes, an incredible amount of wild flowers and an lovely nature path to walk on. The view, which consists of the surrounding mountains was lost in rainclouds and fog though. It was just a question of motoring on and trying to stay dry and warm. Again I was very happy about having had the foresight to bring gloves. I was wearing the windy gloves with the woolly little thinny gloves inside. Both are not really made for wet weather, but are a whole lot better than nothing. Until Fontebadón I didn´t feel too bad. And since I had made some cool pictures of bad weather I got the idea to warm up an bit and write the blog in the the bar there. And then....: I cracked the memory card while pushing it into the card reader. . . . !!! I don´t know why I used so much force but "crack" it went, and snapped right in the middle. I frantically wiggled it around a bit, and for a second the pictures appeared on the computer, but then they were gone again and nothing I did could bring them back (so, if anyone of you out there knows of a specialist for this kind of thing, please, PLEASE let my know!! I´ve wrapped it in sellotape now..). To say I was destraught was putting it mildly. Still cold, with the wind and rain lashing out at everything and everyone on the outside, and all my pictures since Leon lost - and that includes all the funny pics of YangJi and a couple of people I met since Leon - my mood dropped to quite a low point. I gathered my things and set up into the clouds again, which surrounded the mountain at this point. Walking further and further my mood didn´t get a chance to raise as a lot of cross country bikers decided to choose this particular path as their training ground. You can´t hear them, certainly not when you´re wearing a hood, a hat over the hood and have a loudly flapping poncho wrapped around you. Instead of using the road, like the cyclist pilgrims, these bikers in their little pants and shirts suddenly appear out of nowhere behind you and make you jump to the side on some rocky ground or muddy path, which they widen every time their tyres dig through them, thus creating bigger puddles and water flowing in their tracks. After what seemed like forever ( and it wasn´t really that long a walk) I reached the Cruz de Ferro. That´s a tall pole with an iron cross at the top, surrounded by millions of stones. Every pilgrim lays down a stone here as a sign of putting down a load, a load they´re carrying from home, some burden they carry in their life, so you´re supposed to have brought a stone from your country. Which I wasn´t aware of. So, instead, I collected all the stones that fell into my boots and made walking hard, plus one stone from a particular painful walk on the Camino de El Salvador. This is supposedly a great moment for any pilgrim, it was a very wet one for me. I climbed up the hill of stones, added mine to the others and continued my way. 12.1km were still ahead of me. Again, I must say that the path was gorgeous. One of those beautiful nature paths that I love, and sometimes in the distance you could just make out that there was a spectacular panorama to be had on nice days, but all I saw were the tip of my boots and the dripping off the water off my hat and clothes. At some stage I passed by the "Templar´s Albergue" - some guy decided to open up an albergue in the middle of nowhere, with just the bare minimum of comfort, that means no showers and a latrine across the road. Seems like good craic (= irish for fun) in good weather again, and I think I would´ve liked to check the Templar out on any other day, but on this occasion it was just a sharp reminder that I had only walked 4.7 km since the cross, which was a bit depressing. Walking on and on I got wetter and wetter. On paths with steep stone slabs I was forced off the way again and again by mountain bikers who rode their bikes at a ridiculous speed. One of them almost crashed into me and if I hadn´t been so cold and wet I would´ve given him a piece of my mind. At some stage I thought I ´d lost my way as the next village just wouldn´t and wouldn´t appear and my spirits sunk with every step. Then the boots started to fill up with water and every bit of my clothes couldn´t hold up against the hours of the wind relentlessly throwing the water against me. There was no dry layer left on me and the swapping of water in my boots made walking harder and harder. Finally, FINALLY El Acebo came into sight. This had´t been my village of choice, mine was still another 3.3km away, but there was nothing for it. As soon as I saw the lights of the albergue/bar I stepped into the place and, dripping and shaking all over, asked for a bed. Which I got, thankfully. A bed under the roof of a place, cold, with damp matresses and one of the windows had a cardboard instead of glass. When I gor out of my boots I could pour the water on the floor. And that was when I guess my inner last straw broke and the tears came. I felt SO miserable, cold and awful. I had dreamt of a dry, warm place at the end of this hellish walk and got this - I just couldn´t see the bright side here. But there was one! I was given a heater and during the night no other pilgrim was brought into this damp attic. Which meant that I could string my washing line over the heater, move a chair close to it with wet stuff on it and dry all my clothes this way. After stuffing my boots twice with newspapers during the night and leaning them tight against the heater I had them more or less dry the next morning. I found a thick blanket which I put over the damp matress before putting my sleeping bag down, which thankfully is very warm (and light as well!). The heater was right next to my bed and I didn´t have to share it with anyone, what a luxury! After peeling myself out of all my wet clothes, wringing them out and hanging them up, I slipped into my only dry thing: a little summer dress and ran over to the bar where I treated myself to a pilgrims menue, which warmed me up and made me feel like a person again. Arriving back in my attic I actually didn´t sleep too bad, though I woke up every now and then, checking that the heater was still working. Which it did. I immersed the heat all night long and so when I woke up the next morning the attic wasn´t all that cold any more, AND: I could slip into warm clothes! Warm pants and socks - have you any idea how lovely that is?!! The breakfast in the bar was heavenly since they had the most gorgeous toasted hazelnut-and-raisins-bread and freshly pressed orange juice. That´s how the Camino works: for every down you get a lot of highs, and you should never give up cause you don´t know what´s around the corner. Maybe a lesson to be learned for life. Who knows if I´d gotten a bed in a dorm with 20 other people and only one heater if my boots and clothes had been dry the next morning. The fact that I´d spent the night in that attic had worked out the best for me, and I just have learn to trust the Camino, it works its own magic. After that spirit lifting breakfast my worst day was definitely over and I set of into the slight drizzle and dense fog outside with a happy heart again. Though...... if anyone of you out there knows anyone or any business, shop etc. who knows how to retrieve information from a broken memory card, you´d totally make my day!!! Thank you!! :))

Asturga - back in the rain...

Yep, the rain is back. I should´ve known. WHY did I buy a bathing suit in Leon?? I jinxed it! I haven´t been in a pool, on a beach or similar for, ah...., yonkers, and then I go ahead and buy a bathing suit?! Big mistake........
I was just before entering the province of Galicia, which supposedly looks like Ireland. Well, no mistake there, the heavens opened and I strolled into Astorga in the pouring rain. Just one big difference to the first two weeks in the rain: my hat isn´t rainproof anymore...! Yes, I had it washed in Leon with all the other clothes and it never occured to me that the water repellent could´ve washed out! Well, let me tell all you hat-washers out there: water repellent won´t stay on your hat once you wash it! So, instead of the rain dripping from the rim like before, the hat lovingly soaked it all up and then dispersed the water evenly over my face where it dripped off the nose and chin. Why I insisted on wearing the hat all the way to the albergue I honestly don´t know. It would´ve made no difference if I hadn´t worn a hat at all.
I can´t really tell you much about Astorga as I didn´t get much of a chance to see much. There is a great cathedral again, the outside of which is rather baroque, while everything else here has been mainly romanesque or gothic. The cathedral (like everything else here in Spain) wouldn´t open before 5pm. There is also a bishop´s palace, built by Antonio Gaudi between 1889 - 1913, which looks rather like a Disney castle, and he again modelled the Cinderella castle on the bavarian castle of Neuschwanstein. The Gaudi palace ranks as Art Noveau, so I decided to better be a bit impressed. To be honest, I liked the inside way more than the outside. It also opened at 5pm. I needed some food, and - urgently - some water repellent. The shops open, you guessed it, at 5pm. So WHAT does a poor pilgrim do??? If I go shopping first I can´t see sights. If I see the sights I go hungry and wet. You always have to do the shopping first. And it´s not that I just know by some divine intervention where the frack to shop for water repellent in Astorga...... A lot of time was wasted looking and asking around, and then... a stupid bank machine swallowed my card! So I started running to the police, making phonecalls, all with absolutely no effect. I was on the mobile phone, getting transferred for 20 minutes by NatWest resp. Ulster Bank from `not-responsible´ to `don´t-know´ to `haven´t-the-faintest´ before I reached the right person, who then hung up on me by mistake. I can´t wait for the bill. So, I decided in the little time I had left to check out the Gaudi Bishop´s Palace with it´s Camino Museum inside. And that´s all I know about Astorga, sorry guys! Apparently there is a good bit of a roman house to see, a chocolate museum, couple of churches, but at least I know where the police is. Anyone interested? To relax you all, it turned out fine the next morning. I went to the bank which surprisingly opened at 8.30am and they found my card in the machine. No money had been deducted and when I tried it again it worked fine. Still sore at that machine though for ruining my afternoon. Ah well, "Drop the thought!" All´s well that ends well :)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A few pics from the Camino de El Salvador (2)

Happy :)

Just to make this totally clear

The Meson Quico. Wonder what´s going on here.........

Now let´s get serious! This is the highest point. All: "Aaaaaahhhhhhhh!"

If you can make out the tiny, tiny house there in the middle on the laft hand side: thats where my guide said "don´t follow the path or the stream, but climb up that ridge". Which I did. Looking down now.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A few pics from the Camino de El Salvador (1)

They used to build their sheds in Asturia on stilts - and still have big dogs......

Yes, stilts. Pretty cool, ey?

Walking an ancient, roman(!) path....

Hermitage de Santa Catalina, absolutely stunning!!

Yes, I limped up there. And proud of it :))

Wild camping, in a great secretive spot

Still ahead of me..!