Camino Postcard 38: Santiago de Compostela

Since writing yesterday’s post, it has been brought to my attention that I forgot to write about the most important thing of all – the fact that in Finisterre Ellena made a lovely soup for the three of us. It took her several hours and a lot of ingredients but she did it, and we were all very grateful!

After we arrived in Santiago, Ellena and Carolin decided to rest as soon as we found our apartment. I went into town to buy some food and take a few photographs.

The Pilgrims’ Office
First thing on Tuesday morning, we walked over to the Pilgrims’ Office. We still had to queue but not for two hours, which was a relief. While we waited, though, I wondered if the Pilgrims’ Office would give us a compostela; or would they say Nah, mate – you took a taxi on the last 100K? I am happy to report that they didn’t even ask if we had taken a taxi and that we did each receive our compostelas. Ellena and Carolin also bought the extra certificate that told them how many kilometres they had walked from Saint Jean.

After leaving the Pilgrims’ Office, we stopped at a nearby café where we got talking to a friendly Australian (or was he American? I can’t remember now). Upon a moment, our friend Colleen walked by! I was so happy to see her – she saved my Camino on Day 1 so to see her at the end was a great joy, and very apposite. Colleen told us that a Franciscan church down the road also issued compostelas to pilgrims so after finishing our drinks, we toddled along there, knocked on the day of the sacristy and met a friar who did the necessary for us.

The Cathedral
From the Franciscan church we went to the pilgrim church itself: Santiago cathedral. Unfortunately, it is currently undergoing refurbishment so we were unable to attend Mass there and see the famous Botafumeiro (giant thurible) in action. As you can see from the photograph below, the latter was all wrapped up during our visit to protect it during the refurb.

The scaffolding was so extensive that it was hard to see the inside of the cathedral as much more than a very old and elegant building site. The place was not without meaning, though. For example, I saw my two favourite popes.

In case you don’t know who they are, that’s Benedict XVI waving his hand and John Paul II with the staff. JPII is now a canonised saint; I fully expect Benedict to be declared so after his death and shall be very disappointed if both aren’t declared Doctors of the Church one day; though that probably won’t happen in my lifetime.

Most importantly, we also saw the bones of St. James himself.

Are they really his bones? Sure, why not; no, very unlikely; who cares? To even be concerned as to whether they are or aren’t misses the point – Santiago Cathedral is not a sacred space because his bones are there but because of what he did and why. Ultimately, though we walk with and because of St. James, the purpose of our pilgrimage is Jesus Christ, and it is He who hallows the cathedral with His Presence.

One thing we didn’t do at the cathedral is enter it through the Portico of Glory – its gates were closed (on account of the scaffolding inside) – so we were unable to fall to our knees and put our hands on the statue of the Saint (though I admit I probably would not have done the former had the Portico been open). We also didn’t climb the steps at the back of the main altar to embrace the statue of St. James – the queue to do this was very long and on this occasion we were happy to just wander around and see whatever we could.

Malcolm the Brave
Now, not long after I met Ellena and Carolin the subject of getting a tattoo in Santiago came up (see Postcard 7 here and 8 here). I didn’t think it would happen, but the subject kept coming up and about two weeks before the end I realised that Ellena, who had suggested it, was serious.

So, after our trip to the cathedral, as she and Carolin rested, I went to the tattoo parlour and made an appointment… I just hoped that the cigar chewing, beer drinking Hells Angels bikers that probably owned the place wouldn’t beat me up and dump me in the gutter first.

Of course, it was nothing like that. The place was cleaner than clean, the people polite, and I even met Joey from Australia who had joined us once or twice (most recently at the Cruz de Ferro) along the Way. He was looking tense: he had already made his appointment and now the time for the needle had come.

Despite the fact that we only had a one day window to get our tattoos done, we managed to make the booking, decide what kind of tattoos to go for and get inked.

Here’s mine (forgive the Oh So Pale English skin):

Pau Cafre is the tattooist and he did an ace job. If you are ever in Santiago and are in the mood for a tattoo, check him out at Old Skull Tattoos.

Being tattooed was such an experience! I could have gone through with it by myself but when Ellena said she would come and sit in the room with me, I wasn’t going to turn that down. She held my hand and I rambled on about Alexander the Great while the needle did its work.

Speaking of the needle, there was just one, but it moved up and down so fast that it felt like there were goodness knows how many of them. It felt very dramatic.

I know that tattoos are not to everyone’s taste but I am so pleased I decided to get mine. It’s a wonderful reminder of the Camino – one that will never get broken, lost or stolen. If I ever walk another, I will definitely get another tattoo at the end. I’m already thinking about the keys of St. Peter.

Food Stations
After leaving Old Skull Tattoos, we ate a lovely pizza round the corner. While in Santiago, we also visited a local KFC one or twice. I think I mentioned before that I never go to KFC at home so it remained a nice treat. I especially liked the free soft drink refill – it had my favourite Camino fizzy drink, Kas, so I was one happy customer. On one of the days we were there, a group of teens came in. One of the girls in the party was carrying a cat, her pet. She sat down and took good care of it while the others went to order the meal. It’s good to see young people with their heads screwed on right.

To Home
Rest, Compostelas, churches, noms and tattoos. That was our holiday in Santiago. Finally, though, Thursday came and it was time to head to the airport. Upon our arrival, we stopped one last time together in a café. When the time came for Ellena and Carolin to head off to their flight we exchanged goodbyes and I watched them leave:

Sigh. Two hours later, it was time for me to do so. Farewell, Santiago; farewell, Camino; farewell, Spain. For now?

So there it is; the end of my Camino. I did it! I bloody well did it! It started last November when I watched The Way, continued when I joined the Confraternity of St. James, took a big leap forward when I quit the job I wasn’t enjoying, and finally really got going after I left St. Jean, and became an immeasurably richer experience after I met Ellena and Carolin. And now? It’s over but it never will be. Here’s to the next stage.

Thank you for reading!


Camino Postcard 37: Finisterre

We left Santiago not long after midday and arrived in Finisterre at around three o’clock. It had been a pleasant enough journey for me, but one to be forgotten for Ellena and Carolin – both suffered travel sickness on the way to the coast and back again.

When we arrived, the skies were blue and we had time to pop into a nearby restaurant for lunch. We had booked an apartment for the weekend. It was only a mile or so up the road but once our lunch was over, we were only too happy to jump in a taxi to get there.

Hiccup No. 1 took place when we arrived at the garage café opposite the apartment to not find the flat owner’s representative waiting for us with the key. No problem, let’s sit down and have a coffee. So, we did.

While we wait, I’ll tell you about the above photograph. It’s the same cross – with the crucifixion on one side, and our Our Lady and the Christ child on the other. The Incarnation in all its glory.

Once the flat owner’s representative arrived, we settled into the apartment. It was a clean, nicely furnished place. However, this didn’t stop Hiccup No. 2 from now happening: there was no WiFi. Where’s it? I text messaged the flat owner. There isn’t any, he wrote back, but there is lots to do in Finisterre: there’s a medieval church, there’s this, there’s that, there’s the other!

Right. Dude. Duude. Sit down. Ellena, Carolin and I bow to no one in our love of medieval churches and this, that, and indeed the other but if we pay good money for a modern apartment we expect there to be WiFi. There’s a time to visit medieval churches, and there’s a time to use the internet.

Seriously, though, while the lack of WiFi didn’t ruin our weekend, it was a big surprise to find that there was none. For this reason, and this reason alone, I would not go to the same apartment again if I revisited Finisterre (which I hope to do – see below).

To conclude the Great Matter of the Absent WiFi – you may be wandering why it was such an issue; surely we could have just used our mobile phone’s normal data plan. I could, and did, but Ellena and Carolin didn’t have any data on theirs so they relied on WiFi to be able to use their devices. So that they could use their phones, they tethered them to mine. That solved the problem until we got back to Santiago where, mercifully, the apartment we stayed in did have WiFi!

Once we had recovered from the shock of no WiFi, we decided to hit the beach. Our apartment nearly backed onto it with only a bit of scrubland separating us. To get there, we had to go down to the basement car park and out the back door. Easier said than done. We didn’t quite get lost in the (empty) car park but the door leading to the scrubland was not easy to find! You’re going to have to trust me on this one. It was all very awks.

Once we found our way out of the basement, we crossed the scrub, got stung by nettles and found the beach. There, we had fun paddling and trying to avoid the broken shells. Ouch.

As you can see in the above photos, I tried to get arty again. Am I looking at a sand cliff? (Please say yes). No, they are just the walls of a runnel – three or four inches high. I put my phone next to the sand wall, clicked and hoped for a decent photo!

Our weekend was largely spent relaxing at home or visiting the beach, either to paddle or bath or collect shells. Along the way, I went on a food run. While visiting one of the waterfront restaurants to order a pizza a man said hello to me. Oh dear; I don’t recognise him. He knew me, though: we met in Zubiri (see this post and ignore the wholly ill advised bit about Top Nazis. Heh.). He still remembered how I had had to ditch the two books I had brought with me! We had a nice chat while I waited for the pizza.

From the moment when Ellena suggested that we come to Finisterre to celebrate the end of our Camino, I had been very keen on the idea: it meant that I would be able to visit Muxia, where The Way ends. On Saturday, I wandered into town to check the bus schedule. Unfortunately, there was a restricted service and it looked like I had missed today’s bus. To make matters worse, tomorrow’s schedule was not much better – there was no direct bus to Muxía. To get there, I would have to go to someplace else, change buses then head on my way.

I think it was as soon as I saw that a change was necessary that I thought to myself, you know what, not this time; let’s leave it until next time I am here; it gives me an additional reason to come back. I just want to relax and not be bothered about planning anything.

So, I stayed in Finisterre; although, I didn’t entirely relax. On Sunday, instead of going to Muxía, I took a walk to the lighthouse at the end of the end of the world.

The lighthouse is about four kilometres north of the centre of Finisterre, and the path runs uphill along the side of the road on one side, and a deep drop into a cliffside wood on the other. That Sunday, it was a burningly hot day.

By Camino standards, the walk was short and not too strenuous; after 36 days of walking, though, I doubt my legs thanked me for putting them through one last exercise.

Presently, however, I arrived at my destination. Ahead of me, a car park, then, a souvenir shop; further on, a hotel, then the lighthouse.

The lighthouse was closed, but you could walk round it to the very last piece of land before the Americas and look out over the sea while standing next to the last Camino memorial stone.

In the above photograph, the boots sit on the memorial stone (there is a cross out of sight to its left). The dolphin is back along the path, on the way to the hotel. The land you can see is further down the coast.

Having said a prayer for the man to whom the stone was dedicated, and taken a moment to admire the view, I withdrew to the nearby hotel bar.

Drinking that beer, in that place, in that weather, after that Camino was a most wonderful experience.

But soon, it was time to return to the flat. The walk back to Finisterre was downhill. Between that and the beer inside me it was a whole lot more pleasant a walk than the way up!

On Monday morning, we left the apartment and walked/hobbled back down the road to the bus stop. It was another sunny day and the coach was rather too warm for long journeys. This compounded Ellena’s and Carolin’s travel sickness. All I can say here is that at least they felt better afterwards.

I don’t know when or if I will get the chance to walk the Camino Francés again. That’ll completely depend on time, health and money. In the meantime, what I would certainly like to do is walk from Santiago to Finisterre to Muxía and then back to Santiago again. This pilgrimage would take about a week or ten days at most. As I write these words, I’m hoping this will be my 2020 pilgrimage. Time and the good Lord will tell.

Camino Postcard 36: Brea to Santiago de Compostela


The last day of our Camino! Joy and sadness intertwined.

After paying the dinner bill (see yesterday’s post), we set off from the pensión. There were no cafés in Brea itself – or at least, none that we saw – so we kept walking until we found a bar a couple of kilometres up the road. Afterwards, and admittedly not for the first time, I briefly considered a career as an action photographer:

We walked along the roadside and came to a hut with incense burning on a small table. A sign there proclaimed a great truth:

Sometimes a simple moment of joy is all we need to remember how lucky we are

Well, we can debate whether we are lucky, blessed or whatever but either way the sentiment is a good one.

On the table was a stamp for our pilgrim passports; we stamped ours before inhaling the incense one last time and heading on our way.

This morning, we met more doggos. Ellena greeted them happily. If Dogbook existed, she would have so many friends by now. The second time we saw a dog its mother watched on from a distance as she went about her work.

It was an overcast day and soon enough, rain started to fall. Off came the backpacks and out came their rain covers.

We stopped for lunch 15 kilometres from Santiago, at a place called Amenal. One thing I regret about the Camino is not making a record of all the non-pilgrim meals that we ate. There were one or two really nice ones. The café-bar we stopped at today comes into that category. The pizza was nice; really nice! If you walk the Camino past Amenal, look out for the café-bar that has the round ‘Kilometro 15’ sign outside it. That’s the place to go to for good food.

We continued – by the roadside, and then into woods. The road followed us, and it gave us an opportunity to remember an earlier event. In my first blog post in this series, I wrote this,

During the afternoon, I saw two pilgrims taking a break by a roadside crash barrier. A good idea! I wanted to do the same there and then but didn’t want to invade their space or stop so close that they could see I was copying them. Even when exhausted, propriety reigns! So, I walked a little further on and took out my bar of chocolate. Dear reader, I don’t think I ever enjoyed food more!

Day 1: St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles

The two pilgrims, of course, were Ellena and Carolin. The woodland road we were now walking alongside also had a crash barrier beside it. So, with the Valcarlos Route in mind, we stopped and took photographs of us all resting on the barrier – this time, together.

Carolin and I:

Me and Ellena:

It was a fun moment!

Once the photos were done, we moved on – onwards and upwards through the woods.

There is a scene in the film Inception when Ariadne (Ellen Page) – while in a dream state – makes a Parisian street bend upwards until it is directly above herself and Cobb (Leonardo Decaprio). As we came out of the woods, we saw a road climb so sharply that it too seemed to be intent on curving backwards over us. I was not overjoyed at the prospect of climbing it, but, as Ellena said, when you get closer to roads like this, they never go up as sharply as they appear. Thankfully, this proved to be the case.

We got to the top. Although it hadn’t been as bad as it looked, we – I – still needed a rest and so we dived into a café a bit further on. Here, we were hit by an influx of pilgrims (TPs looking for toilets) for the first time since the Portomarín to Palas de Rei road.

We continued on our way. We passed Santiago airport and tried not to think about the fact that in a week’s time, we would be saying goodbye to each other there. The rain was falling more heavily now. Just past the airport, we dived into a bar as much to escape the rain as for a drink. We were now just 12 kilometres from Santiago.

It was still raining when we left the bar but we pushed on nonetheless. In time, we came out of the woods, left the last village behind and arrived at the Monte del Gozo. Here, we looked out for the statues of the two Arriving Pilgrims.

I had been eager to see the statues ever since I watched Martin Sheen and co walk up to them in The Way. We almost missed them, however, as the road was a little distance away from the statues’ location. Actually, it was so far that we only just spotted them in the near distance.

Something else that didn’t help is the fact that in the film (released in 2010), the statues appear to be on an unkempt hill whereas the Monte del Gozo now is a very well landscaped park.

Our first actual sight of Santiago came while we were still on the road but our first ‘official’ pilgrim view came with the statues. Here’s what we saw.

You can just see the spires of Santiago cathedral in the centre of the photo – our destination! After thirty-six days and so many kilometres, we were almost there.

Almost, but not quite, and not today.

Today, we headed off to the town’s east end where the apartment we had booked was located. There, Ellena and Carolin rested while I went in search of a supermarket for provisions.

The reason we didn’t go to the cathedral yesterday was because it was about four kilometres from our flat. Having walked 25 kilometres yesterday, we were happy to go to the cathedral tomorrow; or rather, today.

After packing our backpacks up, we closed the apartment door and started the final part of the journey. We left early – before nine o’clock to allow plenty of time to get the compostelas before we had to catch the coach to Finisterre, which was scheduled to leave Santiago at midday. As we knew that there might be a queue at the pilgrims’ office for the compostela, we reckoned to get there early – between nine and ten AM – so that we had plenty of time to pick up our compostelas before leaving town.

That was the plan. It didn’t work out like that.

We arrived at the cathedral square. I have to admit, doing so was an underwhelming experience. We were here. We had finished. Well done us? Yes, but now we have to go to the pilgrims’ office. No time to waste – we should have left the apartment earlier; the bus leaves at midday and ten o’clock is already drawing on.

We came, we saw, we left sharpish. So much so that I was only able to take a two or three photographs of the cathedral. I didn’t worry, though; there would be plenty of time to take more when we returned on Monday.

We found the pilgrims’ office and joined the queue in the courtyard outside. It was another cloudy day and soon the weather turned on us. Fortunately, it was only very light rain and within a few minutes we were at the doors to the corridor leading towards the reception where the compostelas were being issued.

We stepped over the threshold into the building and— stopped. Stopped. The minutes passed. No movement. More time passed. Still no movement. I checked my phone. It was somewhere past ten o’clock. We still had time but only if the queue started moving. Steady progress would do. If the queue was going to be like this the rest of the way, though, we would miss the bus.

While we waited, I went onto the Camino Pilgrim Discussion Group on Facebook and asked if it was possible to pick up one’s compostela any time after today. I quickly learnt that it was. When I told Ellena and Carolin this, we agreed to leave the queue and come back on Tuesday – at opening time. I didn’t know if I would receive an answer from the CPDG and was so very grateful when I did – if you are interested in any of the Camino routes and are on Facebook, I thoroughly recommend the Camino Pilgrim Discussion Group to you. The people there are friendly and always ready to offer help and advice to any who ask.

We had intended to walk to the bus station but time was now against us. So, we took a taxi instead. At the bus station, we tried to work out how to buy a ticket for the coach to Finisterre. Very fortuitously, we met Ellena’s American friend Buddy (man not dog) who was was just returning from the coast. He put us on the right track and soon we were on our way.

Just like that, then, we left Santiago. Our Camino was over. Now, we were – what? Recovering former pilgrims? Plain old tourists? Something in-between? If you are thinking about doing the Camino be warned! Once you become a pilgrim, I don’t think you ever stop. I don’t think you can. The spirit of the Camino becomes a part of you; the experience of it is tattooed onto your spirit. This is certainly what I have found since returning home on 23rd May. I am only a former walker. I am still, though, a pilgrim, searching for meaningfulness, for an authentic way to live, for God. I am searching for the Camino in my life at home. I haven’t forgotten the Camino Francés, though. Far from it. How I would love to be back there! I think a part of me still is; walking the Way in the shadow and shade, and always will. I would very much like to walk the French route again. Whether I will or not is in God’s hands. If I do not, I shall try my best to not mind too much – as Newman says, He knows what He is about – but instead, live with gratitude for the Camino that I did undertake, and finished on 17th May 2019.

Camino Postcard 35: Melide to Brea

Down a country road with wooded hills in the distance; past a sleeping cat and graffiti that read ‘Fellowship of the Camino’ – that made us feel very epic and heroic; past three more cats, one of whom eyed us very suspiciously; we stopped for the cows as they crossed the road from one field to the other, and once more caught up with Lilian. But only for a short while. It was another hot day, and she stopped at a café for a drink. We ploughed on.

Not long later, we came to a roadside ‘café’ – actually just a wooden box with a single banana inside it; other pilgrims had got here before us. Hopefully, they had given a donation to the money box as well.

Through the woods and across a brand new bridge that spanned a brand new motorway – so new it was still closed. It felt very eerie crossing this empty road that would soon be busy all the time.

We finally stopped for lunch at a café called the Casa Calzada. There, we saw a pilgrim and his dog take their rest before heading off together, and were greeted by a little jay who may have been a new friend but more than likely just wanted some food.

We walked past a lush green field; I saw a roadside saying ’80’ seemingly half way across it. I smiled at the idea of animals being told to limit their speed to 80 kilometres an hour. The reality, of course, is that the sign was on the far side of the field and was warning drivers on the road there to limit their speed.

After a drinks break, we left the roadside and headed back into the woods. There, the light of the sun made the field just beyond it glow brightly. I took a photograph to try and capture what I saw but it did no justice to the sight at all. Some gifts are for keeping, others just for the time in which they are given.

Twenty-five kilometres after starting, we arrived in the hamlet of Brea. We had decided to stay at a pensión called, appropriately enough, The Way. Lilian had caught up with us again and came to the hotel to see if they had any spare beds. Unfortunately, they hadn’t, so she left to find somewhere else to stay.

The Way was a pretty plush place. Our room was spacious and had a nice shower. They had a pool outside but although we were now well into May it was not yet in use. If I am ever blessed enough to do another Camino, it will not be in the summer; despite this, I envy summer pilgrims who get to use hotel swimming pools. What a feeling it must be to jump in after a hot day’s walking!

Dinner at The Way was scheduled to be served at six PM. It arrived, though not until a little while later. The slow service was compounded for some by the food not being to their taste. To their credit, the owner tried to provide an alternative but this was one of those days when nothing could be done.

What happened the next morning was more unfortunate than the meal. When we checked out, we were told that we needed to pay for our dinner. I was convinced that we had done so when we checked in yesterday. The son of the owner was brought in and after checking the records confirmed his mother’s statement. To this day, I am still sure that we did pay it but maybe I’m wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time. So, for that reason, and because the Camino is no place for disputes about meals, we paid the requested amount of money and went on our way.

The previous evening, we returned to our rooms and relaxed. Or tried to – for tomorrow would be the last day of our journey; we had decided to walk the 25 or so kilometres that remained between us and Santiago de Compostela. The end for which we had come but which we did not want to happen was almost upon us.

Camino Postcard 34: Palas de Rei to Melide

After walking nearly fifty kilometres over the last two days, we decided to cut ourselves a break today and walk just fifteen. I think everyone was grateful especially as it was another hot day.

What happened? A good question. I have no diary entry to go on and took too few photographs. Why, Past Me, why?? To make things worse, half of today’s photos in my album are snapchat pictures and there’s no way I am showing you those so don’t even ask.

What the actual, MJM?

From the photographs that I did take, I can say that we passed under a bridge that said ‘Jesus loves you’ which is a cheesy thing for a bridge to say but still true nonetheless and is a whole lot better than ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’.

After writing the above, I remembered that as we approached the bridge, my boot lace came undone. We were on an incline so I was going to leave it until we reached the bottom before doing it up again. Not knowing this, a kind pilgrim came to let me know that it was undone. He didn’t want me to trip up on myself. As always, the kindness of strangers is one of the greatest things about the Camino.

Further along the way, we came to the Casa Domingo, which bore one of the largest shells that it was my privilege to see.

We passed through woodland, and after a while, stopped for drinks at a little outdoors café. Well, I think it was actually someone’s house and the seats were on their driveway. But anyway, it was such a lovely place! Not because of how it looked, but on account of the owner’s gaiety. He had a big smile, was very friendly and funny. He was a true balm for our sore feet and any troubled souls.

Further along the road, we passed St. James.

By-the-bye, last Thursday (15th August) was Assumption Day. For Catholics in England and Wales it was also a Holy Day of Obligation so I went to St. James’ church in Spanish Place (London) for Mass. I visited St. James’ just before leaving London to start the Camino to ask God’s help to walk it and for St. James’ intercession. Ever since I got back home, I knew I had to go back to say thank you to both. Upon arriving at the church, I made sure I sat within sight of its statue of dear James. It was an emotional experience doing so. I very nearly blubbed. And it’s funny because I have to admit, up till that point, I never felt very close to St. James. I may have asked for his intercession and prayers during the Camino but I didn’t feel any significant connection to him – but now; in that moment… I was very grateful.

A little further up the road, we spotted a cat in a field. The tall grass gave it perfect cover for any stalking it might wish to do. When we spotted it, though, the kitty was happy to just watch the pilgrims go by. We watched it watching us for a couple of minutes before leaving it to itself.

And then, we were in Melide.

Or rather, the village of Furelos, which has been consumed by the town. There, we saw a beautiful medieval bridge.

Before crossing it, we had lunch in a little café-bar called the Mesón A Ponte. It was a neat place – the seats were on the ground floor and the bar on the first. If I remember correctly, swords were mounted on the wall. You’ll never go wrong at a place with mounted swords; unless, of course, they are taken down and used against you. In this day and age, though, that can be considered to be very unlucky.

By now, Lilian had rejoined us. After lunch, she went on her way again. We crossed the bridge and walked through Furelos. I wish we had stayed here – with its old brick buildings and tight roads it was an ideal place to stop at.

We kept going, though, into the town, up a road and round a corner and then a few more before coming to the apartment which we had booked for the night.

We arrived at it a few minutes early so wandered into an ice cream parlour for a little treat. After meeting the owner of the flat and taking the keys, we relaxed. We washed our clothes. There was no drying machine but the flat did abut a single room that was accessible only from the ground floor flat (we were on the top and first floor). Windows made it as warm as an airing cupboard, so we put our clothes on the window sill and hoped a. that they would dry by tomorrow and b. that they wouldn’t fall to the floor below. They dried, kind of, but fortunately, did not fall down.

In the evening, the three of us watched a Spanish drama on TV. I say drama but unfortunately the language barrier caused any dramatics to be lost on us. The fact that a good forty-five minutes of the programme was spent with the characters sitting round a table and eating dinner did not help either.

During the whole of the Camino, we saw relatively little television – none in the albergues and a restricted amount in the hotels and apartments. What we did see, though, was dominated by another programme. I shall come back to it when we arrive in Santiago…

We saw a watchful kitty

Camino Postcard 33: Portomarín to Palas de Rei

I ended the last blog post on a happy note, but the 32nd day of our Camino did have a sting in the tail – I had another blister on my thumb. Fortunately, this one healed in just a few days rather than taking two weeks.

On our second misty morning in succession, we made our way down the great stone staircase and out of Portomarín. For a couple of minutes, we walked along the city-side of the Rio Miño before crossing it once more.

This took us back in woodlands. There were quite a few pilgrims in front and behind. And also, a tractor, taking some felled pine trees away. Our path took us up, up, and – no, not away – just up again until we were actually above cloud level!

What a sight. The valley must have its own microclimate.

As we made our way to the heavens, we saw Lillian ahead of us. We called out to her but while we turned the heads of the pilgrims in front of us, she never heard our cries. A forced march followed until we were close enough to again shout LILLIIIAAAAAN! This time, she heard, and we were reunited.

Today was a really tough day. The heat told on us and Ellena’s knee was in a very bad way. The presence of so many pilgrims around us and the possibility that they were TPs was also aggravating. It didn’t help that there were so many of them that, at one point, we had to walk on the side of the road because there was no room on the pavement.

We eventually stopped at Palas de Rei but should have done so much earlier. Indeed, as with yesterday, that was our intention. But again, as with yesterday, we couldn’t find an albergue. We struggled on under the burning sun. Towards the end of our march, I ran out of water. Memories of the Valcarlos route came back to me and I didn’t enjoy them.

Palas de Rei is 25 kilometres from Portomarin. We managed to walk 23 of them. Seeing the clouds beneath us had been the high point – literally and figuratively; the Spanish man who had replied to Ellena’s greeting of Buen Camino with Buen Camino and then And I hope you die in Spanish under his breath had been the low point. Imagine being a pilgrim and saying that to someone. Either he was a complete jerk or, for charity’s sake, let’s just say he was having a very bad day for whatever reason.

Another thing I should say is that the ill willed pilgrim was a low point because by the time we stopped at a roadside restaurant and bar I was thirsty and Ellena very poorly. Even though we were so close to Palas de Rei, she could go no further on foot.

After we had had a drink, I asked the barman if he could call a taxi for us. Thank the Lord for the kindness of Spanish people. However, when he called, none were available. He advised me to ask him again in a little while. So, we sat down, had a bite to eat and hoped for the best.

Eventually, with prayers in my heart, I made my way back into the bar. The barman called… and five minutes later, the taxi arrived. Praise be. I don’t know what we would have done otherwise.

Of course, we got looked at as we put our backpacks into the boot. We ignored them. This was our Camino and it was the right thing to do.

I did wonder, though, what this taxi might mean for our compostelas. Would we not receive one because we had not walked the entire last 100 kilometres?

That was a problem for another day. Today, the taxi took us to a cheap hotel at the far end of town. We checked in and took our rooms.

By the way, when I say checked in, I mean that we did so after booking the room on We used this app for all the hotels that we stayed at from Sarria onwards. We didn’t want to run the risk of just turning up and finding that they had no rooms. That would have been demoralising. The app was very easy to use and a great help to us.

The hotel we stayed was called the Hostal Ponterroxan. The hotelier was very polite if a little forgetful in bringing the wine at tea time (or perhaps just busy) but very friendly. If I was passing through Palas de Rei again, I would definitely go back to there.

Once in our room, we each took a shower and settled down.

I mentioned two low points earlier. Let me mention another high point to even the scales. For today we met the Canadian pilgrim whom we had last seen on our way out of León (I mentioned him here). His wife had recovered from her injury and they were now walking together.

Camino Postcard 32: Sarria to Portomarín

We dragged ourselves out of the lovely hotel we stayed in last night and… stopped. Lillian was still with us but she had gone in search of a cash machine.

Before long, however, she returned, and we set off. One thing I regret about the Camino is not taking more time to explore some of the places that we stopped in. That was fine with the hamlets and villages where there was not a great deal to see but places like Sarria had a lot to offer and I rarely took the chance to explore. This was partly due to tiredness at the end of the walk, but also tardiness. Money was also a reason – in order to preserve it, I never went anywhere that had an entrance fee; that included cathedrals.

The sky was cloudy overhead today as we left Sarria behind and walked into the countryside. There were pilgrims in front of and behind us but we were not yet deluged by them. This would happen a little further on and tomorrow. After that, they pretty much disappeared as quickly as they came. I still don’t know what happened to them.

We entered a woodland and paused to take photos at a train track (non-electrified!). Train tracks are a very potent symbol – of the future and past – but I have to admit, they resonate with me because one of my most favourite films, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Café begins with the camera travelling along one.

A train track also plays a very important part in the Fried Green Tomatoes story but I’ll say no more here in case you would like to watch the film (I heartily recommend it to you!) (And the book; Fannie Flagg is a great writer).

After taking our photographs, we passed a group of German pilgrims. I learnt a lot about the country from Ellena, not least that it is a strict one in terms of behaviour. I wonder what it means, therefore, that we met so many Germans walking the Camino. Are they rebelling against their country’s strict you-must-work-(hard)-to-be-valid outlook? I think that – whether or not they are walking the Way for religious reasons – they are, and I am pleased for them. To walk the Camino is to recognise the wildness, the messiness, the incredible nature of life and to refuse to stay in a box that someone else created. For this reason, I’m a little sad that we met relatively few British people. I hope it isn’t the case that in Britain we live life’s wildness in things like drinking and sports, so much so that we leave no space for the deeper – true – wildness of the Camino.

Crossing a bridge, we came to the huge bole. It was so big, Carolin was able to fit inside and do a very passable impression of a tree spirit.

The path now went upwards – another good stretch for the legs – before turning at a hairpin. We came out of the woods. The clouds were very low now, and it was very misty. We stopped at an albergue-café-tourist shop to get our pilgrim passports stamped. This was important because in order to qualify for a compostela in Santiago, the pilgrim has to get his passport stamped twice a day from Sarria onwards.

We had already got our first stamp at a café in Sarria so this one took care of the twice a day obligation. Or did it? I think it may actually have been our third one.

But anyway, I have just remembered something. So, in yesterday’s post I made a lewd reference that has probably lost me such readers as this blog enjoys, or enjoyed, so let’s go the full hog and mention Hitler.

In Sarria, a friend from home sent me a video of a man in a bar dancing. He turns to the camera, and lo and behold, he looks exactly like Adolf Hitler. Here is the video.

I love the juxtaposition of Hitler, a bar, and dancing. It’s so perfectly ridiculous. And yes, it’s also offensive, so don’t watch it if it is likely to hurt or anger you.

Further up the road, we met two horses who were either very interested in us or in the possibility that we might have some sugar to give them. Probably the latter. Sadly, though, we had naught to give but our love.

Hm. Buried in that line somewhere is a quotation from G. K. Chesterton.

… I’ve just looked it up – the key is the word ‘naught’ – in his poem The Ballad of the White Horse, he writes ‘I tell you naught for your comfort’.

As the morning progressed, the sun burned the mist away and it turned into a hot, a really hot, day. We soldiered on, and managed to keep going all the way to Portomarín – 25 kilometres from Sarria. It was a mighty effort under the hot sun and we all felt it. Why did we go so far? Well, my memory is hazy on this point, but I’m sure we didn’t mean to; I’m sure the original intention had been to stop at either Mercadoiro or Vilachá but for want of an albergue that turned out not to be possible.

(I know I said yesterday that we didn’t bother with albergues after Sarria but the situation was a fluid one. If we had arrived somewhere and saw an albergue in front of us, we would probably have taken it)

So, we staggered across the long bridge that took us over the Rio Miño and almost collapsed when we saw that to enter the city, we had to climb a large stone staircase. Summoning our last remaining strength, we made our way up it. At the top, we paused to consult Brierley. There was a hotel just round the corner – the Casona da Ponte. As we were all feeling the heat to breaking point, we went there.

The Casona cost a few more euros but was just what the doctor ordered. Clean, fresh and comfortable. The receptionist/barman was very friendly and, I cannot lie, very handsome. I enjoyed being there.

We had dinner/tea at a café round the corner from the hotel, and as we walked there, we heard a familiar voice from the hotel next to ours – it was Lillian (she had walked ahead of us during the day). We met her in the café.

And so, after washing our clothes, the day – with its beautiful view of the Rio Miño – came to a gentle end.

Camino Postcard 31: Triacastela to Sarria

My copy of Brierley shows that there are two paths leading out of Triacastela. One turns left and follows the path of the rio Oribio, going through at Samos before continuing along the line of the river to Aguiada where it joins the right hand route. This route goes through woodland and across the Alto do Riocabo before passing through Furela and onwards to Aguiada. We took the right hand route.

It was a sunny day and before long we met the equally sunny Lillian. She was well and truly bitten by the Camino bug – as I write this she is currently walking the Camino Portugues.

Somewhere in the woods, we found a very rustic looking albergue with a sign saying ‘WiFi Zone’ – except ‘WiFi’ had been crossed out and ‘Hugging’ added above it. Hm. Hugging or WiFi, which would you rather have? I’m English so obviously would infinitely prefer WiFi, or at most a firm handshake.

We stopped for breakfast in the albergue and had a lovely little meal. We also met a lovely dog – Buddy. He was a service dog so we weren’t supposed to distract him, but while his owner had breakfast, Buddy was allowed to come over to say hello. He was quite big and very fluffy; he had a very serious face. If he was a human he’d be professor of something or other at Oxford.

A few days ago, Ellena took a passport stamp and stamped her hand with it. Today, I copied her. The rustic albergue’s stamp was a pair of lips. Well, they looked like lips alright but which kind I shall leave to your imagination.

Not long after leaving Buddy and the lips (a great name for a 50s pop band btw), although technically the latter came with me, we met two dogs playing very enthusiastically with each other. They joined us and one tried to jump on Ellena as she knelt down to pet it. He’s trying to exert his dominance over me, she said. Fortunately, it only took Ellena standing up to put alpha doggo in his place so he he went back to playing with his friend.

Further on, we passed a tiny house that seemed to be doubling as a shop – selling prints. I can’t imagine how one is able to sustain a business in the middle of a wood. The prints may be of the greatest quality, but how many pilgrims will want to carry them through the day to Sarria?

We continued on. It was now cloudy overhead and may even have rained a little later in the morning. If so, it didn’t last and before long was brightening up. More of an issue, perhaps, was the climb as we climbed the Alto do Riocabo. One puff step puff after puff another puff. Actually, it wasn’t that bad, but it was a good stretch for the legs.

We stopped for a rest at a house with an open garden and assorted fruit and drink available for purchase. Here, we met a pilgrim who had arrived there a week or so before us and decided to stay awhile. What a lovely freedom to have to be able to do that!

The facilities at the house, or rather, garden, were extremely rustic – it had an open air compost toilet. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the women in the party declined to use it. I did my best but however good this kind of toilet is for the land I have to admit it is not wholly comfortable from a human perspective. Still, there was a copy of Romeo and Juliet by the toilet to distract oneself with so that was something.

Another thing that we saw at this garden was a collection of scallop shells. The house owners encouraged all pilgrims to leave theirs there – according to them, real pilgrims got their shells after finishing the Camino in Santiago. Yeah, right. I don’t care what real pilgrims do, you’re only taking my shell away from me over my cold, dead body.

Anyway, after a nice cup of coffee, we left the garden and continued on our way. Down into the valley we went, and then up again. By the time we rolled into the town whose name I won’t mention because I’ve forgotten it, it was not only sunny but very hot. We stopped at a café for lunch. There, we met Buddy again. Another dog was also present and he waddled over to say hello if by hello I mean beg for food.

In truth, today was the Day of Dogs because further on down the road we met a beautiful Alsation chilling out in a high garden at the side of the road. He looked as noble as the hills, ancient as the sky and I should move on because frankly when did you last see a noble looking hill?

We climbed a staircase made out of paving stone embedded in the ground, met a cow and her calf – like the Alsation she was on high ground but also behind a fence so we could get very close to her and the calf without incurring any risk. And then, we met a few beautiful roses, saw a memorial stone (?) written in an oriental (perhaps Japanese) script and were in Sarria.

And here, in a sense, our Camino ended. For we knew that from now on, we would see a whole lot more pilgrims on the route – those doing the last one hundred kilometres only – and the thought of this irritated us intensely. Yes, there would be some who were doing the last 100 for legitimate reasons: time, health, etc and we had no problem with that, but we despised the tourist pilgrims (TPs as they became) who were coming to do the last 100 as a bucket list exercise or simply in order to get the compostela on the cheap.

None of this might have mattered to us so much except that competition for beds at albergues along the way would now increase dramatically. There may even be days when we missed out because the horrid tourist pilgrims – who didn’t even carry their bloody backpacks with them – got there before us.

So, in Sarria, our more carefree Camino ended. From now on, the shadow of the TPs would be upon us. We dealt with it by simply not bothering with the albergues anymore. In each stop between Sarria and Santiago we stopped at a cheap hostel. Or, in the case of Sarria, because it was hot and we were too tired to go searching for an albergue and risk being turned away, a not to so cheap hotel.

Camino Postcard 30: Villafranca del Bierzo to Triacastela

For the first time today we had to take a taxi for a non-medically related reason.

I say had as if we didn’t have a choice. Of course, we did. It just wasn’t much of one, that’s all.

For if we kept walking, we ran the risk of our money and time running out before we reached Santiago.

Money could, hopefully, be managed; time, however, could not.

But how? Our Camino didn’t have to end until 23rd May – the latest day that Ellena could to return to Germany and to work (I having quit my job in January had no obligation to return to the U.K. at any particular time; Carolin’s new course didn’t begin until September so she was under no pressure either). That was thirteen days away. Thirteen days to complete under 200 kilometres? Easily possible.

However, after we finished the Camino, all three of us wanted to spend a few days recovering in Finisterre on the Atlantic coast and then return to Santiago to relax there. That gave us just about a week to finish the journey.

The desire to go to the coast married the fear over money and time and persuaded us to hire a taxi to take us to O’Cebreiro. To be honest, even if we had had lots of money and time we might have got one, anyway; Ellena had been bitten by something during the night and it had made her foot red and sore.

So, we piled into the taxi and raced away down the woodland road.

At O’Cebreiro, we took some photographs of the beautiful valley below. As you can see in the photograph, the clouds were so low, we were lucky to see it.

O’Cebreiro was a small but beautiful village. The shops and albergues were made of a darkish stone. A souvenir shop had a thatched roof. I tried to take a selfie next to a stone statue of St. James and we met a shy dog which Ellena befriended. I wish we could have stayed the night there.

Having jumped ahead of time, though, we now had to keep it behind us. So, we got walking. Outside the village, the path split. The lower path went along the roadside, the upper path into the woods. I think the lower path was the quicker one but we decided to take the higher. This was because we thought it might be the one to lead us to the Alto San Roque where we hoped to see the famous statue of the saint.

As it happened, the two paths rejoined each other long before we got to the statue but before then we were treated to a lovely walk through a pine forest that looked straight out of Middle-earth. The trees were black pines so Tolkien would have felt completely at home there.

Up till now, the weather had mostly held but it was in the woods that it threatened to fail and we had to stop and put our rain covers over our backpacks.

The threat of rain did not ruin our day. How could it? We were in beautiful surroundings and had got into the habit of playing music out loud from our iPod and phones. As you might imagine, The Lord of the Rings soundtrack got a good airing today.

We came out of the woods, descended a shallow slope and rejoined the lower path as it snaked past the tiny hamlet of Linares. Presently, we were back in the woods again and climbing up until just over the crest appeared San Roque himself, looking out past the valley ahead and I guess to Santiago and Heaven.

When we arrived, a group of cyclists were also taking photographs at the statue. One of them kindly took the photograph of us, below. Unfortunately, none of my photos of San Roque are very good – the sun was behind him so made all my photos of him very dark.

After spending some time admiring the statue and taking photographs we moved on. We stopped at Hospital de la Condesa. Here, we took our second taxi of the day to Triacastela. Now, I am sure this was part of the plan, but I also remember Ellena being in some pain, particularly from her bite, so we may have chosen to take it for her sake.

Either way, we drove to Triacastela, arrived in good weather and checked in to an albergue with a hospitalera who talked… and talked… and talked… LOUDLY. Boy, did she have a lot to say! And just when we were trying to rest.

While Ellena and Carolin did rest, I went in search of a chemist. There, I bought an ointment that would hopefully help Ellena’s bite. Along the way, I stopped and had a beer in a local bar. There, I accidentally tore a ten euro note in two! Don’t ask. It was just an accident. Given the money situation, a spectacularly badly timed one, but there we are.

Speaking of accidents, I had a few of them at the albergue: I was on the bottom bunk, and this one was a low bunk so I forever had to be careful when lifting myself up. I was not forever careful enough.

And so, I leave us sleeping into the night with our next destination being Sarria beginning the last few days of our Camino. As I do so, I say goodbye to my journal: today’s entry was the last to be written. I wrote it tomorrow, presumably in Sarria. What a shame I couldn’t keep it going just a few days more!

Camino Postcard 29: Acebo to Villafranca del Bierzo

This morning, we took a taxi from Acebo to Villafranca where we decided to stay for the night. Ellena was feeling better after yesterday’s difficult walk from the Cruz de Ferro but her joints were not yet healed sufficiently for walking to be considered.

In Villafranca, we checked into a private albergue and were given a room with three beds. After a rest, I went in search of food. It was not a wholly successful search – the ‘take away’ that I found on-line turned out to be just a bar. On the way back to the albergue I found a supermarket so bought some drink and snacks. Just round the corner from the albergue there was a bar. Through the raindrops on the lens of my glasses I saw that it sold food – hot food – so dived in.

When I left the albergue, the weather was overcast but dry. By the time I made my way back, however, the clouds were low and it was raining. I was wearing my flip-flops: not good for finding grip on a wet pavement!

Today was the second day on the Camino that we were obliged to take a taxi and do no walking. It would be easy to see this as a failure. I don’t. A failure would have been to give up and go home. Today was in its own way a success, especially for Ellena. It was a success because she persevered on the Camino despite the pain – the physical pain, of course, and the emotional pain of having to take a taxi when conventional opinion all but demands that to do the Way one must walk.

Ellena will disagree with me but I still say that she is one of the bravest people I know: brave for doing the Camino in the first place, and brave sticking at it in defiance of conventional opinion, which can be such a powerful and oppressive force.

As you’ll see in upcoming posts, we had to take a taxi tomorrow and the day after. Of course I would have loved to have walked every inch of the Camino, but if it is a choice between doing that and taking transport and in so doing learning about humility, pain, and even love, I know which Way I would follow.