Via Gebennensis

Via Gebennensis
Via Gebennensis

Monday, 9 May 2011

Why I walk the Camino. Part 3

There are many reasons why people walk the Camino: religious, spiritual, personal, sportive, cultural, "natural", etc.

For some, one particular reason may be all important. A few days ago I met a woman who was astonished that I wasn't going to make a detour to see "le Christ qui sourit". She had the manner of a stern Mother Superior. And I have met people whose aim was to do the Camino as quickly as possible, walking up to 50 kilometres a day. For them it is a race.

But I think that most of us walk for all of these reasons, in our own order of priority.

Mainly, I walk the Camino for the pleasures of the moment.

There are the moments of architectural beauty - the octagonal church at Eunate, the cathedral at Auch, the abbey at Conques, the cloister at Moissac, the eglise Romane at Triacastella, and so on.

And I enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of the countryside. The yellow buttercups and the broom and gorse, the blue iris and bluebells and fogetmenots, the red poppies, the pink mallow and foxgloves and herb Roberts. And the birdcalls and the rushing of the river as I walk up a valley, and even the curious sound of the turbines in the wind. And the whiff of smoke from a wood fire and the scent of wild herbs. And the loneliness of high places.

Above all, there is the fellowship and camaraderie of the road, the stuff of picaresque novels which I have always enjoyed: the pleasure of meeting and re-meeting old friends, the interesting characters one meets, and the little adventures along the way.

Included in these social pleasures are the biting tang of a cold beer at the end of the day, the gastronomic delights of a good meal, and the enduring taste of a good red. All of these are intensified on the road because we have earned them.

Walking the Camino is living a life within a life. Is it an escape? Probably.

But I am done with Camino walking now.

I grow old, I grow old. I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

The End

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Day 38. From Eunate to Puente la Reina (5.3 kms)

8 May, 2011

It is time to declare a winner in the Footwear Stakes. I had thought that Tilley would win, hands down, but in fact, both pairs of socks are almost through just above the heel. In the end, though, I declare Tilley Endurables the winner, by a nose.

This morning we quickly covered the last few kilometres into Puente la Reina. Suddenly, there were pilgrims everywhere. They were ahead of us and behind us, and spilling out of the gites and bars. Without realising it, we had passed the junction where the two roads become one.

We had a last coffee and I said good-bye to Miek and Patrick. It was a sad moment. That evening, I raised my glass to them, as I'm sure they did to me.

I caught a bus into Pamplona where I am spending the night. Tomorrow, I will catch a train for Barcelona.

It is time to bid farewell to my good companions: to ebullient Miek, whose company I enjoyed so much during the last week of my walk; to Elisabeth, with her lovely English handwriting and disposition to match; to marvellous Marte, with the inbuilt antenna that could zero in on a wifi hotspot in any town, and who kindly taught me things I didn't know about my iPod; to Anna Maria, the warm and witty Icelander, who shared her thoughts about the Camino; and to Patrick, Master of Occitan and Connoisseur of Calf Balls, whose enthusiasm infected us all. And also to Jean Francois and Genevieve whom I'm sure I owe a few beers; and to all the other pilgrims I met along the chemin. Buen Camino!

If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why then, this parting was well made.

Day 37. Monreal to Eunate (25.8 kms)

7 May, 2011

Blisters are the least of your problems on the Camino. They usually appear and disappear within the first week or so. More serious are the problems of muscles and tendons and joints. Pilgrims are always rubbing various gels into their limbs and filling the gite with pungent aromas. At the gite last night was a French woman with every conceivable problem with her legs. She had begun at Saint-Guilhem many weeks ago and was now able to manage only the bare minimum each day. She would limp from one gite to the next, but she wasn't going to give up.

We stopped for lunch at Tiebas and were forced to drink a litre of red because the bottle was cheaper than three glasses.

When we left it started to pour down, so, fortified with wine, we walked 13 kilometres in record time to reach our destination.

We spent the night at an alberge next to the church at Eunate. The gite was formerly a barn, built in the 13th century. It was worth staying there for the opportunity of visiting the unusual and unique octagonal Romanesque church which was formerly a funeral chapel for pilgrims. What a contrast with the church at Arres! Instead of garish painting and statutary there was simple, cold, unadorned stone. A large Roman arch rose above the abside, and around the octagon, eight columns supported the vaulting which met at the top of the cupola. The narrow windows were of translucent marble.

Later, we participated in a simple pilgrims' service, each reading a prayer in our own language.

Day 36. Sanguesa to Monreal (31.1 kms)

6 May, 2010

I left the gite early and crossed the Aragon river as the church bells struck seven.

The same wind that wafted the odours from the paper mill and the sewage treatment plant towards me was furiously turning the blades of the turbines high above me. It's an ill wind...

Later in the day, after a long climb, I found myself on the other side of those wind turbines. I counted 116 of them before they disappeared out of sight at each end of the ridge. Lots of electricity! But one was crook. It stood idle and forlorn while all the others turned.

I had decided to break the last two steps of more than 30 kms into three, but changed my mind when today's 31 kms turned out to be less than that. And the last part was downhill. So tomorrow is my last day, but I may stop short of Puente la Reina to avoid the crowd arriving on the Camino Frances.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Day 25. Ruesta to Sanguesa (22.4 kms)

5 May, 2011

The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

No birds were singing as I left the gite this morning, perhaps because I was walking in a pine forest. It was unusual not to hear them. And it's so dry here that the sedge has probably withered from the lake as well.

But as I walked up a wide forest road where deciduous trees lined the edges, the birds returned, and I stopped to record some of their calls.

After climbing for two and a half hours, I came out of the forest onto a plateau, some of it cultivated with wheat, the rest, moorland really, with heather, gorse, and lots of blue-eyed grass. A tractor was working in a field.

It was on a day like this, almost ten years ago, on the high path out of Triacastella, one of my favourite parts of the Camino, that I saw two oxen ploughing a field, probably the last of their kind.

On the distant hills, I could see a hundred or more wind turbines standing like bleached tree trunks of an ancient forest.

I walked on and climbed up to Undues de Lerda, another little village on a hill. For the last 100 feet or so, I walked on a Roman road, the stones perfectly aligned to direct the rainwater to the sides. I ordered a coffee at the bar.

Leaving the village, I walked down a dirt road and would have missed a path leading off to one side but for a cairn that marked the spot.

All along the camino you see piles of stones. Sometimes they are markers like this one, but more often they are simply symbolic of the Camino. Wherever there are loose stones, they have been piled up. Mileposts and other markers have little piles of stones on top. Crosses and calvares (shrines) have piles of stones around the bottom. Yesterday, I passed a dry riverbed where the stones had been arranged into hundreds of piles, often quite artistically.

All of these piles of stones anticipate the cross of iron before Pontferrada where stones have been piled many yards high around the cross. This is a symbolic moment on the Camino where you deposit a stone you have bought from your home country.

I made another recording of a bird song during the afternoon. Ever since I first read the famous poem by Keats, I have been searching for the elusive song of the nightingale. This is the time of the year to hear them. I had always assumed that they sing only at night, but I have learned that they sing during the day as well.

I have been hearing songs with a characteristic sound like a dog whine in the middle of the sequence, and I wonder whether I have been listening to the nightingale all along without realising it.

Once when I was walking the Cotswold Way, I asked the hostess of the B&B where I was staying if she heard nightingales in her garden. She did, and she told me a sad story. Normally they (the males) stop singing in mid-May, when they find a mate. That year, however, one had continued to sing much later than usual because he hadn't found anyone.

Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird.

So I have recorded several bird songs to see whether I have been listening to a nightingale during the day.

A word about what gadgets to bring.

Bring a camera, of course, with a large enough memory chip up last the distance.

Almost everyone carries a cell phone. In France, these are necessary to make reservations, but in Spain you can't reserve ahead.

Obviously, an iPod Touch is useful for picking up and sending email. Wifi can be found almost everywhere. I was glad to be able to follow the Canadian election results, bad and good. And, of course, you can record birdsongs.

I used to bring a little flashlight, but I find that there's usually enough light coming from outside or from the emergency lights within. Otherwise, at a pinch, you can make your way around in the dark with the light from the screen of any one of your digital gadgets.

Sometimes things turn out better than expected. I woke up only once last night to the sound of the snorer. And then a strange thing happened. Someone started whistling, long notes at the same high pitch. It seemed to calm him and he stopped. Perhaps it was one of his mates who had discovered this effective technique.

At Sanguesa, we were delighted to meet up with Patrick who had taken a day off to recover from a bout of tendenitus.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Day 34. Arres to Ruesta (27 kms)

4 May, 2011

The alberge last night was just as I remember them in Spain. Four double bunks crowded into a small room. Nowhere to put your stuff. One small window. No emergency light, so you needed a torch to get out in the night. Otherwise, nice ambience and quite good food. Voluntary contribution.

As I left the gite, I walked down a path, and onto a track that led to a farm. A pack of dogs forced me to take a short cut across a field. Then I walked due west for miles along a gravel road, my shadow stretched out in front of me. A hawk hovered overhead, waiting for something to move in the field below.

Tonight we are staying in the ruined village of Ruesta, abandoned in 1959 because of a hydro-electric project. I'm not sure why, because it isn't flooded. The whole village, including a castle and church, are in ruins, except for the alberge and a bar which have been restored. This is another village which must somehow survive on the pilgrim trade.

The Spanish snorer from Jaca is with us tonight. He likes his food and wine, and carries a lot of weight. He arrived after me, sat down to lunch with a bottle of red, and is now sleeping it off in the dorm. The room is rocking.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Day 33. Jaca to Arres (24 kms)

3 May, 2011

Now I am heading west. After leaving Jaca, I walked along the left side of a broad river valley. The last of the snow-capped Pyrenees were behind me.

For a while, the camino followed a dirt track alongside the highway. Then it took a turn up a hill and around the contours. Old stone mileposts marked the distances. This was probably the old pilgrim track.

The medieval pilgrims would have followed the highways of the time. These would have developed into modern roads when they led directly from town to town, and the path today would avoid them. But when they twisted and turned and climbed steeply, the modern road would take a faster route, and the old camino would survive for us.

The river valley opened out into a broad plain. I walked beside fields of barley. The trees and bushes were stunted as the countryside became more arid.

I stopped for lunch in a park in the little town of Santa-Cilia-de-Jaca. Five old men sat on a single bench. A sixth arrived, but there was nowhere for him to sit.

The path continued to follow the river for a while, and then, for the last three kilometres, climbed over a hill and dropped down to the gite at the little village of Arres.

A message from the Norwegians warned us of a bar to avoid tonight. They ate there and got food poisoning. I drank the beer but avoided the tapas.


After my chores, I stroll around the hamlet. The gite is one of a score of stone buildings on a rocky outcrop in the middle of the valley. The others include a church and a bar. Cats and dogs laze in the sun. Once, farmers would have lived up here in the village for protection and gone down to the valley to work their fields during the day. Now, I suspect, rather like O Cebrero on the Camino Frances, the village survives on the pilgrim trade.

A few kilometres to the north are the foothills and then the snowy peaks of the Pyrenees. To the south is another range of hills yellow with gorse. Down in the valley the barley waves in the wind. Trees run along the banks of the Aragon River.

We end the day with a visit to the little church, much celebrated, I believe. The others seem impressed, but it's not to my taste. There is a simple beauty in carved wood, but here it is all painted in garish colours. Nothing is left unadorned. The patron saint of the village is holding her severed breasts on a platter. How could the Church stray so far from the simple teachings of a Jewish prophet?

Monday, 2 May 2011

Day 32. Jaca

2 May, 2011

Last night at the gite we had a classic snorer with a wide range of almost musical notes and animal noises. The brassy trombone would modulate into the spluttering tuba. The regular grunting and growling of a bear would become the braying of a donkey and the snorting of a pig, and build up to a sudden cataclysmic release of pressure. And then merciful silence, until it began again.

We also had a cougher. These are to be feared in the stuffy confines of a gite where they can spread their contagion.

I remember that we encountered one on the Camino Frances. We called him the Spanish Cougher. He seemed to be suffering from more than a cold and we expected him to expire at any moment. What was he doing out of hospital? We did everything we could to avoid him, even choosing the most out-of-the-way gite. But to no avail. He was always there. Then suddenly he disappeared. We never saw him again.

The Company is breaking up. Elisabeth and Marte left yesterday; Anna Maria and Patrick this morning.
Only Miek and I remain in Jaca. I'm nursing a shin, she a knee.

I spent the day wandering around the old town and sitting in the sun. Tomorrow I'm back on the road.

Day 31. Somport to Jaca (30.9 kms)

1 May, 2011

We spent the night in a dungeon of a dormitory. It was uneventful, but for a Spaniard suffering a serous attack of vertigo in the top bunk.

Getting to Jaka was hard yakka. I limped from town to town, fortifying myself with coffee at each stop.

I left the gite to follow the bright yellow arrows down the rocky path. Big dollops of yellow were splashed every few yards. They must have got a good deal on the paint.

To my surprise, the red and white balises reappeared as well. What were they doing there? Especially after deserting us yesterday. On the Camino Frances, the GR markings continue only to the border.

Sometimes the yellow arrows and the red and white balises wrestled for space on the rock. Who was running the show? Spanish or French? The Spanish, I hoped. They want to get you straight to heaven via Santiago, whereas the French like to get you off the straight and narrow.

We met a serious Camino freak at Castiello de Jaca. She had walked from England to Santiago in the eighties, and since then was walking them all backwards. She was heading for Arles. She talked rapidly, probably because everyone she met was going the other way, and she only had a few minutes to say what she had to say.

When we walked into Jaca at 6:30, who should we find at a bar by the cathedral, but Patrick and Jean Francois.

The best part of the day was the evening meal. On Patrick's recommendation, we went to a tapas bar, the best in town. Quite a small place with marvellous ambience. Only a few tables with people crowding around the bar.

We acquired a table. I think Patrick had charmed the server by speaking Occitan to her Catalan. He ordered.

We began with snails. We attacked these with toothpicks. Soon a huge pile of shells accumulated in the middle of the table, but not Anna Maria's - she was building a castle wall with hers.

Then some enormous breaded shrimp. And some calamari, I think, or some kind of squid, in heart-shaped pieces. Delicious.

And then the piece de resistance, a plate of crumbly tasty meat. If you can guess what this is," said Patrick. "I'll pay for the whole meal!" "Testicles," I guessed, thinking of the most outlandish possibility. Right," he said. "Riz de veau," the euphemistic term for calf's balls.

I didn't hold him to his promise. It was a memorable meal with memorable company!