Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Day 17. September 30, 2015. Pendueles to Nueva. 31 mms

Gum trees grow amid the gorse and broom
Whereas back home in sunny Vic, you know,
It is the gorse and broom that leave no room
For tiny little native plants to blow.
But here in Spain the gum tree is the bane,
"Where oxlips and the nodding violet grow"

Forgive these contributions for The Oxford Book of Excruciating Verse.

They serve to pass the time on lonely roads
And help to ease the pain of heavy loads.

At the hotel as well last night were a Danish mother and son whom I have been meeting from time to time along the way.They smoke like two chimneys, either together or in tandem, making their way back and forth from the breakfast table to the porch at fifteen minute intervals. But they are pleasant company and speak English.
I haven't ranted for a while, but this morning at breakfast I read this sentence on my Globe and Mail app which made me choke on my coffee.

Chung Mong-joon, who you will never have heard of, made a statement Tuesday to announce something that would carry just as much authority coming from you or I: “FIFA … is in a total meltdown.”

I have become accustomed to the Globe's incorrect use of "disinterested" for "uninterested", or "enormity" for "enormousness", or "fulsome" for "full", or "careen" for "career", and I have to admit that when enough people use a word wrongly, it eventually becomes acceptable, although the above errors still grate on my ears. But the sentence quoted above contains a serious grammatical error which is wrong by any standard, and I'm not talking about the use of "who" for "whom" which is pretty well common usage these days, or the ending of the phrase with the preposition which is quite idiomatic. I am horrified by an error that would not be sanctioned by the Globe's own Style Guide, or any proofreaders, were they still around. It is an error which ranks with another I see in the paper from time to time, the reference to something "laying" around. O horrible, most horrible, foul and unnatural! I leave you to make the correction in the sentence quoted above. 

I followed the GR E9 this morning, a wonderful, winding dirt path though the fields, bramble hedges alongside, and stands of corn with beans climbing up the stalks, and cowbells more musical than the sounds of church on Sundays. And lots of gum trees, so thin and tall, they might have furnished masts for the Armada, had they been here then. 

I came to the Bufones de Arenillas where water rushes into cracks in the cliff, and the pressure forces it out and up into the air. But the sea was calm today and although I could hear the water rumbling below, there were no geysers.

I continued to follow the GR across the highway and up a steep hill with heather on either side among the gorse, and then down the hill past a chapel, and into Llanes, a lovely town with its beach, port, wide streets and plazas. 

Llanes is supposed to be the hippiest town on the the Camino, but I didn't see any sign of it, unless it was this funky urinal. As I hit the target, I recalled the slogan from my childhood to be found on many an Aussie dunny.

We aim to please,
Your aim will help.

And I also remembered the proprietress of a French gite where I stayed, who was so concerned about inaccuracy that she had put a notice in her bathroom asking gemtlemen to please remain seated at all times.

In the afternoon, I continued along the coastal path past the Playa de Poo (no comment), Celorio, and Barro, putting in at beautiful beaches all the way, where I was sorely tempted to swim, but I had miscalculated my distances and was running late. I passed the spectacular Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Los Dolores.

had planned to stay at an  alberge at Villahormes, but it was closed, so I had to walk another three kilometres into Nueva, arriving at seven o'clock and finding a hotel. My longest day.

Day 16. September 29, 2015. San Vincente de la Barquera to Pendueles. 25 kms

I'm not a ploughman, someone less romantic,
And I do westward wend my weary way,
But like the rustic swain, with step iambic,
I slowly plod and plod 'til close of day.

Today was a bit of a plod. In fact, it was a bugger of a plod. I spent most of the day on the N635: in the morning because the hospitalero suggested that it was shorter and safer than the official route, and in the afternoon because for much of the time it was the official route.

So in lieu of more interesting things to describe along the way, here are a few ploditudes, practical, not profound, pieces of advice that I have been reflecting upon, which I now pass on, and which I have probably given before, but which now come to mind because I have failed to follow them myself.

The first is to get out of your boots those little bits of grit that you inevitably throw up as you walk and which fall down the back of your heel and make their way under your foot. This is hard to bring yourself to do, because you're in full stride and the last thing you want to do is stop and take your boots off. You just hope that the grit will make its way off to the side, and it usually does, but it can settle under your heel or the ball of your foot, and cause trouble.

The second is to be aware that when you order a single course at a bar or restaurant, anything else, including bread, you will pay for. In France, they will throw the bread in; in Spain, you will pay for it. Recently, I paid 7.50€ for a salad, and 3.00€ for three stale chunks of bread. The best deal is to get the menu du jour with wine and bread included.

The third is to make sure that nothing is left adrift when your stuff is jammed up against your neighbour's in a full hostel. Shove anything that moves back in your pack, or keep the things you'll need in sacks with a string tightener, which you can loop around the frame of your bunk. I used to lose my sleeping bag sack until I did this. 

If the hostel's crammed, 
And your stuff is jammed, 
Against your neighbour's gear,
Then put it back, 
Inside your pack, 
Dont leave it in the clear.

Or here's the thing, 
Just tie the string
That draws your sack up tight,
Around the frame, 
And then you're hame, 
And all is well at night.

And your valuables? Always keep your money and passport in their pouch about your person, although at nights I loop it around the frame as well, next to my head, or attach it to my pack if it's next to me. As for phones, cameras, etc., everyone seems to leave them charging, unattended, at every available socket. Ah, and make sure that your adapter doesn't stay in the socket when you pull out the charger!!

The one little variation from the plod along the highway was a nice little walk on a footpath from Unquera up to the hilltop town of Colombres, where the Spanish bourgeois who had made their fortune in the New World built elaborate houses in the Indianos style. Of la Quinta de Guadeloupe below, which now houses a museum of emigration, one is temped to say that it is not Gaudi, but gaudy.

I was planning to stay at the pilgrims' albergue at Pendueles, but it was closed, so rather walk on for another15 kms, I am treating myself to a room at the local inn.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Day 15. September 28, 2015. Cobreces to San Vincente de la Barquera. 22 kms

And still they gazed and still their wonder grew.

The moon was setting as I left the albergue. I walked up the hill, past the church, and out onto a little rural road. Then the sun rose, and lit up the path ahead of me.

I had to walk 11 kilometres for breakfast this morning. At 9:15, I arrived at a little restaurant attached to a "camping", but it opened at 9:30. Then I arrived in the next village at 9:30, at a bar that opened at 10:00. Finally, I arrived in Comillas, and found a bar in the plaza.

Comilla has everything: a beautiful beach, a historic centre, a grand plaza, and of course, the Capriccio de Gaudi. One of Gaudi's patrons was very partial to this seaside town and commissioned a magnificent house which is now a museum. This is one of the few Gaudi "towns" outside Catalonia.

You cannot remain indifferent to a Gaudi building, but burst out laughing in amazement at his wild imagination. As the guidebook puts it, this particular summerhouse for the Marquis de Comillas is "a stunning combination of iron, brick and pottery, displaying both Spanish and Arabic influences".

Apparently, Gaudi failed his architecture exam twice. He succeeded on the third try, with the comment that he was either a madman or a genius.

Everywhere inside the house, his imagination is evident, as in the bird playing the piano in this stained glass window.

I could have lingered much longer in this beautiful place, but after a quick lunch in the plaza, I set out along a footpath beside the highway and walked a further eleven kilometres into San Vincente de la Barquera. This is another seaside town situated around an estuary, with a pleasant promenade around its harbour. I am staying at a roomy albergue near the church.


Sunday, 27 September 2015

Day 14. September 27, 2015. Albergue Arco Iris to Cobreces. 16 kms

A good taste in the mouth doth take away the bad

The meal last night at the Albergue Arco Iris was excellent. A mountain of fine pasta followed by pork steaks and salad. And the wine flowed. I didn't mention it before, but at the Albergue Meruelo when we asked for more wine a reluctant half bottle appeared. Here there were bottles of red all over the table. And good company: Jack the hippy Kiwi; Isabelle, a Francaise, whom I hadn't seen since my first day; Gai, the Israeli girl who had played the violin on the cliff top; a young German woman, Frederika; and an American couple. A very old Spanish grandmother presided over the table, forcing more food upon us. At 21€ for the demi-pension, the Albergue Arco Iris offered the very best of Spanish hospitality; at €25, the Albergue Meruelo, the worst.

As I walked into Santillano a flight of pigeons circled endlessly, changing colour as their wings caught the sunlight.  A tall stand of gum trees stood incongruously outside the medieval town, eucalypts that sometimes find their way anachronistically into novels set long before the introduction of the trees into Europe from Australia. The eucalypts abound in Spain. Someone told me that they had once been thought to provide useful lumber, but had proved unsatisfactory and were now a nuisance. Mind you, I pass plantations of them, so they must be used for something.

I came upon Jack and Gai again, busking in front of the Romanesque church, their pleasant music sometimes shattered by the cracked chimes of Catholic bells, so different from the music of an Anglican peal. A guard stood outside the church trying to distinguish between the faithful few and the enterprising tourists feigning religion for the day to get in for nothing. For it was Sunday.

Santillano is a beautiful medieval village, once described by Jean Paul Sartre as the most beautiful in Spain. I strolled around the cobbled streets, intending to take it easy, for it was a day of rest. It was very touristy: I gave the Museum of Torture a miss, and I decided against the Orgasmo ice cream.

And then I ate an ensalad mixte, a salad which is a meal in itself, lettuce, tomato, olives, asparagus and tuna.

After lunch, I walked leisurely up the hill, and out into the country for 13 kilometres, until I reached the town of Cobreces, where I am staying at an albergue attached to a Cistercian abbey.

For a time I walked with a couple from the Czech Republic. I asked them about the break-up of Czechoslovakia. He said it had been motivated mainly by Slovakian politicians, and the people of the Czech Republic were not happy at the time. There had been no referendum, although he thought the Slovakians, but not the Czechs, would have voted about 60% in favour of separation. Now he conceded that it had worked out rather well, and that relations were good between the two countries.

In the evening I attended Vespers at the abbey. It was sung, by 22 monks in all, mostly old, some ancient, but a few young, novitiates perhaps, judging by their simpler garb. The one concession to modernity was an electronic board, rather like the one in a metro train which tells you the next station, and in this case, it gave us the name of the next psalm, and once or twice it displayed the whole service in order, like all the stations from the beginning of the line until the terminus. But on one occasion it went quite wild and seemed to reel off all 150 psalms and dozens of hymns and cantos at once, and I was reminded of a bus driver at the end of his route in earlier times, as he rapidly wound the roll to find the next destination. 

At the end of the service, we all sat in silence for at least 15 minutes, some of the monks kneeling, others sitting, all praying or meditating or thinking. I wondered whether any of them were having doubts, but were too old to act on them.

Day 13. Santander to Albergue Arco Iris. 29 kms

It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, and that craves wary walking

I left the hostel fairly early and headed up the hill to a bar where I had my habitual cafe and tortilla. Then it was through the suburbs and out of town towards Santa Cruz de Bezana and Boo de Pielagos. I was probably one of the few who didn't take a train out of the city and the only one who walked all the way today.

I really don't mind the city walking when the directions are clear. In some ways it's more interesting than walking forever along a busy road in the country. At least there's a footpath, and there's often some variety as well, one street to another, different shops, a bit of in and out of here and there.

I enjoy watching the Walk indicator at the pedestrian crossings in Spain. Instead of your Anglo-Saxon no-nonsense green go, red stop, there is a little digital man, who in his red guise stands firm and solid with both feet on the ground, while above him a counter ticks away the seconds remaining before the lights change. Then he  turns green and starts walking briskly, because he doesn't want you to amble across. Again the seconds tick away, and with three to go, he breaks into a sprint, telling you to get a move on or you'll get run over.

At Boo I faced a dilemma, or should I say, trilemma. In ages past, the way crossed a river between Boo and Moja, and a ferryman would have done a brisk trade. Now there was no ferry, and I was forced to choose between a nine-kilometre road detour, a short crossing by train, or an unofficial hike along the tracks and across the railway bridge. I had decided upon the foot crossing and had kept my eye on the trains all morning, noting their frequency. I imagined leaping off the bridge in the face of an oncoming train, throwing off my backpack and unbuttoning my boots in mid-flight lest I sink, but in the event it was very simple and safe, even if I had to ignore imposing Passo Probhito signs at the beginning of the bridge. There was a footpath at the side of the tracks and a barrier to prevent me from falling or jumping into the river. I walked along the tracks into Moja Station, out onto the street, and into a bar for a coffee. A parrot pierced my ears with its shrill shriek, and I heard a train arrive at the station.

As I set off, half a dozen people arrived from the train. They were fresh, and would continue on to Santillano del Mar. I had decided to stop at Requejada, nine kilometres earlier. But when I arrived, I found the bedbugs had been there before me. "Desinfecto" said the  official notice on the door. So I pressed on. Along the way I passed a dead adder on the road, not the first I have seen.

I should tell you about some of my companions on the way. Several finished yesterday. Since the beginning, I had been running into a several Spanish students, majoring in Physics. Classmates, they had decided to walk part of the Camino together before their term began on Monday. They were a friendly group, spoke English, and sometimes helped me with translations.

You never quite know what you're getting into when you initiate a discussion with the person you are walking with. Yesterday, I walked around the coast with Fernando, a sculptor from Bilbao. He was fascinated by the machinations of the Catholic Church, telling me about the Mafia money in the Vatican Bank and the poisoning of the pope who tried to do something about it. The current pope, he said, was the last chance for the Church. He, Fernando, not Francisco, finished yesterday as well. 

In Pobena, I had dinner with an American, who was leaving the next morning. As he was from Seattle (west coast) and was doing the Camino, I thought it would be safe to talk politics with him. I asked him whether he thought Obama was doing better in his second term. "0bama," he said, and his face changed like Gollum's when he coveted the ring, "should be impeached. I  wouldn't be surprised if he refuses to step down." So that was the end of the discussion. That put an end to my theory that members of a certain political party would not be found on the Camino with its values of sharing and tolerance and community and compassion.

Animals share these values as well. Here is one of many examples, a horse with his friends.

I walked almost to Santillano, but stopped a few kilometres short at the Albergue Arco Iris, 400 metres off the track. Actually, it was 700 metres, but in the manner of off-way gites and auberges everywhere, it had understated the distance, wary of discouraging the footsore or faint hearted.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Day 12. September 25, 2015. Albergue de Meruelo to Santander. 25 kms

I must go down to the sea again

The coffee that I didn't drink left a nasty taste in my mouth. The Albergue de Meruelo was comfortable enough, and the evening meal was good, but not superb. The breakfast, however, was appalling. Chunks of bread. That was all. And when I asked for a second cup of coffee I was told, the first is free, you have to give a donation for the second. Now this was a private alberge; "donation" was a euphemism for payment. This was a little business, but what kind of business sense is it to save ten cents but lose eight clients, or eight times eight? We were all appalled and will doubtless pass this along. I will.

I was very anxious to have a real breakfast and a second cup of coffee, so I strolled briskly into Guemes. As I walked by a field, a huge machine was harvesting the corn, chewing it up and spewing it out into a truck alongside. It seems I was wrong about the opportunistic beans being intended for the cattle. Christian le Bordelais, with whom I was walking, told me that these beans, in his region anyway, were a specialty, and the corn simply served the practical purpose of a pole.

I had my second breakfast, it was really my first, at Galizano, and then I had the option of a short cut along the road to Somo and the ferry to Santander, or a longer walk around the coast. The weather was fine, so I headed for the sea.

As you may have noticed, I am rather partial to dogs, and I enjoy reading stories about, or seeing videos of, singing dogs, dancing dogs, talking dogs, etc. Well, today I was fortunate enough to witness a surfing dog. This portion of the coast is very much a surfer's paradise, and this afternoon I passed several surfing schools and surfing camps. And I have noticed more and more surfers in wet suits out in the bays as I walk by. As I rounded a point towards the end of the coastal detour I came down onto a car park packed with cars and surfing gear. Out in the bay where some large waves were rolling in were several surfers, perhaps three or four hundred yards out. Along some rocks which jutted out into the bay ran a black dog. The waves were washing over the rocks and I thought he was merely trying to get as close as possible to his master while remaining landbound. But he lept in and started swimming out to sea. He didn't seem desperate to join any of the surfers so he may not have belonged to them, but he kept going, breaking through the surf until he was about two hundred yards from the beach. Someone whistled from the cliff top and he started swimming in, catching waves as he came, and then disappearing under dumpers, and resurfacing in a mass of white foam. I watched fascinated, but concerned as well, because he was being carried towards some rocks where he might have been badly hurt. Seeing his predicament, one of the surfers paddled in, jumped off his board, and scooped him away from the rocks. The dog landed on the beach, shook himself, and instead of collapsing with exhaustion, raced up the steps to join his folk in the car park. He bounded from car to car, obviously exhilarated after his day's surfing. Relieved, I continued walking to Lomo, where I caught a ferry across to Santander.

Tonight I am staying at an alberge in the centre of town. Bedbugs are about. Apparently, the hostel at the next step is closed for that reason. Here, we have to leave our backpacks outside the dorm, and the hospitalero has made the hippy Kiwi leave his pack at the entrance because she thinks he is carrying the bugs. He showed me the alleged bites which she saw on his arm. He thinks they are pimples, and he's probably right, but there is no arguing with her. She's a bit of a martinet.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Day 11. September 24, 2015. Laredo to

As I walked along the Bois Boolong
With an independent air

It was a charming evening at the Alberge Casa de la Trinada. These were joyous nuns with beaming faces who wanted to share their hospitality with pilgrims and wanted us to share our stories with them. There was a mass, of course, with a pilgrims' blessing; and then a musical interlude where we sang religious songs, led by a nun with guitar, accompanied by another on drums, with a couple of priests bobbing along as well; and in between the songs we introduced ourselves, saying who we were and why we were doing the Camino, and the nuns and priests spoke too, the older man saying little because he knew less was more, but the the younger one feeling that he had to give a little homily; and then we ate, the nuns preparing the first course, while we provided the second, a kind of potluck of bread and cheese and wine. There was an innocence about it all, a return to simpler times.

The next morning, as I strolled along the promenade I found myself singing the air that I quote above, that my old Maths teacher was wont to sing, he who had been called out of retirement to teach us, he who had hit a six out of the WACA, he from whom I had learned that 22 is the square root of 484. My Latin teacher, however, would sing "Come into the Garden, Maud". It is interesting how how we retain these connections with past eras through individual memories like this. I remember students telling me that "antidisestablishmentarianism" was the longest word in the English language. How could that word from the days of home rule for Ireland have survived in Canada had it not been passed down from father to son as a curiosity of the former's childhood? It was anachronistic when I was a student. Aspects of an age ignored or forgotten by historians may survive for several generations through individual memories.

I was a walking washing line, a veritable ambulatory Hill's Hoist of socks and undies and tee shirt. I had had to wash my shorts as well, and normally these would have taken three days to dry, but I draped them over a water heater during the night, so this morning they were damp but wearable. I was "drying on the outside and drying on the inside", so to speak. 

My shorts needed washing because I had tried to nip past a girl on the coastal path, but had slipped in the mud and fallen at her feet between two piles of goat crap. Folly cometh before a fall.

Several kilometres further on I arrived at an inlet where a little ferry came to pick me up, pushing its prow into the sand and throwing a little ladder over the bow. After a five-minute crossing, we arrived at Santona. And like a hobbit, I ate a second breakfast.

Then it was through the town, past a prison, and down to a beach, where I walked towards a track at the end of the bay which seemed to lead towards a road which wound up and around a promontory. The path led upwards, but not as far as the road. Instead, it made its own way around the point, up and down, often treacherous, and offering magnificent views of the bay. And then, at the top was one of those wonderful unexpected moments, a girl from the previous night at the hostel playing the violin.

I waited and listened for a while, and then slipped and slid down to the next beach on brown clay studded with rocks which gave a precarious foothold. Yesterday it would have been impassable; today, it was just possible.

Then I took off my boots, and paddled for several kilometres along the Playa de Noja, splashing in the waves, squishing the sand between my toes. What bliss! What a magnificent beach! Everyone was about, strolling up and down, families, couples, the young, the old, even a few topless nubiles.

I walked to the end of the beach, put on my heavies, proceeded into town, and out along little rural roads through Barrio de Castilla and San Miguel de Meruelo.

After several kilometres, I passed one of those symbols of the Camino.

I had planned to walk on to Guemes, but was seduced by the signs which kept appearing: Albergue Merruelo 5 kms, 4 kms, 3 kms, etc. So I stopped at this hostel, and signed up for the demi-pension.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Day 10. September 23, 2015. Castra Urdiales to Laredo. 27 kms

O humble snail, thy home upon thy back,
Why wendest thou thy way across this track,
When cometh from afar the fearful sound
Of pilgrim's feet upon this sluggish ground?
I do but fear thy destiny and his,
Will meet in one horrendous squiz.
And he'll walk on, oblivious to thy fate,
While thou remainest, slimy on the slate.

I was moved to read that some Americans were planning to wear an extra shell in memory of Denise Thiem, a pilgrim who was murdered on the Camino Frances in the spring. I suspect that this will become a much wider movement.

My face clouded over as I poked it out the door of the alberge. It was raining. No longer was I of sunny disposition. Wrestling with my poncho, I  stormed out in a foul mood.

Even so, it was good to leave the alberge: just too many people crammed into one room. There was nowhere to put your gear, and always the risk of something vital from from your pack getting mixed up with someone else's. As I left, I noticed a cockroach crawling defiantly across the kitchen floor.

I walked up the hill, and then down to Andelagua, where I was hoping a bar night have been open for breakfast, but it wasn't. Then it was down minor roads to the coast, and along a path where the view should have been spectacular, but the sea and the mist were one. The rain fell steadily as I walked, soaking my Tilley hat, running down my legs into my boots, and whipping under my poncho.

I always dither over whether to bring a rain jacket and rain pants or a poncho. It doesn't matter that much; you are going to get wet anyway, either from rain without or sweat within. At least with a poncho you don't get cold and clammy, just wet. But it's a bit difficult to don; it takes a strong upward swing to fling it over your backpack. And then you look like the hunchback of Notre Dame.

The coastal path ended at Islares, and there I found a cafe. After that, it was either a long hike up the mountain in the rain, or a short cut along the road. Guess which one I took. Even so it was still a long climb as the road wound its way around the hill. I walked with Susanne, a Quebecoise from Montreal. Our political views were remarkably similar, and we discussed the differences between great statesmen (Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque) and expedient politicians (Steven Harper and Tom Mulcair). We agreed with Jean Chrétien that Harper had done more harm to the country than any other prime minister.

I was planning to finish early on this miserable day, but when we arrived at Liende three hours before the opening of the alberge, I was too wet and cold to sit around and wait, so I kept on walking.

As I walked in to the streets of Laredo, there were no cowboys. No white linen either, not on my bed anyway, for once again I will spend the night in my sleeping bag, at an alberge, this time run by nuns.

I do feel sorry for dogs with no redeeming feature. One just walked into the bar where I am writing this. He is a yap dog, a kind of cross between a Pom and a Peke, and he may have some cat in him. He has a skirt and a beard, I kid you not, a real bushy growth out of his neck, and a upward protruding lower tooth. He would have won a Dog's Ugliness Contest. He yapped all the time his master sat at the bar, and everyone was thinking, Get that bloody dog out of here.

I'm sorry the picture's out of focus, but I had to be quick and discreet. I mean, why would I want to take a photo of this dog? But I like the dogs in Spain. They are all shapes and sizes and colours, of indeterminate ancestry, often with a spot where it shouldn't be, or a limp or a lurch or a lean or a leer. They are the hoi polloi of dogs, and would not fit in on Dallas Road or Wellington Crescent.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Day 9. September 22, 2015. Pobena to Castra Urbiano. 24 kms

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O sea,
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

I spent a reasonably good night at the alberge, despite the close quarters. A fairly late arrival, I was relegated to a top bunk, but fortunately I only once had to make the dangerous descent during the night. And I was next to the window, so I controlled the airflow. 

I left the hostel and popped into a bar for breakfast. I have to say that I think the Spanish breakfast is superior to the French. Not the croissants, I find them heavy and sticky. But I love the tortillas. And I think the coffee is better as well. For my grand cafe, I've learned to ask for a cafe solo doble, a Spanish oxymoron.

I climbed a long flight of steps, and as I neared the top I could hear the roar of the surf. And there it was. The bay was in front of me. A lone figure was strolling on the beach, and the waves were rolling in. A few ships were in the offing, waiting to enter the port at Bilbao. For five kilometres I continued along this magnificent coastal path, gorse to the left of me, green, brown, with the occasional yellow flower remaining, but on my right, the rolling grey sea with white foam where the waves were crashing on the rocks, and the seagulls crying overhead. And from inland, the plaintive call of the dove.

Ahead of me on the trail were some cows on pilgrimage. I looked carefully before I passed them. I have had some unsettling experiences with bulls.

Then it was a long sweep inland, although I found out later that I could have taken a short cut along the coast and saved five kilometres. But after a long climb, it was downhill and pleasant hiking along a disused railway line. And then into Castro-Urdiales which is reminiscent of San Sebastián with its long promenade, sweeping beaches, and posh hotels. The bay is dominated by the medieval castle and the Gothic church of Santa Maria de la Ansunciation.


Also, as in San Sebastion, the alberge is on the far side of town. Once again it is full to the gills, and I am in a top bunk. And it's raining.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Day 8. September 21, 2015. Bilbao to Pobena. 27 kms

Adam wore a fig leaf,
But I'd as lief, sink my teeth, into the fruit beneath.
Verily, warily, I open it wide,
For there inside may worms abide.

Don't stay at this Alberge de Peregrinos if want to enjoy a few beers in the evening. The Alberge is two kilometres from and 300 feet above the nearest bar, and the toilets are a hundred yards away from the dorm. 

Now this could happen anywhere, of course, but during the night I was awoken by probably the loudest snoring I have ever heard: a cross between the roar of the MGM lion, only ten times as loud, and the sound of bath water going down the plughole, or down the gurgler as Australians would say. It was probably a Spaniard, but it may have been the German, for at times it sounded like a Panza tank. When I took the long hike to the washroom, I could still hear him a hundred yards away.

The walk was fairly easy today, but seemed longer than it was supposed to be. I spent most of the morning walking along the west bank of the Rio Nervion to Portugalete. No hills for a change! And then it was west along footpaths and bicycle trails to the sea.

Fig trees grow wild along the roads. The figs aren't quite ripe yet, or more likely the ripe ones have already been picked. I always examine them very carefully, a habit from childhood, for the figs in our back yard had often been attacked by fruitflies.

At Portugalete, I ran into a young Spanish couple who had spent the night at the Alberge. They had been talking about the snoring and wanted to know how to spell the word in English. They said they were interested in etymology and informed me that the word "mosquito" was of Spanish origin and meant "little fly".

Every so often, I receive a comment. This time I'm going to publish it in full, because it arrived at a very appropriate time. It comes from my old mate George, who hails from the land of the kangaroo and the recent prime minister who described his country as the suppository of good fortune. Here it is:
You speak of boots with reverence with no mention of their partner, the humble sox. Thick sox are necessary for old walkers with depleted padding on the ball of their foot. Sadly, thick sox dry too slowly for the transient pilgrim and so the answer is to wear three pair of thin sox. Rotate the sox, washing the inner sox each day for comfort  and convenience.
Every peregrino has a routine to pass onto the ignorant and inexperienced. What is your number one recommendation for travellers.

Are you walking to or away from some reality that you are not sharing with us?

The last question is a little close to the bone. Only yesterday at breakfast we were talking about someone who had walked 16 caminos. Someone asked rhetorically, how many caminos does a person have to do? Perhaps I will come back to that one.

That reminds me of another Australian prime minister ( I forget whom), who years ago, was interviewed by Time Magazine. He had asked for the questions in advance so he could prepare his answers, but at the end of the interview he was thrown a zinger: "What do you see as Australia's future?" He replied, "Aw, can I get back to you on that one."

As for the socks, you might like to follow George's suggestion. Everybody has their own preference. I wear Tilleys or Darn Toughs because they have a guarantee against wearing out. I wear them out and get a replacement. Free socks for the rest of my life!

I'll tell you what happens when I take them back. I think it would make a good discussion in an ethics class on the topic "Moral Culpability and the Malleable Conscience". With me, it's the heels that go; I return the socks when the heels are quite threadbare. One employee says that the company won't accept them unless there's a hole in them, and then produces a pair of scissors, spikes the socks, and gives me a new pair. Another employee says that the company won't accept them unless there's a hole in them, and then produces a pair of scissors, gives them to me, and turns his back. I say, perhaps I'll wear them a little longer. Both the employees ask me, did I wash my socks? Apparently, they have to live with the basket of worn-outs until they send them back at the end of the year.

I appreciate George's comment about the ball of his foot. I was having severe pain in my foot a couple of days ago as I walked on the rough track in the forest. I was thinking that I might have to take my boots back to MEC because they didn't fit, but I losened them off and that solved the problem. I remembered one of my own tips: it is far better to buy boots that are too large rather than too small. Feet swell. 

As for the tips, I published a list on 29 June, 2012, if you want to look for it in the archives of this blog.

Some bear repetition. Only this morning I was caught yet again in a toilet with a timed switch and when it timed out, I had to feel my way around in the dark to find it. Usually, the timer in the switch is set to leave the light on for about a minute, and I don't know about you, but that's not long enough for me.

If only a chap
Could have a crap,
While sitting in the light.
I need some time
To spend a dime,
Before the fall of night.

So when you go into the cubicle, make sure you know where the switch is, so that you can turn the light back on if it goes out.

It is good to be back at the coast. I was regretting that I had not brought my bathers to take advantage of this amazing beach, but the weather is getting colder and windier by the minute, so I wouldn't have gone swimming anyway.

I am writing this in the dorm at the alberge at Pobena. It is completo. All the beds are taken,12 double bunks, cheek by jowl, and the pilgrim overflow, another dozen or so, sleep on mattresses in the dining room. This is not what I expected on this Camino. These are the numbers typical of the Camino Frances, but from one account, the crowds there are "horrendous". As someone said, it's all because of the film.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Day 7. September 20, 2015. Lezama to Bilbao. 17 kms

All's well that ends welI 

I had bacon and egg, orange juice, and a large coffee this morning, all for 3€. I have now had breakfast, dinner and tea, so to speak, at this restaurant, and the proprietor seems to really care about his pilgrim clients, so I recommend it. On Egin, on the right of the highway, just as you arrive at Lezama.

After walking about five or six kilometres along the highway, I took off across the fields towards the hills. According to the sign, it was only five kilometres to Bilbao. (As it happens, it was, but to the outskirts, not the centre.) Then it was a long climb up a hill, through the woods, down the other side to the outskirts of the city.

I haven't waxed effusely about animals for a while, the donkeys heehawing in the field, the contented cows chewing their cuds, the pigs wallowing in the muck, or the chooks clucking about in the yard, so I will tell you now about the capricious gathering of goats I encountered just after leaving the highway. There they were, a line of them, happily munching at some bales of hay. And one was lying on top of a bale, as goats are wont to do. I noticed that the one tree in their field was stripped bare; goats normally prefer leaves to grass. But what struck me most was their gentle goatherd, who looked at me amicably, curiously, advisedly, not warily. Clearly he was un perro and not un chien. Were he the latter, a sign on the gate would or should have read: Chien Gentil.

I have a great respect for goats as I was once a goatherd myself in a very 20th century way. But if you want an animal to mow your lawn, get a sheep, not a goat. Otherwise you'll have long grass and short trees. Very short trees!

This is now a very short post. It was once a very long one, but I have just deliberately deleted half of it. There is nothing so boring as someone else's tale of woe, and why should I present myself as the fool in my own narrative?

Suffice it to say, I walked five unnecessary kilometres, climbed up 396 unnecessary steps, and disturbed a tavern full of Spaniards watching a football game. And my guide book now has good reason to sing the third line of "Amazing Grace". And I have resolved to be more careful and to learn some Spanish.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Day 6. September 19, 2015. Gernika to Lezama. 20 kms

I'm walking backwards to Christmas
Across the Irish Sea

I had planned to meet my Canadian and Spanish friend for breakfast, but they were sound asleep when I tapped on their door at seven o'clock. So I followed a Spanish party out of town, who darted this way and that, trying to find the Camino. This is often a difficult task as the municipalities do not always like their inner streets adorned with yellow arrows. 

Eventually, the way took off into the forest and up the hill, a tortuous and torturous stony path, straight up, onwards and upwards. But it was an honest climb, with no false summits promising relief and offering but a short deceptive descent before the next climb. No, it was straight up, the way I like my scotch, until we reached the plateau. And then a couple of rusty, misshapen steel gates, a farm track across a field, where the sun was already dispersing the mist (above), a bit of bitumen, and a further climb up into logging country, where a couple of times I had to stand off to one side as large trucks, laden with logs and a large crane for loading them onto the back, waddled from side to side as they made their way across the uneven ground.

Then it was downhill, again with fruit trees growing almost wild along the road. The ditch was full of rotten apples, and I thought of the Peter Sellers character, the aristocrat whose noblesse obliged him to give his rotten apples to the poor. I thought of him yesterday, as well, when I met the Irishman. "Paddy, you played a bum note." I have always admired Peter Sellers, ever since listening to the Goon Show every Sunday night on the ABC many years ago.

I pushed myself today, hoping, successfully, to find a place at an alberge with only 20 beds, two-thirds along the way to Bilbao. Otherwise it would have been a 35-kilometre hike, difficult after the long climb, well over a thousand feet.

A loyal reader has asked me about the differences I have noticed between walking in France and walking in Spain. It is early days yet, but food and drink are certainly cheaper here. Beer and coffee is perhaps half the price, and even if you are by yourself, and you have a red with your meal, the bottle is left on the table. Mind you, it is often Pamplona plonk, although last night, because of the presence of our royal guard-cum-hospitalero, we drank a very good bottle of wine. And I well remember, on my last walk in Spain along the Camino Frances in 2003, when I ordered a scotch, the barman would pour it as if it were a glass of wine, talking to his companion as the bottle gurgled and my eyes gaped. I hope that practice hasn't changed. And as a final example, for lunch today I paid 5€ for a salad mixte, a large beer, and an espresso.

The dogs are certainly more friendly in Spain. As a general rule, they don't bark at the strangers who walk by. In France the reverse is true. I think it's because they feel they have to live up to the sign that confronts every visitor: Chien Mechant. And there are other differences too, for another post.

Day 5. September 18, 2015. Markina Xemein to Gernika. 25 kms

But look, the morn in russet mantle clad
Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill

On this very pleasant day, I witnessed some curious phenomena and encountered some interesting people. It was rather gloomy as I left the alberge, but soon the sun tinged the distant clouds, and a little later I was walking in full sunlight.

After leaving town, I followed a gentle path along a brook for about five kilometres, and then took a soggy track up into the hills towards the ubiquitous wind turbines.  After the recent rains it was slippery, even slooshy, as a Lancashire friend used to say, and I splashed confidently through the puddles in my leather boots while another pilgrim tried to negotiate the mud in his light hiking shoes. Up to the top, and then down a slippery gully, worn bare by torrents of water and many boots, into the valley where I reached the next village, and continued on into Gernika along lanes lined with apple trees and walnuts and the occasional fig, all  bearing fruit which I sampled from time to time.

As I turned a corner, I came upon what seemed to be a field of brambles with huge vines leaping over one other in an effort to conquer more ground. What a shame, I thought, for the farmer to have given up good land so easily. Then I noticed the kiwi fruit. So that was how they grew. I had never seen them before.

And then I came upon the largest zucchini I have ever seen, which dwarfed my size ten Scarpa leather boot.

I scarpered on and came to a field of corn, the individual plants earning their keep as bean poles. Was the maize for the cattle and the beans for the humans? Or vice versa? How was it harvested? Upon reflection, I decided it was all cattle fodder. What a meal! Beans and corn. Happy cows indeed! And much gas.

And then I admired a very effective way of stacking wood.

I met some interesting people along the way: among them an Irish banker and his French partner who had just quit her job in finance and was walking the Camino while she thought about a more satisfying career; a Quebecker who played "Amazing Grace" and O Susanna" on his mouth organ at the pub, as part of a fund-raising venture which brought in contributions for every tune he played on the Camino; and a young New Zealander, who had left the main stream with the perfect excuse, a collapsed bridge which had cut off his access to school after the earthquake in Christ Church, and was now living a hippy and happy life along the Camino and around the world. I arrived at Gernika at the same time as as a former soldier of the Spanish Royal Guard and a retired postman who lived only a couple of blocks away from me in my home town, and finding the hostel full we decided to look around for a room together, whereupon the Spaniard, who had volunteered as a hospitalier in Markina and made many contacts, negotiated free rooms for us at a pension, provided we ate at the associated restaurant.

I visited the legislative building next to the famous oak tree around which the Basque people had assembled for a thousand years or more. Miraculously it had survived the bombardment, but was now in its third incarnation, each derived from a slip of its predecessor. Vaguely familiar with the story of Gernika, I continued on to the museum to find out more. Franco had always denied that his government had collaborated in the bombing, claiming that the Communists had burned the town. This had been definitively refuted by foreign journalists at the time, but according to the museum, the Germans only admitted their role in the bombing in the bombing in 1989, and the Spanish military denies their part to this day. Now the town is modern, spacious and alive, in sharp contrast to the death and destruction shown in the photos taken after the bombardment.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

September 17, 2015. Markina Xeneim

Tomorrow is another day

When I stopped walking in the spring, I didn't finish at the most accessible of towns. I had simply run out of time, and had to stop. Now I had to get back there, to Markina Xemein, by plane to Bilbao from Victoria via Toronto and Frankfurt, and then by a couple of buses to the town. And it took the best part of two days to get here.

As I flew, I wondered how long we would continue to enjoy this convenient but very dirty means of getting from one side of the world to the other. Apparently, air transport contributes 10% of total atmospheric pollution. I once met a woman who was principled enough not to travel by air for that reason. Only one, though. Not so long ago a British prime minister mused about limiting Brits to one overseas flight a year, but his concern for the environment wasn't as strong as his fear of losing the next election, so he backed down. Expediency always wins in the end.

There is a confraternity, or should I say consorority, of Camino walkers, and we recognize one another, even when far from the trail, not from a secret handshake but the more visible symbol of the backpack. On one of the flights as I lined up with fellow zone-four travellers, mine initiated a conversation with a lady who had recently walked the Camino Frances and whose friend was now walking the Primitivo. It happens all the time. The only other person I spoke to was a Trinidadian, who, learning I was Australian, proceeded to give me a ball-by-ball description of every cricket match he had seen during the past 50 years. Actually, I didn't speak much at all; I just made the appropriate response as someone hit a six or bowled a maiden over. Stumps was called only when the typically long Tim Hortons line split into two at the counter.

A word about boots. This time I am wearing a pair of Scarpa Active leather boots. Expensive, and perhaps a little heavy (1.71 kg), but very comfortable. I am sticking with leather boots, especially after my blistered experience with a pair of lighter-weight Keens a few years back. I wore out my recent pair of Zambs in the spring, the sole having given way completely. I had worn them from Paris to Saint-Jean, and then Montpellier into Spain, but even so, this was nothing compared to the pair I had bought in 1990, which lasted at least 15 years and quite literally thousands of miles. Strangely, it was just as I was entering the medieval town of Conques that they finally conqued out.

Now here is another example of why MEC is such a great store. I took the Zambs back, saying that they had lasted nowhere nearly as long as my first pair. "Well", said MEC, "our policy is to give you your money back if you are not satisfied." Ah, very good, I thought. "But," she went on, "in fact, your boots lasted as long as they were supposed to." She told me that nowadays boots were made to be comfortable rather than durable, and that was why my new Zambs hadn't lasted as long as the old ones.

For the first time in my life I declined to accept a refund. That may seem rather noble of me, but I reflected that on one occasion in my original Zambs I had suffered a nasty case of shin splints, but not so in my recent pair, and were I given a choice between comfortable and durable footwear I would choose the former. Besides, MEC has always been extremely fair to me in the matter of refunds. So my Zambs will end their days as a geranium planter at the cabin..

Back in Victoria, I have two other pairs of extant leather boots. Asolos, which like liberal shepherds, I sometimes give a grosser name, since I wore out the soles on one walk, and Meindls, which I'll never wear out as they were made many years ago when men were men and soles were soles.

There seem to be more people in the hostel than in the spring, most of them young and female and Spanish. I haven't met any French, and I haven't met any compatible deaf old buggers with whom I can carry on a diverting conversation. But there's always tomorrow. For supper I ate the pilgrim's menu: thin soup, thinner steak, and frost-bitten ice cream.