Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The End of The Way

Our Camino has come to an end. We are no longer pilgrims, we are tourists in Portugal.

Our Camino ended in Muxia after a two day walk from Finisterre, stopping overnight in Lires along the way. It was an enjoyable, relaxing walk of 31km, with the lovely fishing village of Muxia a very fitting and special place for us to end our pilgrimage. This final stage was particularly special as we shared this experience with our American friends Hanna, Jane and Ted.

We first met Hanna and Jane way back on about day 4 of the Camino while Anita was still with us, and we kept meeting up with them at various stages along the way. Ted, Jane's husband, met up with them for the last 200km, and we first met Ted about 5 days before Santiago.

Like us, Hanna, Jane and Ted walked into Santiago after several days of cold, rainy weather, and like us at the time, were pleased to have reached the end. But then like us, after a rest in Santiago, the urge to go to the very end of the trail, to the coast, was compelling, so we again joined forces to complete the journey.

Ted acted as our back up driver in their hire car, which allowed Hanna, Jane, Steve and I, to walk with only light day packs. The weather was lovely, warm and sunny, and since we only had around 15km to walk each day, we took our time enjoying both the scenery and each others company.

The track took us through a variety of terrain, hilly at times with spectacular views of the coast and ocean, winding its way through forest, farmland and crumbling villages. Our accommodation in the tiny village of Lires, Casa Raul, was arranged by Jane and Ted's lovely daughter Kirstin, who lives in Madrid and who we had the opportunity to meet in Santiago. The accommodation was great, Raul and his wife Theresa were wonderful hosts, and we spent the late afternoon drinking beers and wine in their delightful courtyard garden.

The walk from Lires was a gentle climb for all but the last 4km, then all downhill before walking into Muxia. We'd all had another great day walking together and the weather was perfect, then as we began the descent into Muxia, we all realized that our Camino was truely coming to an end. The four of us stopped to speak to another pilgrim who was walking in the opposite direction towards Finisterre and when he said to us 'it's not far, maybe 4km', we all felt the same pang of sadness at the same time, realizing that our Camino was really about to end as there was nowhere left to walk to beyond Muxia.

This was a diifferent feeling to that which we experienced in Santiago 4 days earlier. When we reached Santiago after 40 days walking across northern Spain, we had spent 5 days walking in rain. We were tired, cold, wet through to the skin, and although excited to be standing in the square in front of that famous cathederal feeling happy and proud of what we had achieved, we were glad that it was the end and all thoughts of walking on to the coast were abandoned. We had walked nearly 800km, climbed mountains in rain and sleet, walked through mud, cow dung and rocky Roman roads that bruised the feet, we ventured into every church with open doors we happened upon, met wonderful people from all over the world, some have became good friends, and we've had one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. Incredible then, what a hot bath and a few days rest can do, as once we met up with Hanna, Jane and Ted again, we were making plans to walk on from Finisterre together, and so it turned out after all that the last sello on our credential was from the village church in Muxia.

Built on the rocks at the headland of the village is another church, the famous Nosa Senora da Borca, built in 1544. This church has withstood the rigours of time and all that the Atlantic has thrown at her for centuries and is the final destination of the Finisterre to Muxia Camino. We were therefore devestated to discover, upon reaching this final point, that the church had been devestated by fire on Christmas Day. The outer walls of the church remain in tact, however the interior was gutted and the roof collapsed. One can only imagine the effect this tragedy has had on the local village and pilgrim community.

The coastline here is spectacular and wild. We all spent time here walking over the the massive granite boulders, both together and alone, taking photos and contemplating the finality of it all.

We stayed for another day discovering Muxia and had yet another wonderful farewell dinner with our friends before parting ways the following morning. Steve and I caught the early bus back to Finisterre, then another bus on to Porto to spend our last two weeks in Portugal, while Jane, Ted and Hanna drove off towards Madrid.

Everyone experiences their own personal Camino, however most pilgrims seem to agree that it's the people you meet and bond with along the way that make the Camino special and unique. This was certainly the case for Steve and I, so in closing I would like mention the people we found had a huge impact in making our Camino such a fantastic experience.

Mary Beth and Paul from the USA who we met with Anita on the first day and became the first members of our 'Camino family'. Our Aussie mates Robyn and Ian from Townsville who we will meet up with again back in Australia. Our adopted Aussie, Diane from Seattle, who we hope will visit us in Australia in the future. And of course Anita, our Camino Companion. We took our first steps together on a freezing cold, wet morning from Roncevalles after driving from St Jean Pied de Port, not knowing what lay ahead of us. The very first night we spent together in Viskarret remains one of the best of the whole Camino. Our good friends Hanna, Jane and Ted from the USA who we kept meeting up with all along the way and must have been destined to walk with for the last section into Muxia. We thank them all.

When we left Roncevalles the grape vines had no leaves. Now we are in Portugal, they are beginning to bear fruit, we've been gone a long time. We certainly had a Buen Camino. Would we ever consider walking the Camino again . . . . . . . .  ?

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Still Walking

We arrived in Finisterre yesterday, by bus.  We came in a brand new double decker with an excellent driver who handled the two hour journey through the bends of the coastal road with precision.   The left hand side of the bus provided great views for much of the way and for the first time I set eyes on the Atlantic Ocean.

The name Finisterre is derived from latin and translates as 'Lands End' and right up to the Middle Ages this was, quite literally, the end of the known world.  The Camino connection is a bit more complicated in that St James spent time here, as well as nearby Muxia, so both these towns are often visited as an extension of the Camino.

Since arriving, the weather has been divine, clear blue sky, sunny and warm.  Today we walked up to the lighthouse on the further most point of the peninsular for spectular views of the town, harbour and surrounding coast line.  We felt so free walking without our packs, in fact I felt quite unbalanced at first.  Finisterre is a fishing village and the sea food on offer here is amazing. We are indulging in decadent meals of calamari, prawns, fish and mussells.

We thought the walking was over, however we have now decided to walk to Muxia. Yesterday, our American friends, who we said goodbye to in Santiago with a lovely farewell dinner, turned up here in a hire car.  Their plan is for two of them to walk to Muxia, while the third one drives the car with their packs, and after the excitement of meeting up with them yet again, they asked us to join them.

Muxia is 32km away so we will do the walk in two easy sections, spending a night in the village of Lires, then walking on to Muxia the following day.  The guide book says it's a very scenic walk, much of it with coastal views, and it will be a novelty to walk with only a small daypack.  So technically, until we reach Muxia, we sre still pilgrims, not tourists.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Santiago de Compostela

Here at last, Santiago, day 40, almost 800km. Hard to believe we made it, let alone made it unscathed.   We walked the last two days, 40km, through rain, much mud, bitumen roads, with low visibility due to mist.

We arrived at the square around noon, sodden and bedraggled.  There were very few people there, and certainly none that we knew.  The front of the cathederal, with St James looking down from his niche in the central tower, was covered in scaffolding due to renovation works and the main enterance was bordered off and shut. Although excited to be standing there at our journeys end, all we really wanted to do was find our hotel and change out of our cold wet clothes, as the rain had penetrated through our wet weather gear.

We are spending two nights in the San Martin Pinario Hotel, a beautiful converted monastory, directly opposite the cathederal.  For the princley price of 80 euros a night, we get to stay in a tastefully and simply converted 'monk's cell', complete with cast iron beds and furniture, with a wonderful view over the surrounding ancient town centre.

After a hot shower and change into dry clothes, we headed out again to look through the magnificient cathederal to see the famous swinging botafumeiro, the giant incense burner originally used to fumigate the sweaty and possibly diseased ridden pilgrims.

Then it was off to the Oficina del Peregrino to receive the final stamp in our Credential and our official  Compestela, the certificate of completion.  For this we had to queue for over an hour and it was here that we met up with many of the people we had walked with over the past 6 weeks.  It was so great to reminisce over the good times and bad, then after we received our certificates, some of us headed to a nearby bar for celebratory drinks!

It turned out to be an amazing day.  Are we glad it's over . . . . yes we are.  We feel very satisfied with our achievement of walking the Camino from Roncevalles to Santiago and no longer feel the need to continue walking to Finisterre on the coast. Instead, we've decided to go there by bus tomorrow for two days rest and relaxation.  After that, who knows?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Day 38

We have been walking the Camino for 38 days and will reach Santiago in two days time, on day 40.  We have 40 km to go, less than an hours travel by car, but two days walking for us.

Most of our Camino family have reached Santiagon over the past few days and moved on, so we probably won't see anyone we know when we walk into the cathederal square on Thursday.  We just cannot believe that our Camino is finally coming to an end.  Not sure how we feel about that, excited that we have achieved so much, or sad that its almost over.

After leaving Samos we walked for three days in drizzling rain and cold.  The scenery was lovely and rugged up in our wet weather gear we stayed dry and warm.  The one good thing about walking in the rain is your pack becomes lighter because you are wearing the waterproof pants and jacket which weigh almost a kilogram.  For the past two days the rain has eased so the waterproof gear hasn't been needed, although it remained quite cold.

The countryside has been quite hilly in sections with small dairy farms, vegetable plots, forrested areas, including small plantations of Tasmanian Bluegums, and stream crossings.  The track has been partly on minor bitumen roads, but mostly on delightful woodland paths which makes walking enjoyable.

Last night in Melide we dined with the last of our remaining Camino friends at Pulperia Exequiel, a restaurant famous for serving the regional specialty, Octopus Pulpo.  We had a great night and the food was exceptional.

Today while wandering past a little church in the village of Boente, we were beckened inside by the parish priest.  Together with an Irish couple, he took us on a tour of his quaint church, explaining to us in a mix of Spanish and broken English the names of the saints represented by ancient figurines.  In pride of place, above the alter, was a statue of St James, or Santiago as he is known here, the man responsible for all of us pilgrims dragging ourselves across Northern Spain.  This lovely old man then proceeded to give the four of us a pilgrims blessing, wished us a safe journey, and a buen camino.

Tonight we are in the town of Arzua.  Tomorrow we walk 20km to O Pedrouzo, then on Thursday we walk our final 20km up and over Monte Gozo, at 370 metres, before our final decent to the plains and the city of Santiago.

Do we want it to end . . . . . I don't think so.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Rain in Spain

The rain in Spain falls mainly  . . . .  in the  Galicia region, or at least that's how it appears to us.  Overnight in O'Cebreiro was wild, with gale force winds, driving rain and freezing temperatures.  Our hotel restaurant had a log fire burning and a huge pot of Galician soup on the boil, so we ate soup with bread for lunch and dinner.  We woke several times during the night wondering if it had snowed and fearful of what the weather would be like in the morning for our decent off the mountain.

The weather had settled somewhat by the time we started walking, however it was still drizzling rain and bitterly cold.  We were in full wet weather gear, finally donning the waterproof pants we have carried the whole way but never worn.  Although we set out in a total white out, after about 5km the weather began to clear and for a short time walking was pleasant, with great views across the mountains and down into the valleys.  That joy was short lived as the weather again turned nasty, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped even further, and the rain turned to sleet.

We trudged on for another 10km before reaching the final leg of the decent, an extremely steep, rocky, downhill section of about 6km. From here we decided to catch a taxi and forfeit these last 6km.  I would have tackled this section had it not been so wet.  My knees struggle with steep decents and I was really concerned about slipping in the mud. I think it was a good decision.

We spent the night in Triacastela in a nice private room in an alburgue. Another wild night of wind and rain.  Todays walk to Samos was only 15km so there was no need to depart early.  By the time we left the rain had almost stopped, although we walked in wet weather gear the whole way just in case there was a downpour. The track followed a fast flowing creek most of the way through beautiful wet forest, a delightful, easy walk.

For the past couple of days we've found some of the small churches to be opened in the tiny villages we've walked through.  It's quite a thrill to see inside these amazing old buildings after walking past dozens of locked ones all the way across Spain.

We came to Samos especially to visit the Benedictine Monastery, a huge, beautifully solid ancient building, and one of the oldest monasteries in the whole of the western world.  Although still a functioning monastery, there are 15 monks living there today, alll elderly, it once housed 200 monks.   Samos is not on the direct Camino route, we had to take a detour to get here, however it was well worth the effort and the extra kilometres just to visit this lovely town.

There is a sign here showing 122km to Santiago!

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Climbing Mountains

For the past two days we have been climbing mountains.  Three days ago we walked on a good dirt road through rolling hills of vinyards to the lovely historic town of Villafranca del Bierzo.  Next day, after crossing the Rio Burbia on the edge of town, we began a steep climb that would last for 9km. Although challenging, it was great walking, with marvelous views of the surrounding countryside. After reaching the top of Alto Penaroldan at 935 metres, we decided to walk down the road as the track going off the side of the mountain was just too steep for my knees. Although it added another 2km onto the walk, I think it was a wise decision.

Today was the big one, the climb up over the mountains seperating the regions of Castilla and Galicia, and into the tiny village of O'Cebreiro at 1330 metres. This is the section of the Camino everyone dreads, not only because it's a tough walk, but also because of the possibility of rain, fog or snow at any time of year.  

Last night in the village of Ambasmestas, we were sitting in the bar of our hotel talking with two Aussies from Adelaide whom we had just met, when a loud clap of thunder rang out and the power went off.  It poured rain for about half an hour and then power was restored. Unfortunately we were unable to return to our room during the blackout, so had to remain in the bar with our new aquaintences drinking vino tinto. We had been so foutunate during the days walk as it looked as though it could rain at any time, but held off long enough for us to be comfortably settled in our hotel. We later received a text message from our Aussie friends from Townsville ,who are a day ahead of us, to say that it was snowing in O'Cebreiro, not welcoming news.

We set out early this morning in very cold weather, it was only 3 degrees.  Walking warmed us somewhat and after 6km we stopped for breakfast in the tiny village of Herreriss, the last opportunity for food before the real climb began. From then on the trail just kept climbing, relentlessly, for the next 10km to O'Cebreiro.  

The track soon left the bitumen road and at times became rocky, muddy, and covered in cow manure, but the one thing that didn't change was the gradient, it just remained steep all the way.  To make the walk even more difficult, for the last two hours it was drizzling rain, foggy at times, and when we finally reached the top, a flurry of snow was in the air.  It was a hard, challenging walk, quite lovely in sections through old forest, with spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. It was quite a moment when we finally walked into the village. This is the section of the walk I had always been uncertain about. There were times at home when I doubted if I would be able to do it, and even at the start of the Camino we thought I might require the option of having my pack sent on so I could walk without any weight.  But today, with 31 days of walking behind me and now less than 150km to Santiago, I made it into O'Cebreiro unaided, under my own steam, and I feel very proud of my achievement.

O'Cebreiro has a special place in the hearts of the modern day pilgrim. It was from here that the local parish priest, Father Don Elias Valina Sampedro, had the vision to reopen the pilgrim route to Santiago after the chaos of the Second World War. It was his idea to mark the route with the distinctive yellow arrow and it was largely as a result of his efforts that we walk the route today. Without the yellow arrows we would have been lost 600km ago.

Friday, 16 May 2014

La Cruz de Ferro

Wow, what a day. Todays 19km walk would have to go down as the best day yet.  Fantastic walking, scenery, weather.  Set out early into another glorious sunrise and climbed all morning to the highest point on the Camino, Punto Alto, at 1515 metres.  This is the site of the famous La Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) which sits atop a massive wooden pole, at the base of which is an enormous pile of rocks, placed there over many years by passing pilgrims. 

Local legend has it that if you carry a rock from your homeland and deposit it at the base of the cross, your prayer will be answered.  We had enough weight to carry in our packs, let alone carrying rocks all the way from Australia!

It felt like real bushwalking today. The track was gravel pathway, narrow and rocky at times, but mostly good.  We scaled the terrain easily, even the steeper sections, feeling quite fit now. Walked through flowering heathland most of the way with sensational displays of purple, yellow, dark pink and white flowers, with amazing vistas of snow capped mountains and deep valleys.

The weather was sublime, quite cool (we walked in fleece jackets most of the day) with perfect sunshine and clear blue sky.  Due to the altitude it can get quite dismal here with wind, rain, fog, and of course snow in winter, however Mother Nature smiled on us today.  

Of course what goes up must come down and in this instance the track came down very steeply.  The downward section soon deteriorated into a steep, rocky, eroded track. It was brutal on the knees and feet, however we were determined not to allow anything to detract from such a wonderful day.

Spending the night in the tiny village of Acebo in the charming Posada del Peregrino.  We are still at elevation so have to face that downhill track again first thing in the morning.  Past a sign today showing Santiago only 220km away, just can't believe we are getting close to the end.