Thursday, 28 August 2008

Final endings

There had been so many endings to this trip we lost count in the end. But this was it; our last few hours in Spain. As we handed back the van, we knew we only had ten kilometres to go to get across Bilbao to the ferry in Santurtzi. As we blasted along the river in the sunshine and stopped to take pictures outside the Guggenheim, we looked forward to breakfast and coffee just a few kilometres on at the port. But of course this was Spain, so we ended as we had begun; cycling uphill. A few kilometres out of Bilbao and we found the riverside walk was still under construction. “Arriba, arriba,” said the workmen, pointing up the hill to a road high in the hillside.
Twenty five kilometres later, thirsty, tired, hungry and only just in time for check in, we finally pulled in to our destination. “That’s as far as we go on this holiday,” said Stuart. “1,400 kilometres, with 14,000 vertical metres of climb. Well done everybody.” As we pedalled the bikes the last few metres onto the ferry I looked behind me and smiled. The sun still shone, the road still climbed, siesta would soon be beginning.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Van holiday

It was one of life’s ironies. We completed over 1000 kilometres of cycling without incident or injury, then Stuart hurt his back trying to accommodate a fat lady on the bus. It then took him an hour and a half to hobble across Santiago to collect the van that would transport us back to Bilbao, and five minutes after he picked it up someone almost crashed into him, taking out ten bollards and a wall instead. By the time he reached us back in Finisterre he was a wreck. “But the worst thing was that everyone assumed I was one of those limping pilgrims,” he exclaimed.

He had assured the car hire people that only three people would travel in the van and didn’t mention the two others stuffed into the back. We had told the kids it would be a van holiday, two days of driving and swimming in little coves on the way back to Bilbao. But it wasn’t until I climbed into the back of the van I realised what it would entail. Twelve hours of lying on a Thermarest in the pitch black, boiling hot and sweating like a donkey, feeling every bump of the road, every twist of the hill, but not having a clue were we were. So after six weeks of enjoying the wind in my hair, the sun on my back and the delicious sights and smells of Spanish towns and villages, I ended the trip squashed into a dark van like an illegal immigrant. And then came night time where five of us crammed on to the floor, with Stuart trying to sleep with agonising pain in his back. “I thought we burnt Dad’s smelly socks last night,” muttered Cameron, as he tried to crawl away from the whiff.

Monday, 25 August 2008

The end of the Camino is nigh!

Burnt offerings

It’s pilgrim tradition going back through the years that people burn their boots and articles of clothing when they get to Finisterre. There’s even a grate built into the mountainside to accommodate this.

“I’m burning Daddy’s grots,” says Matthew, peering into a pannier and pulling out a pair of well worn cycling undershorts. “No, lets burn his cheesy socks,” says Cameron fishing out a couple of grey socks while we park up the bikes next to the lighthouse at the end of the world. But although we always seem to end our trips at a lighthouse, this one doesn’t have the eerie atmosphere of New Zealand’s Cape Reinga, or the unkempt beauty of John O’ Groats. From the car park to the edge of the ocean it’s packed full of tourist buses, motorbikes, cars, people and cyclists, all snapping themselves against the sea. The end of the world is overrated – unless you want to buy a statue of an octopus eating witch, a blue and white striped china lighthouse or some end of the camino memorabilia. It seems to have long ago lost any awe inspiring significance it might once have held. Even the monument of the pilgrim boots sculpted in metal isn’t what it promised to be. “Someone’s nicked one of the boots!” Cameron cries.

So we decide to have our ceremony on the deserted beach, back towards town. After a freezing dip in the Atlantic, we gather together some of our most well worn possessions and make a hole in the sand. Then we find shells to place around the edge. The motley collection of shorts and socks are put into the homemade grate, and Stuart adds some of the meths from our stove. As they go alight we cheer. In the distance the sun sets and the sky turns pink. Seagulls make a dash for the cliffs and the beach is empty. Just a puff of smoke indicates the end of the cheesy socks and smelly undies. We stir up the ashes and bury them with sand, smoothing out the beach. It’s like we were never here.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

30 days and 30 nights

It's a full 30 days and 30 nights since we left the sea behind us at Hendaye and headed inland to pick up the Camino, shortly after meeting our first fellow pilgrim. Tonight we reached the sea once more at Cee, having crossed the whole of Northern Spain. We haven't seen a single pilgrim since leaving Santiago and I have to say I am really quite missing them, clacking sticks and everything. The Camino is behind us now and the end of the world lies ahead!

Endings and beginnings

Some say the end of a pilgrimage is really a new beginning. But when is the end? Is it when you arrive in Santiago? When you get your Compostela? After the pilgrim mass? When you get on the plane, bus, train or car home? And what is it the beginning of? Going home? Getting back to reality? Living with new attitude? Forging a new way of living? A personal revolution?

Who knows? I find it hard to make sense of these experiences in the moment. But I know each of the journeys we’ve done as a family has changed us in ways little, large and unpredictable. And that crashing quickly back into the reality of work, school, washing, hoovering, shopping, bills, friends and family doesn’t allow much time for figuring out what the journey was about and what, if anything, you want to end or begin.

With their journey ‘finished’ most people seem focused on getting home. Our travel plans are already made but our ferry home doesn’t leave Bilbao for five days. We could just focus our efforts now on the logistical nightmare of getting ourselves, tandems, trailers and souvenir pilgrim sticks to Bilbao, but I don’t think we’ve reached the ‘end’ yet. Or maybe I just don’t want it to end quite yet.

The ancient pilgrim route continues beyond Santiago to what was considered the very end of the medieval world, Finisterre. What better place to contemplate what ending and beginning means than a place where nothing lies beyond. We’ll figure out how to get back once we get there. Let’s just hope it isn't too much of a problem to get from the end of the world to Bilbao.

Traditionally, pilgrims who made the effort to get to Finisterre would burn their boots or something equally smelly. That's something I know we'll have no problem with.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

The closing ceremony…

Carved wooden confessional boxes line the walls, each occupied by a priest in white robe and purple sash. People queuing can request their dialogue in any European language, but for many the hug or clasped hand in response to their confession seems as powerful as the words. The pipes of the organ fly over the congregation, each longer than the next, an ensemble that resembles the grey jagged teeth of a shark. More and more people enter through a small porthole in the grand wooden doors and rucksacks are abandoned as pilgrims sit or kneel on worn wooden benches and wait for a mass that is dedicated to them. In front of me a woman in sandals kneels, her now unwanted boots swinging from her backpack, still gravelled from the road after many, many miles. The cherubs adorning the organ seem to blush as camera’s flash and flash. Tour guides with pink umbrellas or yellow fans say a last few words of interpretation. A priest comes forward and starts reading out the nationalities of all the pilgrims who arrived in Santiago yesterday marking the end of their journey on the camino. Behind him, huge gold angels hold up the platform where Santiago Matamoros sits astride his white stallion. Fifty six members of the Ave Maria Novia party who have been dancing and singing in the square take their places at the front.

My family and I take up almost a whole pew. They have been briefed and bribed, but actually they need no policing. They are busy drawing the scene that fills their view, filling scrag ends of lined paper with lights and chandeliers and statues in the brightest colours they have. There are no seats now yet still the pilgrims come, filling aisles and squashing into corners. One or two of them I recognise from the last day on the camino, most I don’t. All so different, from a jumble of places and backgrounds, yet each has reached this moment on their journey. I look at them and admire them. Despite my occasional irritation at the crowd of plodders on the road, I recognise that I have done it the easy way, whizzing down hills and rushing through villages. They have had to put one foot in front of the other for more than eight hundred kilometres, in the heat, the rain, the dust, their bodies bearing the strain of their weight and that of their belongings.

On the altar the golden statue of St James watches over us all. Every few seconds he is hugged from behind or someone touches his cloak as they file past, on the way to pay homage to his bones, in a relic case beneath us. The Compostella list continues. An air of anticipation seems to hang over everyone who has come to this church today for all of their different reasons; to celebrate their safe arrival into Santiago, to confirm their faith and worship at a place that has welcomed pilgrims for thousands of years, or just to rest and think, about endings, beginnings, and the long, difficult road that lay in between. As the final names are read out, the lights in the giant chandelier glow brightly, and the sunshine illuminates the dust flying in the air that each one of us has brought into the church; you can take the pilgrim out of the camino, but you can’t take the camino out of the pilgrim.

There is a moment’s silence. Hannah shows me her picture of the church. It is a neat list of number 1’s. Next to her Cameron has managed to make Santiago resemble a gnome on a pedestal while Matthew has sketched an elaborate chandelier. I am overwhelmed with thanks for my little family unit. For the time we have spent getting to know each other for the last six weeks, for all the moments of pure energy and exhaustion that have gone into cycling the route, and for their quirks, differences and similarities. The list of pilgrims is over. We have all followed ‘The Way’ and the way ended here. With the beginning of a ceremony. The organ strikes up and everyone stands.

Just another church

At first glance at it was nothing special. We approached it down a side alley, at lunchtime, as the daily pilgrim mass was spilling out hundreds of people from a side door. It didn’t have the gothic magnificence of its sisters in Leon or Burgos, nor their clean, restored and obviously cared for exteriors. The few towers we could see looked untended, moss grown and decaying. It was only later as I came upon the main square and saw the full building against the skyline that I saw what an extraordinary beauty it was. How a medieval pilgrim must have fallen to their knees in awe. Todays pilgrims with their backpacks scallop shells and sticks littering the square faded away for me along with the tourists and the electric guitar playing busker. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the monument in front of me; it’s grey towers soaring into the even greyer sky as if growing out of the earth. Everywhere there was detail; not gothic design but truly gothic substance and texture. Like the wicked Queen’s castle in a fairytale; the window pains dark from within, and green with the creep of the years and the intensity of the weather. The classic Rapunzel towers, with their mossy bells and uneven stone dominating everything.

But it was later, at night when it really hooked me. Lit up from outside, but dark and uncompromising from within, it was Disney with depth. Despite the group of people praying together on the steps, the silence was louder as I stood rooted and calm in the warm air. A lone star that had fought its way through the cloud struggled to compete. I sat down to spend some time with this one building in this one city that has inspired thousands of people, travelling thousands of miles over thousands of years to take on this ridiculously hard journey by foot, horseback or bike. They have come for many reasons but ultimately to see what lies inside; their holy grail, the bones of St James. But perhaps while rushing in to queue up at the altar to have their moment with the relic, they miss the real thing; the keeper of the treasure, the home of the saint, the house of God.

The moss grew on in silence as it has done for centuries, but a group of Friday night drinkers crashed in to the square. Pilgrims, many now limping and on crutches from their long ordeal, hobbled home on their last night in Spain. Some didn’t even look up at the building in front; others just stopped and stared. We have arrived.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Moments of arrival

It was just a few moments away. I was supposed to be finding out what time the pilgrim’s office was open but I couldn’t resist a quick peek inside the cathedral. I just wanted to arrive, to be in the place we’d travelled so far to get to, without the kids or Kirstie, the boys fighting, having to watch the bikes, be photographed or explain where we had come from. Just me and the cathedral.

Outside in the Praza de Quintana, tourists chatted at shady café tables; watching mid-day pilgrims arrive, look heavenward and take in their first breath of arrival. Inside the cathedral, a swathe of humanity; standing, sitting, pushing and jostling in the gloom of golden granite, struggling to get a glimpse of the high altar and the shining glory of the tomb of St James. A human collage of creed and colour adorned with rucksacks, sticks, sleeping mats, scallop, sunglasses and cameras, filling aisle, nave and pew. All welcome here.

Up on the altar, priests concluded the rituals of the daily Pilgrim’s Mass, the organ swelling, bass notes lingering in the spaces around crowd and congregation. But even the breath of this mighty music could not blow away the most powerful punch of all, not the bitter sweet scent of incense burning in the giant botfumario but the intoxicating perfume of a thousand sweaty pilgrims (myself included) giving thanks for their safe arrival. Welcome to Santiago.

Mon Joie!

Just one more hill

I thought it was all over. Yesterday morning I had only 60km to do. Last night, in the rain, on a hill we still had 20km to do. It's never over until the fat lady stops pedalling and I'm still pushing those wheels around. Now, sitting having breakfast in a pilgrim hangout all I can think about is the next hill. Just one more to Santiago? Perhaps it's time to start my inner journey. Stuart seems to have forgotten his inner journey and has promised everyone five euros to spend on souvenirs.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Paper pilgrims

After so many hard miles we seem to have relaxed into the last 100 km. Not that the riding is any easier but perhaps it is that after a week of thinking we were nearly there, we are really nearly there. We could be there tonight if we just put our heads down and ride, ride, ride. I feel like the paper pilgrims we made at the fountain in Arzua, who looked as if they would float effortlessly into Santiago. Of course reality will not be like that. Unless we have already died and gone to heaven.

Chinese Whispers

"Did you see that family arrive on those bikes over there?"

"Yes, I have seen them before, on the hill. They are Czech you know."

"Czech? I heard they were Italian. "

"No, Czech. I heard it from someone who spoke to them."

"All that way with three children and a baby."

"Yes it's impressive. Three weeks from Roncesvalle is not much slower than

"But I think they only started in Astorga."

"That is not so good."

"No. Very slow."

"You are wrong about the baby though. It is two boys and a little girl. No

"So what's in the other trailer?"

"I hear they have a tent."

"No, I saw them at an albergue. "

"No, they don't stay in albergues. Can't afford it. They camp at the

"No way."

"Yes, I heard that from some people who passed them one morning."

"It must be hard for the children."

"Yes but they are doing it the easy way."

"Not the real camino?"

"No, only roads."

"They are always drinking coffee and eating ice cream too."

"Yes, I heard this. We each have our own ways."

"But there is not so much spirit when you make it like holiday."

"No, it's OK for young people to have ice cream. "

"I heard they are just stamp collectors doing the last few kilometres."

"Maybe. Is that so bad? You have collected many stamps on your journey."

"Yes but to make a credencial for a dolly? This is too much."

"I do not think the dolly will get a compostela."

"But they are wanting one for her. That is my point."

"Look now, they are going to leave. "

"The little girl looks so cute with her dolly."

"Beautiful. Beautiful family."

"Shall we see if we can get a photo?"

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Pulpo fiction?

Three steel bins formed a line at the front of the café. One was filled with cold water and purplish pink flesh. The next was bubbling away like a cauldron, steam rising into the assembled crowd of onlookers. The third sat next to an empty wooden table where a thin man in a white apron hooked a floppy rubbery mass out, and slapped it onto the bench. In one deft move he cut out a pink veined blob and threw it on the floor beside us. He then started slicing through purple bobbled skin into clean white flesh. He arranged twenty of the slices onto a simple white plate and handed it to one of the crowd. Everyone shuffled up a place in the queue.

“Yuk,” said Matthew, screwing up his face. “Do you want to try some pulpo?” his Dad asked. “No I don’t” he replied. “My like octopus?” his sister enquired. “No, you don’t,” Matthew replied firmly, “can we go for pizza now Dad?” “Sure, he replied, “but they only do octopus pizza here. This is Melida, the octopus town of Spain. It’s pulpo or nothing.” I’ll just have an ice cream,” said his brother, as we returned to the street filled with endless pulperia restaurants. “Ice creams all round then,” I confirmed. “All with pulpo topping?”

Pilgrim Papparazzi

I've come to recognise the signs from 100m or more. First the subtle glance over the shoulder, then a concealed reach down into rucksack or bumbag, then a slow draw, quick turn and shoot. At first it was flattering, then it got irritating, now it happens so often it's really annoying.

It's not that we mind having our photo taken but more that no-one thinks to ask if we might. It's as if they think they have some right to snap us like some kind of exhibit. They snap away at close range without a smile, a 'foto por favor' or any kind of non-verbal check to see if it is OK. The kids noticed it too, so much so they made a game of trying to spot snappers so we can dodge them or loiter out of range. They even made some 'no fotografia' posters to discourage wanton snapping.

If, as some cultures believe, a photo can steal your soul then we have had our stolen a thousand times over on a journey that is supposed to help save them.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Ponchos in the mist

The mountain village of O Cebreiro had twelve hours ago been a sunny tourist
honeypot. Now it was eerie as a ghost town. A dense white mist hung in the
air, making the roughly cobbles wet and slippery. The mountains were
obscured, the piped music turned off, the postcards put away and the shops
firmly shut. We set off up the hill, our waterproofs smelling damp from
their weeks of storage, and our helmets on, ready for the descent; hoping it
might come soon. As we crawled up the steep mountain road, all ambient sound
dampened by the white out, it seemed we might be the only living creatures
in the world. But then, out of the mist, they came. Gradually at first, in
ones or two's, heads down, trudging, trudging; tired feet kicking rubble,
stones dislodging under their feet. The green and grey of their vests and
shorts had been swapped for gaudy poncho's; massive wraps covering
themselves and their backpacks; nylon covered hunchbacks. From time to time
they glanced out from hoods and damp hair; their enthusiastic 'olas' of
previous days dampened to a nod. As we all moved up the mountain, they began
to appear in groups of eight and ten. Bunches of colour in the monochrome
white. As the path dipped in and out of the roadside they moved away and
back again; appearing from the mist when we least expected to see them. At
every village they increased their speed; perhaps taking cheer from the
signs of bar life; or the thought of emergency pilgrim shelter in a church

In a bar at the hamlet of Hospital we took a break to watch the Olympics and
grab some coffee. There we encountered encountered pilgrim Feliz, who we had
seen a few times before along the route. In Villafranca he was busking in
the street, plucking away on his guitar, his case stretched out in the hope
of a few euros to buy dinner. He obviously got lucky as that evening he held
court in our restaurant over a strange mix of pilgrims who were hanging on
his every word. The next morning we passed him singing loudly as he plodded
along the camino; intent that everyone should appreciate his fine mood.
Today he was instantly recognisable by his well developed goatee beard and
intense manner, but this time he was sporting a green poncho. He religiously
stirred away at an espresso, and advised a depressed travelling companion
how he should cope with the journey he was obviously struggling to complete.
"Take the bus. Go back to O Cebreiro and take the bus. There are many ways
to travel the camino. You can go back. For the bus. But Feliz can't go back
with you. Feliz never goes back." He explained his mission. "The name Feliz
means 'happy' in latin. That is my journey to make people happy." His fellow
pilgrim wasn't looking all that happy, and as we got on our bikes Feliz was
going through maps with him, his guitar strategically placed in a corner
with his rucksack; should anyone ask for a cheering up song. We pedalled
off, into a silent mist, punctuated only by poncho's.

Monday morning

On top of the world this morning at 1350m at O Cebreiro. Getting ready to face the week in the wind and the mist. Monday morning's don't get much better.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

To greet or not to greet

The closer you get to Santiago the more pilgrims there are on the road. To qualify for a compostela walkers must walk at least 100km, cyclists ride 200km. And as we enter Galicia on the last leg, mid-morning pilgrim density has now reached over 50 per km on the road, particularly in the vicinity of bars and albergues, which makes the problem of whether or not to say hola quite acute. For the first km we try to say hello to everyone. After that you get more selective. Locals always get acknowledged, as do pilgrims going the wrong way, but everyone else has to be assessed. If they make eye contact first your options are limited; say hi or appear rude. If they don't see you coming you have to decide whether to initiate contact. Our rules of thumb are: never on a hill (because you'll end up saying hi at least 5 more times), noone with a camera poised (we'll blog about that later), and try not to encourage conversation with anyone with two clacking metal trekking poles or a bandana. It's either that or take a vow of silence. Hmmmmm.

Sent using a Sony Ericsson mobile phone

Saturday, 16 August 2008

La Vieja

Dust blew down the main street, the only street in the ancient pueblo. We bumped our way down the cobbles, enjoying a brief respite from the unrelenting glare of the meseta until the town and its’ shadow ran out. At a junction. We stopped and circled our wagons. Just one road in but several ways out. Stillness. Silence. Which way now?

Beaded curtains twitched in an old doorframe. A vieja appeared, like she might have done for a thousand years, her wiry frame dwarfed by the large wooden one around her, a wise old face set between the drapes of a black headscarf. Dark eyes set upon us. She paused a moment, sizing us up, perhaps wondering if we really were pilgrims. But there was nothing here she hadn’t seen before, in all the thousands that had passed her way, this year, every year, for hundreds of years.

“El Camino?” she asked. She didn’t really need to; she already knew and didn’t wait for an answer. Raising her stick she pointed up a dusty track, heading uphill into the hazy heat of the afternoon. It didn’t look right but then it often doesn’t. But you can be sure everyone here knows the way. You just need to trust them.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Set in stone

The children love to collect stones. They secrete enormous chunks of mottled marble rock into their toy bag, fill their pockets with smooth round pebbles, and pick off the jagged edges of memorials, castles, and walls when they think we’re not looking. Perhaps we didn’t bring enough toys for them, or perhaps it’s their way of connecting with the earth…trying to take a piece of this amazing landscape with them as they go. So they’ve been very excited in the last twenty four hours to discover two opportunities to legitimately collect stones. The first came shortly before we dropped into the city of Astorga, famous for Gaudi’s fairy castle inspired Bishops Palace. We literally did drop into it, from the motorway high on the hill outside the town. But before descending we came across a place where pilgrims leave messages behind them; placed carefully under a stone, under a giant cross overlooking Astorgia. The boys were off the bikes like lightening; instantly understanding the task in front of them. They scrabbled around in the earth to find the appropriate stone, and then ransacked our panniers for pen and paper. On the way up the hill we had been laughing at some of the other cyclists. They’re a different breed here. No one leaves the house without a pair of nut crunchingly colourful tiny tight shorts. They pair this with matching figure enhancing lycra T shirt and oversize cycling helmet and in all their splendour they make us look like complete amateurs as we struggle up the hills in our Ron Hill track suit pants. That morning, as they whizzed past on the other side of the road, heads down and hunched up in their determination to make for the top, Stuart remarked they looked a bit like peanuts. The children embraced the description and left their messages under the stone for all the cycling peanuts that would follow. As they wrote their scripts, a Dutch woman living in Arizona came over for a chat. “Do you think the children get the essence of the Camino?” she asked. “Who knows,” I replied as they weighted their messages with the stone and left them on the steps of the cross.

Their second opportunity came at the top of a mountain the following day. Crossing the Montes De Leon required several hundred vertical metres of ascent on a cold morning. Pilgrims have been doing this for so long in the cold, wind and snow that the highest point is marked with a small cross on a very long pole. This Cruz Ferro is mounted in a pile of stones; with the stones representing the sins the pilgrims are leaving behind as they begin the last stage of the journey. Again the children knew exactly what to do. As Stuart fretted about the amount of rubbish people had left on the slope in the form of bicycle tyres, old shoes, boxer shorts and pictures of loved ones, the kids spent twenty minutes inscribing a personal message to pilgrims. This time peanuts weren’t involved and I for one was left feeling quite inadequate at the understanding of a seven year old and a six year old on such a complex issue. Did they understand the essence of the camino? Well what could be more the essence of the camino than a message inscribed onto a stone and placed in the mountains for all time or as long as people value the act of pilgrimage? But before we left we had to make the boys empty their pockets. Like a magpie Matthew had scoured the pile for pretty pebbles and had taken a couple of aqua blue gems brought by ‘Juan’ and ‘Maria.’ Not quite the essence of the camino, and of course the last thing we wanted to do was carry other people’s sins uphill for another two hundred and twenty kilometres to Santiago.