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.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Monotony is not a place

Our Camino guide books warned us about the meseta; the vast high level plateau that we cross between Burgos and Leon. They seemed to sum it up as hot, flat and dry, with a few small farming villages to break up the journey. Some walking pilgrims we met told it slightly differently, “It’s soooo monotonous; the same, same, same, all day long; hot, hot, hot; boring, boring, boring.” But after the physical struggles of the early mountain stages of the Camino, the meseta seemed a welcome break to us. Just imagine 200km of flat after a week or more climbing the equivalent of the Andes. Suddenly we were making progress, killing kilometres, speeding along - at least between the hours of eight and one, after that it was too hot to move, until sundown.

It’s easy to think habits will be hard to change. I thought it would be impossible to get the whole family into a routine of early morning riding, afternoon siestas and a late evening push. But after a few adjustments to the bonus system the boys showed an incredible willingness to change their behaviour if it would help them earn money. So in the light of the rising sun, in the cool of the early mornings, we made tracks across the meseta, setting off early, breakfasting at eleven, riding until one then relaxing in the afternoons, working Spanish style.

Between Burgos and Leon, it’s not just our behaviour and the landscape that changed but the colour tone too, from green to gold; the varied palette of the forest, olive and vine of Navarre and Rioja giving way to horizon spanning vistas of golden cereals. The meseta of today’s Castille and Leon is like some vast 21st century agro-industrial enterprise, every inch of soil sowed with cereals, watered by pump, valve, sluice, canal and sprinkler in measured response to the natural daily roasting of the fierce summer sun.

It must have been a different experience for mediaeval pilgrims, without these vast uplifting auras of gold, hobbling from village to village through scrubland, forest or uncultivated bush, ever mindful of stories of crooks, robbers and bandits. It’s hard to imagine just what this journey would be like in a different time; it’s hard enough to appreciate what it’s like for those doing the same journey today by different means, or even the same way but on a different bike. While I’m contemplating the life of a mediaeval pilgrim, Cameron is busy studying Top Trumps and Matthew and Kirstie are talking Star Wars.

But I guess wherever and however you travel, while the physical journey may be the same the personal journey will always be different. At times in this endless golden flatness, I’ve found myself wishing this ‘boring’ ‘monotonous’ journey was over. But nothing is really the same, same, same is it? Isn’t monotony more a state of mind than a place? For there are times too when I’ve spent an hour quite engrossed by a little thing that seems to make this kilometre different in some way to the last; how my shadow changes as the sun tracks across the sky; the changing sound of a distant harvester; the unfolding mystery of a pueblo in the distance. And so I find myself wishing sometimes that this journey would just end, then later wishing it would never end. Has a week on the meseta driven me crazy, is life just full of contradictions or do I need to get myself an mp3?

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The essence of the Camino

A woman stopped us at a Pilgrim cross on the walker's Camino just outside Astorga. 'Have your children discovered the essence of the Camino yet?' she asked. I think she must have been talking about those one euro plastic chupa balls the kids discover every time we stop. Every village on the Camino seems to sell them. I think we are carrying about 14 of them now.

Facial hair

Stuart has copied out all the words from the hymn To Be A Pilgrim, has started to grow a beard and has taken to shouting Buen Camino to other pilgrims on the route with love in his heart. Anyone else find this a bit worrying?

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

At home in the albergue?

For much of this journey the walking pilgrims have held a strange fascination for me. Who are they and why are they making this journey? Why do they do it? If you looked down on this region from space early in the morning you would see a line of thousands every single day stretching 800 kilometres, from the mountains to the sea. All plodding slowly to their mecca.Santiago De Compostella. But how is it that they can cover the landscape for all those a.m. hours but melt into the horizon after midday and not be seen again until early the next morning? Where do they go? Today we found out the answer when we stumbled into an albergue in the town of Hospital de Orbega? An albergue is a pilgrim refuge; a cheap bed for the night, like a youth hostel used to be before they went up- market.

Twenty pairs of boots sat on the rack, and plants trailed down the walls. Stones placed carefully on the hall table were painted with welcome greetings in every language, as well as one that told the pilgrim world that 'Tony' was once 'ere. A tiny courtyard led through to a wider garden and an amply chested woman with blond ringlets beckoned us in with great enthusiasm. We had been sent to this town albergue; the former parish house, by an old lady in charge of stamping our pilgrim passports in the church. She told us it would be a rest stop for our ninos, and our guidebook had sealed the deal by recommending popping in for warm hospitality which we had convinced ourselves meant tea and cake. Instead we were shown a tiny kitchen and some showers and asked if we'd be booking in for the night. We muttered something non-committal and entered the garden. By any stretch of the imagination it wasn't Eden. In fact it was remarkably similiar to the patches of scrubland we had been camping on for the last month. In the middle was a tall cross in black and white metal, with a shrine underneath of more pebbles, pot plants, and what appeared to be cabbage leaves. A few metres from the cross a woman in a black bikini lay face down on the dried grass. On her sat a man wearing a leather cowboy hat and cycle shorts, earnestly giving her a full body massage, pummelling her back and then her legs. All around the courtyard there was pastel and white washing hanging everywhere; absolutely everywhere to dry; on whirligigs, washing lines and trees. On wooden benches several people sat earnestly recording their inner journeys in small notebooks, and sticking bits of paper into journals. Others lazed in the sun. I thought I saw Jimmy Saville behind a bush. After our mostly solitary journey on the bikes, it was a bit too much for me; and too many weird people. Too many people crowded into one hot, dusty, dry and washing filled space. And there was no tea and cake. But we had to wait a polite amount of time before we could leave. Matthew redeemed the situation for us by announcing he needed the toilet. Twenty minutes later he was ready to leave. 'Beer and camping?' I said to Stuart.. We tried to creep out discreetly but the line of people queuing up to wish us a 'Buen Camino' nearly tripped us up.

No matter what the weather

Today the trouble is not the heat, although it is hot. Nor is it the hills, but of course it is hilly. No, today we face the wind, on the nose, pushing us back to Leon as we push towards the mountains between us and Santiago. But one constant remains; the kids unending thirst for ice cream, whatever the weather, conditions or time of day.

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Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Pilgrim Motorway

Since we changed our daily timetable to avoid cycling in the heat of the midday sun, we have become part of something bigger than us. Whereas for the first few weeks we got up at ten and breakfasted late before cycling off in the afternoon, now we are up at seven and away by half past, in the company of an enormous stream of people.

They begin marching past us at six in the morning; you can hear them approaching by the clatter of their sticks in the dry earth. And by the time we’ve packed up the tent and cycled off, they are walking in a long line as far as the horizon like a stream of ants with backpacks. At each village twenty or thirty more rejoin the camino after stopping for coffee or lunch. As we are cycling roughly the same amount of distance each day as they are walking, we begin to see the same characters over and over; Jimmy Saville who bombs past with his long socks and white hair; the fifty kilometre a day boys- three cyclists who all speak different languages yet are doing the trip together at the same pace as us, the hooting pilgrim, who drives around honking his horn at other peregrinos and the English students taking holiday from university who spend all their resting time complaining about the hostel they spent the previous night in. And then there’s the guy carrying a large homemade cross who stopped Stuart to ask for water but had lost his bottle.

It’s curious to two people who’ve always travelled independently to become part of this enormous cultural phenomenon; the guide books tell us that by the time we reach Santiago a thousand pilgrims a day will walk or cycle the last few kilometres of the camino into the city. And people are starting to recognise us too; I’ve lost count of how many pilgrims have taken our picture. Today we are in Leon, and have merged into the city, no longer obvious pilgrims or cyclists, but a family of tourists. Tonight in the big city of Leon, we will leave the camino behind and go in search of a good bar for a litre or two of vino tinto. Spirits instead of spirituality I think. And we’ll be avoiding anyone with a backpack or stick...unless they’re Jimmy Saville.

Saturday, 9 August 2008

A real tonic

We had heard about the mythical g and t stash from other mystic travellers on The Road but thought nothing more of it. Then as we wild camped at a rest spot near El Burgo de Ranero the boys complained of a smell of gin. Under the tree we found a dozen unopened bottles of Schweppes tonic. The search is underway for the Gordon's.

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Friday, 8 August 2008

Lost passports

Some say the camino dictates your pace, not you. I think we must have been going too fast. We had ridden hard to get to the statue of a pilgrim doing an impression of Darth Vader when we discovered the force was not with us and our Pilgrim Passports had been left on a church bench back in Fromista. You are not a Pilgrim without your passport. An extra 16 km to retrieve them put us back on Camino time.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Going wild

After the blow out at the Parador we have been forced to cut back on camp site fees and instigated an emergency programme of compulsory wild camping until financial order is restored. It's a game of Russian Roulette. The first night we swept into the glorious cul de sac of San Juan de Ortega bt sunset. A pilgrim on a mandolin led us to a perfect picnic bench in the shadow of the convent and 50m from a bar. Last night we thought we had found another perfect pitch, 5km beyond Burgos next to a children's playground in landscaped gardens within a new as yet unoccupied urban development. It was all very peaceful until 5am when a dozen sprinklers concealed in the lawns burst into life all around our tent. The only saving grace was we there wasn't one actually in the tent. Today we gave thanks for the incredible drying power of the sun. Who knows what tonight will bring.

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Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Ten before ten

Last night's mid trip review revealed a growing gap between where we are and where we need to be if we are to make Santiago and then get back to Bilbao in time for the ferry. We are several days behind and slipping. So we all agreed we need to up the pace. Trouble is the heat is too much by 1pm so the only way to make progress is to ride early. But that's not easy with the kids as they don't go to sleep until lights out (sundown) @ 10.30pm and left to their own devices don't wake until 10 am. Getting them up and on the road by 8 means losing 3 hours sleep and that means 3 grumpy kids. Today we took a gamble and got everyone up at 7. We rode early, made good progress achieving our new goal of ten before ten and stopped at 1 to try and siesta but with mixed results. Matt decide to read, Hannah played bat and ball, Kirstie and Cameron had a lovely snooze and I watched the gear. I suppose we should consider that a success.

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Living for the moment

I’ve joined the crowd and discovered the delights of the MP3. I now see why the children have been so absorbed on blisteringly dull patches of riding. Grinding up long steep hills with burnt land or vineyards stretching out as far as the eye can see is so much more fun and atmospheric when you can do it with Sting crooning away about his ‘fields of gold.’ Last night on a particularly hard stretch of gravel with the sun blasting into my face and no breeze, it was only Gary Barlow that got me through the whole ordeal. And as I rode out yesterday from Logrono, a burst of Mozart coincided with the beginning of this dirt road next to which miles of fence had been studded with home made crosses. Literally tens of thousands of them; little and large wooden sticks gathered from the scrub and weaved into crosses, framing the urban landscape and the motorway beneath with a studded wall reminding the religiously motivated pilgrims of why they are there, and giving the others something interesting to look at.

As I clung on for dear life to the handlebars (I hate going off road) I wondered if for most of this road I have missed the point of it. I’ve been worrying away about the cycling, concentrating on getting from A to B, and taking care of feeding the kids whereas so many others are there to feed their souls and concentrate on their spiritual path. In my experience there’s little room for finding yourself when you’re fully occupied scrabbling around to locate clean socks for everyone, ensuring there’s enough healthy food in the picnic bag to feed the rabble at least three times a day, and locating the right road at the right time, when everyone is in the right mood. But then perhaps all our family journeys have been pilgrimages of a kind. While there may not be time for any of those big life changing experiences people talk about, there are hundreds of little ‘moments’ that are spiritual and memorable in their own way. And here you find them when you least expect them. As the children dashed off the bikes to make their own crosses out of wood and grass, I glanced at my baby sleeping peacefully in the buggy, her head lolling, and her spectacles hanging lopsided across her face. Then I thought of our new nephew we’d just been told had been born. (congratulations Angela and Joe) The sky was blue, the makeshift crosses led the way down the gravel hill and I had a new battery in the MP3. It’s never just about the cycling.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Under the stars

Last night we slept like ancient pilgrims, under a million stars, lying on the dust, with the gentle breeze touching our cheeks. Tonight we are sleeping under three stars, in Santo Domingo De La Calzada's luxurious parador, converted from a former convent.

Last night our dinner was a tin of corned beef divided into five portions. Tonight we've already eaten all the goodnight chocolates left on our pillows and have spent the last half an hour translating the lengthy dinner menu into English so we don't waste any time when the restaurant opens.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Pilgrim Pooding

When supplies run low and all the supermercados are closed because it is Sunday, you need to improvise. Today's special recipe requires 1 old banana, 3 stale biscuits, some chocolate Nocilla spread and some squeezy strawberry jam. Mix together until very brown and sticky. Then eat the goo and wash down with water. To find out what the boys thought of it, go visit their blogs. For some reason it has become known as Pilgrim Pooding.

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Saturday, 2 August 2008

Up and down in the Kingdom of Navarre

Riding tandem is a strangely solitary experience when your stoker has his mp3 on. When Cameron disappears into his earpieces, to a world of Molly Moon and Monsters Inc, I'm riding solo; except I've got 100 kilos of cargo pulling me backwards for each pedal forwards. Some pilgrims carry stones with them on their journey, each stone a sin to be redeemed on arrival in Santiago. I wonder if it has to be stones, or is there some kind of weight for weight equivalent I can claim.

The road is quiet except for a regular little click that comes from my bottom bracket. Click. One for each turn of the pedal. Click. Tapping out my cadence. Click. It's slow now, as we crawl uphill. Click. My watch, fastened to my handlebars tells me the time, climb and altitude. Click. I time the clicks. 40 per minute. A slow grind. Click.

As pedalling pilgrims we travel the camino at a changing pace, our speed determined to some extent by how fresh our legs are but mostly by gradient and terrain. It's a marked contrast to perambulating pilgrims who seem to plod along, clacking their sticks at the same pace all day long. Crossing the Kingdom of Navarre is a tough undertaking whichever way you travel, first requiring that crossing of the Pyrenees, then negotiating the numerous ups, downs and hilltop towns of the Camino as it makes its way through and beyond the plains of Pamplona towards Rioja and Castille.

Sometimes our progress seems almost imperceptible. This morning a kilometre uphill took 20 minutes. Plenty of time to notice the scent of pine and eucalyptus. Click. To examine delicate flowers growing in the verges. Click. To watch olives growing on trees and lizards basking by the side of the road Click. To notice a bead of sweat form on your forehead, slide down your nose, making a salty trail to your lip. Click. To wonder why on earth you are doing this.

Then looking up, there's the brow of the hill. The prospect of redemption, release from the grind. Suddenly I feel a change of rhythm; pedals spin easier. Click. Click. Lifting my head I see a new horizon; opening up slowly at first; a new stage of the unfolding Camino. A sepulchre high on a hill, bells chiming, shadowy medieval streets, a bar, an ice cream, a tortilla bocadillo. But no time to contemplate this now. Click. Click. No pressure on my pedals now. We're freewheeling. Accelerating.

Clickety, clickety, click. A breeze in my hair at last. Sweat evaporating in the wind of descent. Thirty, forty, fifty kilometres an hour. Landscape rushing past but no time to look. Clickety, clickety, click. Concentrating hard; gripping the bars; keep the bike on track. 100 kilos of sins forcing us down the hill; faster, even faster. Clickety, clickety, click. Noisy now; flags flappering, tyres humming, wind whistling, whipping along at sixty, tuck down low, reduce resistance, nudging seventy. Clickety, clickety, click. One, two, three kilometres. At this pace we'll be in Santiago by lunchtime. Three kilometrea in three glorious minutes. Consumed in hard earned joy but noticing nothing. Perhaps there's a different joy in the perambulating clackety plod.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Pilgrims in Parallel Worlds

The sun burns on. And we cycle on. Past olive groves and bodegas, through medieval towns with cobbled streets and bolt studded doors, through scrubland and over motorways. We look for rivers to swim in and find they have dried up. Even factor 40 sun lotion and cycle shirts are poor protection against a sun that scorches and sears our skin. We ride early and late to try and avoid the worst of it, but with temperatures touching 35 degrees some days there's little window of opportunity for riding in the cool. The kids are tiring and the road is relentlessly steep; every day I hope for respite but none comes. I squint again into the sun's glare, focussing my attention on keeping the bike from wobbling on the difficult gradient, pushing, always pushing sluggish pedals around with my feet. My sunglasses lie unused in their case, their tendency to steam up on tough hills has rendered them a useless fashion accessory. The sweat builds up on my forehead, even when I pause the bike for a rest my body continues to pump it out. After a while it starts to run down my face, stinging my eyes. I can't see and the pain is irritating. I wipe my face with my tee shirt that resembles a wet rag.

And yet this is such a journey of two halves. Just another ten or so kilometres and we'll be at a campsite, plunging into a cool open air pool. And that is the beauty of cycling the Camino rather than walking it. While the pilgrims are confined to hostels in the prescribed towns on the route, meeting the same crowd each night, we have the freedom to wander off the map a little. In the late evening at Puento La Reina and Estella we see them, hanging around outside hostels and the Red Cross; they seem lethargic and drained, having walked in the hot sun to secure a bed for the night by 1pm. Meanwhile we breeze past and up the hill to a campsite that's full of partying Spaniards, cracking open beers, diving into the pool and cooking for the family. A couple of days ago we reached a hill town and felt like stopping. I wandered over to the nearest refuge. He had been full by 1pm, so had leased a church. There were already fifty pilgrims packed into the aisles and on the altar. All lay face down on dirty mattresses, or sat near stain glass windows trying to escape the heat of the evening. It was so quiet. As he showed me to a tiny space at the back of the church I tried to imagine my three children keeping this sense of sleepy quiet. I turned him down and he shook his head. Where were five peregrino's going to find accommodation at this hour? We cycled off up the hill and set up our own campsite, on the scrub , at the side of the N111. No swimming pool, no facilities, but free of charge and the children could make as much noise as they liked.

The miracle of the wine

Boys will be boys and Matthew's fiddling with the fountain made it work. Cheers!

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La Fuente de vino

We came to drink at the famous fountain of wine at Irache but the fountain was dry. Not to be put off we bought a little bottle from the vending machine conveniently alongside. Empty fountain - beaten to the well by thirsty pilgrims or a commercial gimmick? But at least we can tipsy on our way.