The beginning of the end

As I prepared to do just as Nina did and leave Madrid for Paris to begin the journey home, I reflected on our journey together. Sure, I took a slight detour or two, Estapona and Lanzarote – but our paths merged for one last time that final night in Madrid. Prior to leaving Madrid, Nina spoke to the maid, Rosita, about all the places she missed out on visiting. I too am thinking about places I missed out on seeing but more importantly, I am reflecting about all the places I have been. Not just in following Nina’s footsteps on this trip but my whole gap year. I was preparing to return to Paris – back to where it all began.

I took my last paseo from my hostel, up and through the Puerta del Sol towards the Plaza Mayor. I looked around me as I wandered through Sol. The usual buskers, beggars, touts and lottery ticket sellers were there. I remembered Nina’s description of the paseo. She wrote:-

“All the street-sellers are out, and all the beggars. Shabby and dusty, the necktie vendor moves hither and thither offering to the strolling crowd a score or so of silk ties flung loose across his arm. The cake-seller stands against the wall, an uncovered basket at his feet from which passers-by who have no fear of germs may purchase sugared buns or fine little pipes of bread or sponge-cakes smeared with jam and then rolled in coconut. The peanut man, the lottery-ticket man, the cool drinks man, the newsboys are all aboard for the paseo shouting their wares.”

The beggars and the lottery-ticket sellers remain but newsboys and peanut man are long gone, as are the tie-sellers and cake-sellers. Now the street-sellers offer trinkets from north Africa and children’s toys. There are mini trumpets that the children in prams blow loudly as their parents push them through the crowds. There are plastic things that light up brightly when propelled into the air by elastic bands. They don’t last long – after three to four trips up in the air the elastic gives and the children cry. Another plastic gadget changes the sound of a voice when it is spoken through. There are glasses and ears and headbands that light up in flouro-colours. African women walk through the crowds in traditional dress with baskets on their heads. Make eye-contact and the baskets are whipped off to show the wares, hand made leather wrist-straps, elephant and camel key rings, fruit baskets that fold into a bread board shaped like an apple. The statue buskers stand still hoping for a few coins to be thrown to them. Others dress up and charge one or two euros for a photo with them. Sol’s Christmas light and decorations shine brightly and the Christmas tree stands tall and shines brightly in its ever-changing colours. People stop to take their photos in front of the tree – and while all of this is happening, the Madrid crowd surges past at its own pace with its own sound.

I looked around Sol before seeing more of the same in the Plaza Mayor. I moved with apprehension. Not because of the Madrid nightlife or its people but I knew the following morning I would leave for Paris. Paris – it is the beginning of the end. It is the beginning of my trip home. It is the beginning of resuming a normal life at home. This time, home will not be to pick up a few months work in a different city. This time home is back to Sydney. To live, to work, to once again be with family and friends. The apprehension stems from the knowledge that I will have to find work and to start life over again. My optimistic self is telling me it will be ok. The pessimist inside is rolling her eyes and sighing heavily. There is the nine-to-five to get used to again. The crowded public transport, the traffic, the people – yet before all of this, there will be Paris. I reminded myself about Christmas in Paris before one night in London and home on New Year’s Eve. It seems to appropriate to sleep the last night of 2017 in Australia and wake up and begin a new life again in 2018 on its very first day.

When Nina spoke with Rosita before leaving for Paris they listed off places Nina should visit in the future. Reflecting on where I have been, I thought I would make some lists.

Top seven places I visited during 2017 that I had never visited before

  • Seville
  • Granada
  • Lanzarote
  • Sicily
  • Dresden
  • Burgos
  • Naples

Top seven experiences

  • Walking the Camino – this will be number one for life
  • Climbing Mt Etna
  • Boating around the feet of Malta
  • Spending quality time with friends in Melbourne and Victoria
  • Meeting the Italian relatives in Molochio
  • Feeling like a Parisian
  • Driving around Lanzarote (don’t mention the guard rail!)

Worst seven experiences

  • Gibraltar – what a let down.
  • Taxi strike in Madrid
  • Hitting that guard rail with my little red car in Lanzarote
  • Avoiding all the cyclists that train in Lanzarote. I was pleased I avoided them it was just an added anxiety getting past them safely
  • My last dinner in Madrid
  • Loneliness that crept up on me at unexpected times.
  • My break-down on the Camino when the pain got too much

Places to visit or re-visit

  • Sicily
  • Seville
  • Lanzarote
  • The rest of the Canary Islands
  • Bilbao
  • San Sebastián
  • Granada

I guess that means I’ll be travelling to Spain again some day. Preferably not alone.

I have an itch to scratch

I think I first got the itch to visit the Canary Islands on my first visit to Spain back in 1987. There was talk about ‘contraband’ coming into mainland Spain from the Canary Islands. I can’t remember what the contraband was, it was either bananas or hashish. It sounded so exotic and mysterious. I wanted to visit but it did not happen. Years later I was hunting through a book stall and I found a small travel book on the islands, complete with maps. I didn’t know then if I would ever make it to the Canaries or not but for five dollars, I bought the book and poured over the maps. I read about the year-round great weather and the history of the islands. A few years after that, I was watching a film by the Spanish director, Pedro Amodovar, Broken Embraces. The scenery in the film was so stunning. There were black lunar landscapes. Stark yet contrasting landscapes. Large mountains, black beaches and strange sculptures on roundabouts. I had to see this. Since then, like the Camino, the Canary Islands has itched at me that I needed to see it, to relieve the itch, to soothe this itch. I wanted to visit after I had finished the Camino but neither my visa nor my bank account would allow it.

The Canary Islands are 100 kilometres, off the west coast of north Africa. They are adjacent to the Moroccan and Western Sahara border. They are governed by Spain who have controlled the Canaries since around 1495, despite some takeover efforts notably by the Dutch, yet are so different from any other part of Spain I have been to. There are seven main islands and many smaller ones. I read somewhere that many people believe the Canaries were named after the birds however, the more popular belief is that they were named after the Latin word for dog ‘canaria’. I haven’t seen any canaries here but I have seen a few dogs and lots of evidence that there are plenty of dogs around – judging by the dog poo on the sides of the road.

After making it to the airport on time despite the taxi strike, I board my plane and am excited to have not just a window seat but the row to myself. As we fly into Lanzarote, my face is pressed to the window. I can see the blue Atlantic with almost no horizon against the blue sky. There are volcanic craters, sticking their heads out of the ocean. There is a medium sized barren island with two small, white towns hugging close to the sandy shoreline. Then we start to descend onto Lanzarote. There are hills, mountains, more craters, not many trees and colours of green and black against a thousand neutral tones. While waiting to get off the plane, I start to chat to an elderly English couple. They come here all the time and ask where I am staying. I look up on my phone and show them the name of the accommodation and the address. “Ooooh”, he says, “that’s up the  north. It’s very pretty. We are staying up the north too, but further north than that”. I ask them if it is easy to get around the island. “Without a car?”, he questions. As I nod, he slowly says, “There are buses but they don’t run very often. You should download the app. We’ll be getting a bus but I don’t know if it goes through that town. A taxi is likely to cost you fifty euro”. I gasp, eyes pop. I should tell you that the only research I did prior to booking my trip and arriving, was to look on IMDB to see which island the Almodovar movie was filmed on. I booked the cheapest flight plus hotel that I could find on a travel website I had never used before – but hey, I’m flying by the seat of my pants.

Outside in the warm sun, I tell a taxi driver where I am going and show him the address on my phone. He asks another driver and four or five more enter the lively conversation on where it is. Finally, they all agree and I am off. Each roundabout we go through, has on it either a modern sculpture, a landscape feature of cactus, a landscape feature of other plants that don’t need a lot of water, a landscape feature of dry stone walls made from black volcanic rock artistically placed or a combination of some or all of the above. The road north pretty much hugs the east coast as we fly by white villages. To our west large mountains loom in their emptiness. Apart from the roundabout and the villages, there are no trees, especially on the steep mountainsides. We reach my accommodation and although I am only forty euros lighter, I feel the pain of such a high cost of a taxi but am happy as I would have had to do the ‘bag drag’ up the hill from the bus stop I noticed. Ricardo is there to check me in, but he wants to hurry. There is no reception at the place and I had to meet him at a specific time, hence the taxi rather than the bus. The accommodation is a kilometre up the road from the main highway and the coast. It is in a tiny village. I comment to Ricardo how far it is, wondering to myself how the bloody hell I am going to get around. He shows me my room. It overlooks a small blue pool and over the stone wall, I can see the ocean. It has a bedroom, a large living room/kitchen with the very basics and a small bathroom. I ask Ricardo if there is a supermarket nearby and if there are any places to eat in the village. I have a kitchen but no food. He tells me there is one place in the village about 500 metres up the hill. It is only open at breakfast. As I said, Ricardo seems to be in a hurry, he tells me if I want a supermarket I will have to walk down the hill and to the left to the gas station. It’s two kilometres there and back. “You can walk four kilometres”, he says to me. I can, but ….. “ok, adios” says Ricardo and he is gone.

So after the siesta and when the weather has cooled, I walk down the hill. I have to walk on the road as the sides are covered in low-lying brush and rocks with some cactus plants thrown in for good measure. I get to the highway, still no footpath, so along the road I walk, facing the on-coming traffic and get blown and buffeted about by the tourist coaches as they thunder past. I do the Jesus shop, water, wine and bread plus I add a few easy to carry items home to have some sort of dinner. Back along the highway I go, back up the big hill I go. It is so quiet up here, I enjoy my first night thoroughly. The wine helped. I watch tv and sleep like I haven’t slept since I left the farm in South Gippsland.

The next day, I head to the village ‘social club’ for breakfast, the one Ricardo told me about. It’s pretty good, with a tanned woman about my age, wearing short shorts, a singlet top, masses of curls and bright red lipstick who sways to Spanish music as she serves me. A few of the locals are here too, including one man who points to planes as the fly over, looks at me and laughs loudly. On my way out, I see she has tourist maps of the islands, something they did not think of supplying at my place, I grab one as I leave, thankful that I now have some basis of a plan – a map. After breakfast I head back to the gas station. I buy more water, more bread and a few more supplies. On the way past I stop at both bus stops going in either direction and take photos of their timetables, there are just a handful of times in both directions during the day. My plans are firming up. Later that day I research day tours and the bus routes. The day tours are pricey and most start from the populated beach resorts on the south of the island. However, I have a plan for the following day.

The next morning I wake, I can now eat breakfast at home thanks to cereal, pomegranate and yogurt bought at the gas station. After breakfast, it is down the hill to the bus stop to head north. The small island I saw from the plane is the first adventure. The bus detours from the highway, stopping at small towns and villages. It stops at what seems to be a BIG tourist attraction. I am unsure what it is but there is a metal sculpture of what looks to be a lobster. I think maybe it is an aquaculture facility. The bus arrives perfectly timed for me to catch the ferry across to La Graciosa. The ferry ride is fun as the little ferry battles the huge Atlantic waves crossing over the pass between the two islands before settling in to a calmer route along the island. The mountains on the Lazarote side are huge and a string of para-gliders and hang-gliders float and fly above and in front of the black stone sea-facing wall. La Graciosa, has some mountains too but they look small – like mere hills in comparison. The main mountain on Graciosa, gives the appearance that it has been painted using a marbling technique. The colours that radiate out from centrifugal points are neutral, subtle but the effect is amazing.

On the island, we motor into the main village. It is pretty, the houses are all white with either blue or green trim on the doors windows and shutters. The streets are sand. Just sand. I am amazed that the houses stand so straight but I guess under the sand is hard rock. There are restaurants and supermarkets and bikes to hire to ride up the amazing mountain or to some of the remote beaches. I explore for a while before lunching on the waterfront. I explore some more after lunch, there is a bank, a post office, a police station. It is quaint. A perfect setting for one of those light-hearted police or doctor based British mini-series. As we ferry back to Lanzarote the sea is much more distressed, we bob up and down into the headwind and seem to make no progress at all. It is a slower trip back but equally as enjoyable. Once back on Lanzarote, I need to wait 45 minutes for the bus, I pass the time walking around town looking for a supermarket. I figured, if I could by my supplies here I could get off the bus at the bottom of the hill and save walking along the highway. No luck, lots of restaurants, but no supermarket. I have to get off in the town of Arriete, stock up and walk along the highway and up the hill. I reach the corner of the highway and the street up the hill and their is a rally car race down my street. I ask a guy if it is ok for me to walk up the hill “Si, si!” is his reply. I dodge the racing rally cars the whole way up, occasionally jumping to safety into the brush and avoiding the cactus plants which I am assuming would be only slight less painful than a rally car hitting me. I am home but perhaps need to consider a hire car. Doubts flood my mind. I haven’t driven much in the past year. Can I drive on the right hand side of the road? My last attempt, 17 years ago, met with a couple less side-mirrors on other people’s cars. Surely I can do it.

The next morning, I decide it’s time to visit the main town. Down the hill I go to catch the bus. It again takes the coastal route before turning inland. More villages, all white, with the green or blue trim. More mountains. More cactus plants. Lots of tall majestic palm trees in each village. The main town Arricife – ACE is its airport code which is cool – is a pretty town with lots of pedestrian only streets, beaches, shops and marinas. I spend a few hours here before going to a supermarket to get supplies before I head on home and back up the hill. I have made a decision. I will get a car. At home, I start exploring hire car options, then I find out I can get a car from my accommodation. Why didn’t Ricardo tell me this. Expletive laden rant about Ricardo. I ring the number on the website. A man answers “Diga”, (speak) he commands.  I ask if it is Ricardo to whom I am speaking with. It’s not, it’s someone called Francisco. When I ask if he speaks English, he replies that he does. He doesn’t.  In a Spanglish conversation he tells me the bicycles are free. Bicycles? Ricardo didn’t mention those either. I use the Spanish word for car. At just 20 euros a day, I can get a car. I tell him yes, that’s great, I will take one. He tells me someone will come to my room soon and sort it out for me.

Twenty minutes later a guy called Samuel knocks on my door. I pay him the required amount. Samuel speaks no English. I ask if the car is automatic or manual, making gear stick movements with my left hand. He tells me yes, it is automatic and makes gear stick movements with his right hand. We laugh as we both work out it is manual and I work out that I am going to have to get used to changing gears with my right hand. I drive manuals but was hoping for an auto simply because of the fact that I know I will reach for the door rather than the gear-stick whenever I need to change gear. As I am making payment, I think to ask about insurance. Samuel has no idea what I am asking. I am tempted to say “insurancia” but know that would be stupid. I then think of mimicking my screaming and crashing but don’t want to scare him or put the mocca on myself, so tell him not to worry. He takes me to my car. It is a small, bright red Fiat. It suits me fine. I now have wheels. Look out! Look out!! More adventures ahead as I realise visiting just two of the Canary Islands may not be enough to soothe my itch.

Dear Dorothy, a letter from Seville

If you have lost a loved parent, or both, as I have – you will know what the feeling is like. You see something, or hear something, some old memory is jogged and you want to talk to them, tell them things. To tell them what it was you saw, what you heard or what remembered – but you can’t. This has happened a lot to me on my both my trips to Spain. I would love to call my mother or send her postcards and letters to tell her the things I see, the things she would love to see. Today, I have written to her from Seville.

Dearest mother,

I think about you a lot when I am travelling. Small things jog old memories. I always think of you when I walk into a church, which as I travel, is several times a day.

Nina describes this city as “Seville is like a laughing woman in a summer frock come in from raiding the garden with her arms full of flowers”. It is the truth. There is so much beauty in Seville it is difficult to take it all in. Around every bend in the road, around every twist in the passageways and around every corner of the laneways, there is something new to take in. The Cathedral, St Mary of the Sea – how dad would have loved that name – towers above all else. Its bell tower, once an Islamic minaret, stands tall in the old part of town. The buttresses fly high over the gargoyles and the line to visit winds around the streets. When Nina visited she saw the painting of Saint Dorothy by Zurbaran painted “in tafettas the colour of the bloom on purple grapes, with a scarf and panniers of gold striped with brown”. I went into the Cathedral today. I lined up forty minutes before it opened to avoid the queue. Once inside it was difficult to like the place. It is empty save for a chapels off to the side and behind the back main alter. The choir blocks much of the view. Nina complained about this too but again, she was lucky to be there when the organ was playing and the cannons singing at choir. I am luck if I go to a church and choral singing is being piped through the speakers.

I don’t know if they say mass there now but in the late 1800s apparently, 500 masses were said each day. I’m sure they do still celebrate mass for the local Catholics, but the main doors are for tourists to pay nine euro entry to walk around in. It feels a bit like being in an empty – but very grand – warehouse. With all the tourists it simply can not feel like a religious place of worship. Just a large empty shell. The main alter is a sight to behold when sitting in front of it. You really could spend hours looking at it. The tomb of Christopher Columbus is in the cathedral. It is impressive. His tomb is held high by four men representing the kingdoms of Spain during his life. Castille, Aragon, Navara and Leon. Although apparently he was moved around quite a bit after death before ending up here in Seville. Nina was of the opinion Christopher would not have liked something so grand but I think he would have loved it.

It is difficult to see and appreciate the paintings in this cathedral. Everything is behind wrought iron fencing and gates with bad lighting – perhaps to protect the paintings – but all are difficult to see. I searched for St Dorothy but could not find her. I asked one of the attendants, who was no help at all. So I left – via the souvenir shop where I stopped I asked the senorita if they had a holy card of St Dorothy I could buy. They didn’t but I could purchase a recipe books for tapas.

I walked the streets looking at buildings being wowed by the different architecture until I stopped looking up and looked down. It was then the shops caught my eyes. Oh mother, how you would love them. There are shops with the most gorgeous fabrics. Plenty for you to choose from for your next dress. There are shops solely to sell priests garments and adornment. In another I spotted a bull fighter’s jacket along with some very flash handbags and remembered how you loved the dancing – and Paul Mecurio – in Strictly Ballroom.  Many shops sell the traditional dress of Seville. High Spanish combs worn under the mantilla are proudly on display. Some are very expensive, more that 150 euro each – but these are made from tortoise shell and mother of pearl. You can buy cheaper ones in plastic in the souvenir shops I remember when I was very young, in the late 1960s, how you would wear a mantilla (the lace scarf) over your head to church. Maybe that was just for special occasions but I do remember you wearing one. I could spend hours describing the beautiful jewellery and flamenco costumes but there are so many as soon as I have admired something, a new bauble has caught my eye.

I wonder into a grand old Spanish house owned by a noble Sevillian family owned by an old lady. It is built in the Arabic style with not one – but two court yards. The second has a mosaic tile Roman floor from the second century. We were taken into the family’s summer dining room. There are twelve chairs around the table, one for each of the lady’s sons. That many children – of course I had to say I was one of thirteen. I can imagine your face thinking of twelve sons and you of course, would have said you had thirteen. On my way back home I deliberately lost myself walking the narrow streets of the old Jewish quarter. If a pathway or a laneway looked interesting I would walk into it – without a care of where I would end up. I went up one that turned out to be a dead end. It ended in the front of the door to a house. I turned and walked back. About half way down I saw a way marker for the Camino – I laughed. You wouldn’t want to follow that one.

Yesterday I visited the Basilica of Jesus del Gran Poder. It is a circular church of mixed ages in both architecture and art. I like it. I spent some time looking at the paintings representing the Stations of the Cross. It is unusual to see Stations of the Cross in Spanish churches. They were relatively modern paintings, simple but good. There was also a picture of Jesus. It was huge and made up of a montage of people’s passport photos. It was great to look at from afar and then to get up close and look at all the people’s photos. I walked and looked at the alter and noticed two doors either side. One said ‘entrader’ entry the other ‘salida’ exit. Of course I wanted to see what the entry door led to. It went behind the alter and up a short flight of stairs. I thought I was going to have to hug-a-saint again, as I did in the Cathedral in Santiago. There was an elderly Spanish couple and their middle aged daughter in front of me. We were directly behind the alter where there is a sculpture of Jesus carrying the cross. This sculpture is a feature in the Santa Semana, Easter Week, celebrations in Seville – which are known as the best in Spain. People  believe miracles have occurred after touching the sculpture. The old Spanish woman in front of me was at Jesus first. He was all behind glass except for the heel of his right foot which protruded out. She was a small lady and she tried in vain to tippy-toe up as far as she could to kiss the heel. I looked on in shock. Surely they weren’t all kissing the foot? Again, she tried to stretch up. Again, she couldn’t reach. I tried not to laugh at her huge buck teeth sticking out from the kissing lips. Once more she tried, once more I tried not to laugh. She gave up. Kissed her fingers and put them on the heel of Jesus. Her husband, taller, bent down and kissed the heel. The daughter, kissed her hand and made the sign of the cross on the heel of Jesus. They turned to look at me. I stood there. What else could I do? There was no way I was going to kiss or touch that heel – not without hand sanitizer in my day day-pack.

I think, if I could talk to you, you would ask me “Don’t you get lonely, travelling by yourself?”. I don’t. Sometimes I feel alone but I never feel lonely. Last night I sat in a bar, having tapas and drinking a vino tinto. Suddenly it went from me being alone in the bar to being packed with Spanish people. I have a feeling Mass finished at the church across the road. All around me was a buzz of Spanish people talking – loudly – at and to each other. I could hear snippits of various conversations as I tried to work out words I recognised – “venga”, “escucha”, “diga” “espera” – come, listen, speak. wait. I feel that is what Seville says to me and, if I could mother, I would wait here in Seville for the rest of my days. It is such a place. It is such a place.

Much love,


Cadiz – it took a while but you grew on me.

Casa Caracol – the snail’s house. A backpackers. A youth hostel. It is my hell. I thought I could handle staying in backpacker accommodation. After all, I had done so when I walked the Camino de Santiago. I did it in London for three days that was fine. I thought I could do it again here in Cadiz for three days. Tonight is my last night and I am wondering if I can make it out alive. Unfortunately, I could not get a female only dorm as I did in London. I do prefer to stay in all female dorms. They tend to be less noisy, less sweaty, less smelly – I personally feel more at ease in them. Don’t get me wrong, the guys in my room are nice men. They are polite and we weave around each others space. On the Camino it was different. You get all ages, all sizes and genders. Everyone tends to go to bed early after their pilgrim’s meal and once the first zipper of the morning is heard, it gets everyone up and out on the way. This backbacker’s appears to cater specifically to the young and gorgeous and is a different matter for me altogether.

Before I booked, I was under the misguided belief that it wouldn’t be too full. After all, it is the off season and what reason do people have to go to Cadiz? History buffs I thought! I booked a room in a seven bed mixed dorm, perhaps I could be the only one in there? I didn’t understand the difference that caused at three euro increase from the six bed dorm to the ‘deluxe’ seven bed dorm- but I booked the seven bed deluxe anyway. I arrived and the place is buzzing with young people, coming and going – going and coming. I am greeted at reception by a young Spanish guy named Ramon. He is guiding some other people through the check in process and tells me he will be with me soon and to wait. I do, I watch a couple of young women in the kitchen cooking and talking. One is Australian. They barely notice me among their enthusiasm for their own words to each other. I secretly roll my eyes and think to myself ‘well this’ll be fun’. They are a clique.

Ramon comes back to me all apologetic and smiles. He shows me the kitchen and gives me the drill with any food I might put in the fridge “you must write your name on it and your checkout date – otherwise it will be thrown out” he says. He shows me the lounge, “you can use this until 2:00 am. Same with the roof top terrace. The kitchen – we close at the same time.  A beautiful breakfast is included served by our volunteers between 9:00am and 10:30”. He carries my bag up three flights of stairs to the first floor – telling me he does not get paid to carry bags it is a favour and good service. He is in good humour as he takes me to my room – room two – informing me that I have no need to worry about being on a top bunk as I have just a single bed “No top. No bottom.” My room is small thing chocked with seven beds, three double bunks and my lonely single pushed against the wall between the French doors and the French windows. “There you go, Genoveva, enjoy your stay.” With that, he leaves me.

A youngish skinny guy is sitting on the bottom bunk nearest to my bed. He jumps up, shakes my hand and tells me he is Ricardo from Italy. He then tells me his story. He is from Venice. He rode his bike across the top of Italy to Genoa, then along the Italian coast into France, then down the French east coast and into Spain. From there he rode all down the east coast of Spain and has now come the west coast. “Six thousand kilometres he tells me proudly”. Wow! He tells me at night he has slept in parks and on beaches and in camping grounds and when it rains, he stays in hostels. “But now I have very bad news.  I have a thing on my leg”. He pulls up his trousers to show me a bandage. We work out that the English word for it must be an ulcer and it has gone down to his bone. As least that’s what I think we worked out as we are speaking in broken Spanglish with some French and Italian thrown in. He goes to the hospital twice a day to get it bandaged. I ask him, “ are you loco?”. “Si, si, si” he replies as his eyes roll around his head and he smiles the biggest smile laughing at me. Ricardo is off to the Canary Islands to work for three to four months before heading off to Argentina to find work in his trade. He is a butcher. I tell him one of my brothers is a butcher. He asks “does he work in a shop …. or another place?”. A shop I tell him. “I work in another place” he replies. I figure he means an abattoir but I am afraid to ask.

A young girl walks into the room. She is beautiful with a smile that looks it is straight out of California circa late 70s – I’m thinking Charley’s Angels – before the ultra white blinding look became fashionable. She introduces herself as Kate and has a killer handshake. I commend her  on her handshake and tell her that I used to work in politics so I am a bit of an expert on handshakes. She laughs and tells me she went to business school and that where she learnt it. Kate is not from California. She is Canadian from way up north – the north west territories. Apparently the nearest big town is Edmonton, which is 16 hours away from her home town. We talk about where we’ve been, what we are doing before I go out to explore the town. Later that night after dinner I return to the hostel. Kate is in the lounge with an Australian guy, Colin. Colin and I talk Australian doing out best to out-drawl each other. He is from Brisbane – a surfer. He is tanned and laconic, tall with a good head of curly, dirty blonde hair. His hair is all straight at the back like he has been lying in bed all day and just got up.  It doesn’t take me long to work out Colin is what my friend Louise would describe as a “douche”. I guess that’s the description because you can use a douche once for health purposes but if you use the douche too often it strips away at you. I hope that Kate hasn’t or doesn’t hook up with him. They leave for dinner at the appropriate time for dinner in Spain. I can never manage to stay up late enough to have dinner at Spanish time, at 10:00 or 11:00 at night. I tell Kate that I snore so I will leave some earplugs on her bed. You cannot get earplugs like these in Australia so I stock up on them when I am in Europe.

The following night I meet Kate in the lounge room again. She is speaking with another girl and we introduce ourselves. Her name is Kaye, she looks like she is from the Philippines. She is from Britain and now lives in Barcelona. Her parents are Filipino. She is laughing about how she went from Brexit to Catxit – in relation to Catalonia wanting to be independent from Spain. She is funny girl and we talk for a while after Kate leaves. We talk about going out for a drink but I decide I am too tired and sneak off to bed. Some of my roomies are already in bed. Some come in much later during the night. I am aware but with the earplugs it doesn’t bother me. I decide that perhaps its not that bad in the hostel but I would much rather have my own room. I spend another day walking around Cadiz. I have done everything Nina did. I have seen what she saw, walked the streets she walked and there is not much left for me to do but to walk around Cadiz – again – and admire the architecture. I think about leaving town a day early. Cadiz is the new place for young travellers to go. It’s not that it is a party town it more of a chill-out, surf, eat good food. It must be written about in the latest Lonely Planet guidebook as the young backpackers are flocking her perhaps because it hasn’t been destroyed by over-development or the yuppies – yet. I decide to stick to my plan and stay the last night. I’m glad I did.

When I arrive home I am walking up to my room on the first floor, as I hit the landing Kaye is coming down the stairs from her room on the second floor, Kate is coming out of the first floor hallway. We say hello and begin to talk. Kaye introduces us to Maria, her roomie,  a Spanish woman from Majorca.  Kaye has wine, should we have a drink? Of course. Apparently, all the young guys are up on the roof-top terrace playing guitar, talking waves and being all ‘backpackery touring the world wanker thingy’. We decide to go to the lounge room. It is empty.  That night four women sit with two bottles of wine. OK it turned into three bottles of wine. I raise the issue of douche Colin with Kate – she did not hook up with him. Kate is way too smart. Together the four of us talk, laugh, share photos, take selfies and eat the sausages Kaye has thoughtfully provided. We have become friends. I realise it is Melbourne Cup Day back home in Australia and know from past experience that I have had good luck with making life-long friends on Melbourne Cup Day. We say our goodbyes as tomorrow I leave for Seville. I don’t see the girls before I leave the Casa Caracol – but I do search out Ricardo. I shake his hand, say ciao and wish him the good fortune for his travels. As I walk out the door and down the passage way to the train station I again smile, I am not sorry stayed in Cadiz and I am very happy that I stayed in the backpackers.

Wandering about in Ronda

On the afternoon of my arrival, I did what Nina did. I walked around the streets exploring. Through the narrow passageways and laneways of the cobblestoned streets of the old town. I looked at the incredible  breath-taking rural views of the Gorgo de Tajo and the rural landscapes out past the gorge. With hundreds of other tourists, I crossed the Puente Nuevo, the new bridge. Puente Nuevo was started in 1759 and took almost 35 years to build. It spans the 120 metre deep chasm of the gorge created by the River Guadalevin.

Then I visited some of the old houses and palacios – the Casa Don Bosco, house of St John Bosco, with beautiful gardens and stunning views. You can only visit two rooms of the house which are more like religious shrines than liveable rooms. I went to the hanging gardens and walked around as the tourists started to thin out. Most tourists that visit Ronda are day tourists, bussed in by luxury coach from Granada, Gibraltar, Sevilla and Cordoba. They get off the coach, walk over the bridge several times, take photos with their selfie sticks and walk through the old town before following the flag, or the upheld umbrella to the designated restaurant for lunch. By twilight they have gone. This is when Nina went out walking in the rain.  I look up at the sky, large, bruised clouds threatened rain but it did not happen. I was left high and dry on my last walk over the bridge for the evening.

Nina, stayed somewhere near the gorge in a room that contained a bed, a basin and a rocking chair which she loved. She could hear the rush of the river as it pelted its way through the gorge. The river is a mere trickle at the moment and I do not get the spray as I hand my head over the bridge looking at the gorge below.

The next day, I visit Casa del Rey Moro which Nina tells me “nearly 900 years ago dwelt a Moorish chieftain with a bizarre taste in drinking cups. He had the skulls of his enemies set with jewels and fashioned into goblets”. When Nina visited the house was owned by a Duchess who had the place “skilfully restored”. It must have fallen into ruin since Nina visited, perhaps during the Spanish Civil war as it is again under restoration and I could not visit the house. I could visit the gardens where peacocks and the chicks wander around avoiding the stray cats and kittens. Although it may be the other way around.

I visit the bullring, one of the oldest in Spain built in 1784. It is beautiful. Bull-fighter aficionado and writer, Ernest Hemingway also visited Ronda. In his book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway describes the execution of Nationalist supporters being thrown from the cliffs, this was based on killings that took place from the cliffs of Ronda. He also described Ronda as one of the most romantic cities in the world and it must be for a blokey bloke like Ernest to describe it as such.

The following morning I walk down the gorge to a place that is illustrated in Nina’s book. I want a photo of the same location. Walking down the path takes me back to my Camino days and I curse leaving my sticks back in Australia and giving my boots to a homeless person in Paris. My toes were so black and sore at the time I never wanted to put my feet in them again. They would have been welcomed on this walk down. The steps start off ok but soon disintegrate into goat tracks and river beds. I get to the spot about three quarters of the way down, take a photo and contemplate walking to the very bottom. The path by now is pretty bad so I decide to go back up. My calves burn and my knees ache.

On my return to Australia, I had told people that I had no problem walking the Camino de Santiago, with my knees. “They were fine”, I would proclaim. Not so. As I lay in bed that night I remembered how they would ache at night. Something I had wiped from my memory. Two voltarian and an extra strength Spanish Panadol would dull the pain at night and prior to walking each day. How could I have forgotten this?

By this morning, my knees felt better, so off I went to walk the city walls and ramparts, built by the Moors. I walked up steep, high steps – about knee high – and only slightly wider than me. No hand rails, no safety nets. I am not great with high places at the best of times, so I clung to the wall like a huge crab. Once up, I walked the lengths of the bits left. Stopping to enjoy the view and look at the openings were soldiers protected the city from any advancing army. I walked back into the town.

When Nina travelled in 1934, Spain was in a very sad state. She describes the begging children, in every town, in every street.  They call to her “Mon-ee! Mon-ee” and describes show they twiddle their fingers in “approved Spanish fashion”.  She goes on to say “For the impertinent insistence of begging children, the revolting methods of grown-up beggars, and the numbers of the importunate the poor are always with us”. To date, I have not seen too many beggars, the odd older man asking for some money to eat or others silently standing on a street corner with a cup or cupped hands. Last night I was accosted by children after money. However,  were in school uniforms and carried what looked to be official donation buckets, and they were collecting donations for their Catholic school. If a person donated they were given a sticker, to ensure they were not asked again my their classmates further down the square.

This morning I visited the church of Santa Maria la Mayor. When Nina was searching to visit this church she first accidentally went to the church of Santa Cecilia. In this church she was outraged by the Cathedral’s guidebook standing “in the same glass case as Alonso Cano’s exquisite ivory Crucifixion”. I wonder what she would have made of the Tapas recipe books on sale at the church of Santa Maria la Mayor, along with all the other souvenirs. Nina went to Santa Maria because “for a peseta and a half you are allowed to gaze upon an arched doorway and the capitals of two pillars ornamented with Arabic designs”, all that remains of a mosque the Moors built over a Visigoth temple. Nina was not too impressed, and neither was I. Now four and a half euros to enter, the door is mainly covered and it is only if you look carefully you can see the very top of it behind glass. The entry fee allows you to go up the stone spiral staircase to the bell tower, once the minarete of the mosque. I started up but my knees were complaining and my fear of heights not happy. So I stopped on the first level. Nina had walked to the top with her guide. When they reached the top her guide ‘bade’ her to “lean over and look down. There below, so that I looked clear down the core of it, hung the stone railing, like the skin of a neatly peeled apple”. I looked up and could see exactly what Nina was saying.

Next on my list, in following Nina, was to be a mule ride to see the sights of Ronda outside the township. I could not find a tour offering mule or a donkey sight-seeing tours. I could take one by jeep but it was fully booked and the dune buggies were just way too expensive. I think the noise of dune buggies would not have suited Nina’s sensibilities or mine so chose not to do it this way.  I could do a taxi but that just seemed too modern. After thinking it through, I decided not to do anything. Nina’s tour consisted of her guide waving his hand towards some particularly beautiful hillside crying, “Look over theah!” and then add, “’Sluvly, isen it”. He would then tell Nina how English women adored Spanish men.

“They come ovah heah because the lov Spanish men. They lov them! … you will see how good-lookeeng the Spanish men can be. I will tell you! Theah was a lady, an English lady; not middle-class – or no! She belonged to the high-life, the aristocracy … and she came here to Ronda and stayed at the Hotel C_____. And she fell in lov with one of the mozos – one of the waiters, you understand? She was mad about heem.”

Nina’s guide tells her that the English lady invited the waiter into her room one morning when no one was about.  Nina asks him if the waiter went in, he replied “Why would he not? He was not a cold Englishman! He was Spanish, and very good lookeeng!” Throughout Nina’s trip she hears stories of this kind, sometimes the woman would be American, sometimes English. They didn’t go to Spain for the art or architecture but for a “romantic adventure with a Spaniard; the Spanish men, of course, being noted for their good looks and their irresistible manner of making love!” I suspect Nina thinks the Spanish men are full of themselves.

I don’t know how long Nina spent in Ronda but three days are enough for me. Tomorrow Nina and I travel to Granada.



My gap year part one – Paris, Italy and walking the Camino de Santiago

Midwinter in Paris. It’s cold but the trees look great!

Arriving in Paris mid-winter may not have been the smartest idea. After two days of oppressive Sydney heatwave conditions, I arrived to a cold dark morning of minus five degrees. The sun took its time to rise as I waited for the bus to take me from the airport into Paris. The bus was very late but the delay allowed some time to sort out a sim card for my phone. I needed a working phone to confirm arrival time at my AirBnB apartment – which will be my home for the month.
As we drove towards Paris the sun slowly began to shine on the clearest of blue sky days. The trees along the route looked like they were freezing. Just sticks, standing there waiting for the sun to thaw them out. Ice lined the side of the roadways and large icicles dangled from under bridges. Surely, I was mad coming to Paris at this time of year!
The apartment is in the second arrondissement on the Rue du Caire (Cairo Street) it links to the Passage du Caire – the second oldest covered gallery in Paris. The passage opened in 1799, a year after Napoleon returned from Egypt. Apparently, the success of his military mission sparked a craze for everything Egyptian and many of the streets are named to reflect this. The entrance to Passage is decorated with three images of Hathor the Egyptian goddess of love and motherhood – a goddess which suits me just nicely. The three flights up a narrow winding stair case – don’t suit me so well but it is all helps with training for the Camino in April.
I read that a convent once stood on this exact location but closed after the French revolution. The original floor of the passage was paved with tombstones from the graves of the nun’s that lived in the convent. The headstones no longer decorate the passage floor but having been taught be at least one pretty sadistic nun (I’m thinking of you Sister Melbride from St Patrick’s Guildford) it seems a pity as I sometimes fancy treading on a nun – or two.
My apartment is a typical Paris studio. Everything is warm, convenient and compact (small) the toilet actually is in a little cupboard just off the main room. But the apartment is pretty and totally Parisian – I find myself occasionally wishing the weather was a little warmer – so I could throw open my French windows, simply for the sake of it – but the weather outside is way too cold for that. Rue du Caire is quiet on the weekends. It is a busy hub during the week – home to the garment industry it is very industrious and non-touristy.  However, within a minute’s walk is Rue  Montorgueil – a street filled with patisseries, fruit shops, cafes, restaurants, cheese shops (mmmmm, cheese shops) – all kinds of wonderfulness.  I walk through Rue Montorgueil at least once a day.
I have spent the few days reacquainting myself with Paris and getting more courageous with being involved in Paris life. Each morning I walk all over the city. I take a different direction each day and cover 2-3 districts. This serves two purposes – one to get to know Paris better and secondly to prepare myself for the Camino.  I walk seven to ten kilometres each morning to wear my boots in and to get used to walking for the 800 kilometres of the Camino that lies ahead of me.
Walking around Paris in midwinter is hard – it’s hard to keep my chin warm.  At first I thought my nose would become a popsicle – but the chin is so much worse. Could anyone invent a chin muff please? The scarf around my chin just doesn’t cut it.  When my chin gets too cold I stop for a coffee and watch the Parisians walk, cycle, scooter and hover-board (yes they do – quite a few of them) on their daily commute.  I almost got hit by a unicycle the other day! All of this in mid-winter – imagine what spring, summer and autumn must be like. I watch and I look and I can’t stop smiling.
This morning, I walked to the markets at Richard Lenor in Bastille. Getting in there amongst the locals – with no French language skills – apart from the very basic niceties, I managed to buy food and to haggle over price and quantity.  My mini-bar sized fridge is now full of cheeses, vegetables and fruit for the week. It is exhilarating to be living in Paris – if only for a short time.
Midwinter brings other joys – there are no touts to harass tourists. Usually, I manage to avoid the touts selling crappy souvenirs and trying to suck visitors in with a ring scam or petition signing. As a solo traveller I usually tend to fit in with the locals – until I want to take a photo.  Once I pull out the camera – they descend – “hello. hello.  you speak English?”. I found myself at some of the main tourist sites the other day – but not one tout to be seen.  Midwinter is too cold and the tourists to few and far in between for the touts in Paris.
I am loving midwinter in Paris – especially the trees.  I hope I am still here to see them in summer and what they look like with leaves.

Day Trip from Paris – Number One – Troyes

I think I must have read something recently about Troyes. I can’t remember what or when but I had put it on my mental list as a possible day trip from Paris.
It was cold and dark when I left my apartment just before 8:00am. I walked through the icy streets and wondered if it would snow. It certainly felt cold enough. I haven’t experienced snow in more than 20 years – so I was hoping for it.
Buying a ticket at the station was easy as the ticket machine gave me my instructions in English. I didn’t have to torture some poor Parisian with my bad French. Lucky for them and me.
I love train travel.  I love the sights whizzing by.  The rhythmic rock and roll.  I love not being trapped in traffic – or merely seeing highways. The train made its way through the suburbs –seeing some truly ugly architecture on the outskirts of the city. It didn’t take long though before the fields, forests and country houses came into view – and in just an hour and a half I was in Troyes. Not only is Troyes in the Champagne region of France – but the town is shaped like a champagne cork (first fridge magnet of the trip purchased today – a champagne cork).
The first recorded mention of Troyes was in 63AD.  It was a small town – a transit point, close to a major road and the Seine River. During the 15th and 16th centuries the town flourished with industry – mainly textiles, paper and printing. Money was spent on churches and the arts. It was during this time that the half-timber houses flourished. The town with these medieval houses, grand churches, cobblestones streets and crooked laneways gives the town a fairyland feel.
I threw myself into walking those backstreets and cobbled laneways, stopping to visit the many churches and the spectacular cathedral of St Peter and St Paul. At every turn there was something new to gasp at. It was freezing but still no snow.  I took a warm up break from the streets by visiting the Museum of Modern Art. When buying my ticket the attendant asked me a raft of rapid fire questions – did I have a certain card? Was I part of a Viatour? Was I a journalist? At each question I answered non, non, non in my best French accent.  Finally the last question, “are you unemployed?” My eyes lit up. “Yes. I am unemployed.” He looked at me doubtfully and rephrased the question “you are unemployed”?
“Yes” I answered nodding my head vigorously with a smile that lit up my face, “I am unemployed”.
“It’s free for you.  Here is your ticket”.
So after an hour or so of warmth and the delights of modern art, I headed back out into the cold.  No snow but the Angelus was ringing from the Cathedral. That could only mean one thing – time for lunch.
I stopped at a local restaurant where the speciality of the house – and the area- is andouilette. Andouilette is a really, really fat sausage made with pork, intestines, pepper, wine, onions and tripe.  Sometimes the colon is used for the skin of the sausage.  This may be why one foody said andouilette had a clear “faecal hint of intestine” – I’m glad I requested the menu in English and dodged the special!
As I sat eating my lunch I looked out of the window.  A gentle snow had started to fall. By the time I finished and began my walk back to the train station, the snow was falling heavily and the streets were white. Troyes had become a fairy wonderland.

Seven surprising things about Paris and Parisians

  1. Parisians are friendly.  This isn’t actually is not surprise to me. I have found this on each visit to Paris. I have to say it though so there is not any misunderstanding that Parisians are rude or arrogant.  Quite the opposite.  Many speak English and are happy to help out – as long as you show you are willing to try as well.  If you are in a bar, café, restaurant, train carriage or laundromat and a Parisian enters – they will always greet you with a bon jour or bon soir. Much better than a “what are you lookin’ at”.
    2.       Parisians don’t wear headphones.  Ok some do – but they really are in the minority. Unlike Sydney where we all have our headphones firmly planted in or on our ears – especially in public transport – very few Parisians do this. I don’t know why but as I always wearing mine – how will I find out?
    3.       Parisians are not glued to their iphones or ipads – it is breathtaking to take a look around in the metro.  The majority of Parisians are not looking at their phones – rather they read books! or magazines! or newspapers!! ( and on another note – there are lots and lots of bookshops in Paris.)
    4.       Parisians are diverse in their commuter preferences. During peak hour the metro is packed, the buses are full – but many Parisians walk, ride, scooter, skateboard, skate and even hover-board to work.  Sometimes with a kid or two in tow.
    5.       Parisians recycle.  There are many recycle stations around Paris used by the locals. Parisians carry their paper, glass and plastic to their local recycle bins in nearby streets. Moreover, if you ask for a bag (le sac) in a shop it will be either paper or recyclable plastic. You only get a bag if you ask and you pay for it. It is not an automatic give away. Unlike Sydney where you have to say “I don’t need a plastic bag thanks”.
    6.       Some shops have mechanical cash takers.  There is scoop where you throw your coins in.  The mechanical cash taker rapidly adds up the coins compared to the amount owed and spits out any change. I find myself going into shops that have them – just because it does away with the need to muck around with change. This makes me happy.
    7.       There aren’t many global chains – small businesses are the winner. Even the supermarkets are of a much smaller scale with more diversity.  No big shopping centres in the city. No chain store boutiques or businesses. Simply smaller, unique shops selling different things.  Viva la difference!

How the hell did I get here and what the hell am I doing here?

I’m living in Paris. At least it feels like I am living in Paris and not merely visiting. I have my own (Air BnB) apartment. I shop at my local markets. I eat breakfast at home each morning and go out to my local café for a coffee. I then hit the streets – walking near and far exploring my new city. But how did I get to be lucky enough to live in Paris? A series of fortunate events with some selling of almost everything I owned and some saving.
Mid-last year I read a novel by an American woman. She was living the life she thought she wanted. She worked in the job she had set out to do – a job she worked hard for. She had good friends, a nice apartment – she thought she had it all – until she realised it wasn’t what she really wanted. Somehow the life she had written for herself wasn’t quite right. She decided to take a year off and live in Paris. Working on the basic principle that she would need $100 a day to live on, she set a target to save $36,500. So for one year she had to save or earn $100 a day and by the end of that year to only own what would fit into one suitcase. The novelist went through a process of slowly selling every thing she owned and curtailing her spending. She stopped going out, she became a vegetarian, she took her clothes to charity shops – apparently in the US if you donate to goods to charity you get some sort of tax break (which makes sense as the charity can be choosy about what they receive and the donator gets something in return). She was very strict (unlike me) and she got there. The rest is her story.
It is a story that inspired me.  Even though I didn’t save that much – every little bit helped. I didn’t quite get down to one suitcase, some of my things are in storage but only a few key items that I didn’t think I could part with. Certainly my former employer the State Government (albeit a different political party) contributed to enabling me to experience a gap year by forcibly amalgamating local government councils. As Mayors and Councillors were dismissed with the stroke of a pen – my position as Executive Officer to a no longer existent Mayor was redundant – and so was I. The timing was perfect.  It matched exactly my son completing high school and about to embark on a gap year of his own. The stars had aligned. I was free from work and free from day-to-day parenting. I was free to see what life had planned for me – and stop living the life I had planned.
So here I am in Paris. Not working but walking. Today I walked 13 kilometres through streets and lane ways – on footpaths and cobblestones, through parks and by the river. I look up. There is so much to see by looking up. The buildings, the windows, the doorways, the spires, the gargoyles, the statues. A never-ending array of beauty if you take the time to look up. Occasionally though one must look down. The dogs make it difficult to always walk with your head in the clouds. I have heard it said that the French have up to 23 descriptive words for the variety of dog poo on the streets. Judging by what I have seen – this could be true – or not quite enough words.
Today as I wandered by the river I saw the love locks. Thousands upon thousands of love locks up and down the Seine. The love locks are on bridges and gates, on chains and on bits of metal that you wouldn’t even think twice about. Lovers place these locks by the Seine in the city of love as an everlasting memento of their love for each other. I look at the locks and wonder how many are still in love?
Walking back towards my neighbourhood and my apartment I seem to get lost. I have repeatedly told friends here that I do not get lost in Paris and yet this morning I found myself in the vortex of where the 4th, 3rd and 2nd meet – if they do even meet. It appeared that I kept walking in larger and larger circles. As I waited at a set of lights a couple of young men in tradie clothing walked towards me. They were carrying a bag of building debris between them and each holding pieces of timber in their free hands. They appeared to be in their late twenties, were handsome and smiling and laughing as they crossed the road towards me. One zeroed in on me and smiled the biggest smile, “ca va?” he asked. I took out my ear phones “je vais bien”, I replied. He put down his side of the bag, grabbed my hand, leaned in for the French double cheek kiss – all the while speaking to me in French. As I struggled for the words to tell him I cannot speak French (and had no idea what was happening), he moves in again – closer this time for the third kiss which lingered much longer on my cheek; he whispered in my ear sweetly in French while still holding my hand. I pulled back as he asked if I am English – Australian I replied as I extracted my hand, wished him au revoir and hot-footed it across the road. Only in Paris I smiled to myself – the city of love. I might just have to get myself a love lock – for me and Paris.

Day trip from Paris – Number two – Chartres

Sometimes I really should plan things better.
I had decided on a trip to Chartres for one reason and one reason only. A year or so ago – when I used to work and suffer the pains of insomnia – I would listen to late night radio. One night there was discussion about the new labyrinth at Centennial Park. Whose idea it was it? how it got funded? what it was all about?  – the kind of general soft chit-chat ABC radio is known for – late nights. It was said that the labyrinth was not a maze (a badly grown hedge) but rather a geometric walking path. The labyrinth was designed to encourage contemplation, peace and meditation and was exactly the exact design as labyrinth built in 1230 in the Cathedral in Chartres, about 100 kilometres southwest of Paris.
Now up until mid-way through 2011, I used to walk every morning in Centennial Park. I was excited about what I heard about the labyrinth. This would encourage me out of bed early every morning and agian walking every day. Or so I assured myself in the madness of my insomnia. It didn’t. It did however encourage me to visit a few times in the past year. My last visit to the labyrinth was just a few short weeks before I left Sydney for Paris. I loved the quiet simplicity of focusing only on the path in front of me. I was lucky enough to have the labyrinth to myself each time I went. So the real labyrinth in Chartres was definitely on my list.
As the train trundled its inevitable way through the suburbs and then the fields and country towns, I googled Chartres to see what else there was to do. Well, I should have planned a bit better. The other two main attractions in Chartres, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Maison Picassiette, a house made up of mosaics of earthenware and glass built in the mid-twentieth century, were both closed. The outdoor farmers market in a traditional covered square was also not being held on Tuesday. I had planned on spending 3-4 hours in Chartres – and I didn’t think the Cathedral and stopping for lunch would take up that much time – even with walking the Labyrinth.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Chartres is amazing. The stained glass is like no other I have seen – and I have been into a lot of churches and cathedrals in the last two weeks. It is famous for its distinctive blue tinted stain glass, the labyrinth, wonderful sculptures and crypts dating back to the 9th century.
I arrived at 11:30. The tour of the crypts took place twice daily once at 11:00 am and then again at 4:15 pm. I missed the first and my booking back to Paris on the 3:25 pm train. I missed seeing the crypts. I found the labyrinth. It was covered in chairs probably for mass and was partially taped off due to overhead restoration works. There was no way you see the whole labyrinth – let alone walk it. Although from the little I could see – it did look exactly like the labyrinth at Centennial Park. After walking around the Cathedral, viewing the stain glass, the sculptures, the impressive church organs – that was it. My tour was over in less than an hour.
There were a few impressive buildings around the town as I wondered around looking for somewhere to eat. Eating lunch would kill another hour as I still had three hours before my train home. Lunch is always a bit daunting as I have to speak French and work out what the menu says if it is not in English. I have the basics, I know what vegetable I am choosing, or what meat, but how it is cooked and other little bits and pieces can be a real recipe for disaster. The waitress came over and started speaking to me in rapid fire French.
I looked at her confusedly and replied “Je suis tres desolate.  Je ne parlez pas Francais …. urrrr …” which is a bad translation of I am very sorry.  I don’t speak French.
“Would you like for me to speak in English?” she asks pleasantly.
“That would be wonderful” – and lunch is ordered.
After lunch I headed to the station to see if there was an earlier train and if I could catch it using the return ticket I had purchased. Yes, there was an earlier train. I went into the ticket office and spoke to the attendant, “je suis tres desolate.  Je ne parlez pas Francais …. urrrr …”
“You speak that part very well” she replied. “Would you prefer to speak in English?” and with that I got on an earlier train home to Paris.
I really should have done my research before getting on the train this morning.  I really should have planned it better.  If I did however – I would not by flying by the seat of my pants.

The city of love – music, art, poetry and Airbnb

Today I am rocked from my bed in Paris as loud music from the street below heralded me. I lunged the short distance from the bed to the window to see what was going on. It was a musician making his way along my street, Rue du Caire. With a backing sound-track on a trolley he dragged behind him, he played a trumpet. He roused the street. French windows were thrown open and money thrown down to him. I suspect the French threw coins to get him to move on – the romantics (like me) threw so he would return – and keep our dreams of romance alive. He would put aside his trumpet and take off his hat to catch the falling coins to put them in his pocket – but most times he missed and the coins bounced off the cobblestones for him to bend down and collect as he bowed his thanks.
Later, with the music of this morning giving hope and inspiration (and wanting to avoid any more news on Trump and his phone call with Turnbull) I set out to attend an Airbnb gathering. Airbnb had organised a gathering for people just like me (or not) to get together at a craft beer place in Paris. Brilliant idea! All these lonely ex-pats living in studios all over Paris can come together over a few drinks and meet each other. Airbnb – more than just somewhere to stay – there could be friends!
I arrived to a crowded noisy bar. The amazing host, Fanny, a good shepherd, obviously knew what she was looking for. She quickly realised I was one of her lost sheep and gathered me up into the group. After introducing me she asked me to write my name and where I was from on a sticky thing for my chest. I wrote on the wrong side – but that’s me. I had to do it again. Boy – was I out to make an impression.
After getting myself the perfect beer (International Pale Ale Centennial – which scores a 3.7 out of 5 on some international beer scale but I give it a 9.5) I seat myself down to meet my Airbnb comrades.  They are from all over the world, Brazil, Czech Republic, USA, France, the Netherlands and me the only Australian. Most bizarrely not a kiwi among us, they are usually everywhere.
I manage to make my way around the group and get to speak with most of them. All are either like me on a break from the hum-drum to indulge in art and beauty or are PhD students – I met an artist from Texas, an architectural student from NY although he was born and bred in Hawaii “we’re almost neighbours” he rightly said. There was a poet from Philadelphia; a production manager in fashion from NY – family from the Philippines – again almost neighbours; a media production artist from the Czech Republic and a woman from Brazil who was apparently a gynaecologist ….. yeah – I know who to avoid – I would have done the same if she was a dentist.
One of the things we all talked about was where we live in Paris. The artist lives in the 11th right near Père Lachaise Cemetery – a tourist attraction in itself. The poet – like all good poets – lives on the left bank in a studio on the sixth floor – with no elevator. If any thing could inspire you to write poetry I imagine it would be walking up and down six flights of stairs – there is something rhythmic to the tip tap tap of feet going up and of the tap tap tip of feet going down. Almost musical.

Sunday afternoon – let’s do the promenade

It appears as if there is only one thing to do on a Sunday afternoon in Paris – go for a walk. Take some sun, some exercise and check everyone else out. So on Sunday afternoon that is exactly what I did. Accompanied by Jackie and her black French poodle, Mo-Mo, we walked towards the Seine. Past Bourse – the stock exchange we headed towards the river. We cut across the gardens of the Palais Royal where men were enjoying a game of pétanque, parents played badminton with their children, lots of people taking numerous dogs for walks and the inevitable teenagers just hanging out. A short, sudden burst of rain sends everyone scurrying.
The rain eased as we moved forward past the forecourt of the Louvre where we were jostled by tourists, touts and selfie sticks. The tourists all seemed to be attempting the trick photography of taking photos to give the perspective that they were holding the glass pyramid entrance to the Louvre on their hands.
We crossed the road and entered the Tuileries Gardens. A flock of pigeons are feeding quietly until Mo-Mo the poodle tries to go for them. The pigeons freak out and flock fly straight at some tourists, who scream and run. Everyone around smiles and laughs as the sun breaks through, the grey afternoon turns bright and the young tourists realise they are safe from the marauding pigeons.
Jackie, Mo-Mo and I head to the river, along with hundreds of others take the stairs down to walk under the bridges and directly beside the river. We have to hold Mo-Mo back from wanting to go the ducks but a swan definitely puts Mo-Mo in his place by hissing loudly and bristling up its slender neck to the size of a tree trunk. Mo-Mo knew to keep walking … eventually.
Like anywhere in the world, Paris if full of different people. There are of course the famously chic Parisians walking around in the latest all-look-the-same-styles, but there are also the ordinary and the extraordinary – the people wearing dressing gowns, steam-punk, hospital gowns, wigs and incredibly individual fashion. There are lots of people to look at and we ourselves get looked at. It may have been the large white woolly coat Jackie was wearing or maybe it was just the Parisian way.
Finally on reaching Île de la Cité we walked up from the river to the streets. As we cross a street a taxi pulls up, the driver winds down his window, looks at us – and then starts baa-ing like a sheep. Mo-Mo wants to say hello to him and starts jumping up and down as Jackie asks in French “is there something wrong with your head?” I can’t stop laughing as we continue to walk towards the IÎle Saint-Louis and then Le Marais an historic area in the 4th district.
By now the afternoon promenade is moving into the evening and people are stopping at café’s and bars for a drink before heading out for dinner or home for the night. We do the same.

I become a theatre critic

I was invited along to see Gerard Depardieu live. An invitation I could not resist even though I knew I would have no idea of what was going on due to my limited French. I was told Gerard would be singing the songs of Barbara. I needed to do some very fast wiki-swotting if I was to have any idea of what I was going to see.
Barbara was a popular singer and song-writer from the 1950s to the 1990s. She dressed all in black and sang torch songs of sadness and love and of love lost. I found out Gerard was a long-time friend and collaborator. As I read the story of her life, I listened to her music and read the English translations of her most adored songs. I was ready.
We travelled out to the 10th to the Bouffes du Nord theatre. A grand old theatre built in the late 1800s. With the advent of World War 1 in 1914 the theatre shut its doors for more than 60 years. In the mid 1970s it was restored but not renovated. This give the theatre a look of distress and disrepair.
The pre-first night crowed shuffled in. My theatre-going companions, Jackie and Marion were keeping each other and me up-to-date on the who’s who of Paris as a photographer was busy snapping those who were worth it. There were actors, bankers, antique dealers, decorators and lawyers – a society mix of business and artists.
The lights dimmed and Gerard lumbered on to the stage. With hands that looked like sausages straight from the butcher shop window he grabbed the microphone and started singing. In between songs there was a lot of wheezing. From my seat I could see the monitors bringing up the words to each song. Even the in-between monologues were on the monitors. I felt like I was watching and hearing a relative who has a reasonable voice and a huge stage presence at karaoke. Perhaps it was just because I could see the monitors.

Over the Peripherique and into the flea market

This Sunday afternoon I decided to walk to Les Puces de Saint-Ouen – the flea market. It is approximately five kilometres from my apartment. The weather was a little drizzly to start out but perfect walking conditions. Les Puces (the fleas) as it is known is just on the other side of the Boulevarde Périphérique. The Périphérique is two four lane high-ways that circle the twenty districts of Paris. Once, this is where the ancient walls of old Paris stood to guard its citizens. Now it is the new way of avoiding the City.
As I was reaching the outer limits of suburbs, I could see these were much poorer neighbourhoods then I had been before. I passed a fruit and vegetable market that was closing up for the day. There were hundreds and hundreds of metres of stalls some still selling, some half packed-up for the day, others completely gone. Men, women and children picked through left over fruit on the footpath, filling plastic bags with fruit to take home. Fruit the stall holders had discarded. The street-sweepers of Paris stood by; ready to finish the clean up when there was nothing more worth taking.
I walked on and got to the edge of the city limits. There was a crowd around, betting on a cups game. The guy running it put a ball under three cups moving them around as people bet on which cup the ball was under. There was lots of shouting and yelling but I did not stop to watch the game. The markets started with stalls of handbags, wallets, hats, African clothing, scarves, junk jewellery. You know the stuff.
Just before I reached the Périphérique, I chanced upon a different market. This was more a “throw a sheet on the ground and put what you have on it for sale” market. It was the most crowded. There was used clothing, old phones, jumper-leads, a smashed up iPad, another had a whole lot of left foot shoes – either it was a one legged man’s stuff, or you had to ask to try on the other shoe – but it didn’t look that way. One sheet had on it a packet of pasta and a few cans of beans, another some used make up and pre-loved children’s toys.
I walked under the hideous 2×4 Périphérique and walked out into serenity. Les Puces is pretty much its own suburb. There are more than seven hectares with streets and arcades of stalls and market places, restaurants and cafes. I walked down a street where the stalls all had glass front doors. Gold gilt glinted at me from chandeliers, mirror and furniture. Each stall had a single person, up towards the back, reading a book or looking at a computer.
The covered open stalls selling retro furniture, prints and nick-nax were livelier. Stall holders were having a late lunch consisting of the French staples of cheese, red wine and bread. Friends met, potential buyers chatted with stall holders and lovers wandered holding hands, stopping to look at jewellery or furniture.
It was time for lunch. I stopped at Chez Louisette and was amazed when I walked through the doors. As I waited to catch the eye of the ancient blonde waitress, I felt like I had stepped back in time but on a number of fronts. If anyone remembers the barmaids who used to work at the Grand Hotel in Hunter Street in the mid-80s – this was what my waitress was like. She showed me to a seat where I could face the musicians! There was an organ player, a piano accordion player and a number of singers who seemed to come from the crowd to do their particular set of French songs. People were dancing and singing along, champagne corks were popping – and it was 3:30 in the afternoon. It was like being in a recreation of Paris during the war but without the period costume. It is what I grew up to believe Paris was like – and it was wonderful.
Then I went back out into the street. This time just stall after stall of running shoes, track suits, active wear, and parkas with fur trim – every young person in Paris is wearing them this year. It was Paris. It was Paris of then. It was Paris of now. It was Paris of the haves and the have-nots. I walked home with a smile on my face because I am living here – in Paris for now

Au revoir Paris – the end of part one

Tonight is my last night in Paris but as everyone knows au revoir does not mean goodbye – it means until later. Tomorrow with Robert and Joseph, I head for Palermo, Sicily. I just glanced out my window and through to the windows of various neighbours across the Rue du Caire. I noticed most seem to be at home. I jokingly wave and say out loud “au revoir, I will miss you”. For four weeks I have been noticing the different people in their apartments going about their daily lives– tonight is the last time I will see these strangers that have been extras in my life here. Of course I won’t miss them – but I will miss Paris.
In the past four weeks I have visited many, many churches. I have considered art and architecture in its most beautiful form – and the ugly stuff too … should I mention Gustave Moreau – great studio shame about the art. For the past four weeks I have lived in a city that is a masterpiece of city planning. I have been to only five museums. I have taken two day trips – it was supposed to be more. I have enjoyed the most pleasurable experience of my life in a hammam (look it up ladies). I have been kissed by a random French tradie on the street. I have purchased approximately 18 plus baguettes, over ten different cheeses, hosted a dinner party, attended two other fabulous dinner parties, been to dinner with enjoyable company on more than half a dozen occasions, watched two Netflix mini-series (Poldark and Outlander – Paris always gets me into historical dramas – btw kill me, both so bad) and enjoyed my first Airbnb meetup where I spent the evening meeting really interesting people from all over the world. I have walked over 380 kilometres – the width of Tasmania plus! I had a rare experience of witnessing Gerard Depardieu do bad late night karaoke. I have viewed more paintings in four weeks than I have in the past three years. I experienced snow for the first time in well over twenty years. I have met and made new friends as well as renewing friendships from old. Most importantly, I have felt like I am part of this city.
On the evening of the day Robert and Joseph arrived, Robert and I went out for supplies at the nearby Rue de Montorgueil. After shopping for our needs – bread, cheese, wine and water we walked back towards home. It was dusk, the street was busy, I turned to Robert and said “this is what I really love -this time of day, walking towards my home with my baguette and wine, looking around this street and enjoying being here. It makes me feel so French”. Robert looked around, took a breath and replied “Yeah. It’s pretty cool”.
So … after Sicily, Malta, Naples and Prague – I will be back to Paris – and almost the first thing I will do is experience another hammam.

Paris, you are so yesterday. Sicily, I think I am in love.

The French love to queue. I have heard that they invented the queue. Everywhere in Paris there are orderly queues. You line up to be served in a shop. You line up for a wine tasting. You line up to enter galleries. There is no hurried pace about the queue for the French. It is a fact of life. Of course, the French probably invented queue jumping as well. However, any queue jumping is done with stealth and good grace accompanied by a little wry smile and a small dose of sarcasm in the apology if caught. I found myself often frustrated by the queues in Paris. Similarly, I don’t think I shall find the Italians are like the French in this regard.
The Ryan Air flight to take us to Sicily was an hour late. We had to walk out onto the tarmac and walk up the stairs onto the plane. There was no orderly line. No defined queue. There was only mayhem. Every person was pushing and jostling to get to the stairs first. Italians shouted at their family, friends and travel companions. The shouted instructions and seat numbers and to move onto the plane. They shouted if they saw an opening, a gap, a weakness in the throng, a faster way to get in or to move forward.
Robert and I were prepared for this. We jostled and pushed along with the best of them. After all, we have been in yum-cha lines many times. Joseph stood back for one older Italian woman. She smiled at him, put her arm across his chest, held him back and motioned for all the travellers she knew to come ahead with her. He was lost to us and would not enter the plane until much later.
Once on the plane the passenger in front of me stood in his seat. He shouted to people as they got on the plane on where they should seat, directing them to seats, instructing them on where and how to store their belongings in the overhead lockers. It was not until everyone was seated that he too could sit and take a breather. We have no idea on why he was doing this. We don’t know if he was in charge or if he is an extremely important member of the larger Sicilian family.
We flew into Palermo just before sunset. From my window I could see the incredible blue of the Mediterranean Ocean. Sicily jutted from it – all rocks and mountains and cliffs in the most amazing oranges and pinks, reds and stone colours. Its beauty took my breath away.
On arrival in Palermo, we found out it is not as important to get off the plane as it is to get on. One must take time to shout goodbyes to other passengers, regards must be sent to absent family members, if a person did not have the opportunity to yell at someone they knew on the way onto the plane, now was the chance – they would ask questions on how time in Paris, where they went, what did they see, how were they getting home from the airport, how they would be spending the weekend. A 5-10 minute chat appeared to be entirely appropriate.
Finally we could disembark. I had placed my coat and jumper in the overhead locker. Robert reached up for me to pull them out. As he did a shower of white powdery substance came falling down. It was on his head, his shoulders, my coat, my jumper, the seats we had been sitting on. As we left the plane, I pointed it out to a steward who, with a shrug of his shoulders said “it’s only sugar”. I hadn’t even given a thought to what it was I was just annoyed my clothes were now dirty. Of course this statement made both Robert and I nervous. What if someone had been carrying illegal drugs and the bag and come open up there? We freaked out even more as we came down the escalator to collect our baggage from the carousel. At the bottom of the escalator was a group of official looking types including a border control officer, with an Alsatian dog, sniffing each passenger as they walked by. It appears the disinterested flight attendant was right, it was only sugar as we made it past the dog incident free.
On the bus we drove through the usual ugly outer suburbs before arriving in the main part of Palermo. We passed the main square full of teenagers on a Saturday night. Vespas were lined up as some of the teens would jump on and ride off somewhere- always with two to three teens on each. Older Sicilians worked their way through the throng to reach restaurants and bars.
Like the queue to get on the plane, the city buzzes with excitement, charm and recklessness. Paris, you are so yesterday. Sicily, I think I am in love. However, I am over-tired and maybe confusing the two. I will wait Sicily until I see you in the light of day.

Paradise found – if noisy – Sicily.

Everything and everyone in Sicily is loud. Sicily has a pace and a volume all of its own. It has a charm and you can find relative quiet – such as we did when we wondered the flea markets last Sunday morning. There were no cars. Of course a few loud voices in conversation – but a calm as people wondered the streets of the square looking at the stalls – stalls which had things that made my eyes pop – but for Sicily it was more of the same. Sicily is full of the finer things in life. The warmth and friendliness of the Sicilian people, the fantastic food, good Sicilian wines and jaw-dropping landscapes. I can’t even begin to describe the baroque art and architecture that we were confronted with in every town and every village. Sicily has something for everyone plus more.
The strange thing is that wee were warned both back in Australia and in France that we should be extra vigilant in Sicily. We were warned that theft and robbery were as certain as the sun setting and rising. We were warned to take extra care walking the streets, to take extra care riding the trains and driving around. All the warnings were a waste of breath. We were not robbed, we were not killed, we were not kidnapped or held for ransom. The Sicilians are warm, friendly, helpful and welcoming. Never let anyone tell you any differently.
We took a geological excursion to the Sicilian volcano, Mt Etna. On our way to Etna, our guide, Andrea, proudly showed us the fields either side of the road pointing out orange trees, lemon trees, vineyards, olive trees, all the fruits and vegetables being grown within a kilometre of Catania city. He told us how important it is for households to grow some of their own produce, especially olives, lemons and oranges – that way visitors would be honoured by the hosts and the guests given home grown produce to eat.
Andrea took us past the gaol and pointed out the large paintings of mafia members on the outside walls. He told us that the mafia no longer controlled Sicily. We had already witnessed anti-mafia slogans and graffiti all on our walks through various Sicilian towns. Andrea explained that Sicilians wanted and needed tourism. He said if a Sicilian saw us standing on a street, reading a map, we should not be alarmed if we were asked to be helped or to be pointed in the right direction. Andrea was right. On our last morning we were waiting for a bus out of Catania to Pollozzo where we would catch the ferry to Malta. A little old nonna greeted me “Bon giorno Senora” followed by a string of Italian. I figured she asked me where I was going “Pollozzo” I said smilling and nodding so enthusiastically, she probably thought I had some strange affliction. She replied with a wise nod and continued to speak for a while before giving up and going back to waiting for her bus to Syracuse. About ten minutes later a man walked passed her. She stopped him, they had a rapid – and loud – conversation. The man then turned towards me, it became obvious to me that he worked for the bus company. He stepped towards me and pointed to a bus a little further down and in English said to me, “the bus down there is the bus you need Senora”. I thanked him as he walked away. The little nonna stepped forward waving in the same direction of the bus he had pointed to. Speaking very loud Italian and looking very proud. The nonna was claiming ownership of helping me. I could not help but smile as I thanked her in my very bad Italian (even worse than my French). I am certain on arrival in Syracuse, the nonna told her extended family all about the important role she played in assisting tourists in Catania.
We are now in Malta for a few days before returning to Sicily to finish our visit. I have always wanted to return to Malta after my first visit here twelve years ago. This morning when I woke up all I could hear was bird song. There were no loud voices on the street, no horns, no vespas or motor bikes roaring past the streets – almost no noise at all – other than the birds and the church bells ringing the six am Angelus – to the tune of Ave Maria. What a difference from the past week in Sicily. It is truly wonderful to be back in Malta but I am looking forward to returning to the warm – and loud embrace – of Sicily.


Malta – you’ve got the same old walk

The last time I arrived in Malta was by air. The three small orange and green islands stood out against the blue Mediterranean. It looked all dusty and dull on that hot day as the plane came into land. That time Malta proved me wrong. It was not dull – it was fun and exciting and the most beautiful place I had ever been. I promised to one day return.
This time I arrived by boat from Sicily. Malta was there waiting for me – with its ramparts, forts, steeples and domes. Green, blue and red windows and enclosed balconies looked down upon me. Coloured boats of all shapes and sizes bobbed up and down in the harbours. I breathed in the fresh salty sea air. I was back and it felt good.
The main island of Malta is approximately 27kilometres in length and 14 kilometres at its widest. There is not an inch of this island that has not been walked on by ancient Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Normans, Moors, the French, the English, the Spanish – they have all been here – either as rulers or as visitors. The language, art, architecture and food are daily proof of Malta’s diverse history and daily there are also sharp prompts of the now with tourists from all around the globe.
The first thing I noticed was a disappointment. The old yellow buses which were so much part of Malta are no longer. I asked a local about them. He told me they were replaced about five years ago. I replied that this was sad, for me – the old yellow buses were Malta. Now the big green and white modern buses look like you could be anywhere in the world. Over the past few days, I have gotten used to the modern buses – but they are not the same.
On Sunday we decided to travel south to the small fishing village of Marsaxlokk to have a walk through the weekly market and check out the brightly coloured traditional fishing boats – painted with lucky eyes. We found the bus we had to take easily enough – as it had a line of tourists waiting to get on. As we travelled through the capital Valletta and into the suburbs, I overheard an American couple speaking. She was saying to her husband “if only they would spend a bit of money to make the buildings look better”. I think the rack and ruin character of some of the buildings did not sit well with her.
Today we travelled to Mdina, the medieval capital. Here, money has been spent on the buildings and the ancient town is a sight to behold. Built on a hill, you can get a clear view of all of the island of Malta from the town’s ramparts. The houses, the Cathedral, the churches and convents are beautifully kept. Colourful doors, windows, decoratives, statues and gardens adorn every narrow street, lane way and square. It is a joy to walk around and soak in the atmosphere.
Tomorrow we hope to travel to the smaller Maltese island of Gozo. However, after arriving here on tranquil seas three days ago, over the past two days we have witnessed large, rough seas. We will see what the weather is like before we travel. If not there are still so many places to visit and so much to see just not on the old yellow buses. Despite this, Malta still has the same old walk I fell in love with twelve years ago.

By bus and by boat

Malta – surrounded by clear blue clean sea. Malta – the place for boating, swimming and water sports. The plan was to spend a day boating around the three islands that make up Malta. Malta, Comino and Gozo – and to spend some time on Gozo – it comes highly recommended by friends (you know who you are). After we arrived by ferry on a sea that was flat and smooth like glass we checked the weather forecast for the four days were would be there. Tuesday, our last full day was to be the one. The weather was predicted to be sunny and warm nineteen degrees.  Maybe I should have brought my swimmers along.
There was plenty to do in the intervening days. Visiting the markets in the fishing village of Marsaxlokk; wandering around the capital of Valletta visiting churches museums and palace; making our way to the ancient medieval city of Mdina to a silent jaw dropping visit to one of the most unique places I have visited.
We spent our days walking and catching buses around the small rock that is Malta. Arguing with bus drivers appears to be a national sport in Malta. Everyone does it. The bus drivers yell right back. There was a man who stood in front of the bus – so it would stop where he was and he could be first on the bus. The driver opened the door yelled and him and moved further down into the bus bay. The man walked down to the bus, got on and yelled at the driver for moving on. The driver yelled at the man for being stupid and standing on the road. The yelling at each other went on for a good five minutes even through the passenger had taken a seat half way down the bus. Another driver told two women he could only take one more passenger as the bus was too full. The women yelled at him. He yelled back. The women got off in protest. The driver then let five more passengers on the bus just to stick it to the women. Still yelling even though they had walked off. Yet another driver slammed on his breaks as a car in front swerved in the direction of the bus at the last minute. Every back seat driver on the bus yelled, hands raised “what are you doing?”. Preventing a crash, I thought to myself as the bus driver yelled at all of us on the bus.
As we rode the bus around the harbours and bays we noticed the Mediterranean Sea had quite a swell. Waves crashed against the rocks along the promenade we walked and travelled. On the first day we noticed squares cut into the rocks. The squares were cut about the size of what we know today as “plunge pools”. That is exactly what they were –pools cut into the rock ledge. We could see remnants of ladders and steps into each square pool. Dug in the 1600s the pools would have had a little canopy cover to allow women to bathe in private. On that first day there was a calm and peace around the pools. The following days we could not pick them out through the waves and high seas.
The last day arrived. We had dilly-dallied about booking a boat trip as we didn’t want to go boating in bad seas. We figured if the day was ok we could simply take the public bus to the ferry that would take us to Gozo. Have a look around and come back to Valletta. Well that was the plan.  On the day we slept in. We took our time. We didn’t commit until it was too late. Gozo was a no go. We decided instead to take the bus down to the blue grotto in the south of the main island.
The wheels on the bus go round and round – and so did we – on several buses. Robert had downloaded the Malta bus app and was in charge of the bus routes and changes. At one stage one of the journey our bus stopped in a small town, everyone got out of the bus and walked away. We sat there. The driver sat there. He looked at us through the rear view mirror. Silence. Ahhhhh! Last stop. We had to get off too. We were in front of the church so I walked over to see inside – a bit of a reprieve from the midday heat and Robert trying to work out the app. The church was closed. I turned and scanned the yellow/orange dusty street in search of a bar. Nothing but a stray dog. We walked around for a while – all the time Robert trying to make sense of the app and the street maps on his phone. Having to call to “eyes” -it’s what we call Joe when we don’t have our glasses on – more than once to help out.
Finally one more bus and after several hours and what felt like several circles of the island we finally got to our destination. Almost. We had to walk the last kilometre or so down a very steep hill. There were stunning views ahead of the Mediterranean and fields of dry stone walls and yellow wild flowers on either side.
After a quick lunch we finally go in a boat on the Med. A small brightly painted boat that took us through the sea caves in Malta’s feet. You really know then, that it is just a rock sitting there. The sea is deep, the sky is big, the cliffs are high and you and the six other people wearing ill-fitting life vests bob up in a colourful boat painted with lucky eyes to ward off anything bad. We are just specks in the ocean. Within twenty minutes it is all over and we are back on a bus.

A visit to the village

Our last two days in Sicily we spent in Taormina – a stunningly beautiful historic hillside town overlooking the Mediterranean. A town where you cannot find a bad view. At night we walked through the old town to a lookout in front of the church. In the distance, through the dark we could see the snow cap of Etna and the red hot lava against the night sky. The following morning, we walked up to the Greek Theatre that reportedly dates back to 200 BC. While mostly a ruined amphitheatre you can feel it when you sit in the seats – many of which are the original seats. We quickly drifted our separate ways and walked around lost in our own thoughts. We all took seats looking down at the old stage – near each other but not close enough to speak. A local woman sat a short distance in the centre of the seating, knitting. Another sat higher up reading a book. A couple of soldiers stood at the top speaking Italian in soft tones. That was the only sound I could hear other than some coo-coo-ing of pigeons. Through the ruins all of us had perfect views of the Mediterranean Sea and Mt Etna. Etna’s steam plume drifted out over the sea. We sat in silence lost in our own thoughts in front of a scene of perfect beauty.
The next day we left for the village of Molochio where Robert’s family lived before leaving for Australia after World War Two. Although Molochio is only about 100 kilometres from Taormina we had to catch a bus, a train, a ferry, another train and a taxi to get to the closest place with a hotel. We then had to take a car up to the village.
Driving up through the mountains to the village the winding road passes through orange groves. The orange trees are full of oranges and the groves are carpeted with yellow wild flowers. Stone walls separate the road from the groves. Suddenly the orange trees disappear and we are surrounded by olive groves. Huge olive trees stretch in rows, nets rest in forks of the trees waiting to be used at the next harvest. We are told proudly that some of the olive groves are three hundred or more years old. Finally, we reach the town square – a large square cut in two by a narrow road. At one end of the square is the Catholic Church at the other end is what appears to be the Town Hall. On one side there is a school and on the side where we stand is Zio Vito’s newsagency – the centre of commerce in Molochio. Zio Vito is Robert’s uncle and he welcomes us proudly into his shop. There are kisses and hugs all around as Robert introduces us to his uncle and aunt and the two children of one of his cousins.
The next 24 hours is a fast paced blur of hugs, kisses, introductions, excited voices, food and us trying to work out the relations and the family tree. Zio Vito drives us through the town pointing out where Robert’s mother was born, the house she then lived in, where his father lived, where his father had his tailor shop and where his grandmother was born. He takes us from house to house introducing us to extended family members, some of whom Robert knows from his previous visit here twenty five years ago. Some who remember Robert when he visited as a six year old boy. At each home we are shown around, offered biscuits, chocolates, pastries and coffees. Each home, whether house or apartment is kept clean and tidy with no clutter. There is a simple way of life here in the village. Unemployment is high especially among the young, but there is a happiness and simplicity to family life. There is wood for fires and heating, there is fruit and vegetables in the garden and there is family.
As night falls we still haven’t finished the visits we have to make. Vito takes us to a village further up the mountain so Robert can say hello to some more cousins and Joe and I can be introduced. We drive through the dark and empty streets of the village. It is 7:20 pm and there is not a soul around. We don’t even pass another car. Into a back street Zio Vito zips before parking in front of a hair dressing salon. A light shines from inside. We all jump out of the car and Vito ushers us in to the salon. Inside it is noisy and vibrant. About half a dozen or so cloaked customers sit in chairs at various stages of having their hair done. There is a mix of ages and genders. Hair dressers squeal in delight when they see Robert – these are his cousins. Wild, loud talking ensues and the children of the cousins all start happily yelling and joining in on the delight. More hugs and kisses and the mid-hair-do customers watch and take in the scene from the view in their mirrors. This salon is obviously the place to be on a Saturday night.
Too soon it is all over and we are back in the car racing down the mountain to our hotel. It has been a whirl for all of us but I think especially for Joseph. In less than 48 hours he has seen the life his grandparents had before immigrating. He has met relatives and cousins and grappled with the family tree and its history. He has had to eat everything put in front of him and taken strong short blacks several times a day. Everyone we met was kind and generous and vivacious. I found the whole experience to be simply wonderful.

Five days in Naples – actually three full days and a couple of bits

After weeks of blue skies and sunshine in southern Europe we arrived in Naples to rain. It was raining and just got heavier as we tried to negotiate our way through the narrow flag-stoned streets of the old town to find our AirBnB. We stopped in a doorway to make sure we were headed in the right direction. It was a chance for me to put the rain cover on my back pack for the first time – good practice for the Camino. I hope I won’t have to do it again though as putting the cover on my back pack consisted of saying “hey Rob, can you reach in to the bottom of my bag ….. “.
As we continued on our way in the rain, we dodged motorbikes, scooters, taxis and cars. People jostled each other out of the way as horns sound and motors roared. We watched our steps on the slippery flag stones and hoped not to be sprayed by a passing car or bike with a wall of rain water.
Our short introduction to Naples had made it clear that it is a city that is loud and lively – a little cantankerous – and very bossy. It is a city that does things the way it wants. Naples is not a planned city – it is a city built on desire lines. It has a natural and organic form. It is free-flowing and everything and everyone goes with the flow. It is passionate, it is mad, it only makes sense to those who know it or immediately fall head over heels in love with it – it was made for me.
Despite the rain and the grey skies we enjoy the first few days. The light is not great and the sun struggles to dry the wet puddles on the cobblestones streets in the old part of town. The buildings – once grand – are now faded beauties – in need of a lot of attention and perhaps a new makeover. While it rains, the touts drop the usual touristy souvenirs and start pushing umbrellas. Through the rain yesterday we walked past one tout with an old adapted child’s pram full of umbrellas. He says to me “hello, madam, umbrella? Something price? Good price.” What price? I think to myself as I shake my head and move on through the crowds dodging the motor bikes, taxis and people on a street no wider than a goat track.
Today the sun came out. Clothes are put out to dry in front of windows and on the streets. Rusted old clothes drying racks are padlocked to the pavers in the street to prevent theft –the clothes dry freely as pedestrians and motor traffic edge past. We meet Italians that want to spend time talking to us as they have either visited Australia or have relatives who live there. It makes things more friendly and fun when we go back to the same bar or restaurant. It feels like we have friends and I think I fall more and more in love with Napoli – as I now refer to the city – each day. However, I am wrong.
Today, even though the sun is shining; the cobblestones are dry; even though we see great art and experience amazing history; even though enjoy a wonderful lunch and an even better dinner, I realise I am over it. I am sick of the constant noise. I need quiet. I am sick of the motor bikes and the cars nearly taking me out on every turn. I am sick of crossing the road and nearly getting killed – and certainly Joe’s advice of “just don’t look” when crossing the road over six (official) lanes of traffic does not give me any comfort. I am sick of the people pushing, shoving, yelling, shouting, and jostling I am sick of the loose flag stones and cobblestones and street grates that feel they will give way under me any moment and I will fall into a giant sink hole into an amazing Roman or Greek ruin. Today,  I realised that I am looking forward to leaving in the morning for Prague. Don’t get me wrong. Naples is great – I loved it. It’s just I remember reading something years ago that said, what you don’t like in another person is what you see in yourself.
Maybe Naples is too much like me.

Bohemia – Czech mate

Someone once said to me that they thought of me as a bit of a Bohemian. This was due to the colour and chaos that I like to live in – and the fact I tend to move around a bit. One meaning in the Oxford dictionary defines a Bohemian as “a socially unconventional person, especially one who is involved in the arts”. While I have painted in the past and do enjoy art of many forms, I have never been involved in the arts unless you consider politics as the dark art.
Many people have spoken to me about Prague – how beautiful it is; what a wonderful visit they had; I must visit Prague, the kind of things everyone hears before their own visit to a particular place. It is beautiful. The old town is like a fairy wonderland, castles and churches, spires and turrets poke the skyline. The streets in the old town are crooked and cobblestoned and you never know which way they will turn. We did get lost on more than one occasion with tempers tested if we were lost before a meal.
Our four days in Prague consisted mainly of three things: food, family and sightseeing. That is sightseeing with what felt like the 6.4 million people that visit Prague every year. I am certain the annual tourist number was met on Saturday 11 March. The old town throbbed and pulsated with people and selfie sticks, tour leaders holding umbrellas and flags with their faithful devotees trudging behind, and of really drunk British guys on pub crawls wearing stupid things on their heads. On the streets people ate – they would eat a variety of pork sausages and onions on rolls or a traditional Prague desert a “chimney cake” which is like five connected donuts rubbed inside with chocolate and filled with cream.
However, there is a quietness to Prague which is very different from our experiences in Italy – there are no horns, no shouted conversations, no loud motorbikes and scooters, no constant sirens to interrupt the bird songs. After Italy, Bohemia felt muted – perhaps muffled by its history of occupation – but its beauty shone at every turn of the old town.
I think I liked Bohemia but I am still not sure. I had a wonderful time catching up with my siblings, Jackie and Patrick. Had some of the best Italian food I have ever eaten in a wonderful little restaurant in central Bohemia on the outskirts of Prague. Perhaps it was simply bittersweet as it is the end of our family holiday and Robert, Joseph and I now head in different directions. I am heading to Germany, Robert is off to London and Joe is staying here in Prague. It is a strange place for a child to leave the nest but perhaps I have raised my very own Bohemian.

Germany was never part of the plan

Germany was never part of the plan. However, a series of events, decisions and non-decisions and just the joy and freedom of backpacking put Germany on my map. My niece Jessica was heading to Europe and Prague but some days after I would be leaving the city. She would be heading east from Frankfurt and I would be heading west. I was going to head to London to enable me to stretch out my visa in Europe for a few weeks.
Plans were being made and changed on the run. Messages between Jess and me flew around the globe  to see where we could fit into each other’s itineraries. If we were both going to be in Europe at the same time – we were going to catch up … somewhere.  By the time I was leaving Prague we were looking at Frankfurt or Munich for our catch up so with this I decided to take a slow train west via Dresden and Leipzig.
In all my travels over the years I have never visited Germany.  It has never been on my list. I know it is beautiful and people that do visit love it – but I have only met a handful of people who actually have Germany on their list.  I did whizz along its autobahns back in 1987 in a bus from London on an organised sky trip somewhere in Austria. My memories of that time are of a crowded coach of backpackers, lots of drinking and Talking Heads playing non-stop on the cassette player of the bus stereo. I don’t remember if we stopped for breaks in Germany in towns, or service centres or if indeed – at all. That was the last time I truly backpacked and now I was to start again.
With my backpack firmly in place and heavy with my laptop and overpacking – I find myself hugging Joseph goodbye at Prague railway station. A few tears are shed and I am on the train off to Dresden.  As my train speeds through mountains and woods and alongside rivers, I wonder what to expect from my week in Germany. Maybe my  pre-conceived ideas of German orderliness will not suit my Bohemian style.
On arrival in Dresden I exit the train station with heavy pack on back and directions to the backpacker hostel in my hand. I know exactly where to go.  I walk one way and then the other.  However, I made a rule that I would never walk the wrong way when wearing my pack but that I would always ask someone for directions if I felt I was lost. I stop a couple of young women to ask them where the square is that I need to cross. They don’t know but try to be helpful by making sympathetic noises and pretending to be able to read my hand written notes.  A man comes to assist. By gestures and limited words he tells me I am far away and I must get on a tram. I want to argue with him as I have the directions written down word-for-word but the language barrier proves it a little difficult. In the end he points me to the information booth not far away.  The staff there are amazing and I find out that I am actually far away from where I need to be.  There are two railway stations in Dresden and I am at the one on the other side of the city. Not to worry, I now have a map, a tram ticket and directions of exactly how to get to my hostel. I am also happy to find Germans so helpful and friendly – and exactly to the point.
Staying in a hostel for the first time in about 25 years is a little daunting. I know I am not the oldest backpacker on the road but some days I feel as if I am the oldest.  The backpackers is in a part of the Dresden that is very cool and arty. This is where the hipsters would be. There are cafes and restaurants and a small cinema that shows movies in English. There are small shops with the most wonderful clothes and shoes that call out to me as I trudge past in my hiking boots. Those red shoes really wanted me.
Dresden is amazing. Most of it was bombed by the British and the Americans towards the end of World War Two in the early months of 1945. The beautiful old baroque buildings were totally razed to just rubble. Some have been rebuilt and it is a wonderful view to see the domes and spires as I cross the ancient bridge into the old town.
Germany was never part of the plan but I loved every minute that I spent there – even the dorm room in Frankfurt in my hostel in the heart of the red light district.  The landscapes of Germany are very beautiful. The people of Germany are warm and friendly and funny. For the first time on my travels, it felt like spring is on its way. More importantly, I have learnt some valuable lessons for walking the Camino. I know my pack a bit better. I know my boots a bit better. I understand hostels after spending five nights in three different hostels.  I know if something goes wrong on the Camino, to ask a German for help.

Facing my fears – the beginning of Part 3

I returned to Paris for a week to prepare for walking the Camino. This included doing things such as organising how to get to my step off point, St Jean Pied de Port; buying bed bug spray to protect my pack; ensuring I am packed as light as possible; having a pedicure; and, buying the last minute necessities such as pain killers, ear plugs and a key board for my iPad so I can update the blog – I’m doing that one for you – so keep reading.
It is great to be back in Paris. I am staying in a different Airbnb but near my old neighbourhood. The sofa bed does me no favours and I have been waking up early – with time to think about walking 800 kilometres. It is good to catch up with family and friends to mentally prepare for what lies ahead of me. It’s good to talk aloud about my fears – right?  I have become more and more worried about what lies ahead. Not just the constant  ‘will I make it’ – that’s merely an overall concern for once I actually start the journey. I have started to worry about the actual start of the journey.
I decided to start on Monday, the start of a working week. After sleeping on a sofa bed for a week, I decided to splash out and stay in a nice hotel the night before I begin. After all, I would have my fair share of hostels and dormitories and rough beds on the road ahead – so I booked a nice hotel. Once I thought about it though I realised what a stupid decision this is. If I stayed in an albergue (pilgrims hostel) in St Jean, I would meet people and have someone to start the walk with. Now it appears I will be walking out of the town alone.
The first day is up and over the lower Pyrenees. There are very few towns and it is easy to get lost if you are not paying attention to the markers and your map. Also I have to take my food with me as there is nothing on one of the routes. It is about 25 kilometres and there are three routes I can take. The first is the route taken by Napoleon – up and over – it is the shortest route but the steepest. Apparently the views are stunning at the top but I am to take care on the steep downhill into Roncesvalles. Also if the weather is bad or predicted to be bad, you cannot use this route.  The second is longer by several kilometres and much of it by a major road. There are some parts where you follow paths through woods away from the road. The third is along a major road the whole way with trucks and cars and near death experiences.
So as I pack my bag, finalise my online check-in for the flight to Biarritz tomorrow morning, work out how to get from Biarritz to St Jean, wonder if I should call in sick on Monday to stay in an albergue and make some friends before walking on Tuesday or to go it alone – my fears start rising in me and the panic has officially started.
This is the fear list – my top nine of things that could go wrong. Bed bugs are still in the top ten but only just.
1.       Having no one to walk with on day one.
2.       Falling into a ravine.
3.       Being trapped on the Pyrenees by a violent snow storm.
4.       Getting lost and having to spend a night in a hut/the open and freezing to death.
5.       Falling and breaking a leg or hip and having to be rescued by the French equivalent of Glen Ramplin in the Westpac helicopter.
6.       Losing a toe nail or toe nails.
7.       Getting eaten by vultures.
8.       Bed bugs.
9.       Religious zealots that are looking for converts.
Wish me luck!


Walk the walk. St Jean Pied de Port to Valcarlos

Daylight savings started the night before I left Paris. I lost an hour of well needed sleep. I woke at 4:00 am and then could not return to sleep. It was an exciting to be leaving Paris to walk the Camino. I showered and packed my pack. I walked out into the quiet and still Rue Leopold Bellan. I was the only one on the dark street. Typical Parisian street lights shone brightly to lead the way. I could see Rue Montorguill up ahead where a few pedestrians criss-crossed their way up and down the street. As I turned into Rue Montoguill the street was waking up.  The greengrocers were putting out the fruit and vegetables, the fishmongers working hard to prepare for the day ahead, waiters were putting out chairs at the bistros as the street sweepers chugged their way along the gutters.
Getting to St Jean Pied de Port was an effort. A train, a plane to Biarritz, a bus to Bayonne and then a three hour wait for the final bus to St Jean. The Basque Country in Southern France is beautiful. Rolling green hills and farmlands dotted with white stone cottages. The apple blossom trees in full bloom are everywhere and large, heavy bee hives hang from the tallest branches.   At Bayonne I met Maurice – of course in my mind I am calling him the space cowboy. He is a fit older gent from Quebec. He tried to hide his surprise that I was waking the Camino but didn’t do it very well. He told me that when he would see me on the route he would encourage me to keep going. Great – a self appointed cheer leader! We parted ways when the bus arrived at St Jean and I thought to myself, I bet that is the last time I see him.
On arriving in St Jean I promptly got lost. I couldn’t find my hotel – which turned out not to be a hotel but a room in someone’s house. Also it was almost two kilometres on the other side of town. A fact I was not happy about. I walked into town to get my Camino credential, a passport which will get stamped along the way at each albergue I stay in. It costs two Euro, but when I was asked to pay, I realised I left my wallet back in the hotel/room in a house. Back I went to pick it up and back I went into town. Getting slightly resentful that this was going to put an added two kilometres onto my first day’s walk. I should have done my homework better. The good news is the Napoleon Route is closed or “forbidden” as I was told. So it is the route that goes alongside or on the main road and I don’t have to worry about falling into a ravine.
I left my room in a house early. I had taken some food from breakfast to eat on the trail. I had made a decision last night that I would not walk the whole 25 kilometres uphill on my first day but rather stop in a town slightly under half way.  With this decision made, it was easier to face the day ahead. I followed a mother and daughter out of town. The stopped to take a photo of each other with a scenic backdrop of St Jean. I offered to take one of both of them and then the daughter took one of me. I have an orange jacket. The jacket combined with the straps of my backpack make me look like a basketball on toothpicks. It isn’t a great photo but it is one of me on the Camino.  We wish each other a Bon Camino and then I am alone again as they outstrip me.
I walk through farmlands and fields, white wooly sheep with black faces sit and watch me walk past. In another field there is a single donkey. It looks at me, I look at it. “Yeah, you and me both buddy”, I say out loud. Up into the mountains I go and then down. Up again, higher. Then down again. The views are beautiful, other hikers walk past saying hello but ever onwards. The apple blossoms are just stunning. The there is just me no one in front, no one behind. Suddenly there are really large birds on top of me, hovering and then up. I stop to watch as they are so large and so spectacular. I’m not sure if they are vultures or buzzards or eagles but they are a joy to watch. I walk on until I get to two signs both pointing in different directions, both in Spanish, I don’t know which way to go. I stand there thinking and then someone comes up from behind. It is the space cowboy. We agree to go to the right, we chat for a while and then I tell him to go ahead as I am a slow walker. He wishes me Bon Camino and we are off.  That’s the last I’ll see of him I say to myself.
I think we made the wrong decision. The last three or four kilometres were on the main road. Reading my guide book afterwards, I realised we should have gone left away from the main road and through more woods on softer trails, with no cars. Thanks space cowboy!  Finally I reach Valcarlos where I will spend tonight.  End of day one. I walk through the town looking for the albergue. “Not taking a break?”, yells the space cowboy as I walk past a cafe. I go over and talk to him for a bit, telling him I am not going all the way to Roscesvalles today. He wishes me luck and I think to myself, ‘that’s the last I will see of him’.
I find the albergue but it is closed. I am just about to walk away when a man turns up. He is the tradie doing some work in the bathroom. He lets me in, says to pick a bed, gives me the wifi and front door codes and I am set. I just have to check in with the “lady” when she turns up this afternoon. So far I am the only one here. I have picked my bottom bunk by the window away from the bathroom. I am hoping that there is no-one else tonight but we shall see. Who knows – maybe the space cowboy will turn up.

The ups and down of the Camino – Valcarlos to Roscenvalles

After finishing my first day, I felt pretty good. When I met up with the space cowboy earlier we chatted about how on the walk we went up and up and up and then down. He said it was driving him mad “up and up and up and then down. Shit! I hate this. Up and up and up and then down”. I nodded in agreement but I actually enjoyed the downs. Of course it meant I had to climb another hill, but it took the pressure off the calfs and shared it around the other leg muscles. Either way, it was done. I was happy I made the decision to stop at Valcarlos. I was the first one there, grabbed the best bed, did some stuff and had a nap. I was on an up.
Before long I was joined by Doris, Bernhard and Birgit. They were all travelling independently too. We had a lovely afternoon drinking tea, eating biscuits and swapping stories. Just the four of us in this lovely albergue. Just as we were leaving for dinner a group of four Italians arrived. Greetings were exchanged and a few more beds claimed. Well there were more people – but on balance it seemed ok.
Doris, Bernhard and I sat outside the local cafe and had a pre-dinner beer. The weather was pleasant, the beers well-earned and we spoke about what the next leg of our walk would bring. Bernhard has walked the Camino before and he warned us the next leg was “really very steep. Like you can’t imagine. Like you have to zig-zag walk up the path as it is too steep to go straight”. At the next table a crusty old man with half a bottle in front of him who had been chain smoking joined our conversation. He told us “up, up, up, up, up” making appropriate hand gestures. He began speaking with Doris in halting English. He was Portuguese and was telling her he had been walking for two years, “25,000 kilometres” he told her. In a sing-song voice he recited the routes to us. “I am now on my way to St Jean. A true pilgrim”, he said proudly “I do this with no money”. Bernhard asks him how he manages to do this. “People give me money. You could give me money. You could ask me to join you for dinner”. We all fell silent for a moment and Bernhard and Dorris started a conversation in German. After finishing his bottle and several more cigarettes he says goodbye and leaves. He does not walk in the direction of St Jean but rather in the direction of the  albergue.
When we get back to the albergue he is there and appears to be boiling a rabbit or something on the stove and is half a bottle down into a large bottle of fortified wine. He coughs and coughs.  I go straight to bed. He is the last to bed and has the bunk in between Doris and Birgit. His coughs continue and the sounds he is making are unbelievable. He is obviously drowning in his own fluids.  He hacks up and spits into something. He gets up several times during the night to empty the sputum bucket and to cough up fluid into the sinks and toilet. He goes to the toilet leaves the light on and the door open and cracks out some incredible farts. This goes on all night.
As soon as I hear the cucucuruu of the pigeons heralding pre-dawn the next morning, I am up out of bed and packing. The others are quick to join me. We all look at  each other through sleep-deprived blood-shot eyes and shake our heads. I am first out the door and with a “Adios Amigos. Buen Camino” I am gone. I begin the journey alone. The Italians overtake me and are gone. Doris catches up but it isn’t too long before she is gone too.  I walk on through beautiful countryside – up and down.  The birds are singing and the rivers babble and the cascades chatter as I walk through forests and between mountains. There is not only snow on the mountains above but in the valleys way below me where the sun has been unable to penetrate and melt the snow. Before long it is only up and up and up.  Doris catches up and we chat and walk for a little while. Mainly about our room mate and how horrible the night was. Before long she is gone again.  I get slower as we go higher.  Standing to take a break is difficult as the gradient is so sharp my muscles strain. Again an hour or so later I catch up with Doris.  She has been taking her time as it is so steep. “Ten steps up and then I have a break”, she says. “My heart, it goes so fast”. We rest and talk for a while before Birgit catches up. We start to make light of the night before. Lifting each other’s spirits as we know we still have so much more to go before we reach Roscenvalles.
Before long I am on my on again. I am beginning to think that I cannot make it and yet, I am alone in the middle of forest. What else can I do but keep going up and up and resting and up and resting. I round a bend and I can see a huge tree right across the track. Then I see Doris, just on the other side. She yells at me to climb the hill where I am and go up and over the tree. All I can see is mud. I walk up to the tree and between branches and trunks we discuss options. I just want to go under the tree however I walk back to gauge her suggestion of going up and over. There are numerous slide prints in the steep muddy wall.  Just then an older Italian comes by “you have a good figure” he says. “Me?”. “Yes all good.  Now the tree.  Go under”. He walks past and goes under the branches and trunk. He is gone. I walk back to the tree and to Doris. Decision made. “I’m coming under Doris”. Doris wants me to wait until she get her camera out. She videos the whole event. We are laughing, I am hitting my head on branches, She is issuing instructions in her German accented English as my pack get stuck. I am yelling “Don’t make me laugh” as she continues to do so. I emerge muddy but happy.
Not too long after that we finally reach one of the highest points of the whole Camino Puerto de Ibaneta 1,430 metres. It has taken us five and a half hours to go up 13 kilometres. There is a little church at the top of Ibaneta where we stop to high-five each other, share Doris’s lunch – the best food I have ever eaten – a bacon boccodillo she bought that morning, and take a well earned rest with our back packs off and sit on a stone wall. After that we have a very pleasant and short down hill to Roscenvalles and the albergue with smiles on our faces. It is only when I go to shower that I realise in my haste to be out this morning, I left my walking sandles back at Valcarlos. What a downer!

Going the distance. Roscenvalles to Zubiri

The day started early. In fact so early Doris and I had to wait for the cafe to open for a coffee. It was cold too. Finally after half an hour we are let in for our “pilgrim’s breakfast” – a slice of toast, an orange juice and a tea or coffee. At Euro 3:50 the Catholics that run the albergue in Roscenvalles were making a fortune out of us.
I walked ahead with Bernhard this morning. Today we have 25 kilometres to cover. The way was on a wooded path with glimpses of fields covered with a light frost. We were so high up the mountain the cold was bracing and my fingers froze. It’s ok I thought, it won’t take long to warm up and I’ll be fine.  I put my sticks under my arm and thrust my hands deep into the pockets of my jacket. It’s a pretty useless exercise though as the sticks keep falling and my hands are being pulled out of the pockets to rescue them. Bernhard won’t believe how cold I am. I touch his hand and he relents and agrees with me. After another 200 metres or so, I can no longer stand it. I am beginning to think I will get frost bite on my fingers. I am certain my gloves are in the bottom of my pack. We stop at a wood pile so I can find them.  I just can’t. I am pulling everything out of my bag but without success. Finally I give up, pull out a pair of socks and say “these’ll do. I’ll wear socks as gloves”. This seems to surprise him but I find out what his surprise is about when he says “you bring white socks to walk the Camino?”.  After explaining they are quick dry which is more important than colour, I put the socks over my hand – fingers in the toe part, thumb in the heel.  I turn to him making crab claws and say “See? Perfect mittens”. He shakes his head – like I am mad or something and we walk on.
Bernhard asks me if I prefer to walk alone. Which is largely what I have been doing on the first two days. Although Doris always seems to appear when I need help or encouragement.  I reply I like either and he asks if it is ok to walk with me for a while. This is the polite thing to do on the Camino. I tell him that’s fine as long as he wants to walk slowly. We cover a range of subjects on our walk. Most importantly that he likes cats. He has won a fan.
Before long Doris and Birgit have joined us. The walk in the morning is just spectacular as we walk pathways through fields and forests. Through lovely little towns and are greeted by the locals with a ‘Buenos dios’ and a ‘buen Comino’. It is an easy walk with only one rise that is not too taxing – after yesterday’s workout our muscles twinge. Doris tries to teach me German words. We stop so she can correct my pronunciation on the words she teaches. The first is schlusselblume – a wild yellow flower that grows along the roads.  The second is “Dixie-klo”, other wise known as a port-a-loo, which we both need.
Before long, Bernhard and Birgit have left Doris and I behind. We dawdle and continue our mutual language lessons. We arrive at the next town – the half way point – walking straight to the outdoor bar where Bernhard and Birgit wait. Bernhard sees us coming and gets up to buy us beers. The cold beers are waiting when we arrive. After we have had a drink and chat, I tell them I am not going to go any further today. Sad looks all round. I know they want to talk me out of it and to continue on with them, but they also want me to do what is right for me. It is hard for all of us. Doris says “you will meet fresh people”. Bernhard who thinks catching a bus even part of the way is not in the spirit of the Camino says “maybe you could catch a taxi”. They will not force me however Bernhard says “Rest a bit more. Have a look at the hostels. See how you feel”.  We say our good byes and I move to the next table to meet and talk to some other pilgrims. Already moved on.
After half an hour or so of more Camino chat. I get up say “Adios amigos. Buen Camino” I am on my way to find a hostel. I walk past all of them. They don’t look good enough. In about four minutes I am out of the town, walking on a shaded path by the river, committed to walking the last ten kilometres with only one more hill on my own. I realise when I am walking that perhaps indeed I did want to walk on my own. Not for my own company but I feel like I have been holding the others back. Always waiting, encouraging and supportive but waiting for me. I realise that I don’t want to fail my new friends by having them wait for me when they could be going faster, further. We have become a team on the Camino. I think if I am going to fail I will fail on my own – which is pretty stupid given if I do fail, I am alone in the forest and the rescue helicopter will have to come in.
I get reflective about failed relationships between people. I come to a stone pile or cairn. I have been seeing these all over the Camino often on top of the Camino way markers. The pile I see is a pile that separates into two piles with smaller stones as the towers get higher. I pick up a large, flat, thick stone. I figure this will either strengthen the cairn or fail it. I place it on top of the pile. It gives the tower balance and the ability to allow others to add to it in the future. I smile and walk on.
The afternoon walk was not an easy one. It wasn’t the up, it was the down. Steep declines with rocks that jutted upwards from the mud like the spine of a dragon. The mud made the boots slippery and the rocks were sharp and large. I walked past more clumps of schlusselblume, horses wearing bells that create music to accompany the bird song, birds of prey scream I think there is a girl screaming in the fields somewhere but mainly it is quiet – and it is just me.
Finally I arrive at Zuberi, tired and hungry. I have completed 25 kilometres after yesterday’s gruelling effort. I did not fail. However, I have no idea where the team are staying. I stop at a bar, take off my pack, buy and beer and stand out the front. A few minutes later Birgit and Kirsten, another pilgrim, walk past. It’s done. They take me to the hostel where Doris and Bernhard are. Others we have met over the past few days there are too. Ten of us together and Raul the hospitalier who cooks us dinner. As we raise our wine glasses. I know I’m going the distance.

The poor souls of purgatory. Zubiri to Pamplona

There is a belief by Catholic pilgrims that anyone who walks the Camino will go straight to heaven on their death. If you have walked the Camino you can bypass purgatory. It seems to me that many older Catholics fear purgatory as a fate worse than hell. Many Catholics “offer up” hardships to help the poor souls that suffer in purgatory. Here we are pilgrims – poor souls ourselves walking daily, suffering hardships with a “straight to go” card at the end.
When we left Zubiri yesterday, I started walking late. I am sure why, I think it was that I just moved a little more slowly. My friends had already left well ahead of me as I walked back towards the bridge to begin the 25 kilometre walk to Pamplona. Over breakfast discussions I found out there would be no where to get food today so I needed to stock up. I took a bypass to go to the little shop to get supplies. As I crossed Zubiri’s tiny town square an older man yelled out to me and started pointing in the direction over the bridge. I thanked him but explained I had to go to the shop first. He nodded and agreed. I walked into the shop and he followed me in, rounded the counter and asked what I wanted. He was the shopkeeper. After asking if he sold ‘bocodillos’ – sandwiches – he made me a huge bocodillo on half a baguette with ham and cheese. I took a banana for good measure and also had an apple and orange in my pack already from breakfast at the albergue. With that I was on my way – prepared for the day.
Again, I walked on my own for the first five or so kilometres. I then reached a lovely little hamlet which had a fountain and some seats under a covered area. I took a break, a little water, the banana and a couple of photos. Two other walkers appeared and we got chatting, Trish from Coloundra in Queensland and Pamela from Colombia. Trish was having her pack sent forward each day and Pamela was walking with just a tiny pack. It didn’t seem fair with me suffering under the weight of my pack. I let them go ahead but it wasn’t long before I caught up to them. We walked together for a while talking about life on the Camino. I then dropped back taking my time and enjoying the solitude before catching them again later as they were bathing their feet in the river. I joined them and although the water was freezing it felt great on my tired feet. Getting up from the stony river bank afterwards was not so great. My legs were really starting to protest.
I took a seat on a little bridge and noticed Stephen heading down the track towards me. I had met Stephen the previous day when I was deciding to stay or go on at lunch. He had suffered a knee injury and was taking things very slowly and was getting help from Wendy and Mike. Stephen then turned up at the same albergue last night and we slept in the same dorm. After introducing the girls and Stephen we all moved on as a group. Stephen read in the guide book there was a cafe less than two kilometres up the road. I was sceptical. Trish, Pamela and I had already left the road once in search of a cafe and a toilet and added an extra kilometre or two to our trip without success. Stephen was right. We reached the cafe soon after but it was closed. Like a bad April fool’s joke it was opening on April 1 – two days later. Like the town earlier, there was nothing open for food or rest in this town.  I suggested we sit on the only seat which thankfully was in the shade. I shared my bocodillo and fruit and the the others shared their nuts and chocolates. Together we had pitched in and provided. It was then Michael turned up.
Michael is from La La Land. He had walked that morning all the way from Roscenvalles. We were in shock. He asked if there was an albergue at the village we were in. “There is nothing until Pamplona” we replied in unison. He told us he had left Roscenvalles at 6:30 that morning and was out of water. I asked him if he was in a race. He replied he wasn’t but only had until the 24th to do this. Poor soul – he was ‘doing’ this rather than experiencing it. I could not imagine leaving Roscenvalles in the dark, not seeing the beautiful beech forest, not seeing the frosty fields, not seeing the moss green stone walls. Not spending time getting to know other people. Michael decided he had no choice but to walk with us to Pamplona. I told him I was slow and he should hang back with me, take it easy, slowly, rest. I introduced myself and within ten metres he had rushed ahead of me, turning to to give a cursory ‘are you ok’? I replied I was and with that he was off.
After walking alone again for a few kilometres I walked into the next village to find Stephen sitting in the shade by a wall. We laughed about Michael and continued around the corner to the town fountain. Stephen filled his water bottle, I took off my pack, splashed my face and then threw the cold water all over Stephen, we laughed and splashed ourselves for a few minutes the frigid water refreshing us. We walked on for just a bit before we came across Michael lying by the side of the road. He told us he needed a break. I didn’t really bother with him as by now I worked out there was no point in bothering with him. After a while we caught up with the girls. Pamela, who wears her heart on her sleeve and her Rosary beads around her neck, had gone to the road to try and flag down a passing car to go back and help Michael. This was enough for me. I told Trish that I would not be responsible for decisions other people made and would not let them distract from my experiences. I said my goodbyes and walked on.
Taking a break later on a stone wall and eating an apple Stephen caught up with me again. He had got caught up with the girls who had walked to a closed albergue to get help for Michael. As Stephen was leaving, Michael walked up, all smiles and had decided to catch a taxi. I told Stephen that I hoped never to come across Michael again.
For what felt like hours and a million more kilometres Stephen and I trudged into Pamplona. We had been walking for almost nine hours. Our legs were barely moving and our feet protesting as we took quite a few wrong turns. Stephen said he had never walked into a major city before. I agreed that neither had I but pointed out that I had never walked into another country before either. On our last legs, barely able to keep moving, we could see the old town and the citadel towering above us. Stephen said he hoped the way up was gentle winding streets. I said I hoped their was a funicular, or an elevator or an escalator but that a funicular would be best. I pointed out that there was no use being half an optimist wanting winding streets but he should hope for one of these as I did. We asked a man directions, “cross this bridge, go to the left, catch the elevator up”. Yes! I was in heaven my purgatory over for another day.
Today I took a rest day in Pamplona and caught up with Jo, a woman from New Zealand, whom I have met several times. She told me she shared a room with Michael last night in an albergue and that at 5:30 am this morning, Michael was up rustling, zipping and packing to start the day in the dark. He woke up everyone in the room but at least he was out the door early to ‘do’ the Camino. Surely his way must be hell.

Open Season. Pamplona to Puente la Reina

I had organised to meet both Jo and Trish at the rotunda in Pamplona at 8:00am. Jo had been walking with different people but we had been staying in the same albergues along the way and getting to know each other at the end of every tiring day. She had taken a rest day in Pamplona and we spent some of the day trying out the bar food and wine. Jo was suffering from blisters and other ailments associated with walking the Camino and I was suffering from the long tramp into Pamplona the day before. She told me she was toying with the idea of catching a bus to Puente La Reina. This would skip the whole next leg but would give her blisters time to heal. I was tempted to do the same but this stage of the way contains some of the iconic images of the Camino. I knew I would regret missing this part if I caught a bus. I needed to get a photo in front of that sculpture. It was a vital piece of photographic evidence for any pilgrim. Together we hatched a plan to catch a bus out to the edge of the Pamplona to start our walk. That would knock five kilometres of the boring asphalt walk off. Additionally we would send our bags ahead so we would not be weighed down by the heavy packs. We knew there was a climb in front of us. Today’s walk was up 750 metres – hard but still easy compared to over 1,000 metres we walked up on the first two days. Trish was happy to go along with our plan. Her bags were being sent ahead anyway.
As the bus meandered out of the city we could see dozens of pilgrims walking towards the city’s edge. Pilgrims we did not recognise. When we reached the edge of the Pamplona we quickly hopped off the bus so as not to be seen and judged for this little cheat – or strategic plan – as I call it. I am unsure if it was taking the edge off by skipping that first five kilometres of drudgery but today the walk felt a little too easy. It was all through green fields and on pathways. The hills were not too taxing. There were villages to stop at, to get food and coffee and to use a proper toilet. There were light showers that did come and go. Ponchos on – ponchos off. There was one rocky downhill part where concentration was very important but other than that, all seemed good.
There was just one thing that made today feel different. The date.  April 1, is the official Camino season start date. This coupled with the fact many people start the walk at Pamplona meant the were more pilgrims today. I did not get the sense of being alone today. You could always see people ahead or behind. There were many walking past, saying hello and moving forward. Some walked and talked for a while.  I wanted to find some time to walk on my own, so I would drop back every now and then. Today also marked the beginning of sharing the paths with bicycle pilgrims. Speeding up from behind ‘ting-tinging’ their little bells men and women in tight Lycra would send the walkers scattering.
Just before Puente la Reina, approximately three kilometres before town, we came across a lemonade stand. A young boy exchanging lemonade for a donation. Of course we stopped and had a glass each. He had a guest book to sign to. The last entry before mine was September 2016. I asked him if today was the first day of his stand for 2017. “Yes”, he replied “today is the first day of the season”.


Sometimes the mud sticks. Puente la Reina to Villatuerta

Last night I decided I would carry my pack again today instead of sending it forward as I did yesterday. My thinking was that if I carry my pack I can stop when I want rather than walking to the destination pre-determined at the start of the day. I may not want to or have the energy to walk the distance planned. I was intending to stop at Lorca and Jo wanted to go as far as Villatuerta. Our daily aims were different. I am happy with 10-15 kilometres per day and Jo is keen to do 15-20 each day.
When we checked into the albergue in Puente la Reina last night, we had a choice of sleeping accommodation. There were private rooms for Euro 40, twin share at Euro 15 each, four in a ladies room for Euro 11 each or a bed in a 30 person dorm for Euro 8. We choose the final option and were very pleased to see that we were the only two people in the dorm. I slept very well however Jo had to move during the night as someone was snoring.
When we woke up there was a steady, heavy drizzle. I changed my mind and decided I would send my pack ahead as my $5 poncho from the Mascot Convenience store would not give my pack enough water proofing. With that I committed myself to a 17 kilometre walk.
The rain was steady for the first hour or so as we walked 4.5 kilometres to the first village. It wasn’t bad walking, just wet. We stopped at the first town. Coffee only from a vending machine but a shop where many of today’s walkers were getting supplies. I passed on the coffee but bought a block of dark chocolate with orange thinking of the energy this would give me.  How right was I? Especially seeing as it was so delicious I ate almost the whole block at once. We moved on.
It was 6.5 kilometres to the next village, Lorca, where I would not be staying the night but we would stop for lunch. The rain eased but the walk got a lot more difficult. The wind was biting and the mud thick and cloying. It caked our boots and kicked up around our heels and calves. The stones were slippery and dangerous – and downhill – and with the tread of our boots covered in four centimetres of mud there was little traction. Our poles were preventing us from falling and slipping. An Italian girl started talking to me. She was pleased to hear I came from Australia. One of her grandmothers had lived in Sydney “Banksia”, she told me. I told here that was near to where I lived and talked to her about Robert and his family. We were both happy to share our Italio-Australian family stories. She was walking with and Italian guy who spoke no English but was smiling and laughing his way through the day.
Finally, without any major catastrophe, we reached the village of Lorca. There we had an amazing lunch. As Rick Stein would say “simple food, done well”. After lunch I got up to use the facilities, I groaned long and loud as my legs and hips protested. The Italian couple started laughing and he spent the next few minutes mimicking me to the delight of fellow diners.
Jo and I were the last to leave the restaurant. As we walked out of town we said hello to two older Spaniards. They returned the greeting and spoke in Spanish … one said something about being strong or needing to be strong. I replied to him in Spanish and said I didn’t understand what he were saying as I only spoke a little Spanish.
“Why”, he asked me.
“Because I am Australian”, I replied.
“OK. Do you speak English” he asked.
“Yes of course”, I answered.
“Very sorry, I don’t”. We laughed and he put his hand on my shoulder. The warmth flowed through “Buen Camino”.
The next four kilometres were very easy. Through fields of yellow and green. The path was flat and mud free. The rain stopped and the wind eased. Suddenly we saw the two Italians running through the green fields in front of huge stacks of hay. They were laughing and yelling. A Spanish pilgrim we have been seeing along the way was waving his poles, yelling and whoop-whooping along with them. We started laughing at loud. They had taken a wrong turn and noticed us far in the distance in the other direction. Instead of trudging the path back they ran with joy and abandon through the fields and made us all happy too.
We are now at our albergue for the evening “La Casa Magica” the magic house. It is cosy and warm. Our host has starting cooking for tonight’s meal as I sit in the warm kitchen typing. The smell is incredible. At this stage Jo and I have a room to ourselves again tonight and I have given her some high quality earplugs. I suspect she will need them.


Wine and friends – Villatuerta to Villamayor de Monjardin

As you walk the Camino, people walk into your life and walk out of your life each day. I have not seen my original travel companions of Doris, Birgit and Bernhard for four days. With each passing day it gets less likely I will see them again. The space cowboy is just a distant memory and Jo and I have now dropped behind Trish and may not catch up with her. Stephen is somewhere behind us with his friends from Manila. Depending on how they walk, I may see the man I walked into Pamplona with again. You just never know.
It was a brisk four degrees when we started at 8:30 this morning. The rain had gone and the sky was blue. Jo and I walked together for the first three kilometres into Estella. We stopped at a bar for a coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and to take our daily paracetamol and muscle relaxant – whatever is drug of choice for the day.
As we walked up the hill out of Estella after breakfast, we laughed about our albergue experience the previous evening. We had new companions at “La Casa Magica”, the Magic House. Over dinner and wine, there was much said, laughter, merriment and sharing of our experiences. Our companions were four men, Pasqual a handsome, entertaining Frenchman in his mid-fourties. Pieter, a quiet, serious older man from the Netherlands who has been walking since he left his home in the Netherlands. He walks with his pack on a trailer he drags behind him. It is attached to a harness on his back. Phil, amiable and nice, clean cut, all American, Trump voting, Christian lawyer from Alabama and another older man from Quebec. We didn’t find out his name but found out he likes to stop and watch the ants, he enjoyed listening to nuns singing in a church, he would prefer to catch a bus than walk, he hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol or had a cigarette in 30 years and if a woman is lucky enough to sleep with a man from Quebec – she will be spoilt for life. Reliving their dinner conversations gave Jo and me quite a bit to talk and laugh about. That and I had accidentally walked in on Pasqual naked in the bathroom. A fact we think Pasqual enjoyed the whole way through dinner.
Our conversation then turned to the upcoming wine fountain. It is at a monastery and there are two taps.  One gives red wine, one gives white wine. I had an empty water bottle so we could fill up. Just then two Danish girls, Pia and Lorna that we shared an albergue with before Pamplona, came up behind us. Smiles, laughter, hugs and where-have-you-beens are exchanged. We swap our stories on others we have met and chat about where the others are ahead of us. Lorna said something about making friends every day but the people you start with are somehow your family. It feels as if there is a truth to her idea. With that they are off and Jo is not far behind them.
It starts to heat up and the sun is doing more than just shining. I am carrying my pack again today so I am much slower. We have planned to only do around ten kilometres on pretty paths on fairly flat terrain. As I am slower today, it is not long before I lose sight of Jo altogether and am on my own. Other pilgrims are not as thick on the ground today, a few pass with a ‘buen Camino’ and the cyclists wizz by with a mere ‘ting-ting’.  I assume it is more quiet today because we did not start from one of the popular starting points. As I walk alone through the forest, I notice a sign “Zone Perros” or Dog Zone. I start to freak out about wild dogs but am thankfully out of the forest before I see a dog or am mauled by one. The forests give way to fields with amazing views in different directions.
Before long I am on the home stretch. Now there is very little shade and a steep incline for the final 1.5 kilometres. I am tired, my pack is heavy, I am hot and I huff and I puff – swearing to myself for being a bloody idiot every other minute. I stop for a breath and look around. There are incredible views in every direction – I can see distant snow-capped mountains in three different directions and a steeple peeps at me from over a gentle green rise. I know the end point is just over the hill. As I walk towards the bar in the square, Jo is sitting with the Danish girls, “look what the cat dragged in” she yells. Indeed, that is exactly how I feel. It is then we realise we all somehow missed the wine fountain. Who would believe it?


I’m on my way from happiness to misery – Villamayor de Monjardin to Los Arcos

Today Jo and I walked an easy 12 kilometres without our backpacks. We sent them forward as we knew we would only walk to Los Arcos today. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining a few clouds in the sky – except for the breeze. It was brisk, biting and belligerent.  It cut right through us. We were happy to see Eduardo’s bar and bocodillo van. We had heard of these mythical beer carts but had not yet come across one. Too early and too cold for beer, Jo and I settled on a coffee and bocodillo to warm us up. We only had five more kilometres to go. It was going to be ok. We had a good night the previous evening, met some fun people, slept really well and I was hoping to run into the Brazilian sisters we met at dinner. They were pretty crazy and we laughed at their antics as we walked out of Villamayor de Monjardin.
It was sunrise when we left. There was beautiful scenery of mainly fields of lucerne and canola. Olive groves and vineyards broke up the fields. The small hills that dotted the landscape featured old stone buildings, churches, fincas, bodegas. The Camino, wide and steady weaved its way through the fields and around the hills. Farmers were out ploughing and preparing for the crops. Jo was ahead so I put my ear phones in and listened to music. The random selection had me dancing my way along the path, sticks in the air, shaking my booty as I smiled, sang and loved the fact I was walking the Camino – not in an office in Sydney. At one stage I think I may have cried.
Jo waited for me outside of Los Arcos and we walked into town together. The breeze was now a wind and even colder than before. We had over an hour to wait for the albergue to open so we had a coffee and then a beer. We were there waiting when finally La Casa de la Abeula – the House of my Grandmother – opened. Rules, rules, rules. The hospitalier was not as friendly as we were used to. She growled rules at us and would not give us two lower bunks. The beds and pillows were covered in plastic and no sheets or pillow cases were forthcoming – as they had been in most other places. The room was cold, no heating. We made up or beds and jumped in for a nap. Three American men arrived to share our room. This is the first mixed dorm we have had for awhile so we are hoping for an easy night. After a quick chat, they leave for a beer and Jo and I spend the next hour trying to nap and keep warm. Neither is working. We are up and off for a beer too.
Two of the American men are leaving the square when we arrive. They have not found it pleasant in the square either. Although the sun is shining here, the breeze is still very cold and someone close by is using a generator and sand blaster making it impossible to speak to anyone – or even hear yourself think. At the next table the last American remains nursing a beer and being lectured to by another pilgrim. He has to shout his lecture over the sounds of the sandblasting and generator. We move tables closer to the machinery as it is preferable to the lecture of opinion about the history of recent US politics. Bees keep dive bombing us and our beers. All in all – it is pretty shitty.
Soon we will go to the tourist office to ask about buses. Jo has decided her feet need real rest and she is thinking about a bus to Burgos and taking four days rest there. I will be on my own again. I am tempted to bus it to the next town – just to get out of this one more quickly. I learnt on day two however, not to rush or something will get left behind.  I will think about it tomorrow. After all, it is another day.


Walk on – Los Arcos to Viana

Three things helped me get through last night. My towel – I hung it from the top bunk to give me privacy. It meant I didn’t have to look at the hairy man in the bunk next to me. My wax earplugs – bought in France, fit into the ear comfortably. This allowed me to block out the ear-splitting snores of the hairy man in the bunk next to me. A sleeping tablet – how else would I have survived the night with the snoring, hairy man in the bunk next to me?
I woke up knowing it would be goodbye to Jo today. Her feet had been slowing her down. She was jumping on a bus to Burgos to see a doctor and have a few days rest. As tempting as the bus and resting in Burgos sounded, I decided to walk on. I had planned to send my bag ahead and walk the 18 kilometres to Viana. From reading the guidebook, it was to be a pretty stretch of the Camino without being too taxing on mind or body. I was up early and preparing to go. I walked into the bathroom, there was a guy standing at the sink brushing his teeth. To my delight it was Stephen. The same Stephen I walked into Pamplona with. We both squealed with delight, hugged each other and did and little jump up and down dance. I’m pretty sure Stephen still had his tooth-brush in his mouth. We did a quick catch up. His friends had arrived from the Philippines and they were enjoying the Camino. We said we would catch each other on the path. After that I said my goodbyes to Jo. Gave her a hug and promised to keep in touch. With that I left the House of my Grandmother with no regrets.
In the bar down the road I ordered a coffee to have there and a bocodillo to go. Stephen walked in with his friends and introduced me to Allan, Gai and Rafi. Gai and I talked about how bad the albergue was. She then told me they had locked the door last night, so if there had been a fire we would all be gone. I hadn’t realised that was the case and now have being caught in a fire to add to my bed-bug phobia. I said my adios, wished all a buen Camino and started out on my own. I knew I would see them throughout the day
The sun had just risen as I headed down the path. The light was amazing. Bruised clouds made their way across the sky and the sun sent a spotlight onto a little village in the distance. I kept stopping to take photos and to view the scenery. As I walked on my own I listened to music. I could not help but dance along. The beauty, the freedom, the joy of the Camino was almost too much. I walked through fields, mainly vineyards and olive groves. I went past a farmer ploughing his vineyards in his tractor. He waved to me and I smelt the freshly ploughed dirt of the vineyards.
Each turn and rise in the road gave a new and different view of the countryside in every direction. Large mountains loomed in the distance and windmills stood a stark white against the grey skies. Stephen and his friends would catch up with me at various stages and stops during the day and then drop back again. As I walked into Viana, they were with me to say goodbye. They have walked on to Logrono but I know I will see them again. They are a fun crowd. It was good to have them near as I walked and danced my own Camino.


Cheaters never prosper – Viana to Burgos

In my life before the Camino I had many, many rules. The Camino has many too, you have to carry your pack not send it ahead; you can’t cheat by catching a bus or a train;  and, you can only stay one night in each town. Most of these are made up by the hard-core pilgrims who “do” the walk in one month. On my Camino, I try to live by three. The first is to not be responsible for another person’s decisions – easy. The second came about after walking into Pamplona – and it is to not walk in or out of any major towns. The asphalt is too hard on my feet and legs and the scenery and smells are simply not worth it.  My third – and hardest rule to keep –  is not to judge. I try to have this rule in life but it is the hardest rule to live by here and at home. Here I have already judged Mike for “doing” and running the Camino rather than experiencing it and then there was the vegan. The night before last in Los Arcos with Jo, I judged a group of pilgrims who were in the restaurant – actually just one of them. All loud and look at us, the group totally ignored Jo and me sitting in the corner. A woman in their group, asked the waiter if there was any vegan food. “It’s Spain”, I whispered to Jo, “what a pain”.
At the end of yesterday’s amazing walk, I met two of the women from that group. One a follower, one the vegan. I went and had a few beers with them. The vegan said she hadn’t seen me before on the route. I told her that I had seen her last night at the restaurant. She replied “I didn’t see you. I didn’t stay long as I am a vegan and there was nothing there I could eat”. Their conversation moved on from her to the dangers of the Camino. The vegan had actually started this walk on the northern route. She told us how empty it is and that there were no other pilgrims walking it. We were also told about an incident with a man who was following her, flashing at her and committing lewd acts. He was arrested and charged by the police. The conversation then moved on to a young American who was murdered on the Camino and dangerous incidents they had read about on a Camino facebook forum. The follower had marked her map with words like “groper” if she had read about it on the forum. They were reinforcing fears they both had. I wanted none of this, said my goodbyes and left for a nap.
The rest of the evening was uneventful. I ate dinner alone – the vegan dumped me for a trio of scrabble playing English people and probably some vegan food.
The next morning I woke up in my bunk and I was aching. My feet were sore from trudging and being constantly in my boots. I contemplated cheating and catching a bus to the next town I wanted to go to – on the other side of Logrono – the major town I would have to walk through. I left the albergue at 8:00am and walked up and into the village. I stopped and asked a woman where I could catch the bus to Logrono. “Just down there she replied”, pointing a short distance “but it doesn’t leave until 9:00am”. I thanked her, looked at my watch and told her I would go have a coffee. I turned and walked into the nearest cafe. The vegan was in there, having a coffee and eating a bocodillo. It had on it something that looked suspiciously un-vegan, an egg and potato tortilla and some tasty jamon. She left hurriedly after wolfing down her food and wishing me a buen Camino. As I got up to leave soon after, I heaved my pack on my back a man in the bar yelled out to me “Buen Camino guapa” – guapa pronounced ‘waapa’ means beautiful. With that I walked out of the bar, down the road, pass the bus stop and the whole 12 kilometres into Logrono. What a mistake.
By the time I hit the centre of Logrono I was tired and cranky. My feet were protesting loudly, my ankles, hip and lower back had gone out in sympathy but my knees and calves were sticking with me. I decided to look for the train station, see if there was a train to Burgos, skip a few sections and catch up with Jo, Doris and Birgit – my original friends. I had seen the tribe behind and I wasn’t enjoying them. The train station ended up being about five kilometres extra across town. When I finally arrived there I was told there is one train and it was due to leave now. However, it was five minutes late. The Camino was telling me I was doing the right thing jumping ahead. The journey was wonderful. I travelled through beautiful mountains and by a long river. In no time at all I am at Burgos. I get off the train and walk out into an empty space. I look around at the empty paddocks and some new high-rise apartment blocks a few hundred metres away. It dawns on me the train station is miles out of the town. I start to walk, and walk, and walk, and walk into another major town. The asphalt is hard the edge of the town ugly. My left calf is stiff and does not want to walk another step. My feet are screaming in pain. My pack heavy even though I had done another load dump this morning and am virtually living in two sets of active wear. Nine kilometres later I finally reach Plaza Mayor. I have cheated yet still walked over 20 kilometres on asphalt. The Camino paid me back. I have walked into two major cities today and have experienced virtually none of the spectacular scenery I had over the past week. As the cheater, I feel cheated.
I am physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted but am now in Burgos, ensconced in a nice hotel for three nights. No bunk beds, no snorers, no sharing the bathrooms and toilets with thirty plus other people. I have clean sheets, room service if needed, my laundry is being done – usually I have to hand wash at the end of each day. I am with Jo and the others should be here by tomorrow. I will experience Spanish life in a beautiful old town, My body and mind can rest. A few days break from walking and writing and I will be dancing my way down the path to Santiago de Compostella again.


Holy Week and re-writing the rules. Burgos – Rabe De Las Calzadas

After taking a few fabulous days of R&R in Burgos it was time to hit the way again. I left town at 7:00am on Palm Sunday with my back-pack in place. No sending it ahead today as it was to be a relatively easy walk.
The Burgosians had partied hard last night and well into the morning. My sleep had been interrupted during the night by loud voices, laugher and the sound of breaking glass. As I walked up my cobblestoned street, over the broken bottles and glass past the bar there were still a few die-hards drinking. I guess the partying was to celebrate the beginning of holiday season for the Spaniards – it is Santa Semana – Holy Week. The tv news had been giving traffic reports on people leaving the larger cities for the previous 48 hours. Despite this, I had not quite grasped the importance of this Easter break. Until today.
Walking out of Burgos this morning in time with the rising sun, I followed three Spanish pilgrims. As I walked on I was surprised by the amount of pilgrims on the road. I took a short water break in a park about an hour and a half outside of Burgos. In the first hour only four pilgrims had past me. As I sat on the seat in the park dozens walked on by. Like a scene out of a zombie apocalypse movie, they just kept coming out of the mist. I recognised none of them. Surely they can’t all be new walkers from Burgos – or did I skip ahead so far and rest for so long that no-one was familiar to me anymore? I walked on for another hour or so to the first town. When I stopped for my coffee, the local bar was heaving with pilgrims also taking their morning coffee. Pilgrims, back-packs and walking poles littered the front of the bar. Then it hit me – they were all speaking Spanish. Obviously, many Spaniards walk the Camino during the Santa Semana holiday break. There were whole families that included three to four children, older mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, kids, old people, friends, teams of people wearing matching t-shirts for the occasion with the names of team members on the back. Welcome to holiday season Spanish style.
I have been excited about the Santa Semana activities and was dismayed when I realised I would miss the Palm Sunday parade in Burgos – but I could not stay another day. I had to move on. It is important for me to find somewhere to spend Good Friday to see the late night sombre processions through the streets. A challenge for later in the week. Now I could see another challenge to contend with – finding a place to stay with so many extra pilgrims on the road. I subsequently dismissed this concern as I have re-written my rules – with a new rule to help miss out on the crowded albergues. I am a person who lives by rules. I worked out that the three that I have been using on the Camino should be either chucked or re-written and a few extra added. The new/upgraded rules are.
1.  I am not responsible for other people’s decisions. This one still stands however, I need to recognise when I am not adhering to this rule. I had decided to skip several stages of the Camino and jump ahead simply so I could be with my friends. I don’t walk with them during the day but it is a comfort to know they are close by and that there is someone to have a late afternoon beer and then dinner with. After Jo decided she would go to Burgos to rest her blistered feet, I followed. I don’t even have blisters. I was simply weary. Now Jo has decided she cannot go on and I am left alone anyway. I should have rested or continued rather then hopping that train. From now on – I will be true to myself.
2.  Don’t walk in or out of major cities. This one is being totally re-written to simply ‘don’t cheat’. The sidewalks, pavements, industrial areas, urban areas and slums are all part of the experience. Suck it up, find things to look at, find things to marvel over or to laugh at and just keep going. One foot in front of another – there will soon be beauty again.
3.  Don’t judge others. This still stands but I suspect I will continue to fail on this one.
4.  Don’t push it. I will plan the days better, keep them under 20 kilometres – where possible. I don’t have to carry my pack every day. Some days I can and will send it ahead – especially when there are hills or mountains involved.
5.  Avoid staying in smaller towns that the guide book indicates as a start/finish of a stage. I have practised this rule on a few stages of my Camino and it works. The better places to stay are always the little places in between. You will always room at the albergues and sometimes have the place to yourself.
6. Stay optimistic. The Camino will look after me. Just as I hoped for an elevator at the base of Pamplona and got one; just as I hoped for the train took Burgos and it arrived, I will remain hopeful that my optimism is repaid by the Camino.
It is said there are three stages each pilgrim goes through when walking the Camino. The physical, the mental and the spiritual. My physical is supposedly behind me – but because I cheated, I am probably not quite over this phase yet. My feet, ankles, legs and hips still ache as they get used to cumulative walking and pack carrying. Tomorrow brings the meseta – a flat stretch that last for days. It is said it is the mental stage as there is nothing to look at other than the endless path ahead of you. There is little to spark your thoughts or imagination so you focus inwards on your self. Apparently you see the flat land and the path ahead and you don’t actually feel as if you are moving. There are barely any trees and very little shade. I will remain optimistic and hope for more pop-up bars.
The walk this morning was not full of beauty. It was pretty ugly and hard underfoot. However, it was only fifteen kilometres. My back and legs are slowly adjusting to the pack. I am now in a wonderfully old stone village where the people are very friendly and the hospitalier, Jose Maria, cannot do enough for me. The washing is done and clothes are drying in the Spanish afternoon heat, my afternoon cerveza has been finished, a quick walk around the village for photos and it will be time for siesta. The final rule, rule number seven, a siesta each and every afternoon.


The path to madness – Rabe De Las Calzadas to Hontanas

I had been told and had read that the meseta is a difficult place to walk. It is. It took me five hours to walk just 20 kilometres. What sends you mad, isn’t the fact the scenery is slightly boring; it isn’t that there is very little shade and the sun beats down on you unrelentingly;  it isn’t that there aren’t many towns to stop at; it isn’t that there are no bushes to pee behind and that you get desperate for the smallest bend in the road to offer some privacy; it isn’t that for miles and miles you don’t see anyone ahead of you; it isn’t for miles and miles you don’t see anyone behind you – I believe the reason is you are always thinking that at the next rise/slight bend/small dip/medium sized shrub – you will see something other than the path. You don’t. The path stretches, winds, rises and falls. You can see it for miles in the distance. You can see it for miles behind you. Like a succession of moving footpaths at one of the big airports in the middle of the night – you are unsure where it will end, where all the people are or where the slight hum is coming from.
Today I walked, trudged, danced and sang very loudly and very badly to pass the time along the never ending path to madness.  When the theme tune to the Magnificent Seven came on my iPod, I grabbed my sticks and galloped like a horse for a couple of hundred metres.  I used my sticks to practice baton twirling and throwing. I threw my sticks like javelins to see how far I could get them. I did anything I could to get me to the end – and here I am in  Hotanas – the end for today. More meseta madness tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that.


And the world turned – Hotanas to Itero de Vega

Last night I had dinner with Jan and Bill, an English couple whom I had met the previous evening. They are good company and both have a wicked sense of humour that I enjoy.  Before going to bed for the evening Bill ran through their plans with me. A short ten kilometre walk to Castrojeriz, stay the night and then a longer 18 kilometres the following day. As it was to be a short walk the following morning they would not send their packs ahead.  This sounded good to me and I told them I would probably do the same. They were going to leave at about 10:00am due to the short walk but I still like to leave just before sun rise. It is such a beautiful time of day and avoids the harsh Spanish midday – mid afternoon heat.
Leaving Hotanas this morning a bright, almost full moon hung over the village. It was a really beautiful walk with gentle rolling hills and green fields. About half an hour in, I stopped for a moment to watch the moon sink behind the hills. For the minute or two it took the moon to disappear, the birds sang – they twittered, cucucuruued and even a cuckoo or two welcomed the morning. The only other sound was that of a gentle breeze through the trees and the crops. Just as the moon dropped the warmth of the sun touched my shoulder from behind letting me know it was now up. It felt like I had just witnessed the world turn. It was magical. I walked on and was in Castrojeriz before 10:00 am. I had breakfast and a coffee but felt it was too early to check into somewhere to stay. I made the decision to walk on.
Castrojeriz, is yet another beautiful stone village. It is long and thin and the villages are obviously very proud of their town. It is neat and tidy and has an amazing view over a valley and over to mountains. I enjoyed my walk through and the decision to keep moving. As I came out of the last gentle curve on the village outskirts and walked down the last gentle decline, I looked up and saw a monster. The path it went on and on and on and up and up and up. What I saw ahead was too awful for words. There was not an inch of shade on the path visible to me and the pilgrims before me looked like tiny insects way up ahead. I knew I would cry. I stopped to speak to a Spanish woman walking her dog. Pointing ahead I pulled a face.  She laughed, spoke to me in the usual rapid fire Spanish, doubled over and intimated what I would look like slogging it up the hill with my full pack. “Gracias”, I monotoned sarcastically as I went ahead.
It was worse than I could have imagined. I stopped wherever I could, climbing, crying, yelling, swearing and swearing again and again. Going constantly up and up and up. Finally I was there. A photo of the double air punch with the walking sticks and I was ok. I stopped at a lean-to at the top, had a long drink of water and applied a whole new layer of sunscreen. I was happy. I had made it. I walked along a shady path for about 100 – 150 metres with a smile on my face before proclaiming loudly to no one – as I was alone “Are you for fucking real?”. Before me was the down and miles and miles and miles and seriously more miles of path in front of me with no shade and no village in sight.  It had been a 12% gradient going up to about 1,000 metres – it was 18% gradient going down – and so I went. Swearing and yelling believing that the world had now turned on me.
Finally, I made it to a village seven plus hours after I left Hotanas. Mostly walked in the harsh Spanish midday and mid afternoon heat.  I didn’t know what the name of the village was when I arrived. I just stopped at the first place to stay. I got a bed for the night, had a shower, had two beers and every muscle in my body is aching. Worse I have no friends here tonight. I know Jan and Bill will wonder what happened to me. Now for a siesta. Maybe the world will turn again for me while I nap and Doris will finally show up. I would like that.


When to walk, when to walk on and when to walk away – Itero de Vega to Fromista
After the very difficult walk yesterday I checked into the first albergue I came to. It was attached to a bar with a large beer garden. It seemed nice enough. I hadn’t noticed that my earphones had fallen from the collar of my shirt and onto the floor. As I walked over to the señor to check in I stepped on one end – the end with the microphone and controls and with my other leg stepping forward, sheared my earphones into two. Catastrophe! My earphones and music are so important to my walking. When I have the hard hills I search for a song to get me up – usually punk or pop. This really was a disaster.
After checking in and having my passport checked and my credential stamped, I am shown to a room that looks like a hospital room for six – at least there are no bunk beds. I choose the bed by the door and after a shower I jump into it for a quick nap. That is when the extra large, extra heavy duty wood chipper starts up chipping the huge logs on the block in front of the beer garden. The noise was relentless. Somehow I don’t think the EPA will come out to a noise complaint.
After a while I gave up on the idea of a nap and went for a walk around the town. It is a poor and down-trodden town. I don’t think the church is even open anymore. It is run down and and does not ring its church bells. I enjoy how in each town the bells still toll the time for the locals. At first I though the bells would bother me when I sleep but I love to hear them when I wake up. I know what the time is without grabbing for my phone.  Some church bells play the tune to Ave Maria at 6:00 am, noon and 6:00 pm for the Angelus. As I walk around the church looking at the dilapidation a foul odour almost makes me dry-retch. I don’t know if it is the smell of too many birds inside the church, stock being held under houses or something dead – although I did see a headless pigeon on someone’s door step. It was a pretty sad town.
I walk back to the albergue to read for a while. The wood chipper was still at it. I started speaking with a Danish guy I met coming into town. His name is Kore and we decide to go for another walk to check out the other albergue and bar to ascertain if there is anywhere better to have dinner. I had missed both of these in my earlier walk around town. The local cops are drinking at the other bar while the townsfolk seem to prefer the bar we are staying at. The other albergue looks dark. It has a garden and we could hear people talking in the garden however we don’t go there to look after viewing the menu. We walk back to our albergue and muse on where the other people who are staying in our room are. There was Willie from Belgium who had stayed at Jose Maria’s hotel the same night I did. There was an American girl, Becky, and the two German guys she was travelling with. Where were all these people? Have they found somewhere better? In this town?
They all walked back in after dinner. They had been at the other albergue for dinner. The told us the food was good and there was just one woman staying there – she had the whole place to herself.  I thought to myself, if only I had walked on, I would not be sharing with five other people. We had a good night talking and drinking a little wine. Kore and his Irish friend, Owen watched a football match but would join in and drop out of the various conversations. Willie is a portrait photographer, he showed me photos from a recent exhibition he had. We talked about the Camino; our lives off the Camino; and people we have met on the Camino. Stories about people travel forwards and backwards and you can always find out where certain people are – who is good to know, who is good to avoid. I started to tell them about Doris and how I was looking for her. Willie said “that is the woman staying alone at the other albergue”. All I wanted was to see Doris and to laugh with her. It is too late to go to her albergue and she has no idea that I am staying in the same town. I had been told by Birgit who had a message from Kirstin that Doris’s phone had broken. Canadian Jim confirmed this the night before when we were in Hornados but he had assured me she had been trying to have it fixed in Burgos. That’s the way things are on the camino – it’s a bush telegraph after a while.
I say my good nights and leave to plan for the next day’s walk. I will send my pack ahead to Fromista and have an easy 15 kilometre – mainly flat – walk. The guide book says it is a very pleasant walk.  After yesterday I need an easy stretch. With a bit of luck – I will see Doris on the path.
I am out of the door at 7:15 am. The bar is not yet open so I am unable to send my pack ahead. This also means I miss out on breakfast – next town I think. My small day pack is with me as well, so this means I am out of sorts with what I am carrying. It is a very pretty walk but it is too hard for me. The soles of my feet feel bruised. My hips hurt from my pack – which is stupidly too big. When I step on a stone, pain shoots up through my feet to my whole body. I limp and cry my way to the first town for breakfast. As I walk I think out loud, is it time to walk away? Give up the Camino and just holiday instead?
The Spanish are wonderfully hospitable people – unless they are in the hospitality industry. Then they are just mostly rude. Not all – but mostly. I enter the bar/cafe at an albergue and greet the owner in Spanish. I tell him I would like a coffee and some food.
“There is no food. I can give you a coffee with milk but no food”.
I hold back a sob “is there another cafe or bar in town with food?”, I asked.
“No. Nada. You have to go to Fromista. Do you want a coffee or not?”.
By now I am crying, so I took the coffee, drink it quickly and leave.  The walk is so lonely even though it is on a beautiful path next to a canal. I have no headphones to listen to music to lift my spirits so I have to focus on the sounds of nature. I hear frogs and birds everywhere. Kore passes me one or two times and shares his binoculars with me if he spots birds. Usually I would enjoy this, however with no food the blood sugars are low and the crank-o-metre is rising so I don’t enjoy the bird-watching so much. After a while Kore walks on as he is going further than Fromista today.
A happy and very fast walking Canadian woman in active wear approaches me towards the end of the path. “How you doin'”, she asks. I look at her with a stink eye. Told her I am hungry and cranky and best not to talk to me. I figured I was being polite as what I really want to do is bash her with my sticks.  She offers to take nuts out of her bag and feed me. I think my next stink eye scares her off as she says to me me it isn’t much further, to keep going, wishes me a Buen Camino and changes her speed back to very fast mode. She has walked on. Next is Becky and her band of Germans. Kore made the observation last night that individually they are very nice people but collectively they are their own world and no-one else around them exists. They push past me, one almost knocking me over. No hello, no Buen Camino. Just loud and obnoxious. I cry some more.
I finally reached Fromista and walked into a cafe/bar to get some food. Becky is there and says hello. I smile sweetly and say “oh hi, didn’t you see me out by the canal. You walked past and didn’t say hello to me”. Becky assures me she did say hello but I had not heard and that she was in a rush to go to the toilet. They are sitting just outside should I like to join them. I replied that I wasn’t good company until I had some food. I was cranky and just wanted to sit on my own. After all – it is my Camino. My plan was to eat and then find somewhere to stay. I would not walk, I would not walk on, I would think about walking away from the Camino.
I go outside to my table and had a brief scan of others arriving and others leaving. There she is – Doris. “DORIS”! I yell.  “GENOVEVA” she yells back. We hug and cry. Happy to see each other again. We sit and talk. Catch up. She is going further. Could I go with her? I think about it – but there is no way I can walk on. We spend about an hour or so together, have coffee and share her grapes. We tell each other stories, compare notes on who we have and haven’t met. We lament that it is just us to from the original group in Valcarlos left on the Camino. She tells me her awful experience with Vodaphone in trying to have her phone fixed and I tell her the woes of my headphones. “You can have mine”, she says handing them to me “they are no use to me with a broken phone”. That is me and Doris, she is the yang to my ying on the Camino. We promise to catch up again, both certain it will happen. With that she is gone. She has walked on.
I go around the corner to the albergue. It doesn’t open until 2:30 which means I have an hour to kill. Well what else is there to do? I stop at the bar next door and order a beer. The Canadian woman from this morning walks past “hello, how you doin’? Are you less cranky now”? I laugh and assure her I am. She laughs too and introduces herself as Kelly and asks me my name – as I reply I feel awful that I had wanted to hit her with my sticks this morning. Kelly is very kind and friendly, she says she hopes to  see me again and walks on.
“Hello there Genevieve”, I hear.  Looking up I see it is Owen from Dublin. He joins me and I like his company. When the albergue finally opens, he carries my pack in for me and stands back to allow me to go through the door first. His manners are impeccable for such a young guy. Now he has gone off to explore the town. I’m sitting here writing and Willie walks in. He greets me happily and we have a chat and I decide – its not time to walk away. Yet.


Walk a hundred kilometres in my shoes – Fromista to Leon via Carrion de los Condes

Let me just state for the record – one only has to walk the last 100 kilometres of the Camino to effectively ‘pass’. Finishing the final 100 kilometres gets you your certificate and allows you to skip purgatory.  I am told this is what many people do, especially church groups, Spaniards and other Europeans pushed for time.  Those of us who have travelled from further to get here tend to do it in one long slog, rather than segments.
Many pilgrims are happy with a pass. However, some of the pilgrims like to go for a credit and walk the whole way. Well mainly, there may an occasional bus or train trip to avoid some parts of the path that are not so picturesque or walker friendly. These people will occasionally send their back packs ahead and may sometimes splash out and stay in hostels rather than an albergue every night. Others go for the distinction, no buses, no trains, their pack is carried on their backs the whole route and they will only stay in albergues. Then there is the ones after the high distinction, not only do they always carry their packs, never take public transport, stay only in albergues, these pilgrims push on past Santiago de Compostella and walk to the end – Fisterra or Muxia. Two places that were once thought to be the end of the world.
Me? I’m sticking with a more free-wheeling “it’s my Camino” – and doing it the way I want. This is why I am re-writing my rules again and taking today a short holiday over Easter. I haven’t travelled all this way across the globe to not to enjoy one of the best countries in the world.
I spent Holy Thursday and Good Friday in Carrion de los Condes. A lovely little medieval town on the heart of the meseta. I wanted to see the penance processions, the sombre marches through the streets during Santa Semana. Catholic groups or brotherhoods walk through the narrow cobbled streets. Men and women dress in black with large old-fashioned black cloaks. Some of the women wear traditional black Spanish dresses with large combs in their hair and black lace mantillas covering their face. Some of the participants wear robes and hoods. This dates back to when penitents would undertake penance for their sins but keep their identity hidden. Young men carry floats with sculptures of the various scenes of the Passion of Christ and the Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. The sculptures are very big and very beautiful and very heavy by the looks on the faces of the carriers. Small boys of about 5 to 12 years, also dressed in black with cloaks carry sticks to prop up the floats when the men rest or stop along the procession route. These boys are the carriers of the future. Musicians march playing a sombre tune and often the local priest and congregation will follow further behind singing hymns.
Crowds of onlookers gather in the bars and cafes of the square and await the procession which starts from the church after Mass has finished. On both nights I met up with some of my favourite fellow pilgrims. On Thursday I caught up with Gai and Allan – the friends of Stephen I had met and walked with from Los Arcos. They are two very funny people. Stephen and Rafi were a day behind. I met up with Helmut (not his real name), a German guy that Jo and I had met in a field somewhere along the way. There were new people to meet as well – Roseanna, also travelling with Stephen and the merry band of Filipinos. An older Spanish man, Jose Maria – who loves to talk and it doesn’t matter if no one understands him. He loves to laugh too so he was lots of fun. On Friday morning, these people hit the meseta again. It is a 27 kilometre stage with nothing, NOTHING, for the first 18 kilometres. I spent Friday getting to know Carrion a little better and visiting the Camino Museum. On Friday night I went in search of the English couple Jan and Bill. I figured they were only a day behind me so I should see them. While looking for them I ran into Patricia from Coloundra and her friend Pamela with her heart still on her sleeve and her Rosary beads still around her neck.  They were with Anne from Port Macquarie whom I had met in Los Arcos. Trish introduced me to other people I hadn’t yet met – three wonderful women from Germany and South Africa.  We went to Bar Carmen, found seats in the setting sun and ordered wine. I look up to see Jan and Bill walk around the corner. It is a lovely reunion. It isn’t long before Stephen and Rafi arrive too. We caught up on what has happened to each other and the comings and goings of others on the path. The Camino grapevine was in action.
Now it is time to move onto Leon. I have rewritten the rules again to make the most of “my Camino”. I am catching a bus so I can spend Easter Sunday in a large town. This allows me to further rest my weary feet. When I told Jan and Bill I was treating myself to a bus, Bill was quick to jump aboard and convince Jan they should too. So we travel together. I am looking forward to seeing friends again in Leon. I know Doris, new best friend Kelly from Canada and her friend Cindy as well as Owen are all aiming to be in Leon by Sunday. I just heard from Gai and Allan, they have jumped on a train this morning and are already there. I will wait to see what Stephen and Rafi do.
I have been doing short walks in and around the town both days to keep my legs in action and wearing my walking sandals to allow my toes to heal. Two of my toe nails have a lovely purple hue and are very tender. I fear I will lose those toenails but am trying not to think about it as it freaks me out quite frankly. I still wonder if I will make it to the end and get my pass/credit/certificate  –  but I am now working on a possible date to walk into Santiago Compostella – so I just may.
My latest calculations – taking into account today’s bus cheat (which I am now calling a treat) is that I will have to walk 310 kilometres in 19 days.
The new rules
1.  Rely on my gut instincts and don’t let others influence my decisions.
2.  It’s not cheating it’s treating! It’s ok to take public transport and/or send my pack forward.
3.  Take a siesta each and every afternoon.


That’ll be three Hail Marys and thirty kilometres – Leon to Villavante

Maybe it was penance that made me walk the thirty kilometres today. Maybe it was stupidity.  Maybe I just wanted to put in a hard day after my Easter holiday Maybe it was all three. What ever it was, I did it and it hurts. I took a holiday for Easter and watched the Santa Semana processions in both a small town – Carrion de los Condes and a big town – Leon. By taking a holiday, I mean I didn’t walk and I took public transport. Well it was supposed to be public transport – but surely a taxi is public transport too?
I had decided to take a bus on Saturday. On Friday night I had run into Jan and Bill. I told them of my plans and with a little convincing they decided to catch the bus as well. I told them the bus left at 11:30ish and we agreed to meet at 11 at the same cafe we were having a drink at and waiting for the procession.
The next morning was unusually cold after such a warm week. We met as planned and walked down to bus stop. We were early as I had the wrong time and the bus didn’t leave until 12:55. We walked across the road to wait in the warmth of another cafe. Lots of other pilgrims were waiting for the bus as well. I had assured Jan and Bill that we could buy the tickets on-board. However, after making a few enquiries, I found out we had to buy the tickets at the cafe. I went and asked the woman behind the bar who told me the bus was fully booked for that day and the following. She then lectured me in Spanish about asking people when I didn’t have a clue about what was happening. She went on and on. Jan asked me what she was saying, so I outlined the lecture. Jan couldn’t help but slightly nod in agreement. The woman told us our only option was to get a taxi – between the three of us it would cost us each slightly more than the bus fare. However, the shame of taking a taxi could be too much. So to Leon we went in a cab.
We arrived in Leon it was like arriving in Disneyland. They city had a definite holiday air about it . Gaudi’s building added to the Disney feel of the City, as did the huge bunches of helium balloons and the theme-park like train to take you through the city. Bill and Jan decided to get a head start on tomorrow’s walk and to walk eight kilometres out of the city that afternoon. I decided to book into a fancy hotel and really make the most of it. After all, if I had already caught a cab on the Camino what difference would an upmarket hotel make.
For two days I hung with some of the, Peregrines Filipinos, Gai, Rosan and Allan. Stephen and Rafi were still a day or two behind. Together we hit the tapas places and wine bars. We watched the processions, talked to everyone and anyone and enjoyed Santa Semana in Leon. I caught up with Doris for dinner.  I tried to go to Mass twice – but got bored both times and left during the homily. Mass is hard enough without the Priest droning on in Spanish about la Cruz, la Cruz, la Cruz.
When meeting up with friends and new pilgrims over the two days, I avoided questions about my walk (the cab ride) and the albergue I was staying (a multiple star hotel), I felt their judging. I knew I did not want to confess to these excesses. Perhaps it was this and watching all the penitents for the previous for days made me want to do my penance and walk 30 kilometres.
Towards the end of a hard road I noticed some large shade under a tree with a Camino marker. I hadn’t seen anyone in hours and needed desperately to rest. As I headed towards the shade and the tree, I noticed a grey fox crossing in front of me. As I walked to the marker I noticed I had cut the fox off from her little cub who was following behind. I sat on the Camino marker watching the fox cub. It was curious about me. The mother stopped a little further on calling to her cub. The cub was confused and soon after ran back off in the direction from which it came. I did not see the mother go after it, but decided to move on so they could be reunited. I felt really privileged to have seen the cub up close. It put an extra zing in my step for the next few kilometres.
Further on just outside the village I came across some electricity workers. One was right up the transformer worker, the other at the bottom, calling out instructions to each other in Spanish. By the side of the road sat an old Spanish man watching them. I greeted him and he started speaking to me. I really don’t have much of an idea what he was saying but I think it had something to do with the electricity supply being upgraded for the irrigation system. I nodded and we chatted as much as my language skills would allow. He pointed to the village in the distance and told me it wasn’t far. I asked him if it was two kilometres more or less? He said he didn’t know but it was the village and there was an albergue.  I thanked him and walked towards it. I pushed play on my music to get me through the last bit of the way. The distinctive tune Duelling Banjos started and I hoped it wasn’t an omen.


The view from the road – Villavante to Santibanez de Valdeigleisais and then on to Santa Catalina de Somoza

Villavante is on an the alternative route to the main Camino away from a main road. It is probably due to most pilgrims taking the main route and that many only walked the obligatory 20 kilometres that day, there were only six of us staying in the only albergue in Villavante. It is very much rural Spain with tractors going past as I sat outside and had a beer.  Too tired to update my page with my feet aching, I sat outside the bar and watched the tractors. I raised my glass to the old man sitting across the road. It was the same old man I had stopped and spoken to as he watched the electricians at work.
In the albergue that night there were just three German women, none of whom spoke much English, a young Aussie guy from The Entrance and a young Californian guy. The guys tended to talk amongst themselves comparing most kilometres in a day. After a quick dinner, I massaged my feet and legs and took multiple pain killers and muscle relaxants before getting into my designated bottom bunk.  In bed my left  foot felt like it had a nail being hammered into it and was splitting it lengthways between my big toe and the others. The sleep sheet felt tight around the two toes with the bruised toe nails. I thought I would never get to sleep and that maybe I should get up and ice my foot. Before I could I was asleep.
It was a gentle night in the sleeping quarters, no loud snoring or people up and down shining torches onto sleeping faces. I was woken at about 3:30 am by the fox. It was making the same sound I heard the one yesterday make as it was calling its cub. I dreamily wondered if the fox had followed me looking for the cub.
The following day I had an easy and pleasant 12 kilometre walk.  I could see a mountain range that I had noticed the day before. It was small and distant and snow capped. It looked great but it was also a great feeling that it was closer than the day before. Proof to me of my slow pedestrian voyage. I got to Valdegleisais at about lunch time and had an easy afternoon. There was the luxury of a washing machine – usually I hand wash at the end of every day – so this really was a treat.  I hadn’t washed in days and the two Euros for a full wash was well spent. Not long after Doris turned up. It was great to be with her again.
This morning Doris and I set out together to the small stone village of Santa Catalina de Samoza. It was supposed to be a twenty kilometre day. I was worried it might be taxing given I discovered by very first blister last night. I packed the blister bandaid in my daypack and we left. It was ten kilometres into the town of Astorga and then another ten on the other side. I think the township of Astorga must be about five but I still don’t know if this is included in the guide book calculations. As we walked into Astorga there was a train track. I don’t know if the track is still used by trains but they had put a fence across the road so you cannot cross the track. Some brilliant designer/engineer has build a bridge across the track. It is a zig zag bridge that goes up – and then down – about three floors. More walking none of us wanted. It was an evil prank played by some sick civil engineer.
As usual, the last five kilometres were the hardest. It never matters how far you walk – the last five will always kill you. The never ending path of the meseta is now behind us. The prime agricultural land is also gone. We climbed gentle hills onto the sandy soils covered in scrubby heath and wild lavender. The high snow capped mountains are now just in front of us. Tomorrow we climb again – and again the day after. Doris is going on slightly ahead tomorrow. In the next day or two I shall reach La Cruz de Ferro – the Iron Cross. The cross is more than 1,500 metres above sea level. It is a major symbol of the Camino. Many pilgrims bring a rock or a stone with them and add it to a pile at the bottom of the cross. It is a token of love or a blessing or something you wish to leave behind and start anew. I have mine with me and am looking forward to leaving it at the bottom of the cross


Attention to detail – Santa Catalina de Samoza to Rabanal del Camino

Last night in the albergue had been a good one. Four of us in a room and no roaring snorers. As I was taking a short day I jumped back into bed for a while after saying goodbye to Doris. I had decided last night to only walk ten kilometres today. As I tried to put my boot on this morning over my blister, I knew this was a good idea.
I hobbled down the path and about two kilometres out of town a miracle happened. I past other walkers. This has not happened before as I am possibly the slowest walker on the Camino and everyone passes me. I walked behind these two people for a while before catching up to them. Both were relying heavily on their walking poles. I hadn’t even pulled mine out yet as the path was flat and relatively comfortable. At first I thought the woman had her leg in a can boot however as I got closer I realised it was her leggings that were showing flashes of her skin rather than the velcro straps of a can boot. When I did the unbelievable and overtook them, I turned my head to wish them a Buen Camino. The woman was Pamela, the Columbian that helps everyone and wears her Rosary beads around her neck. We both gave a shout and hugged each other. Pamela kisses like a woman from an Almodavar film. First the left check then the right, hugging tightly and making loud kissing noises with each air kiss. She introduced me to her walking companion, Antonio, and went on to tell me the lengths she has walked. My eyes popped and I had no reason to doubt her description of her swollen ankle. She would struggle on to Rabanal and I made much less of a deal of my new blister.
At a pilgrim walker reviver I ran into Kelly who has now caught up with me after my taxi treat/cheat. We hugged and a quick chat and she moved back to her usual fast pace. Then was her friend Cindy who caught up to me just as I entered Rabanal. We had a quick conversation as she raced ahead, calling over her shoulder that they were staying in town and to look out for each other at the end of the day, “cocktails at five” she farewelled.
As Cindy left I was joined by a Spanish man who started speaking to me. “Pasa y otra pasa”, one step and then another step, he says. He continues to speak to me in Spanish even though I tell l him my Spanish is limited. Then it hits me – he is Jose Maria that I met in Carrion. I remind him and he remembers me “Genoveva”! We converse for a little while but I soon realise that I have a far more pressing problem. I am passing various albergues and can’t quite remember which albergue I sent my bag to. I wrote the tag out yesterday afternoon and didn’t pay much attention to where I was sending it thinking there was only two or three albergues in town.  I forgot to re-check the tag this morning and there are dozens of albergues in the town. Now I don’t know which one my bag is being delivered to. I guess I am just going to check them all.


The Camino will provide – or not. Rabanal del Camino to Ponferrada

Sitting at the albergue in Rabanal yesterday afternoon my bag showed up. I had got it right and was waiting at the same albergue that I had sent it to. After I checked in I did the usual routine of checking feet, showering and hand washing clothes before sitting in the courtyard and ordering a sandwich and a beer. In walked Irish Mike. I met Mike early on my walk, just outside of Pamplona on the only day there was slight rain. I ran into him again the day I met Kelly and Cindy. He is doing the same stages as the Canadian women and they always seem to meet up for drinks and dinner at night. A few times Mike and I have bumped into each other when having a post-walk beer before siesta. It is something I have come to look forward to – a chat and a beer with Irish Mike. As we have a drink I tell him that I had seen both Kelly and Cindy earlier and that Cindy had mentioned cocktails later. We both have a laugh before taking a tour of the town. It takes five minutes and he says his goodbye – we are both off our seperate ways for siesta.
Later that evening I catch up with Kelly, Cindy and Mike. They are also with Irish/New Zealand Mike. I had met Irish/NZ Mike and his wife, Wendy, before Pamplona. In Pamplona I tapas bar hopped with them both and really enjoyed their company. Wendy went home after Pamplona and Irish/NZ Mike has continued on his own. I have bumped into him from time to time. After dinner we head up to the church for where Benedictine Monks chant vespers. There are only three monks and about a dozen pilgrims. I sneak out before vespers have finished and go back to the albergue for an early night. I know I have a big day ahead.
There are many Camino myths and sayings you hear on the path. The main one is ‘the Camino will provide’. Most of the Pilgrims believe strongly in this. When I first met Stephan I asked him why he didn’t have walking poles but rather used a tree branch. His answer was that he knew the Camino would provide him with a walking pole. Yeah, well … that’s pretty easy I think to myself given the first four days were walking through forests. Yet, I have often found myself thinking, if it is meant to happen the Camino will see that it does. I don’t know if that was what I was thinking when I forgot to go to the ATM to get cash as Doris and I walked through Astorga the day or two before, but the Camino provided by way of Doris lending me fifty Euro before she went on ahead of me. Now the Euros had dwindled and I had only ten left to get me 25 kilometres.
The albergue last night was the largest I have stayed in, over thirty bunk beds in two rows. When I went in to prepare my bag for today and to get a good night’s sleep, there was just the Italian father and son team in the dorm. I have seen them often but we only greet each other and wish each other a Buen Camino. I wish them a good night after I have packed my pack and get into my bottom bunk. Others are coming into the dorm, preparing for the next day’s walk and going to bed. There is still light coming in through the skylight and no person turns on the bedroom lights. Soon it is dark and all are in bed and the gentle breathing threatens to turn into snores. An older Spanish woman enters, turns on the lights, starts conversing with a couple of older Spanish men and it is on for every Spaniard in the room for the next 45 minutes with the rest of us having to put up with the light and the loud conversation until they are ready for bed.
I walked out of the the albergue this morning and found Pamela and her new walking companion, Antonio, sitting outside. We kiss and she tells me she is waiting for a bus. Antonio’s knee is very bad, she will catch the bus with him back to Astorga, make sure he is alright and start again. I tell her I am amazed at how kind she is to everyone and tell her how I describe her when I write. Her face lights up “you write about me? I write about you also, I say that you make me laugh so much and you look at me with your big blue eyes”. I smile and suspect that Pamela is a lot kinder to me than I am to her – as is our natures. With that I ask her to point me in the right direction of the path, I wish Antonio good luck for his knee and tell Pamela I will see her again further along the path.
The walk up to Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross, is stunningly beautiful. The wild flowers are everywhere in purples, pinks, whites, creams and yellow. The snow capped mountains blow a fresh and very cold breeze through the fragrant scrub flowers as the sun slowly starts to warm the day. I am looking forward to arriving at the cross and finally being at a place that I have read so much about. I round a corner and it is there in front of me. Disappointingly, a let down. I thought I would see it in the distance and approach it with some awe but there it is, a cross on a large pole on a pile of dirt and rocks.  I go to it and climb the pile to place my rock. It becomes obvious to me that a mini-bus has just dropped off a tour group of Spanish day walkers. They are on the pile with me posing for photos, in spotlessly clean clothes, carrying day packs with pilgrim shells. I roll my eyes. I think about hanging in there until they leave but the wind is too strong and too cold. Irish/NZ Mike is there too, he offers to take my photo in front of the cross. I decline and explain I’ll take a selfie. He laughs, says he will see me on the downside and leaves just before me.
The next few kilometres I am caught up with the day walkers but the views are spectacular. There are whole mountains of purple due to the wild flowers. I come across a caravan selling drinks and food. I stop to take off my jacket as the last of the Spanish day walkers head down the road. I follow them. After a while they notice some of their comrades on a path above and adjacent to the road. Due to the strong winds I can not hear what they say as the call to each other – but I now one group or the other has it wrong. Around the next bend I see no-one on the road but some people on the adjacent path have just passed me. I realise I followed the wrong group and should be up on the path. The only thing I can do to get on the correct Camino path is to either go back about half a kilometre to where the stall was or to climb up the side of the road, through the scrub and onto the path. I choose the second. I choose unwisely. Up I go with my sticks to help. I am halfway up and get stuck I am on my knees and can’t manoeuvre them out from under me. My bum is up in the air, my sticks have collapsed and I am caught. There are wild flowers and heath all around me, a car passes on the road behind me. Like a cat on a fence I turn my head to look at it wide-eyed. Unlike a cat, I cannot scramble over. I manage to get my knees to do what I want, half stand, hope there are no snakes in all this vegetation and pluck my way to the path. I am there at last.
About one kilometre or so later I am thinking to myself that I haven’t actually seen anyone for a while. A woman calls to me from the road. It is her from the albergue last night that turned on the light and got all the locals worked up as the rest of us tried to sleep. I look at her she calls again “do you speak Spanish”? I reply my usual “a little”.  She asks if I am on the Camino. I tell her I don’t know but I think so. “No” she replies and tells me she is on the Camino. I ask her if the road is the Camino and she replies yes it is and walks off.  Down through the wild flowers I go again, getting scraped and scratched again. I start to walk on the hard road, she has raced ahead of me and in about 150 metres I see her cross the flowers and onto the track I just got off.  I do the same in the same place she crossed cursing her.
This is where the path starts to go down. The path is now like a very steep, dry creek bed. There are stones, rocks, pebbles and gravel, the gradient is steep. The steepest I have seen so far. I know I have cried on the Camino before but nothing like today. My toes were pressing against the front of my boots, the poor toes screaming with pain on each step. My blister was so painful and because I was trying to adjust my treads to minimise pain in my toes and my heel, my legs and ankles were unable to handle the path. I was in genuine distress. I was crying, sobbing, howling. I threw my sticks on the ground in a huge hissy fit and would have thrown myself on the ground as well if i thought I could get up afterwards. I cursed Pamela – where are you know that I need you? I need help. I cannot make this. I cried and limped and cried some more. I yelled as loudly as I could – just to see how it felt – it felt good. I see a cyclist on the road in the distance stop and look around, maybe he thinks someone has fallen. After a while he cycles off. There is a sign, just 800 metres to the next village, yet I cannot see it. I keep going, every single step sends painful shock waves up my body. I have been seeing stickers everywhere for Luis, a taxi driver. I now know his mobile number and will call when I get to the village. I will work out what to do about money there. Meantime, I can not stop crying. I can not stop the pain.
I limp into the village the pain has overtaken me, my face is dirty and tear stained, there is snot across it. Then there is a taxi right in front of me. It is not Luis but his rival Jorge, I have been paying a lot of attention to the taxi sticker over the last few kilometres so I am well across the two taxi drivers and their guerrilla tactics to pick up those who are unable to take the strain. I talk to Jorge through the window of his taxi and tell him I want to go to Molinseca where my bag is but I need an ATM. He tells me we have to go to Ponferrada for an ATM. I ask if we can go get my bag, then go to an ATM and if he could then take me to a hotel. My feet need something with a bath and a shower that lasts for more than three minutes before I have to push the tap again. Jorge says “of course” but I will have to wait for 15-20 minutes at the bar down the road and he will be back. I go into the bar and get an orange juice. Her, the old Spanish woman from the albergue last night and the path today is walking out the door “So, I was on the Camino”, I sass at her with maximum tone. She nods, smiles and wishes me a Buen Camino, I silently wish her to purgatory.
Jorge is back in no time and I am in the cab. Just then I get a message from Doris asking how I am and telling me she is in Ponferrada staying at a hotel. Jorge asks me if I have a hotel reservation and that he has a friend who works in a hotel. He tells me the name of it and it is the same one Doris is at. We drive off, I do not feel guilty as we pass the pilgrims walking. When I see Irish/NZ Mike walking in the hot sun with his bandana protecting his head from the rays, I do not feel guilty. When we stop to collect my back pack, the Italian father and son are there checking in, the old father is happy to see me and greets me a hearty hello. I reply but grab my bag and get out of there.  I do not feel guilty. I do not feel guilty getting back into the cab. We drive through the streets, I see Irish Mike out for his afternoon stroll and looking for somewhere to have his cold beer – I do not feel guilty. I see Carolla, the amazingly happy and friendly German woman crossing the road to get to the path, I do not feel guilty. When I see the painful young guy who sneered at me three days earlier for paying attending to the guidebook, I do not feel guilty.  I feel amazing sitting in the passenger seat, with he handsome Jorge driving me through the beautiful curving streets and incredible scenery, to the large town of Ponferrada now just ahead. The hotel is basic and clean. I look at my feet. The two toes are black. The blister now even more large still has not popped and the blister bandaid I have reapplied daily as it falls off is doing nothing. I soak my feet for a long time, shower, pop that ugly bastard of a blister and take a siesta. I do not feel guilty, Camino has provided.


The Camino will provide – or not. Rabanal del Camino to Ponferrada

Sitting at the albergue in Rabanal yesterday afternoon my bag showed up. I had got it right and was waiting at the same albergue that I had sent it to. After I checked in I did the usual routine of checking feet, showering and hand washing clothes before sitting in the courtyard and ordering a sandwich and a beer. In walked Irish Mike. I met Mike early on my walk, just outside of Pamplona on the only day there was slight rain. I ran into him again the day I met Kelly and Cindy. He is doing the same stages as the Canadian women and they always seem to meet up for drinks and dinner at night. A few times Mike and I have bumped into each other when having a post-walk beer before siesta. It is something I have come to look forward to – a chat and a beer with Irish Mike. As we have a drink I tell him that I had seen both Kelly and Cindy earlier and that Cindy had mentioned cocktails later. We both have a laugh before taking a tour of the town. It takes five minutes and he says his goodbye – we are both off our seperate ways for siesta.
Later that evening I catch up with Kelly, Cindy and Mike. They are also with Irish/New Zealand Mike. I had met Irish/NZ Mike and his wife, Wendy, before Pamplona. In Pamplona I tapas bar hopped with them both and really enjoyed their company. Wendy went home after Pamplona and Irish/NZ Mike has continued on his own. I have bumped into him from time to time. After dinner we head up to the church for where Benedictine Monks chant vespers. There are only three monks and about a dozen pilgrims. I sneak out before vespers have finished and go back to the albergue for an early night. I know I have a big day ahead.
There are many Camino myths and sayings you hear on the path. The main one is ‘the Camino will provide’. Most of the Pilgrims believe strongly in this. When I first met Stephan I asked him why he didn’t have walking poles but rather used a tree branch. His answer was that he knew the Camino would provide him with a walking pole. Yeah, well … that’s pretty easy I think to myself given the first four days were walking through forests. Yet, I have often found myself thinking, if it is meant to happen the Camino will see that it does. I don’t know if that was what I was thinking when I forgot to go to the ATM to get cash as Doris and I walked through Astorga the day or two before, but the Camino provided by way of Doris lending me fifty Euro before she went on ahead of me. Now the Euros had dwindled and I had only ten left to get me 25 kilometres.
The albergue last night was the largest I have stayed in, over thirty bunk beds in two rows. When I went in to prepare my bag for today and to get a good night’s sleep, there was just the Italian father and son team in the dorm. I have seen them often but we only greet each other and wish each other a Buen Camino. I wish them a good night after I have packed my pack and get into my bottom bunk. Others are coming into the dorm, preparing for the next day’s walk and going to bed. There is still light coming in through the skylight and no person turns on the bedroom lights. Soon it is dark and all are in bed and the gentle breathing threatens to turn into snores. An older Spanish woman enters, turns on the lights, starts conversing with a couple of older Spanish men and it is on for every Spaniard in the room for the next 45 minutes with the rest of us having to put up with the light and the loud conversation until they are ready for bed.
I walked out of the the albergue this morning and found Pamela and her new walking companion, Antonio, sitting outside. We kiss and she tells me she is waiting for a bus. Antonio’s knee is very bad, she will catch the bus with him back to Astorga, make sure he is alright and start again. I tell her I am amazed at how kind she is to everyone and tell her how I describe her when I write. Her face lights up “you write about me? I write about you also, I say that you make me laugh so much and you look at me with your big blue eyes”. I smile and suspect that Pamela is a lot kinder to me than I am to her – as is our natures. With that I ask her to point me in the right direction of the path, I wish Antonio good luck for his knee and tell Pamela I will see her again further along the path.
The walk up to Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross, is stunningly beautiful. The wild flowers are everywhere in purples, pinks, whites, creams and yellow. The snow capped mountains blow a fresh and very cold breeze through the fragrant scrub flowers as the sun slowly starts to warm the day. I am looking forward to arriving at the cross and finally being at a place that I have read so much about. I round a corner and it is there in front of me. Disappointingly, a let down. I thought I would see it in the distance and approach it with some awe but there it is, a cross on a large pole on a pile of dirt and rocks.  I go to it and climb the pile to place my rock. It becomes obvious to me that a mini-bus has just dropped off a tour group of Spanish day walkers. They are on the pile with me posing for photos, in spotlessly clean clothes, carrying day packs with pilgrim shells. I roll my eyes. I think about hanging in there until they leave but the wind is too strong and too cold. Irish/NZ Mike is there too, he offers to take my photo in front of the cross. I decline and explain I’ll take a selfie. He laughs, says he will see me on the downside and leaves just before me.
The next few kilometres I am caught up with the day walkers but the views are spectacular. There are whole mountains of purple due to the wild flowers. I come across a caravan selling drinks and food. I stop to take off my jacket as the last of the Spanish day walkers head down the road. I follow them. After a while they notice some of their comrades on a path above and adjacent to the road. Due to the strong winds I can not hear what they say as the call to each other – but I now one group or the other has it wrong. Around the next bend I see no-one on the road but some people on the adjacent path have just passed me. I realise I followed the wrong group and should be up on the path. The only thing I can do to get on the correct Camino path is to either go back about half a kilometre to where the stall was or to climb up the side of the road, through the scrub and onto the path. I choose the second. I choose unwisely. Up I go with my sticks to help. I am halfway up and get stuck I am on my knees and can’t manoeuvre them out from under me. My bum is up in the air, my sticks have collapsed and I am caught. There are wild flowers and heath all around me, a car passes on the road behind me. Like a cat on a fence I turn my head to look at it wide-eyed. Unlike a cat, I cannot scramble over. I manage to get my knees to do what I want, half stand, hope there are no snakes in all this vegetation and pluck my way to the path. I am there at last.
About one kilometre or so later I am thinking to myself that I haven’t actually seen anyone for a while. A woman calls to me from the road. It is her from the albergue last night that turned on the light and got all the locals worked up as the rest of us tried to sleep. I look at her she calls again “do you speak Spanish”? I reply my usual “a little”.  She asks if I am on the Camino. I tell her I don’t know but I think so. “No” she replies and tells me she is on the Camino. I ask her if the road is the Camino and she replies yes it is and walks off.  Down through the wild flowers I go again, getting scraped and scratched again. I start to walk on the hard road, she has raced ahead of me and in about 150 metres I see her cross the flowers and onto the track I just got off.  I do the same in the same place she crossed cursing her.
This is where the path starts to go down. The path is now like a very steep, dry creek bed. There are stones, rocks, pebbles and gravel, the gradient is steep. The steepest I have seen so far. I know I have cried on the Camino before but nothing like today. My toes were pressing against the front of my boots, the poor toes screaming with pain on each step. My blister was so painful and because I was trying to adjust my treads to minimise pain in my toes and my heel, my legs and ankles were unable to handle the path. I was in genuine distress. I was crying, sobbing, howling. I threw my sticks on the ground in a huge hissy fit and would have thrown myself on the ground as well if i thought I could get up afterwards. I cursed Pamela – where are you know that I need you? I need help. I cannot make this. I cried and limped and cried some more. I yelled as loudly as I could – just to see how it felt – it felt good. I see a cyclist on the road in the distance stop and look around, maybe he thinks someone has fallen. After a while he cycles off. There is a sign, just 800 metres to the next village, yet I cannot see it. I keep going, every single step sends painful shock waves up my body. I have been seeing stickers everywhere for Luis, a taxi driver. I now know his mobile number and will call when I get to the village. I will work out what to do about money there. Meantime, I can not stop crying. I can not stop the pain.
I limp into the village the pain has overtaken me, my face is dirty and tear stained, there is snot across it. Then there is a taxi right in front of me. It is not Luis but his rival Jorge, I have been paying a lot of attention to the taxi sticker over the last few kilometres so I am well across the two taxi drivers and their guerrilla tactics to pick up those who are unable to take the strain. I talk to Jorge through the window of his taxi and tell him I want to go to Molinseca where my bag is but I need an ATM. He tells me we have to go to Ponferrada for an ATM. I ask if we can go get my bag, then go to an ATM and if he could then take me to a hotel. My feet need something with a bath and a shower that lasts for more than three minutes before I have to push the tap again. Jorge says “of course” but I will have to wait for 15-20 minutes at the bar down the road and he will be back. I go into the bar and get an orange juice. Her, the old Spanish woman from the albergue last night and the path today is walking out the door “So, I was on the Camino”, I sass at her with maximum tone. She nods, smiles and wishes me a Buen Camino, I silently wish her to purgatory.
Jorge is back in no time and I am in the cab. Just then I get a message from Doris asking how I am and telling me she is in Ponferrada staying at a hotel. Jorge asks me if I have a hotel reservation and that he has a friend who works in a hotel. He tells me the name of it and it is the same one Doris is at. We drive off, I do not feel guilty as we pass the pilgrims walking. When I see Irish/NZ Mike walking in the hot sun with his bandana protecting his head from the rays, I do not feel guilty. When we stop to collect my back pack, the Italian father and son are there checking in, the old father is happy to see me and greets me a hearty hello. I reply but grab my bag and get out of there.  I do not feel guilty. I do not feel guilty getting back into the cab. We drive through the streets, I see Irish Mike out for his afternoon stroll and looking for somewhere to have his cold beer – I do not feel guilty. I see Carolla, the amazingly happy and friendly German woman crossing the road to get to the path, I do not feel guilty. When I see the painful young guy who sneered at me three days earlier for paying attending to the guidebook, I do not feel guilty.  I feel amazing sitting in the passenger seat, with he handsome Jorge driving me through the beautiful curving streets and incredible scenery, to the large town of Ponferrada now just ahead. The hotel is basic and clean. I look at my feet. The two toes are black. The blister now even more large still has not popped and the blister bandaid I have reapplied daily as it falls off is doing nothing. I soak my feet for a long time, shower, pop that ugly bastard of a blister and take a siesta. I do not feel guilty, Camino has provided.


To judge or to be judged. Ponferrada to Cacabelos

I first met Anne from Port Macquarie at the albergue in Los Arcos, we introduced ourselves, told each other where we were from and left it at that. I suspect Anne is a little like me in that she is reticent to get to know and hang out with other Australians. The next day I came across her again in the middle of nowhere. She was sitting on a Camino marker, under her sensible hat, applying sun screen. This was an instant recognition factor that she was the Australian I had met. You know the Australians straight away on the path when you see the hat and sun screen application, we are much more diligent about our sun protection than any other cultures. I stopped to chat with her and mentioned I had cheated or was going to cheat – I can’t remember which it was now – but I do remember Anne’s reaction. Her lips pursed and she said to me “Well it is your Camino”. I felt distinctly that she had judged me but it could merely have been my own sensitivities. I wished her a Buen Camino and on I went.
The next time i met Anne was in Carrion de Condes while waiting for the Easter parade. I quite liked her. Anne is probably around 55, a nurse with a kind face and her brown hair greying. Together we were in the group talking at Bar Carmen as we waited for the Good Friday processions to start. Anne was in the same conversation I was having with Jan and Bill, telling them that I would be catching a bus the following day. Again, I felt maybe she was judging me, I commented that I must seem like a little devil in the ear of Bill and Jan, saying “catch the bus”, she nodded in agreement and replied again with pursed lips (or was that my imagination!) she had been thinking of Jimminy Cricket.
When I bumped into Anne last night in Ponferrada, she seemed surprised to see me. We only had a quick chat as both Anne and the woman she was walking with were hungry and desperate for food. This morning I bumped into Anne again, at the first coffee shop in the first town outside of Ponferrada. I sat down with her and we talked a bit about our physical and emotional health. I started to tell her about my pain and my meltdown and how I didn’t walk the last bit of the previous stage. She looked at me before I had finished and said “I am determined to walk every step”. Was she judging me? Maybe. Maybe not, however before she left she gave me a hug and wished me all the best.  I left the same time as Anne and her walking companions but was left behind due to my slower pace. I noticed after a while that they had missed the sign and were walking in the wrong direction. I called out again and again until they heard me and turned back around. Again, they all outstripped me and yet again I was on the road alone.
The walk went through several villages with houses and farmlets and small allotments growing vegetables for several kilometres. It then gave way to larger plots of land filled with grapevines and freshly turned earth. I was walking down a hill and came to a crossing in the path. It was then I realised I hadn’t seen a marker for a while and wondered if I had missed it.  I looked behind me. No one was there.  No one was in front. Had I missed it? I continued on, convincing myself that I had not missed any signs. The first gun shot rang out and echoed around me. I started to worry.  Then three to four more in quick succession. Bang. Bang. Bang. I was really worried. I walked on further – not too far – gingerly picking my way along the path, thinking where I could have gone wrong, if indeed I had gone wrong. Then in front of me, by the side of the path was a small portable black board. A good sign! It was announcing an upcoming “Pilgrim Rest Stop” – the Camino equivalent of a driver reviver. Hurrah! I would not have to go back. I walked on not stopping at the rest stop. I had planned to do 12-15 kilometres today and I was doing it with my full back pack in sandals with socks. My ankles were not loving having no support but my toes – which are in control of everything I do at the moment – were loving the sandals and socks. I continued walking – rocking my new walking attire.
While I am walking I ponder over my doubts of whether Anne is judging me or not. I know very well it could be my own paranoia. I think about my Camino. It is not a religious pilgrimage for me. I want to enjoy Spain as I travel and it is then that I realise I am a walking vacationer. I am on holidays and I am walking, therefore what does it matter if I take a bus or a train or even a taxi? What does it matter if I avoid crowded dorm rooms in albergues? I am happy and I have made this my own camino.
Finally I reached Cacabelos (childishly the name makes me smile). I come to a stunning hotel with a restaurant and a garden. It is a traditional Spanish style timber and rock establishment. I enter the garden, there are trees and shade and people sitting around drinking smart chilled whites, warm gracious reds and eating food that makes my mouth water. I hear someone call my name. Tiredly I look around. My name is called again as I focus in and see Anne and Taigh sitting in the shade having lunch. We chat and I tell them I am thinking of staying here and leave to enquire about the price of the rooms. They are pricey but apparently are “amazing”. In just fifteen seconds I have made up my mind and I am staying. I return to Anne and Taigh and sit down to eat the free home made empanada and glass of wine they restaurant has given me.  Apparently, every pilgrim that enters here gets this. Anne asks me how much the room is, I tell her and she takes a sharp in-take of breath. I tell her that apparently the room is “amazing” and that after all, I am on a walking vacation, so why not? A woman comes to take me to my room, I say good bye, buen Camino and hug both Anne and Taigh, telling them they might just see me again (if I treat myself to more public transport I think to myself).
I am shown my room and it is amazing. No judgement, but I’d rather be here than walking another eight kilometres in the hot Spanish sun – especially in my sandals with socks.


The wrong path but the right way. Cacabelos to Vega de Valcace.

After an amazing sleep in an amazing room, I started off a little late today. The walk was boring.  All road walking. After an hour or so it moved onto a nice comfortable dirt path. I was only on the path for about 100 metres or so when I saw a woman standing in front of me. She was older, with short, spiked blonde hair. She was speaking at me. I took out my headphones and gave her an inquiring look. “Speak English”? she yelled in an American accent. I nodded and smiled. She pointed out we had taken the wrong path. She showed me the map and showed me where we should have taken a left turn earlier and instead of walking on the road for the past five kilometres we could have walked along a natural path. The woman tells me not to worry as we will meet up with the correct path just a little further up. We walk together and have the same pace. This is nice. Once we start talking, we cannot stop. Her name is Lorraine and she is from New Jersey. For the next half an hour we take turns in telling our stories. She only begun the Camino in Ponferrada which explains why I haven’t seen her today.  We continue to talk and story tell as this is an instant friendship. At one point Lorraine speaks to me of the camaraderie of the Camino she has read about. I nod and think about the friendships I have made in the past four weeks but walking is now more difficult as we are climbing a hill so I don’t give up too much.
We walk up the steep hill deep in conversation. Lorraine says “look at the people up the top of the hill. They are wondering what we are doing coming up from the wrong direction”. I look up at three people standing where the two paths meet. One yells out “Gen? Is that you Genevieve?” I struggle with the distance to see the people ahead. Lorraine and I walk a little closer. It is three of the Perigrinos Filipinos. Gai drops her sticks, runs towards me in deliberate slow-mo and starts singing ‘Reunited and it feels so good’. I outstretch my arms and go into slow-mo and join her in song. Rafi and Rosan jump up and down. We all start speaking at once about everything that has happened since we saw each other last in Leon. Someone yells “did you see Stephen?”.  I reply I have not. In classic comedy they yell “he’s behind you”. I turn around and it is true. He runs up and he hugs me hard.
Lorraine is astounded by the scene in front of her as she gets introduced to all around her. However, it just gets scarier as the walk progresses. Stephen, Gai, Rosan and I know all the same 80s songs. We sing at the top of our voices as we walk the never ending and unforgiving Camino. The sun beats down. We walk on and on and on. The road never seems to stop and given it is after midday, the Spanish sun just gets hotter. It nears the peak of the heat of the day at 2:00pm. I swear the next village is just around the corner. Amongst the Perigrinos Filipinos my “conjuring” is legendary after I wished the elevator back in Pamplona with Stephen and it appeared.  Thankfully I am right and a cafe/bar with a shady garden appears. Lorraine has enjoyed walking with us and gives all the girls a small silver shell as a gift. We order lots of food, beer and then wine and we are on our way. On our way to not going much further.
Our lunch at the little village is good.  Very good.  Gai has decided to call a cab to go the 12 kilometres to the village they have booked into. I was only going to do another four but the thought of a cab to take me an extra eight kilometres closer to the Godzilla of the Camino – O’Cebreirom, is good. We get in the maxi cab. Gai goes wild. She is beeping at all the pilgrims we know. The windows are wound down and we yahoo and call to all our friends. We are first into the albergue and work out rooms to ourselves. Thanks to Maria and her cousin Eladio, we are set.
Did I mention Loic? A twenty year old from Montreal who accidentally joined our circus at a rest stop.  And in the cab it really was a circus. I think that Loic will be with the Perigrinos Filipinos for a while yet.
Now we are at Albergue El Paso. We have booked a room for the Australasians – I love this given I am the only Australian. New Lorraine booked a hotel in a town behind and walked the way without a taxi. I hope to meet her again. Today I really took the right path.

The end is nigh! Vega de Valcarce to Linares.

Today was a first. It was the first time I had a hangover on the Camino. Well not so much a hangover as a very sore head after drinking Maria’s wine. However, I don’t think I was the only one with a headache. Judging by the random selfies taken on my phone by various people last night when I left it unattended, there would have been a few headaches. There were however, too many brave faces to really be able to tell.
After arriving at a sweet little Albergue, El Paso, in Vega de Valcarce, by taxi and having had a few drinks in the cafe in the little village of Pereje, Maria the Hospitilerio offered us more wine. It was her own organic red wine. It tasted great and there was a lot of it. There were probably about ten of us staying in the albergue El Paso, some Italians, a couple of Canadians, the Filipinos, an American and me. It wasn’t long before the Italians put on their music, more bottles of Maria’s wine were ordered and a party started. Although we think we were all in bed before midnight, as a consequence of the spontaneous fiesta we all overslept and started out later than planned. The sun gets so hot now at 2:00pm that we need to get as much walking done as early as possible. When the sun in high in Spain there is no shade and from 2:00pm until 6:00pm it just gets hotter.
Today we were to tackle O’Cebreiro – a mountain that rises to 1,200 metres. Not has high as the mountain which has Cruz la Ferro or the Pyrenees but it has a reputation. Even when I was planning my Camino I knew three things. One –  I would not walk into Burgos. Two – I would not walk into Leon and three, I would send my pack ahead when it came to walking up O’Cebreiro. Obviously I had achieved one and two, and three – well I have now sent my bag ahead probably as many times as I have carried it. Maria from the El Paso organised my bag to be transported and booked me at an albergue in Linares – just four kilometres after the summit. The others were going to go further.
Walking up O’Cebreiro was fantastic. The day was not as hot as it has been. There was cloud cover and shade the whole way up. The path was comfortable and we past through a number of small pueblos, or towns where we would stop for orange juices and coffees and more food. Than There were eight of us walking together the five Perigrinos Filipinos, me and two Canadians Loic and Helena. As we got higher it got cooler and the mist rolled in. Wildflowers grew on the side of the path and steep mountains rose all around us. The valleys plunged and we could see rivers and streams and smell the freshness. When we finally reached the summit, the stone village was shrouded in a thick mist. I felt so happy and so free I actually ran the last 100-150 metres with my walking sticks flaying. I think I was laughing but I could have also been crying. The joy I was feeling had overwhelmed me and O’Cebreiro has a reputation it does not deserve.
Tonight, I am staying in a small albergue in a very small town in the mountains. It has stunning views all round. There are just two other people staying here and I have a room all to myself. There is only about 150 kilometres left to walk until I reach Santiago. This should take about seven to ten days, depending on how fast or slowly I want to walk. Last night, I thought maybe it was just the wine, but I felt a melancholia start to creep over me. There were times today when I felt it too. Usually during a happy moment it would hit me. Knowing that my Camino will end soon is starting to play on my mind. Yesterday I booked my ticket out of Santiago. I am leaving on May 7 but I know some my friends are leaving in the first few days of May. Some of the Filipinos are planning on walking to Fisterra – the end of the world. It was never part of my plan to walk to the end of the world – but maybe I will. Maybe I won’t.

The Cow-mino. Linares to Triacastella

The albergue in Linares had panoramic views of the mountains. It was a modern albergue with just two sets of bunks to every room. It really took advantage of its position high in the mountains to views in every direction. No other pilgrims checked in late so I had a room to myself. There were three men and a dog also staying but as the only female I got my own room and bathroom. I sat and enjoyed the scenery as the mist swirled around the mountains. Before long the mist had become very thick low cloud accompanied by wild winds and heavy rain.  I was looking out of the window when three or four dogs herded a posse of cows past the front of the alberge. It continued to rain hard for about an hour or so before it suddenly stopped and then the temperature dropped. It continued to drop overnight and when I woke up this morning it was minus one and snow was predicted. I had planned to leave at about 6:30 but the visibility was so low I delayed my departure for about an hour. Another pilgrim thought it was too dangerous to leave and was going to wait until 9:00 am. However, as I was wearing most of my clothes for warmth and socks for gloves, I decided to leave and take my chances.
I left the albergue as several pilgrims were making their way up along the road. I told them the path was on the other side of the road. I had looked at it the day before. I pointed and shouted above the wind but they shook their heads and huddled down further into their ponchos. I did this at each of them. They walked on. I crossed the road and followed the arrows along the path behind the buildings. After about thirty metres the path popped out and joined the road. I was directly behind the pilgrims I had told to go the other way. It was all a bit embarrassing so I slowed right down so that they would not see me.
The Camino has changed since Ponferrada, the path now passes through more villages. There is usually one every three to five kilometres which makes the walk much more pleasant. There is always somewhere to stop for a rest, a coffee, a meal and to use a toilet. The villages I walked through today were all old stone villages of just a few houses, a bar and a church. Some of the old buildings were falling down and dogs found sunny spots out of the wind to sleep. Each village was seperate by fields and paddocks. Each village had enormous amount of cow dung in the full spectrum of quality, from rock hard to turn-that-tap-off-now. At times the smell was overwhelming and mouth breathing was an essential tool of survival.
The trees and shrubs that lined the way today were covered with frost and icicles but the snow and sleet held off. The wind howled and cut right through to the bone but the scenery of the mountains and the valleys were a wonderful distraction. Every now and then the sun would break through the clouds and the path would be protected by the trees from the wind. These were beautiful times but few and far in between. I stopped for breakfast after about six kilometres. Today I wanted more than toast. I asked the man for a sumo de naranja – orange juice and some heovos – eggs. He asked if i wanted bacon and eggs. Oh yes, I did. The first since before leaving Australia – and they were good. A Spanish man walking with two Spanish women came in, they looked at my bacon and eggs and ordered the same. They were asked what they would like to drink. The answer was of course wine. So the three of them got a bottle of red to drink with their bacon and eggs. I’ve seen them on the path a few times today and their breakfast seems to have agreed with them. They are all happy and making good progress.
My main thoughts today focused on whether to keep walking for the next ten days alone or to skip ahead to Sarria – where the official 100 kilometres starts – so I can continue to walk with friends. My mind was busy weighing up the pros and the cons and the logistics of what to do. In the end I started to think I will just keep walking and end the walk as I started. As ‘my Camino’. Towards the end of of the day I came to an intersection on the track.  There was a barn directly in front of me and all of a sudden cows started coming out of it and up the path towards me. All the cows and the one bull – had large horns, I tried to get out of the way, but cows rule the path in these parts. I jumped out of the way before I got hit by one. After the cows had gone I continued my walking and my musing as it started to snow very lightly. The path was now going down after yesterday’s climb and my feet started to hurt. Fortunately, there was only three kilometres of cow-dung covered path to manoeuvre my way along before reaching Triacastela where I can sleep on what to do.

Near and far. Triacastela to Morgade via Sarria

Waking up yesterday, I decided I would walk on. I would not take a bus from Triacastela to Sarria but walk. Sure everyone else was ahead of me but I had started the Camino alone so it would be a good way to finish. It negated the need for long, sad goodbyes and I couldn’t be sure everyone is in front of me. I haven’t seen English Jan and Bill since we shared the cab to Leon. I have asked around but no one knows where they are. I haven’t seen Trish from Coloundra since Carrion either, she may still be about as someone said she could be half a day in front. From memory she was going to arrive in Santiago de Compostella on the May 4. The same day I am aiming for.  I have not heard from Doris for a few days. I have messaged her but as yet, no reply. Undoubtedly having phone problems again. So yesterday I sent my back pack ahead and walked the almost 20 kilometres to Sarria. Sarria is infamous as being the town where all the 100 kilometre chasers start their journey to Santiago to get their free pass out of purgatory.
The views were still good. I think this will be the same throughout Galicia. There were less cows and cow dung and the day passed quite uneventfully. Except that I stopped at a very small cafe off the main track. The little cafe was warm, cosy and clean. Best of all there is no one there. I ordered, a coffee with milk, a fresh orange juice and a serve of tortilla. I had already walked six or seven kilometres without breakfast – so I was ready. Things are slow, the owner can only do one thing at a time due to both her equipment and I suspect her ability. Which is fine. I get my coffee. I get my orange juice. She walks out to get my tortilla. After about five minutes a group of perigrinos walk in – five in all – including a man obviously in his seventies yet acts like a seven year old with ADHD. He is pulling the nik-naks off the walls, going behind the counter to pretend to serve, touching everything and talking loudly. Then three more perigrinos walk in. Finally the owner returns – no tortilla. She starts serving everyone one-by-one. Starting with the loudest, the old guy. Everyone wants and orange juice and coffee. One-by-one these are made. They also order cakes and empanadas which they get straight away. Before she gets to the end of the queue, two Australians walk in. I can tell they are Australians by the Australia caps bought from Woolworths on their heads. By now, I have the full on eye-roll. And I am getting stink-eyes from the pilgrims that want to sit down to eat their cake and drink their coffees. After all I am taking up a seat and not eating or drinking anything (coffee and oj finished long ago). The owner looked over at me before serving the Australians, apologised and says it will only be five more minutes. I get up “No señora”, I tell her I am going to pay and I no longer want the tortilla. I leave the cafe and walk on to the next village. I am hungry but am able feed off resentment until the next place down the road.
After a long hard slog I make it to Sarria. Despite the freezing cold start to the day, it feels hot as I walk into the town. My albergue is at the very end of the Sarria, nowhere near the old part of town where all the restaurants and cafes are. Worst, the toilet is outside and the weather has not improved as the cold Gallego wind has picked up again. The large L-shaped room has about 10-12 double bunks spread around it. That means 20-24 people in the space. I grab a bottom bunk and am unfortunate in that six Russian cyclist take the bunks around me. They snore all night and are loud in the morning. I figured as I would only do a short walk today there was no need for me to get up and start early. The Russians made sure I did – despite me shushing them, they carried on in their loud voices.
I carry my backpack today and plan to walk just 10-15 kilometres. The walk starts out as a gentle meander. I am walking on a lovely flat path next to the train line and hear a train and its whistle behind me. I stop to look at it. I am the only one on this part of the path. The train keeps popping its whistle in short bursts, the driver is waving at me. I wave back smiling. I hear him doing it again further up the track. Obviously more pilgrims ahead. After a while the flat through the fields starts to change and the path goes up and up through forests. Some of it steep but not horrendous. I have seen so many people suffering injuries over the past week that I want to take make sure I stay in the game with just one week – and less than 100 kilometres to go.
The path is now full of day walkers and 100 kilometre chasers. There are even school excursions on the path. Teenagers from Ireland, Spain and Italy walk by with teachers in tow. All self absorbed in what they are saying to their friends – not what their friends are saying to them. They stop at every stop to get a stamp. They don’t look at me as they pass. No ‘Buen Camino’ is wished. I was being overtaken by a group of school students early in the morning when I heard two people behind me talking. I hear one say “look at this powerwalker”. I turn to find two of the Perigrinos Filipinos, Allan and Rafi. The usual yells and hugs and catch-ups occurred and we walked on. Selfies are taken and sent ahead to the others. Allan calls ahead to Portomarin to secure two beds for him and Rafi.  When Allan finds out the albergue will only hold the beds until 3:00pm, he is off. There is a new panic setting in among the distance walkers that we will miss out on a bed to all the new groups and walkers. Rafi walks with me until we reach an albergue in a small village. He ensures I have a room before walking on to catch up with Allan. It was nice to walk with just Rafi, to exchange stories and to laugh. We really laughed when he told me the story of the great Asian rice fight. Apparently some Koreans in the albergue they were staying at last night ate Allan’s rice. Allan was not happy and reproached the Koreans, who argued back. The argument escalated as Rafi looked on amazed at Asians fighting over rice. Rafi says to me, “It’s funny. Right?”.
Now I am in a beautiful small albergue in the middle of nowhere. It is an old stone building and I have a room – and it looks like I could have it to myself. It appears that my earlier rule of staying in half way points and avoiding the stages outlined in the guidebooks is the best way to get a bed. It has the added advantage of missing the crowds and the cyclists. However, I am saddened by news from the Camino today. Doris whom I met on the very first day has contacted me. Her phone had indeed broken again but more distressingly she has retired injured. With less than the obligatory 100 kilometres to go, her Camino is at an end. She will not get the certificate despite having walked over 700 kilometres from St Jean Pied de Port. Also she will now have to endure purgatory – maybe not finishing is her purgatory. In reality though she will get a second Camino as she plans to return another time to finish. She wrote to me “it is my Camino and he ends like this”.

Whether the weather. Morgade to Eirexe via Peurtomarin

Yesterday’s walk of a short ten kilometres was uneventful. The scenery was stunning which seems to be the standard for Galicia. Everything is very green with a nice balance of agricultural land, forests, dry stone fencesand stone villages. The weather was a perfect blend of sun and wind and by noon I had reached the town and the albergue of my choice. In the afternoon I went for a walk around the village, organised for my pack to be sent ahead today. I have been carrying for the past two days so it was time to give my hips a breaks. I watched a football game in the bar in the albergue. Actually I watched the people watching a football game which was very entertaining. The Spanish take it very seriously and each goal, near miss goal, referee decision involves group melodrama and a who can swear the loudest and best competition.
The albergue had a hospital feel to it. There were ‘rooms’ of sorts with either one set of bunks or two to three sets. Each room and a large curtain rather than a door. I was allocated a single bunk room and did not have anyone in the top bunk. That is almost like a private room in albergue land. Rain was predicted for today and I woke up at 6:30 am with the sound of rain all around. There was not use waiting for it to clear. The prediction was that it would not clear. I walked thankful for the cheap plastic poncho Stephen had given me a few days earlier. I lost my own cheap plastic poncho weeks ago so was very thankful when Stephen offered me his spare.
The rain was heavy at first but the wind was whippingly horrendous. The rain eased at times but the wind did not. The path was heavy with pilgrims – no chance at all of being alone today. There was a steady stream of wind blown plastic figures bowing into the harsh wind. It was hard to enjoy the scenery as it was difficult to lift my head against the wind. I listened to my music and walked until I started to dance. All of a sudden the sun was out and I lifted my face to the sky. I could see a patch of blue above me and all around dark clouds were rolling in on top of me again. As I entered the little village of Ventas de Naron – it started to hail. Perfectly round little balls of ice started to ping all over me and the ground. I ran into the bar to escape and give my tired feet a rest. By this stage I was only about five kilometres from my destination for the day, Eirexe.
Before I left the cafe, I rugged up again. I was putting my poncho on when the rain started again. I figured there was no point waiting. I holstered my walking sticks so I could keep my hands warm in my pockets underneath the poncho and I walked out into the rain. Ten metres or so further on the hail started again. It was stinging my face so it was head down again. I was walking fast. Faster than I have on the Camino. After a while the sun came out again. I continued my fast pace walking and dancing to the songs in my ears and only stopped every now and then to take some photos.
By one o’clock, six hours after I started, I reached my destination for tonight – just as rain started pouring down. The sign posts in this town tell me I have only 75 kilometres until I reach Santiago de Compostella. It is both a joy and mind blowing to think that I have walked so far. Tomorrow I plan to walk about 22 kilometres and am hoping for better weather.

Counting down the days. Eirexe to Arzua via Meride

Walking over the past two days has been a drudgery. It’s not that the walk itself has been difficult, on the contrary to what I have walked over the past five weeks, the terrain has been quite easy and the views pleasant. The weather has been a challenge with the cold and the rain and the hail but it isn’t that either. I think it is because I am alone again and I don’t know anyone on the path anymore. All the people I have walked with in the first four and a bit weeks have moved on. They have either finished or have had the hardship of retiring hurt. Walking now, others are already in their groups and it is hard to infiltrate existing friendships. Even when I have met people, I have not felt that connection or wanted to hang out with them. So each day, I am on my own, when I walk, when I eat breakfast, when I eat lunch and dinner and when I stop for that beer at the end of each walk. The only time I have not bee alone is when I sleep. I am tired of that too.
I am tired of albergue life. I am tired of waiting for toilets and showers. I am tired of hearing the snores and noises of many others each night. I am tired of having someone squeak over the top of me every time they turn over in the upper bunk. The number of toilets and showers available – and the quality of these facilities –  seems to have lessened the further down the path we have walked. Earlier this week on a cold Galician night I had to use the outside toilet. Last night the toilet was up a flight of stairs. Neither of these locations are ideal when you need to go at 3:00am and your legs and feet are stiff, sore and cold. Many of the albergue showers don’t have taps but rather a press button. You press the button and the water comes on for approximately two minutes before it turns off and you press again. You usually have to press this three to four times simply to get the hot water happening before you step under the the thin, weak and tepid stream of water. It is a pretty crappy way to wash.
How do I fix these things? The first is yesterday after checking into the albergue I decided that for the final two nights on the path I would stay in private rooms with my own bathroom. Go ahead, judge me call me a faux pilgrim but this luxury has already cheered me up. I have checked into my room today and took a long hot shower and washed my hair. I feel clean and human for the first time in ages. Tonight I will be able to sleep without earplugs. I will not have to endure the rustling of plastic bags and the sound of zippers being zipped at 5:00am as the early rises prepare for their day inevitably shining their head torches on the sleeping faces of the other pilgrims. I can wake up, get up, get ready and leave at the time of my choosing and not the timeframe set by seven to thirty others sleeping around me.
After several bracingly cold days, the weather has warmed up again and it is hot. Earlier as I was walking I crossed a road and followed the yellow arrows, taking a path into the forest. The smell hit me immediately and I looked up and all around in wonder . I was in a eucalyptus forest. I felt like I had been hit with the homesick stick. That Australian smell, the trees with their bark hanging off in long strips. I had started to see the eucalyptus forests a day or two ago but I guess due to the weather the scent had not been so strong or evocative.  I remembered a time I went to Royal National Park and swum in the river at Wottamolla and I wanted to finish this damn Camino. The Camino this thing that has obsessed me for years – it is time to finish and move on. What is peculiar to me is that last week I started to regret the end was so close, now I cannot walk fast enough to finally reach Santiago de Compostela. I have around 35 kilometres to go. Maybe I’ll run it. Oh – and I am also tired of the smell of cows, cow dung and cow sillage.

The river. Arzua to Arcos.

The Camino de Santiago is a human river. We all enter the stream at different places. Many of us enter as I did, at St Jean Pied de Port. Some enter further afield in Puys or where they have walked out of their front door in Germany or the Netherlands or France and simply started to walk. Many have joined the river at or since Pamplona or in the bigger towns of Burgos, Leon or Ponferrada. Several hundreds have joined at Sarria. The stream ebbs and flows. It gains momentum and trickles off. It takes different paths, alternative routes but it all ends in the the same place. It ends in Santiago de Compostela. For me, it ends tomorrow.
Everyone is walking for a different reason. Some for religious but it seems many more for ‘spiritual’ reasons. Some walk because they want a challenge, to lose weight or to improve their fitness or to prove to friends and family they are capable and can achieve this massive task. Others see it or as an inexpensive holiday. Several women I have met are walking to care for the grief having lost their partners in the past six months.
I haven’t met too many that are doing it for religious reasons. At least not who openly admit it. I did meet Anna a young girl from Louisiana with a heart condition and a hearing impediment. Anna wore a very large medal on her heart. The medal was probably about six centimetres in length and pictured the Blessed Virgin. Anna had sliced open the front of her boots to allow her toes the freedom the craved. She told me she had tape to use if it rained. I passed Anna several times this one day. It was the steep climb up O’Cebrerio and we kept leapfrogging each other. At one stage when she was resting, I asked if she was ok. She replied “I sure am. I am just taking a break and admiring everything God has created”. I wished her a buen Camino and walked up the hill. I never saw Anna again but I hope she made it.
The ‘spirituals’ are the ones that believe the Camino will provide. The Camino shows the way. Like the religious, the spirituals are adherents to the unwritten rules of walking every single step, carrying your backpack yourself the whole way and staying in humble accommodation – the albergues. I met a Canadian spiritual. She was physically very fit, short and stocky. She was telling me she could not understand why people walked the Camino more than once. This woman viewed the Camino as sort of a one-off healing for the mind and the heart. She also told me she could only have a relationship with a man who had walked the Camino as well. Unknowingly, this woman judged her fellow pilgrims very harshly and spent the night complains about all the types on the Camino from teenagers to Australians who drink. I sat their listening, nodding and drinking. Others I met were more ‘just go with the flow’ spirituals. Fun and funny – accepting what the Camino ‘sends them’ but their rational side would then argue it could just be a random fluke … or could it ….
I have been intrigued by the women I met who walk as a salve for their grief at the loss of their partners. The thing about the Camino is it is routine. When the idea first takes hold of you – there is an understanding that there will be the routine of walking everyday. However, the whole day – from the moment you wake until the moment you put your head on the pillow at night is routine. I have never had to be so disciplined and organised in all my daily actions as I have since starting the Camino. Doris said to me one day about packing “It is easy, ya? Everything has its place”.  It is true, every little thing we carry be it in our back packs, in our minds or in our hearts has its place. The things that are important and used often are the easiest to get at. The other stuff get shoved further down. Everything has a place to be thought about, to be used, to be loved and needed and to be put away again. Everything can be left behind when not needed or when we are carrying to much baggage. Everything can be shared or given away or fixed or lost. I think for grief, the Camino may be good – until you get home again. I can’t know what it will be like for these women after the Camino but I only wish for each of them the very best of life. Each of these women were warm and loving and caring. Each of these women I met just fleetingly but each will leave a lasting impression on me.
I hardly I know what my post-Camino experience will be. After feeling pretty crappy and crabby for the past two days, today I had an amazing walk. The secret? I discarded my boots for the day and went back to wearing sandals and socks. My feet loved it and therefore, so did I. I left early and walked fast. I actually walked past other pilgrims – sure they were either really old, injured or infirm but I was moving. Once again, I danced and sang my way down the path. I have decided that I enjoy walking vacations and will do as many more as I can fit into my life ahead. I don’t know if any other walking vacations are as well set up as the Camino. Where else can you stay for Euro 6-10 a night? Have a three course meal with a full bottle of really good wine for Euro 10? Where else can you only walk up to a maximum of 15 kilometres a day before finding somewhere warm, clean and safe to spend the night? If you know of somewhere, let me know and I’ll put it on my list.
Today I am excited about ending my Camino tomorrow. I think I had my doubters when I told people that I was going to walk the Camino. I always knew that I would not walk every step but I always thought I would make it. I knew for sure on the second day when I climbed the Pyrenees and walked into Roscenvalles that I would also walk into Santiago. Along the way, I listened to my body and to my mind. I took days off when I wanted to, I had fun when I wanted to, I walked hard when I needed to. The big lesson I have learnt is not to listen to my head or my heart but to listen to my feet – to know when to walk, when to walk on and when to walk away.

I’ve walked the walk. Pedrouzo Arca to Santiago de Compostela
May 4, 2017

The final walk to Santiago was fairly bland. There were some wooded paths at first that soon turned into hard asphalt.  There was only one scene of outstanding beauty Monte do Gozo. This mountain is five kilometres from the Cathedral and in front of you lies the city of Santiago de Compostela. It is the most beautiful site to see on the Camino.
I virtually ran the last twenty kilometres since leaving at 7:00 am that morning.  I was so eager to finish I was surprised that I even noticed the way was crowded with pilgrims. I felt like I was the only solo walker as most were in groups of two to five. Some with family members, some with old friends, some with the new friends they had made on the Camino. There were however, very large groups of people, wearing matching t-shirts, singing songs and holding hands. I followed one such group into Santiago with my headphones firmly in place.
I had visited Santiago de Compostela in 1987. It remember it as being smaller – at least that what it I thought as I walked the long path through the outer suburbs and into the Cathedral Square. By following the large group in, I didn’t have to think about where to go or keep my eye out for markers. It effectively allowed me to turn off my brain and my thoughts and just keep my feet moving, one in front of the other, to get to the final destination. Every step my feet hurt, my soles and my toes making me want to yell out in pain. I kept on, my trot slowing to a trudge.
Walking in, I felt neither elation or disappointment. I felt nothing but tired. I headed straight for the Pilgrims Office to get my official certificate. Thankfully the large group I had been following stopped to sing and dance along to some buskers playing traditional Galician music on traditional Galician instruments. This is where I overtook them and headed for the line before they got there in front of me and I would have to line up behind them. The line was long but not as long as it did become soon after I joined it.  I noticed pilgrims I had been seeing over the past three days but didn’t know anyone. An American couple walked in to join the queue. I didn’t know them but the woman and I had been nodding and smiling at each other at each rest stop over the previous three days. We seemed to be on the same pattern. As they walked in, she noticed me, smiled and gave me a wink. That wink said it all. It was a ‘good on you’, ‘we made it’, ‘it’s over’, ‘congratulations’ and so much more. I was surprised to find a mere wink would make me tear up – but it did.
Finally on being directed to cubicle five, a young man asked for my credential and inspected the stamps. He asked me to confirm that I had started in St Jean Pied de Port and I confirmed I had. He explained that he would write my name in Latin on the certificate. Just then another Spanish man came up beside me and started to ask my guy questions about some group credentials he had. A conversation started and I felt my moment ruined. I stared at the man who had interrupted until he noticed me and told me “tranquila” – relax. I stared at the young man writing my name until he looked up at me. I then gave them both the stink eye. They stopped talking and allowed my guy to finish and hand me the certificate. They started talking again. I had more questions and requests and was by now pretty annoyed. In the end I got everything I wanted but I felt robbed that my final experience in my Camino had been hi-jacked.
I left the Pilgrims Office and headed for a bar. “Una cerveza por favor” I said the the waiter. As he walked away to get my beer, I said loudly to him “grande”. I needed a big beer. It did not feel strange that all I felt was relief. I have read many accounts from many people who have walked the Camino and just as all Caminos are different all the endings are different too. I finished my beer and walked to my hotel. I was staying in Santiago de Compostela for two more days there would be plenty of time to visit the Cathedral. In my hotel room, I collapsed on the bed and slept.
On Friday I headed for the Cathedral early. I wanted to have a look around the cathedral and to get a good seat before the pilgrims mass began. Looking around I found a queue leading to stairs through a small door up behind the alter. I joined the queue not sure what I was queuing for. As I got closer there was a sign in Spanish and English that read ‘Hug the Saint’. I had no idea what to expect. I was behind two very devout Spanish women. I watched as the first put her arms through some holes and started hugging for what seemed like a very long time. I was panicking, was I to do this too? The second did the same for not quite as long. Then it was my turn. I put my arms through some holes, around the back of the neck of Santiago. From my vantage point I could see the congregation starting to assemble for Mass and others milling around sightseeing. The stature of Santiago was cold, hard and metal. I could not see what he looked like. As I hugged him, I started to cry. I thought of my mother and father and started crying some more. From that moment until about 24 hours later, my eyes kept filling with tears that threatened to spill over. Anything I thought about, people I met, stories I told, happy or sad – I would have to hold back the tears.
I had read that it was only at the Friday pilgrim’s mass that the Botafumerio was swung. AThe Botafumerio is a big heavy gold incense burner that is swung above the congregation. It is said that it was originally used to mask the smell of the pilgrims. After hugging Santiago, I was lucky to get a front row seat an hour before Mass started. I sat and used the time to look through all my photos from the first day of the Camino. So much time had passed, so many people met, meals shared, laughter and tears and beauty seen in the five weeks since I had set out from St Jean Pied de Port. The Mass came and went without any swinging of the Botafumerio – according to others I spoke to it is now only swung if a donation is made to the Cathedral. I am unsure of the exact amount of the donation as I heard figures between 250 and 500 Euros. Whatever the donation amount is I didn’t get to see something that I had been looking forward to for a longtime.
Just as I was about to finish up my Cathedral visit I heard an Australian voice behind me. Before I could roll my eyes, my mind told me that I recognised the voice. I looked around and there was Trish from Coloundra. I hadn’t seen her since Carrion. We spend the afternoon and evening together catching up and telling tales about others we had met along the Camino. It turns out Trish and I had both spent the past three nights in the same town but not in the same places. We never passed each other on the path either. That night we went to to celebrate with an end of the Camino dinner.
The following day I caught up with some of the Perigrinos Filipinos. Rafi, Alan and I went to the Cathedral for a visit. I wanted to see what the hands and arms looked like as they came from behind the alter to hug Santiago. Trish had told me the day before she sat there and watched the arms coming through the holes and laughing. I wanted to see it. As I watched though, people were just putting their hands on Santiago’s shoulders with no overt hugging. It mush have just been the Spanish women and me.
Now I was with the Filipinos again it was time to celebrate the end of my Camino and our Camino. I was happy to have the opportunity to get a lot of laughs with them. As we walked through the square we ran into someone they called “Aussie John”. I was expecting to see a short, stout, black haired man offering me a home loan. Aussie John was tall, nice looking with a kind face. He had finished on Tuesday and had been hanging in Santiago. We had walked around the same time, knew the same people, had heard of each other yet this was the first time we had met. He was a pleasant man and we had a few Sydney jokes at each other’s expense before he left us and we went our seperate ways.
The next day I was at the airport waiting for my flight to Paris. I bumped into Aussie John again waiting for his flight to Madrid. We spent five or ten minutes small talking before saying goodbye. When we did, we hugged each other. I don’t know why, we had only met once. Yet we hugged hard. Looking back I guess it was the last connection to the Camino for both of us. It was really over now and while we had no shared personal experiences of walking together, we had the shared experience of the Camino. We had walked across a country. We had walked into Santiago de Compostela. We had done something extraordinary.

The End.


On a personal note I would like to thank Robert and Joseph for their support, encouragement and assistance over many years before I started walking and while I walked. I love you guys.
My supporters in Australia – too numerous to mention – for your comments, your emails and your private messages all helped in getting me from the start to the finish. You people rock!
My friends in Paris for support and face timing me when all I wanted to do was leave – your advice of “Oh, just get on a bus and come back to Paris”, made me even more determined to finish.
For every one of you that took time to read my blog – I really did appreciate your generosity in putting up with the typos, grammar and spelling mistakes – I often did not have the time or energy for a proper edit.
Lastly to all of the ordinary people I met doing an extraordinary thing – walking the Camino. All of you in some way pushed, encouraged, helped and inspired me. Thank you.

What next?
Who knows?  I’m still flying by the seat of my pants.