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Winter Pilgrims, just home

Magnara

Maggie Ramsay
Camino(s) past & future
Santiago de Compostela (2005) Via Francigena (2010) Le Puy to St Jean (2014)
#1
This is an grow-as-you-go email that sent home from Spain when my husband Renato and I were pilgrims in January, maybe hearing about winter pilgrimage would be interesting.

Hello from Spain

This is the world now: we have just come out of a 12th century church where we stood and listened to a priest chanting, walked across thecobblestone square past the remains of the Roman city walls and into a cafe where we have accessed our emails.

We´re in Leon, the name comes from Legion as it was the heart of the Roman occupation of the far Western reaches of empire. Only the savages in Great Britain were further afield. We arrived here yesterday and had decided to have a rest day and to give ourselves a treat by staying in the Parador here. They are a government chain of very ancient buildings now made into hotels. Just imagine the doors! the floors! the cloisters!

If I hadn´t been so glad to be warm I would probably have fainted away from ecstasy right there. But first we had to get ourselves in, and the problem is that they are 5 star and so muchas expensive. So we stood at the reception in our muddy boots(surrounded by people in fur coats) and argued that as this had once been a hospital for pilgrims and we were, in fact, actual pilgrims, surely we deserved to stay and was there no discount? After several tries at this with no success, the senor at reception gave us a key at about a third off and we are spending two nights here. (Sadly, for age not pilgrim status). One of my enduring memories will be Renato digging out the mud and stones from the tread of our boots into the bidet with the little complimentary toothbrush they give you.

So we explored the city for two days, which is simply a lovely place, charming, beautiful, lying along a river and with a cathedral loaded with stained glass and many other older and even more beautiful things to see. Oh, the Museo Panteon, I´ll never forget walking in and gasping to see the frescoes on the ceiling.

We have had every kind of experience, except, fortunately, rain. We have walked up mountains with stupendous views to the far horizon of sumptuous valleys, with a village tucked into every fold of the hills, a spire and a straggle of lop-sided buildings with red Spanish tiles, and up others where the freezing mist was so thick you couldn´t see anything at all for a whole day. We´ve battled icy headwinds, with me trying to use Renato as a windbreak to make any headway.

Cold? We´ll give you cold! Try walking all day at 0 degrees or less, arriving at
dark at an exquisite ancient and remote hamlet, finding an albergue open
(harder than you think at this time of year) and going in to spend the night in below freezing temperature and leaving in the morning in the icy dark again. We feel so tough!

These villages are so very picturesque and we don´t know how you could ever get the feeling of them unless you walk into them, but it does leave you
less interested in sightseeing. Just something to eat, and sleep. The sightseeing happens along the way. I´ve never before not been willing to walk off the path 50 m to look at something tourist-worthy, but now if it´s not right there it´s not happening.

This really does give the sweep of Northern Spain, we´ve been through many provinces, Navarre, Rioja, Leon and Castile, now Galicia. They all have similarities but quite distinct differences as well. And the names so redolent with history, all those fabled kings and queens.

The good bits(there are so many): Santo Domingo de Calzadar, looking out on the medieval square outside our window with a cry of surprise and appreciation; San Juan de Ortega, alone in the albergue with medieval pillars in the room; stopping for a coffee in a barin Ages and meeting a chatty and lovely woman called Maria Jose who definitely got one of our koalas; first taste of the broad wild open expanses of the meseta walking intoBurgos; Burgos cathedral, awesomely large and beautiful and rich; ending a long hard day with sore feet and aching knees by finding a comfortable, clean and friendly hostal; a hot bath; an open fire; walking into a church and finding a heating grate beneath our feet! Walking a long day with the vast expanse of blue sky above and sun on our back.

The hard bits (there are also plenty of these):Challenging boring and cold walk to Hontanas over the hill where we had to keep going until we found somewhere open to stay, and nowhere to buy a coffee all day; villages with nothing at all open and no sign of life, just sitting in an open plaza with the icy wind whipping around us until we shake with cold eating a cold bocadillo.

We decided that we needed a couple of rest days to rest my aching knees and Renato's feet, and I thought I might have been developing shin splints so decided that it would be smart to take a couple of days of r&r so train to cut out a day´s walk to bring us into the next big town which was Leon (very pleased to have learnt the phrases de transportes in our Spanish lessons, we get a childish pleasure from being able to ask ´What platform? and ´What time does the train leave? not to mention ´How much does it cost´?) And undoubtedly hilariously approximate attempts to chat,
compliment the chef, etc. Doesn´t always work of course, one day after thanking the Senora in a little village for a delicious dinner , the next day we discovered we had been eating blood pudding. (Sometimes it´s just better not to know.)

Pilgrim life is very simple: walk, eat, wash socks, sleep. Add an ipod and it´s a modern twist, although often too harsh conditions to use it easily, it has fabulous moments: last hard slog up a hill (Moulin Rouge); wide open spaces (Rigoletto); boring bits (Australian folk songs). In truth, though, one of the great pleasures is just walking in these remote places with nothing, no sound, just silence except for the
crunch of your boots. How rare to find absolute, total silence, it is very meditative to walk with the fabulous views and the silence.

Now at Rabanal - Cruz de Ferro tomorrow and over the last (and highest)
pass of the Pyrenees at O Cebreiro.

Just passed two thirds of the way.

Since then we have been to Cruz de Ferro, quite emotional as I had carried a little stone from Australia to add to the pile around the Cruz, but it was rather a brief moment of emotion as it was blowing a gale there. Now at a famous albergue in Villafranca de Bierzo, in a sheltered wine region with a mild microclimate. with a very happy hippie hospitalero who is said to be a great healer but since our feet are fab and our spirits high we really dont need anything. But its true we are now certifiably too old for bunk beds. (Although we both agree that despite the spartan conditions of the albergues, we have had some of our best nights sleep there)

We have not really been too cold anywhere except for brief moments on mountain tops and it is quite good for walking, we are really never cold when we are on the trail. But it would be nice to see this in spring, or autumn...

We are now in Galicia and havent had any rain to speak of, but Galicia is green for a reason so who knows. But we are hearing the haunting music of the region, celtic, it could be Scotland or Ireland as easily as here. and the names, suddenly there are names beginning with O, and with spelling that could be Irish.

Tomorrow we have a hard steep long climb, 30 km of very wild country, very excited about that, we love the mountains, the scenery is amazing and the stuff dreams are made of, or great travelogues, and certainly leaves you reaching for another superlative.

Lovin' it.

Since I wrote that we have gone much further, we´ve been rained on and even snowed on, with roads cut a day’s walk behind us.

We are now two days from Santiago, amazing that after it being so far away for so long it is now so near. We now handle long days of walking with ease, take long mountain climbs in our stride. Today we did just over 30km, and while we will be very happy to reach Santiago we have really loved the simple pleasure of walking along woodland paths with mist and rock walls and arches of trees. Just saying over and over again, at every turn, "How lovely is that!"

The history of this whole thing is extraordinary, 11th and 12th century Romanesque churches at every turn, in every tiny village, and now close to the end, crosses dating back to the middle ages. A few days ago there was a village where the pilgrims would pick up a limestone, as heavy a piece as they could carry for several days, to take with them to be kilned to build the cathedral at Santiago.

Hope your January is going well, we heard it is about 40 degrees in Australia. Yesterday we walked into the part of Galicia which is full of groves of eucayptus, the smell in the air is incredibly evocative of home.

We reached Santiago and found that we absolutely loved it. It has make-you-gasp views down every little street in the old town, and huge flagstones, fabulous magnificent buildings and the sublime cathedral. We stayed 5 days and at the end we just kept walking around the old town for another look. It was so hard to tear ourselves away.
The albergue in town was closed for renovation and the one at Monte Gozo is 5 km away, but anyway we had decided on a hotel - actually we had decided to stay at the Parador for one night , but we found a tiny hotel so lovely, with stunning views and wonderful people and we never did get to our night at the Parador, just going there to have the pilgrim meals, to link up with any pilgrims there were in town and swap stories.

That is one of the big pleasures and also one of the challenges of winter, the isolation, we only met up with a handful of other pilgrims the whole way. It means you can walk all day, day after day and have the path to yourself, but then again it is so much fun to find someone to swap stories with in whatever combination of bits of languages you can.

We are now home and absolutely hooked.. We keep talking of other luscious sounding distance walks we have heard of and we know it is just the start of another adventurous stage of our life. I can’t imagine we won’t be back in Espana, though, as pilgrims - those Spaniards have got some good ideas about life: be excited about everything, stay up late, drink plenty of red wine and have a siesta every day. It's a great recipe for joie de vivre.

Magnara

ps if you would like to have more detail about any aspect of winter pilgrimage or if you would like our final super-culled pack lists, you could email me directly.
 

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