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Monday, 19 September 2016

Saints and Cynics Days 12-14: Los Arcos & Logroño

Preparation, so they say, is the key to a happy and succesful Camino. I'll tell you something for nothing, I've never trusted the shady but ubiquitous they; they don't so much proffer advice as demand you do things in the clear and chronological manner which they stipulate. They invariably want you to go about your Camino business in exactly the same way they did. They will broach no deviations for they are über didacts par excellence.
Let's get things straight, I like to do things my way, even if it means cutting of my nose to spite my face - a rebel without a cause, a rebel without a clue. The truth is that I set out from Artix to join the Chemin du Puy without any physical preparation whatsoever; I had eight weeks on the road, the Way would sort me out, turn me from flabby geograpgy tutor to finely-tuned perambulatory goddess. The Pyrenees would make a woman out of me. 
And so they did. By the time I reached Los Arcos I was beginning to feel the burn, my body was begininng to revel in its new-found liberty; was becoming aware that it would go on for a very long time. 
I hadn't intended to take a rest day in Los Arcos. It's a small town of only 1200 inhabitants and while it counts with all the necessary facilities, it's the sort of place you might breeze around in a couple of hours, whilst waiting, for example, for cold-beer-o'clock. But then again, I hadn't intended to spend the entire night in a bar on the plaza, knocking back the vino tinto - I don't even like red wine! - and watching an extraordinary evening of spontaneous Camino entertainment draw in both pilgrims and locals. I'm told it went on until two in the morning with only the threat of calling in the local policia bringing the festitivities to an end. My fellow pilgrims, staying at the same pension as myself, somehow managed to rouse themselves for a curtailed 8km hike to Torres del Rio where the previous night's alcohol-fuelled shenanigans repeated themselves. 
Being both pilgrim and researcher puts me in possession of a trump card. I'd already flourished it in Pamplona and, suffering from the sort of hangover that only red wine can induce - it doesn't happen with gin - I played it again. I'd take advantage of the peace, quiet and excellent wifi to write up my notes. 
So did I spend all day labouring at my impromptu desk? Did I eff! Once again I took the fine art of procrastination to new heights and spent most of the day listening to eighties-flavoured big-haired bubblegum pop-rock, as is my wont. 
Tell me, dear reader; do you believe in a god? Any sort of supernatural being or prime mover will suffice. As a bit-part, small-time theologian I suppose I have to, that is, after all, why I walked the flipping Camino in the first place. As a rule, my god is a benevolent creature who bears a striking resemblance to Joey Tempest's twin sister but on Day 12, over chicken and chips in the plaza, she turned nasty and loosened the filling on my front tooth which promptly fell out. 
Ugh! There's nothing so off-putting as a pilgrim's smile with half a tooth missing. 'You should have gone to the dentist beforehand' tweeted one of my followers, rather unhelpfully. Strange how a missing half tooth came close to calling time on my camino after less than a fortnight, in all my summers hiking across Latin Europe I've never succumbed to physical injury beyond a sore knee occasionally precipitated my steep descents with a heavy rucksack*.  
The following morning, feeling a little more level-headed, I jumped on a bus to Logroño in search of a dentist. I wasn't the only pilgrim, beside me sat a sixty-something American who I'd met on the climb from St Jean Pied de Port. His knees were giving up on him so he was taking a break. Back in 2012 I skipped a couple of stages of the Camino Francés, this time I was determined to hike the whole hog but already my plans had been scuppered. True, I'd be spared the tedious 10km plod into and through the outskirts of Logroño but as the bus wound its way through the vineyards of Rioja the first pangs of regret began to make themselves felt. And those ominous twinges of guilt that curdle in the pit of the stomach, insisiting and insinuating that I was commiting some sort of venial sin.
With 24 hours to kill before my dental appointment, I had time enough to return to Los Arcos and complete the stage but retracing my steps to retrace my steps, as it were, seemed, to my simple soul, quite contrary. Going backwards was not an option; once Logroño had been reached, by whatever means of mobility, it had been reached. The stage had been completed, it was time to move on. 
I'd intended to get back on the trail as soon as the tooth was fixed but by the time I left the dentist, complete with numb mouth, it was close to noon and the thermometer was climbing so I wandered back to my hotel and booked in for another night.
So one rest-day - brought about by a hangover and the heat - metamorphosed into three. It was a curious intermission, I felt strangely lethargic and out-of-place. Three days of not-walking, enough to drive an obsessed pilgrim crazy; I can't imagine how those who suffer more serious, debilitating injuries cope. I've come across them, even tended to them once; it's an ill-fortune the likes of wish I'd only wish on those who voted 'Brexit'. 
Yes, it's that bad. 

* Ironically, I returned from the summer's hiking with a mild case of backpacker's palsy, more of which anon.

Monday, 22 August 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 35: Why I quit the Camino Frances

Vilei - Portomarin - 19km (cumulative 777km)
It was a tough one. Not in terms of making the decision to take my leave of the Camino Frances, I'd already given it a twenty-four hour stay of execution and by the time I'd got to Portomarin I'd come to the end of my tether. As I sat waiting for the bus to Sarria - a good 45 minutes - I watched over a hundred fellow pilgrims trudge into town. Portomarin, like Sarria, was a maze of restaurants, bars and, of course, albergues - dozens of them. It was one o'clock in the afternoon, they were all filling up fast. 
When the bus finally arrived I climbed aboard without the slightest tinge of regret, my only concern was that leaving the Camino only 90km from its goal might have a detrimental impact on my research but the truth is that if you ain't with a family by the time you get to Sarria and the magic 100km point, then you're going to be on your own all the way to the Plaza Obreidero; tough luck, loser. Emotionally? Well, having walked the Camino Frances in 2012 I know from personal experience that the final walk-in to Santiago can be a disappointment, you're just one face amongst the crowds, another pair of boots on a long-line of pilgrims queuing to get into the city. And if you're hoping to seek spiritual solace in the cathedral you might as well forget that too; prepare to be battered and bruised by hordes of ignorant smart-telephone-wielding tourists taking pot-shot photos of anything that remotely resembles a Jacobean relic. 
You'll hate the bastards. And you'll hate them all the more when you remember the simple solitude of the church at Eunate where you waited for an hour for the guardian to open it up. Or the golden swathes of the Meseta where you felt alone and closer to God - or whatever spiritual supreme-being floats your boat. Or the moment you watched the sun rise over the Montes de Leon. There's nothing you'll want more that to pack up your rucksack, pull on your boots and get the hell out of town, probably to Finisterre. 
But just in case there is any residual desire to commune with St James - not at the top of my list of favourite saints - I can rest easily with the knowledge that I'll be going to Santiago anyway, only just by another route. And not on a Saturday or Sunday.
No, my big issue here is not with the hundreds of pilgrims who join the Camino Frances at Sarria, that being the point at which, if they make it to Santiago, they qualify for their compostela. It's not with the newbies with their clean-as-a-whistle rucksacks and, on occasion, sounds blaring from smart-phone speakers although they piss me off so much I refuse to respond to their greetings. I don't have a problem with the groups of kids (i.e. under-thirties who are determined to have a good time over a long weekend at the height of the holiday season; they have as much right as me to be here and I'd rather they were out in the great outdoors than wasting away in front of a computer screen in the grim indoors. I've no time for the solemn pilgrims who wants the way to her/himself, even when that solemn pilgrim resembles me. 
So it was a tough one because it sort of defines me as an elitist misanthrope, a pilgrim snob who refuses to get down and get jiggy with the masses. My decision to quit says much more about me than them and it also, I fear, speaks volumes about the nature of my research. 
It also suggests that I'm more anti-pilgrim than pilgrim.

I took the bus to Sarria and waited two hours for a train that would take me, eventually to Vigo. Both the bus and railway stations are little more than 500 metres from the Camino but they might as well be on the other side of the world. And as I sat on the platform, a curious sense of relief swept over me; it was as if I'd been hiking under an enormous pressure which was now suddenly removed. For five minutes the railway line followed the route of the Camino Frances before it broke out and filed south into the Rias of Galicia. And like the dawdling train, within a short space of time I, too, had put the Camino behind me.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 32: La Ruta Dragonte revisited

The beginning of the variante. Even looking at this photo has my juices flowing already

The Ruta Dragonte has a lot to answer for. On Sunday 3rd June 2012 I arrived in the town of Villafranca del Bierzo, by bus from nearby Ponferrada, in a state of considerable disillusion with the Camino Frances in particular and the concept of pilgrimage as a whole. I was - still am - a bad Catholic, spiritually shallow, what on earth was I trying to prove? Who was I trying to impress? I'd struggled across the Meseta, tempted by the lure of the mountains of the Cordillera Cantabrica. I persevered only because I couldn't face returning to friends and family with the ghost of failure stalking my every step.

Looking back at Villafranca and El Bierzo from the road up to Dragonte


The road up to Dragonte is a thing of great beauty in itself, between chestnut trees and vines. I can feel it, drawing me in, casting its enchanting spell. I'm soon drawn in

 So, in a fit of rebellious pique, and as a means of sticking two fingers up at a doubting hospitalero, I decided to go for it, big time. In for a centavo, in for an euro, as they don't say.

Above Dragonte, looking back to El Bierzo. I'm emerging from the gloom and, with every step, edging closer to heaven.

I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that what happened on the June day back in 2012 completely and utterly changed my life. What happened deep in that verdant valley, between the tiny, run-down villages of Moral de Valcarce and Villar de Corales, by the slick and silvery waters of the Arroyo de Moral, has since become the subject of my doctoral research. That landscape experience, with its religious and spiritual connotations has been my raison d'etre ever since.

And suddenly the valley of the Arroyo de Moral opens up. This, dear reader, is quite simply as good as it gets. This is superlative, I can imagine no landscape more dangerously dreamlike.

I have no other life. 

Gone are the yellow arrows, waymarking is very much hit and miss on the Ruta Dragonte. Well, more miss than hit, but the potential for getting lost just adds to the pleasure.

I was always destined to return. Not only for this, the focus of my fieldwork but, I would imagine, again and again; the Ruta Dragonte passes through a landscape that has me hooked. In the deep folds and lofty slopes of these mountains I am ... well not at peace - the intensity of emotions the landscape evokes won't allow for that. Instead I'm fizzing and buzzing, torn between tears of ecstatic happiness and extreme melancholy. I turn a corner, another vista excites my gaze and I can't contain my emotions. And I mean that quite literally; I mean that, quite literally, my breath is taken away and I can't cope with what I'm looking at, what I'm taking in with every available sense. It is, simply put, just too much for my poor little mind and soul; sometimes I cry, sometimes I shout out to the God(des), expletives deleted. 

Moral de Valcarce. With every step I'm moving further and further away from the banalities of 'so-called 'reality'.

Deep in the valley floor, enclosed by chestnut trees on either side

And this is where, on Monday 3rd June, 2012, 'it' happened. Amongst the deep green, flashes of red and gold. A presence watching over me, close by. She - for I'm pretty sure who this presence was - guided me up and out of the valley.

Never before have I been so deliriously happy to set eyes on an abandoned earth excavator. Even though I'd hiked it before, the complete absence of waymarking makes the prospect of getting utterly lost a quite deliciously Gothic possibility. This abandoned earth excavator stuck fast in my earth memory, I knew I was on the right track.

How green are these valleys?


Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Saints and Cynics Day 11: Estella to Los Arcos

Estella to Los Arcos - 21km (244km cumulative)
Estella was in the midst of a 'medieval fayre', complete with what looked liked the four horseman of the apocalypse. It might have been keeping the punters happy and filling the coffers of the town's merchant classes but it drastically reduced the refreshment options for wandering pilgrims such as your correspondent. I found an Italian eaterie but even that was only doing pizza and I really fancied some carb-loaded pasta; I quaffed a magheritta and a cold beer then headed back to my pension to enjoy the delights of Forgotten 80s via the internet. On Sundays I try my hardest to find a room with decent wifi to satisfy this peculiar passion; you might think me a nostalgic fool - who am I to disagree
Next morning, of course, bright and early, I was back on the trail. I have fond memories of this stage of the Camino Frances from May 2012. Back then, when I arrived in Estella, I was so tired I spent much of the afternoon asleep in the park. The next day, suitably refreshed, I more or less galloped along the 'alternative' route to Los Arcos

Estella cathedral. On Sunday evening it was - of course - closed!

The former Benedictine monastery of Santa María la Real de Irache

100km from Roncevalles, Artix is a further 111km distant so thus far I've hiked 211km!

The (in)famous wine fountain at Bodgeas Irache. Pilgrims can 'help themselves to a free glass' but nowadays the fountain has a daily 'budget' and fixed 'opening hours' - 08:00 - 22:00, should you care to partake.

A parting of the ways. I took the left hand route, as I did in 2012. Then it was because I wanted to avoid the albergue in Villamayor de Monjardin on the 'normal' route as I'd heard it was run by a bunch of Dutch evangelicals. I was wrong then, but it turned out I took the right path for the wrong reasons. The owner of the hostel where I stayed last night went to great lengths to point out that this was the authentic route, though it began back in Villatuerta, 3km before Estella. As was the case in 2012, I had the path almost entirely to myself.

The Basque mountains to the north still showing well

The path. It's the main thing ...

... it animated and enlivens the landscape

'One thing I should mention is the impact of the Europe/'Brexit' debate upon my perception of the landscape and also the notion of pilgrimage because the Camino de Santiago is very much a European project, it puts me right in the heart of Europe. When I got back from #TransCatalunya, I drove down to Exeter to see my supervisor; it was predictably wet, grim cold and windy ... and I drove through the [my beloved, enchanted] Blackdown Hills and it felt that I'd lost my love for them. Even driving down to Weymouth the day before I left for Saints and Cynics, it wasn't the same, the landscape wasn't animating itself; it didn't feel so intimate. You could probably say not so much that we'd fallen out of love but that we'd become indifferent to one another.
And so therefore, because I'm in Spain, because I'm in Europe, does this enhance the landscape here? Because I've been much more engaged with the landscape, between Roncevalles and here - I can't remember much of this from 2012 - is it because I'm much more academically engaged? Is it because in the intervening period I've spent so much time hiking in Spain or is it just because of this deeper love for the concept of Europe which is manifesting itself in the landscape? In which case there is, I suppose, a spiritual element, but it's also what the landscape represents philosophically, if not politically' 
Field recording, 25/7/2016

Path of the Day. The pilgrim ahead of me is carrying plastic carrier bags in each hand and had her boots laced to the back of her rucksack.

The last of the Riojans

The main plaza in Los Arcos. This tranquil scene belies the fact that, in the early hours of the following morning, the local policia had to be called to gently move on a group of pilgrims and locals who were carousing in true European fashion. You can take your Brexit and stick it up your ...

Monday, 8 August 2016

Saints and Cynics: The Meseta and the Dreaded 17,5

The Meseta. You'll have twigged by now that it's become something of an obsession, that it dominates my every waking thought and enters into my dreams and nightmares; can't live with it, can't live without it.

Carrion de los Condes, Sunday morning. Do NOT let this apparently verdant oassis lull you into a false sense of security. It will hit you. Soon.

I've just completed my sixth day on the plateau, six days and 140km as a high plains drifter; tomorrow, probably mid-morning, I'll quietly slip off and file my way along the main road that leads into Leon. There will be relief - I'm already looking forward to the return of the mountains - but that relief will be tinged with sadness and I dare say that when I'm up in the Montes de Leon I'll turn round and gaze wistfully at the golden haze in the distant east.

For the first three days, as far as Boadilla del Camino, all was well. At Tardajos, just before the Camino eases its way up onto the Meseta, I became reacquainted with my Camino 'family' with whom I spent much of the next four days; though we tended to walk alone we would meet up for refreshments and overnight stops. On the morning of day three, at Castrojeriz, two of our clan departed, leaving us as a foursome which, in my mind, took the form of a Camino 'mum and dad' and their two 'children'; I was one of the latter, an adolescent bastard child, always sulking and skulking at the rear. 

Things fell apart along the straight, 6 km long entrance to Carrion de los Condes, a tedious hour and a half following the main road; needless to say, by the time I'd arrived at my destination I was fuming and spoiling for a fight. With my fellow pilgirms - especially - and, yes, even with the nuns in the albergue. 

Get thee to a nunnery ...

It wasn't so much that the Meseta had broken us, more that it had worn us down. We had, all of us, until then, been unanimous in our appreciation for this great, golden tableland with its variety of vistas and landscapes. Walking through it, we had all, I think, become connoisseurs as well as admirers; it was a spell that only walking - dwelling - in the landscape could create. To the unembodied observer thinks it all looks the same, day-in, day-out, and I can understand that perspective; but when you're etching your way through its infinite layers you soon come to realise that every step just isn't the same. One the way out of Fromista a German pilgrim told me how, up on the plateau to the west of Castrojeriz, the clouds had worked their own magic and mesmerised him. We talk about making a 'crossing' the Meseta, as if it were a vast uncharted ocean. The maps and guidebooks tell us what's taking place at ground level, what happens when the land comes into contact with out own moods, emotions and personal histories is another narrative altogether. There were storms brewing, shipwrecks on the horizon.

At Carrion de los Condes two 'family' members went down with diahorroea and, under the supervision of 'mum' took a taxi to Sahagun, thus missing out on the Meseta's grimmest torture. Just when you think you've got the better of it, the Camino lays down its greatest, most arduous challenge. Forget the crossing of the Pyrenees, forget the long climb up to O Cebreiro, the 17,5 km hike between Carrion de los Condes and Calzadilla de la Cueta is the test; like Jacob wrestling the angel. 

We'll meet again. Don't know where don't know when but chances are it'll be on the Camino in the next couple of weeks for we are family

I've already described, with, I hope some degree of success, the elation I felt as I passed the Virgen de Biakorri and the mountains opened up before me, my continued engagement with the landscape as the Camino wound its way through the vineyards and fields of Navarra, La Rioja and Castilla y Leon. These are bounteous lands of milk and honey that ease the mind and the soul; if there is ecstasy it's restrained and understated. 

It's getting closer. Getting closer all the time ...

Then you get to the Dreaded 17,5 and all hell breaks loose. I have, of course, made this particular crossing before, back in May 2012. Then, as now, I realised one required a strategy to get through with one's sanity - such as that exists - intact. Mine was basic and consisted of two components: (1) walk like f***, close to the speed of light and (2) try to overtake as many of your fellow pilgrims as possible. 

Head down, stride after stride after stride. @martinxo tweets telling me he bellows out songs at the top of his voice in similar situations, his tunes of choice would be old-school punk and new wave; The Ruts and UK Subs. I contemplate becoming Joey Tempest's twin sister and singing the Final Countdown ad naueseum but instead I retreat into myself, somewhere deep and hidden where a heap of unpublished, autobiographical novels written in the first person gather dust in my personal slush pile. Here are my heroes, and they are all, of course, alter egos: María Inés de la Cruz, Tallulah Scarlet, Charlotte Crowsettle, Samantha Lefebvre, Dr Simone Lacey. You don't know these people, they only emerge from the shadows of my imagination during ordeals such as crossing the Dreaded 17,5. 

And so the Dreaded 17,5 begins. Those two tardy souls were my first victims, natch

Where the Camino leaves the asphalt and drives off in a straight line along a dust-track I make the sign of the cross and start to move it. It's a nuanced acceleration, I don't want to go down injured at this, the most crucial stage of the pilgrimage, and I'd been nursing a calf-twinge for the past couple of days. The pace picks up slowly; 500m ahead I spy a poor innocent who clearly has no idea as to imminent and immanent torture. She's ambling along as if she were out for a Sunday stroll by the sea. 

This path ain't wide enough for the both of us. I pick her in my sights and feel a pusle of energy surge through my thighs; within minutes I'm upon her, surging past as if I'm late for a date with the devil. Blam! It only takes a couple of seconds. There's a brief exchange of buen caminos then I'm gone, disappeared in a cloud of dust. The victim, she knows nothing, is probably still labouring along right now. She's the sort of pilgrim the Dreaded 17,5 devours for breakfast before belching loudly.

On and on and on again ...

Me? I've overtaken 15 similar souls before arriving at the 11km point where the mobile cafe should be. Only it's not, and I don't top to see whether the fountain is dry; time is my enemy and by now I'm on a roll, pumping Adrenalin, moving like a highly-strung athelete rather than an effete academic. This is so good it really hurts. 

'Right! It's twenty to eleven and I'm fucking motoring' I utter, breathlessly into my digital voice recorder. At times I'm close to running, at times I do, actually, break into a momentary jog, carried forward on a heady cocktail of angst and elation. Then, just at the point where it might have gone arse over elbow, yellow-painted words on a bridge wall: tienda 6km. The tienda, of course, is the end. 

This is the end, beautiful friend, the end ... I'll never look into your eyes, again

The wind buoys me. I'm no longer a mere pilgrim or Exeter University research student, I'm Mercury with winged Berghaus boots, eating up the kilometres before a late breakfast. And suddenly, there it is, the church to the left and, before I've taken it in, the village of Calzadilla de la Cueza and a welcoming bar. I look at my 'phone, it's taken me just over two and a half hours - seven kilometres per hour. Predictably, but unashamedly, I go overboard into my digital voice recorder; all hell breaks loose: 'Fucking Hell! I've only just done it! Seventeen-point-five, you suck! Wow! Half-past eleven ... fuck that ... that's brilliant ... woah! I can't believe it ... this is the happiest I've been for so long. Woah, it's fantastic. Killed it! Absolutely fucking brilliant.'

Twenty-four hours later and still the buzz is burning. It was one of the happiest days of my walking like and thus, by definition, one of the happiest days of my life. With the Dreaded 17,5 burnt to a frazzle, the Road to Santiago is now clear.

For those whom the Dreaded 17,5 has destroyed, in mind and/or body, a taxi awaits

Elation, but melancholy, too. The moment is gone, I'll never enjoy the intensity of that emotion again and even though I made the most of it, like all landscape experiences it is fleeting, ephemeral. I down a celebratory Coca-Cola then lumber on; still 20km till my end-of-day destination. No sleep till Sahagun.