Saturday, August 30, 2014

Camino Six: Storks, Roses and Rosemary

  San Juan de Ortega 
During the evening meal, under the watchful gaze of Paulo Coelho, mine host, Acacio, tells me I should write a book on aging and women and walking the Camino.  He seems to think the research I did in preparation is impressive.  Celso, the Brazilian, looks at my mochila and pronounces it ‘military’ ... too heavy by half.  Jüergen has shin splints and walks slowly, limiting himself to 15 kms or so for now.

     In the morning warm goodbyes are said and we head off into the wind.  The rule at this albergue states no one is to rise before 7 am.  Very civilized.  My day’s walk is a joy.  I pass through Grañón, pause at the bakery of Jesus where hot bollitos are just being drawn from the oven and the fragrance of fresh bread fills the lonely street. 
  I talk to everything as I walk, tell everything how perfect it is – puddles, wind, flowers, grasses, birds, lizards, trees – they understand and I am flooded with love.  The Way walks me.  It’s as if I am awakening to a dual consciousness.  Yes, I can still rail at the snorers or whatever else irritates my human frailty, but there is another, deeper, reality which takes over the minute I step onto the true Way and am surrounded by nature.  I’m walking well, the land is singing.  I am overcome by a profound love for my dear feet and plump body, almost apologising to them for embarking on such a reckless adventure at their age.  I love the newness of feeling body-me respond to the superhuman, and seemingly impossible task, of walking 500 miles in my own body! I don’t always live there!
 My good humour returns apace and I smile at everything as I enter the marvellous town of Belorado, many kilometres further on, to stand staring in wonder at the extraordinary sight of storks nesting on every ledge of the church bell tower. 


     After admiring the church I continue on to the tiny hamlet of Villambistia where I am greeted by the singularly attractive woman hospitalera of San Roque. San Roque, so well loved in the south of France where he is particularly associated with Mary Magdalene for some reason that escapes me now, is perhaps the archetype of the wounded Fisher King and always accompanied by his dog.  A good place to stop.

 I choose my bunk, but the dorm fills up quickly with gargantuan snorers (no, I don’t snore, said the stupid unaware elderly man from somewhere south of Arlington when I asked him, so as I could be as far away as possible ... duh!).  Above me is Jüergen – we decide we like our company as bunkmates as we agree that each is such a quiet sleeper.  Jüergen is still suffering from his shin splints.  I go for a walk and find a deep cerise damask rose and some sprigs of rosemary.  I bring these back to the dorm where he is resting.  He is awake.  I give him the rose and the rosemary and say he must sleep with these on his pillow and breath in their fragrance visualizing it flow all the way down to his injuries and: it will heal the pain he grins, entering into the play I am inventing as the only way I can offer my sympathy.  He gets it, he really gets it!

The worst night of snoring, according to Jüergen, came from the American who said he didn’t snore.  He snored and rattled and belched and threw himself about the bed – sheer hell for us all.  There is always one.

  Few of us slept.  An Aboriginal woman from Sydney’s inner city muttered darkly but nothing short of pointing the bone would have penetrated that man’s blissful sleep.  None of us happened to have a spare metacarpal handy. It was still dark when we, the sleep ravaged, called it a night and left before murder.  Yet, there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in, and once again, the moment I was beyond the village and on the Camino, love flooded through me as the birds tuned up for their Dawn chorus, the clouds streaked pink and gold and the sky behind the village streamed light.  No one spoke as we each walked into the morning.

Up to the peaks through the fragrant pine forests I walked, not the dead pine forests we know but pine forests alive with siskins, red squirrels, crossbills and lizards and much more besides.  Over the Rio Cerrata, down into San Juan de Ortega and down down down into Agés.

I rested alone at San Juan, feeling suddenly shy and slightly ill at ease with the bonhomie of so many pilgrims.  Their chatter prevented much interaction with the world around them so when an emerald lizard froze as everyone passed it by I was enthralled when it relaxed and sat while I took some photos before vanishing into the bracken with a quick flick of his tail.

  I walk twenty one kilometres happily, and reach Agés by 2 o’clock.  The first albergue is San Rafael; I so enjoy the company of saints and I stop right there.  A wildly eccentric hospitalero (who refused to be photographed) wagged his finger at me for not booking beforehand but leads me upstairs to a charming room of two by two bunks with pretty blue and white floral duvets, thick pillows, white sheets, a huge built in wardrobe, ensuite shower and loo and views over the fields.  Was it 8€ or 10€?  Whatever, it was worth it!  A woman later came in, asked where I was from. 

 Glastonbury! she exclaimed – I must phone my husband, he is there now, passionate about King Arthur!  Before she phones I hold up my Glastonbury Spring water bottle for her to photograph the label of the Tor which she texts him too!  It is a giggle.  Amalia is an architect from Venezuala.  I go downstairs to eat and when I return to my room on the pillow of the bunk above me there is a cerise rose and two sprigs of rosemary!  Jüergen!  He comes in grinning, I knew it was you he says, I see your hat and your red and white polka dot ribbon!  We are in for a quiet night with just the three of us.  Wonderful.

  Amalia has left at first light, silently, and I silently leave next.  Jüergen is sleeping with the rose on his pillow.  He will walk fast today – miraculously his shin splints have healed; he continues to carry the rose and rosemary attached to the top of his rucksack.  I am rather touched but know that he will now travel far ahead of me.  Encounters like this, short and meaningful, will make up my amalgam of memories.

 Today it rains.  And rains.  I stop for breakfast in Atapueca, a village famous for unearthing stoneaged hominids dating back 400,000 years, the oldest in Western Europe.  (Wikipedia is worth looking at).  Matagrande looms ahead, nearly 1200 metres and another vertical climb.  Only this time it is really difficult, the rain has made the rocky ascent glacially slippery, we pilgrims pick our way footfall by tenuous footfall.  Dry, it may be alright, but wet is hazardous.  We trail like ants, slowly, separately, the sense of deep concentration palpable.  I don’t know how I reach the top, but I do, just as another lone pilgrim is passing the huge cross in the mist.  I stop momentarily, take a photo in the rain, aware of the yellow shrub in this dark and haunting place.


 Thankful I am to leave it.  The descent is not so vertical, ahead of me I see one pilgrim walking slowly - it is Simone.  We greet and part, her poor ill-formed feet are saturated in their sandals.  I am headed for Burgos 20 kms to go and still many hours walk.  The rain is relentless.

 Exhausted, I find the tiny albergue that John Brierley found so appealing.  Big Mistake.  He is such hypocrite – he stays at paradors, paradors I ask you, at no less than 200€ a night – and recommends this pitiful place. 

 It is parochial; perhaps he thinks it ‘spiritual’.  The place is rich with intention but horribly poor with what wet tired pilgrims need.  One shower and one functional loo for sixteen people.  The hot water has gone, the loo is occupied. I am offered a top bunk which I cannot climb up to.  A young male athlete has the last lower one.  I insist on swapping. In my tiredness the noise and proximity of people flips me over to a more than mild insanity and I stand in confusion lost under the armpits of six huge male Californian sophomores on a holiday jaunt to Santiago.

  I vaguely register that these privileged (or they wouldn’t be attending university) young men are here because it is donativo, 5€.  In the same instant I am aware that Simone has also staggered up the three flights of stairs and has been told there is no bed.  Not one, not one of the healthy young things offered their bed to this crippled, wet, 81 year woman.  So far below their armpits stood she that they didn’t even see her. 

 In a nanosecond I reached over and said there is a bed, take mine.  The hospitalero looked at me with such grace, but Simone, removing her dripping poncho, put her arms round me to say in halting English: God has sent you to me, thank you, I can walk no more.  Meanwhile the armpits and elbows above us tried to shuffle about to give an inch of floor space for Simone’s mochila.  I wearily pick up mine and head down the flights of narrow stairs and out into the wet streets, chilled to the bone, soaking wet and lost, to look for somewhere to lay my own head.

To be continued ...



Sunday, August 10, 2014

Camino Five: A Park Bench, Paulo Coelho, Karel and Our Lady of Finisterre

 Weather in Logroño was cold and nearly wet.  I found Barclays behind arches of roses next to a building with the prettiest decorative pargeting.  I swallowed my shock at the rate of exchange, although once I was home I discovered it to be pleasantly in my favour, which just proves how dysfunctional my brain cells.  Another sleepless night - but I was wising up on rucksacks and decided that when it came to lugging the world on one’s shoulders it seemed English insisted on cheap where Everyone Else insisted on quality no matter what cost.  I discreetly lifted my bunkmate’s backpack when she went for a shower – good grief, it was weightless.  I noted Gregory, Jade 35L.  Golite Jam 35L was another impressive discovery.  One of those weightless wonders had travelled all the way from Le Puy.  Osprey appealed to me no end ... all of these happened to be American and weren’t in my local Mountain Warehouse where all I was shown were made of heavy duty canvas.  Even at double or triple the price these super light tough nylon numbers were worth their lightweight in gold.

Slow walk to Ventosa, a pretty village, population 150.  The one albergue was owned by an Austrian who registered it as a charity so she didn’t pay any tax to poor Spain.  Cold as Charity it was too: no blankets, a centimetre of very watered down soap for use after going to the loo, cold showers because the sun, covered all day with thick dark cloud, hadn’t heated the solar panels and the woman wasn’t putting on electricity.   All this for €10 a night.  There were 60 beds.  She was making €600 a night and paying no tax.  Wow!  The Austrian told me she had lived in Spain long enough to be “more like the Spanish really” and I said, “oh, I don’t think you are like the Spanish at all” thinking of their kindness and generosity and patience.

Back in the Bar a young Italian could barely walk, his knees had given out, and a Danish woman has dreadful blisters.  I’m doing alright.  Then a middle-aged American couple walked in, took a table, and ate their own food without even buying a drink.  They left peel and plastic for the staff to clean away but worse, the man removed his boots, lifted up a foot, pulled off his socks and began picking at his blisters! At the table!  I was aghast, and on behalf of all the non-English speakers present and taking up cudgels on behalf of a bar owner struggling to survive in this miniscule hamlet, (the owner being Spanish would pay tax) I walked over and said: Would you behave like this in your own town?  Your own country? Well, would you? These tables are for people to eat food at.

The American looked at me blankly and grunted. And I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters I wouldn’t have patience with pilgrims who leave their manners behind when they walk through another’s country!! I am enjoying giving full expression to the grumpy old woman who lives inside me and laugh at myself for having the nerve to say what others think.

I am relaxing now and walking well. I took a leaf out of ditzy Marilyn’s book and sent my mochila on to my next albergue by Jacotrans.  This is beautiful country; the hills up to Alto de San Anton are steep and the descent to Nájera fairly sheer.  The river is fast flowing, an abundance of roses fill every garden, the fragrance of old species like Damasks and Bourbons, Louise Odier in particular, was thrilling.  I so long for a garden of my own, all I can manage to grow in my estate of two square metres is a Cecile Brunner and a Ferdinand Pichard.  I went in to the Monasterio Santa Maria Real once I reached Nájera and found, in a deliberately darkened grotto, a fabulous Madonna.  I bought a postcard and discovered she was named Our Lady of the Rose.  I wandered the streets, found a bar offering a pilgrim meal and a single room for €15.  Bliss.  Tomorrow Santa Domingo de la Calzada.

The rain skirted my path all the way. Clouds dark, lowering, ominous, tipping down rain to my right and to my left over fields of green wheat and red poppies, a few hefty spots fell on me but the storm, which went on and on with the wildest of buffeting winds, stayed circling me.  I was so grateful and shouted thank you thank you into the wild wind as I walked.

Goodness I feel grubby!  That’s okay in the fields but once I reach human habitation even the men smell lovely as they pass me, Terre d'Hermès Eau de Toilette is apparently de rigueur!  I shower, my clothes are clean if a little dusty, but I am not my usual self.  I rely on flowers for fragrance.  Am now well and truly in Rioja with its soil so red and grapevines as far as the horizon.  I love my macabi skirt, can pee standing! Check the wind and air dry! I watch women struggle lifting huge backpacks off and on, bending and pulling down their trousers and knickers and what all and wonder what possesses women to cross dress.  I dispensed with knickers years ago convinced they were the vestigial remains of the chastity belt, a male invention.  Cry Freedom!

Jacotrans took care of my mochila again today so I will walk 15 or so miles, 21 kms actually, with my day pack, water, camera and journals.  And I do.  Santo Domingo is gorgeous, just gorgeous.  I meet a lovely Frenchwoman and we share an alcove in a spartan and none too clean convent – and oh, our alcove ricochet’s with the snores of twenty snorers in the main room.  Christine tells me she has walked from Le Puy, she is walking to resolve her grief at the sudden death of her beloved husband to whom she was married for forty years.  They walked the world together.  Such sorrow fills me as she speaks.  She says she knows I can feel her sadness and that I am the first person she has spoken of it since she began her walk six weeks before.  We sit silently on a bench in a patch of sun for a long time before going inside.  She also says the only way to salvage sleep to restore one’s sanity is to alternate albergue’s with pensions.

We exchange emails in the morning.  She is driven to walk on and I, having had another sleepless night, make the momentous decision to walk thirty metres to the albergue across the road and sleep.  Christine laughs hugely and hugs me warmly.  It was a wise decision.  

The five star municipal albergue is something else, complete with hairdryers in the spotless and superbly equipped ladies shower room.  The hospitalero also laughs hugely as I enter at 0800 hours but he takes pity on my appearance and lets me in (they don’t actually re-open until noon to allow for cleaning) tells me to take a top bunk in the furthest dorm, sleep while I am alone.   Should have listened to Christine though, it was here the little Asian gentleman practised calisthenics (I prayed he would commit hara kiri and let me sleep) shaking the bunk above me all night while his mate next to me snored for Korea, or Japan, or even the whole of China.  The wretched little Asians bounced off their bunks at 5 am ... so I left too.  I wondered if there was a message here for me ... something about Just Use Jeff’s Gift and Get a Life! 
Heavenly walk in mist and rain, the dawn chorus amplified.  Recalled that John Brierley called this particular stretch of road “soulless”.  As a man is so he sees.  It is shimmeringly alive with winged singers – birds, dearest souls.  Ah well, as the Sufi says: in a room full of saints a thief will only see pockets.  John Brierley sees soulless – says much of him.  A friend gave me JB’s guide when I first decided to walk, so glad I read it and abandoned it.

I reflect on things as I walk.  Leaving early I NOK’d and sock’d my feet, put a small pull of M’s gift of Blue Leicester fleece between my little toes and rubbed L’s gift of Thai balm into my thighs to warm the muscles.  I thank them all.  A beautiful walk, wild and windy and sleeting rain all around me again.  I carried Caroline’s poncho and fought ferocious elements to engulf myself in it with help from Nadine and André from Pas de Calais who have walked from Le Puy.  I pass Belgian Denis on his return from Santiago – he has notched up 5240 kms, obviously via Montenegro ...

Double rainbows arch over El Camino as I walk spritely into the first town for coffee and brioche.  Only as far as Viloria de Rioja today.  Leaving at 5 am meant I arrived hours too early for the albergue to open so I sit freezing on the stone step.  The pitfall of sending the mochila ahead is that I can’t retrieve it from behind the very locked doors to continue walking. Big Mistake.  My knocking on the door has no response, indeed there is a sign saying: do not knock before 13.30.  I sit on the freezing stone step watching the storm circle me.  The village has no bar, no café, no shelter.  It is Sunday and I foolishly have no provisions to get me through the noonday blood sugar crunch.

My mood drops and darkens as storm clouds close in around me like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  I move to the wooden park bench up on the main street thinking it warmer than the stone step and wonder how I will get through the next hours.  A Dutch couple are about to pass when the man asks why I am sitting here and I manage to grumble through the dark clouds of my mind: I’m waiting for a miracle.  I need food.
"Food? he replies, you need food?  I have food", and he sits down beside me and produces biscuits and cheese and the woman sits on the other side of me and produces a knife and bread and chorizo and chocolate and as I eat the dark clouds lift and I am back to normal!  Even the Four Horsemen hover without menace.  A van pulls up and out jumps a local man with bottles of water to give us because we are peregrinos.  Oh people are so kind.  The Dutchman bids the Dutchwoman walk on, they are not a couple, as he says he wants to tell me his story.
Rewind: Glastonbury 
12th May 2014

The day before I left Glastonbury for my Camino a Dutch friend came to see me and to give me a gift for my pilgrimage.  Johanna knew about walking.  She had walked from Le Hague to Jerusalem, 5000 kms, 3500 miles.  She went through all the countries on a straight line on the map from Holland to Israel – that’s a lot of countries – carrying her rucksack, a tent, her flute and her eyeliner.  She said I ought to go to Finisterre after reaching Santiago, and this gift was to be a reminder. She held out to me a beautiful medallion of Our Lady of Finisterre.  I accepted it and wore it, it being rather too large to wear round my neck, pinned with a gold safety pin on the inside of one of the deep pockets of my skirt.  I left home to walk the Camino on 13th May 2014.
Karel began his story: On 12th May 2010 my daughter Linda and my son in law Jeffrey died on their honeymoon in an air crash.  No one survived the crash.   On 13th May 2014 I left home to walk the Camino.  The day before was the Memorial Day of the disaster.  On that day the closest girlfriend of my daughter gave me a small stone heart and said she had put one like it on the grave of Linda and Jeffrey.  “Take this heart with you and Linda’s and your heart will be connected on your journey.”

I am looking for a miracle, said Karel, tears filling his eyes, my daughter and I had a very close relationship.  The year before the air disaster she wrote a poem of our special father daughter relationship which gave us so much joy.  She said she wanted to share the joy with the world so she put her poem into a bottle and we went to the pier at Scheveningen where she threw the bottle into the sea.  I am going to walk to Finisterre because I am looking for a miracle.  My prayer to my heavenly Father is that the bottle with the message that my daughter threw into the sea the year before she died will be washed ashore in Finisterre when I am sitting on the beach at the end of my Camino.
As Karel unfolded his heartaching story I could barely contain such sorrow.  I knew what I must do. Karel, my voice slow with the weight of sadness, God always gives us miracles but, my voice slowed even more, sometimes the miracles are not the way we hope for.  On 12th May a Dutch friend who lives in my town came to say goodbye and to give me a gift.  She had walked from Le Hague to Jerusalem and her book is published in Holland.  She said I must walk to Finisterre and she gave to me a medallion which would protect me on my Way.
I was fiddling in my pocket, unpinning Our Lady of Finisterre.  I brought it out, holding it in the palm of my hand:  I believe this is meant for you to have; your daughter is always with you.

Sometimes a mystery is too overpowering and one can sense the Presence of the Unseen worlds.  The Silence then surrounding us stilled the attention of the whole natural world – the wind had stopped, no pilgrims passed by us, the birds had ceased to sing – and in this holy moment Linda was intimately close.  Karel accepted the gift.  We each recognised all the guiding synchronicities of our journeys that led to our meeting now              

We hugged. Karel took a ‘selfie’ of us as he went on his way, waving and singing a song he had learned for the Camino. 


I went down to the albergue which was about to open.  My day of Moments hadn’t ended.  Acacio, the owner, told me he was fully booked yesterday and tomorrow, but tonight there was one bed available.   He let me use his personal computer and because it was a personal computer and not a public one microsoft allowed me access to my emails.  It would be the last time I could.  An email from Olivia in America began: 

Dearest Zoé

I am walking the Camino with you in spirit as I read Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage ....

I look up at the wall above me.  There is a life sized photo of Paul Coelho.  Acacio, I ask, why is there a portrait of Paulo Coelho looking at me?  And I am beyond being astonished when I hear something along the lines of: I am from Brazil, I know Paulo Coelho and he is the Patron, the Godfather, of this albergue...

Dearest Olivia

You won’t believe me but I am replying to your email as I sit under a portrait of Paulo Coelho who happens to be Patron of this albergue ...

Here in this tiny albergue of nine beds I meet Ela and Christina from Canada, Jüergen from Austria, Celso a cyclist from Brazil and Simone from Belgium.  Simone and I roast our socks over the fire to dry.  It is cold here.  I learn that Simone is 81 and has feet so deformed by bunions she can only walk in socks and sandals.  She will walk the whole Camino; I will meet her again tomorrow ...

To be continued ...

Camino Four: Los Arcos, Torres del Rio and Fast Forward to Logroño.

I ache, oh I ache.  I ache in every fibre of my body, I ache from walking, I ache from carrying the world on my back (even with the absence of eyeliner) and I ache from exhaustion and sleep deprivation.  If I could kill every snorer I would.  Most cheerfully.  There they lie, sleeping the sleep of the unjust, shaking the bunks, the floors, the very walls of the dormitories; their snoring would make piglings in a pigsty sound like Palestrina.  And then they wake up – they dare to wake up fresh as daisies, bright eyed and bushy tailed, wondering why the rest of us lay like limp rags, scowling loudly in their direction.  I’ll wager all these lone men are lone because their wives are desperately trying to catch up on years and years of sleep deprivation.  Their wives have probably begged them to take a Walk, a Long Walk ...   Yet I will soon confess – there are women snorers who are unfit for communal living too.  I was about to meet three in a room for four. 

Walk, eat, sleep.  That’s the mantra. Hot shower on arrival to ease away the worst of the aches, dress in tomorrow’s top and skirt, same petticoat, rest the feet by putting on sandals, applying the German herbal cream of different mints and rosemary; wash whatever might need washing and then go and forage for food. With my wavering blood sugar ups and downs the menu del dia at lunch suits me well.  It’s always a substantial three course meal with a bottle of wine, which I swap for water, although that is often included, dessert, coffee.  Sightseeing or meandering takes care of the afternoon, or journal writing.  I keep awake and moving in an effort to make myself so exhausted I’ll sleep through gunfire.  It hasn’t worked so far.  

Surrounded by so many different energies in a dormitory wreaks havoc with a sensitive nervous system – there are other explanations of course, but here is not the platform for launching into more esoteric doctrines. I have Jeff’s gift yet I am hesitant to dip into it to take a single room in a hotel to catch up on sleep for good reasons – I don’t know how long the walk will take me and I haven’t yet had the inner green light for permission to abandon vestigial Camino Calvinism.  Thou, Pilgrim, Shalt Suffer.  My paternal forbears are Swiss from Geneva and Lausanne, one French one German, but the French, with all its joy and sensuality and Catholicism and love of pleasure and beauty and adornment was thoroughly crushed by the German who carried Luther and Calvin in his psychology.  It’s taken me decades to bring together the French margins; clothes and an innate sense of colour coordination redeemed the yawning possibility of severe guilt destroying the charm of frivolity that dances in the corners of my soul and wardrobe.

I can barely remember my walk to Los Arcos.  It was pretty and rural. Birds sang; poppies, ox-eye daisies, honeysuckle and wild roses lined the path; wheat fields young and green patchwork the distances as far the horizon; haystacks the size of apartment blocks astonish credulity.  The fountains are there just as my water bottle needs refilling, so are the wayside stones with their cheerful scallop shells and yellow arrows.  I have my slender Michelin guide with its contour profiles and A for albergues at the relevant villages or towns, but one could walk without even that.  I smile at the Americans and Australians with their head in the John Brierley guide, a dreadful book, and disturbingly inaccurate at times, so heavily biased is it to JB’s view of what is wholesome and good.  Those who add to his considerable bank balance are walking his Camino, not their own:  And did you feel the Force? See the Sign? Watch the geese flying backwards?  Feel the guilt when you thought an uncharitable thought?  Oh spare me the guru gabble I say to them, uncharitably and guiltlessly.  Sleep deprivation does nothing for my health and temper.

And at Los Arcos a snaggle toothed Austrian half my age decides I need a doctor before she’ll let me in to her horrid albergue to rest.  She takes my mochila from my back, turns me round, whistles for the Hound of the Baskervilles to rise from its mephitic blanket and off we march. My feeble protest: I’m only tired, all I need is sleep falls on fallow ground as I register the street direction, the baker, the square, the gorgeous church and the disdain of the locals as Baskerville runs riot and pees on flower pots, doors, café table legs, the fountain ... I wish I was invisible.  At the doctors’ my prayers are answered – first, my EHIC is back in my mochila and second, the doctor is off for lunch.  Snaggle and Baskerville abandon me.  Just like that.

I make my way to the square where a sturdy Australian woman is drinking a large glass of red something with ice cubes and slices of orange.  I ask her what it is.  Sangria, she says, and appraises my pilgrim lurch, rightly assessing my aches: three of these and you’ll be right, she grins. She’s right.  I knock back one, and savour a second.  It’s nectar, pure nectar.  Sitting in the square in the sunshine all’s well with the world and I beam welcomes to pilgrims’ as they arrive – Canadians Gary and Tina in her macabi and pink headband – she has her stitches out tomorrow – Australians Vanessa and John, Austrian Ilse, Texan Colin, and three English septuagenarians who have remained in touch since school days.  They live in different countries and decided to celebrate their friendship by meeting in Spain to walk the Camino.

I explore the Church.  It has now opened and I am enchanted by its beauty and its Madonna. I gaze long at this Madonna, Santa Maria de los Arcos, she is lovely and steps from her twelfth century Trône de Sagesse to greet me today.  I love the turn of her smile.  I never confuse these images with the archetypes they represent; I gaze on them to be reminded always of things eternal.  I gaze on the Blessed Virgin to be reminded of Her parthenogenesis, a fact ignored or unknown by all but Catholics.  She, too was immaculately conceived, an Immaculate Conception; Catholic ‘patriarchy’ didn’t get it ‘wrong’ but every other offshoot of Christianity did.  Having obliterated this mysterious continuum of the Goddess the hollow men of the Reformation dispensed with Mary and all the ancient mythos she enshrines. Today’s feminists might be wiser for that knowing.  My beloved Virgins in Majesty, all older than the printing press, tell me an older, richer story.

I return to Austria.  It was hell on all counts. We were four women crowded in a tiny room of two, two-tiered bunks and in a room of two doors which became a thoroughfare for door-slammers to reach a larger dormitory with umpteen bunks equally as crowded.  The other three women were large and each snored deafeningly.  My bunk trembled.  The American above me, young, pretty, very large, very privileged – her father was a consultant medical something or other and money grew on trees – was the least pleasant. She railed at all the bread she had eaten along her Camino, as if it was the only fare to be had in Spain, and when I returned from the loo in the morning I found my bag of peaches and cherries and yogurt bought for my breakfast walk had gone walkabout.  So had she.  It was a grim and sleepless night and almost, but not quite, the worst albergue experience I would have.

Ragged and tired and hungry the following morning I walked eight kilometres to Torres del Rio and came to a halt at the church wall upon which I sat, completely dysfunctional.  I didn’t even know where I was headed for.  A woman, two women in fact, approached me and although we hadn’t a word of each other’s language I knew they knew my pilgrim condition.  One pointed me to a café; surely I understood coffee, car, Logroño ...?  I limped over to the café and sat sipping my café con leche suddenly feeling extraordinarily protected.  Like Jenny-any-dots I would simply – sit, though I took a moment to record the nightmares of the previous night in my journal as worse than being in a Hieronymus Bosch painting.  I watched pilgrims pass, reflected on the row of Templar flags adorning the terrace and didn’t care if I died right then. 

Fifteen minutes passed, twenty, more.  The angel in the green and gold shawl from our encounter by the church wall appeared, picked up my mochila and told me to follow her all the way to her car, she opened the doors, put my mochila in the back, closed the doors once I was in and off we went.  I didn’t care where we were going and sat back to enjoy the godsend, though I had the clearest sense of it being a goddess-send.
Fields sped by, trails of pilgrims heading in the same direction as my angel driver seemed a good sign.  I acknowledged with gratitude the blessing of a walk free day wherever it was I might end up.  Lanes became roads became a freeway with switchbacks with large roundabouts and ... Logroño.  My goodness, here I was.  Pilar dropped me at an albergue in the cobbled side street of the mediaeval centre of the town, I ran round to hug her and thank her with all my heart as an hospitalero came to pick up my mochila, invite me in and stamp my credencial.  I felt blessed for now and when I organised myself, my bunk and my sang-froid, set off to explore the Cathedral, indulge in a cup of pure chocolate velvet and fall about laughing as I peered in a bookshop window to see, centre stage, a coffee-table book of – Hieronymus Bosch!

To be continued ...


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Camino Three - La Casa Magica and Beyond

 Before I left for the Camino I read that a woman in the sacristy at Le Puy walked from there to Santiago three times; Le Puy to Santiago is 1000 miles.  The third time she walked it was after a serious hip operation at the age of 74.  Alexandra David-Néel, whose photo I have on my camera for a quick pick-me-up when I’m flagging, walked at least 3000 miles into and through Tibet and the Himalayas over a number of years.  The French government refused to renew her passport at the age of 87, or was it 94, because by then she was a National Treasure and they didn’t want her disappearing behind a snow drift somewhere beyond Zhongba.  She died in 1969 aged 101, on my 13th birthday, as it happened. 

Peace Pilgrim, between the ages of 59 to 86, clocked up 25,000 miles wearing out numberless pairs of plimsolls as she criss-crossed America.  The young Slovenian angel yesterday had walked from Trinidad des Arres to Cirauqui in one go.  Twenty five plus miles.  Exhausted, she still took time to massage my knee ... 

I walked as far as Villatuerta, taking the advice of the two women hospitaleros who were so kind yesterday and who said firmly do not walk more than 10 kilometres tomorrow.  Villatuerta was about ten kilometres, not a hilly walk and across the bridge I saw the sign for an albergue and as the town was so pretty, the river so clear and gurgling as it wound its way through glades, I stopped right there.  As soon as I entered the huge door of the unpromising exterior I was entranced: the renovation of this old warren of rooms under many layered roof heights supported by massive round beams was a delight to see.  Cobbled courtyard, tiled stairs, whitewashed dormitories with real beds not bunks, little individual alcoves - I chose one by a balcony with French doors, the fragrance of the jasmine polyanthum tumbling down the old wall outside filled the room. 

La Casa Magica was ... magic.  I washed my 1000mile socks and yellow towel, adding a touch of zest to the old warm walls behind the washing lines.  Everyone I met here was special: the Lovelies from Castlemaine in Victoria; Canadian Lovelies; all manner of Lovelies.  I named all the couples I had more than passing conversations with ‘Lovelies’ as that’s what they were.  Hullo Lovelies! I would call when we were to meet along the Way – and guess what, they all knew who I was calling which just proves that really lovely people know they are just that – lovely!  Better than names any day. 

The owners of la Casa Magica met while walking the Camino; later they created this haven for pilgrims.  Dinner and breakfast, all organic, prepared and cooked lovingly, were beyond delicious.  I overheard a young man at the other end of the table say, nodding in my direction, that he wished he had a video so he could show his wife he had met Judi Dench’s sister.  Poor JD ... it’s been said before, but walking the Camino is not doing my appearance any favours. 

Cherries in abundance by the river and a glamorous wedding in the old church left warm memories of a relaxing day and a reluctance to walk on ... but I woke refreshed – no one in my dorm except a Frenchman in the other alcove.  He didn’t snore.  And he thoroughly approved of my use of NOK in the morning, saying also that a midday sprinkle of l’Occitane Roses des Quatre Reines talcum powder on the feet was the perfect protection against blisters for longer walks.  One can always rely on a Frenchman to be so specific in his preferences. 

A beautiful walk over small bridges took me through Estella, another town that appeared too large to explore for an albergue.  I passed the thousand steps up to the church, my legs said firmly, No! at the thought of climbing them.  I walked on two blocks, happened to glance left and to my amazement saw a lift shaft ascending straight to heaven with no apparent reason for its being there at the end of an alley.  An adventure, I thought, and veered off to explore it.  I pressed the button, opened the door, pressed the button for the top floor and whoosh! I was on top of the world. 

Stepping out revealed a splendid panorama of the town with the mountains beyond – and a long wooden walkway directing me into the back of the church.  An invitation.  It just so happened Mass was on.  Still wearing my mochila I joined the queue and to my surprise the priest offering the Host said Body of Christ in English.

I replied, as one does, and he hesitated.  In a nanosecond I knew why: I am Catholic, I smiled, and he was comforted!  Later he said, heavily, there are very few Catholics in England and I replied I know, I’m one of the few!  I added: and could I possibly use your loo?  He invited me into the Sacristy where I had a brainwave.  ‘I’ve not been able to access my emails,’ I said, ‘and no one knows where I am, could I ask you an enormous favour?  Please would you look up Our Lady of Glastonbury and send an email telling my parish that Zoé made it to Estella?’  Many weeks later I learned that he did. 

On I walked through light forests, pausing at the Monasterio de Irache for the obligatory wine from the fountain.  I topped up my water bottle with it, a wise move; it gave me wings to ascend the next vertical mountain to Villamayor de Montjardin.  

That vertical did it for me.  I sank into a heap at the hospitalero's table and asked for a bed in this attractive restored Dutch albergue.  Well, he didn't think there were any left, but to wait a moment as he disappeared.  Quite a while later he returned to say a young person had given up the last bed and would sleep on a mattress in the foyer... and it really was a bed, not a bunk, with gay red sheets and pillowcase.  I gave profuse thanks to all and later watched with compassion as so many other tired peregrinos were being turned away.

Again, a super albergue with good food, lots of grace, a touch evangelical, but that was their charism. A ditzy Australian wearing 4 inch high heeled boots shared my room.  Her rucksack weighed 20 kgs, she thought, and she carried the entire range of Lancôme serums and creams, make up and perfume!  Time, I thought, to break out my eyeliner ... but, oh bummer!  I couldn't find it.  The last time I used it was in Bilbao the day before I became a peregrina ... ah well, it'll have to go on my must buy list for Burgos.  

to be continued...

Monday, August 4, 2014

Camino Two - Eunate to Cirauqui

A tricky but so pretty descent from my first mountain until the flat at Uterga and on to Muruzábel.  I was in good spirits, fairly bounced along, plucked honeysuckle to put in my scarf for perfume, ate a wha whoom! bought from Carrefore in Pamplona.  Love these French crepes rolled around a filling of Nutella.  Turned into the last village and asked a pretty young woman the path the Eunate.  She turned at my voice, I swallowed involuntarily as she touched my arm and led me to the end of her home where another road ran left through a small green.  She was blind.  I thanked her, lightly touching her arm too, and walked as she had directed.  And walked and walked.

There was a provocative sign saying Eunate in a field ahead but no arrows.  Which path should I take?  As always I sent up a quick Help to Holy Mary, without much confidence I confess; there was no evidence of human habitation from where I stood.  But lo and behold the sentence was barely out of my mouth when appeared a tractor!  I waved him to stop and shouted over the engine's roar ... the driver laughed, not another doughy pilgrim I could hear him thinking as he pointed straight ahead and then right.

A long walk, by my standards, and then I was there.  It was a pretty Romanesque church and the tranquillity within tangible.  I sat, thankful, for some while in the presence of the Madonna in Majesty seated on the Throne of Wisdom, as all Madonnas were prior to the invention of the printing press since when we've been told what to think and how to think it.  ("I read it in a book, the newspaper" assumes the gravitas of the Holy Writ, and more recently "I saw it on TV, facebook, twitter" and twits believe it).

I felt compelled to walk on to Ma
ñeru as the famed Puente la Reina seemed too big a town for my apprehension to cope with looking for a small albergue.  Big Mistake.  I didn't register the climb.  I walked for hours alone until a woman came towards me carrying an orchid.  I asked her how far away was this elusive village; well, I didn't quite have the command of Spanish or Basque to put it so eloquently, but she understood my torture of her language and to my dismay held up the flat of her hand to vertical and said 5 kilometres.  Uh oh!

It was vertical too.  I thought I would die.  I had finished my water, had no fruit, my legs were wobbly.  Silly me.  On and on and on and up and up and up I went to collapse at the door of an
albergue of twelve beds in a village of fourteen houses.  The owner looked at me with enormous pity, gave me two glasses of water in quick succession, but said: completo.  I confess I burst into tears of exhaustion.  She patted my hand, she'd already taken off my mochila, and made a phone call.  She then indicated I sit where I was and off she went.  A good ten minutes later a young man arrived and then I heard a car.  This kindly woman had rustled up a temporary caretaker for her albergue, gone to fetch her car, picked up my mochila and invited me to sit in the passenger seat.  She drove me miles up hill and down dale to Cirauqui where I was welcomed by a young woman who spoke English, smiled as she stamped my credencial
and said: Glastonbury? My boyfriend comes from Dorset! 

I had the last bunk.  But my knees had died and I couldn't walk upstairs.  Somehow, with help, I did.  A young Slovenian woman had watched my hobbling progress up the stairs, came to my bunk and offered to massage my knees with a special herbal unguent from Germany.  She warmed her hands under running hot water before she began.  It was magical, and she insisted I keep the cream.  You know, that cream lasted me until Santiago. I used it on my feet and knees after each day's walk.  I used Lynne's gift of Thai burn-through-to-the-aching-muscle ointment on my left thigh each day too, and always the French secret, NOK, to anoint my feet with each morning before swaddling them in 1000mile socks.  I didn't get one blister, and from Cirauqui on didn't have a single twinge in either knee regardless of the mountains I would climb. There were times BC - before Camino - when my knee would give out as I walked up Glastonbury High Street, so this gift of healing was not something I glossed over.

I sat on the church wall in the setting sun, did a double take as my charcoal skirt walked past.  Macabi! I called, and stood up to reveal mine!  Tina's pink headband hid stitches; she had fallen on that tricky but pretty descent down to Uterga; a doctor stitched her head and hand ...

The albergue offered a pilgrim meal which I ate with gusto at a table with a Dutchman who had read Johanna's book - in Dutch - of her walk from Le Hague to Jerusalem.  I had her gift of Our Lady of Finisterre pinned to the inside pocket of my skirt.  Such synchronicities ...

And the tales continue ...