Thursday, 22 February 2018

Simply the best - whew!

The last few days have passed quickly as the rhythm of the Camino has become established: get up, breakfast, walk all day, shower, wash clothes, eat, sleep and repeat. In saying that there has been nothing routine about this route which has some of the best views and finest walking of my many caminos. However there are some caveats. So far there have been two or three stages which are not for the faint hearted, unprepared or inexperienced pilgrim. I also think that the way this route has been designed using local hiking trails in the National Parks which may be suitable for day walkers isn't always safe or comfortable for full rucksack carrying pilgrims.

The best, or should I say, most testing example of this is the 12 kms stage from Colmenar to Cortes de la Frontera. "Only 12 kms?" I hear you saying. That's what we thought until discovering the stage entails walking up the side of a steep gorge which is 100 metres deep. The route goes up one side then plummets down to the bottom so that you can then walk up the other side which is even higher although perhaps easier to walk. Using wire ropes as hand holds to pull yourself up this stage takes several hours longer than the 12 kms distance suggests at first sight. This national monument is affectionately called the Cañón de las Buitreras ("Vulture's Nest Canyon"). For some the most exciting part is going through a tunnel and crossing the Puente de los Alemanes, the German Bridge across the gorge. Don't look over if you are afraid of heights. In fact in one You Tube video I watched a man was crossing on hands and knees! But the vistas are of course gorgeous.

The first part of the next day to Benaojan was shrouded in early morning mist and when the sun broke through a vast green valley opened before us bounded by mountains on either side. The train track ran parallel to the walking path and soon we were in the picturesque village of Jimena de Líbar. We ate our sandwiches on a bench and just as we were set to leave the local bar opened. We stopped for coffee and chatted to the owners a husband and wife from England and Denmark who have made their life in Andalucía. The area is very popular with day walkers and the husband showed us the Wikiloc tracks he'd recorded. "Do you know the Cañon de los Buitreras?" We asked. "Oh yes, " he replied, "I was so scared I had to cross the German Bridge on hands and knees and some blighter put a video of me on You Tube!" Yes, we know.

The path continued and we followed the yellow arrows. Then came a sign in Spanish and English. The English read, "Use extreme caution there is danger of falling." I thought this was a bad translation meaning "there is a danger of landslides or falling rocks". I was soon to discover the danger was of me falling off the narrow ledges often with the aid of hand ropes. We walked high above the valley and the river below until we reached Benaojan. Next day was straightforward to Ronda although at one point it looked tantalisingly close when the path descended rapidly and we had a long slog back up again. As you can see in the photo Ronda is very beautiful. The following morning the skies were clear and blue and we enjoyed the vast panoramic views as we descended from the cliff top town.

I've concluded that the folk who designed this route must have been youthful Olympic athletes because the distances recommended are prodigious and frankly too much for me. So rather than the long stage to Olvera we decided to stop after 20 kms in Setenil de las Bodegas. This was the best decision so far because we discovered it is a quite beautiful and magical pueblo blanco built in terraces with many houses built right into the rockface. It is surrounded by dozens of homemade wine cellars, the bodegas, which sprout from the rock.

By splitting this route into bite size portions we've been able to recover from the exertions of some stages which felt like getting on a step machine for several hours. We've also been able to explore ways of walking round one or two portions which may make the route inaccesible to many pilgrims. These will be described in the walking notes which will follow.

Leaving Setenil this morning I felt that we had discovered a very special place which otherwise we might have missed.

Then it was on to Olvera. "Only 14 kms" but with several elevations enough for a good cardiovascular workout. We saw the town nestled on the hilltop and just below it the pueblo of Torre Alháquime. They sat there perfectly like siblings of different sizes. Of course the way to Olvera was to climb, climb, climb up through the steep streets of Torre Alháquime then up again to the hermitage of San Isidro. Thankfully the way flattens out from here. I hope.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

High hills and castles in the air

La Línea de la Concepción to San Martín de Tesarrilo (28kms) to Los Ángeles /Jimena de la Frontera (20 kms) to El Colmenar

The route from La Línea to Seville is 234 kms long. We've planned two weeks walking with the intention of making a full set of walking notes available at the end. Therefore these blog posts are just my thoughts as we go along - the details will come later. I promise!

For the last few years I've been exploring walking routes in the South of Spain. In Andalucía in particular. Málaga and Córdoba to Merida, Valencia north on the Camino Levante, walking along the coast line of the Costa del Sol. I find the people extremely friendly, the weather fabulous if at times too hot and the scenery stunning. In particular I love the Pueblos Blancos, the villages which seem to grow out of the hillside where every house is painted white. Some even have elevators to help the locals come and go.

As well as maintaining the guidebooks which the CSJ publish to raise funds I've been thinking about how to make some of the lesser known routes more accessible to more pilgrims. When my friend Alan told me about the Via Serrana from La Línea to Seville I was hooked.

Leaving wet and cold Galicia everything seems to change arriving in the South. However despite the better weather I find La Línea de la Concepción a depressing place. It is like a run down commuter town, which I suppose it is since a large percentage of the population work in neighbouring Gibraltar.

The route to San Martín de Tesarrilo is some 28 kms with about a third on the road. Also for a first day is has a couple of nippy little elevations. The 28 kms is easily cut down to size if you wish by walking the first 8kms to the village of San Roque and bussing or taxi back to La Línea to resume next day.

Overall for these first stages the waymarking has been good and we've only had to search for the next arrow once or twice. The local Amigos have done a great job. The first tile is on the wall of the modern church of Santiago in La Línea and soon the arrows point the way out of town to the first little white hillside town of San Roque. The patrón Saint of pilgrimage!

Soon the countryside opens up to orange groves and lush fields. Whilst Andalucia can be a dry arid place in the height of summer at this time it is abundantly green as far as the eye can see. Looking back above San Roque the Rock of Gibraltar still punctuates the horizon and in fact even today in the hills high above Colmenar it could be clearly seen.

Accommodation in the village of Secadero next to San Martín de Tesarrilo was just excellent. Spotlessly clean rooms in a modest hostel with private bath for 15 euros. Dinner in the local bar was potato salad, green salad, pork chops, chocolate cake, wine, water and bread for 10 euros.

Moving on early next morning the air was cool and crisp and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Soon I became aware of the sounds of this Camino, the chorus of bells from the herds of deep brown dairy cows grazing in the fields, the neighing of the many beautiful horses we passed as this is equestrian country where polo is the local sport. As we rose higher I was struck by the sheer luscious greenness of the hills and deep valleys. This could be Scotland - albeit with different vegetation. As the day passed we saw Jimena de la Frontera on the hillside. A perfect Pueblo Blanco topped by a moorish style castle. At night it is lit and shines across the campo.

We are basing ourselves here for three nights to walk the next stages and return by train. These etapas are tough and staying in one place means we can carry less making taking notes, and walking up stiff elevations easier.

One point to make is that there are few points to stop for coffee or top up with water. Pilgrims on this route need to plan ahead.

Today walking from Jimena de la Frontera to El Colmenar was tough however the rewards came early with beautiful views of the white town sitting in the sunshine in all its splendour. Soon we were into proper mountain walking as we rose up and up. There were fantastic panoramic views which were the reward for two stretches of 200 m ascents in 2kms. There was some shade afforded by trees which also housed hundreds of chirping birds. After the first ascent as I stopped to draw breath high on the mountain a tale wagging dog approached accompanied by a deeply bronzed leather skinned shepherd.  I don't know who was more surprised but I got the distinct impression he thought we were crazy as he pointed the way... Arriba, arriba, arriba...up, up, up!

More later!

Thursday, 15 February 2018

From the shadow of the Rock

Carnaval was splendid in Málaga. It was as if the whole town dressed up. There was a magnificent fashion parade and then the extravagant procession for the symbolic burial of the sardine which marks the end of the festivities before the austere season of Lent begins. Many Spanish communities have this or a similar ceremony. It is a kind of "out with the old and in with the new" event symbolising the end of the old year and the time of feasting before the penitential season of Lent which ends with Easter the most important celebration of new life in the Christian calander.
I didn't bury any sardines but I did meet up with the Big Man and two other Scottish friends for our own Fat Tuesday lunch. Wine food and conversation flowed although I suspect with our Glasgow accents the waiters thought we were from another planet.
But all good things must come to an end and on Ash Wednesday we donned our pilgrim gear, pulled on our boots and rucksacks to begin walking from La Línea de la Concepción to Sevilla via the magnificent Andalucian town of Ronda.
We boarded a packed bus and just short of three hours later the Rock of Gibraltar loomed large as we entered La Línea, the Spanish town on the frontier with the controversially British Gibraltar. La Línea is almost literally in the shadow of the Rock and a great percentage of the residents work in Gibraltar.
We checked into our hostal and made our way to Mass at the Church of Santiago where the route called the Via Serrana begins. Defined and well marked by the local amigos the route takes two weeks to walk and joins the Via de la Plata in Sevilla. My friend Alan Sykes told me about it last year. He said that one or two of the stages have the finest scenery of all of his caminos. Irresistible!
The church of Santiago in La Línea is disappointing in its modern architecture. However what it lacked in design it made up for in enthusiasm. The place was packed. Standing room only. At the end when everyone had been given their ashes a band appeared and the medal wearing brotherhood assembled to process through the streets with a statue of a very solemn looking figure of Jesus. Not being into all of this falderal we beat a hasty retreat to supper and an early night.
The walking today has been hard work but with great rewards in terms of the peaceful paths and great scenery. This is a route full of promise. I'll tell you more as the days pass.
For now we have rooms with private bath and heating for 15 euros each! Supper awaits downstairs.
A lasting memory of the day was the security guard at the tourist office in the little town of San Roque some 8kms from La Línea. Still in sight of Gibraltar he asked "English?" When we replied "no Scottish" his smile said it all.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Setting out again

Tomorrow I leave Santiago to go to Malaga and from there to La Linea de La Concepcion to start walking. No matter how many thousands of miles I've tramped on pilgrimage routes I still get excited and nervous.  My gear is laid out on the bed. New boots have been purchased and tried out. My rucksack sits there expectantly, ready to be packed. I'm reading again and again the websites and the accounts which my amigo Alan Sykes published. I know this route has some stiff elevations but Alan says some of the vistas are the best in all of his walking. And he is a prodigious walker.

Meeting up with the Big Man, we'll lunch in Malaga on Shrove Tuesday with two friends from  Scotland and then on the morning of Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we'll set off to La Linea and the Camino. That's the plan.

My plan is also to start writing on this blog again. I'm grateful to those who have written to say that they miss my scribbles.  It is now 10 years since that first Camino which changed my life and as well as walking a lot...and writing a dozen or so books I also came to live in Santiago and these last years here have been a Camino of a type in themselves.  In the coming months I'm going to start to write about them.

But first a period of reflection and a Camino during which I'll try to get back to what I started off doing, simply telling stories of my journey for my fellow pilgrims.

Buen Camino


Thursday, 23 November 2017

Preparing for your Camino next year? Festivals in Spain and Portugal

Thinking of walking in Spain or Portugal?

The Iberian Peninsula is a land rich in history, tradition and superstition. Portugal and Spain being “Catholic countries” share many of the same holidays and religious festivals. There are also many legends, some based on vague historical facts, others coloured with religious connotations.  You may wish to take these into account when planning your Camino either to avoid them or to see them!
First of all I’d like to introduce you to some of the festivals I’ve come across on my travels and Caminos throughout Spain and Portugal.

 “Why”, you may ask yourself, “ do up to 300 couples get married on the same day and often in the same ceremony on Saint Anthony’s Day in Lisbon in Portugal? “

The answer lies in the story of Saint Anthony who was born in Lisbon. He became known as a great miracle worker and also for his skills at reconciling couples. In Lisbon the festivities in his honour begin on the evening of June 12 with displays of walking groups and singers and parades and a custom is for young people to write letters on that day asking Saint Anthony to help them find a partner. Then on the 13th , Saint Anthony’s Feast Day, as evidence of how effective this is traditionally 13 couples get married together with all expenses being paid by the city council. But as happens one tradition led to another and for years on this feast it has become the fashion for hundred of the Noivas de Santo Antonio’ (the Brides of Saint Anthony) to get married on the same day.
At the same time the Sardine Festival takes place and this is replicated elsewhere in Spain and Portugal in different places and at different times. On the Feast of Saint John in Galicia the people jump over bonfires (Oh yes they do!) and eat grilled sardines provided by local restaurants for free. A close relative of this takes place in the South of Spain in Malaga and Murcia and other towns when there is the Burial of the Sardine to mark the end of the excesses of Carnival and to herald the start of Lent. Sardines it seems are ubiquitous.
Many Hispanic festivals end when the symbols of the excesses which have been enjoyed are ceremonially burned. There is also at the end of Carnival the traditional Quema del Raspajo when an effigy is burned to represent regeneration and freedom. Often this is used to poke fun at the political order as happened in Santiago last Ash Wednesday:
Other festivals are more difficult to understand. My favourites of these are the Baby Jumping Ceremony in the province of Burgos and the Festival of Near Death Experiences in Galicia. Both cause visitors to gasp in either amazement or anxiety!
Baby Jumping or El Colacho as it is known in the Province of Burgos called Castrillo de Murcia takes place every year around the Feast of Corpus Christi which is usually celebrated in May or June. The tradition dates back to the 17th Century. During the ceremony men dressed as the Devil (the Colacho) in red and yellow suits jump over babies, born during the previous 12 months, who lie on mattresses on the ground.  This is known as the jump of the devil, El Salto del Colacho. The “devils” carry whips and castanets as the jump over the fortunately unaware infants. 
The point of the ceremony is to cleanse the babies and drive out any evil spirits to prepare them for life. It is said however that Pope Benedict asked local priests to distance the church from the Jump of the Devil because the Catholic Church teaches that it is baptism and not jumping over babies which anoints children for the Christian life. Imagine that! 

However weirdest of all in my book is the Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme, also known as the Festival of Near Death Experiences. It takes place in a small Galician village on the border with Portugal – Las Nieves, Pontevedra on the 29th July. Here if you are suffering from a grave illness and wish to pray for recovery or if you have already recovered from near death and you wish to give thanks you…rent a coffin, get inside it and your friends and relatives carry you through the village in procession before laying your before the altar in the local church where you remain during mass!

 Ex Votos
At most of the festivals described here there may be stalls selling everything from fresh donuts to wax body parts. Yes, body parts. These are called Ex Votos, votive offerings to add to your prayers for recovery from an ailment to your hand, head, leg... Strange they may seem but they aren’t restricted to Catholicism I have seen them at Hindu temples in India and Buddhist shrines in Japan. For me they are still strange!
So if you are passing a church as I did the other day and you notice policemen lined up in dress uniform wearing white gloves don’t be surprised if it is the Feast of Guardian Angels – the patrons of the National Police. It was!   
Religious Festivals and Public Holidays
These feasts and holidays are observed in both countries except where otherwise indicated. Where the languages are different the names are given first in Portugese then Spanish.

1 January: New Year’s Day and the Feast of Mary, Mother of God - Santa Maria, Mãe de Deus/Santa María, Madre de Dios. 

6 January: The Epiphany - Dia de Reis/ Día del Reyes. In Spain this feast is celebrated as much as Christmas, and presents are often given on this day. There are street processions and celebrations.
Three Kings Procession
Carnaval: This is the period before the start of Lent and is a time of partying and over indulgence.

14 February: Ash Wednesday - Quarta feira de cinza/Miércoles de Ceniza, and the start of Lent - Quaresma/Cuaresma

19 March: The Feast of Saint Joseph - São José/San José. This is when Father’s Day is celebrated in both countries.

25 March – 1 April: Holy Week - Semana Santa, when there will be many religious services and street processions.

25 March: Palm Sunday - Domingo de Ramos 

29 March: Holy Thursday - Jueves Santo 

30 March: Good Friday - Sexta-feira Santa/Viernes Santo

1 April: Easter Sunday - Domingo de Páscoa/Domingo de Resurrección

25 April, in Portugal: Freedom Day - Dia da Liberdade, celebrates the 1974 coup d’état that ended the oppressive Estado Nuevo government and established the Portuguese Third Republic. 

1 May: Labour Day - Dia do Trabalhador/ Fiesta del Trabajo.

6 May: Mother’s Day - Dia da Mãe/Día de la Madre.

May/June (moveable dates):
10 May: Ascension Thursday - Ascensáo do Senhor/Ascensión del Señor (may be celebrated on Sunday 13 May)

20 May: Pentecost - Pentecostés 

31 May: Corpus Christi (may be celebrated on Sunday 3 June), with religious street processions in many places.
Corpus Cristi Procession
10 June, in Portugal: Portugal Day - Dia de Portugal.

25 July: Feast of Saint James - Santiago Apóstol, Patrón de España, Spanish 
National Holiday.

15 August: Feast of the Assumption - Assunção da Bem-Aventurada Virgem Maria/Asunción de la Virgen.

5 October, Portugal: Republic Day - Implantação da República, celebrates the end of Monarchy and the beginning of the Portuguese Republic.

12 October:  Día del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar) – Fiesta Nacional de España|Día de la Hispanidad (National Day|Hispanic Day).

1 November: All Saints - Todos os Santos/Todos los Santos.

2 November: All Souls - Dia de Finados/Todos los Difuntos.
Around these dates there may be local church services for those who have died in the community in the last year.

1 December: Portugal Restoration of Independence Day.

6 December: Spain Constitution Day - Día de la Constitución.

8 December: Feast of the Immaculate Conception - Imaculada Conceição da Bem-Aventurada Virgem Maria/La Inmaculada Concepción.

24 December: Christmas Eve - Véspera de Natal/Noche Buena, when traditionally Spanish families gather together at home for a meal. Many restaurants close.

25 December: Christmas Day - Natal do Senhor/Natividad del Señor.

31 December: New Year’s Eve|Hogmanay - Noite de Ano Novo/Noche Vieja.

Local Festivals and holidays in Portugal and Spain

Almost every village seems to have their own Feast or Feria, for example the Feast of the Ascension, which is the annual festival in Santiago de Compostela with street theatre, bands, orchestras and the circus comes to town.
In towns and villages all along the Camino Francés you may encounter a local festival such as:

Running of the bulls in Pamplona
Arzúa Cheese Festival – February/March
Bread and Cheese festival in
 Sahagún – April
Fire water festival in 
Portomarín – early April
O Cebreiro cheese festival – April
May Festival – Festa do Maio in 
Villafranca del Bierzo – May
San Fermin running of the bulls and the city’s most famous festival in 
Pamplona – July
San Cristobo Festival in 
Palas de Rei – July
Estella festival –
 Estella/Lizarra – early August
Santa Marta festival in 
Astorga – end of August
San Zoilo festival in 
Carrión de los Condes – end of August
Rioja Harvest Festival in Logroño – September
Romaria Virxe do Cebreiro dedicated to the patron saint of 
O Cebreiro – early September
Fiestas de la Encina in 
Ponferrada, the city’s biggest annual festival – September
Music Week in
 Melide – November

And finally

The Tomatina
If you are walking the Camino Levante and find yourself in Valencia at the end of August head for the town of Buñol to take part in the world’s largest tomato fight. If it is a choice between running with the bulls or fighting with tomatoes I know which I’d choose!

Saturday, 27 May 2017

This blog

Dear Friends

Thanks to those who have emailed me. No - I haven't given up writing about my adventures although I haven't posted here for a while. You can find me on Facebook where I post regularly here and in the ever growing Confraternity of Saint James Group.  

I'm still walking and this year I walked from Cordoba to Caceres to explore re-opening the medieval walking route to Guadalupe which was once as popular as Santiago. More of that in future.

I've also walked the Camino Ingles (again) been to Rome to meet some pilgrims, walked the Camino Portuguese Central route to update the guidebook and just recently I've walked the Camino Portuguese Coastal and Seaside routes - yes the first detailed Guidebook in English has been written!  Although not posting regularly I'll leave this blog open for people researching the various routes described here. And I may write the story of the last five years living in Santiago – a tale of magical happenings, great food and dark deeds. Watch this space.

Above all I’ll continue to write guidebooks for the CSJ. I’ve now made all of these available on Kindle. Please support us.

Best wishes

The Monastery at Guadalupe

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Meeting Francis

Reiti - Poggio San Lorenzo 22kms
Poggio San Lorenzo - Ponticelli 23 kms
Ponticelli - Montertondo 30 kms
Montertondo - Montesacro 20 kms
Montesacro - Rome 11 kms

Dear Friends
I'm writing this from Leonardo da Vinci airport. I have that strange feeling that I should still be walking although my legs are certainly glad I've stopped.  With a mixture of regret and excitement I'm sorry the pilgrimage is over but I'm looking forward to being home again after a month away.  Thank you to all of you who have been following our journey and especially to those who sent messages of encouragement.

During the last few days of the journey into Rome we had some spectacularly wet weather with high winds, bitter cold and thunder and lightening. Apart from a few nippy elevations the route is very straightforward and we enjoyed staying in some lovely places. Pilgrims preparing for this journey are well advised to research accommodation alternatives on  We stayed in two "bed and breakfasts"  which were charming and situated in stunningly beautiful settings.
It was all too soon that we set out on last day.The route into Rome which was devised for the guidebook is a longer, and claims to be quieter, entry into the city but we decided to walk in a straight line from our hostal direct to the Vatican.  More than an hour shorter than the alternative we were soon approaching with Saint Peter's getting larger and larger as we walked. We had applied for a time slot to walk through the Holy Door in Saint Peter's but when we approached the barrier to go to the Sacristy to get the final stamp we were ushered through the Holy Door. There were no other walking pilgrims.  In the Sacristy they couldn't remember when there had been others.
The last time I was in Rome was with our Archbishop who was being created Cardinal. I played at masses for the massive Scottish delegation in two of the main churches near Saint Peter's.  This time I arrived not in a limousine but on foot,  slightly bedraggled and tired.  On reflection in many ways I looked no different to the dozens of homeless people and beggars of all types who mill around the fringes of Saint Peter's Square.  Needing directions I approached a Swiss Guard. The last time I did this they saluted. This time he looked me down from my windswept face to my muddy boots and asked me to leave. The Big Man hooted with laughter.  I suspect I'll never live down being asked to leave the Vatican.  This pilgrimage thing is very good for my humility. From the ridiculous to the sublime today we were invited to meet the Director of the Pontifical Council which amongst other things is in charge of pilgrimage.  We had much in common between what they hope to develop and our experience in Santiago. As we left his office armed sentries at the door stood to attention. "At least you never got thrown out again"  the Big Man quipped.
This pilgrimage has been challenging and very wonderful.  Some of the early stages are very tough and were made all the more so because we were walking so early in the year. But the rewards of climbing mountains are the views and on this route we saw magnificent vistas in abundance.  Our visit to the Santuario La Verna has left a lasting impression on me. The place exudes peace and serenity.  I was struck by the fact that Francis was actually there. Amongst the relics his simple habit is preserved.  More than that, we were welcomed by modern Franciscans wearing the same simple garb still trying to lead lives of poverty and helping others.  As we walked forward to Rome I was constantly reminded of Francis' ministry. Although I sweated buckets on the climb up to Assisi the visit to the basilica, Francis' tomb and mass will be lasting memories. 
In the midst of this I sent a message to friends in Santiago talking about the selfless love that Jesus has for mankind and the simple way Francis put that into action.  "Where did it all go wrong?"  I mused.  The answer came right back, "If you find the answer to that bring it back with you." 
Perhaps though the answer or the beginning of the answer is already with us in the person of the other Francis - the present Pope. The first to take the name  All along this route in every village and hotel,  in every bar and restaurant, wherever we spoke to people they spoke of their admiration and respect for Pope Francis.  Without exception and spontaneously people told us he was a good Pope,  a Pope who understands ordinary people,  a Pope who is on their side. They spoke of Pope Francis with a fondness I've never experienced before. It made me feel proud to be a Christian and a Catholic when in recent years that has not always been the case.
I feel as if I've been lucky to meet two Francis's on this pilgrimage. One who set a better course for the Catholic Church centuries ago and the other who is trying to do the same now.

Until next time