Friday, 28 February 2014

In praise of good accommodation

The two top priorities for pilgrims on the Camino to Santiago are how to find their way on the route  and how to  find accommodation. 
First priority: the route is very well waymarked indeed. Although I used the Eroski walking notes I could easily have walked by just following the yellow arrows and waymarks. However I like to know what’s coming and the distances involved. For those new to the Via de la Plata I say set off without fear. The locals know the route and I found they were very willing to help.
Second priority: there are many more options for decent accommodation nowadays than ever before. I had a list of the accommodation available along the way and planned my stages accordingly. But it was obvious to me that the economy of the camino is changing as the market becomes more competitive. Let me give a brief overview:
In Seville although there is no municipal albergue there is a huge number of options from very cheap hostals to expensive hotels. Usually I simply use  I have found some real bargains over the years. This time I stayed in the heart of the Barrio Santa Cruz right in the centre of Seville. I booked the Hotel Murillo. The reviews said it was cheap and clean in a fantastic location. It proved to be all of these things.  
Albergue Guillena
From Seville we walked to Guillena here on my first Camino there was a horrid, dirty little albergue. Now the town boasts a private albergue which charges 12 euros and a new municipal albergue which charges 10 euros. We slept in the latter and the dead of night it was bitterly cold. Winter pilgrims need good gear and I was snug inside my sleeping bag.
However even on this first stop it struck me how the economy of this route has changed. Guillena is a small dormitory town of Seville with less than 10,000 inhabitants. It is a 23 kms walk from Seville. It now has three choices for pilgrim accommodation: the municipal albergue which costs 10 euros and the private albergue which costs 12 euros – both with beds in dormitories with no sheets and towels. The local Hostal Francés has twin rooms with en suite bathroom, sheets, towels, heating and food available(but not included) for 15 euros each.  It emerged this was the case all along the route.
Take Monasterio for example. This town is 103 kms from Seville. It has a number of hostals, a hotel, and a couple of years ago the local parish church opened a new albergue. Even this Albergue Parochial  has a set charge of 10 euros. I visited it to find it was very well appointed but had no heating. On the wall beside the poster was a recommendation for the Menu del Peregrino in the local Hotel Moya. The Menu cost 9€. So the cost of sleeping in the albergue plus dinner was 19€ +  the cost of breakfast the next day. Just a few yards away the Hostal Moya was advertising “oferta del peregrino” 25€ for a single or twin room + dinner + breakfast.
For those pilgrims on a budget such as young people there is no doubt that a basic albergue is great value especially if there are cooking facilities which they can use. However my experience on this camino is that the hostelaria market is changing to meet the needs of pilgrims and becoming increasingly competitive.

“But what about the communal experience of a group of pilgrims sharing the same albergue?”  I hear people ask. In my youth I did more than my fare share of youth hostelling, camping and sleeping in bothies in the mountains of Scotland . I loved all of it. However nowadays sharing showers, toilets and dormitories unless it is essential holds little attraction. That doesn’t mean  the communal spirit is lost. For example  by the time we arrived in Carñaveral, 328 kms from Seville, we had met 6 other pilgrims.  The albergue there closed some years ago and so we all checked into the into the Hostal Malaga. For a twin room it was 15 euros each for a bed and for a triple 12 euros. We were altogether for dinner and breakfast but enjoying privacy of showering and sleeping not to mention sheets, blankets, pillows, fresh towels and heating.
I really do hope that municipal albergues survive these changing circumstances. However they have to up their game. They have to be clean, provide comfortable beds with hygienic covers and provide for basic needs such as toilet paper and some heating when it is freezing.
For pilgrims, especially in winter, it is very economical to walk with a companion and share hostal accommodation. I also think that increasingly pilgrims will meet up with others on the way and decide to share the costs of a twin or triple room. Perhaps there is the need for an internet matching service for pilgrims before they leave?
Whatever the economic aspects of accommodation much more important is the human kindness and hospitality provided by many people along the Camino routes whether they work in public or private albergues, hostals or hotels.
On the day we walked to Torremejía, 195 kms from Seville, it started to rain heavily in the last hour. It was a 28 kms stage and we were tired by the end of the day. We battled through the rain and arrived slightly bedraggled. We were walking along the main street looking for accommodation when a man approached, “You’ll be the two Scottish pilgrims” he enquired. I was astonished. “How do you know that?” I asked. “In winter there are few pilgrims. Yesterday an Italian told me that there were two Scottish guys coming behind”. “Can you recommend a place where we can stay?” I asked. “Yes in my albergue” he replied. “Just come with me”. At that he walked us to his car, introduced us to his wife and drove us to the local Albergue Turistico which he and wife run.
It was a beautifully renovated historic building. "Beds for 12 euros", he said, showing us where the lights were and checking the water was piping hot. He gave us keys and explained he had to go because his father was ill. “Is there somewhere we can eat?” we enquired. “Everything is closed in the evening at this time of year...but I tell you what, have a shower, get changed and I’ll come back a little later and we’ll see what can be done.”  On his return we again got in his car and we drove to the main street where he parked outside a restaurant. “This is my family’s place” he explained, “we’ve opened for you.”  We were only two customers. We had a drink before dinner,  a sopera with as much soup as we could eat, roast chicken with chips and salad, fresh fruit and ice cream for dessert plus coffee and a liqueur. Well it had been a hard day. He presented the bill for 23 euros. Of course we paid more which he accepted reluctantly.  Thank you to Alonso and his wife Fernanda because of them and people like them we can all truly praise decent accommodation.

Next ...In praise of lentejas!

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

In praise of cobblers

Finding the Way
Having set off from Seville Cathedral we made our way through the city streets following the tiles set on the walls of buildings. In the South these are the other way round from the Camino Francés. The point rather than the rays show the way to go. The tiles aren’t placed consistently in this way throughout the route, as if someone forgot what had been decided at the committee meeting. But the way is clear and in addition to the tiles there are plenty of yellow arrows and special Via de la Plata markers to ensure that we wouldn’t get lost. And we didn’t.
The first time I walked this route I relied heavily on a guidebook. But that was 7 years ago and now the waymarking is infinitely better and there is much more pilgrim infrastructure. On this Camino I used a simple list of accommodation available on the Pilgrim Forum and also the walking notes provided by Eroski:
If you are looking at the Eroski guide don’t be alarmed by the length of the suggested stages. The route doesn’t have to be walked in 26 days. First time round I took a total of 36 days and this time we took 22 days to reach Salamanca rather than the 19 suggested by Eroski. We used the walking notes and the accommodation list to plan stages which suited us better.

Leaving Seville
On that first morning we strode out confidently. Crossing the bridge to the barrio Triana I overheard two tourists remarking on the padlocks on the railings. “These can’t be for bicycles,” they said, “there are too many of them.”  The locks all had two names or initials written on them in felt pen, and a date. I had seen these before and found out that rather than an old custom the lock thing had appeared in the last couple of years, started by some Italian students who were spreading a craze that started in Rome on the Milvio bridge, based on the story of the romantic comedy Ho voglia de Te (I Want You), which came out in 2007. The film was adapted by Federico Moccia from his novel of the same name. In the newspaper El Pais there was an interview with Federico Moccia, in which he threw a bit more light on the whole thing. “I was looking for a Roman legend about love, but there wasn’t one so I made one up: I just put together the idea of the steel lock with chucking the key into the river, something final,” he said. So now you know!

We crossed the bridge dotted with hundreds of padlocks and turned right. This road in a kilometre or so would lead us out of the city.

On the way to Guillena

The sun was shining as we strode along on this first 22.7 kms stage. We had a glorious walk along the river as we followed the path. At one stage I glanced down at the Big Man’s boots. I was certain there was some amiss. We stopped and looked. One of the seams on his boot was coming loose. This on the first day of a winter pilgrimage! We decided to press ahead to the albergue in Guillena and consider our options there. On arrival it was clear this was a serious problem. The seam was opening up along its line. The boots were no longer waterproof and might come apart completely. We had 500 kms to go. I came up with a plan. “There is no bus...let’s get a taxi back to Seville to Decathelon, buy new boots and get a taxi back?” At a rough calculation that would be 50€ for the taxis and over 100€ for new boots. Hmmmm. I wasn’t pleased. I never quite said, “Why didn’t you check your boots before you left?”  But the unsaid accusation hung in the air. Time was going on. It was getting dark and cold. Then the Big Man said, “I wonder if there is a cobbler here?” Now Guillena is a small pueblo a few minutes drive from Seville, I doubted if it would boast a zapatero. Undaunted off we went, boot in hand. 
“Hay un zapatero aqui?” was the question asked of several people. Some gave blank looks. Others shrugged. Then we were directed to the village shoe shop. They confirmed that there was indeed a zapatero who worked from his house across the road. There in the garden shed were the accoutrements of cobbling and a young woman talking to the cobbler. He was altering the size of her leather boots and asked us to wait. When our turn came he examined the boot, adjusted his sewing machine, applied some glue, zapped in the stitches and presented the BM with his boot as good as new.”There, that will get you to Santiago” he smiled.  “How much is it?” the BM enquired. “3€” was the reply. Certainly cheaper than my plan. The Big Man said nothing.           

On the way to Carñaveral

Let’s leap forward some 300 kms.  We enjoyed excellent weather in the first two weeks of this Camino but the forecast predicted rain during the third week. The weather broke on the day we walked 30 kms to Carñaveral, a little white village set in the hills. I was plodding along with my head bowed to avoid the driving rain in my face. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There on my trusted boots a seam was opening up. I could see the lining inside. Parts of the route were water logged and rather than walking through the puddles I started to take detours around them. Failure of footwear miles from anywhere with no prospect of finding alternatives in a pueblo of a few thousand people is a serious matter for long distance walkers. I was worried. As the sky got blacker and the rain got heavier I wondered if this was retribution for my uncharitable thoughts about the Big Man not checking his boots before he left. “This time” I realised there was no obvious plan, “ possibly I’d need to give up, wait for a bus which might come a few times a week, and go home”.  “Maybe there will be a zapatero in Carñaveral “ the Big Man hopefully wondered.  I looked at the size of this tiny pueblo ahead, “Yeah, and maybe pigs will fly”, I thought.

We were cold and very hungry when we reached the Hostal Malaga, the only place to sleep since the albergue closed. It was late in the afternoon but the kitchen was still open. They brought us bowls of piping hot fish soup, red wine, crusty bread followed by a plate stacked high with pork ribs cooked so slowly the meat was falling off the bones. We started to feel better.  “Hay un zapatero en Carñaveral?” I asked the lady who was serving us. “No”, she immediately replied shaking her head at this stupid question from these foreigners. Then she paused, “wait a minute...there is an old man who fixes shoes, but he isn’t there all the could try.” We asked for directions. “Go back the way you came,” she said “then after church turn right into Love of God Street and then left into Christ Street. You’ll need to ask where his place is.”  Only in Spain would there be streets called Calle Amor de Dios and Calle Del Cristo.
Off we went. A women confirmed that the zapatero was at number 14. We knocked and waited, No one home. We saw a light on in the next door house and so we knocked the door. The young woman who answered saw we were pilgrims and told us to come with her when we asked for the zapatero. She closed her door and led us down the street and into the Old Folks Centre. There was a group of men playing cards, “Zapatero” she called out, “two pilgrims need you”.  The man well into his 80’s shuffled out. He looked at my boot and said he could fix it tomorrow.  “We have to leave early walk to Galisteo tomorrow,” we explained. He told us to come with him, shouted to his companions that he would be back later and led us up Christ Street. As he opened the door to what used to be his family home we were transported into another world. This could have been the workshop where Pinocchio was made. It was a chaotic glory of old fashioned shoe making and repair. The old cobbler took my boot, placed it on the last, punched some holes and hand sewed the seam. He finished the job with a sealant. We asked him about the wooden feet in a basket. “Oh I still make shoes,“ he replied and reaching under the bench he brought out a pair of the most beautiful handmade gentlemen’s shoes. Such skill and such kindness to pilgrims. When we offered to pay he refused to take money. “We’ll give the Saint a hug for you” we said pressing a little cash into his hand. At that       
he hugged us. “Buen camino peregrinos”. In praise of cobblers everywhere!

Next...In praise of decent accommodation.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

In praise of the Via de la Plata

The Via de la Plata was my first Camino when I set out from Seville on 2 January 2007. I had done a lot of research and some practice walks. I bought all of my equipment and I had even stood under the shower with my rain gear on. I was totally prepared. At least I thought so.
On 9 January this year I yet again left from the cathedral with the first arrow embedded in the pavement just outside. I reflected on the thousands of Camino kilometres I have walked since 2007 and the fact that my rucksack weighting 5.9 kgs was less than half the 12 kgs of “essential equipment” I set off with first time round.
That weight, despite the training I had done led to blisters, tendonitis and a soft tissue injury on my foot which took many months to heal. The first blister appeared quite quickly. This was the effect of road walking which I had not done very much of during my training. I’ve decided blisters don’t like to be lonely and the first was soon joined by others. That was a painful Camino.
However despite the pain I found the experience so rewarding and inspiring it led to more walking, writing guidebooks, helping in the Pilgrims’ Office, starting this blog and eventually moving to Santiago!
Despite the difficulties, something about that first Camino touched my heart and my soul. Of course it was the scenery and the kindness of the people, the food and the sense of peace. But looking back I now realise that the most powerful sensation was the absence of fear and anxiety. I have spoken to many other pilgrims about this. On Camino we prove to ourselves that if all of our worst anxieties and fears came to pass – if we lost all of our money, and the house, and the job and the family, and the car then we would survive. The Camino demonstrates we can live very happily with very little. The momentum of walking a stage each day from bed to bed shows us we can live one day a time. The physical effort reassures both young and especially older that we still have it in us. The sense of peace and deep reflection opens our minds and hearts to forgiveness of past wrongs and pray hope for the future. I knew from the moment I stepped into the Cathedral of Santiago at the end of my journey my life would change.
Because of the impact the Via de la Plata had on me I had a great sense of anticipation setting out from Seville once again. The Big Man was also very excited because although he had walked from Salamanca to Santiago he would now be completing the full 1000 km route.
We were not disappointed. Whilst the rain cascaded down flooding much of southern England it also rained continuously day after day in Santiago. In Seville the sun shone and the forecast predicted sun and temperatures in the mid teens for most of our pilgrimage. Fortunately I had plenty of Factor 50  with me.
We set off and as we passed the wonderful Roman ruins at Metalica I realised how much of this route remembers the days of the Roman Empire. We would pass Milarios (Roman mileage markers), cross Roman bridges, walk beside Roman aqueducts and of course walk under the magnificent Roman Arch at Caparra. The Via de la Plata is bursting with history.
 I was looking forward to visiting some of the towns again. Zafra with its palm trees called the Little Seville, Merida with its entrance over a fine Roman bridge and exit past the remains of the aqueduct, Cacares where the pretty hill top medieval city looks down on the new town.  Seeing these places again was wonderful. We went to Mass in the Pro Cathedral of Merida and in the stately church of Santiago in Cacares where we were hugged and congratulated by priest and people alike.
Throughout the 22 days we slept in municipal and private albergues, a private home, hostals, and an hotel. In Aljucen the albergue was closed because there were so few pilgrims but we slept in the hospitaleras house for the same 10 euro price. There we met José from Barcelona who fast became a new friend.
Overall the accommodation was excellent and very, very reasonably priced. There is much more available than when I walked 7 years ago. This both makes the route accessible to pilgrims who cannot walk distances of over 30 kms and has also obviously lowered prices. I’ll write more about this in another post but noticeably some municipal and parochial albergues like in Guillena and Monasterio now charge 10 euros to sleep in a dormitory, similarly private albergues charge 12 or 13 euros. In competition hostals throughout the route offered beds with sheets, blankets, towels, heating and hot water for 15 euros for a shared room. In the Hostal Malaga in Galisteo a shared room for three cost 12 euros each.  Walking with a companion or like José team up with another pilgrim to share accommodation costs makes using hostals economically very reasonable.
In Alcuescar we stayed in the albergue which is part of the Monastery of a religious order called The Slaves of Mary and Poor.  The facilities were excellent including a communal meal with other pilgrims and the hosptalero. All donativo.  At night my room was colder than a refrigerator but I was toasting hot in my sleeping bag with extra blankets supplied by the hospitalero.
A more serious aspect to my experience there was passing through the “care home” which the Order runs on the way to the chapel for Mass.  The Order the Slaves of Mary and Poor was founded in 1939 and no doubt well motivated they provide residential care for older people often with dementia or brain damage who have no one else to care for them.  But their approach to care is stuck in 1939. Old people sat facing the wall, locked into chairs. Others sat silently in a circle, eyes glazed and staring into space, still others wandered aimlessly up and down the corridors. Cuts in funding mean few staff and less therapy and activity for the residents. The place smelled of urine and highly concentrated desperation. Pray for them. It is all we can do.      
On a lighter note when I walked into San Pedro de Rozados in 2007 all accommodation was closed. I went to the local bar to enquire if they knew of anything available. “There is nothing open, sir.” The barman said, “but you can stay with my granny.” And so I did. Whilst in the bar the barman’s mother showed me drawings for a new albergue she planned to open. This time round I stayed there. And I met the granny again!
This time there were no blisters. No pain. The weather was excellent. We had two days of drizzle and only one day of wind, rain, sleet and hail which made the ascent to the Pico del  Dueña all the more satisfying at the top. At 1200 metres above sea level it is the highest point in the entire route. The iron cross can be seen for many kilometres in the descent and beyond.

Above all, with no feet distractions, this time I was able to fully appreciate the beauty and serenity of many of the stages. We walked through huge estates and natural parks, past giant reservoirs and rivers. We saw hundred of black pigs munching on acorns. Future Jamon Serrano.  At times it was so still, so peaceful, so silent I felt very privileged to have been able to return.
And I will also return to more stories of this Camino soon. Next time read...In Praise of Cobblers! 


Saturday, 15 February 2014

In praise of Good Luck...and hard work

I’ve recently returned from walking the Via de la Plata from Seville to Salamanca. More of that later. First I want to tell you about my visit to Seville. I know the city well. It used to be where I went in the summer months. Before I discovered the Camino and the wonderful city of Santiago de Compostela it was where I planned to live for most of the year. Seville is a glorious city full of interest and architecture and very elegant Spaniards. Like the supposed enmity between the Scots and the English, Galicians take a dim view of “southerners”, Andalucians in particular. They are too flamboyant, loud, garish and dramatic for the quieter more retiring people of the North. My friends in Santiago think my on-going love affair with Seville is disloyalty in the extreme.
But a visit was long overdue and off I went with my rucksack Camino-ready. I booked into an hotel in the Barrio Santa Cruz, the centre and the quaintest of all barrios. The Big Man, my walking companion would join me in time to set off on the Camino.
But first there were the pretty narrow streets, and sea food tapas and chilled white sherry to be endured. I wanted to visit old haunts like the magnificent Plaza España (above) and linger in the park where I used to read in the shade in the summer afternoons when temperatures soared.
As I strolled I took in the familiar sights and some very familiar people – the pushy shoe shine man is still there getting older but still as pushy!
With huge pleasure I visited the little bar Mezquita in the street named after the local church, Santa Maria La Blanca. I was met with hugs and kisses and cries of “cuanto tiempo”, how long it has been seen we have seen you! Here I met up with Antonio and Mercedes who over the years have become friends. The story of that friendship began, as some of you might remember, in 2007 when I was spending New Year in Sevilla.  I first wrote about it here.
In summary this is what happened. I was going to meet friends to celebrate New Year and I took with me the traditional gifts we give in Scotland: a lump of coal, shortbread and a bottle of whisky – may you always have fire in your hearth, food to eat and whisky to drink. And good luck in the coming year! I can’t remember what happened but I didn’t meet my friends as planned and I ended up in a tiny bar crammed full of people. Not wanting to carry the gifts all night I called over the woman behind the bar and presented her with the presents, to her complete astonishment. Fast forward some months when I visited again to be treated like royalty...kisses, welcome, a clean tablecloth was produced, the same lady opened a bottle of chilled wine. “Thank you for your lucky presents at New Year” she said, “we won the lottery”.
7 years on we still laugh at that. Of course I claim no credit or magical powers but that stroke of good luck fired an ambition in Mercedes and Antonio to work even harder and grow their business.  Now they have two restaurants and two larger and very busy bars. Their handsome son has trained as a cocktail barman and juggles with bottles in his own cocktail bar next door to the Mezquita and their lovely daughter is preparing to go to University. Antonio, as ever, complained about how much he had to do. He did this when he only had one little bar that held 12 customers! “Are you finished growing the empire now?” I asked. “Well actually John, we’ve just bought a summer house with a swimming pool. We’d love you to use it on your next visit.”  Hold me back!

That friendship is such we are also able to share the up and downs which happen in every family. Life has not all been plain sailing. But through their hard work and determination Antonio and Mercedes have a family and a business of which they can be very proud. Antonio bade me farewell by repeating his invitation for me to return “Perhaps you’ll come at New Year and bring the coal and whisky again?”

And so with the Big Man I had a final meal and on 9 January we set out from Sevilla. The Via de la Plata was my very first Camino. The one that started all of this! The next story can only be ” In praise of the Via de la Plata”. Watch this space.