Author Archives: David

Great Balls of Fire…

…Goodness gracious…I’m finally here.

33 days ago, I woke up in a hostel in Irun in The Basque Country – the first time I’d slept in a dormitory since I was about 12 – walked out onto the street and found the first of innumerable little yellow arrows that were to guide me for 500 miles across the Coast of Northern Spain, through Cantabria and Asturias, and back inland through Galicia over the last four and a half weeks.

And the day before yesterday, I finally saw the first sign for Santiago that wasn’t spray-painted on a makeshift sign in a field, engraved in wood and tacked to a tree, or randomly daubed on a wall in the middle of nowhere when there were still about 300 miles to go.

That day’s walk from Sobrado dos Monxes to Salcedo covers around 30km, but the final 100km or so of the journey has felt almost as if it has been designed specifically to let you down gently from the rigours of what has gone before, with a seemingly endless succession of flat woodland paths, shaded by overhanging trees…

…so much so, in fact, that even after the typically light Spanish lunch that I stopped for in Arzua…

…I felt as if I could have happily carried on walking when I reached Salcedo (maybe it was just those Crocs ‘n’ Socks).

As I mentioned in the last post, I decided to stop just short of Santiago the next day, with the aim of being able to walk the last 2km or so into my final destination at daybreak.

And during this penultimate 25km stretch, there’s a very clear sense of other walkers also reaching the end of their journeys, with an increasing concentration of graffiti on buildings, trees and waymarkers as Santiago draws closer, offering messages of encouragement, reflections on the experience and lots of jokes about sore feet.

But strangely, I thought, there didn’t seem to be a significant increase in the numbers of people walking; I had heard that on the Camino Frances it was not unusual for at least a couple of hundred people to be walking the route on any given day, and once the Camino del Norte joined the Camino Frances, I had assumed it would be mayhem.

Yet the only noticeable difference was the lack of familiar faces. One of the pleasures of the last few weeks has been that whenever I’ve bumped into someone along the way, it’s usually been someone that I have met at some stage previously who has made exactly the same journey, making it easy to chat about the places we’ve visited and the experiences we’ve had.

The final stretch felt much more impersonal, as peregrinos’ experiences become increasingly eclectic, ranging from one guy I met who had cycled 3000 kilometres from Germany, through to the many who only walk the final 100km that are required to receive their Compestela – the official document recognising that they have walked The Santiago Way.

And on arriving a Monte de Gozo, the most popular final staging post before Santiago, the atmosphere felt strangely muted, despite its huge sleeping capacity.

The 1,500 beds available may not have all been filled but the receptionist said they weren’t too far off, and yet there was barely a soul to be seen outside the Albergue’s characterless sleeping blocks.

It’s almost as if everyone, regardless of where they’ve come from or how far they’ve come, is reserving their energy for the final few kilometres of their journeys in the morning.

And Santiago feels tantalisingly close from the brow of the mountain on which Monte de Gozo sits.

I had hoped to be able to post romantic shots of Santiago at sunrise, but unfortunately it decided to pour with rain.

But even that couldn’t quite take the pleasure out of officially entering the city outskirts.

However, I hadn’t realised that the final 2km I thought I would be walking only took me to the edge of the city and that there were a further 3km to walk before reaching the Santiago cathedral and my journey’s end.

So by the time I was getting close, daylight was well up and I got my first glimpse of the cathedral spires at around 8.30am.

Up close, I found it impossible to even give the vaguest idea of its scale and grandeur.

This shot might give you some idea of its size…

…although no idea of its circumference, as it takes at least a couple of minutes’ walk to view it from another perspective…

…and I’m afraid this is the best I could do as an attempt to give you at least some idea of the intricacy of its architecture.

But what I can show you is something of the atmosphere in the huge square that faces the cathedral as it fills up with peregrinos and bicigrinos (those that have travelled The Way on bicycles) as the morning progresses.

Often it’s as simple as the joy of knowing you can finally take your boots off without having to put them on again the next day…

…although boots are not necessarily always the main issue…

…there’s any amount of celebrating amongst groups of all ages as they share a sense of achievement in finally getting here…

…and there are also some pretty clear examples of the physical toll this journey can take.

And if the number of travellers on this journey were conspicuous by their absence the night before, they certainly came out of the woodwork for the service devoted to peregrinos in the Cathedral that morning.

Again, there’s no real way of visually communicating the sheer numbers in attendance, so I’ll just have to tell you that there must have been at least 2000 people there.

I hope the video of the end of the service that I’ve posted as today’s header loads OK – if it does, again it will only give you a small hint of the drama of the whole thing. And if it doesn’t, I’m afraid today’s headline won’t make much sense.

And so here it all ends.

My Credencial has managed not to fall apart completely, and with a few sneaky additions along the way at various hostelries over the last three days, I managed to fill the whole thing up (not mandatory, but I know those blank spaces would’ve bugged me if I hadn’t done it).

Which also means that I’ve managed to get hold of an altogether less tatty piece of documentation that celebrates this journey – my Compostela.

And it’s nice to have an official memento.

But there’s another bonus to possessing this piece of paper.

There’s a great tradition whereby what is seen by many as the most illustrious of Spain’s illustrious chain of Parador hotels – The Santiago Parador (obviously) – which sits on the border of the square that faces the Cathedral….

…offers a free breakfast to the first 10 peregrinos that present their Compestelas to the car park attendant the morning after they complete their journey.

After which, those lucky few are taken into the bowels of the hotel (the kitchen), to claim their reward.

…which was all very lovely…

…but not necessarily what The Luxury Peregrino had in mind.

So he checked in for a proper breakfast.

But before you judge him too harshly…

…just remember that this is where he slept last night…

And, as they say, that’s all folks.

Thank you very much indeed to anyone who’s followed this journey – there have been loads of positive comments along the way for which I’m hugely grateful, and which have made all the difference when I’ve found myself flagging.

And I know I’ve been very lucky to have been able to do this, but there has also always been a reason for doing it.

Which is to raise as much money as possible for Rethink Mental Illness.

I’m not going to plug their work any further here, because I fully appreciate that’s not the reason you might have been following this blog in the first place.

But if you’re feeling in a charitable mood and have enjoyed the read, please do take a look at my Just Giving page and see if you feel like giving a couple of pounds, dollars, euros, yen, rand, riyal, or dirham (yes, I’m afraid to say I’ve been following the blog stats) or any other denomination I haven’t mentioned.

http://www.justgiving.com/timeforarethink

Thank you and goodnight x

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Charity, Rethink Mental Illness, Santiago, Santiago de Compostela, The Northern Way

Great Balls of Fire

Crocs ‘n’ Socks

I know, I know – it’s not so much a crime against fashion as a crime against humanity.

But I’ve got to tell you, I’ve walked 60km over the last two days in these little beauties, and my feet want to buy me a drink.

A couple of days ago I made the hiking schoolboy error of assuming that after all this time my feet could happily endure a nuclear onslaught and stopped my daily blister-prevention routine.

And got two blisters.

It became so painful to walk in boots that the only option was to morph into a hybrid of Tom out of The Rise And Fall of Reginald Perrin and the male character out of that 70′s classic ‘The Joy of Sex’ (although I stopped short of the straggly beard).

But who cares. It worked. And the last two days have been a joy.

Mostly.

Yesterday’s planned 20.7km walk out of Vilabla to Baamonde did not start too auspiciously; let’s just say I stuck with coffee for breakfast….

…but things soon soon improved, despite any obvious aesthetic attractions, with some evidence of just how far I’ve come..

…but more excitingly, how far I’ve got to go…

The shell markers are now appearing with increasing frequency and for the last couple of hundred kilometres have started a kind of Santiago countdown, featuring the distance yet to travel on little brass plaques indented into the concrete.

However, as you can see from the picture above, a lot of these seemed to have been nicked by the less scrupulous peregrinos along the way, presumably as mementos of their journeys. And of all of them, I guess the 100km one never had much chance of lasting very long.

As for me, I decided to give The Luxury Peregrino a bit of an outing again in celebration.

Be honest. If you wanted to mark the occasion and had the option of sleeping here…

…or here…

…which would you choose?

Precisely.

I think I had the best night’s sleep in the whole month I’ve been walking, which made today’s 34km walk (which was supposed to be 41km – the Crocs ‘n’ Socks combo meant that I walked a further 7km yesterday than planned, so sod fashion), an absolute joy.

Starting out under a light mist, I soon found myself in rural villages that evoked a way of life long since lost…

…and this part of the journey seems to evoke the past every step of the way.

From the woodland paths bordered by dry stone walls…

…to the remnants of buildings on which the Camino waymarkers are posted…

To walkways which feel like they can’t have changed much since the ancient pilgrimages.

And as in previous parts of Galicia, the opportunities for refreshment are few and far between in sparsely populated villages. So when I saw this one, I jumped at the chance…

…and found myself sitting in a farmhouse kitchen being given great big slices of homemade cheese, hunks of bread and the local beer by the farmer’s wife. For 3 Euros.

After which, the final stretch to Sobrado dos Monxes felt like a breeze.

As you walk into Sobrado, one of the first things you see are the turrets of the huge monastery to which the towns name refers.

Which also, rather impressively, turns out to be where I was destined to spend the night.

And you have to admit that the opportunity to stay here for 5 Euros is a pretty good deal.

The only downside to the whole experience was that I was treated to an absolutely virtuoso performance of snoring in the dormitory last night. In fact, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that it might have been God.

But even a interrupted night’s sleep can’t take the edge off the almost palpable sense of excitement that I’ve only got 60km to go before I reach Santiago.

For those of you that have been kind enough to follow this blog closely, apologies for the infrequent posts over the last few days.

Blame Galicia.

But I’ve finally found a cafe with WiFi and I’m posting this on my way to Arzua, which is the official final stop before Santiago and which is where the Camino del Norte joins The Camino Frances, the most famous route and the most popular. If I tell you that the final Albergue before Santiago has the capacity to sleep 1,500 peregrinos, you’ll have an idea of just how popular.

And I think I’ll walk past Arzua today – it’s 40km from there to Santiago and I’m planning to walk about 10 of that today, 25 tomorrow, and then do a real Spanish Stroll of 5km into Santiago at daybreak on Friday.

I’ll try and do an update tomorrow, but if not, I’ll tell you all about it when I get there.

(I’ve just noticed there’s a fly on my Credencial – as well as falling apart it’s obviously starting to smell…)

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Baamonde, Peregrino, Rethink Mental Illness, Santiago, Sobrado do Monxes, Vilalba, Walking

Sunday Bloody Sunday

Maybe there is something in this whole idea of having a rest on a Sunday, after all.

Last Sunday morning I was beside a motorway, having just witnessed a car crash, and then walking down its hard shoulder trying to avoid another one. Involving me.

And this morning I found myself here:

Having waxed lyrical yesterday about the Galician time warp and all things verdant, this is the view that greeted me for most of the morning after I nipped off the Camino for a quick coffee at around 9am this morning, thinking I could rejoin it a few minutes later.

No such luck.

At 20.6km this morning’s walk from Gontan to Vilalba was never going to be hugely challenging (ooh, get me), but the route I ended up walking did mean that it was also extraordinarily boring.

So boring, in fact, that I thought that the most visually interesting features along the way that I was likely to be able to share with you were not what you might automatically think of as particularly upbeat.

And I’ve got to tell you that, on first impressions, Vilalba  wasn’t a whole lot more promising.

I thought about posting a couple of photos to give you some idea of just how grey and industrial the towns are round here (in bizarre contrast to the surrounding countryside) and leaving it at that.

But I decided to do a bit of exploring instead.

As is fairly obvious from today’s header photo, my first stop was a church.

I don’t want to offend anyone of a religious bent, but you’ve got to admit that Catholicism does involve a fairly healthy dose of kitsch

After which a breath of fresh air of Vilalba’s back streets felt much more appealing.

And which offered a much better sense of what this town used to be like…

And so to bed.

Apart from some very inspiring messages that are posted on lamp-posts nearby.

According to Google Translate, this means:

“Poles de Chaira roads – roads infindos longos – van cancios are salaios and songs that are salouco”

Apparently.

Good night Vilalba.

Filed under: On The Road

It Ain’t Half Hot Mum

OK, I admit it, there does seem to be a bit of obsession creeping in about all this signage business, but I think it definitely merits a mention on entry into Galicia, as after about 400 miles of other regions using the base of the shell to direct walkers in the right direction, the Galicians have taken it on themselves to turn the whole thing on it’s head by using the tip of the shell to point you the right way. Without any warning whatsover.

Thankfully, someone had told me about this in Asturias – if they hadn’t, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion I would have been well back on my way to Irun before noticing that anything was awry.

Minimising the chances of getting lost is also becoming something of a priority as the heat intensifies. Someone else told me that we could probably expect a lot of rain in Galicia; I can only assume they were using the UK Met Office for their information, as today apparently it hit 40 degrees, which as you can imagine makes walking distances of any significance pretty heavy going, especially when you’re lugging a heavy rucksack.

It’s also made a little more challenging by the fact that this section of the walk through Galicia at times feels almost uninhabited. During yesterday’s 29.5 km walk from Ribadeo to Lourenza, I think I only passed through two small villages – a scattered selection of houses with the only form of refreshment available being cold drinks sold from one of the local’s fridges.

Other than that, there’s a succession of seemingly endless paths and roads through the rolling hills of Galicia.

The countryside is some of the most lush I’ve seen (must be all that rain), and it’s clearly hugely fertile farmland with field after field of corn, barley, wheat and sugar beet.

But it also seems as if some farming is still happening at a subsistence level, as several times I saw people hoeing potatoes in their own patch or scything crops of corn literally outside their own front doors.

And I’m sure it’s an appalling cliche, but in this region in particular, there’s a huge sense of being taken back in time, especially on today’s 24km walk from Lourenza to Goutan, walking through villages that feel like the sort of places that Don Quixote might have passed through (which should also help explain the difficulty in finding WiFi to make daily posts).

Even evidence of more contemporary living didn’t exactly suggest a willingness to fully move with the times…

…although it looks like they’re getting a bit more racy in some parts.

But apart from that there’s not a huge amount to tell you. The path for the last two days has been pretty much like the one you can see below, stretching from the middle of the mountain in the background, down through the valley and then up again at an often extremely steep incline. As I said, hard work in the midday sun.

Not that I’m trying to go for the sympathy vote.

In fact, the only reason I mentioned the heat was as an excuse for an entirely gratuitous segue into this. Lovely boy.

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Asturias, Galicia, Goutan, Lourenza, Rethink Mental Illness, Ribadeo, The Northern Way, The Santiago Way

Homeward Bound…

…Well, in principle at least.

Today marks the point in my journey that I finally turn inland for the last stretch down to Santiago, having walked around 625km, or nearly 400 miles, across the northern coast of Spain, guided almost exclusively by a succession of little yellow arrows daubed on pavements, bridges, walls, trees and I should imagine any other paintable surface you might care to suggest.

And today’s photo header shows you the bridge coming into today’s destination, Ribadeo, that also marks the official crossing from…

…into…

…which is the final region of Spain that I will be walking through, having also covered The Basque Country and Cantabria.

There are still about 200km / 125 miles to go, but when you look at it like this…

…it definitely feels like I’ve broken the back of it.

Which is not to say that I’m wishing the rest of the journey away. It’s been an amazing experience so far and I’m sure will continue to be so for the next seven days – the time I’ve calculated that the rest of the journey needs to take in order to get my plane home on time.

Having said that, the last stretch of the Camino also seems to be upping the ante fairly considerably, with two 40km stages in the last three days – a bit of a shock to the system, given that the average has been around 25km per day for the last three weeks.

So I thought it would be sensible to buy myself a day’s grace just in case I need it, and broke down the last three stages into two (I decided against the monastery), with a 37km hike from Cavadeo to Navia yesterday, and then another 32km into Ribadeo today.

Maybe I’ve  been a bit spoilt by the scenery in the first two regions of this trip, but I have to admit that I’ve found it increasingly hard to find anything interesting visually to show you in Asturias – unless you’re particularly interested in endless cornfields, in which case you should definitely come for a visit.

Half way through yesterday’s walk, there was the picturesque fishing village of Luarca to break things up a bit…

…but this shot is a fairly accurate visual short-cut of the day’s walk – very pretty, but not too hot on variety…

…apart from one section which took the whole theme of poor signage (that I might just have mentioned once or twice already) to a whole new level.

It’s one thing trying to follow signs that are placed sporadically along the way and accepting that there is occasionally going to be a junction here and there where you just have to take a wild guess; but it’s a whole new ball game when the road that you are following (and any signs that might have been painted on it) gets completely excavated.

Thankfully, some more wild guesswork seemed to do the trick, and with about 7.5 hours walking under my belt, I eventually made it to Navia.

I really should make the effort to find out why, but this part of Spain seems to be one huge party at the moment, with every town of any significance being strewn with bottles, and sometimes bodies, by the time I’m leaving in the morning.

It’s weird enough as it is walking through strange towns with a pair of walking poles and lugging a rucksack, but when you’re doing it at 7am and the locals are still spilling out of the bars and engaging you in drunken conversation (or piss-taking as it’s more commonly known), it starts to feel positively surreal.

Coming out of Navia early this morning I had to run the gauntlet with a bloke with a purple pony tail who decided to amuse himself by pretending to be a TV interviewer holding a microphone to my face for about 100 yards, asking about how I felt about the rest of the journey to Santiago (the gist of it wasn’t that hard to work out given that the only word he could actually say was Santiago).

After which, I have to admit that whilst walking out of town, even the cornfields looked interesting.

…and I know I’m on the verge of contracting a serious dose of OCD about this whole signage business, but today’s leg into Ribadeo was an absolute corker.

I don’t think I’ve met a single walker so far who, at some stage, has not got completely and utterly lost somewhere in Asturias (it’s not just me, honest). Everyone you bump into mentions the fact that the little yellow arrows just seem to fade away – one minute you’re confidently striding along in what you’re convinced is the right direction, and the next you’re on the verge of committing Hari Kari.

But today, it was almost as if Asturias was apologising for her negligence before giving way to Galicia, as quite apart from the fact that there seemed to be a waymarker every couple of hundred yards, most of them bore only the slightest resemblance to what had been the norm for 400 miles or so.

I’ve just read that back and can’t quite believe I’ve spent so much time thinking about sign-posts. Note to self: must get a life.

Anyway, given that today is the last day that I’ll get to see the sea before I get home, I thought I leave you with a couple of the prettier views I came across today.

Galicia, here we come…

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Asturias, Cadavedo, Charity, El Camino del Norte, Galicia, Navia, Rethink Mental Illness, Ribadeo, The Santiago Way

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Let’s start with the ugly.

I don’t know what you were doing at 7.30 on Sunday morning but if you had any sense, you’d still have been tucked up in bed looking forward to nothing more strenuous than a day with the papers and a roast dinner.

As for me, I was standing on the hard shoulder of a motorway as one of my fellow walkers, a doctor, attended to the driver of a car that had just clipped the central reservation, spun out of control and smashed head on into a lamp-post.

Here’s how it all started:

Stage 22 of The Northern Way from to Aviles Soto de Luiña is renowned for being particularly challenging; it’s partly the distance – 38km is a pretty healthy day’s walking by anyone’s standards – but it’s mostly the nature of the route itself, which is a continuous succession of steeply rising and falling rocky pathways which are extremely poorly signposted.

Or one of the routes anyway. Over the years, walkers have come up with a number of alternative routes to make the stage a little less murderous on the knees, although there seems to be little consensus over which is the best way.

However, given that the route for the first section of the walk shown above was suggested to me by the owner of the restaurant I had eaten at the night before after I’d given him a decent tip, I figured that it was likely to be pretty reliable. What he didn’t tell me was that by the best way, he actually meant the quickest way which, in turn, involved walking down a motorway.

Hence our proximity to the crash scene above, as I had set out bright and early that morning with some fellow walkers who had decided on the same route.

Thankfully the driver of the car was just a little shaken up rather than seriously hurt, but the experience did rather set the tone for the day’s walking, which was unremittingly bad – if I tell you that the shot below was one of its more picturesque moments, you should have some idea of what it was like.

The first 19km or so, apart from the brief stretch of grass above, was all road; thankfully not all motorway, but quite enough to get the blood pumping much faster than it should have done. We weren’t even sure that what we were doing was legal, until the police car that had attended to the crash earlier went past and completely ignored us. Mind you, they run with the bulls over here, so I guess walking down the hard shoulder of a motorway must seem like child’s play.

And I must admit, that by early afternoon, with at least another 16km to go, I’d pretty much had my fill of The Camino; I let the the others walk on ahead of me trudged the rest of the way alone – not so much the Fast Walking Blogger as the Decidedly Moody Plodder.

The road eventually turned off into a hillside pass…

…and I tried to shake my mood by focussing on the natural surroundings again…

…but only in a fairly half-hearted way.

And in the horribly predictable way that there are certain days that things can only go from bad to worse…they did; when I finally dragged myself into Soto de Luiña in the early evening, I thought I’d cheer myself up with that famous Spanish delicacy, sausage, egg and chips, off the peregrino’s menu in the local bar.

Unfortunately, I misunderstood the waitress who took my order, thinking that she was asking me if I wanted a starter, and ended up ordering something completely different instead. Now, I’m as partial to a ham and cheese croquette as the next man, but their appeal does tend to pall a bit after the first dozen…

I guess it would be unrealistic to expect to walk every day for a month over 500 miles or so and not have at least one bad day, so I’m just going to put that one down to experience.

I think there’s also probably a cautionary tale somewhere in there about the perils of trying to take too many shortcuts, and the next day it was a huge relief to be back on the ‘Camino Oficial’ and out in the open country during the much more civilised 24km from Soto de Luiña to Cadavedo, even though it took some serious climbs to get there.

And this is where the good bit finally kicks in.

There’s something hugely satisfying about starting the day off looking up at this….

Then climbing steadily upwards for a couple of hours before looking back down on it from an entirely different perspective.

And if this shot doesn’t quite capture the challenge of getting to the summit of the morning’s steepest ascent…

…this one should hopefully give you some idea of the satisfaction of getting there…

…especially when this is the sight that greets you over the brow of the hill…

Just to pick up briefly on the theme of the last post, talking about the idiosyncrasies of the Camino’s signage system, I thought this was worth including as an example of just how idiosyncratic things can get – not to mention why I manage to get lost quite so often…

Even though I’ve seen a pretty eclectic mix of waymarkers over the last couple of weeks, I think that a yellow arrow painted on a loose pebble (that could easily be removed by anyone with an even slightly mischievous nature), on a path where the eye is naturally drawn to the horizon, is certainly one of the most random.

This is what it looks like up close.

And the Ghandi quote certainly felt quite appropriate as the next couple of hours were spent meandering along a gently curving coastline looking down on a crystal clear turquoise sea.

WiFi seems to be getting distinctly patchy round here as the villages are getting gradually smaller and more rural, hence the slightly more random posts. And apparently tomorrow night’s destination is a monastery, which I’m assuming won’t have an internet cafe. We shall see.

‘Til the next time…

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Aviles, Camino, Charity, Northern Way, Rethink Mental Illness, Soto de Luina, Walking

Just Give Me A Sign

It always feels a bit strange on this journey coming back into urban areas after having been walking around in the mountains for a couple of days.

Going from this…

…to this…

…sometimes in the space of half a day, certainly comes as a bit of a culture shock, although it’s also becoming increasingly clear that such stark contrasts are a part and parcel of El Camino del Norte.

But there are also some more subtle indications that you are moving between different territories.

Take today’s header photo.

Trying to find my way out of Gijon this morning I became increasingly frustrated because although I was very sure of the way out of the city, I could find no sign whatsoever of those little yellow arrows daubed on every surface imaginable that I’ve have come to rely on as the pretty much the sole means of guiding me across Northern Spain.

When I finally asked a local for directions, he had a little laugh to himself and told me to look down at my feet, which is when I finally noticed the new signage on the pavement – a rather more polished version of the Santiago Way scallop shells I’ve become familiar with in the countryside.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, these shell symbols hark back to distant days when, as a matter of course, peregrinos would carry on walking past Santiagio to Cape Finisterre, a peninsula on the coast of Galicia, to collect a scallop shell as a memento and proof of the extent of their journey. You’ll often see people today walking The Way with shells strapped to their rucksacks.

And today’s brass shells on the pavement guided me very efficiently for a couple of kilometres out of town, until what seemed like the very moment I hit the city outskirts, when I was returned to familiar directional territory.

Almost immediately afterwards, this one appeared at the side of a disused railway track.

I still find it hilarious that these signs to Santiago crop up utterly randomly (remember the spray-painted one in the cornfield at Guemes?), bearing no relevance to the distance yet to travel (I’m still the best part of 200 miles away from Santiago), and pointing you in a completely arbitrary direction. Minutes after following this sign I found myself looking at this:

Thankfully, the urban stretch gave way quite quickly to prettier Asturian landscape, and with a gentle breeze to accompany today’s 22.km walk across almost completely flat terrain to Aviles, I had every reason to believe that I was in for a bit of light relief from the exertions of the past couple of days.

Which was largely true, although it has to be said that The Santiago Way does like to throw you a bit of a directional curveball now and again.

I’ll buy anyone a drink when I get back who can spot the right way to go within 30 seconds of looking at this:

And I know I’m never to win any prizes for navigator of the year, but please, what on earth are you supposed to make of this little beauty?

I suppose other walkers must rely on their finely honed sense of directional intuition.

But as this completely un-staged photograph below might suggest (good old time-delay), I’m much happier devolving responsibility to a third party.

And believe it or not, I ended up going the right way.

But sometimes, as the last stretch of today’s walk proved, poor signage can be misleading in an altogether more satisfactory way.

You’ve got to admit that the frontage of this bar that I found on the roadside with another 8km to walk into Aviles through some serious industrial surroundings doesn’t look too promising:

But as soon as I walked in and ordered a pint of beer, which was served in a proper pint jug – something I’ve rarely seen round here and which was iced to boot – I was almost force fed plate after plate of tapas: tuna with diced potatoes tossed in mayonnaise, slithers of chorizo and ham on slices of fresh baguette, mussels garnished with diced onion and peppers, melon wrapped in wafer thin Iberian jamon…

…All completely free (well, apart from the beer).

I know free bar snacks aren’t unheard of in the UK, but you’ve got to admit that a few roast taters chopped into bite-sized chunks in your local on a Sunday afternoon don’t quite cut the mustard by comparison.

And that’s the spirit in which I’ve decided to make penance for my extravagant ways and get back to the good old Albergues:

It might not look like much, but it does start to make a lot more sense if I tell you that my bed for tonight, access to a washing machine (and the sun to properly dry my clothes in), and a four course meal off the pelegrino’s menu in a local restaurant, only cost me marginally more than the tip I paid to get stitched up by a waiter in a posh hotel.

I’ll tell you tomorrow whether I have decided to change my feckless ways for good.

Earplugs at the ready.

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Aviles, Charity, Gijon, Rethink Mental Illness, Walking

Luxury Peregrino in Nipple Chafing Drama

Well, if that headline didn’t get your attention, nothing will. (Although presumably it did otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this).

Let me explain.

I was just getting used to being The Fast Walking Blogger, when all of a sudden a new nickname got thrown into the mix.

Apparently my policy of allowing myself one hotel a week, that I mentioned in an earlier post, to recover from the rigours of dormitory sleeping surrounded by Olympic snorers has not gone un-noticed; one of the Spanish walkers that I have bumped into a various points along The Way told me over a drink that I am now known as The Luxury Peregrino.

I think it’s got rather a nice ring to it.

And I’ll happily admit that it’s not entirely unjustified, given that I haven’t stuck rigidly to my plan to play a hotel trump card once a week – in fact, it turns out that my deck seems to have a quite a healthy selection of trump cards in it.

But in my defense, on several occasions there hasn’t been much of a choice, given that the Albergues provided for peregrinos have already been full by the time I arrived at the end of a day’s walking.

Which does beg the question: what do the other peregrinos do who are stuck for a bed for the night but are not quite as much of a spendthrift than me?

Let me show you:

Sod that.

Anyway, yesterday morning it would seem that I might finally have got my comeuppance for my extravagance. After my brief encounter with the wing mirror, I thought I deserved a little pampering and checked into a pension for the night (any excuse).

I had also come to the end of my three-day cycle where I have to wash all my clothes in preparation for the next three days and, frankly, they were starting to hum. But whilst one of the fringe benefits of staying in a pension is usually that you can have your clothes washed for you, it turned out this service was not available where I was staying.

On explaining my predicament to the waiter at dinner, he shiftily offered (shifty sounds the same in any language) to do my washing for me himself as long as I didn’t tell the boss and bunged him a couple of Euros or ten. Which I happily agreed to on the understanding that he delivered them back to my room dry by 11pm as I wanted an early night to get a fresh start for the next day’s planned 32km hike to Sebrayo.

Come 11pm there was a knock on the door, and the waiter handed me back my clothes. Soaking wet. Despite the language barrier, I think he got the gist of my reaction and promised to dry them and leave them outside my door ready for my planned 6.30am departure. And they were outside the door at 6.00am, but still on the decidedly wet side of damp, and by which time he was long-gone.

Now, walking in damp shorts and t-shirt is fine. In this heat it happens naturally. But walking in damp socks is simply a non-starter when you’re walking these kinds of distances every day, unless you want an excuse to leave the Camino early.

So I can now add a new one to the list of firsts that I mentioned in the last post – I spent the next hour and a half trying to dry one pair of socks over an exposed light-bulb, attempting to judge the right amount of time to leave them on the glass before they got singed.

It also explains today’s photo header. I spent the best part of the morning rotating my various items of wet clothing on the back of my rucksack to dry in the sun.

Luxury peregrino indeed…

Anyway, the delay to the start of yesterday’s walk was particularly galling, given that it turned out very quickly to be extremely hot. Heat haze hot. 34 degrees hot, to be exact.

And it was one of the least visually rewarding sections that I have walked so far – for what seemed like a very long time, it looked a lot like this.

And whereas other sections of the route of the route are walked in utter silence, on this stretch, the hum of the motorway never seemed too far away.

Which is largely why I didn’t take very many photos yesterday – that and the fact that is was too hot to really do too much other than put one foot in front of the other.

I mentioned above that I had planned to walk 32km to Sebrayo, but unfortunately things did not go according to plan. It turned out that the Albergue in Sebrayo has had to close its doors due to lack of funding, so there was no choice but to walk on an extra 7km to Villaviciosa, which after my delayed start meant that I didn’t get there until round 6.30 in the evening having walked nearly 40km in the hottest sun yet.

Which is also where the nipple chafing kicked in.

I had heard about this charming phenomenon before, but never yet had a hint of it on this trip, so had not got into the habit of applying the recommended dollop of Vaseline to said nipples first thing in the morning. Quite apart from anything else it felt just a little bit pervy. But I also resolved to put all such prejudices aside for the rest of the trip as I walked the last 3km feeling nothing so much like I had a horde of red ants tucking into my tits.

I also managed to lose my camera lead for downloading photos somewhere along the way, hence the lack of a post yesterday. Although I think it’s fair to say that I would only have been capable of spouting inane drivel at the end of that particular day.

So no change there, then.

But refreshed after an early night, I set off bright and early this morning to walk the relatively civilised remaining 28km to Gijon, my stop for  tonight, with a heavy mist offering a welcome relief from yesterday’s heat.

…until I got about half an hour out of town and suddenly remembered my resolution from yesterday, reached into rucksack for the Vaseline, only to find that I had left my first-aid kit back at the hostel. Given that I’ve also chosen my first-aid kit as the perfect place to keep my wallet, there was no choice but to walk back to the hostel, and by the time I finally got back to where I had stopped, the same scene looked like this. If anything, it was hotter than yesterday.

Thankfully, today was one of the days that my Camino mojo was back in full flow; which was just as well, as the route leaving Villaviciosa seemed like an endless uphill climb.

I’ve found it quite hard to give an idea of the kind of gradients involved in this walk through photographs, but if I tell you that this photo shows a very short section of the climb…

..from the road that runs through the middle of this photograph…

…which then turns into a slippery woodland path….

…that eventually brings you out here, you might get some idea.

But eventually everything starts turning in a downward facing direction, and I got into Gijon at a very civilised 3.30pm, leaving me plenty of time to engage in some extended sign language sessions with shop assistants trying to explain that I need a new cable to download photos from my camera to my laptop.

As you can see, I got there in the end.

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Charity, Gijon, Rethink Mental Illness, The Santiago Way, Villaviciosa, Walking

Somebody Up There Likes Me

They say that walking El Camino de Santiago is an intense experience, and I think it’s fair to say that my experiences so far bear that out.

Quite apart from the extravagant beauty of the scenery and the spectacularly aching appendages that I’ve been endlessly banging on about, there have been many other memorable firsts, including walking a mountain range in The Basque Country with Marc Bolan; playing chicken with the local rail network in Cantabria; and being eyed up by a bull in Asturias.

But I think also it’s fair to say that today’s adventure is right up there in the annals of new experiences.

I got hit by a truck.

Don’t worry, it wasn’t quite as dramatic as it sounds (never let the truth get in the way of a good story) – if it was, I clearly wouldn’t be here to tell the tale.

If you take the time to do a quick Google image search of ‘The Camino of St. James’, ‘The Santiago Way’, ‘El Camino del Norte’ (my one), or even, if you’ve got the energy, ‘El Camino de Compostela de Santiago’, you’re very likely to come up with the sort of photographs that I’ve posted to date.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, there tends to be a complete absence of the type of photo that I’ve used as today’s header, showing an example of one of today’s little yellow way-markers (just to prove that I wasn’t going the wrong way).

Almost every section of The Northern Way has got its own stretch of tarmac involved, as I’ve mentioned before, but very occasionally there’s a stretch like the one above that makes you question the sanity of the Spaniards, although they are also usually mercifully brief.

Having set off bright and early from Llanes this morning, I was making pretty good headway on today’s 29km hike to Ribadesella; after about 7km or so I found myself on a fairly quiet B-road looking out for signs for the next bit of countryside…and the next minute I found myself in a ditch.

A driver of a bread van that was passing at a thankfully fairly leisurely pace clearly misjudged the distance between his wing-mirror and my over-sized backpack, and the former clipped the latter sending me not exactly flying, but certainly stumbling rather faster than I would have liked into the aforementioned ditch.

Obviously it was a bit of a shock, but I quickly realised I had sustained no more serious injuries than a bit of wounded pride; which was also entirely out of proportion to the stick that the van driver was getting from the other drivers who had been passing by – knocking peregrinos into ditches is clearly not the done thing around here.

Despite my protestations that I was absolutely fine, the van driver, who I think was in more shock than I was, insisted on taking me to the local hospital…back in Llanes…where I had started walking the best part of two hours earlier.

We then had to wait another half hour for the receptionist at the hospital to type in my passport details and finally present the driver with a bill for 62 Euros for a medical consultation for me (that I would have had to wait another 2 hours to receive), which she seemed to be insisting that he pay.

I thought it looked like he couldn’t really afford it, and I certainly didn’t need it, so I suggested a deal via sign language that if he drove me back to the scene of the crime plus another 3km or so to make up for lost time, we’d call it quits.

I may not speak Spanish, but it was fairly clear that he was happy with the arrangement.

As regards the title of today’s post, don’t worry, I haven’t got to a stage on this pilgrimage where I’ve started to interpret accidents of fate as mystical experiences. (That sentence doesn’t really work, does it?).

It was only an excuse for a bit of Bowie, really.

The more vigilant amongst those of you who have been following this blog will have noticed the absence of a post yesterday.

Unlike previous explanations, WiFi was actually in plentiful supply.

So I’ll just  come clean. I took a day off.

Somehow, it seemed as if it was gradually taking a bit longer to walk the same sort of distance each day, and blisters aside, I felt like I was starting to lose a bit of Camino mojo.

But just in case anyone who has been kind enough to sponsor me so far feels a little short-changed, I should add that I spent my day covering a fair old distance via another mode of transport. 15km to be precise. In a kayak.

The Sella River is a stunning waterway that travels through Los Picos de Europa, the same mountain range that I had seen in Cantabria and whose name apparently derives from the fact that they were the first sight of Europe for ships arriving from The Americas (thanks, Wikipedia).

Arronidas, where I started the journey, is about a 40 minute drive from Llanes. And the journey ends at El descenso del Sella, tantalisingly close to Ribadesella, my next destination. Given my experiences today, maybe I shouldn’t have got a bus back to Llanes after all…

The map below, if you’re interested, will give you an idea of the kind of terrain the kayak trek travels through, but for me the most important feature was that it was flat, flat, flat. And that I could put my feet up all day. If you look closely, you’ll see that they needed it (yep, that’ll be the sponsorship sympathy vote again).

And talking of maps, I mentioned in the last post that I would be officially crossing the half way line today. And I have.

Arriving at Ribadesella today meant that I have now covered 432.4km of 825km (that’ll be about 268 of 500 miles).

And this it what it looks like (and how far there still is to go).

Anyway, that’s quite enough excitement for one day (or two, even)

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Bread Truck, Charity, David Bowie, Llanes, Rethink Mental Illness, Ribadesella, The Northern Way

Taking stock

If I’d been a little bit braver this morning, today’s header photo would have been considerably more dramatic than this one.

I took a mercifully brief (compared to yesterday) detour from the Camino because a waymarker had been obscured by some undergrowth, to find myself in a muddy field nose to nose-ring with a decidedly fierce-looking bull; well not all that close to be honest, but quite close enough to back off without attempting to grab my camera to get a shot of him eyeing me up, especially as my walking poles have a particularly garish red flash down each side.

But the more benign bovine specimen that you see above that I came across a little later was actually probably more representative of today’s more reflective mood as I left the rolling farmlands of Cantabria and crossed into what felt like the entirely new terrain of Asturias.

One of the most striking aspects of undertaking this journey by foot has been having the opportunity to fully appreciate the changing landscape, given the luxury of time to take it all in; even so, the dramatic changes seem to take place in a matter of hours as you move from region to region.

Leaving Colombres on the border of Asturias for today’s 23.2km walk to Llanes back along the coast involved an initially steep climb, although nothing nearly as challenging as the first few stages through The Basque Country. Nevertheless, it made quite a pleasant change to see a cyclist struggling up the incline, as the majority of the time they seem to be whizzing down in the opposite direction as you are sweatily labouring upwards.

Once at the summit, however, and for the first time on this trip probably, I had a real sense of the distance I have travelled so far – a total of 402km / 250miles (tomorrow I will officially be crossing the half way mark to Santiago) as I looked back over terrain that I have walked over the last two or three days alone.

The Cantabrian mountain range moving into Asturias is no less dramatic that the scenery in the Basque Country but somehow seems softer, perhaps because the air was cooled by a mountain breeze today rather than the dry heat I had been exposed to previously.

As I approached the brow of the mountain range the moon was still visible in a crystal clear blue sky at 9.30am in the morning…

…leading into stunning panoramic views of the coastline stretching across the horizon below me.

And walking back down again to sea level, I began to get glimpses of the secluded coves and pristine beaches that the area is famed for…

…then seeing them up close as I walked the coastline:

I decided to slow things down today, and instead of pushing on through to the next destination pausing only occasionally for a quick coffee or a beer, as I have generally generally being doing til now, I treated myself to set lunch off a ‘pilgrim’s menu’ that many restaurants offer along the way – in this case a lightly flavoured plate of spaghetti bolognese for a starter, followed by grilled sardines and a caramel tart…for 12 Euros. It appears that asceticism does not feature heavily on this particular pilgrimage.

After lunch, the surrounding seemed to evolve yet again, into what seemed more like Alpine passes than the Spain I have known til now, either on this trip or previous visits.

The trail then leads down to more lush, verdant countryside…

…before one final ascent to higher ground…

…before arriving at Llanes, which I haven’t taken any photographs of today as, frankly, my feet need a bit of a rest.

Maybe tomorrow as I’m leaving town…

This thing’s going to fall apart soon if I’m not careful

Filed under: On The Road Tagged: Asturias, Basque Country, Camino, Cantabria, Charity, Colombres, Photograph, Rethink Mental Illness