Adios Santiago

Today is my last day in the Albergue Final Del Camino, the hostel where I have been a volunteer warden or ‘hospitalera’, for the last two weeks. For the last time, I will greet pilgrims and see the relief on their tired faces when yes, we can offer a bunk bed for the night. 8 euros is good value. The only extra charges are for the washing machine and drier, should they wish to use them. Wifi and use of computers is free and usually produces a big smile.

Some pilgrims arrive limping, plagued by blisters and sprains, some with such rude vigour. Others are too tired to be jubilant and only want to sleep. Those who are jubilant show their well earned Compostella, the certificate congratulating them for having walked anything from 100 to
1000 kilometres, sometimes more if they really really have the walking bug, hug each other or slap each other on the back, almost unable to believe their success.

It is emotional. Not because of the sadness in the town, those are circumstances beyond
understanding, but because the euphoria of walking, the achievment of a goal, a dream even, causes such turmoil for some that they laugh out loud and burst into tears at the same time.

The hostel at end of the Camino has felt like a last outpost at times. It is half an hour’s walk from the old town and the cathedral which is where most pilgrims want to be. For that is where ‘stuff’ happens and where celebrations take place and where they will meet up with those they have walked with. After a month on the road together and apart meeting up for the last time is important.

It has also felt like home. Two weeks in the small neighbourhood , buying bread from the best bakers in the world, having morning coffee at the same bar, has produced bright smiles of recognition and hugs of farewell.

Asking directions to the train station does not seem the best question to ask today, so I leave with time to get lost and I arrive ridiculously early with a ridiculously heavy bag. Somehow, all the advice to travel light has gone by the board. There are few places to sit and those seats that are not taken are puddled by the heavy rain, as if the roof leaks.

A grandpa arrives with two little girls and eight suitcases, lined up neatly in two rows. The girls are so excited by their pending holiday they skitter through the cases, round and round, counting them over and over. Eventually both girls lie side by side, one on each row. In time, the rest of the party join them. Younger children totter round and the rather somber waiting room, strewn with pilgrims and tourists, lights up with smiles.

The official funeral Mass for those lost in the crash takes place in the cathedral tomorrow.

Santiago en luto. Santiago in Mourning

There is regional and  national mourning after  the train crash in Santiago  and   last night the town was quiet.  A sigh whispered through the place, sadness in the air.  Pilgrims  arrived to vast emptiness of the square; old friends were easy to find.  No masses were sung, no bands played.

But Santiago has been welcoming and accomodating pilgrims for thousands of years and there is the sense that however hard it is, life will go on.

Spain is a nation that lives in the streets, they would admit themselves.

Like migrating birds, families flock up to the old city for an evening paseo – walk, a chat, even a drink and a run round for the children.  At ten pm or so, they will turn south again and head home for an evening meal.  A ritual that happens all over Spain.

There is comfort in ritual.

Oh, Santiago

The wait for festivities on the eve of the saint's feast day is 
part of the experience. People lie or sit on the old stones of 
the  square facing the cathedral from about seven pm to 
stake  their place. Sandwiches  unwrap, friendships are struck 
or renewed, as the queue of people hoping to find a place, or 
their group, slims to single file only and the square is
officially full.
Light began to fade, taking on the night and we were hopeful. 
But it was not festivities that started. It was an announcement 
that everything was cancelled. Please clear the square.  A train crash. 
'It must be serious,' people mused, spilling into the narrow streets 
and finding their way in to bars.  Television screens were full 
of the news. Many dead and many, many more injured on a train  
carrying over two hundred people. A message typed at the bottom 
of the screen asked for blood donors.

The hospital is a good twenty minute walk out of town 
near the university.  I checked the way a few times, asking people 
in the street. It became obvious that everyone was 
going to the hospital, marching down the wide avenue.
'Solidaridad,' one woman said. Solidarity. 
It was worse than anyone could imagine. The death toll rising as
we waited,  more than a hundred, standing in the porch of the hospital. 
Eventually, after rumours of a mobile unit coming to the hospital, 
we were asked to make our way to the blood transfusion unit somewhere 
in town.  The crocodiles of blood donors disappeared into 
the night, indistinguishable from the party goers and I could 
not find the way.

This morning helicopters whirr overhead, sirens still cry out 
and perhaps the way for universal donors will be clearer.

Solidarity, Santiago. 

The old heart grieves and we grieve with you.

More Music in Santiago

We are all tired today, the volunteers.  One is still in bed, one has gone to man the hostel or albergue and one (me) in search of coffee.  We are a seventeen year old French lad, a twenty four year old Irish girl, and me, staid and English and just into my troisieme age as the French so delicately put it.

And so, 2K up hill into Santiago’s old heart in search of joy and coffee.  The heart steadies itself for the build up to St James’ Day when the partying really starts.  Music at every turn. A trio of opera singers, two tenors and a soprano strategically placed under the arch that leads to the cathedral square.  They know a thing or two about acoustics.  A crowd gathers and seats itself on the steps for the long haul of nearly an hour. Praise and applause is abundant for favourite arias, even requests and  the beauty of the voices giving them goose bumps, they say.  Few however, buy CD’s or drop coins in to the hat. The trio sing their hearts out to little avail financially.  

Three young Brazilian women singing, dancing and playing with a hint of Fado, such brio, such rhythm  that they soon have a following and  are well recompensed.  No one is left unmoved – literally so – heads, feet, hands, hips, no one can sit stil.  If these women asked for the crowd to follow them even into a mountain never to return, they would.

And back to the albergue where we three sing along to you tube. Snow Patrol and Chasing cars.  The best verse, ‘ I need your grace to remind me of my own.  All that I am all that I ever was is here in your perfect eyes,’ seems to speak to all of us. We are all a bit misty eyed thinking of loved ones far away, or perhaps just tired.

I am moved, all over again, by their youth, generosity of spirit and that we can sit and sing and mean it here in our outpost waiting for pilgrims to arrive for the fiestas.

Fiestas in Santiago

After mist and cool, by Spanish standards, the last few days, the blue insistance of the sky defies anyone to be down hearted.  Besides, Santiago is hotting up for Fiestas, even without the sun.  Preparations are underway and stages are being errected round town for the many bands already practising daily for the big party tomorrow.

One trio from Rusia play accordian, and two triangular stringed instruments; one perhaps a balalaika and one a huge base version, unmistakably an Eastern European sound.  They play Roll out the Barrel, and I laugh, reminded of pubcrawls, hearing the song played so delicately. Perhaps it is, after all, a sweet folk tune debased by association with first class beer.  Anyone for a pint of Watneys?

St James’ feast day is 25th July, the party, fireworks and all, will be on the eve but the celebrations, so I’m told, keep going all weekend. How lucky to be here welcoming pilgrims, jubilant having walked thier hundreds of kilometers, and for the fiestas.

(Confessions of a technophobe.  Should anyone read this and think a few photos would not go amiss, I’m afraid they must wait, for photos will not appear till after I get home.)

Old Haunts in Santiago de Compostela

Old haunts without old friends are not the same.  They are full of ghosts of memories.Tapas in the  bar we used to frequent, are nowhere near as much fun. The waiter has a line of patter that would flummox the faint hearted.  I pass his test and he finds me a perch , since I am on my own.  I ask for white wine and he reels me the choice so fast it’s like a test for spies.  ( I have just been reading William Boyd’s Restless, page by page, by wind-up-torch light through the sleepless nights of the Camino). Rioja, Ribeira, Albariño.  I choose the latter and it is as good as I remember;   my tapa less so.  A tuna filled red pimiento with anchovy, chosen  in a hurry, would have been better for the company.

Separate Ways

Today we go our separate ways, Sunny Boy and I.  Hard to get our heads round the different busses and routes.  We have a farewell breakfast of churros and chocolate and sit like condemned men on the eve of execution.  Rich and thick and not very sensible for travellers embarking on a long journey.

There is a pull of separation as Sunny Boy’s bus speeds him towards Bilbao and the flight home and my train potters along to Oviedo. If we were joined with elastic it would either rebound or snap.

Mist or fog is a phenomenon here.  Air  rolling in off the sea trapped and cooled by the mountains: just like home!  Here there is no accompanying sea breeze, just sun and the effect is sutry. Especially with Spanish colonial style houses graced with avenues of huged palms.  These houses with towers and glass facades are often painted bright blue or mauve.

This new phase of the Camino, to come as a volunteer in a hostel in Santiago, is exciting.

Peace in Asturias

The peace of a night to ourselves in a hotel with a swimming pool pervaded the whole of  today’s walk.  After ten hours on the Camino in 35 degrees of full sun, the huge lettering on the roof of the hotel looked like a mirage. Then you know that one step further would be a step too far.  The relief of a swim for aching muscles was not far short of miraclulous.

So we opted for a langourous pace today, removing boots at a beauty spot, Bufones de Arenillas, and picnicing for about an hour.  We have come along the coast to a rock cliff where thundering seas have made holes like geysers.  Nothing thunders today but an even mist covers everything.

We thought all our pilgrim friends would be well clear, but just before turning towards the coast again, in Buelna, we spotted a new albergue, just opened.  Outside was the metal cage with the orange canary, Richard.  I think he might have been sulking.  He was certainly very quiet.  Paquita had walked herself to a standstill and was staying put for a day.  I offered her the orange feather, but she was not amused.

Towards Santillana

On the ferry to Santander the Picos wrote their message in the sky.  Snow clad all year, the tops can be seen for miles, appearing to float like smoke signals or some vast flock migrating.   What is that? pilgrims asked.  A few shrugs.  No one wanted to commit.

The ferryman sold us a jar of anchovies that just fitted neatly into the pocket of Sunny Boy’s rucksack.  Look forward to making pissaladiere back home.

The hostal in Santillana, arriving hot and sticky and waiting for it to open, is old and welcoming.  We have the last two beds.

We begrudge the 5 E charge for the cloister but must concede we are glad to have seen it.  The remains of Santa Juliana have been here since the sixth century. Camino friends are here too and the evening is jolly.

Yesterday We Walked with Eagles

Yesterday we walked with eagles, even though we were mostly along the road,  climbing high and wild between rocky ravines with the sea falling away to our right, silvering in the sun.  One eagle flew so close its shadow blotted out the sky and fell cross us like an eclipse, fronded wings and talons threateningly close. It circled a few times before climbing away to join the others to an eerie or perhaps for better prey.

Today was more rural: a ferry ride and beautiful beaches.  In fields, buzzards followed a tractor in such numbers that one sees crows in England.  We tried to make them into eagles, but we knew that neither the country nor their silhouettes were harsh enough.  Still, a dozen or so cartwheeling, quarrelling buzzards is no mean sight.

When we reached Guemes and met Don Ernesto the old priest who runs the hostel that the guide book said was not to be missed.  I thought perhaps the eagle had been an omen. Sadly, we did not find the experience of staying in the comune that he has built with his own hands and with the help of friends, awe inspiring.