Friday, 21 April 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 7: Gravitational Pull

By now we’ve begun to feel the gravitational pull of Santiago. Our bodies would love it if that meant we could amble gently downhill to our destination. But pilgrimages seldom work that way. Santiago is the literal as well as metaphorical high point of the Spanish section of our camino. So our path climbs, albeit gently and through some delightful patches of forest.

[Forest delights in Galicia] 
Rain is threatening, and we keep wet weather gear handy. We’re now deep into our second week of walking, and our feet and other parts are in various stages of distress. An old ankle injury is causing Lynne some pain. She had considered catching a bus to give her leg a rest, but instead has bound it up and soldiered on. She is one determined pilgrim! And in truth she will not be the only pilgrim to limp into Santiago.

[Pilgrim legs: strong but sore] 
After leaving the delightful woods of Reiris, we walk through quiet rural lanes that are lined with autumn-tinged grape vines. We have a brief stint on that constant companion, the unpleasantly busy N550 road. Then, as we approach the picturesque village of Tibo, the threatening clouds finally open up. Rain pours down unstintingly for several minutes, causing us to run for shelter in a small barn.

[Threatening clouds on the approach to Tibo] 
The deluge soon passes, and it isn’t long before we’re entering the tight, cobbled lanes of Caldas de Reis. Again there’s a beautiful mediaeval bridge to cross, and another forest to climb through. Happily our way fits snugly between the N550 and a railway line, with only the dull hum of traffic and the occasional whoosh of a train reminding us we’re on the fringes of a busier world.

[The smelter on the outskirts of Padron] 
The town of Padron is clearly a part of that world. Its aluminium smelter hogs the riverfront and belches smoke skyward. This seems at odds with its historical significance in the story of St James (Santiago). Legend has it that Padron was the first land sighted by those bringing St James’ body from the Holy Land to Spain. Of course Australians can’t ride their high horse here: the site of Captain Cook’s arrival at Kurnell has long been blighted by an oil refinery and fuel depot. Historical significance, like ecological significance, guarantees nothing.

Padron is our last overnight stop, and we leave so early that we need torches to find our way through the lanes. At one point we miss a waymark and find ourselves stooping to go through a dark tunnel. It seems wrong because it is. 

[Wrong way, go back: Lost near Padron] 
We retrace our steps and soon find a pilgrim shell marker. But today not even navigational errors and sore ankles can dampen our enthusiasm. We prefer to think of the words “last leg” in a positive way.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 6: Celtic Air in Pontevedra

There are place names that you automatically associate with a tune. It will always be a long way to Tipperary, just as there will always be a track winding back to Gundagai.

[A cross marking the pilgrim route through Galicia] 
But a tune associated with the Galician city of Pontevedra? That might stump most, or at least those outside Galicia. Here’s where my inner Celtic-folk-nerd comes to the rescue, thanks to many years as a folk music radio host. So back in Arcade I’ve been preparing for our walk into Pontevedra by listening to one of the quintessential Celtic tunes for this region. (Galicia shares some of the same music and culture as places like Ireland, Scotland and Brittany). The music in question is the traditional pipe tune called Aires de Pontevedra.

The beautifully uplifting air was originally written for the gaita, a Galician mouth-blown bagpipe. It has become so popular that there are now versions played by folk musicians all over the world. Scottish highland bagpipes, Irish uilleann pipes, fiddles, flutes, accordions and guitars have all had a go at it.

For me one of the definitive performances is by Galician piper Carlos Nunez, a native of nearby Vigo. You can watch a live version here

The Aires becomes my ear-worm as we climb out of Arcade into cloud-shrouded hills. Gone are the desiccated corn fields and eucalypt plantations of the lower lands. We’re now walking through lush forest with a distinctly Celtic feel to it. Showers come and go, ferns cover the forest floor, moss climbs the tree trunks and spills onto the cobbles.

[Climbing out of Arcade, Spain] 
The pilgrim network comes in handy today. We’ve been told that there’s a new route into Pontevedra for pilgrims. Instead of traipsing through the industrial outskirts of the city, we amble along the bosky banks of the Rio Gafos. We’re almost into the heart of the city before we have to hit the pavement.

[Walking through woods beside Rio Gafos] 
The Celtic air holds sway over the city too, with showers frequently passing over. We dodge them as best we can, and explore the old town with its narrow cobbled streets and lively food trade. 

[A Pontevedran rainbow] 
During one downpour we retreat to a bar and find our American friends Karl and Bill ensconced there. Ever knowledgeable about their surrounds, they tell us that the Church of La Pegrina opposite us is shaped like a pilgrim shell, and has long been a waypoint for pilgrims on their path to Santiago.

[An 'atmospheric' morning at Pontevedra's Pilgrim Church 
Although we leave Pontevedra early in the morning, the sun should be well up. But the Galician weather has remained “atmospheric”. The streetlights struggle to penetrate the fog as we wind through the cobbled lanes and over the old Burgo Bridge, near the site of an ancient Roman bridge over the Lerez. 

[Leaving a foggy Pontevedra] 

[The Burgo Bridge over Rio Lerez ]
Just before we leave the city, it seems fitting that we find a statue dedicated to a musician. The late accordion player Luis César Dios Rodríguez (better known here as “Diosino”) was one of Pontevedra’s musical heroes. It’s a touching tribute, but I can’t help chuckling at the thought that any accordion player in Australia would ever earn a nick-name that translates as “little god”!

[Statue honouring 'Diosino' in Pontevedra]

Monday, 6 March 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 5: Some Rain in Spain

If we know anything about the rain in Spain, it’s that it stays mainly in the plain. Except that it doesn’t. We know that before we cross over from Portugal into Galicia. The ancient kingdom of Galicia is NOT in a plain. In fact it’s hilly and green, and one of the better-watered parts of Spain.

[A green, well-watered wood in Galicia] 
We will soon experience all that first-hand. But first we have to endure one of the (thankfully rare) sections of main road walking on the camino. Cobbles might be hard on your feet, but busy roads are hard on your mind as well, adding the fear of whizzing traffic. We put our heads down, and walk as quickly as we can to our next off-road section.

[Walking a main road in rural Spain]
We’re now noticing more pilgrims, partly because they’re easier to see on a road, but partly because quite a few pilgrims only do the shorter sections leading into Santiago. Strung out along the road we look like a modern take on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, with groups of pilgrims knotted together conversing, laughing, stopping to do repairs, sharing food, and greeting other pilgrims.

Unless you’re a recluse or a curmudgeon, a camino has a strong social element. Our short-comings in Spanish limit some of our interactions, but we’re still finding it more social the further we progress. Whether we’re walking and talking on the way, sitting and chatting over drinks; or sharing accommodation or meals together, we’re forming bonds. And inevitably we’re comparing notes, whether on blisters, food, accommodation or the reasons behind our pilgrimage.

[Getting to know some other pilgrims]
Bill and Karl are two American pilgrims we meet often. They’re are a source of great fun and amusement. Like a classic odd couple, the one short, loud and loquacious; the other tall, quiet and laconic, they bicker and bounce off each other constantly. Walking or socialising with them is like being part of a sit-com. Or sometimes like being the audience, as when quiet Karl gently unloads on the ebullient Bill after one too many nags.

Karl has been limping almost the whole time, having become badly blistered early in his camino. But he’s quietly determined to get to the end regardless of his pain or his pace. “It is what it is” he says, encapsulating something that we all end up applying to the journey. Whether it’s the weather, the distance left to walk or the pain of blisters, “it is what it is“ becomes our way of surrendering to the road; of dealing with both joys and disappointments.

[Pressing the grapes as it's been done since Roman times] 
A simple example of the former comes as we’re walking through a rural lane. We pass a friendly farmer with an equally friendly dog. He’s busy using an ancient hand-driven winepress to make wine with his own grapes. He pauses to call a greeting, and laughs when we ask if it’s okay to take a photo. His eyes crinkle as he points to the messy wine stains on his singlet, as if to say “What a picture I must be!”

One of the latter comes as we approach the coast for the first time since Porto. We’ve heard that the town of Arcade, on the Ria de Vigo, has some good swimming spots. Most of the way through Portugal it’s been warm and dry, and the thought of swimming has had a big appeal.

We lunch in the pleasantly busy old town of Redondela. It’s cool and cloudy, and we still have a long uphill road section before Arcade, where we’ll stay the night. By the time we’re into the worst of the hilly climb, the rain comes. A heavy drizzle wets the road, wets every car or truck that speeds by, making sure that we are soaked through too. There won’t be any swimming today.

[Misty and moisty in Arcade]
We plod on through the rain, hoping our accommodation comes sooner rather than later. Tim and Merran are ahead by maybe a hundred metres. We’re following doggedly, as Tim remains our navigator. Before too long he turns and waves, and we see a small hotel that fits the description. Feeling and looking like drowned rats, we start to climb the steps past another group of pilgrims who are sitting at an outside table. Without warning they break into “Happy Birthday”, and it’s aimed at Lynne!
Tim and Merran have been telling tales. Today might not be Lynne’s actual 60th birthday, but they’ve heard that the big birthday is part of the reason for our camino. It turns out Kerrie, a New Zealander living in Italy, has had the same idea – for the same number birthday – and has invited “a few girlfriends” on a camino.

[Lynne and some new friends celebrate her un-birthday] 
They’re soon buying us drinks, and we’re chattering away like old friends. The pain of the rough and rainy road, and the disappointment of our non-swim recede into the mist. “It is what it is”; accepting what we’re given. How sweet that sometimes is!