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!  

Saturday, 21 January 2017

A Long, Slow Journey 4: Farewell to Nata

“Portugal and Spain are pretty much the same, aren’t they”?

A few friends had asked me that question, both before and after our pilgrimage. I’d answered as diplomatically as possible that, while their languages, histories and cultures may seem somewhat alike, a little digging would uncover a great many differences. Not to mention sensitivities, suspicions, even animosities. Exhibit A: Pastel de nata.

A pair of irresistible pasteis de nata 
On our journey through northern Portugal, our mid-morning ritual, wherever possible, has been to find a coffee. And where there’s coffee, there’s invariably a small, round, egg tart known to locals as pastel de nata. It’s curious that something as small, simple and sweet as a glorified custard tart can wheedle its way into your gastronomic heart. But it does. We find ourselves anticipating nata time; then walking on rejuvenated post nata.

The signpost tells us we're nearing the Spanish border 
It all stops at the Spanish border, and it’s not entirely clear why. Nata were first created in Portuguese convents and monasteries. But why, I wonder, not Spanish ones? It’s such a felicitous way to use up excess egg yolks after you’ve employed the egg whites to starch your habits. Apart from this mysterious culinary divide, it’s also a reminder of the deep influence religion has had on the Iberian peninsula.

Crosses punctuate the sky throughout Spain & Portugal 
During our slow walk through the countryside we find eternity rehearsed in the many churches, crosses, customs and devotional sites we pass. We notice too the periodic bong of church bells, tracking the passage of time so much more deeply than the tick of watches or clocks. That sound feels like a landscape-wide assertion that the here-and-now is joined to the forever.

We wonder whether we even see the moral tug of eternity in the kindness of some Portuguese. In just one instance, as we’re wearily working our way through the sweltering semi-industrial outskirts of Valenca, we inadvertently walk past a yellow arrow. As we heedlessly head off in the wrong direction, a passing driver is quick to assess our situation. He stops, turns his car around, drives back to tell us we’ve gone a few hundred metres past our “way”, and puts us back on track with a smile and a wave.

Fortaleza de Valenca, Portugal, facing Spain 
Valenca is to be our final Portuguese town. Once we walk across the Minho River, we’ll be in Spain. There we’ll encounter a new language; different customs; and a myriad subtle changes. Bom dia will become Buenos dias, and we’ll have leche in our coffee rather than leite. Sadly it’ll also be farewell to nata.

Of course it’s not just the loss of tarts that creates a sense of drama at the border. Valenca is an old fort town dating back to Roman times. Its bland modernisation can’t hide its impessive old fortification, the Forteleza de Valenca, perched high above the banks of the Minho. We spend our last Portuguese night in the old fort town. It’s a beautiful warm afternoon, and a perfect setting for our last coffee and pastel de nata.

Our final pastel de nata in Valenca 
The large fort, with its thick cannon-topped walls facing Spain, was built to impress, intimidate and keep-a-good-eye-on those on the other side of the Minho. For us it offers a grandstand view over Spain. We dine al fresco, watching a sunset seemingly turned on for our farewell.

Farewell sunset from Valenca, Portugal 
We’re back there in the morning, but this time to take our leave. Our way takes us through the old city and down to the bridge over the Minho. How many feet, in war and in peace, have marched down that steep cobbled lane, passed under that wall and gone through that city gate?

Leaving Valenca through the city gate  
We feel a strange reluctance to leave. We pause to take farewell photos, and stop at the “border”, a painted line half way over the bridge. Finally we finish crossing the Minho and climb up into the town of Tui. It’s time to say Hola Espagna!

The border crossing on the Minho bridge 

Friday, 16 December 2016

A Long, Slow Journey 3: Strangers in a Strange Land

Walk, eat, sleep, wake, repeat. 

What sounds boring, isn’t. It is testing though, and after a few days, questions are being asked; reserves are being called upon. The rubber is literally hitting the road, or the cobbles at least.

[The Portuguese city of Barcelos, on the Cavado River] 
We’ve greatly enjoyed our time in the city of Barcelos. As we leave, it offers us one final gift. On a cool misty morning – the first hint of autumn in the air following a spell of warm, sunny days – we walk into the city’s weekly market. As if prompted by the mist, all is mellow and fruitful. Brightly-dressed locals haggle and chat over brightly-coloured flowers, fruit, vegetables and assorted stuff that's spread across the large square. This is vibrant Portugal simply being itself, full of colour and joy in the simple things of life; warmly welcoming of these strangers who buy only what they can carry, mostly fruit. We leave reluctantly.

[Barcelos on Market Day] 
As I walk on I experience an odd sense of shame. It’s not that I wish I’d bought more at the market, although that’s true. Rather, hearing stories from home about our so-called “strong” refugee policy, I am jagged by the contrast to what I find here, being a stranger in a strange land. As an Australian in Portugal I have been welcomed, shown kindness, made to feel an honoured guest. I like to think that Australians as individuals would behave in the same way to the “stranger”. But I look at our refugee policy and see only backs turned, blindfolds pulled tight, headphones pumping other stories to blank out the cries for help.

[An open door welcomes us to Balugaes] 
How and why do we behave this way? Novelist/essayist Marilynne Robinson skewers it.

Where population groups are seen as enemies or even as burdens, certain nefarious traits are attributed to them as a whole that are taken to override the qualities of individual members.

Despite our government’s frequent appeal to Christian values, this is precisely its tactic. Of course in doing so it conveniently ignores the consistent message of the Bible in relation to caring for the “stranger” or “soujourner”. Deuteronomy 10:19, for instance, tells the people not to be forgetful once they are in the Promised Land: You are to love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

A pilgrimage is supposed to allow time and space for reflection, to offer a fresh perspective on your inner life, and your life back home. This I had expected, but not the shame and anger I feel now. It is more than a spiritual match for the physical struggles of this long walk.

[Ponte de Lima's bridge by night] 
We walk on. If distance and hard surfaces have been our main physical obstacles up to now, after the town of Ponte de Lima we meet our first true climb. We leave town via the long and beautiful bridge, part Roman, part mediaeval. We pass a sculpture that wishes us a good caminho, and wind our way along the edge of the Rio Limia.

["Bom Caminho" on the bridge at Ponte de Lima] 
Once we leave the river, the contours tighten. For the first time in days we leave farmland behind, and start to climb through a resin-scented pine forest. Despite the “exotic” vegetation, it feels quite like Tasmanian bushwalking, as cobbles and gravel roads give way to roughish, steepish bush tracks.

[Getting steeper and rougher] 
And there is no town or village for lunch, so we’ve had to bring the makings of a picnic. After a 400m altitude gain we finally reach the top. We’re hot, sweaty and happy to flop down on some grassy open space. Lunch is frugal but satisfying, and we’re glad of it; glad too that our afternoon walk is downhill.

[A welcome spot for a picnic lunch] 
An hour or two later we’re even gladder when we come across a pop-up pub. It’s just a van in a pull-off beside a minor road, but it serves cold drinks. We’re waved in by some fellow pilgrims, and are soon sitting down to share some tales and a lemon beer with them. Yet again we feel welcome.

[Tim shares a lemon beer with a Dutch pilgrim]