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]

Thursday, 8 December 2016

A Long, Slow Journey 2: Into a Rhythm

I am searching for a rhythm; one that will serve me for a 250km long walk. The beat of my feet, the click of my walking poles, the in-pause-out of my breath, are its basic components. But there’s also the need for water, for rest, for food, for coffee, for toilet stops. And when I factor in time to get lost, and found again; time to find companionship, and to be silent; time to be open to all that I see, hear and smell around me, the rhythm of a long walk becomes complex, richly layered, unpredictable, mesmerising even.

[Finding our way through a eucalypt-lined lane] 
I further complicate it by carrying 1.4kg of camera gear around my neck; part millstone, part magic lantern. Before we’ve gone 50 metres, I’m the clucky parent trying to record those first steps, calling everyone to stop for a photo. It becomes a frequent cry, one the others will get used to, and sometimes choose to ignore.

[Lynne, Tim and Merran caught by the camera] 
We’re barely accustomed to following the yellow arrows through the cobbled and tiled lanes, when we reach a small café offering sellos (passport stamps). Pilgrims wanting their compostela (certificate of pilgrimage) need to have two stamps per day in their credencial to show they’ve actually walked the caminho. Not knowing where our next coffee or stamp will come from, we gladly stop for both. This too will be part of our daily rhythm.

[A beautiful example of Portuguese tiles] 
Early on Tim earns his stripes as our chief way-finder. We dub him Tim the Navigator, a nod to the 15th century Portuguese prince/explorer Henry the Navigator. Yellow arrows can only get you so far. Using his mobile phone’s GPS, Tim is able to point us to a suitable sit-down lunch venue. The village café is packed with locals, surely a good sign. Better still the locals, taking us to be pilgrims, make room for us and help us with our orders. We end up going for the “pilgrim menu”, a three course meal, including wine, for just 8 Euros each! A fine way to cap off a morning's work, we think.

But after that the afternoon grows harder. Part of that is in a literal sense, as a lot of our walking is on ancient cobbles. Picturesque they may be, but after 20km or more, their unyielding unevenness starts to tell. Our feet are gripping and bending at unaccustomed angles. Soon my smallest member – the little toe on my left foot – is paining me. The others too are finding aches and blisters in various places. Already the caminho takes a toll.

[Map of the long road ahead; courtesy Portugal Green Walks] 
Conversely we’ve also heard that the caminho provides. As we walk alongside a eucalypt plantation, we recognise some Tasmanian blue gums and I find a large five-lobed gumnut wedged between some cobbles. It feels like a personal welcome to us from Portugal. 

[A Tasmanian blue gum nut nestled in the cobbles] 
And then as we pass a farm gate in a crooked, stone-walled lane, a farmer calls out to us. He’s recognised us as pilgrims, and wants to pass on a small blessing. He signals us to wait, and hurries into a field to pluck some plump, ripe tomatoes. He returns and presses one on each of us, asking only that we remember him in prayer when we get to Santiago. The caminho provides indeed, asking for prayers instead of GST.

[A kind farmer, 2nd from right, supplies us with tomatoes] 
On that first day we’re very ready to stop by the time we reach the village of Arcos. Our hopes rise when we start to see pilgrim houses, and fall when Tim’s device tells us our accommodation is on the far side of the village, perhaps another 2km. That too becomes part of the rhythm: tempering hopes; managing disappointments; walking on regardless. But eventually humble, moving feet overcome the distance. And a hot shower and a good lie down help to heal any disappointments. Our first day done, we’re starting to find our rhythm.

[Walking towards Arcos, Portugal]