Wednesday 23 November 2016

A Long, Slow Journey 1: A Preparation of Sorts

[Walking through rural Portugal] 
I am walking. Just walking. I did it yesterday; I hope to do it every day that God sends. Under a clear blue sky, dressed in regular walking clothes, wearing regular walking shoes, carrying a regular day-pack, I am simply putting one foot in front of the other.

But every now and then I hear a small clinking sound, almost a ringing. A scallop shell strapped to the back of my pack intermittently knocks against a buckle. And it reminds me that I’m on a pilgrimage. I am walking in the footsteps of thousands who have trodden this same path over many centuries.

[The pilgrim shell on my daypack]
I know there’s more to pilgrimage than a symbolic shell and a well-trodden path. The Macquarie Dictionary, for instance, calls it

a journey, esp. a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of devotion.

While that’s partly true for Lynne and me, we have also chosen a pilgrimage as a way of marking a significant birthday. And we’re hoping that a long, slow journey on foot might prove an antidote to what writer Marilynne Robinson calls the ‘joyless urgency’ of our times. There are other reasons too, some we know about, some we’ll discover.

Of the many pilgrimages available, we’ve chosen to walk the Caminho Portugues. It is one of a dozen different caminos* (“ways”) that converge on Santiago de Compostela, a city that’s sacred to some because the relics of St James the Apostle (Santiago in Spanish) are said to rest in its cathedral. The best known camino, the Camino Frances, leaves from France and travels across the Pyrenees into northern Spain. Our lesser-known pilgrimage travels north from Lisbon in Portugal to Santiago in north-western Spain.

[Typical waymarks on the pilgrimage: photo by Lynne Grant]
Given the time we have available, we’ve chosen to shorten our caminho by leaving from Porto. It is a journey of around two weeks, divided roughly 50/50 between Portugal and Spain. Our friends Tim and Merran, who have previously done an Italian pilgrimage, are excited to be joining us on this journey.

We’ve each tried to prepare physically and mentally for the walk. But as is so often the case, life has intervened. In Lynne’s case, a dose of the ‘flu before our departure has cut short her physical preparations. And Tim and Merran have had to squeeze too much work into too little time just to be here for the pilgrimage. 

[Pilgrims outside Porto Cathedral] 

[Preparing for a pilgrimage?] 
The day before we leave, we spend a few hours walking around Porto, noticing pilgrim waymarks, visiting the cathedral, practising our walking ... and eating. As preparations go, it’s not ideal. But as we’ll come to hear from many-a-pilgrim over the coming weeks, it is what it is.

[Porto on a busy Sunday]
So, ready or not, on a blue-skied morning in early October, the four of us are transported to the village of Mosteiro on the outskirts of Porto. It’s a nondescript starting point for our 250km journey. The cobbled village square doubles as a car-park. It gives onto a few private buildings, a public laundry (open) and a public toilet block (closed). A few cars are parked there, and some elderly men chat together around one of them, while two women outside the laundry carry on a loud conversation. It sounds like they’re having a serious disagreement, ‘though we will soon learn this is how many Portuguese conversations are carried on.

[Leaving, ready or not.] 
If our farewell party is a little preoccupied, at least we have each other. With smiles to counter our apprehensions, we tighten our laces, shrug on our daypacks, exchange blessings, and start walking.

* In Portuguese, the word is spelled caminho.

Friday 11 November 2016

Cycling in Catalonia 2: The Mediaeval Villages

Mediaeval is a fuzzy, ill-defined term. But bumping your bicycle through a cobble-laned mediaeval village, its church, castle or fort hogging the high ground, its bell tower ringing each quarter of the clock, is an utterly tangible experience.

[A cobbled lane in the village of Peratallada]

[Lynne and Chris on foot in the village of Pals] 
After a couple of days cycling around the Costa Brava coast, we’ve been ferried inland, bikes and all, and dropped among the small mediaeval villages that dot the hills between Palamos and Girona. We’re enthralled by the depth of on-going settlement in one place; enchanted too that we can fortify ourselves for the ride, be it with a quick café con leche and pastry, or a more leisurely menu del dia. These are not mediaeval theme parks, they are working villages.

[A wooded country lane between villages] 
As we ride between the villages we see, hear and smell the evidence of that. Cattle are farmed for both meat and milk, ‘though they’re more often smelled than seen, as they’re usually housed in barns. More pungent still are the pigs, surely the favourite source of meat in Catalonia (think jamon/ham; chorizo sausages; even galtes/pig’s ear). It’s also ripening time for grapes and figs, and their sweet tang leavens the other rural aromas. We pause and taste a few figs, with mixed results.

[Looking towards Sant Iscla d'Emporda] 
The riding is mostly easy, on undulating lanes, tracks and the occasional road. Our itinerary is loose, determined partly by the map and partly by the honey-pot pull of what we see ahead. Each distant village is given away by some grand stone edifice on a hill; sometimes a church, occasionally a castle. 

[Riding away from the mediaeval village of Pals] 
And then there’s Ullastret. On the approach to the village of Ullastret, we can see something else, low yet significant, on a hill outside the village. We’ve been told there are Roman ruins hereabouts, and Chris and I exchange “Yep, that’s where I’d build if I was Roman”-type comments. It’s uphill and a bit bumpy getting there, and we’re puffing as we dismount at the historic site’s ticket booth. The entry fee includes an audio commentary and we’re soon learning that the site is more complex and interesting than we’d anticipated.

[An ancient cistern at Puig de Sant Andreu] 
Roman occupation is just part of the story. Puig de Sant Andreu, as the site is called, turns out to be one of Spain’s most significant prehistoric Iberian settlements. The Indegetes tribe occupied the site well before the Romans, from the 6th century BC until around the 2nd century BC. Not much of their settlement remains, as it was largely constructed out of wood and mud. But we get to wander among some water cisterns and grain silos that have been excavated. And the on-site museum contains some other fascinating artefacts, including a beheaded skull pierced by an iron spike!

[Underground grain silos and other ruins] 
The old Iberians must have had the same opinion of the site as we and the Romans did. It commands views as far as the Pyrenees over the well-watered, agriculturally rich Emporda region. We learn that the flatter lands below the site, which are now fields, once had large fish-stocked lakes with small well-defended villages around them. For all of the changes at the site: whether its the demise of the Indegetes, the coming and going of the Romans, the short-lived invasion of the Moors or the rise and fall of mediaeval lords, there has always been a reason to rebuild. Crops, livestock and wine seem to have flowed from this land for as long as records have existed.

Later we sit down to a typically meaty Catalonian lunch in the “merely” mediaeval part of Ullastret. But it’s not only the food that we need time to digest. Our minds are filled with thoughts of the rich life of this place; of its 26 hundred years of continuity, productivity, disruption, invasion, warfare and recovery; of its people living, working, loving, laughing, crying, fighting, dying and giving birth.

[Time for a drink ... and a think] 

[Leaving Ullastret] 
They’re the kinds of thoughts that make history come alive, and that connect us to past lives that may not have been as different as we imagine. That said, we’re very glad to be heading back for hot showers and warm beds at the end of our “mediaeval" cycling days.

Monday 7 November 2016

Cycling in Catalonia 1: The Tamed Coast

You’d go a long way to find someone with a good word to say about Lance Armstrong. But in Catalonia, in north-eastern Spain, Lance is still something of a hero. For some years he and his Tour de France-winning team based themselves in Girona, training in the tough Pyrenean foothills behind the Costa Brava, and pouring a lot of their dubiously-gained wealth into the local economy.

That’s the last you’ll hear from me about Lance, except to note that the resulting popularity of cycling is a good thing for riders here. Catalan drivers afford cyclists amazing courtesy. It’s also the last you’ll hear about tough hills. The three of us, myself, my wife Lynne, and our old friend Chris, are in Catalonia for some decidedly more relaxed cycling.

[Chris and Lynne at Palamos, Spain] 
The area is not only sunny and beautiful, it also has a maze of off-road cycling trails. Rather than cycle touring, were based for the week in a townhouse in the old village of Calonge, a short ride inland of the resort town of Palamos. From there we can explore a wide area, but return each night to our comfortable base.

We’ve exchanged Tasmania’s spring, a time of wild winds and riotous wattle blossom, for the settled warmth and pale fields of a Spanish autumn. On an early ride we pause in a maize field. Its foliage has browned, and the ripe husks rattle in the breeze. A Catalan flag flaps lazily from a nearby tower, reminding us we’re in Catalunya rather than Spain.

[A drink break in a maize field] 
Our local host has encouraged us to greet the locals with bon dia rather than buenos dias. Given the brutality of the Spanish Civil War, and General Franco’s vigorous attempts to outlaw Catalan language and culture - right into the 1970s – this is no mere nicety. It is strange to be riding through such beautiful tranquility knowing that within my lifetime it’s also been the scene of heartless repression.

More familiar is my feeling of disorientation here in the northern hemisphere. Whereas at home I have an intuitive knack for knowing my way around, in this part of the world I’m easily lost. It probably comes down to where the sun is in the sky. Here it leans in from the south; at home from the north. Without thinking I use the sun to help me to know where I’m going, so here I become Pedro Equivocado*. I’m glad to have Chris and Lynne with me: Chris with his long experience of this hemisphere (originally from Tasmania, he’s been working in England for decades), and Lynne with her more logical take on navigation.

[I leave the navigation to the experts] 
Our days, and our paths, are divided between coastal rides and hinterland rides. We start with some easy coastal rides. Although Costa Brava literally means “wild coast” or “rough coast”, it doesn’t take us long to decide that nomenclature came from sailors rather than cyclists. The broad and pleasant beachfront at Palamos has largely been concreted and tamed, its main street crammed with hotels, shops and eateries. Although we’re not here in the high tourist season, it’s still buzzing with people and bursting with boats. We pause for a coffee and to enjoy the kind of vibe we’re unlikely to choose for the long term.

[Cycling along the beachfront at Palamos] 
Of course there’s more to Palamos than the beachfront. It’s one of the few working ports in the region. Fishing boats take pride of place at the eastern end of the bay, where there is also a fishing museum. Nearby the “old town”, with its pleasantly higgledy-piggledy streets, is packed with shops, some for tourists, some more for the benefit of the locals.

[Part of Palamos' fishing fleet] 
We ride around the coast from here, and start to see some of its more rugged aspects. The already contorted metamorphic rocks have been further hammered by wave action, creating a deeply indented and rocky coast interspersed with sandy bays and beaches.

We’ve been told that one, Platja del Castell (Castle Beach), is particularly beautiful, and one of the few “untouched” beaches left in the Mediterranean. We have to work a little to get there, as it’s somewhat off the beaten track and the sun is beating down strongly. Once there we’re happy to pause for a long drink and lunch.

[Platja del Castell from the nearby headland] 
As we cool off, we have to agree that it really IS a lovely beach. But “untouched”? Backed by a little forest, with just two buildings immediately adjacent, the beach certainly retains a natural prettiness. But today there are hundreds of people, dozens of boats, a couple of demountable cafes, plus walkways and toilets. And yes, there are quite a few cyclists too. As we munch our calamari and sip our beer, I have to acknowledge afresh how tamed the Mediterranean is.

[Every little cove has visitors] 
With its ancient record of human settlement and exploitation, and a surrounding population that approaches half a billion, I shouldn’t be surprised. There is a constant human pressure and presence here. You might consider the Mediterranean world a small scale experiment in what we’re doing to the wider world. Forests and wildlife have retreated to remote pockets, mostly at altitude. As for this small sea, its exploitation is a guide to what may happen – has begun to happen – to the vast oceans we’d like to think of as invulnerable.

That’s reinforced a few days later when we decide to have our first swim in a little cove closer to Palamos. As we’re getting into our swimming gear, we notice a group of older men scooping something out of the water with little nets. There’s a language barrier, but it’s clear that they’re removing stinging jellyfish from the water. After a while they signal, and tell us – we think – that we might try a dip in one corner of the cove. We ease ourselves into water that most Tasmanians would find acceptably warm. In other words it’s cold. The sand is coarse and hard on our feet, and its littered with waste. And in the water there’s plenty of plastic flotsam alongside the occasional jellyfish. Soon after we take the plunge Chris winces, pretty certain he’s just been stung. It’s not the perfect recipe for a long swim, and we soon decide we’ve had our Mediterranean swim.

As we click through the gears on the ride home, I see that for me as a Tasmanian, this trip is also about making mental shifts. I have to stop expecting wild, and settle for pretty; to turn down the nature knob and crank up the culture one. Because there’s no doubt the Costa Brava has both of those, as we discover yet again at beautiful seaside villages like Calella and Llafranc. And as we’ll find by the spadeful when we venture into the hills.

[The pretty - and busy - beach at Llafranc]  

* = Wrongway Peter