Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Com-pan-eros on el Camino

A pilgrim walking alone will meet lots of other pregrinos on the trail - one never needs to feel alone. 
Walking with a friend or in a group adds a new dimension to walking a long distance trail and I love it!  I first walked with a group of 10 women in 2001 on the Coast to Coast walk across England.  We were free to linger longer in small villages it we wanted to or stay with the group.  Mostly we all stuck together.  It was a wonderful experience and the camaraderie and caring made the walk memorable.
In 2006 five friends walked the Via Francigena - five women, average age 55 - and it was a marvelous experience.  With five pairs of eyes looking out for markers and signs we didn't get lost, not once!  When one person was feeling a bit flat, the others rallied and helped her through. 
In May and June a group of amaWalkers walked about 350km of the Camino Frances from Roncesvalles to Santiago. 14 people strung out along the Camino during the day, came together at night for a communal meal filled with laughter and stories of the day. During the day one might meet up with members of the group and walk with them - or not. We shared plasters, pain killers, bread, fruit, water. Sitting outdoors in the evening after a long day walking, sipping wine, comparing sights seen and people met is almost 'gospel-like'.
 One can imagine medieval pilgrims doing exactly the same thing over the centuries.  Medieval pilgrims mostly walked in groups, for safety and security, and for companionship.  Various guilds and brotherhoods appointed guides to lead groups of pilgrims to Santiago.  The Knights of Santiago appointed Saint Bona of Pisa an official guide after leading a large number of pilgrims on the long and dangerous thousand-mile journey to Compostela. She successfully completed the trip nine times. Despite being ill at the time, she took and completed a tenth trip, and returned home to Pisa, dying shortly thereafter in the room she kept near the church of San Martino in Pisa, where her body has been preserved to the present day.
A Catholic Bishop once said:“Solitude is necessary and often welcome on the Camino but there are times when we need com-pan-eros, the ones we eat bread with.Bread is so evident at Spanish meals, not only those wonderful bocadillos, but the bread that comes with everything you eat.As the Spaniards say “Com pan y vino, ande el camino”.With bread and wine we walk the camino!A companion is someone we share bread with, not just the edible type but also the bread of our experiences and the many insights, revelations and learnings that we consume as we walk along the Way."
I am looking forward to sharing bread, wine and experiences with this wonderful group on our journey along el Camino to Santiago de Compostela.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

amaWalkers on the trail again!

This will be the second amaWalkers Camino trek this year. The first amaWalkers Camino walk was in June when I lead 13 people on three sections of the Camino Frances. It was a wonderful walk, with wonderful people and I am looking forward to leading this next group from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago.
Just 3 more sleeps and we will be in Pamplona. There I will meet up with Judith (Canada), Bell (Johannesburg), Alan (US) and Tricia (South Africa). Judith is worried about the effects of hurricane Irene will delay her flight out of St John.  We'll just have to wait and see.
The next day (1st September) we will travel to St Jean Pied de Port. Brian (flying in from the UK) and Christine (from Sweden) will meet us there. I've booked a table at a typical Basque restaurant on Thursday night and we hope to be joined by Tim Proctor who has a B&B in St Jean.
On the 2nd September we will start our walk. Depending on the weather we will either walk the Route Napoleon to Orisson or the Cross. The Auberge Orisson was full and Jean-Claude offered us tents behind the cabin. Having walked in torrential rain in September 2007 I decided against it and booked us into a Gite in St Jean for two nights instead.  If the weather is bad we will walk on the road route to Val Carlos. Caroline will collect us at 3pm to take us back to our Gite in St Jean. This means that we don't have to carry our backpacks and we don't have to sleep in tents. The following day, Caroline will take us back to where we left off the day before and we will continue walking to Roncesvalles and on to Burguete.
I checked the long range weather forecast today for Pamplona, St Jean Pied de Port and Zubiri. It looks as though we will have perfect weather for a walk in (up?) the mountain! Pilgrims often report on high winds, lashing rain or thick mist with no views when they walk from St Jean to Roncesvalles.
We start walking on Friday 2nd September and it looks like it will be a beautiful day!
31 August: Pamplona - 16/24°C Rain and possible thunder during the day. Partly cloudy skies during the night.
1st September: We travel to St Jean Pied de Port - 13/22°C - Few morning clouds, light rain with clear spells during the day. Few clouds during the night.

2nd September: We walk from St Jean to Orisson - 18/26°C - Sunny! 3rd September: Orisson to Burguete - 13/24°C - Sunny with some clouds.

4th September: Zubiri - 17/31°C - Sunny with some clouds. (Wow - 31°C??? Perhaps it is an error?)

5th September: Pamplona - 16/22°C - Cloudy.

6th September: Puente la Reina - 14/25°C - sunny with some clouds.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The bad days of today will be the Good Old Days of yesterday

(This was first posted more or less as is on the amawalkerscamino2011 blog last month)

As I lay in the bunk at Ribadiso do Baixo in June, I remembered a poem from my youth. Tarantella by Hilair Belloc. "Do you remember an Inn, Miranda, do you remember an inn?"

I especially chose the albergue at Ribadiso as the only 'traditional' albergue for our group to experience on their three week walk of the Camino Frances. I chose Ribadiso for three reasons. It is large enough to accommodate a group of 14 people and it is old - very old! The albergue is in the renovated 13th c pilgrim hospice of San Anton which won an architectural award when the dilapidated stone buildings were resurrected about 12 years ago aso that they could once more welcome pilgrims on the road to Compostela.
Thirdly, I remember staying in Ribadiso in 2002. We thought we would walk to Arzua from Palas de Rei - some 30km - but when we saw pilgrims sitting on the green lawns in front of the albergue, dangling their feet in the river which flowed under the Roman bridge we decided to stop. There was nothing else around, only a few farm houses on the distant hills and lots of cows. As we walked through the large wooden doors into the cobbled courtyard one could almost hear the echo of horse hooves of pilgrims past. All albergues in Galicia were 'donativo' (donation) and although we dropped a few euro into the box we saw a few young people bypass the donation box.
We showered in the cabins at the back of the albergue and did our washing before joining the other pilgrims on the lawn by the river. Sitting in a field, chatting to other pilgrims, sharing bread and blister plasters is almost gospel-like and I felt the soul of the Camino, finding shelter after a long day's walk and sharing with fellow pilgrims.
By evening it was getting cold so we moved into the diningroom and gathered around the large wooden table. The walls are almost a meter thick and the doorway was low so we had to duck to get into the room. A huge fireplace, blackened by a few hundred years of fire, dominated one end of the room.
There was nowhere to buy food and we were starving. I had a box of instant tagliatelli in my pack and a quick search of the kitchen revealed a half packet of pasta, a quarter bottle of oil, salt, some onions and a few other odds and ends. An elderly woman in her eighties and her middle-aged daughter came into the kitchen also food hunting. They had two tomatoes and another pilgrim had bread. Soon there were more hungry pilgrims in the kitchen so we pooled resources and started cooking on the rather temperamental stove. We carried the plates of food through to the diningroom and lit a few candles. Nobody had wine but we had water and soon we were chatting and laughing and breaking bread and telling stories in a Camino-lingua around the table, one couple demonstrating how they had danced with a procession in a fiesta.
It was a wonderful evening of camaraderie and sharing and I wanted my group to experience that - to experience the soul of the Camino. 
But, it didn't turn out that way. Since 2002 a new cafe-bar restaurant has opened right next door to the pilgrim shelter with plastic chairs and tables and umbrellas, a well-stocked bar and an extensive menu. 50m further up the road is a brand new private albergue with laminate flooring, washing machines, television, wifi and Internet.
Only 6 of our group checked into the albergue (the others carried on to Arzua where they booked into a hotel) paying the required €6 each. A few other pilgrims arrived but only one of the stone rooms was full. I walked down to the river and even though it was a beautiful day there were no pilgrims sitting on the grass, I could hear them all next door in the courtyard of the cafe bar. I watched a blue dragon-fly flutter about in the reeds and then went to have a look at the diningroom. As I ducked under the stone doorway I found the diningroom empty, the cavernous fireplace black and cold. There was no laughter there, no singing, no impromptu dancing - no soul.

In 2002 when we started at Roncesvalles we slept on the 2nd floor of the monastery in old steel -framed double bunks. In 2004 we slept in the old granary. Now in 2011 the albergue is in the old youth hostel building, all smart and sterile with two bunks per cubicle, a shiny stainless steel kitchen with a row of microwaves and vending machines with pre-cooked food, cold drinks, cakes, sweets etc. Progress has come to Roncesvalles and the old monastery now boasts a swanky new Hotel Roncesvalles.

In 2002 we walked on slippery, rutted, muddy trails down the hills towards Zubiri and Larrrasoana. In 2011, many of the trails have been paved with concrete and stone and are like walking through a botanical garden!
Many of the villages have changed beyond recognition. Santa Catalina de Somoza was a tired, dusty little village with one bar (that didn't have any food), not on the main road, and a basic albergue in an old school where we had to wait for a school boy on a bicycle to come and open up. Today it looks like a prosperous town - brick paved Calle Mayor with bill boards, large signs advertising albergues, zimmers, cafe bars with tables and umbrellas on both sides of the road. Progress has come to Santa Catalina.  Parts of the Camino Frances are unrecognizable from 10 years ago.

The number of traditional pilgrim shelters is shrinking as new private up-market albergues open almost next door to the old - like Ribadiso.  This is progress.  Is it good?  It must be, especially for the local inhabitants of villages that were almost abandoned 10 years ago.  Is progress bad - or sad?  I don't know.  I suppose it depends on your perspective and in another 10 years time we will reminisce about these days being the 'good old days'.


Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the tedding and the spreading
Of the straw for a bedding,
And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees,
And the wine that tasted of tar?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
(Under the vine of the dark veranda)?
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda,
Do you remember an Inn?
And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers
Who hadn't got a penny,
And who weren't paying any,
And the hammer at the doors and the din?
And the hip! hop! hap!
Of the clap
Of the hands to the swirl and the twirl
Of the girl gone chancing,
Backing and advancing,
Snapping of the clapper to the spin
Out and in--
And the ting, tong, tang of the guitar!
Do you remember an Inn,
Do you remember an Inn?
Never more;
Never more.
Only the high peaks hoar;
And Aragon a torrent at the door.
No sound
In the walls of the halls where falls
The tread
Of the feet of the dead to the ground,
No sound:
But the boom
Of the far waterfall like doom