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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Judith Willis

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

BELL's Camino

(Jacaranda, Syringa, bouganvilla in Johannesburg Parks)

Just over two weeks ago I flew out of Santiago de Compestela .

I have come back to a Johannesburg in the height of late spring.  We had great rain the first weekend I was back, and the evenings and early mornings are still cool although the day time temperatures are up in the mid twenties.  As I walk the dogs I see the new leaves on the trees.  The smell of the syringa, jasmine and  Australian frangipani fills the air, and the sight of the brilliant bougainvillea and the madly flowering bauhinia add to the joy I feel as I walk through the suburbs.

I am happy to be back.  This city has a reputation for violence and crime.  What is rarely mentioned is the wonderful people who make up the majority of its inhabitants - people who greet you with a smile, who live their lives bravely and cheerfully.

It has been hectic catching up but today I feel  that I have got my equilibrium back!  I can look at the time away with some sort of clarity and sense of balance.

The Camino - am I glad I walked it (or half of it anyway!)? 
Yes, no doubt about it.  I had an amazing adventure, thanks in good part to my great companions, and our extraordinary guide Sylvia.  Her organisation made it possible to walk out every day with no care in the world other than to get to the next night's accommodation - what a tremendous sense of freedom that engendered.  Not having to worry about what day it was, or where we were going to or had come from was a gift beyond price.

Sylvia has a passion for the Camino, bringing with it a huge depth of knowledge of the trail and its history.  In a former life I think she must have been a mason who worked on one or more of the churches and cathedrals on the route!  She also has the ability to make everyone feel special, from her fellow pilgrims to the shopkeepers and taxi drivers who we met on the way.  These gifts smoothed the way for us, added a richness to the tapestry of northern Spain and made the trip unforgettable.

What did I like about the small piece of Spain we walked through?

The beauty of the countryside from the Pyrenees to Finisterre - a little village on the Atlantic coast which was considered the end of the world until Christopher Columbus sailed  to the Americas. We walked up and down mountains, through glorious forests, open meadows, vineyards,  vegetable gardens and grain fields.  And of course towns, villages and hamlets made up of just the farmer's house and his barn.

I haven't had time yet to go through my journal and my photos and put the two together but certain things stand out in my memory – beautiful Pamplona,  the glory of the colours in the stained glass windows in Leon cathedral and of course the very special cathedral in Santiago (the Holy Grail for pilgrims!)

We met great people, from Caroline our pretty and efficient transport person in St Jean to the taxi driver who took us to the airport in Santiago - and in between a myriad of Jose and Jose Luis's!  Kind people, who went out of their way to help us, thanks to a large extent to Sylvia's magic.

The people of northern Spain (many of whom are Basque) have a great sense of pride and the towns and villages are spotless (sadly the only litter is left by passing pilgrims).  They plant flowers everywhere, in window boxes and in all their parks and open spaces - the colour was spectacular.  The young girls are beautiful with dark hair and eyes, slim with long legs.  We met lots of hard working people,  looking after the pilgrims and working on their farms.

The sound of bells - cow bells and church bells - which will always be the sound of the Camino to me.

A great public transport which worked like a dream, always on time.

Clean rooms, good beds and hot showers at the end of a day.

What did I find difficult about being in such a different world?

We wake early here at home, work through the day and generally get to bed fairly early.  The Spanish have a very different way of living - they start work much later, close their businesses during siesta which start any time from 12.30 to  and open again anytime from 4.30 to 6 (or not at all in some cases!) Dinner rarely starts before 8 and the children are still playing outside at 10.30.  It must be really hot in the middle of the day in summertime,  and air-conditioning seems to be a luxury, so I understand the concept of siesta but I felt that so many opportunities were wasted.  We often left a town before anything was open and often reached our destination during siesta time to find everything closed or closing!
Vegetarians are unusual in Spain but I expected that;  we had a couple of exceptional meals, and on two or three occasions were able to cook for ourselves.  It seemed to me that the pilgrim menu was generally fairly unexciting but it was also very good value being three courses with bread and wine supplied at no extra cost.

Many dogs in the countryside were chained up on short chains.  Horses too in one place.  I think that the problem is that many of the dwellings are not fenced in so the animals would wander,  but it was hard to see.

The churches were generally very ornately decorated, many with gold from the New World, and I felt they were wonderful monuments to the craftsmen who built them, but they didn't feel very sacred.  If anything many of them were more like museums.  The Marian tradition is very strong in that part of Spain so the Madonna was prominent and it was hard to find Jesus (usually tucked away in a side chapel!).  I have always loved old churches but by the time the Camino was over I was all churched out!

Many pilgrims  walk part of the Camino over a number of years, others do it in one go and at a fast pace (30 odd km a day or more!).   Is it a spiritual journey?  I think in part, but it's also a great walk with friends and their faces as they come into the plaza at Santiago say it all.

Would I walk the Camino again? Right now the answer would be no - I loved the walk but there are other places to explore.  But I am glad I did it; for many reasons.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

You Don´t Always Get What You Ask For !

Our group arrived in Santiago de Compostella on September 22 ina timely fashion; we were able to attend the Pilgrims Mass at Santiago Cathedral. I was feeling rather dazed when I entered the cathedral. I had just been to the Pilgrims Office to request my Pilgrim´s Certificate ...¨"Not the Compostella" I said ... I accompanied my friend, who was unable to walk,  from Arca in a cab. I went to Monte del Gozo and walked to Santiago from there."
The kind lady looked at my passport and my credential listing all the stamps from St.Jean Pied de Port to Santiago and asked if I had walked most of the way. Yes I said ... not mentioning the group´s occasional bus detours through the Meseta and up O´Cebreiro. Amazingly she issued me with a Compostella certificate not the other tourist credential!
"No!" I wanted to shout ... "I am a sham .. I am not as deserving as these other hard walking, sun-burned pilgrims with blistered feet and aching bones!"  The eager crowd of anxious pilgrims was pushing forward, breathing down my neck ... I thanked the official, took my Compostella and tearfully exited the building.
So I was already in a certain frame of mind when I entered the Cathedral ... too late to find a seat I stand while the nun with the voice of an angel leads the throng of worshippers in a rehearsal of the responses. Then the actual service starts and among the celebrants is the priest from the first pilgrims mass I attended in the tiny town of Rabanal del Camino. At the end of the service a surprise ! The bishop of El Salvador is there with a group and thay have paid for the great incense burner , the legendary Botafumerio to be lit and swung ... a rite usually reserved only for occasions of special religious significance. I feel altogether too blessed !
We all meet in the square in front of this magnificent cathedral and hug and kiss each other ... as do other pilgrims who have bonded along the way. We retire to our accomodations in the medieval monastery recently partly adapted as a modern hotel ... its small cell-like monks rooms ideally suited to pilgrims but whose grand lower rooms, once cloisters and refectories adding a touch of regal grandeur. We have two days in Santiago to adjust to not walking and to get used to the idea of returning home.  We shop for souvenirs and  eat at fine restaurants (The Casino certainly stands out for fine fare and exceptional, friendly service).
On Friday night, the entertainment in the streets turns the city from sacred to profane ... music, dancing, Galician pipers, medieval troubadors, flowing wine, cerveza and the mysterious flaming cauldron of liquer, spiced with coffee beans and orange peel around which witches chant their incantations! A true bacchanal ! What a town ... what memories!
On Saturday morning I leave early and catch a train to San Sebastian. I have said final farewells to Sylvia .. our wonderful angel who has guided us through the spiritual and physical ups and downs of this journey, to Bell ... a perfect room-mate in every way; little Bell the Gazelle, always energetic, well organized and ever cheerful;  also to our other South African companions .. Theresa, Zuretha, Jill and Janette who have joined us for the last two weeks ... strong, good natured and always there to help an exhausted companion carry a heavy bag up a flight of stairs or retrace steps to meet and encourage a faltering walker onward. Christine ... whose has been a vast source of knowledge and help with translation in times of dire need and who has also received her Compostella! YEAH!  has  already left. Alan , always an eager Tapas companion and curious about sampling new cuisine and exploring nooks and cranies of each new town and city has departed early as well.
On my long 11 hour journey I fly through some of the areas I have slowly walked over ... revisiting Astorga and turning north at Leon has we head over the Pyrenees to the coast. I can see from this vantage point why I spent all of the day walking to Roncevalles in a mist ... the mountains are perpetually covered in grey clouds. When I land in San Sebastian late at night it is lively and filled with fast cars and beautiful people. I see no sign of dirty, exhausted pilgrims. It is a bit of a shock ... all this fast paced activity.
But I will adjust and enjoy the warm sunshine and smooth beaches ... there is great beauty here too ... perhaps the greatest gift of this Camino has been to bring a greater appreciation of life in general. I feel I know my place in this universe a little better ... it´s not that I have experienced a monumental life-changing experience. If anything ... I am  more like myself than before ... with one difference. I know I have done something rather exceptional and I am pleased  ... very pleased and amazed. Everyone should try to do one exceptional thing outside their comfort zone ... and with companions like I have had on this journey, the outcome can only be positive. Ultreya dear friends!!  Judy ...The Pampered Pilgrim

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Santiago in the Mist

Friday 23rd September

We woke up to a misty Santiago with all the graniter and stones glistening with dew.  Christine was the first to leave us on her way back to Sweden. We were sad to see her go as she kept us smiling with her great sense of humour.  Christine was our senior lady and she shared  her wealth of knowledge about the Camino, and especially about Santiago, with us.  She speaks a number of languages and as such was a an angel to a Hungarian in distress who had to return home but couldn´t speak a word of English.  Christine speaks perfect Spanish and was able to help the pilgrim sort out his problem. 
We made an early start up the hill to the Market - a daily open market which supplies all of Santiago with fresh produce ranging from eggs, fish, meats, vegetables, fruit etc etc.  The girls were able to find a few souvenirs and t-shirts at the market as well.  Next stop was the flea-market, the internet cafe, the tourist office and lunch. 
Last night we had dinner at the Casino. The group surprised me with a gift of a lovely hand sewn bag that I had admired at the flea-market, plus a lovely silver cross from Angels, one of the best silver shops in town, and a box of chocolates.  I was very touched and thank them all again for their generosity.
Then we went to Bar Fuco-Luis for a queimada.  (Google the word - it is a fascinating incantation involving arujo, sugar, orange and lemons rinds, coffee beans and fire!) Pepe set the queimada bowl up on an outside table and we were soon whoopìng and ooohing and calling out to all the ´brujas´(witches) out there.  A Portuguese couple from Brazil joined us and a few Aussie pilgrims we´d met along the way joined in the at the end. When the last drop of cooled fire water was drunk we strolled down to the sqaure where Tunas (musicians in medieval minstrel garb) were entertaining a crowd of people.  We boogied a little, laughed a lot and took dozens of photos which I´ll try to add to the blog when we get home.

The End of the World

Our taxis came on time at 6:45pm and we arrived in Fistera at 8:15pm - about 15 minutes before the sun went down over the Atlantic Ocean.  What a sight!  There were lots of people milling about at the Faro (lighthouse) and we sat on the rocks watching the sky turn red and the seagulls soaring over the Costa del Morte. 
We had a picnic with cheese, olives, chorizo, grapes, biscuits, bread, crisps, nuts, wine, water, Fanta and Coke followed by Caprichos - almond meringue biscuits - and Santiago tart.  We got back to the hotel after 11pm.   If you have four people wanting to go to Finisterre at night it is worth sharing a taxi which costs €100 or €25 each. (The bus is €40)


We decided in Arca to leave early enough to reach Santiago in time for the 12 o'clock mass. At 7am we started walking through the dark forest, torches and headlights illuminating the path. After a marching pace we stopped briefly for a drink and pit-stop at Lavacolla and then forged on to Santiago. The last half hour is a tedious trek through the urban area of Santiago but once we passed through the Porta de Camino into the warren of narrow streets in the old quarter we all perked up. As we reached the stone steps that lead to the Obradoiro square under the archway a piper was playing his gaita so I did a little Highland twirl. A group of tourists clapped as we came down the stairs and there were a few tears in our group! As you know, we attended the pilgrims mass and saw the Botafumeiro. We checked into the Monastery San Martin and then went to the Casino for lunch. Bell and I collected our parcels from the Pension badlada and the Correos and carted them back to the hotel. Then we went shopping for the picnic to Finisterre.

Thursday, September 22, 2011