Armchair Walking in Spain…

Book Title: Sinning Across Spain

Author: Ailsa Piper

Topic: Walking a Camino from Granada in Southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

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Sinning Across Spain – front cover

Her Promotional Blurb: “I WILL WALK OFF YOUR SINS: Pilgrim seeks sinners for mutually beneficial arrangement. Seven Deadlies a specialty.

With these words Ailsa Piper’s journey begins. Less than a month later she finds herself hiking through olive groves and under translucent pink blossoms, making her way from the legendary city of Granada, towards the cliffs at Finisterre in the far north-west of Spain.

On her back she carries an unusual cargo – a load of sins. In the tradition of medieval believers who paid others to carry their sins to holy places, and so buy forgiveness, Ailsa’s friends and colleagues donated sins in order to fund her quest. She’s received anger and envy, pride and lust, among many.

Through glorious villages and inspiring landscapes, miracles find her. Matrons stuff gifts of homemade sausages into her pack. Angels in both name and nature ease her path.
Sins find her too. Those in her pack and many others tempt her throughout her journey.
And she falls in love: with kindness, with strangers, and with Spain”.

My Thoughts:  I had known about this book for a number of years, and I finally got around to reading it in early 2015. This was a really bad idea as all it did was reignite my wanderlust. As if I need any encouragement!

Australian woman, Ailsa Piper, first walked the Camino Frances and then came up with the plan that, like in the days of old, she would offer to carry the sins of other people for a fee. This gave her a way to fund her trip plus a novel angle to develop a story and ultimately this book. Clever thinking.

It was wonderful to read about the early part of her walk, the first 400km before arriving in Merida. It appeared to be very similar to the Via de la Plata but with slightly differing landscape. It was then equally enjoyable to read of her experiences once she joined the Via, especially when she wrote about places I also walked through in September 2014.

I know I am picky but a couple of times I noticed she got the towns of this path out of order. Perhaps Ailsa wasn’t expecting that a portion of her reading audience would be experienced walkers or familiar with this part of Spain. For accuracy, you would have thought she would have checked her map and then simply rejigged her paragraphs. But maybe I am just being too pedantic, especially if it doesn’t detract from the story.

The thing I really liked was the fact that Ailsa walked a lot of the 1400-odd kilometres on her own. She discusses this in detail and shared how it opened her up to a whole range of different experiences as well as meeting new people.

It inspired me to do my next camino (the Camino Portuguese in May/June 2016) solo. Yes, like Ailsa there were times when I was a bit antsy/afraid and lonely, but I think the opportunity to reflect, and the complete flexibility of walking solo, far outweighed those small downsides. (See my post under the Two Feet heading for my discussions of the pros and cons).

This is an easy read and truly captures the sights and sounds of southern Spain. If you enjoy vicarious travel and have no intention of ever walking a camino then this is the book for you.

The way she has structured the book means you get a clear picture of her experience – both good and bad – but also some insight into the people for whom she is carrying the sins. Periodically throughout the book she checks-ins with the sinners back in Australia, and spookily, their lives as changing the closer she gets to Santiago. A nice bit of serendipity or poetic/writer’s licence? Who’s to say.

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Ailsa Piper

Author bio: Ailsa Piper is a writer, director, teacher and actor. She has been nominated for Green Room Awards as both an actor and director. Her play, Small Mercies, was joint winner of the Patrick White Playwrights Award in 2001. She is director of LuminoUS, which investigates and illuminates classic texts through detailed work with actors and light. She is yet to win an award for walking. (Source: Melbourne University Press).

Author blog or website: http://ailsapiper.com

Pages:  288

Published: April 2012

Publisher: Melbourne University Press

Available from: Book Depository ($20.40), Melbourne University Press ($24.99)

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Never trust a smiling pilgrim…

Talk to any camino addict and you will be spellbound by stories of breathtaking sunrises, effortless strolls across the Spanish countryside, and the dazzling taste of that first ice cold beer at the end of each walking day. What they are less likely to share are all the ‘interesting’ things that happen along the way that add colour and challenge to walking 790 km in one go.148.JPG

In 2013 I convinced The Brave Man* that walking the Camino Francés would be a wonderful holiday and marital experience. As we are not a couple known for, or good at, ‘fly and flop’ holidays, he readily agreed. What is that saying? “Act in haste, repent at leisure”?

Over the 31 days it took us to walk the Camino Francés, we had plenty of leisure time to consider the merits of this type of ‘holiday’. It started pretty much on day one as we clambered up the Pyrénées. Yes, we had trained and yes, we were pretty fit but those damn mountains just kept going up and ^%$#@ UP! We have mountains in Australia, but I had never experienced anything like this before. It was day one, I was jetlagged and carrying around 15 kgs on my back and it would have to be the hardest day’s work I have ever done in my life! That large, cold beer waiting for me on the Spanish side of the mountains was the only thing that kept me putting one foot in front of the other. As it was my idea to do this walk in the first place, I just had to keep plodding away, and I simply didn’t have the energy to throw a tantrum halfway up the mountain!

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We earned it!

The days got better from then on as we left the mountains behind, even though only temporarily, and we quickly established a simple routine. Rise early (mostly in the dark), walk a couple of hours, find coffee and a bakery, walk another couple of hours, snack by the side of the road, then find a bed and a beer. Next day, repeat.

The volume of pilgrims walking the same path really surprised us but, being morning people, our early starts meant that we mostly avoided the daily stampede for beds in the albergues. Arriving at our destination around 1pm meant that we had the afternoon to rest, relax, inspect and repair our numerous blisters, delicately remove blackened and lifting toe nails, do some washing, massage sore muscles and stroll around the sights of whichever village we were sleeping in. Not such a good sight or sound was The Brave Man’s* mobile phone tumbling around in a front loader washing machine. Oops! Perhaps it didn’t work anymore but at least it was clean.

Along the way, I was frequently disappointed by the amount of litter by the side of the path, and the graffiti and/or vandalism of the waymarks. Both local government and voluntary associations appear to have spent a lot of time and money erecting distance markers and other information signs. Why would a person want to write all over them or steal the damn things? How does this help the thousands of pilgrims who will follow in the same footsteps? And isn’t it really bad pilgrim karma?

227.JPGAnother challenge, in the same vein, was the almost total lack of public toilets. In 2013, nearly 152,000 people walked the Camino Francés – providing a whole new perspective on a completely different type of litter. I am not pointing the finger at anyone here, as I also made numerous dives into the bushes, but I can’t help thinking that this would be a fantastic business opportunity. A few strategically placed portable toilets, on a pay-per-use basis, would make someone a fortune!

Each day brought new faces and new conversations as we walked along. The thing I particularly enjoyed was that the conversation could last five minutes or five hours, depending on the personal connection. There was no compulsion to chat or slow your pace if you weren’t so inclined and that was a good thing. Not everyone I met was fascinating, not everyone I met was even likeable. It’s all part of the walk, and a good reflection of life in general I guess.

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Gym mat, anyone?

The albergue, or hostel-style, accommodation can prove to be one of the walk’s major challenges for some people, but it is very sociable and invokes the true spirit of the camino. One day The Brave Man* was feeling a bit fragile, so I sped up and walked ahead to secure beds for us both in the next small village, which is known for having very limited accommodation. I was pretty pleased with myself as I ducked and weaved and overtook more laid-back pilgrims, and eventually pounced on the two remaining beds in the loft of an ancient, cavernous church. Unfortunately, The Brave Man* was less than impressed with the architectural aspects on the building when he found out that the ‘beds’ were gym mats lined up edge-to-edge on the floor of said loft. As we sneaked off into the pre-dawn dark the next morning, he advised me in colourful and no uncertain terms that he was choosing our next effing holiday destination! Oops again.

189.JPGBut the sun always rises and each day brings new joys. Just when I thought my feet would not carry me another step, I walked through a field of sunflowers where some smarty pants had created smiley faces to motivate and delight. I just kept reminding myself that whatever our experience today, it could not be one thousandth as arduous as the journey taken by the pilgrims in the 10th and 11th centuries. Yes, every pilgrim gets hot, tired, wet, sore and hungry, but all that is fixable just over the next hill or around the next bend.

The weird thing is that no matter the size of the disaster or the exhaustion of each day, many pilgrims – and I am one of them – can’t help themselves from starting to plan the next pilgrimage even before they have finished the first. That is where the ‘addiction’ description fits in.

Maybe the strongest, common links between all pilgrims is a sense of misplaced optimism. We know if we keep putting one foot in front of the other that one day we will achieve our goal. Perhaps a need for a clear sense of achievement, or spiritual enlightenment for some, enables us to push through the tough times until we stand in front of that imposing cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Then it all seems so worthwhile.

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A stone in the square in front of the Cathedral. The story is that if you put your foot on it, you are guaranteed to return one day.

The Camino Francés is not perfect, but neither is life. Like life, it is totally up to you to find something special in each day.

 

September 2013

 

The Basics Box

What: The Camino Francés follows one of the ancient pilgrim trails that pay homage to the Apostle St James. It is approx. 790km in length.

Where: This camino starts in St Jean Pied de Port (southern France), crosses the Pyrénées mountains and ends at Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-western Spain.

When: We walked in Autumn but you could walk anytime except deep Winter when snow regularly cuts the path and it becomes too dangerous. It took us 31 walking days plus two rest days.

Why: We like active holidays and this trip came highly recommended as a way to meet a vast range of interesting people, get a deep insight into a country, eat good food and travel relatively inexpensively.

How: We flew into Paris and then travelled by train south to Bayonne – connecting to St Jean Pied de Port via an excellent shuttle company called Express Bourricot.

Who: Myself, The Brave Man* and thousands of other people. 500 walkers started out every day from Saint Jean Pied de Port.

Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Frances, purchase it from Book Depository

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

Who Says Cycling and Culture Don’t Mix?

I was nudging a significant birthday and decided that it should be recognised in an appropriate way. A normal person would throw a wild party or jet off to a destination to wallow in decadence and luxury. Me? I thought three weeks cycling in France would be a suitable acknowledgement of the previous mumble, mumble years. Seeing it was my birthday, The Brave Man* could only agree to come along.

After the usual research and bookings, a little training and a lot of packing, we were in the plane and touching down at Charles de Gaulle airport before we knew it. Even though I love that city passionately, I always cringe a bit when I get to oh-so fashionable Paris, as we are your typical daggy Australian travellers. In this instance, we were jet-lagged daggy Australians dragging large bike boxes onto an early morning commuter train. Pardon, pardon, excusez moi, excusez moi, said I in my best schoolgirl French and we received rolled-eyes and black looks in return.

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The Brave Man zips along the Seine.

More black looks as we dragged ourselves and our boxes off the train at Gare du Nord. The looks turned to puzzled sideways glances as we commandeered a corner of the station to unpack the boxes and reassemble our bikes. Within minutes we were packed and loaded and out into the Paris traffic. This may seem a bit crazy – being foreigners, being deliriously tired and being on bikes – but I think we perfectly matched the mental state of the standard Parisian driver and we easily navigated our way to the hotel, unscathed and way too early.

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Daggy Australian tourist takes in the sites.

Full of enthusiasm and refuelled on coffee we decided that instead of waiting patiently for our room, we would enjoy the sights of Paris. It was a ‘pinch myself’ moment as we cycled along the Seine, in the shadows of Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. I think it is surreal to step on a plane in Sydney one day and be cycling through Paris the next. Just too weird!

From the start, our plan wasn’t to spend long in Paris but to use it as the hub, in a hub-and-spoke model of travel. I had planned our trip using the Lonely Planet Cycling France guide and had selected three main tours with a little customisation here and there.

The first tour was to head north-east out of Paris to Compèigne and then work our way roughly south-west to finish in Giverny – Monet’s stomping ground. So, the next day we were back to the Gare du Nord, and back on the train for the short trip to Compèigne.

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Forest riding

Cycling is certainly a good way to get into sync with a new time zone – all that fresh air and exercise. After a sleep of the dead and an early morning raid on a patisserie, we breakfasted in the Clairière de l’Armistice – or Armistice Clearing – where the armistice was signed at the end of WW1. Interestingly, in the same carriage at the same site, during WW2, the Germans forced the French to sign an armistice recognising the German conquest of France. Tit for tat I guess.

Day two took us out of the forests and into the fields on our way to Chantilly – famous for its horse races, lace and cream. It was only a brief visit as we wanted to immerse ourselves in the artistic connections that lay just to the south-west of this city.

The first arty destination was Auvers-sur-Oise – the final home of Vincent van Gogh. As we neared the town, we rode past replicas of paintings by van Gogh, Cezanne and Pisarro, juxtaposed with the actual landscape depicted in the painting. Those reproductions provided the perfect excuse to stop, admire, read the interpretative information and catch our breath.

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And into the fields…

Van Gogh lived in Auvers-sur-Oise for only 70 days before taking his life, but during that time he managed to generate an amazing 70 artworks. What a sad end to such a prolific and creative genius. We learnt more about his life after a visit to his home – now a dedicated van Gogh museum. The Brave Man* dazzled me with his art history knowledge (he was obviously paying some attention at school), then we bought the obligatory fridge magnet and postcards, checked the map and pedalled on.

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Roadside paintings

Not that we are Culture Vultures or anything but our next destination was Claude Monet’s house at Giverny. We had to tack together a couple of Lonely Planet routes and add a bit of guesswork as to how to connect one map to another that was a few pages further on in the guide book. The result was a very long, hot day mixing it with highway traffic, and a distinct lack of confidence as to exactly where we were. Our leap of faith rewarded us with our first ever stay in a Formula 1 hotel and a trip to an Aldi-style supermarket. We had never stayed in a pre-fab hotel before but it was clean and convenient AND they let us park our bikes in the room! The supermarket was equally convenient but confusing with its pallet-rack system and requirement to bulk buy. We walked out of the supermarket carrying our body-weight in lollies, fruit and nuts – enough to last us our entire time in France. Yes, we were sampling French culture on all levels.

But I digress…

Similar to van Gogh’s home, Giverny is incredibly proud of their most famous resident and again we enjoyed roadside artworks as we pedalled by.

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Claude Monet’s home

Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny were all that I had hoped they would be. Even though we were there in September (their Autumn), the gardens were in full bloom and I counted six individual gardeners busy amongst the shrubbery. Another of those ‘pinch myself’ moments as I stood on the arched bridge and pondered the lily pads. I do not possess an artistic bone in my body but even a Joe-average like me can appreciate the impact of such a talent as well as the special significance of that simple building and its lush, green surrounds.

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Pondering the lily pads

Reluctantly we packed away our mementos – yep, more postcards and fridge magnets – and said a fond farewell to that picture-perfect landscape. All too soon we were back on the bikes again and riding to Vernon to catch a train back into Paris. We could tick the ‘art history’ box of the tour.

Next stop the Loire valley and chateaux, chateaux, chateaux!

 

September 2005

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

Road Trippin’……

It was mid-Winter 2016 and The Brave Man* decided it was time to escape the depressing grey skies and horizontal rain. I am not sure what happened to our normal blue sky Winter days but maybe there is no such thing as ‘normal weather’ anymore.

Last year the escape destination was Hawaii. This year it was a road trip up the NSW North coast. Hardly comparable but just as enjoyable and a classic case of ‘same, same but different’.

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Tuncurry – on a sunny day – apparently it does happen!

With the ute loaded to the gills (why do we need so much stuff?) we escaped rainy, grey Mudgee to arrive about five hours later in rainy, grey Tuncurry. We hoped that this was not a sign of things to come but the weather is the one thing we have absolutely NO control over.

Tuncurry reminds me of one of those sleepy coastal towns that existed in my childhood. Naturally it now has all the ‘mod cons’, but there is not much to it other than a gorgeous long beach and a netted rock pool. And to me, that simplicity is a good thing!

I remember when we first started visiting Tuncurry, a local asked me one morning after our early walk/swim ‘if there had been many teabags in the rock pool this morning?’ I must have looked a bit flummoxed as I searched my memory for images of Twinings or Dilmah teabags carelessly discarded and adrift in the water. As it turns out, this is a term of endearment for the senior citizens who congregate in the pool every morning and just dunk up and down! You’ve got to love the Australian sense of humour.DSCF0048

I love heading to the coast (even in the rain) from inland NSW because of the contrast in landscape and climate. There were tons of roadworks along the way and these enforced stops, waiting for a green light to proceed at snail’s pace, provided the perfect opportunity to study roadside vegetation.

The forests are dense and lush. The trees are like tall, lean electricity poles that have magically sprouted green shoots. Tree ferns appear as giant, bright emerald umbrellas that delicately shade the understorey and provide a layered, 3D-depth to the foliage.

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An animal trapeze across a highway. Source: austouring.com

One thing really puzzles me though, and it relates to those koala/possum trapezes that are suspended high above and across the highways. How do the koalas know which ‘tree’ to climb to access the trapeze and thereby safely cross the road? Perhaps it is like that saying, ‘you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince’. Those poor animals have to climb a lot of trees before they find the right one connected to the trapeze. I can picture a unique brand of koala frustration and bad language!

I am also interested to understand how the small towns will cope once the road works, and the many bypasses currently under construction, are completed. Can they reinvent themselves? Do they have enough energy and initiative to provide reasons for travellers to abandon the highway, even for a short time? Or will the towns return to their original sleepy state?

We used the road trip to visit many old friends, long out of touch, and to visit all the little towns and villages that we had only ever heard about. Fabulous names such as Clybucca and Wizzenbucca literally whizzed by as we made our way up into the hinterland to Bellingen and Dorrigo.

As you leave the coast road, the countryside changes once again but this time into fertile, rolling hills. The green growth threatens to overtake every manmade structure and I can imagine that it is watching and waiting for its chance. Just as we turn our back, the green tendrils will extend and envelope everything. It is so luxuriant that even the livestock seem to be bored by the fodder growing up to their knees. ‘Ho hum’, they seem to say, ‘more delicious pasture’.

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One of the beautifully restored buildings in Bellingen.

The pastoral landscape is deceptive though, as it neatly contrasts with the original timber industry that was the origin of Bellingen. I find it interesting that such harshness and deprivation was the forerunner to the quirky, cosmopolitan town that is Bellingen. You are under-dressed if your dreadlocks are not on show as you sip on your soy, skinny, decaf chai latte. It is wall-to-wall alternative life-stylers and, while that makes for an interesting day trip, I couldn’t possibly live amongst all that creative and organic energy. I am just too plain and boring.

After climbing the 14 kms of winding road and hair-pin bends, we popped up onto the Dorrigo plateau and it almost felt like arriving in a different country. We emerged from dense and choking rainforest into an open, rolling landscape revealing a traditional, wide-street rural town. While I could sense a creative streak bubbling under the surface of Dorrigo, the utes and dogs that dominated the main street made me feel like I was closer to Mudgee than to the beach.

A rather sad highlight of the Dorrigo township, is their impressive train graveyard. We seem to have a thing for driving long distances to visit closed museums (see my blog post: Looking for James Taylor), and this trip was no different. The Brave Man* is a train fanatic and had heard about the locals’ ambitious vision to establish a train museum and working tourist railway. Unfortunately the energy behind the vision ran out once the enormous collection of trains, carriages, stations and sundry rail memorabilia was assembled. From peering over the fence, it looks like the site will be the desolate, final resting place for much of the gear as it slowly crumbles and rusts into the paddock. Pure heartbreak for The Brave Man*.

But we had places to be and sights to see, and with a tear in his eye, he pointed the ute back towards the ocean.DSCF0036

The pursuit of warmth continued all the way up the NSW coast until we arrived at Queensland’s Gold Coast. It appears we must have mightily offended the Weather Gods as, even though the thermometer reluctantly crept higher, we seemed to travel under a permanent rain cloud.

Next year?

We need to find a closed museum in a DRY destination!

 

July 2016

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!