Mérida – More Roman History than Rome!

You would think that walking from Seville in southern Spain to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain would be MORE than enough walking, but there has never been a better city to explore on foot than the UNESCO World Heritage city of Mérida.

Mérida is around 200km due north of Seville, or eight days walk. I entered the city over the bridge built in 25BC, made up of 60 perfect consecutive arches, and I knew I was in for something special.

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Storks make themselves at home, Plaza de Espana, Merida Spain

In desperate need of coffee, I followed winding, cobbled streets and emerged into Plaza de España to be greeted by not only copious amounts of tasty and reviving coffee, but the heart of the city. The plaza was just coming to life – yes, it was pretty early, but the throng grew and it became a hub of chatter and gossip. Even the ubiquitous Spanish storks thought it was the best place to reside.

I think that Australia has a lot to learn from countries such as Spain. Either by good luck, good management or tradition, towns, cities and even the smallest villages in Spain have incorporated central spaces for people to meet and socialise. This has to be good for the soul as well as building a strong sense of community. It also gives the areas a warm, bubbling vibe. It attracts tourists like me and we stay and spend money. What is not to love?

Anyway, back to the history…

Mérida was established in the first century BC as Emérita Augusta, the capital of Roman Lusitania. It occupies a prominent position on the Silver Route (Ruta de la Plata), the main transport route for moving goods (especially silver) from southern Spain to the north, and is the basis for the 1000km-long Camino Via de la Plata trail. The Romans left behind lasting reminders of their occupation which are a feast for both the eyes and minds of amateur historians like me.

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A few of the locals having a chat, Merida Spain

With only one and a half rest days in Mérida, I had to be selective about how I was going to spend my time. There is so much history, I simple couldn’t see it all.

The Tourist Office in Plaza de España sells tickets that include entry to many of the archaeological sites. For €12 you can access the Theatre and Amphitheatre, the Alcazaba, Circus and more. It comes with a handy map which shows you how to navigate the city to reach these sites.

My first stop was the Amphitheatre, a stage where burly gladiators wrestled with beasts. This building preserves some of its original elements, like the grandstands, the box and the gallery. I could almost hear the roar of both the audience and the ferocious animals fighting for their lives.

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Part of the Teatro Romano, Merida Spain

The Teatro Romano right next door to the Amphitheatre was erected between 15 and 16BC and can seat 6000 people. The original stage area is dominated by two rows of columns, decorated with the remains of sculptures of deities and imperial figures. When I visited, workers were busily constructing temporary stages and sound systems. I am not sure what performance was planned but I suspect it was opera. How cool would it be to watch any show against such a historic backdrop? Each Summer they hold the Mérida Classical Theatre Festival, apparently one of the most important of its kind in Spain. Now that would be something to see and a perfect excuse for me to return.

On the same site are a number of gardens and excavations revealing detailed friezes and parts of Roman buildings. It must be a nightmare to build anything in this city. As soon as you start digging a footing or similar, you find yet another Roman, Visigoth or Moorish relic. What I don’t get is where all the dirt comes from that hides the generations of construction? These are big buildings, how do they get buried so deep underground? Obviously more research is required on my part.

Back to the map again and off to the Roman Circus. Again, my imagination ran wild with the roars of the crowd and the pounding of the horse’s hooves. This is one of the best preserved circuses to be found and also one of the largest at 403m long and 96m wide. The stands could hold 30 000 spectators. What a sound they would have made when their charioteer was winning.

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What a feast for the senses. The Aqueduct of the Miracles, Merida Spain.

The Aqueduct of the Milagros is simply gobsmacking. How something so large and so old can remain standing for so long, I will never know. It is commonly known as ‘Los Milagros’, or the miracles, because of its ability to withstand the tests of time. More than 800metres of the aqueduct have been preserved and some sections are 27m high.

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The Diana Temple, Merida Spain

The Diana Temple was similarly astounding. An awesome piece of architecture squeezed into the Mérida CBD. I love how such history is juxtaposed with modern buildings right next door.

If I had had more time I would have liked to visit the National Museum of Roman Art. With more than 36 000 artefacts – all of which were found in Mérida and its vicinity – apparently it is an excellent snapshot of the history of the city and its Roman legacy. Again, that will have to wait until next time.

As I explored the city, I bumped into a few of my fellow walkers. Andrea from Italy was equally impressed with Mérida and he thought it contained the best range of Roman ruins outside of Rome. High praise indeed.

There were arches and forums and Christian churches and bridges and Moslem citadels. My brain hurt, my feet hurt and I simply couldn’t take more in. I suspect it is possible to spend days in this magical city and still not feel like you have seen it all. Even with a flying visit to the Arab fortress, the Alcazaba, I felt I didn’t even start to get my head around that period of history which followed Roman occupation.

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Plaza de Espana, Merida Spain

Time and energy beat me, and with a flattened camera battery, I retreated to Plaza de España. Sitting there, I started to wonder what it would feel like to grow up and live, amongst such significant history. Would the locals become a bit blasé about it all as they stroll past yet another 4th BC dig site on their way to the supermarket?

How good would it be to go to school in Mérida and study ancient history at the same time? Not only could you study history but you would walk past it on your way to school. Or maybe I would be just another bored school kid, more interested in the playground and Pokemon Go than a pile of dusty stones.

More things to ponder as I shouldered my backpack and stepped out into the dawn, northbound once more …

 

September 2014

The Basics

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Worse for wear but atmospheric!

What: Mérida is a city of around 60 000 people strategically placed eight walking days north of Seville. I had a rest day there as part of the Camino Via de la Plata and stayed at a nice little hotel called Hostal Senero, tucked in a small street near Plaza de España.

Where: Mérida – is about 200km north of Seville.

When: A rest day, so two nights in September 2014. Cool mornings and beautiful blue sky days.

Why: I had done some research before leaving Australia and all the forums etc raved about Merida as a perfect place to rest and soak up some ancient history.

How: I walked into town but it is also accessible by train, regular buses, or you can fly into Badajoz (about 50 km to the west of Mérida).

Who: Myself, and two hardy and inspiring Canadians.

Related Posts: For more information about walking the Camino Via de la Plata, have a look at https://melsonebigadventure.wordpress.com/category/two-feet-walking/camino-via-de-la-plata-2014/

Related Blogs: For more photos of Roman ruins, have a look at: http://www.takingontheworld.net/world-travel-blog/spain/merida

Camino Via de la Plata – the Nuts and Bolts

This has to be my favourite Camino so far. The Via de la Plata makes the most of Spain’s wide open spaces as you walk through large expanses of farm land, wheat fields, grape vines and forests. All that space is sprinkled with magical cities like Merida and Salamanca, and each day you walk in the footsteps of Romans, Moors and generations of Spaniards.

Yes, it was also probably the most difficult of the three caminos I have completed, but it was the most rewarding. The difficulty relates to the large distances that must be covered some days, just to get from village to town.

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I can taste the cold beer from here. A town on the Via de la Plata at the end of a long day.

The Via de la Plata is definitely more remote than other caminos and that was what I enjoyed. It simply meant that I had to plan ahead, load up with snacks and carry plenty of water.

It is interesting how your perspective changes from camino to camino. On the Francés, 25km was considered a tough day, but on the Via that was ‘normal’ and 35km-days fell into the ‘tough’ category. Of course, there was always the option to catch a bus or taxi to minimise the long stretches but I simply kept putting one foot in front of the other.

So here are the basic logistics of this camino:

Start Day: Thursday 4 September 2014, from Seville, Spain

Finish Day: Tuesday 14 October 2014, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Route:

  • Via de la Plata: Seville (due north) to Granja de Moreruela (approx. 700km)
  • Sanabrés: Granja de Moreruela (north westerly) to Santiago de Compostela (approx. 300km)
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The blokes have left me behind, but that is OK

Distances:

  • Total: 1000km – give or take a few kilometres
  • Daily Average: 26.3km
  • Longest Day: 42km (by bad luck and poor management! A comedy of errors except I wasn’t laughing anymore!)
  • Shortest Day: 15.7km

Days:

  • Walking: 38
  • Rest: 3 (Merida, Salamanca, Ourense)

Times: Southern Spain can be hot! Even in Autumn, I did my best to avoid the heat of the day by starting early, often in the pre-dawn dark.

Terrain: Very mixed. This camino matches the Camino Frances for variety. There is everything from quaint villages and towns, to Roman roads, farm tracks and a bit of scary roadside walking. There were days and days of walking through the wide open countryside, but also a number of tough days slogging uphill for the best part of the day. It felt good to reach the top!

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Good Morning Spain. These sunrises make the early starts all worthwhile.

Weather: Glorious most days. Cool crisp mornings to start out (I did wear a beanie and gloves some mornings) but it would heat up from about 10a.m. onwards. Some days are very hot, so make sure you stay hydrated and wear sunscreen. A good hat is compulsory.

Maps & Guides: This was a real challenge.

  • I used Gerald Kelly’s – Walking Guide to the Via de la Plata and the Camino Sanabrés (Feb 2014). It was OK but I wouldn’t recommend it unless it has been comprehensively updated. Much of the content was out of date and many of the maps were seriously inaccurate – at times whole villages/towns were missing! (I have just checked and he has released a 2nd edition dated May 2016).
  • I used that book in conjunction with the website godesalco.com. This site is very handy as you can customise your route before leaving home, according to the distance you would prefer to walk each day. It will also let you know the types of accommodation available in each town and show the elevation of each leg of the walk.
  • Some walking companions had a copy of the guidebook printed by the Seville-based, Amigos del Camino de Santiago Via de la Plata. It was also not 100% accurate but, using our combined guides and maps, we seemed to muddle through OK. I would recommend using a couple of maps and/or guides just so you can cross-reference one with another.
  • Another useful website is the Spanish site – Gronze.com/via-plata. It is all in Spanish but the maps are useful, as are the accommodation lists.
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Into lush Galicia once more. My friend Lue sets a cracking pace.

Way-marking: varied from being fantastic to non-existent.

  • There were some serious road works going on when I walked and at times the path led me to the edge of a massive excavation/cutaway. One minute path, next minute nothing! That’s where logic and a good sense of direction were required as I navigated around and/or across these works to connect to the camino again.
  • Beware: leaving Zamora. We walked out in the early morning dark and mistakenly followed the arrows that took us north-west on the Camino de Santiago Portugués Via de la Plata! After about 5km of cross country walking we were back on track and heading due north again.

Accommodation: the locals on this camino really understand the economic potential of providing services and facilities for pilgrims.

  • Albergues are plentiful and mostly of excellent quality – both private and municipal.
  • There was some chatter about bed bugs along the route but luckily, I had no problems. If you are susceptible to these critters, I would go prepared.
  • Albergue costs varied from donativo (free) to €12, which included bedding, towels and breakfast.
  • Small, private hotels started at €20 (single).
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The coffee culture at Plaza de Espana, Merida, Spain.

Food: typical Spanish fare with lashings of ham, ham, and more ham.

  • Pilgrim’s menus or menu del dia were readily available.
  • If you are a caffeine addict then you need to plan carefully or bring your own makings as, on some days, there are NO cafes from sun-up to sun down. Yes, a true crisis I know!

This is not an easy camino but I would recommend it highly.

If I were to repeat a camino one day in the future, it would be this one. My mind and spirit opened up to match the wide open spaces and gave me the feeling that I was truly walking the world!

Buen camino.

Sept/Oct 2014

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.

 

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

Rail, Rice Paddies and Rain

A flying trip to Vietnam in 2000 began my love affair with that country. I am not sure what it was that so deftly captured my imagination, as it could be described as no different from one of many frantic Asian countries. To me it is a magical blend of cultures – uniquely Vietnamese but with strong French, Chinese and American undercurrents.

Its siren song was answered in 2010 when I decided to return to Hanoi as a volunteer with VietHealth. This organisation delivers health services to people with disabilities, mother/baby health and HIV/AIDS patients. That was an interesting and culturally-challenging experience and I think it deserves its own separate blog post.

Sapa terraces 2

Source:  pinterest.com

My role at VietHealth was your traditional Monday to Friday stint and I used some weekends to escape the happy madness that is Hanoi. Begging an extra day to offset some ‘overtime’, I booked a memorable, if incredibly damp, walking trip to Sapa in the far north west of Vietnam.

After a bit of shopping around and a small amount of haggling (something I am hopeless at) I booked a 3-day tour with ET Pumpkin. Not sure how they came up with that business name but it was certainly hard to forget. The day arrived and I was to meet my fellow travellers (a mini United Nations) at the travel agent’s office to catch a shuttle bus to Hanoi train station. It soon became clear that the bus was missing in action, so the travel agent paid a taxi to provide transport. Imagine our surprise when the taxi driver insisted that we pay again when we arrived at the station. We were not that gullible and pushed into the swarming crowd with an irate taxi driver’s shouts ringing in our ears.

The train station was absolute chaos with thousands of people milling about, jostling for tickets and seats. Once we got through security it was relatively straight-forward and we quickly found our train, our carriage and our 4-berth sleeper compartment. Being Vietnam, there were six people in the compartment including three sleeping in the one bed. Oh well, go with the flow….

After 10 hours on the train, we pulled into Lao Cai station early the next morning and a lovely lady woke us with the offer of coffee. This was just what I needed after a rough night interrupted by constant mobile phone calls and text messages (evil, black looks aimed at the multi-occupancy berth) and insistent rapping on the window each time the train stopped. Why? I have no idea. The coffee, when it arrived, was miniscule, disgusting and five times the normal price of a coffee in Vietnam. It should have been a wake-up call that there is no such thing as a free lunch OR a free coffee!

Lao Cai was a cacophony of minibus touts and local hawkers. After spotting a hand-written sign that said Mrs Melanie, my fellow ‘ET Pumpkinites’ and I found our transport, and journeyed up to Sapa in the lowering clouds and eventual rain. Sapa itself is a neat and clean town that clearly makes the most of its tourist status. We were delivered to the Pumpkin Hotel (what else would you call a hotel?) to await our guide while we watched the rain fall.

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Smarter than us, the Black Hmong women had umbrellas!

After shuffling luggage around (leaving the bulk of it at the hotel), we stumbled off into the deluge with our Vietnamese guide, Diep. I suspect we were most probably crazy but our craziness was matched by the determination of the Black Hmong women who followed us for two whole days trying to sell us trinkets and local craft. Now that is commitment to a sale!

Sapa bI slid. I slithered. I slopped through puddles. If I was lucky, the mist parted for 30 seconds and the reward was a spectacular panorama of terraced hillsides complete with buffalo and quaint villages. Unfortunately Vietnamese mud has a greasy consistency and the ability to clump and clod, turning normal footwear into shoes the size of bean bags! It meant that 99% of the time I had to keep both eyes firmly glued on the path rather than peering through the rain.

“Pride goeth before a fall” as the saying goes, and I was feeling particularly cocky at one stage as I was still relatively dry and mud-free. Just as that thought exited my brain, I did an extremely inelegant pirouette and landed backside first into a rice paddy. Nothing like getting up close and personal with the local agriculture!

As I walked, I reflected that the landscape probably hadn’t changed much in the last 1000 years. Yes, the houses might be marginally more modern and the roads slightly improved, and the presence of electricity poles irrevocably changes the vista, but the locals were planting rice and farming with buffalos thousands of years ago and they are still doing it today.

Sapa cWhile I wouldn’t wish to trade places, I can’t help but think there would be some small comfort in knowing what you are going to do every day and every season. A rice farmer is a rice farmer is a rice farmer and that is what society expects of you. No doubt younger generations yearn to join ‘modern’ society but I wonder how many actually get the opportunity to break out of their traditional roles?

Due to the desire to get out of the incessant rain, we covered the distance in record time and arrived back at the Pumpkin Hotel where I fell into a very welcome hot shower. I then had time to explore the town (in the ever-present rain) before the return bus trip to Lao Cai and on towards home in Hanoi.

The return bus ride was a highlight of the trip, thanks to my travelling companions. The bus trundled around Sapa collecting various ordinary tourists like myself as well as a number of locals cadging a free ride back to Lao Cai. Perhaps relatives of the driver? A none-too-hygienic lady plopped herself next to me, smiled and proceeded to eat her bread roll and drink my water bottle dry. She did ask permission via the usual international sign language and what could I do but say Yes.

Everything was going well until the bus shot around a particularly sharp bend and my Vietnamese lady flew out of our bench seat and landed unceremoniously on the floor in the aisle. After lots of laughter and more smiles, she decided to avoid this happening again – and hung onto me and my arm for the remainder of the trip. Gripping tightly, she couldn’t believe the muscles in my arm (yes, I am quite robust) and proceeded to roll up my sleeve to check them out. Even more shocking to her were the hairs on my arm, which she then pulled, tweaked and giggled at all the way to Lao Cai. Personal space? Who needs it?!

Sapa dDespite the filthy weather and the invasion of privacy it was an unforgettable couple of days. If nothing else, walking for two days through rain, mist and the muddy rice terraces of Sapa confirmed to me the beauty of the country, the friendliness of its people and the privileged life I have with my ability to travel.

All those old clichés really are true.

International travel challenges, teaches and breaks down barriers.

 

May 2010

Solo or No?

Being both the Queen of the Dumb Question and the Queen of Ridiculous Theories About Everything, my most recent camino – the Caminho Portugués – gave me the perfect opportunity to empirically test my latest theory, “that I can walk solo across a foreign country for an extended period of time AND enjoy it”. Hardly a ground-breaking theory but, being the off-the-scale chatterbox/extrovert that I am, it could prove to be way out of my comfort zone.

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A special piece of original Roman road on the Caminho Portuguese

I have come to the pursuit of long distance walking late in life so maybe it has been a bit of a vagabond mid-life crisis. In 2013 I walked the Camino Frances – from St Jean Pied de Port in southern France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain – with my husband. I had visions of marital bonding over deep and meaningful conversations with The Brave Man* but did not plan for the fact that we walk at completely different speeds so we spent very little time actually walking together. Or maybe he walked extra fast on purpose to avoid the aforementioned conversations?

In 2014 I walked the Camino Via de la Plata – from Seville in southern Spain back up to Santiago – with a lovely Canadian couple I met on the previous walk. This walk was long – over 1000km – and yet we managed to navigate any slight differences of opinion and remained firm friends at the end of the 41 days of dust, sweat, blisters, rain and stunning scenery.

When I was contemplating another camino, I was inspired by the Australian author, Ailsa Piper and her book, Sinning Across Spain. She walked solo to Santiago, all the way from Granada in the very south of Spain, and I figured that this might also be a good challenge for me. With my need for constant chatter and feedback from another, could I walk a camino solo?

DSCF4977The short answer is – Yes.

Naturally 660km gave me plenty of time to think and reflect on everything from the role of religion in society to the need for new socks, the lack of public toilets, and the crippling nature of cobblestones. It also gave me time to consider whether solo walking was for me, and I progressively developed a list of pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Ultimate Flexibility. Walking solo means you can start when you want, stop when you want and do whatever you damn-well please even if that means smelling and photographing every flower from Lisbon to Spain.
  • The Quiet. My mind wanders and I am able to follow every random thought down every rabbit hole for minutes or hours on end.
  • The Quiet. Allows me to tread gently and to enjoy the local fauna such as lime green lizards, snakes and a large and loud bullfrog chorus.
  • Being Present. I think walking solo allows you to be more ‘present’ in the moment. That may sound a bit wafty, but I did my best to simply absorb my surrounds and appreciate what I was seeing and experiencing. Not having to worry about anyone else meant I could just focus on the ‘now’ and what was in front of me. It is a difficult thing to do when our lifestyles/society expect us to be constantly on the move to the next ‘thing’.

DSCF5135Cons:

  • Sharing the Good Times. Unfortunately walking solo meant that I had no one to share the beautiful sunrise, the gorgeous blooms or the singing frogs with. A few times I did say out loud, “Wow, look at that!”, but it lost its impact when there was no one there to respond.
  • Sharing the Challenging Moments. Going solo meant it was completely up to me to navigate maps, find missing arrows and translate questionable directions. Two heads are always better than one (well, almost always), even if it just to share the blame of an unplanned ‘detour’. Two heads or four eyes are also better at spotting tricky arrows that insist on hiding in bushes and up trees, or fading to nothingness.
  • Taking Risks. If I had walked with someone, I would have felt a bit braver about taking that detour or exploring an appealing path. The Coastal route took me inland 90% of the time. If I had walked with someone else, perhaps I would have been more game to explore paths right next to the sea.
  • Sharing the Load. Walking with others means it is not just my responsibility to find somewhere to eat, sleep, shop and wash my clothes. The simple logistics of living in a foreign country can get a tad tiring after a while.
  • Eating. I am not a foodie so I was happy to snack and graze. I suspect I would have eaten more and better if I had been travelling with someone else. Then there is also the issue of dining out at a table-for-one with a very large ‘L’ for loser on my forehead.
  • Sleeping. A single room is ALWAYS more expensive than a double or twin room on a per person basis.
  • Safety and Security. I am a tough bird but I know people at home were concerned for my safety as I set out on my own. I am sensible and didn’t take risks, but there were lots of raised eyes and furrowed brows amongst family and friends.

So, overall? Yes, I enjoyed it and it was a memorable experience.

Would I walk solo again? Yes, I would if I had to but it would not be my first choice. As mentioned previously I am an extrovert and I love interacting and sharing with others. The fact that my walking day started early – usually around 5.45am – meant that all the sane people were still fast asleep and I walked the majority of the day on my own. The early starts maximised the cool temperatures and the gorgeous sunrises, but on the downside, I was a lone figure in the dawn landscape.DSCF5175.JPG

Hmmmm, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all………..

 

May/June 2016

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

 

Porto Woos and Wins A Heart

I am a country girl at heart and an urban landscape has to be pretty special to hold my interest and attention. Porto, in northern Portugal, has not only captured my heart but it has carried it away.

It seemed to take forever to walk into the centre of the city. The Camhino Portugués, and its yellow arrows, took us through the Porto suburbs for hours but even in the outlying areas there was a subtle buzz. The hubble bubble reached a crescendo as my walking companions and I arrived at the spectacular steel bridge that connects Gaia on the southern side of the River Douro and Porto proper. We all uttered a clichéd ‘WOW’ and proceeded to snap far too many photos – just like all the other tourists.

Porto is a city of around 230 000 people and is an effective blend of the old and new. The centre of Porto is classified as World Heritage but there is room for innovation via graffiti art, murals and quirky sculpture. Porto is home to two particularly famous graffiti artists who are now contracted to complete murals on behalf of business and the community.

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A sample of Porto’s street art.

Maybe this is something we could be doing in Australia to harness the creative energy of taggers and other graffiti ‘vandals’?

You would think that when I arrive in a city I would have had enough of walking for a while but, after a little rest, I always try to join a walking tour. In Porto I signed up for the free walking tour. I love the initiative of the guides and you pay/tip what you think the tour is worth. Unfailingly their love of history and passion for their city is infectious and guarantees an enjoyable and value-for-money four hours.

My chosen walking tour really ticked off the highlights of this magical city. The old vs new contrast was showcased by the shopping centre UNDER the garden – Jardim da Cordoaria. The shopping centre is a three layer affair – underground carpark, split level shops and then a spacious garden and park built on the roof of the centre, complete with 50 year old olive trees. A clever use of space generally but the inclusion of green space is even more important in my book.

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A McDonalds like no other.

Another ‘new’ aspect was the McDonalds in the centre of town. Not that I am a McDonalds fan – however they have set up home in a glorious art deco café BUT they are not allowed to change a thing on or in the building. Picture a McDonalds with chandeliers and expanses of stained glass – trés chic even for a fast food outlet.

Porto is a very popular short-break destination and on the walking tour there were English, Polish, German and French tourists. I met a young Lithuanian cardiologist and GP couple, and did my best to recruit them to move to Mudgee! You can’t blame me for trying.

The old railway station is a hive of activity as visitors come and go but the station is a tourist attraction in itself. The foyer is covered with 20 000 hand-painted tiles telling the story of Portugal’s history as well as the development of transport in the country. Definitely worth a visit even if you aren’t going anywhere.

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The foyer of the main Porto railway station.

The tour continued through the old city back to the bridge that I originally walked over into Porto. The bridge itself has many stories, and interestingly it was designed by Gustave Eiffel’s company – yes, of Eiffel Tower fame.

We progressively wended our way through tiny back streets to arrive at the River Douro (River of Gold). Love it or hate it, this is probably the most touristy part of the city complete with multiple buskers and touts trying to lure tourists into their cafés and restaurants with promises of authentic Portuguese fare. This area – called Ribeira – has a vibrancy that needs to be seen and experienced to be believed. A constant flow of people, boats, music and hawkers. This is the main hop on/off point for river cruises – something I didn’t get time to do – and it would have been a picturesque way to fill in a couple of hours and get a different perspective on the city.

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Ribeira area

I am kicking myself but I also didn’t get time to visit any of the port wine lodges that fill the southern banks of the river. Obviously Porto gets its name from this historic and prolific industry, but the port lodges are actually located in the town (now suburb) of Vila Nova da Gaia, opposite Porto itself. It would be possible to spend days exploring the many different port lodges if you had the time and the stamina, but this will have to wait for my return trip.

My all-time highlight of the visit was the Livraria Lello book shop. I am a book nut from way back but this store is definitely worth the €3 entry fee. It is ranked in the top 10 most beautiful book stores in the world and JK Rowling supposedly based the library at Hogwarts on its interior. Established in 1906, it features sweeping timber staircases, floor to ceiling book shelves, and elaborate wood paneling and balustrades. It is possible to enjoy a coffee on the top floor but I was happy just to sit and be surrounded by the decadent abundance of literature. Yep, I am a book geek, but I believe there are worse vices.

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My photos simply do not do justice to this amazing book store!

My rest days in Porto were over all too soon and if I had my time again I would have allowed at least three full days to truly absorb all that the city has to offer. What I did plan well was my accommodation at Sao Bento Apartments – convenient, comfortable and private. Just what I needed after sharing rooms with 35 other pilgrims and their nocturnal noises for the previous 10 days.

Porto has converted this country girl and it continues to call my name.

 

May 2016

Stopping to Smell the Roses

As I flew into Lisbon (a day late and without my backpack…..but that is a WHOLE different blog post) I was dazzled by the blanket of green on the horizon. In my jetlag fog I had forgotten that it was Spring in Portugal.

When researching each camino I spend a bit of time on a comprehensive web forum where passionate walkers share their experience and knowledge of all the different caminos. It seemed that walking the Caminho Portugués in Spring was a popular option, so I thought I would give it a whirl. My two previous caminos were in Autumn so subconsciously I was expecting a golden landscape – not such lushness. I quickly got myself into the new mindset and adjusted to damp, grey skies.DSCF4716.JPG

Yes, my wet weather gear got a bit of a workout but this was a small price to pay for a green vista in every direction. There was such abundant growth that at times I struggled to follow the dirt paths, especially when the path was only about 40cm wide and the grass was up to my waist. It is hard to manoeuvre walking poles through such groundcover and it dramatically reduces their usefulness. In the end I just had to hold the poles up high and hope one of my two left feet didn’t trip up. I also thanked my lucky stars I was walking in Spring before the snakes got busy or the chance of bushfire dramatically increased. I understand both are common throughout Portugal.

The apparently unseasonal wet weather, which I struck when I started out from Lisbon, meant that streams and rivers were high and busy gurgling away. It seemed that every turn in the path revealed another perfect photo opportunity – water streaming over rocks with an ancient stone bridge and shady trees forming a picturesque arch. A photographer’s paradise.

DSCF5048.JPGThe rivers and creeks were fed by streams of water oozing out of the hillside, forming spontaneous waterfalls but also quagmires. There were times when I literally had to head to the scrub to circumvent the path that was either now a mud bath or a foot deep under water.

As I walked this camino solo, I decided very early on that I would take my time and stop whenever I damn-well pleased. So, I was conscious to savour every breathtaking view and allow myself time to stop and smell the roses – as the old cliché says. I may have looked a bit silly sticking my nose into every rose I saw – and there were many of them – but I wanted to absorb all the beauty that surrounded me every day.

Coming from drought-stricken Australia, it was a luxury to walk amongst fields of scarlet poppies and brilliant yellow daisies – all growing naturally. Wild roses twined their way through roadside trees and draped over stone walls, and Arum lilies were as big as dinner plates.DSCF4859.JPG

My sense of smell was rewarded on a daily basis with wild honeysuckle, jasmine and lavender sending out their signature scents. You can’t imagine what a pick-me-up it is at the end of a tiring day to be engulfed by their heady perfumes. It was the perfect distraction from aching shoulders and tired legs.

The Portuguese are dedicated gardeners on both a large and small scale. For days I walked through tomato, capsicum and corn farms as well as amongst grapevines as far as the eye could see. While I am very used to grapevines in Mudgee, there is something extra special about walking through vineyards at sunrise when the dew is still fresh on the young tendrils.

The backyard gardeners love their vegetable patches, flowers, potted plants and a diverse range of questionable garden ornaments. I imagine most of these are tended by older people, as the majority of towns and villages are empty of people under the age of 60. It was not uncommon to walk past fields and yards where old people were down on their hands and knees with a hand scythe trying to tame the Spring growth.DSCF4828.JPG

It would be interesting to find out if this gardening obsession is driven by tradition, habit or necessity. I learnt that in Portugal, 60% of the population has an average monthly income of only €520! Any home grown produce must be a useful addition to the housekeeping budget.

As well as the abundant flora, animals and insects were prolific. One morning I was walking and heard ahead the most almighty racket. I slowed and walked quietly to peer over a rock wall. There were 11 of the largest, fattest frogs sitting on the edge of a tank, croaking their hearts out. Such a happy sound, and it made me smile.

DSCF4997.JPGI also enjoyed watching the lime green lizards that were common on the Coastal route. They weren’t camera shy at all and were happy to be observed as they sunned themselves. I became quite the naturalist!

Springtime in Portugal was a feast for the eyes, ears and nose and a totally enjoyable experience. Not that a lot of what I saw was unique, but to spend days walking through such beauty made for a truly memorable camino.

 

May 2016

Camhino Portugués – Top Ten Tips!

It is difficult to distill all that I saw and experienced in 23 days in Portugal down to 1 000 words, so I thought I would attempt to capture the essence of the walk in ten dot points. It’s not a definitive list and I’m sure there will be many tips that occur to me after I hit the submit button – but here we go:DSCF4762

1. Be thin before you arrive!: Portugal, unlike Spain, has a delicious range of cake shops or pastelaria. It is possible to eat your body weight in cakes – especially pastel de nata – every day! You will be walking every day so I think this gives you the perfect excuse to sample all the delights the cake shops and cafes have to offer. All in the name of research, of course!

2. Take good shoes/boots: I estimate that over 80% of the walk is on hard surfaces, i.e. tarred roads, edges of highways and kilometres and kilometres of mongrel cobblestones. Even the smallest, remotest village has wall-to-wall cobblestones underfoot and this becomes a special kind of torture at the end of the day when legs, feet and ankles are already tired and sore.

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The blue boot points south to Fatima and the yellow points north to Santiago.

3. Friendly locals: you will find the Portuguese people unfailingly friendly and welcoming. A word of warning when asking directions. Be prepared for a long and loud stream of Portuguese with much finger pointing and arm waving. All to help you of course, but it can be a bit overwhelming when you only pick up every 50th word! Then the neighbours join in and give their 50c-worth of alternative routes and it becomes quite the community debate. Often I found that after this long conversation the person would insist on walking with me, grabbing my arm to lead me along, to ensure I got back on track. Very caring and nice to experience in this day and age when few people have time for strangers. (I did return the favour one day when I helped an old lady muster her sheep by using my walking poles to corral the recalcitrant sheep down the road! But that’s another story.)

4. Dogs: while the humans are super-friendly, Portuguese dogs would like to have you for breakfast. The security-conscious Portuguese all have bored, frustrated and very angry dogs of all shapes and sizes to protect their properties. While these are mostly behind locked gates and fences, it is still off-putting to be assaulted by a cacophony of barks and growls as you creep by. Then there are the packs of roaming dogs. They certainly give you pause but I quickly learned to use one walking pole as a prodder/barrier and then raise the other as if ready to strike. The dogs soon got the message and I walked on unharmed…but always with one wary eye checking behind me.

5. Plan rest days wisely: I am kicking myself that I didn’t allow more flexibility in my schedule to stay longer in a few places. I had rest days in Coimbra and Porto which were interesting and enjoyable, but I would have loved a rest day in Tomar to immerse myself in the Knights Templar history of the town. A couple of extra days in Porto could also have been easily filled with the sights and sounds and beverages of that amazing city. I would consider an extra day too in Valença/Tui on the border of Portugal/Spain. Its walled cities and cathedrals were worthwhile exploring.

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A lovely vista on the Coastal Route

6. Consider the Coastal Route: I only walked 5 days on the Coastal route and was kicking myself (again) that I didn’t allow time to walk the rest of the route from A Guardia up to Rendondela (along the Spanish coast). The sea breezes, port cities, and the lonely cry of a seagull, made for a completely different camino experience for this chick from the bush. The terrain was interesting with a smattering of Roman roads, and the route was well-marked and relatively free of crowds.

7. Calls of Nature: in contrast to Spain, public toilets do exist in Portugal and can be quite plentiful in some places. Unfortunately nine times out of ten, they are locked! Be prepared to dive into the bushes if nature calls but choose your location carefully. Beware of:

  • Blackberry bushes and their thorny brambles that will snag socks, clothing and anything else exposed to the elements.
  • Stinging nettles that hide themselves in the above-mentioned blackberry bushes
  • Unsuspecting locals wandering by.
  • Preferably choose a spot where mint grows wild. Your very own ‘open air’ air freshener.

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    No – I didn’t have to wade through this but it was marked as an option on my map.

8. Weather: prepare for everything. I guess springtime can be rather unpredictable but be ready for weather of all sorts. There are few fountains, or few with potable water, so ensure you carry water with you. Sunscreen is vital. It can also get pretty windy and there were a few days I did Marilyn Monroe imitations with a billowing poncho – rather undermining its effectiveness. Needless to say there was NOTHING else remotely Monroesque about me during the entire walk!

9. Be Bilingual: it is quite a culture shock to walk across the long bridge at Valença/Tui. Within minutes you are in a different time zone speaking a different language. Instantly it became ‘Gracias’ rather than ‘Obrigada’ but the locals are forgiving. If this is not doable for you, English is pretty widely spoken and it is possible to muddle through without a word of either Portuguese or Spanish.DSCF5105.JPG

10. Prepare for Crowds: it is relatively quiet and relaxing from Lisbon to Porto but that changes noticeably from Porto onwards, and especially from Valença/Tui (the border). What are all these strangers doing on my walk?? It is yet another small culture shock, and the competition for a bed ramps up significantly, but is it wonderfully social.

Portugal is a spectacular country and I was amazed on a daily basis by its abundance and the profusion of flora and fauna. I was expecting a more Mediterranean look and feel and, while the stone houses and crumbling villages were very similar to Spain, the people and the atmosphere was a whole new identity.

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The atmospheric Ribiera district of Porto.

I haven’t done it justice in just ten dot points but hopefully it is enough to tempt you.

 

May 2016

Caminho Portugués – the Nuts & Bolts

Freshly home from the Caminho Portugués I thought it might be timely to share the nuts and bolts of this camino with those who may be considering a similar stroll. I have found that we peregrinas (or peregrinos for the blokes) are great sharers of information – all with the view of making someone’s future walk more enjoyable and/or easier.

So here are the simple logistics of this camino. I intend to wax lyrical about this adventure in future blog posts but I will try to restrict myself here to the basic data:

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This map doesn’t show the Coastal Route. Basically just follow the coast from Porto and cut back in land to Valenca/Tui.

Start Day: Thursday 12 May 2016, from Lisbon, Portugal

Finish Day: Sunday 5 June 2016, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Route:

  • Central: Lisbon to Porto (approx. 400km)
  • Coastal: Porto to Valença (approx. 138km)
  • Central: Valença to Santiago de Compostela (approx. 122km)

Distances:

  • Total: 660km (estimated. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish have a very flexible approach to measuring and recording distances. Maps and actual signposts vary dramatically).
  • Daily Average: 28.7km
  • Longest Day: 35.4km
  • Shortest Day: 16.4km (my last day into Santiago! Woo Hoo!)

Days:

  • Walking: 23
  • Rest: 2 (Coimbra and Porto)

Times: early starts made the most of cooler temperatures and regularly featured gorgeous sunrises. Average walking times varied from 5-8 hours each day dependent on distance.

Terrain:

  • A lovely mix but predominantly hard surfaces such as tarred roads and &^%$# cobblestones – which I estimated to be 80+% of the whole walk. The detour I took to include the coastal route meant that I enjoyed many kilometres of walking on timber boardwalks. These were heavenly as they had a bit of ‘give’ in them – perfect for tired ankles and knees.
  • the range of hard surfaces would make this camino ideal for cyclists or ‘biki’
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    A pretty bush track on the Coastal Route. A bit muddy but that’s OK

    pilgrims.

  • some stiff climbs but nothing like my previous caminos. Perhaps an hour or two of ascent, then the pain was over and I could enjoy the view and the descent.

Weather: Being Spring there was a bit of everything, including a handful of wet and windy days. Generally, daytime temperatures ranged from 8°C – 21°C – but then there is the ‘real feel’ equation to consider. One day was forecast for 27°C but the real feel was 32°C – far too warm for walking for this peregrina. Otherwise perfect walking conditions – cool and clear.

Maps & Guides:

  • as mentioned above, adopt a very casual approach to any distance markers or maps. These should be used as guides only. Make sure you allow yourself extra time and carry enough water and snacks to cover an additional 5km should it occur.
  • John Brierley’s 2014 edition of the guide to Caminho Portugués is woefully out-of-date in both content and maps. I trust the later edition is more accurate and useful.
  • for the Coastal Route, I used interactive maps from www.caminador.es. I printed hard copies for the sections I walked and just tossed them at the end of each day. (I didn’t carry a mobile phone so couldn’t access the ‘live’ version. This system worked well for me.)

Way-marking:

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Follow the yellow arrows for Santiago or the blue arrows to Fatima

  • generally very good with enough yellow arrows, shells, tiles, etc., to keep me on the right track.
  • Beware: leaving the town of Tomar as the arrows are faded, are few or are confusing.
  • Valença /Tui to Redondela Stage: at Orbenlle, the Camino Association has developed a new route (heading north/west) which means you skip the ugly slog into Porrino via the industrial estate. This has obviously upset a range of business owners who now insist on blacking out the Association’s yellow arrows. Just as you hit the outskirts of Orbenlle you will see a war of black and yellow paint. Turn left down a small, dirt track and you will be rewarded with a beautiful walk through forests and on country backroads. Similarly when you get into Porrino, just under/after a large overpass, you will see another paint fiesta. Again, turn left and enjoy a peaceful walk into the city on the edge of a river. In both instances, the arrows start to appear again after about 100m.

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    Way marking on the Coastal route.

  • Coast Route: sometimes the arrows disappear completely so it is handy to have the maps to allow you to guesstimate which direction you should head (east or west) to intersect the route again. The caminador.es maps show two different routes – one right on the coastline and another further inland – the arrows take you on the inland path.

Accommodation:

  • the early stages in the Brierley guide are long, mostly because of the lack of conveniently-located accommodation. I am sure this will change dramatically in the next few years as the locals realise the business opportunities associated with the passing pilgrims.
  • Lisbon to Porto: few purpose-built albergues but plenty of reasonably-priced hostels from €10-25. These include all linen and may also include breakfast.
  • Porto to Valença (Coastal): albergues are more common but the youth hostels are also an excellent option with discounts for pilgrims. You do not need to be a member of the youth hostel association, but book direct for the best deals. Prices ranges from €7.50-12.
  • Valença to Santiago de Compostela: you name it, it’s available. Albergues are plentiful, as is 4-5 star accommodation. Prices from €6.00.

Food:

  • similar to my comments in the accommodation section above, this aspect will change to be more pilgrim-focused in the future.
  • From Lisbon to Valença (via the coast) I found few menu do dias or pilgrim menus but generally eating is very reasonable. A large omelette with chips and salad can cost as little as €4, and a café Americano (black coffee) ranges from €0.55c to €1.20! A very cost-effective way to make the most of a caffeine addiction!
  • Supermarkets usually have a good selection of pre-prepared meals including salads, tortilla española, pizzas and pastas etc.
  • Pastéis de nata are delicious and you have a perfectly reasonable excuse to consume these cakes on a daily basis. Prices range from €0.26c to €0.50c.DSCF5009.JPG

I am now an official fan of Portugal and can’t wait to return one day to play tourist. The country is gorgeous and the locals are so friendly and welcoming – just be careful of rapid-fire Portuguese when asking for directions!

A highly recommended camino. Enjoy and Bom Caminho!

 

May 2016

Pack up your troubles in your ol’ kit bag..

Sing along with me now….”pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.” While I may not be smiling the whole time I walk, the smiles certainly outweigh the frowns and weight is a  pretty crucial when it comes to stepping out across long distances.

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Thanks David T for this memorable photo.

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, the ‘industry’ rule of thumb is that your backpack shouldn’t weigh more than 10% of your body weight. This statistic incites feelings of dread, guilt and failure as (without giving away the number that appears on my scales) my backpack is always almost double that figure! How could you walk so far with so little?

“How big is your pack and what is in it?” are often the first questions the uninitiated ask. My friends roll their eyes that I can get away without a hair dryer, hair straightener, extensive make-up and colour-coordinated clothes but I do just fine and blend in with all the other smelly, daggy walkers.

So here is an abbreviated packing list. I have left out a few boring things but this list is my whole world for however long I am walking.

Walking Boots

Casual shoes

Thongs

Walking socks x 2

Wicking socks x 1

Undies x 3

Hankies x 2

Bra x 2

Sleepwear

Sun Hat

Beanie

Gloves

Sunglasses

Reading glasses

Walking shorts x 1

Good shorts x 1

Compress Shorts

Rain jacket

Softshell jacket

Gaiters

Walking shirt x 1

Long sleeve shirt x 1

Good shirt x 1

Bandana

Towel

Face Washer

Journal

Pens/Scissors/Glue

Camino Guide

Language Guide

Map Carrier

Backpack

Hip/Belt bag

Walking poles

Sleeping sheet

Pillow Slip

Head torch

Head torch Charger

Camera

Camera Charger

Camera Card addtl

Tablet/iPad

Tablet Charger

Power adaptor

Bag/satchel

Money belt

Water bottle x 1

Water bladder – 2l

Zero/Shotz tablets

Bath plug

Over door hook

Plate

Knife/fork/spoon

Sharp knife

Mug/Bowl

Old tea towel

Vegemite

Vitamin C

Pegs/Clothesline

Washing powder

Sewing Kit

Hand wipes

Sunscreen

Aeroguard

Shampoo/Condition

Underarm

Moisturiser – Face

Moisturiser – Body

Hand cream

Lip balm

Face Cleanser

Face block

Perfume

Basic make-up

Toothpaste

Toothbrush

Soap

Tweezers

Nail file

Ear Plugs

Eye Mask

Brush/comb

First aid kit

Blister pads

You may notice the limited underwear. The scarcity seems to generate the most interest for some reason. Yes, I only need three pairs of undies whether it be for a three-week walk or six weeks. A handy tip is to take all your all-but worn out undies and throw them out after you wear them – until you get down to your last, ‘best’ three pairs. Yes, I know I am an embarrassment to the female sex.

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Casualties on Camino #1

The same system can work for socks until you have a clean pair on and, hopefully, one clean pair in the pack.

Life becomes very simple when you only have one or two of each thing to choose from. It makes for easy decision-making and the focus quickly turns to basic cleanliness rather than stylishness.

You may have guessed by now that I am not one of those trendy walkers with all the latest gear and high profile brands. Other than my Deuter pack and Scarpa boots the rest of me is a mish-mash of beg, borrow or steal. In fact at the end of each walk I take great delight in throwing away almost all my clothes. At the end of six weeks my clothes are worn out (along with myself) and I am sick to death of the sight of them. Happily, this makes for an even lighter pack for the homeward journey.

Unlike some purists though, I do have a few necessities I simply can’t do without. A girl does have some standards:

  • Pyjamas: some walkers sleep in the clothes they will walk in the next day. Not me! I like to get into my PJs at the end of each day. Old habits die hard.
  • Journal: for better or worse I have created a daily habit of writing in my travel journal. It helps me think a little more deeply about what I have seen, as well as allowing me to record any weird and wonderful sights and experiences.
  • Zero/Shotz Tablets: these are electrolyte tablets that keep my muscles working and me moving.
  • Snacks: Yes, I am a snacker. I can’t walk on an empty stomach and need regular top-ups. I do tend to go overboard with this and realised when I started the Via de la Plata walk (2014) I was carrying nearly 2 kg of snacks! That is a little too prepared – even for me!
  • Water: walking is thirsty work and I carry a two litre Camelbak plus a 750 ml water bottle each day. I normally drain these before the end of the day’s walk and probably average 5.5 litres per day.

All of the above adds significant weight to my load, but these items are important to me. At least by the end of the day the water and snacks have been reduced, making the pack a little lighter – just when I need it.

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Maybe this guy had a better idea…let the poor donkey do all the work

I blame technology for some of the excess weight too. I take a tablet, a camera and a headlamp. These require chargers and other bits and bobs, and all take up space and add grams. I could use my tablet to take photos, or replace both table and camera with a smart phone but again, old habits die hard.

A packing list is personal and mine seems to be refined each time I walk, with a few things added and a few things removed. To me, the most important thing to include in my kit bag is a positive (and slightly insane) mindset, a fair dose of determination, and the willingness to open yourself up to the world and the people in it.

Smile, smile, smile…

2016 and ongoing refinement

Talking the Camino

My passion for long distance walking began at a groovy little café in Potts Point. Not the most likely venue to launch into adventure sports I agree, but let’s just say the seed was sown. Over caffeine, a friend described his upcoming Camino Frances and his hope that it would help him sort through some stuff that was going on in his life at the time. I have no more ‘stuff’ than the next person but his trip caught my imagination and firmly burrowed into my subconscious.234

It is weird how sometimes things that are on your radar – even ever so remotely – then start to crop up wherever you turn. Even before my friend’s return from Spain I was spotting books, newspaper articles and hearing stories of this ‘new’ thing called the Camino Frances. My friend’s triumphant and happy return confirmed that this trip was a ‘must’ for me. The thing that he raved about most was meeting so many amazing people throughout the 790km from St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to the final destination of Santiago de Compostela in the north-western corner of Spain.

Hence, it was a matter of talking the camino rather than walking the camino when we finally set out from St Jean Pied de Port on 3 September 2013. I had thought it would be a good plan to start walking in Autumn after the European Summer vacation had ended and school returned. Surely there would not be the crowds I had read about?? Wrong! We were told that there were 500 people leaving St Jean Pied de Port every day and 1000 people arriving in Santiago de Compostela every day. Hardly a stroll in solitude.051

Like everyone else, we set off on Day One bright-eyed and with a spring in our step, ready to cross the Pyrenees. It has to be the most physically demanding thing I have ever done. The Brave Man* soon left me in his dust and I battled on ever-upwards, chatting and commiserating with whoever I passed or passed me. At one stage an Irishman came alongside. He gave me a sideways glance and muttered in a thick Irish brogue, “I thought this was supposed to be spiritual. Where’s the feckin’ spirituality in this?” He stomped off ahead of me and I would have laughed if I had had the energy!

The first day of many things is often the hardest and we soon found our individual walking rhythms and a rich mix of interesting (or not) people to chat to as we walked. Imagine a sea of humanity – a slight exaggeration, I know – all walking towards a common goal. Different life stories, different baggage, different socio-economic backgrounds, but the shared joy, exhaustion and sore feet from walking is a great leveller and a perfect conversation starter.

“Hello, I’m Melanie from Australia – where are you heading today?” We all became known by first name and geography only. “Have you seen Lue and David from Vancouver? Or Ross from Sydney?” No other descriptor was needed to identify new best friends and where they were on the on the route known as the Camino Frances or simply, ‘the Way.’

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The beauty of these conversations was that they could last all day or 15 minutes. If my stride matched another’s and we both felt inclined, we might walk for hours together talking about whatever took our fancy. Many times conversations cut to the heart of the matter as there was no need for pigeon-holing or social one-up-manship. When I finally caught up with The Brave Man*, I would introduce my walking companion and he would introduce me to the ex-Emergency-Room- Trauma-Surgeon-now-Anglican-Minister from a small, rural parish in England or another equally interesting individual.

There are not enough blog words to cover the many insightful conversations I enjoyed and perhaps their impact would be lost in translation. Conversations would continue well into the evening as we shared communal dinners, or until we gave in to sleep. One memorable dinner at an albergue included ourselves, an ER nurse from Sweden, a computer programmer from the Netherlands and Ulrich. Ulrich was a 74 year old German, raised in Barcelona and a resident of Brazil for the past 26 years. He spoke four languages and a warmer, more genuine man would be hard to find. As the wine flowed, Ulrich shared his story. It was the 12-month anniversary of his wife’s death and the 10-year anniversary of their walking the Camino Frances together. As he walked this time, he read his journal from the first trip and savoured their special memories. Goose bump material.

As is the wont of the Camino, our paths crossed a few times over the next few weeks until we got to Santiago de Compostela. I said to The Brave Man*, “I feel a bit sad that we didn’t get to say a proper goodbye to Ulrich”. The next day we stepped off a tour bus, walked around the corner and straight into him. It was meant to be. We both expressed how pleased we were that we had met and Ulrich gave me a small, carved crucifix. I am not a religious person, but I carry it with me everywhere.

Not every conversation was at such a personal level but the openness and friendliness of everyone made each connection special. Glyn and Paul from Wales were like two lads on an over-50’s Contiki tour doing some walking, more drinking and having the time of their lives. Whenever we saw Paul, he had lost something, and he was almost entirely clad in hand-me-downs by the time we parted company.

We had a long and detailed conversation with a Spanish man comparing the cost of living in Spain vs Australia. We couldn’t speak Spanish and he couldn’t speak English but with much arm waving, pointing at ads for white goods in junk mail brochures and laughter, we managed to make ourselves understood (I think) and became firm friends for the rest of the camino.469

Even today, three years on, we are in contact with people we met. I continue to marvel at how we simple folk can get on and be friends even when communication is a barrier. Why can’t our leaders around the world do the same?

Sept/Oct 2013

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

The Mechanics of Walking 620 km

I truly dislike the time 4.34am. Tucked up in bed it’s dark outside, I imagine it’s cold and it’s probably windy. But it is not to be ignored as it’s time to pull on my hiking boots, strap on the pack and pick up my walking poles. Yes, I am training for another camino.

Apologies in advance as I am the first to admit I am a camino-bore. The species does exist – just ask The Brave Man*. I can talk walking, especially caminos, all day, every day – again, just ask The Brave Man*.

12 May 2016 will see the start of my third camino –  the shortest I have tackled so far. The Camino Portuguese starts in Lisbon (Portugal – no surprises there) and strolls 620 km duephysical-map-of-Portugal.jpg north, across the border of Spain and on to Santiago de Compostela. It will be springtime there – my first Spring camino – and I am hoping for the full Spring-look, soft green grass, flowers, buzzing bees and more importantly mild, dry days.

While most people around me think I am crazy – and sometimes I do wonder myself – I simply love these adventures. I am quick to clarify that they are not holidays but adventures. I have decided that I do not ‘holiday’ well and prefer to be on the move, even if slowly.

The early morning training started gently back in January and now, a few weeks out, I will ramp it up. I plan to average around 26 km per day while in Portugal but sometimes that will blow out to 32 km. Even I admit that is a serious stroll. Unfortunately the first 10 days or so are all going to be 30+ km days and that is going to be a slight rude shock – but, I know I will soon find my rhythm.

The plan includes 21 walking days and a rest day at both Coimbra and Oporto.

For those unfamiliar with the camino concept, there is a whole series of pilgrimage routes from all over Europe that end in the north-west corner of Spain and the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, which contains (supposedly) the remains of St James the Apostle. I say ‘supposedly’ because so many churches and cathedrals throughout Spain proclaim to house part of St James that I imagine he is spread very thin indeed!

I am not a religious person at all, but I love the feeling of walking in the steps of history and I meet so many interesting people along the way. In fact, ‘camino’ actually means ‘way’ in Spanish.

The Camino Portuguese starts, at the time of writing, in Lisbon. It is an evolving journey as DSC229it often it relies on an enthusiastic bunch of locals to rejuvenate the route, re-mark it with the obvious yellow arrows and then promote it. In 2015 260 000 people walked the Camino Frances (from the French side of the Pyrenees), so you can imagine the huge economic impact this can have on a community. In the very early days pilgrims would have walked from the bottom of Portugal or even Morocco all with the aim of having their sins forgiven. I have a fair way to walk yet for that to happen.

So, starting in Lisbon on 12 May I will set out solo. This will be the first time I will walk a camino on my absolute lonesome and, while it is a tad scary, it will challenge me to meet even more people or learn to enjoy my own company.

As the Camino Portuguese is a relatively quiet walk (around 30 000 people in 2015) I am not expecting to have any trouble finding accommodation. Where there are no albergues (pilgrim hostels at €5-10 per night), I will stay in cheap hotels for €20-25 per night, which often includes breakfast. In the past I have found these little hotels to be pretty basic but clean and comfortable.

Yes, I will be carrying my pack. This seems to be a major turn-off for many people but DSCF4617after the first week I hardly even notice it is on my back – except for the last bloody walking hour of every bloody single bloody day. The rule of thumb is that your pack should weigh no more than 10% of your body weight but that is never going to work for me considering I always carry at least two litres of water. My pack usually weighs 13+ kg but seeing I am the one who has to carry it, I just need to pull on my big girl panties and keep walking.

The training regime has been going well – when I can motivate myself to get out of bed. I am walking 20 km two or three times week, plus some shorter walks. Our old dog used to come with me but we have decided that it is too much for him and I try to sneak away from the house unseen. Or is that un-smelled?

Despite the ugly hour, it is quite serene stepping out into the dark mornings. It is pretty quiet in town except for the stream of miners heading out to work. I suspect I look pretty strange striding through Mudgee at 4.45am kitted out in full hiking regalia – perhaps they think I am running away from home?

I do plan to keep more civilised hours when I get to Portugal and aim to start walking by 6.30am each day. The current early starts mean I can still be at the desk (very thankful to be sitting down) in the office at a reasonable time.

As the sun creeps over the Mudgee hills it is pretty special to see the countryside come to life. Kangaroos hop through the vines, I greet the cows and the sheep – no, nothing strange about me – and the magpies warble ‘Good Morning’.

It is on mornings like these that I am glad I made the effort to throw off the blankets, tie on the boots and step out into the world.

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My trusty Scarpa boots. One more walk left in them.

April 2016

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