Under the Tuscan Sun – in Hiking Boots

Yes, it’s on again! Or should I say, the walking boots are on again, and I’m excited!

In 8 months’ time I will be stepping out across the Italian countryside, powering over the rolling hills and inhaling gelato.

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One Man’s Adventure, is Another Man’s Insanity!

Book Title: The Well At The World’s End

Author: AJ Mackinnon

The Well At The World's End - Book Depository

The Well At The World’s End. (Source: Book Depository)

Promotional Blurb: When A.J. Mackinnon quits his job in Australia, he knows only that he longs to travel to the Well at the World’s End, a mysterious pool on a remote Scottish island whose waters, legend has it, hold the secret to eternal youth. Determined not to fly (‘It would feel like cheating’), he sets out with a rucksack, some fireworks and a map of the world and trusts chance to take care of the rest. By land and by sea, by train, truck, horse and yacht, he makes his way across the globe – and through a series of hilarious adventures. He survives a bus crash in Australia, marries a princess in Laos, is attacked by Komodo dragons and does time in a Chinese jail. The next lift – or the next near-miss – is always just a happy accident away. This is the astonishing true story of a remarkable voyage, an old-fashioned quest by a modern-day adventurer. (Source)

My Thoughts:  I love a good adventure, and even more than that, an adventure that turns into a comedy of errors. I give Mackinnon full marks for audacity, vision and perhaps a fair dose of stupidity thrown in there. He was lucky to get out alive!

How is it that some people can dream up these journeys, and rationalise in their own minds that such trips are perfectly acceptable, and perfectly achievable? I guess that is what sets us apart – true adventurers and absolute novices.

He seems to lurch from one disaster to the next, meeting ever more fantastical characters, and brushing ever nearer to death. He gets arrested, jailed, deported, married, kidnapped, becalmed, and continuously re-routed on his two-step-forward-one-step-back progress, battling to get out of the Southern Hemisphere, let alone to a remote island off Scotland. In fact, over 230 pages of the book are devoted to lurching around Australia, New Zealand and Asia, before racing through the Mediterranean, Europe and finally to England in the last handful of pages.

Similar to his debut novel, he travels and writes quoting great swathes of poetry, and in this book, playing his tin whistle to earn his keep.

No wonder he travels solo!

It is hard to read Mackinnon’s story and not wonder how much is true and how much is simply wishful thinking. After all, this book covers a year of adventure in 1990, and this book was not released until 2011. Surely the lapse of 21 years has polished the tales to a golden hue?

Regardless, it is an enjoyable read and I look forward to him packing his bags, or at least putting pen to paper, again soon.

AJ (Sandy) Mackinnon

Sandy MacKinnon. Photo: Black Inc Books

Author bio: A. J. (Sandy) Mackinnon was born in Australia in 1963 and spent his childhood between England and Australia, travelling with his family on the last P&O liners to sail between the two countries. His interests include painting, philosophy, writing, conjuring and home-made fireworks. He is currently a teacher of English, Drama, Mathematics and Philosophy in the Victorian High Country. He is the author of The Unlikely Voyage of Jack de Crow and The Well at the World’s End. (Source)

Author blog or website: not found.

Pages:  298

Published: 2011

Publisher: Sky Horse Publishing

Available from: Book Depository (from $16.83), fishpond.com (from $22.54)

 

Curl up with a good book

Book Title: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

Author: Rachel Joyce

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Photo: penguin.com.au

Promotional Blurb: Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning a letter arrives, addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl, from a woman he hasn’t heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye. But before Harold mails off a quick reply, a chance encounter convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. In his yachting shoes and light coat, Harold Fry embarks on an urgent quest. Determined to walk six hundred miles to the hospice, Harold believes that as long as he walks, Queenie will live.

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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)

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!

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!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Portuguese, 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!

Looking for James Taylor

Is there anything more stressful than driving out of a foreign city, on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, and next to your husband?

Perhaps this would be a good pre-marriage test for the young and in love. If you can survive a road trip in another country and are still talking to each other by the end of it all, then you were meant to be together.

In 2013 my husband received a scholarship to the USA. I was the bag carrier and played tourist while he did scholarly things. We sampled parts of California before landing in the wonderful city that is Washington DC. Our ultimate destination was Greenville, South Carolina.

My husband is a massive James Taylor fan and, before leaving Australia, had trawled the Internet and found that James Taylor’s home town of Chapel Hill, North Carolina had
established a museum celebrating JT’s musical life. The resident JT fan thought that rather than flying, it would be a brilliant idea to drive from Washington DC to Greenville, SC via Chapel Hill. After all, on a map it is only about 5cm.

We set off into the DC dawn, doing our best to avoid the onslaught of grim-faced commuters. We were Aussies, on an adventure and on a mission – what could possibly go wrong? Our first real mistake was to place our faith in the GPS lady. We had no real idea where we were heading or how to get there other than to keep driving south. The precise directions were her responsibility.

All seemed to go quite smoothly until we argued against her spoken directions which conflicted with the printed directions on a good, old-fashioned paper map. Like rebellious teenagers we set off cross-country, heedless of her constant “recalculating, recalculating”. Honestly, that woman has the patience of Job.

No doubt the locals complain about the state of their roads but on the whole, we found them excellent. Beautiful, dual lane highways were described as minor roads on the paper map. If only the minor roads in rural Australia were as good.

After getting the hang of this “stay right, stay right” driving, and now talking to each other again, we felt confident that we could leave the highway in search of breakfast. As tacky as it might sound the neon of The Waffle House also had our names all over it with the bonus of being on the correct side of the highway and a car park bursting at the seams. That had to be a good sign.

Imagine our surprise as we opened the door of the diner to be greeted by a chorus of

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Carb loading at The Waffle House

“Hi y’all”. We quickly glanced behind us to see who had followed us in. No, the greeting was for us and obviously we were nearing the South.

It was an unspectacular breakfast but fuelled us for the rest of the journey to Chapel Hill. By this stage we had been driving for about three hours and had another five hours to go. Did I mention my husband was a JT fan?

Staying on the highways – and avoiding arguments with the GPS lady – we zipped through the early-Spring countryside. All around us the paddocks were dark and moist with the trees only hinting at greenery.

After eight hours on the road we slowed, took the highway off-ramp and rolled into Chapel Hill. My husband was on the edge of his seat as if there was a chance JT would be strolling the footpaths or perhaps putting out his garbage bin. The GPS lady counted down the distance and, at last, the official James Taylor Museum appeared.

To be honest it was a rather non-descript building with a very empty carpark. I couldn’t help myself – I started to giggle. The gardens were overgrown and random litter blew around the ground. Yes, it was closed. The JT fan leapt from the car, in disbelief that he could be so cruelly tricked. The doors were chained closed, the windows grimy and the rooms empty. Not only was the museum closed, it had been closed for a very long time.

Still not wanting to face reality, we drove in search of a Tourist Information Centre (also closed) or an alternate JT museum (non-existent). Instead we found a Chapel Hill resident who thought the museum had closed three years ago, and yet its website was alive and well.

Undeterred the JT fan knew that Chapel Hill had also named a bridge after their favourite son and our pilgrimage continued.

I couldn’t help but feel l a little silly taking a photo of my husband in front of a fairly stock standard, concrete bridge. We attracted the attention of a car load of locals who cheered us266 when I told them we had travelled all the way from Australia and driven eight hours to see a bridge! Maybe they were cheering our dedication but more likely our ridiculousness.

And Greenville SC was still another four hours drive away…

 

March 2013