Armchair Walking in Spain…

Book Title: Sinning Across Spain

Author: Ailsa Piper

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

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Sinning Across Spain – front cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ailsa Piper

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

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

Pages:  288

Published: April 2012

Publisher: Melbourne University Press

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

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Never trust a smiling pilgrim…

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

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

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

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We earned it!

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

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

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

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

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

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Gym mat, anyone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

September 2013

 

The Basics Box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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

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

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

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!