Thursday, 28 May 2009

Welcome To The Real World

We had a last look at Leon and a picnic lunch in El Retiro gardens,Madrid. Then a quick belt across Spain in the Renfe Avant, the Spanish equivalent of the TGV to Barcelona, the city of Miro and Gaudi and Picasso. Barcelona is a lesson to the world in what modernism may have produced if it hadn`t sold out to commerce and utility. Everywhere there are inventive, wonderful buildings as useful as they are beautiful. Late in the evening we saw The Palau de la Música Catalana, and while we were still closing our jaws we were robbed.

Barcelona is famous for two things above all else; architecture and thievery, which are both done with intelligence and panache. We had done everything right: valuables back at the hotel, essential stuff next to the body, not much money on us. A young man hailed us and asked for directions. Being used to the cameraderie of the Camino I stood with him while he spread his map on a wall. Suddenly two guys in leather jackets approached and produced police identification. They searched the young guy then demanded to know why we were talking to him. Were we buying drugs? Were we illegally exchanging money? Could we please produce our passports and turn out our pockets? Passports and pocket contents were examined. They nodded, apologised, shook our hands and advised us to go back to the hotel as this was a dangerous neighbourhood. We did, only to find that my wallet had been emptied of cash - about 100 euro. We had been well and truly rumbled by a gang of three, who were onto a good little earner for 10 minutes work. At least they left me my credit cards. We would have been well and truly stuffed without them.

We left this morning on a painfully slow train through the sleazy industrial parts of Barcelona. At Montpellier we caught the train for here, the leafy city of Lyon where we will beware of young men bearing police identification until we can land safe and sound at Taize tomorrow afternoon.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Unfinished Business

Last night there was the usual late afternoon thunderstorm. We watched it in a tiny rural bar where we were served a last Camino meal of tuna and salad. Then this morning we rose and began to walk before dawn, across rolling hill country in a softly breaking light. The countryside was beautiful; soft like the light and rolling to the horizon. It was a modest 25 km to the provincial town of Sahagun where we ended our camino for this year and caught the train to Leon.

I must now take back my assessment of Burgos cathedral. Leon cathedral is a miracle. I didn't even bother trying to photograph it. The makers of pastcards couldn´t capture it, so why should I even try with a little Canon Powershot? It is all light and air and colour trapped in a tracery of stone. It is a gobsmacking, flabbergasting miracle, set in the middle of this elegant charming city. Tomorrow we will go to Barcelona by way of Madrid and from there to Taize, where I hope to pray and think through all this walk has meant. I haven´t communicated a hundedth part of it on this blog..

I wish with all my heart we were not breaking the Camino. When we planned this trip I was still ill and we thought a fortnight was all we should risk on it, but today I was as fit and well and strong as I have been in 30 years. My nice new tramping trousers will have to be given away because they would now go around me twice. Walk another 400 km? Yes please! But I can see some wisdom beyond ours in doing this great task in two bites.

This walk can be thought of in three parts. The first third tries the body. The second third, with it´s long straights and unrelenting heat tries the mind. The third part tests and refines the soul. I think I need just a little more time before I embark on the last third. This trip has been, unexpectedly, a trip back into my Christian heritage. Through Italy, France and Spain we have attended worship in Roman Catholic churches. We have taken mass and attended evening prayer and prayed with other pilgrims who have been, without exception, Catholic: we have been presented with the power and strength of Catholicism. In Switzerland we were presented with the Reformation and with modern Protestantism. I think I need to be in England to reacquaint myself with the Anglican heritage which has nurtured me for the past 40 or so years, and then I need to complete the last 400 km. Until then I will wear the shell because I am still a peregrino: one wandering to a destination and living on the mercy of God. Ultreya!

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Old Stuff

Today was pretty dull. We trudged 17km in a straight line down a flat gravel road, between fields of unrelenting flatness which stretched to the horizon in every direction. The content of the fields changed: wheat, peas, maize, barley, but that´s all. A change of the shade of green every 10 minutes or so, and coarse gravel underfoot. We will stop here tonight, our last night in an albergue, and early tomorrow walk the 20km to Sahagun and catch a train for Madrid

Last night we went to a mass and a pilgrim´s blessing in Iglesia Santa Maria, an eleventh century church with bits and pieces from other centuries added on. It was highly decorated, as Spanish churches are, with a thirteenth century madonna and child parked in one corner. The madonna was a lovely little statue, very well executed and superbly preserved, just sitting there on a plinth with nothing much to protect it despite the fact that it would be enormously valuable. The Spanish seem very blase about their old things, but then again, if we Kiwis were surrounded by these things in the way that they are, perhaps we would be blase too.

I think that there are two things which affect the sense of the value of old things. Firstly, there is the sheer number of them. The most unlikely looking little places will have inside their churches enormous gilded altar pieces, or bits of ancient statuary, or perhaps a painting by Goya. And the villages themselves will have a row of terrace houses, some of which are brand new, joined to others that are five hundred years old and in ruins. A new house will have a three hundred year old barn out the back, and in one place we saw a thousand year old monastary being used as storage space by local farmers.

Secondly there is a timescale which is scarcely comprehensible to us antipodeans. Near Najera we passed an archaeological dig where they are extracting some of the earliest human remains found in Europe. Apparently, when our ancestors thought the rift valley was becoming a bit crowded they headed North, and when they got to Europe hung a left and ended up in Spain and settled there while property prices were still low. There have, in other words, been recognisably human animals in Spain for about a million years. We have passed dolmens left from when our species began making things out of a sense of mystery and meaning. I guess when you live amongst that, the need to preserve a pretty mediocre old house purely because it is old becomes less pressing.

But perhaps there is another reason as well. All around the place are ruined abbeys and castles and houses. They are mute reminders that nothing lasts: neither the castle, nor the king who built it nor the kingdom he ruled over. So why fight the inevitable? Let the ancient ruins gracefully return to the soil from whence they came, as we, and all that we build shall do one day.


There was a thunderstorm last night and it was pelting with rain when we set out at 7:00 this morning for one of the dullest days of the Caminino. The path was beside a canal for a couple of hours and a road for the rest of the day on a flat straight walk of about 35km to Carrion de Los Condes, a medium sized provincial town. The province of Palencia through which we are now walking has some money, and public facilities, including the camino, are maintained well. Their idea of upgrading the camino was to ask a traffic engineer to do it. The result is a long straight, level path which moves people as efficiently as possible but has no soul whatsoever. Not that I am disappointed. One of the points of the Camino is that it progresses through all sorts of places: beautiful and ugly, urban and rural, ancient and modern. Just like the rest of life. Clemency's legs are pretty much healed, by the way, a tribute to the knowledge and skill of pharmacists.

We leave the Camino on Monday evening, in just a couple of days. We won't make it to Leon but by then we will have walked 400km, which is half of The Way of St. James. We hope to return to walk the rest of it in the Northern Hemisphere autumn of 2011, but we'll see. This song of Brooke Frasers has been haunting me a bit lately. Listen to the words and you'll understand why:

If to distant lands I scatter
If I sail to farthest seas
Would you find and firm and gather 'til I only dwell in Thee?
If I flee from greenest pastures
Would you leave to look for me?
Forfeit glory to come after
'Til I only dwell in Thee

If my heart has one ambition
If my soul one goal to seek
This my solitary vision 'til I only dwell in Thee
That I only dwell in Thee
'Til I only dwell in Thee

Scattering oneself to distant lands isn't something new, and lands don't come any more distant than this one. Dig a hole in my back yard straight down and deep enough and this is where you'll end up. Spain. Tarshish, as it was once called. Jonah, an old friend and companion, fled to Tarshish to escape the Lord. Paul the apostle thought that if he made it to Tarshish his life would be complete. Tarshish is the end of the world: the bit you get to before you fall off the edge. And here I am walking across it. Trouble is, am I being Paul or Jonah? Finding a completion of something or escaping from the place where the Spirit's work really has to be found and worked out? Or both?

This holy track has a presence, in the same way that some holy buildings have a presence. Wonderful things happen on this trail every day of the week, and the energy of the track is bright and positive and life giving. It is such a buzz being on it that people return again and again, and while I can understand that, getting addicted to the Camino Santiago isn't the point. The point is what that 20 something kid Brooke Fraser keeps trying to point out to me: to walk not away but towards God and in the lessons of el camino, learn to live more wholly for him. To refine and sharpen myself with every step

'til I only dwell in thee.

Saturday, 23 May 2009


Burgos Cathedral is the most beautiful ecclesiatical building I have ever seen. Mind you, my experience is not all that vast, but it does include, now, Notre Dame and St. Mark's Venice. The Burgos albergue is another matter. We couldn´t sleep, what with the young Italian cyclists swaggering about in their lycra and the Germans uproariously congratulating each other on discovering Navarrean wine. Clemency had an added problem: a rash on her legs was getting steadily worse. One of the Italians suggested ice, so she set off to find some. Asking the hospitalero and showing him why elicited great interest. A crowd gathered. A nurse. An interpreter. Several people with strong opinions. After much Mama Mia! and Ai Carramba! we were told she had to visit the hospital in the morning. OK. 7 am a taxi was called and off we set, but not before I washed my glasses and had the frame fall in half in my hand. The taxi dumped us at a large modern building which housed some sort of city clinic and we waited the 50 minutes until it opened in company with Burgos' halt lame and sick, at least the poor halt lame and sick. 10 minutes after the advertised opening time the electronic door opened and we entered to find a row of unsmiling women in white coats seated behind glass partitions. We went to the first who wasn´t remotely interested in Clemency´s legs, Clemency, the fat that we were pilgrims or the fact that we came from New Zealand. She wanted our insurance policy details. I gave them to her, but they weren´t acceptable. We would have to pay in advance for a consultation and then claim the money back. I pulled out my wallet, but that wasn´t the way things were done. She gave us a form, in Spanish of course, and told us to go into the city, deposit 72 euro at a certain bank, and then come back. At this point we both simultaneously began to internally form sentences which included the words ´"bugger", and "this" and the phrase "for a row of".

It was one of those times when I felt utterly powerless and helpless in the face of a vast and intractable machine.

We left and caught a bus towards what we hoped was the city centre and wondered what we might do next. We wandered aimlessly a bit in circles and then though coffee might help and went into a bar. Whereupon we were visited by an angel. A Californian angel with long blonde hair. We had met her a few albergues back and, like everyone else on the camino, thought we would probably never see her again. She breezed into the room like a comet with a trail of light behind her. "Hey you guys, I was on my balcony and saw you. What are you doing here?" We told her. We showed her the legs. She asked why I wasn't wearing my glasses. She went back to her hotel and, in her perfect Spanish, asked the guy at the desk about pharmacies and opticians. She led us to a pharmacia and entered an intense conversation with the pharmacist and Clemency, and we emerged with some remarkably inexpensive cream to combat the probable cause: an allergic reaction to Clemency's hiking trousers exacerbated by the extreme heat. She led us to an optician who looked at my specs and said she could fix them and they would be ready in 30 minutes.

In the time until the glasses were ready we retired to a bar and ordered coffee. Then there followed an extraordinary conversation which arose from questions about why she was in Burgos and what had been happening for her. There was an important life issue for her which had reached a point of decision. This day wasn't about us and our small needs it was about her and a potentially life changing decision she had to make then and there. An angel is one sent and we had been sent, to act as parents and pastors and listeners for half an hour. We left after 45 minutes knowing we had been part of some great scheme of God´s that centred on this young woman. I don't know how it worked out for her but I know what I hope for.

The ointment is working. Yesterday we walked across the Meseta to a magnificent pilgrim village, Hornillos del Camino, which, apart from the power lines and the occasional car, looks exactly as it would have done in the 15th Century. Behind the village is a monastery which would have been ancient when the village was built. A series of small monks' cells clusters around a ruined church and refectory. The whole complex is what? 1,000, 1,200 years old? and yet it is all used by local farmers as storage space and barns and patched up with a mix of odd modern materials to keep it functional.

Today, further across the meseta we are in a grotty little rural town which swelters under the unrelenting ink blue sky. The shadows are small and hard edged. Everything is dusty. The storks nest untidily in the towers. The place is closed for siesta. I'm not sure why we're here. That's the thing about being sent.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Losing Weight

Today was our most ambitious day. We leave the Camino next Tuesday and we have decided that Leon would be a good place to have reached by then. To make it we will need to walk a bit more than 30km a day. So today we set off from Villefranca with the goal of sleeping tonight at Burgos, 40 km away. We left before sunrise and walked uphill through the mist to a ridge which we followed for a couple of hours. Apart from the busy highway just outside the door at Villefranca (5 eighteen wheelers went past as we tried to cross the small, narrow 2 lane road at 5:50 am!)the track was quiet: a deserted logging road through oak and pine forest. We passed ancient villages with no sealed access, climbed to about 1,000 metres and then descended into the outskirts of the city of Burgos down a track strewn with marble boulders. It was foggy all the way until we began to descend and then the sun was merciless for the long approach to the city limits, pas the airport and then the 2 hour slog through the dreary industrial parts of Burgos. Litter. Graffiti. A highway with more 18 wheelers. Just inside the city we were joined by Petite Jambes: a little nuggety Frenchman whose nickname arises from his comments about the length of leg of New Zealanders. His wife has badly blistered feet and had bussed to Burgos, but he was walking, and very fast. We followed him in and were at the albergue soon after 1:30.

This is the newest albergue we have stayed in. We are on the sixth floor. There are lifts, and washing machines and new beds. There are electric doors and everything is solid and well made and only about 6 months old. It is absolutely awful. Like sleeping in a factory. Like sleeping in a medium security prison. Give me mats on the floor at Granon any day.

We arrived today with lighter packs than when we started. The Camino is not like tramping in New Zealand. Back home, you take a decent sleeping bag and something to cook with; possibly a tent, and certainly protection against any weather possibilities. You walk a track for a few days and cover maybe 40 or 50 km of soft earth tracks througha variety of terrains. Here you get up at dawn and walk until the sun makes it difficult over hard tracks and often go hours without shade. There is only one rule about packs: make them as light as you possibly can. Every gramme counts as the thing bounces on your back day after day. The recommended weight is 10kg or less. I began with 15. So now I have learned one of the great lessons of the Camino, and indeed, one of the great lessons of life. If it isn't absolutely necessary for your survival ditch it. Give it to another pilgrim. Throw it away. Whatever, just so long as it´s not on your back tomorrow. So, a nice set of camping pots have gone west. Two T shirts and one polyprop. We left our super duper self inflating mattresses at Granon where someone will probably use them. I threw away my journal and a book, and I´m still too heavy. I look at the statues and paintings of the old time pilgrims with a cloak, a staff and a gourd of wine and I envy them. One of the topics of conversation as we walk is what we will bring when we return in 2011 to walk from Leon to Santiago... and, I guess, what we will own for the rest of the time. What we need for survival: nothing less but absolutely, nothing more.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


From Najera we walked across La Rioja towards Granon and the albergue built into a church that had been recommended to us by Kay and Graeme Young. It was a longish day, about 30 km but the countryside was level and the track good. We were not in Basque country anymore, but in Spain proper, and the towns began to look...well... more Spanish. So did the sky. That is, unrelentingly blue and clear above fields of startling colour. As someone we met observed, this is sacramental country: grains and vineyards. At a town whose name I forget we paused to look at the roosters caged in the church. There is a legend about the delivery of some children and some roosters and in commemoration two magnificent white leghorns are permanently ensconced in their own gilded and highly decorated cage just near the entrance of the nave. They crowed as we entered, apparently a sign of a good camino. Somewhere just after the roosters my knee began to hurt.

Blisters are a nuisance and if they are treated properly shouldn´t slow you down much. This was different. A sharp pain inside my knee whenever my foot hit a certain angle on the way uphill: the sort of pain which could mean camino by bus. I walked for a few kms trying hard to remember the advice on posture and walking that had been given by many people over the past few months, and by experimenting a bit, managed to minimise the occurences and their severity. Walking patterns, like all the manifestations of our personality are the cumulative end product of many choices and attitudes long forgotten. Changing them is not easy. It involves first of all, being aware of how we walk now, and then being aware of how we could do it differently. In other words, we need to unlearn lessons we had all finished and done with when we were about 3 years old. The motive to change is pain. Pain - physical, emotional, spiritual, psychological - is usually a sign that we are doing something wrong. It is a sign that there is something that we (note, we, not other people) need to change about our habitual ways of being. And here, under a blazing Spanish sky, was this little pain, a gift of God, helping me to set right a long established problem.

We made it to Granon. The albergue was all that Kay had told us it would be. We slept on mats on the floor, marae style, and ate together at huge long tables. There was wine: the ordinary glorious Spanish wine which they keep for themselves before shipping off the other stuff to New Zealand. There was table companionship of the highest order. We sat with an an Englishman and his Israeli partner who were disciples of Eckhart Tolle and with a Korean who was a fairly advanced practitioner of Mindfulness meditation. We all helped clear and wash and then a few of us went into the church and into the choir, which sits high above the back of the nave. There are stalls where people have sat to sing the praises of God for five hundred years. There was an enormous music stand, dating from the days when books were too expensive for every chorister to have one. We sat around it, in candlelight, one of us in every stall and sang some Taize songs and prayed. A candle was passed from person to person and each holder of the flame said a brief prayer. Spanish, French, German, Italian and three voices in English. There was no translation because none was necessary: ...because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each......

In the morning it was cloudy and cool. There was a breakfast of the usual rolls, jam and coffee and the community of the night before dissolved forever. Across an astonishingly wide language barrier the Korean had sympathised with my problem of trying to meditate lying down, and taught me a way of practicing mindfulness as I walked. So I tried a new way of walking and a new way of being. The cloud melted away and the sun blazed down. Another 30 km to this village, Villafranca, with not many problems. The pain had begun its healing work.

Monday, 18 May 2009


Logrono is a bit bigger than Dunedin and takes a bit of walking out of. It has, like many of the towns we have seen, an ancient heart but it is a big bustling, modern rural town. Last night we went to mass in one of the four huge churches near the albergue. There was one of those immense, gilded,four storied Spanish altar pieces containing statues of the saints, including John the Baptist with his head under his arm, and side altars containing statuary of varying age and quality. The service was, of course entirely in Spanish with congregational responses led by a mezzo soprano with a stunningly clear bell like voice. I am enough used to the Spanish Catholic service to know when we are praying, or confessing or saying the creed and do my own bits in English. As the mass ended people began to file into the church. There was a choral concert about to take place and by sitting where we were we were able to listen. I don´t know whether the choir was a local one, or a visiting one, or an important one, but they were superb. The pieces were all by Spanish conductors I had never heard of, except for a piece by Handel. The acoustics in the church were extremely good, the conductor, a woman in her early forties, moved with such grace and expressiveness, and the choir all swayed and bounced as they moved with the music. Wonderful. Pure gift.

So this morning it was back to the programme. Up at six, and away by six thirty for the long trudge out of the city. The route took us past a lake and woodland and then up and down increasingly rugged country until we got to this rough and tumble, business like little town set on a river whose banks are lined with grandfathers teaching their grandsons to fish. It has been a hot day, but a good one, and we are getting fitter. 30 km now fits easily into the bit before lunch, and tomorrow we'll see if we can extend it a bit.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Something to walk on

We got away a bit earlier today because there was further to walk: about 30km to the city of Logrono. We made it just after 1, with a walking time of around 6 hours. I think we're getting fitter and the blisters, though still present aren't much of a hindrance anymore. We are moving out of Navarre and the scenery is changing. It looks and feels a lot like Central Otago with rocky outcrops and a certain clarity about the light which is hard to describe but anyone familiar with Central will know what I'm talking about. The path wound up and down a bit but nothing to get too excited about and the last 10km through the less scenic part of Lorgrono lying in all its splendour under the hot Spanish sun with a bit of a drudge.

All the way we were guided, as we have been every day by the little yellow arrows. The track is wide and well worn but sometimes it joins a road for a while and sometimes there is some ambiguity about which way next. At this point there will always be a yellow arrow. Sometimes they are flash store brought ones neatly embossed on plastic and attached to a fence. Sometimes there is a purpose built cairn or pillar. Sometimes there will be a cast bronze shell artistically attached to a wall instead. Sometimes it is a stylised yellow shell on a blue background. Sometimes it is a roughly painted arrow on a lamp post or a drainpipe. But it will always be there, the little signature of the Holy Spirit guiding us through the decisions of the Camino if only we take the time to stop and look. Sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle, but always there. In this way we are guided, without a word across Spain, in the footsteps of countless others who have trod this way for centuries.

Mostly the path is just that: a path; gravel underfoot or hard beaten clay or soft mud, winding its way around fields, through vineyards or forests, up and down hillsides. It always seems to find villages and makes its way past the village shop, tavern and church. For short sections it uses public roads, but only because the road has been built on the top of the path. The path was there earlier. Much, much earlier. It is a comparitively easy path. It's wide and the surface is usually good, maintained by local Camino societies, and it is sometimes easy to see when you are passing from one jurisdiction to another. On the most challenging day it climbed about 4,000 ft in less than three hours walking time, but mostly the rise and fall over the course of a day is a few hundred feet. Days average 20-30 km which sounds daunting but is perfectly manageable: one step at a time, one foot after another. Just like the rest of life.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A place to sleep

Today was a long gallop over rolling farm country from last night´s stop in Estella to this place, Los Arcos. Estella seemed at first glance to be yet another rural village, but that was an illusion. We approached the town through the old medieval bit which comprised the usual few narrow streets of ancient buildings, but stuck onto the side of the old town was a small modern city about the size of Invercargill or New Plymouth. Walk a block and move 5 centuries. We walked through to the city square, dominated by a large church and surrounded, like Piazza San Marco in Venice, by a cloister. It was 4:30 and the place was all locked down for the siesta except for a cafe which supplied us with cafe con leche grande - a sort of latteish capuccinoish concoction which is sort of OK. We sat in the late afternoon sun and peace until the bells rang at 5:00 and suddenly the whole town burst into life. Doors opened, children tumbled into the streets, lights went on in shops, noise started from everywhere. It was as though the prince had just kissed sleeping beauty. Then back to the Albergue to cook dinner and sleep.

Accomodation for the Camino runs on several levels. At the most basic level are refugios, which are just shelters. These are not common anymore, but there are still a few to be found. They are free or very close to it and give you a roof and often not much more. Next step up the ladder are albergues. These are basic hostels and are found in practically every village. They offer beds in bunkrooms of various sizes ( our smallest bunkroom so far has had 4 beds. Our largest, 125. They offer showers, toilets and sometimes but not always cooking facilities. Most have a coin in the slot internet point. They are run as charities by various camino societies or by religious groups, and the nightly tariff is pretty minimal, usually around 5 euros give or take a euro or two. All of ours have been clean and well maintained and the price sometimes includes a very basic breakfast. Mind you, the Spanish seem to be even worse at breakfast than the italians, so those of us used to a British or American style breakfast are in for a bit of a shock. One of ours was run by the Order of St. John which was founded in the 12th century specifically to give hospitality to pilgrims so they worked pretty hard to make us welcome and to look after us. There are privately run albergues, which are often attached to bars or restaurants, which offer slightly better facilities (smaller rooms) for a slightly higher fee. Next step up are hostels and hotels which run the gamut all the way up from 30 a euro a night bed and breakfast to luxury places costing the usual arm and leg. Birds of a fether and all that, you find people tend to seek out the same sort of accommodation night after night, so you tend to see the same faces at each stop.

At each stopping place your credential is stamped. The credential is just a folded card with your name on it and a large space for stamps. Each albergue or shelter or hostel has its own individualised stamp and some of them are very pretty indeed. Many of he religious sites along the way also stamp your credential. The stamps are dated and at the end of the camino your credential will be inspected, and dates examined to make sure you haven´t cheated on the journey.

This albergue is in Los Arcos, a rough and ready working rural town with a sort of Taihape air about it. Except that in Taihape they don´t play hymns from the loudspeakers in the church tower to call the people in from the fields for siesta. Not that I´ve heard of, anyway.


There is a rhythm to life now. Rise at six, pack, make tea, start walking at 7 through achingly beautiful countryside. At one of the villages buy bread and something to eat with it. Breakfast, generally around 8 or 9. Walk on. Lunch around the middle of the day similar to breakfast. Visit any church that is open. Take a few pictures. About 2:00, after walking 20-25 km arrive at the Albergue. Queue, get the credential stamped. find a bunk, shower, do the laundry, write the blog. Look at the town and then find something to eat for dinner. Sleep. Start all over again.

The trail has now been joined by another pilgrimage route and the number of people has about doubled. There is a steady stream of people winding their way over the Spanish landscape, as they have been doing since before the time of Christ, all heading for Santiago. There is a set of legends which explain why we are all joining this ancient stream but they are just a rationalisation: a way to explain the scallop shells and staves. The real reason we are all walking runs far deeper, and it is different for everybody. I could say that it is about hearing the call of God and expressing that, but that explanation really says nothing. The great primeval call to pilgrimage is described to ourselves far more personally. For me, I suppose it is about remaking myself after all the eath moving drama of last year. For each of the thousands of others there is something else. I am told tyhat later in the year there will be large groups of French for whom it is a cheap holiday. There will also be Spaniards who, having seen the pilgrims for years and thought about it, are far more articulate about the religious reasons for pilgrimage. But now, there are mostly people, alone, and a few couples and a very few groups of three or four. There are people from every imaginable country, and a Babel of languages. During the day we talk freely - as far as language differences allow - as we catch up with and pass each other or as we stop for lunch. Everything is very immediate. Communities form and disolve many times during the course of the day. We welcome each other´s presence but everyone, even those who came with someone else, is on a pilgrimage alone, and that is understood and respected. There are people moving at about our rate with whom we have become quite good friends. There are shared meals in albergue dining rooms, and over the days reserve drops and people share more deeply the reasons they have taken this strange way of spending a month. Knowing and being known - the basis of all relationships. We share food and become companions - the word means literally those who are together over bread. I am intrigued that few of the people we have met are expressly Christian but that almost all of them are on the camino as some sort of spiritual discovery. I see this as yet another piece of evidence of the abject failure of the church to express itself properly: a failure to allow the deep rich treasures we have to be seen and used by those who so desperately need them.

So the day's pattern is running its course. Time now to walk through yet another beautiful Basque village with its ancient church and roman ruins and strong, good willed people before seeking companions and breaking bread together.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Puente La Reina

The blister stuff worked, mostly. We were able to walk the 20 km to this village with comparative ease. We even managed a 5km detour to look at a beautiful old Celtic church. The journey climbed a few hundred feet, but it was nothing to a couple of seasoned Pyrenees crossers such as ourselves. For most of the day we have been walking through fields of new wheat and rye. The countryside is breathtaking: a constant reminder that we New Zealanders don't have a monopoly on beautiful andscapes. There are eagles and hawks in the air. The hawks are hunting, I think, the clouds of swifts which nest under the eaves of many houses. I am told there are vultures, and as we got nearer Punta La Reina we bagan to see storks, nesting untidily on any tall point they could find.

Puente La Reina is named after it's famous old bridge. For many centuries this old stone marvel has been helpfully keeping people out of the water. There is a modern bridge half a mile away from it which is used by traffic and also by the visitors, from which to take photos of the old bridge.

We got here at 2:00 to find the town shut down for the eminently sensible phenomenon of siesta. It´s 6 now and the place is starting to open up again. The shops are all open and the restaurants and bars just starting to prepare for the busy evening ahead. And I have to find somewhere or something to eat. Buenos Noches.

Cizur Menor

Larrasoana is a decidedly wierd place. It is a faux medieval village being built around the remains of a real medieval village. Large houses in a centuries old Spanish style are popping up everywhere, but no-one seems to live in them. They are holiday homes or sleeping places for people who live and work in nearby Pamplona. Walk down the picture perfect main street and there is one thing missing: people. No kids, no noise, no washing on lines, no smells in the air. The comfortable little Albergue was wierd too: signs up everywhere telling us what was forbidden. Very welcoming.

It was good to get out at 7 and begin a very easy day´s walk. For an hour and a half the path wound through famland and forests until we struck the first village which had been swallowed up by Pamplona and was now a suburb. From then on, the whole day was spent walking through this lovely city. Spain looks propsperous. There are cranes everywhere, and expensive looking restoration is taking place on many ancient buildings. The streets are clean, graffiti free and well maintained. Cars and buses are modern and the facilities all quite high tech: nifty little signs to tell you how many seconds until the lights turn green for example. There is the ancient city of Pamplona with a great thick city wall and narrow streets where idiots get chased by bulls on one festival a year and chuck truckloads of tomatoes at each other on another. Surrounding it is a modern, spacious, airy university city of 200,000. It would have been a pleasant urban stroll except for the blisters.

My heel and Clemency's underfoot were demanding attention by 11:00. We changed into sandals which helped, but there was still 5 km to walk to the next planned stopping point of Cizur Menor. We could have stayed in the very good Albergue in Pamplona but chose to stick with the programme, and it's a blessing that we did. The first Albergue in the village (or now, of course, suburb) of Cizur Menor is the one run by the Order of St. John of Malta. These are people who have the Ambulances in New Zealand the people in the berets who patch up kids at rugby games. So, the clean, homely little Albergue was run, this week, by a lovely woman called Gabriella. She gave us a bed, stamped our credentials and then started tut tutting about our blisters. She fixed them up, dressed them and gave us ointment and dressings for the days ahead. She spoke not a word of English, but in the way that happens in these places, told us that she has walked the Camino 4 times herself, including once with her ten year old and twelve year old sons in tow. She had prepared fresh coffee, cookies and a large bowl of pasta for arriving pilgrims. The fridge was full of food, which was free to use on the basis of koha: take what you need and then leave some money in a bowl in order to buy things for tomorrow´s pilgrims.

There were 27 of us staying: a housefull. 13 of us sat down to dinner together while the rest went out to local restaurants. With the food in the fridge, the superb culinary skills of one young man and contributions from people's packs a full meal was soon produced. There were Germans, a Norwegian, a Swiss, French, an Israeli an American, Hungarians and two Kiwis. We didn´t have a single language in common, but people translated for each other around the table, and a most wonderful conversation developed over the next couple of hours. I can´t for the life of me remember much of what it was about - travel, blisters, packs, boots, wine, music, religion, tai chi, movement, life, the universe, everything - but it was one of those evenings I will remember for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009


Roncesvalles has, so I am told, 18 permanent residents, so it does pretty well to maintain the beautiful and very large bascilica at which we attended mass last night. The church was full and the service was all in Spanish. At the end the priest called the pilgrims forward - 40 or 50 of us - and gave us a blessing in all the appropriate languages, including Korean - quite an achievement. Then we went to the restaurant run by residents no 11 and 12 and, for 9 euros each, bought the pilgrim's meal. Many restaurants on the Camino do this. They offer a set menu at a cheap price but you don't know until the plate is plonked down before you what you're going to get. Given my dietary strictures, we were a bit apprehensive, but had resolved to eat whatever it was that was set before us. We were, after all, ravenous after the trek over the Pyrenees. As it turns out, that St. Christopher's badge seems to be working pretty well. There was a bean soup - about 50/50 beans and water, and quite tasty and enough for 3 helpings. Then, a whole trout each with chips. Then some very pleasant sugar free yoghurt, and all washed down with a bottle of cheap and cheerful Spanish red.

We had been warned about the Alberge at Roncesvalles but in fact it was a very pleasant stay. A little like sleeping in a giant marae, both in style and feeling. The building is an enormous gothic stone structure, probably about as tall inside as St. John's Roslyn and somewhat bigger in other dimensions. Snoring wasn't too bad, although I was aware of the effect of all those beans on the people around us. We were woken at 6 by one of the monks singing some Gregorian chant, packed and set off, again, at 7:10

Today's walk couldn't have been any more different from yesterday's. We walked 27 km through gently rolling farmland and forests. Up a little, down a little, but, like the economy, trending downwards. It was a clear still sunny day and the route took us through a different charming little village about every half hour or so. We stopped at one to buy some very good coffee, and a late breakfast of bread and fruit. At lunchtime we passed the industrial town of Zubiri and bought baguettes, tomatoes, cheese and apples. Every village has a water trough fed by clear, sweet spring water so maintaining a diet that Ian Gawler wouldn't snort at has been not so difficult. The last stage of any journey always seems to be the worst, and the 5km into Larrasoana was long because we were never sure whether or not it was just around the next corner.Problems today were about sunburn and the beginning of the inevitable blisters, but both are being managed so far.

In Paris I had a haircut: a very drastic haircut from a barber who spoke as much English as I did French. I wanted it short for the Camino, but probably not quite that short: about as long all over as my beard. But as it turns out,the barber's misunderstanding was providential. It's cool and very easy to maintain.The other small innovation I made today was to buy a stick. After a steep descent through a piece of land that hadn't decided whether it wanted to be a track or a riverbed but was at that moment rather leaning towards the riverbed option, I picked up a pilgrims staff at the next village. It does help on the slippery bits and makes me feel very authentic.

We're here now.Obviously.We turned a corner on the forest path, crossed a very old stone bridge and here was yet another ancient, picturebook village with a small village square and a drinking fountain above a water trough. There are two bunkrooms of about 25 beds each, clean showers and toilets, a courtyard outside for washing clothes, all of which we hae used, and clean bunks which we have not.

Monday, 11 May 2009


The bed in the hall was a great success. It was a little sort of alcove thing really and it meant we had a private room of sorts. No snoring except Clemency´s and she is very fortunate thatI don´t, no not ever, not even a little bit.

We got up at six and there was breakfast provided: instant coffee in bowls and white bread rolls with jam. We had some muesli of our own and got underway at about 7:10 am in rain which was pouring, persisting down. In fact it was fairly swishing down We climbed steadily out of town and uphill, past small farms and sheep wearing cowbells. Well, I guess they´d actually be sheep bells. The land was forested in parts and as we rose higher the views back over France with the bright green trees and the fog in the valleys were breathtaking. Nearly as breathtaking as the wind we encountered as we got even higher: cold steady wind with squalls of rain and in some places, deep mud underfoot. We had raisins and almonds and about 11:00 we stopped to eat half the lunch we had brought. At 12:30 we had the rest and what with the cold and the wind and the tiredness in the legs it was getting pretty difficult putting one foot in front of the other. And you know the tricks that mountains play. You are on the highest hill you can see, and at the top of it, only half a mile away, you know it can´t get any higher. But it does. And it plays the same joke, successfully, all morning long.

Pilgrimage is like life. That´s the point, really. Just at the stage when reserves were running out, the path leveled and turned down. And an eagle soared overhead: a Golden Eagle, the sign of St. John. I thought of home, where at that moment people of our St. John´s parish were getting ready for bed after another Sunday. Of course it was just a coincidence; eagles are common hereabouts, but to me it was a voice calling "Ultreya: press on, be encouraged." There is nothing so encouraging as a long downhill after a morning´s climbing. We passed into Spain at some unmarked stage, and made it to Roncesvalles at 1:50. Six hours and 40 minutes for 25 km over the Pyrenees. Not bad if I say so myself. This is a tiny town with a monastery and a collection of ancient looking buildings. We found the Auberge, got a bed and booked ourselves in for a pilgrim meal at one of the restaurants. There´s no shop here, so breakfast and lunch will have to wait for tomorrow´s fortunes. The auberge is one giant room with, I think, 125 people sleeping in one room, but it looks clean and orderly. It has showers and wakes us at 6 with Gregorian chant. At the moment we are feeling pretty chuffed. Less than a year ago I had a bag of my own urine tied to my leg and I could hardly stagger up to the Roslyn shops. Today I walked across the Pyrenees. It has been due in no small part to the encouragement of many who may be reading this. Thank you. Ultreya

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Au Revoir La Belle France

It was an early start. Nick and Charmayne needed to get to Gare De Nord and we had a train to catch at Gare Montparnasse, so we made our farewells at Chatelet where we both had to change Metro lines. We got to the station with plenty of time for a croissant and a latte, then found the train. One good thing about a Eurail pass is that you travel first class, so it was all carpets, electric recliners and smoked glass partitions as we settled in to watch France whizz past the window. Not that you see much from the TGV. The French being quite sensitive about noise and visual pollution (except of course around Mururoa) the tracks are often banked high on either side and all you see, especially near towns, is a high green slope of earth.

It rained near Orleans but as we got further south the sun came out. It was a little over 4 hours from one end of France to the other, and when we disembarked at the beautiful little city of Bayonne it was mid afternoon. Stepping out of the air conditioned train was like stepping into an oven. We were grossly overdressed and grossly overheated as we charged around looking for platform E to catch the train to St. Jean Pied de Port. We found it with a minute to spare: an odd cubic little railcar with only two carriages and definitely no smoked glass partitions. We found seats, opened a window and this time we did see France go by, although the railcar's best friends would not say that it whizzed. Clanked, rattled, chugged, bumped: yes. We wound slowly up through hills that became increasingly steep, past small sheep farms and through beech forest beside a rocky fast flowing river until an hour and twenty minutes later we arrived at St John,s at the Foot of the Pass. This town is seriously picture postcard stuff. A tiny medieval walled town in pretty much pristine condition. There are quaint buildings, a river, bridges, a dark old church and pilgrims pilgrims everywhere. We followed the crowd to the Camino office and for two Euros got our pilgrim's passports. For another 8 euros we got a bunk in a bunkroom, all clean and neat. One small problem was that my bunk was double booked, which sounds like the start of one of those stories you hear in a pub, but this is a boring pub story, sorry. Clemency and I elected for a divan bed in a corridor instead, which is a lot better than it sounds. We have been out into the village, found the most delicious Pain Rustique to form the basis of dinner, had a shower and hand washed our spare set of clothing under a tap outside. As this is our last night in France we need to decide tonight which of the three routes over the Pyrenees we will take but at the moment I am leaning towards the Route Napoleon: the route the little General used to get his soldiers over the mountains to surprise the Spanish. It's the toughest but therefore the most rewarding. That's the way the world works and that's, I guess, what pilgrimage is all about. We will cross into Spain somewhere around mid day and goodness knows where we'll spend tomorrow night, but I hope it's an auberge in Roncesvalles. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Getting About

Paris is a large city: about 2,500,000 people by all accounts, which makes it roughly twice the size of Auckland. It is of course a very different city, in every conceivable way, from Auckland but one way in particular stands out today: in Paris it is quite easy to move about. Auckland is continually glugged up by traffic, buses are rare and slow and I think they have a train system or maybe they just think they have a train system. In Paris there is plenty of traffic but having it bogged into gridlock isn't the issue. Here, dodging the speedily moving cars is the issue. Now I know that Auckland suffers from its geography - all confined into a narrow isthmus while Paris is free to spluge out in every direction, but the real difference is the public transport system.

Paris has a system that takes a while to figure out because it is so big and complicated. Thre is the inner city Metro system with its 7 lines. Then there is a completely separate suburban train system, the RER, whose big double deckers run on another 4 lines (each with a number of sub lines). Each of the Metro lines intersects with all the others at some point, and most Metro lines also make contact with the RER, so that by careful planning and by using the cunning system of automatic gates and interconnected passageways it is possible to get quickly and easily from any point in the city to any other point and for a very reasonable price. There are also buses and an intercity train system, which operate in conjunction with the city trains. Trains are clean, quiet, and belt around their underground tunnels at impossible speeds. If you must take your car, there is a sensible motorway system which encourages cars to move around, not into the city. It's taken a week to figure it all out, and I need to carry a little map with me, but it is so ingeniously French, and so humanly scaled thaqt I love it. Auckland, in comparison, has addressed the problem of its traffic clogged streets by the brilliant strategy of building even more motorways to encourage even more cars into the middle of town. Go figure.

We have also used another wonderful Parisian means of transport: the Velib. This is a system of small, rugged, simple looking, but actually very hi-tec bikes, which are kept in little racks all over the city. Pop your credit card into a slot, press a button or two, and then for a ridiculously small fee, you can pedal all over the place, leaving the bike at any of the other racks, and picking up another whenever you wish. We had a great morning in the Bois de Vincennes winding through the many forest tracks, and picnicking by one of the lakes. They are great for those journeys which look very short on the map but very long when you set out to make them, such as moving from one end of the Champs Elysees to the other, or travelling from the Louvre to le Tour Eiffel.

This is a city that many people visit. The French have successfully ensured that the tourists and the locals can get about smartly (in both senses of the word) and have kept this vast commercial, cultural and artistic centre surprisingly human in scale and feel.

Tomorrow, too soon, we leave. We have had my son Nick and his fiancee Charmayne with us for the last couple of days but tomorrow we part company: they back to London on an evening Eurostar, us, on an early morning TGV to Bayonne and the start of the Camino de Santiago. Next time I am able to get to a computer will be in Spain somewhere, but I'll try and keep you informed.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009


The collection at the Orangerie is a staggering thing to see. The museum houses the collection of a rich Parisien of exceptional taste who accumulated many of the works of the impressionists and immediate post impressionists while they were still purchaseable. All the big names in painting from the years around the turn of the 20th century are there, and there are plenty of works by each of them. It's a strange experience for a wild colonial boy to look at a whole wall of Picassos or a roomful of Renoirs. At the end of the visit though, we happened into a temporary exhibition of the work of a contemporary French painter I had never heard of, Didier Paquignon. His works are acrylic painted on board and are very brightly coloured. They are street scenes, pictures of prostitutes touting for business, and everyday arcitecture. Some of them are very large, and I was gobsmacked by them, more, I have to say than by the more famous pictures in the halls nearby. Art is primarily about seeing, and here was someone who saw as I wish to see. Continually as I looked I said to myself, "yes, of course....". There were one or two which three days later, I am still thinking about.

At the Musee D'Orsay there is a tribute to the realist painter Jean Leon Gerome. He made, towards the end of his life, a life sized bronze of two gladiators fighting. His son in law added, after his death, a bronze of Gerome working on the sculpture to make a new composition of three figures. The sculpture shows a Retiari with his foot on the throat of another gladiator. The state of their weapons tells the story of the fight and they both look in the same direction, toward the emperor who will make the call of life or death for the conquered man. The sculptor is initally hidden from view as you approach the work, but you see him as you walk around it. Gerome is looking in the opposite direction to the fighters, towards his judges; that is towards you and I who will pass the judgement of life or death on his work.The two lines of sight intersect the work like an arrow. It is a commanding piece, and one which questions the viewer, in the same way as a Shakespearian play within a play. We are looking at a sculpture of a sculptor and being invited to pass judgement. Who is looking at us, and who is passing judgement?

Also at the Musee D'Orsay, amongst the dozen of so Rodins on display is his La Pensee. This piece is a block of unworked marble, about 2X2X3 ft. From the top he has carved the beautiful face of a pensive woman. The face is perfectly finished. He is making a statement of the observation arrived at by anyone who sculpts by carving, that all the work is done by removal of material; that the perfect form lies hidden within the stone and the sculptor's job is to discern it and free it. In acknowledgement of this way of working, Michaelangelo made a whole series of statues in which the forms are seen to emerge from the unworked marble, and this is Rodin's version of the same thought. It is a work of striking beauty but also a profound philosophical statement.This is how it is for all of us. In the end, real growth comes not from a process of addition but from subtraction. We grow into wholeness not by adding stuff - more ideas, more possessions, more experiences, more places visited, more famous artworks seen - but by subtracting them. The way to the perfect self that lies within our crude marble is by unlearning not by learning. Perhaps this is why the natural cycle of our lives involves the loss of precious things as we grow older. Perhaps the hammer blows of the master are not so much bereavements to be mourned as liberations to be celebrated. This is the way of the cross


It's a weird thing to finally see something that you have been familiar with all your life and see how your imagination compares with the real thing. The Eifel Tower for instance is far bigger than I had imagined it to be; Seurat's paintings of people by the Seine far far smaller. I guess it's this touching base with the furniture we stock our minds with that led to one particularly odd observation this week.

The day before yesterday was the first Sunday of the month and entrance to the Louvre was free. We made it there 15 minutes before opening time but there were already at least a thousand people in the queue before us; by opening time there were 4 or 5 times that many in line behind us, but I guess the good folk at the Louvre are used to that and we were x-rayed vetted and admitted within 10 minutes of the door's opening. Like almost everyone else,acting on the let's get it over and done with policy, we headed straight upstairs to see the Mona Lisa. The scrum around the smirking old visage was 30 deep.She was ensconced behind bullet proof glass about 10 feet or so from the nearest observer. The museum people happily let the forest of arms holding digital cameras do their thing.There must be thousands upon thousands of pictures around of camera flash bouncing off the glass in front of the Mona Lisa. You could see more of the actual painting if you went down to the gift shop and bought a postcard, but we were all paying homage to an icon. Now here's the weird bit. 50 feet from the Mona Lisa are another 4 or 5 Leonardos. One of them, the picture of St. Mary and St. Elizabeth with the infants Jesus and John the Baptist is generally acknowledged to be a far more important work than the Mona Lisa. They have no protective glass and you can stand a metre from them, but no-one was stopping to look. People cruised past, glassily looking through the pictures as they passed. I saw several walk past holding video cameras, looking not at what was on the wall but at what was on the LCD screen.

The Louvre is vast. The crowds are easily swallowed up and once you get away from the great icons - the Venus De Milo, Winged Victory, La Gioconda and so forth - the salons are comparitively empty. We left in time to attend Mass in Notre Dame. Since then we have visited the extraordinary collections in the Orangerie and the Musee D'Orsay. These places pick up the story of art where the Louvre leaves off in the mid 19th Century. A whole gallery of Rodin and room after room of all the people you would come up with if someone bet you to name 50 great painters. The museums, like Paris itself, contain treasures at every turn, too many to mention. Some are icons to be venerated and incorporated anew into my mental landscape; but most are surprises

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


Paris.It`s big. It`s beautiful. It`s stylish and fast and varied and everything people said it would be. We arrived on the TGV on Saturday after a trip through the French countryside at about the speed a plane goes just before take off. There were the immediate problems, on arrival, of figuring out exactly where we were and how we were to get to where we should be, but people are helpful and the Metro, once you figure it out, is amazingly efficient. We have a very lovely little apartment near the Bois du Vinciennes, about 15 minutes on the Metro from the centre of Paris, and we have been walking,walking,walking. In all our perambulations I didn't find an internet cafe until now,and this one uses continental keyboards, with the keys stylishly lit navy blue on black. It looks fantastic but it's extremely difficult to use.I've checked my email, and I'll pop back later to write something a little more substantial, although I don't think I'll be posting pictures until we get to England in June.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Moving On

We're leaving Switzerland tomorrow, more's the pity. I could easily live here; it's a very beautiful country and the pace and way of life are very sensibly human.

Yesterday we caught the train to Interlaken, which is a city set in a basin between two lakes (hence the name) at the foot of the alps. From the town you can catch an alpine railway which takes you up 4,000 metres to the summit of the Jungfrau. Failing that, you can sit around looking at the Eiger, or stroll around town and buy a souvenir. Souvenir shops, like souvenir shops everywhere sell tat, but Swiss tat is of the very highest quality: Swiss army knives, diamond encrusted Rolexes and carved cuckoo clocks. We were tempted by the Jungfrau railway but didn't have the necessary 8 hours for the return trip, so took a stroll up a hillside instead, through pastures rich with wildflowers and with cows driving themselves nuts with the incessant ringing of cowbells. Heidi country. Then it was a quick ride on a double decker train to Bern.

The capital of Switzerland is a bustling commercial centre like any other capital but it has two things to recommend it: a scarcity of tourists and an enchanting old town centre. Around the ancient gothic Munster is a labyrinth of the most intriguing shops, selling truly wonderful stuff: artworks, puppets, glassware, beads, antique watches, perfume, original clothing, great coffee. One second hand shop had a 1951 Norton 500 single with a sidecar, sitting there among the old dolls houses and boxes of 1950s china. It was in great nick. My hand twitched and moved on its own accord for the Visa card, and goodness knows what might have happened had Clemency not slapped my face and brought me back to my senses.

Incidentally, there are lots of motorcycles here. I am told that Switzerland has the highest number of Harley Davidsons per head of population in the world. And if you can't have a motorcycle, a Harley Davidson is the next best thing.

Today we walked down to the next village and back, a round trip of perhaps 6km. Then this afternoon drove to Romon, a walled village about 30 km away with a beautifully perserved chateau. The countryside here is densely populated by New Zealand standards, which gives a very wonderful lifestyle. Houses are set in small villages which look and feel rural, but the communities are close enough together to network and in cooperation they provide most of the facilities of a large city: good schools, hospitals and clinics, decent shops and services. It really is the best of both worlds. I can't speak French and can't think of a way to make a living, otherwise I might just quietly slip beneath the radar and stay on here. But, at 9:02 tomorrow (and this being Switzerland, it WILL be 9:02) the TGV leaves for Paris and we will be aboard.