Sunday, 30 September 2012

A Small Setback

 Fence, Samos
 Samos Monastery
When we arrived at the monastery of Samos we took the 3  euro tour, which was money well spent. A young woman showed us around the five storied cloister and the huge chapel with its statuary and relics and vast spaces. At the end a little monk in his Benedictine habit admired my staff, joking that it looked like a bishop´s crozier. I then showed him a photo of myself in the full rig, looking very episcopal indeed. "Oh", he said in Spanish, "you are a bishop! And you", he said, turning to Clemency, without the slightest hint of embarrassment, "you are the bishop´s amiga?" His reading of the situation was plain: some foreign bishop touring the world with his floozie. I responded quickly "¡Oh no no no! Yo soy protestante! Esta es mi esposa!" and we laughed it off, but I was very surprised at his lack of surprise. It set me thinking for the rest of the day about marriage.

Later we checked into the albergue, found a bed and had a shower. I was just undressing for mine and heard a crash and a terrible wailing. It was Clemency. The door to the showers have an unmarked step a good six to eight inches high. After dressing, she had opened the shower door and stepped out into thin air and fallen onto the hard tiled floor with all of her weight on her unprotected hip. She was in considerable pain. I and the hospitalero helped her to her bunk, but after a half hour it was obvious that she needed medical help, so an ambulance was called.

The shower in the Samos albergue. Note the definitely non OSH step.
 In another half hour the ambulance arrived from Saria and we set off. I loaded Clemency´s hastily packed bag into the front and sat beside a driver who bore an uncanny resemblance to Robbie Coltrane. Clemency was in the back with a paramedic. Neither of our companions spoke any English. After some to ing and fro ing on the radio, we took the road not for Saria but for Lugo and we made a very rapid trip of about 50km. I have never, ever moved so fast in such a large vehicle: about twice the legal limit, I´d guess from the relative speed of other motorway users. At Lugo Clemency was wheelchaired into a large, airy, light, clean, soulless modern hospital and we were parked in a waiting room with various Spaniards in a range of disabled states. No one spoke English. I was 50 km from my wallet and credit cards in a city I had not even heard of until an hour ago. I was utterly out of control of my life at that point and it was time to rely entirely on God

We were processed quickly. There were x-rays and a consultation with an intern of some sort, chosen I suspect because she knew as many words of English as I did of Spanish, ie not many. We were left alone and we had that "what if" conversation. I suspected a broken hip or at the least a crack. Clemency said she could bus to Santiago and I would walk this last 130 km on my own, and it was in that conversation that I had one of those insights that are the gift of the Path of Miracles.

I could not conceive of walking on without her; the very thought was ridiculous. We had started this track together more than three years ago, and shared all of it, walking side by side, usually in step with each other. Every glorious vista and every gut wrenching uphill slog, every broken albergue sleep and every deep conversation around a multinational table we had shared. The long walk together was a sort of metaphor for the shared journey of our marriage.There is a mystery about what binds a couple together in the first place, but in the end what really counts is not so much the ability to share joys as to face difficulties together. After almost 40 years lived in each other´s shadows we are very aware of each other´s strengths and weaknesses, but somehow I think it is our weaknesses that are the most important. Nobody knows Clemency´s failings in as much detail as I do. Nobody knows my failings in as much detail, nor bears them with such compassion and generosity as she does. And it is in dealing with each other´s failings that we are forced to deal with our own, which is probably the reason, ultimately, that God hath joined us together.  

Despite the language difficulties we were treated with great compassion and gentleness by everyone. The young intern managed to tell us that all was well, nothing was cracked or broken and that with a day or two of rest we should be able to walk to Santiago. We were put into a taxi and charged nothing for the kindest, friendliest medical service anyone could hope to receive. We made a slower trip back to Samos, and were welcomed back by the hospitalero and the other peregrinos. We will rest here today, and possibly tomorrow. Then, no matter how we actually manage it, we will go on together for the small portion of this camino that remains to us and for that portion of our larger journey that remains.
 The Chapel of the Cypress, Samos, built c. 900AD. The tree is about the same age as the chapel.
  Interior, Chapel of the Cypress

Saturday, 29 September 2012


We rose fairly late, around 7.00 and didn´t start until about 8.00 as we were intending a fairly quiet day. O Cebreiro was about 10 km away and we didn´t think we´d go much further. From our bright spacious little albergue we began to climb up through the valley, past mountain hamlets perched on the side of the hill, through farmyards.
We were following the road some of the way, but after a while branched off onto a track that I suspect was on old Roman road. The stones were large and regularly laid but 2,000 years of use had left them foot trippingly jumbled. The farms looked prosperous. For the first time since Navarre we saw cattle outside; beautiful sleek glossy cows that looked like jerseys only somewhat bigger, and with bells around their necks. It was harder than we had anticipated. The 10 km involved a 900 metre climb and most of that was during the last half. Somewhere around 11.00 we crossed into Galicia and it was midday before we wheezed our way into O Cebreiro.
The settlement at O Cebreiro is a tourist mecca. Perched on the top of a 1300 metre mountain the views are spectacular, and the little settlement has been lovingly reconstructed. The village looks like that of the indomitable Gauls in the Asterix comics. The artwork and the music seem very Celtic, and, given the name of the Xunta, I suppose there is a connection. We bought food, looked through the souvenir shops at various Camino memorabilia and tat, some of it of very high quality and most of it far too heavy for any real peregrino to be much interested in. The busloads of lightly shod turistas, however, were snapping it up. We went into the church, and my breath was sucked out of me. It is a Franciscan place, fairly modern, wide, simple and holy. Before a side altar containing the holy sacrament was a table on which were dozens of open Bibles, each in a different language. It looked great.. In many places, perhaps this one more than most, there have been object lessons in how to set up open, inviting holy spaces. We lit a candle before the madonna and spoke to the friar at the reception desk. When he learned that I was a bishop, even though a Prostestant one, he kissed my ring and asked for blessing. I left humbled.

We walked on, rising and falling through a couple of small passes and began the descent towards Triacastela. We intended to stop somewhere on the mountain, but none of the albergues we passed looked very appealing. We entered one and there was loud music and a beery fug and a set menu that seemed to contain lots of carcase parts. We walked on. And on. At 4.00 we had walked 31 km, and we entered the little town of Triacastela and found a room in the very comfortable little albergue. We wandered into the town and I bought una cervasa grande, por favor, a beer of, I´d guess, close to a litre in size. It disappeared remarkable quickly, a testament to the fact of our water pouches being empty for the last 3 or 4 hours of the walk.

We slept for 11 hours or so, and this morning set out for this place, the home of the oldest monastery in Spain. The walk was only 12 km, on a soft earth path through oak and sweet chestnut forest winding beside a shallow, slow moving river.

Every ten minutes or so we passed small farmsteads and tiny hamlets built of the local schist. There were stone walls and blackberry and wild apples. It was like walking through a Constable painting. Around midday we stood on the top of a hill and looked down on this magnificent place.
The monastery is huge and surrounded by fields, orchards and ancient stone walls. We walked down, found coffee in the adjoining village and went to the monastery door where an elderly monk invited us in to take the 3 euro tour, which we did.
So we have spent the morning gawping at the magnificent chapel and wandering the fresco clad cloisters. At 3.00 we will return and find a place in the monastery´s albergue, and tomorrow carry on to Saria.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Vega de Valcarce

Sitting in the municipal Albergue  in Ponferrada I knew I was probably in deep trouble. My achilles tendons had given me trouble before, and the healing period was measured with a calendar, not a clock. I sat at dinner with a Spanish woman and her English husband. I talked about my symptoms and she said to her husband in Spanish "Tendonitis. Well! His camino is over." I didn´t let on that I understood but my heart sank. She was telling the truth.

After dinner I limped the 20 metres to the parish church for evening prayers. There were about 20 people there and I was the only man. The women included two religious sisters from Waikanae and the young Spanish hospitalera who led the service. After a fairly simple little liturgy a candle was passed and everyone who held it offered a prayer. When it was Clemency´s turn she asked everyone present to come and gather around me, which they did. Clemency prayed a simple prayer for healing and the other women present laid their hands on me. I can´t say that I felt anything at the time, but I did notice that my ears were ringing. I also noticed that I walked a little easier back to the albergue. At 1.00 am I woke and my leg felt a lot better. At 8.00 we packed up, resolving to spend the day in this beautiful town and found a cafe  which sold NZ style coffee and muffins in which to pass a little time until we could go and see the famous castle at 11.00 am. I felt so good we started walking, thinking that with luck I might make it to the next albergue 2.5 km away.

We strolled on at a gentle pace, past large affluent looking houses and through vineyards. We passed the first albergue and then the second. Other pilgrims passed us by the score, but still we tottered on, and by 2.00 we had covered almost 18 km.

We stopped for the night at Cacabelos, in an albergue consisting of tiny 2 bed cells built around the back of a church. We found a supermercato and bought food and had a great night´s sleep. This morning we set out for the most pleasant day of the Camino so far.

We walked gently uphill through a cool morning to the stunningly beautiful town of Villafranca. Set on a river, with a cathedral and a castle, Villafranca outshines all the other Spanish cities we have seen. Imagine a place with the quaint charm of  a pristine English village, the sophistication of a Paris boulevard, and the historic interest that comes from being sited there for more centuries than anyone can tell and you will just about have it. It´s a place I would love to return to for a holiday sometime. We walked through it and into the mountains.

Mountain scenery has a certain quality to it, no matter where in the world it is found. There is clear air and winding roads. Here there were forests and vineyards and delightful villages every 2 or 3 km. The figs were fewer, replaced by edible chestnuts and oaks and poplars. We strolled on, stopping for lunch at a cafe which sold us a wonderful tomato and capsicum soup and fairtrade coffee. We walked about 25 km before I began to feel my achilles again, and stopped here, in one of the picture postcard villages perched on the opposite side of the valley to the Saracen castle.

It has been a simply glorious day. The Camino has been teaching us, as it always does. We have had to slow down and accept the disciplines imposed by terrain and distance. We have begun to form our new Camino family - those kindred spirits who walk at a similar pace to us and who tend to chose the same sorts of places to sleep. We will walk on tomorrow under blue skies and in bright cool air. God is good.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012


Last night was one of the classic albergue experiences. The place we stayed was pretty primitive, with a bunkroom, a dining room, three scruffy showers and two toilets. There was a family of long lean cats hanging around the porch. Ruined houses lay about on every side, some with goats clambering over the tumbledown walls to forage the remains of abandoned orchards. The tariff for the night was by donativo, or as we would say back home, koha. For the promise of what we thought the place was worth we were given a bed, a meal and breakfast.

The meal was cooked by the hospitalero, an American with a gammy leg, assisted by whoever wanted to lend a hand. We had lentils, a salad a potato and egg dish, bread and that delicious fresh raw sweet Spanish wine which simply does not bottle well, so cant be sampled except in Spain. Seated around the long table were us, an Australian, some Italians, Spaniards, French and Germans. Three young Hungarians had just spent 3 nights in a tent with no food and had, unsurprisingly, voracious appetites. And as we broke bread and swapped our stories and translated for each other a small community formed. Deep things were shared. We are all on the pilgrimage for a reason, and some of us know that reason at some depth. Some are just discovering it.

In our small beds we slept deeply. There were no snorers last night, and we all slept in. At 6:45 the hospitalero woke us by playing Monty Python´s Always Look On The Bright Side of Life and then we were up, packed and breakfasted, and then walking up into the mountain in driving rain. We reached the  highest point of the Camino, at almost 5,000 feet, the Cruz de Ferro, and placed there some small stones from our driveway back in Glenfinnan Place. The cairn around the cross is older than the pilgrimage. People have been depositing stones there for more than 2,000 years. Many bore messages, or prayer intentions. I found it an immensely holy and moving place.

We walked on and the rain increased. Following the highest point we seemed to do more climbing than I had anticipated.
Our new wet weather gear was put to a severe test, which mine by and large failed. Underneath my new jacket my clothes grew slowly sodden and it was only a minor comfort to see that Clemency´s expensive new EVent Macpac jacket fared only slightly better. We passed through some delightful mountain villages, stopping at Acebo for coffee and tortillas. In Spain a tortilla is an omelet sandwich, these ones with cheese. Huge, hot and extremely tasty they were just what our bodies were crying out for.
Soon after, I began to feel twinges in my left achilles. At Molinaseca (a pretty, tidy little river town) I went and consulted a farmacia who sold me anti inflamatory cream and pills (with no prescription!) and a support bandage. I walked on the last 7km of the day to Ponferrada in increasing discomfort. Perhaps the longest and hardest 7 km I have ever walked in my life.
We limped slowly into this albergue at  about 3 pm. It is large, modern and purpose built. I have showered and applied some of the anti inflammatory cream and put on the support bandage. I´ll see what tomorrow brings but it looks, at this point, like another rest day tomorrow. That shouldn´t be much of a hardship. This is a lovely and historic city with a lot to see and I can catch the bus to the points of interest.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012


I am writing this from a disused convent in a derelict town on the top of a mountain in Spain. I  have paid good money to be able to write that sentence, and I will savour it for a while.


The camino is changing. The impact of the movie, The Way, has been enormous. I am told that a few nights ago 1000 people passed through Roncevalles in one day, more than any single day in the recent history of the Camino, and this in the shoulder season. I am grateful I am a few weeks ahead of that lot. Most of the new flood of peregrinos are, of course, Americans and Irish. I hope, selfishly,  that this is a passing fad because the infrastructure of the camino simply won´t stand those numbers, but I suppose it will all sort itself out.

For us, without the influx of people inspired by the film, we are still dealing with pilgrims we aren´t used to. From Leon on, there are a whole lot of people who don´t fancy themselves as fit enough for the whole journey so they´re doing the last bit. There are people who have their bags carried for them from place to place, and some who are busing large chunks of the track. They have quite a different attitude than we are used to. For them, the Albergues seem to be not so much meeting points for the travelling fraternity of the blistered and the sun burnt, but rather, very low end hotels. Last night in Astorga in our lovely old Alberge a bunch of elderly French - in their early 60´s at least - swanned in after their nice dinner out on the town somewhere, turned on all the lights and began a conversation in loud voices as they did their 60 year old´s bed preparation routines. I woke from my sleep , listened for a while as the pajamas  (pajamas!!!!) were fitted and the dentures scrubbed. I was about to say something very unepiscopal when Clemency saved me by reprimanding them severely (for her) but gently (for anybody else).

The upshot is that we have decided to make smaller towns our destinations from this point on. Today we started at 6.45, got lost, but nevertheless managed to reach Rabanal by midday. Rabanal is a picture perfect little mountain village and at about 20 km from Astorga is the destination du jour for the bus peregrinos. We walked on another 7 km or so to this place, uphill through increasing cold. Foncebadon was a farming village until the Spanish military commandeered it for some obscure reason and wrecked it. It is now utterly derelict, except that a few of the buildings have been renovated for use as holiday homes or to serve the camino.

There are four albergues here. We have set up camp in the one built into the old parish church. It is small and there is to be a shared meal later. The tariff is by donation, and it is scruffy and charming.

It doesn´t have Internet though, so we have walked down to the albergue built into the old convent.

It is warm, has a bar, has Internet (obviously) and is chock full of people who have had their bags or themselves carried here by bus.

Monday, 24 September 2012


Thunderstorms were forecast for today, so it was a good day not to be off wandering about in the Galician mountains. We thought we would go to church instead, so set off at about 8.30 am to find an open church. We had forgotten that we were in Spain. At the time decreed from the foundation of the universe as the optimum hour for consulting the Almighty, that is, 10 am on a Sunday morning, all the churches in this city were locked up. At the cathedral an old bloke was sweeping up the yard with a broom and a pan with a long handle but he was the only sign of life. It was time to go and ask the locals when the churches might be open. None of them knew but one asked a tourist who had a guide book, which informed us that mass was said hourly in one of Astorga´s many churches, and that there was a roster of where you might find the live action on any given hour. The roster was in the porches of all the churches, but of course the porches were behind the locked doors which were behind the locked gates. The book informed us however that it was the Cathedral´s turn at 12.00 pm and the little church beside the cathedral had services at 11.30 and 12.30, so we chose 11.30.
The Bishop's Palace at Astorga: setting the standard for episcopal housing - an example all dioceses should follow.
Apart from the obvious linguistic differences and the presence of statues everywhere you looked, it was just like a service in St. Francis Hillcrest  C.1988. I kept looking for Graham and Alison and Brian amongst the music group. They even had a genuine antique overhead projector with transparencies for the choruses. There were lots of children, who read lessons and lead prayers. After the service we poked our noses into the next door Cathedral, which is very much a working church rather than a tourist magnet like it´s more glorious sibling down the road at Leon.

Astorga cathedral has a whacking great choir smack in the middle of the nave which leaves two smallish spaces for worship, one at either end, each big enough for a couple of hundred congegants. Around the walls are a dozen or so side altars, so it seems this was not so much a place for great festive occasions but a place for the saying of votive masses. Two masses in a day is enough for any Protestant, so after lighting candles for Margaret Sykes and for our children we ventured out into the just waking town.

Well, partially waking. They still take Sunday  seriously here and the only shops open are cafes, bars and souvenir shops. The town itself looks and feels like Assisi though without the Disneyish quaintness and perfection. It is about the same size as Assisi and follows much the same city plan because its antecedents are similar; it too is a Roman city built an a long thin ridge for defensive reasons. A long main street winds from one end of the town to the other passing through various plazas and with narrow side streets running off in unpredictable patterns. It is, as we found, quite possible to familiarise yourself with all of the old part of the city in an hour or two. We dodged the rain, found a place to buy bread but nowhere to buy anything to put on the bread. We are back in our ancient albergue to while away a quiet afternoon and will hit the road, in our raincoats, according to the forecast, early tomorrow morning.