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Showing posts from 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 identifica

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 m

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 the


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 evenin


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 c

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


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 prop


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 im

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 yello

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 ever


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 st

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 traff

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


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


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

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 t

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 b


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 seein


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 a


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 unti

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 doub