This is the third post of three and it cover the last section of the French Way, the first is Walking the Camino Frances, and the second is the middle part of the Camino Frances. These are the last of the email compilations from Douglas and Christine Ball’s journey on the Camino Frances during 2015. The text below cover the last section of about 155 miles.
Table of Contents
Day 27 Vega de Valcarce to Fonfria
Well you just cannot tell how it’s going to be. We were anticipating a really hard day with significant climbs; our guide book said this was the hardest day on the route.
In fact there were climbs, but not nearly as difficult as we had anticipated. About 10k uphill with a couple of downs, started off on road for hour and then forest track/ mountain goat-like for an hour then breakfast.
The views today have been breathtaking and the track edged with countless wildflowers. We have encountered amongst others Spanish white broom, (Christine thought this was orchid which sounds much more exotic, but no – white broom).
Anyway it is beautiful, even more than the yellow variety we have at home and here at the lower levels. We could see at one point six valleys leading to the mountains of Leon in the distance which we passed several days ago. We saw very few people on the climb, had breakfast half way up at a vegetarian hippie sort of place, served fried eggs on toast for Douglas, yummy change from toast and jam,
I had to make do with toast – no “pan a chocolat”. At the top of the climb was O’Cebreiro, which was packed with tourists and probably the most commercial place we have seen, selling Camino related trinkets, (junk), etc. It turns out most of the visitors had taken a tour bus up to the top. Cheating or what! But missing the best bit of the walk. We think they were probably a Sunday walkers group. The church at O’Cebreio has parts built in the 9th century which is the oldest on the Santiago Camino journey. We visited it; there were about 50 bibles in different languages including Braille opened at different places. The English bible was opened at Psalms 138/139, 139 being most relevant for us.
We are now in Gailicia as per the picture, (note Christine’s bandaged poorly leg- max sympathy please), showing that we are both here. Unfortunately the signpost has suffered badly with graffiti, a common problem here.
Galicia apparently gets lousy weather as it is the first weather hit from the Atlantic, like the west coasts of Ireland and Scotland I suppose and we’d been warned about the likely rain and mist.
The Spanish food ordering failed again today, our tuna sandwiches, (tuna in Spanish is “a tun”), turned up as cheese and ham. How tuna could be interpreted as queso and jamon is a bit mystifying, anyway we will obviously need to improve our Spanish verbal skills. We have realised that “Adios” sounds a bit like “Aseos” so let’s face it – easy to mix up. This means that sometimes, instead of saying “goodbye!” as we leave, we are in fact wishing people “toilets!”. Anyway we have been really lucky with the weather, today anyway, and had a marvellous view from the top and experienced the so called “floating islands” ie mountain tops above the clouds (see pic below). It was at a spot where a lost pilgrim trapped by fog heard a shepherd bagpipes playing sonorous music, (what bagpipes??), music and followed it to safety, or so the legend goes.
Fonfria where we are staying for the night is a tiny tiny village consisting of a church which will hold about 6 people, a farm plus our albergue. Luckily we have signed up for the in house “communal meal” tonight which is always salad followed by paella, otherwise it would have been our emergency rations, (ie muesli bars), and bird seeds, still not got rid of them as Douglas has one packet left.
One week today, we will be walking into Santiago, hurrah!!
Day 28 Fonfia to Samos
We are now sitting waiting for our tour of one of the oldest monastery in the whole western world, with one of the largest grounds and cloisters in Spain. This is where we are staying the night, (see picture), or to be more precise in a Benedictine hostel located to the rear of the main building (see 2nd picture!).
Depending upon which guide you used we are either still on the main route to Santiago or we have taken a secondary route, we did decide to detour to see this monastery which is amazing and has added 6.3km to the journey. Unfortunately there are now only ten monks inhabiting the monastery, all aged, there is no plan what to do with the building which is massive and belongs to the church, not the government or the community, perhaps a parador (mentioned those last week) but probably too big.
Up this morning and out by 6.10, starting above cloud level and walking down to below cloud level. We were able to see the clouds moving like a creeping fog into the valleys below us and mountains behind us.
It was a beautiful sight, lovely warm day, two hours walking down hill and we found breakfast, I was forced to have bacon and eggs, (again), and poor Christine toast and marmalade, the bread is so hard you could get a cracked tooth, but no pan a chocolat yet again.
Last night we participated in a community meal, we had two German blokes to the left of us, a Canadian Catholic priest and also an Irishman opposite and French girls to the right of Christine, quite a cross section. We were slightly surprised by the behaviour of the priest though, nothing improper, but he kept calling to the waiter “there’s a dead soldier here!”, which apparently means “there is an empty wine bottle please may I have another one?” An enjoyable event, prior to the meal we were sharing a bottle of wine and tapas of cheese on toast with some Germans. The Camino is certainly a friendly sociable event.
Bed choices were interesting, you could have a bunk bed or a double with a single bed above, and depending upon how full the albergue was would depend on whether anyone would sleep above the double bed.
We declined this option as we thought it was a bit too weird! We were warm last night or maybe the blankets were too good, for a change. We doctored our light, (i.e. unscrewed the light bulb), so that late comers to bed could not wake us up by putting the light on. However Christine is becoming increasingly frustrated with having to get ready in the mornings in total darkness trying to find stuff and not wake people around us. No matter how well prepared the night before there is still a search for a clothing items and the very real prospect of leaving something behind.
As we near Santiago the preferred dessert, (postres), seems to be Santiago cake which is actually almond cake, very nice depending on how moist it is. Anyway there seem to be some negative side effects, last night Douglas decided to descend from the upper bunk facing forwards and ended up getting his rear end stuck between the ladder rungs! So no more Santiago cake for him at least until bunk beds are no longer in use.
On a mission to the quescerio (cheese shop), the serving lady held up 3 pictures for Douglas to choose from, sheep, goat and cow, he said it felt like primary school. He chose sheep’s cheese by the way.
Today’s walk was a mixture of lanes, forest tracks, walking between a gorge and a main road, dirt roads. It was lovely walking through forest tracks covered by dropped leaves. I saw the pile of leaves in front of me start to move, but when I investigated, whatever it was disappeared back down its hole. One little hamlet obviously had a particular problem with pilgrims and there was a sign saying no pooping, next to one saying no dropping litter. We have seen a lot of ancient limestone quarries and apparently pilgrims used to carry what they could to the lime kilns in order to build Santiago cathedral. Well thank goodness it’s now built as the last thing we’re inclined to do is add a chunk of limestone to our already groaning bags, (admittedly lighter as we discard clothing and use up our beauty products).
About 75 miles left to go we think, still targeting Sunday arrival.
Day 29, Samos to Ferrerios
This morning on our walk to breakfast we passed a sign telling us we had 140 kms to go which meant we had increased our total distance by going to Samos, (boo), later after rejoining the busy route we passed the signpost indicating only 100km left to go to Santiago. We believe the 2nd signpost. Hurrah!!
Today we walked on a mixture of tarmac roads, forest trails and dirt tracks. We saw a Stork with two youngsters in the nest, we had not seen them for a while as they must not populate the mountainous regions, not that today was flat, there were some very steep climbs.
We walked past lots of old, gnarled chestnut trees, a bit like us, I suppose. We have seen two dead snakes, one a baby about six inches and one today about 5 feet long. Being a gentleman, I always let Christine go first, especially through grassy and dark areas and by chance she might flush out anything waiting to strike. Speaking of flushing reminds us to be careful when looking in the grass for a private spot; you never know what might lurk there.
We had originally planned to arrive at Santiago on Saturday to see the service where they use the “botafumeiro” a huge incense burner which requires 6 attendants to handle it and originally used to fumigate the sweaty and disease ridden pilgrims, (purpose unchanged I suppose sniffing some of the people here).
We had thought this was on Sundays but it we just found out this week it’s actually Friday evenings and there is no way we can get there in that timescale and enjoy the walk at the same time. Douglas is very disappointed but accepted it won’t happen. He feels strongly that we should enjoy the last few days of the Camino rather than just try to sprint it at pace.
Likewise we hadn’t realised that some pilgrims continue the walk after Santiago to Finisterre, which is on the west coast and means literally “end of the earth”. This is where it was thought the world ended prior to Columbus discovering the West Indies and Americas. I just remember the term from Home Service shipping forecasts when I was young, (last century), possibly still broadcast, didn’t know then where Finisterre was.
Anyway this would be another 4 day walk which would not allow us time to get back to the airport for the flight home.
We have said we’ll come back to see the botafumeiro and finish the walk to Finisterre where apparently you have to watch the sunset over the world’s end, (sounds a bit like Pirates of the Caribbean!). I’m not sure that we will though.
Today was our longest search yet for breakfast, setting off at 6.10am it was after 9am before we arrived at anywhere open in the nearest town of Sarria. We were so desperate that we had to stop for water, peanuts and chocolate after 2 hours. European milk chocolate, that is, not as good as Cadburys!
Sarria is a town where many people start their walk as starting there gives you the required 100km of walking to get accredited at Santiago, so people flock in by bus and train. Those of us who have walked 800km have no negative thoughts for those apparently taking the “easy” option.
There could be many reasons, time, ability or yes, just taking the easy option!
We must have the gift of foresight when we said yesterday that you could break a tooth on the breakfast toast. Guess who had toast for breakfast and guess who has lost half a tooth as a result? (Christine clue – not me)
Today we got the last 2 beds available at this hostel, otherwise we would’ve had to walk another 4km or perhaps 9km, we’re never sure. So we both have upper bunks as they’re always the last to go, I have been told off by a Frenchman for moving his coat and trousers which were draped over my bed. Don’t you just love Europeans? Especially the French!!!
Two English people Diane and Mike, (who are “just friends -not a couple!), who we first met at the airport when we landed in France and whom we have occasionally met on the walk are staying the night here as well. We last saw them over a week ago. It will be interesting to see which of those people we have met doing the Camino will be in Santiago at the same time as us.
I have finished my book of 670 pages just need to find somewhere suitable to leave it.
Despite our assurances of NOT reaching Santiago by Friday evening, we are tantalisingly within reach.
The question is – can we achieve a marathon 35km walk to the end on Friday and still enjoy it? Will it be like the Great North Run and London Marathon where you become motivated and carried along by the crowds? See tomorrow’s exciting instalment!
Day 31 Palas de Rei to Azure
One of the villages on the road from Palas de Rei to Arzua had a band to serenade pilgrims on their way. We had hoped for a coffee but the band had taken over the cafe and were selling their CDs instead. We could hear their music for quite a distance until a selfish person decided to put his car music on full blast while stationary. It is interesting the number of individuals, mostly young people, who walk with earphones plugged in and miss the sound of birds, crickets, frogs singing, waterfalls.
I suppose they are in their own little world with One Direction or whoever while walking? I have been criticised for not carrying things on my head as well as back and front, the opportunity to rectify that matter will have to wait until our next Camino. (Christine NEXT Camino?!?!).
Today we could not set off until 7am so we were walking for longer in the heat of the sun, even without our rucksacks our feet and legs were aching. Last night while in bed our legs were painful preventing us from sleeping properly, but not long now only another 37km to go. We are now seeing more families walking the final 100 kms, mainly older parents with their daughters. Helen and Sarah, we should have brought you along!
We had the usual ups and downs, easier today without anything really heavy on your back, we passed through a range of different types of forest, some managed and some not. There are a lot of eucalyptus trees/ forests, we could smell their scent, we should be breathing more easily. Speaking of breathing Christine left her nighttime inhaler and thyroxine tablets at one of the hostels, we had to creep out in the dark in the early morning, (we could not subject them to seeing Christine with no make up). She says she will just have to manage without them.
The countryside changed from ploughed fields to gorse to walls covered with moss and lichen. The cuckoo is still with us, we think it’s the same one who has travelled with us from St Jean Pied de Port wearing his little rucksack. We did see a dog today walking with his own backpack, like saddle bags seemingly very happy with it. We have also seen people doing this on horseback in fact the evidence of horses in our pathway seems to exceed the number we have seen, or perhaps they just eat a lot!
We saw more evidence of apparently pointless road building which had been half completed then abandoned. Not sure whether cash ran out or somebody asked what it was all for. We have broadly followed a main road, hardly use which has been replaced by a very grand motorway the N547 which spans picturesque valleys on grand viaducts for miles and miles, must have cost a fortune to build.
It supports about 2 vehicles per minute at peak times!! When I think of the UK motorways and the nightmare traffic on those, it seems unreal.
It was another hard day for Christine today, despite saying we would take it easy, we seemed to have upped our game. (By the way, hard day for Douglas too, putting up with my “Slough of despond” i.e. whinging about my feet and knee!).
The lights in our accommodation last night were operated by a timer so I could not help them go dark early, they went off at 10pm which is quite late for any self respecting pilgrim who should be in bed by 8pm. I was just going off to sleep when some young people turned up at 10pm and started banging on the door to be let in, the receptionist who was on duty until 11 pm was somewhere else, probably having a nap. My kids bought me two presents, one for the previous walk and one for this walk. The first was a watch with an alarm which sounds old fashioned given that phones have alarms, the big difference, my alarm wakes me and I quickly switch it off, these phone alarms wake everyone while their owner tries to find it to switch it off. The second present was walking sticks which have taken some hammering and one of them may not last the walk. Both items I would recommend. We have both worn the rubber ends of our walking poles through to the spikes underneath.
Well there are 37km to go, (only!), which is 23 miles. We have decided to try to go for it to Santiago in one go. Douglas reminds me that we have done several marathons before which is over 26 miles. Although we have not usually walked every day for 4 weeks prior to doing a marathon. We will be starting out tomorrow at 5.30am, that’s 4.30am UK time and hope to arrive late afternoon in time for the big incense service at 7.30pm. It is going to take a lot of effort tomorrow for us both. We have to think positively about it, we CAN do it! It’s hard to believe though, that if we reach Santiago tomorrow after 32 days of walking, there will then be no more requirement for pre dawn mornings and all day walking. It makes us think; why we did we embark on this in the first place? What have we achieved?
Are we different people as a result? I am concerned that I may continue to wake up early in England and be forced to walk around Bensham.
Day 32 Arzua to Santiago
This was to be our last day of walking, no matter what, approximately 23 miles. Up at 5am for an early start to what promised to be the longest walk day, even though we sent our rucksacks ahead. Nobody around when we set off in pitch darkness, some stars, no moon, Australia must still have the moon and have decided to hang on for it a bit longer. Walking through the woods in the dark was ok, they were young friendly woods, I can think of some of the old knurled woods which would have given us a less friendly feel. We found breakfast about 7 am and was joined by a German who had followed us, he felt a bit lost until he saw us and assumed we were going to Santiago. We were the cafe’s first customers of the day.
A great deal of today’s walk was through eucalyptus woods which we understood were introduced for the pulp industry. They shed their bark, and the attached photo shows the size of some of the strips of bark.
We saw a deer which ran across our path, the last one I saw was cross my path when I was out running around Lamesley at Gateshead early morning. We heard a crash and then in great leaps it ran through the woods.
We saw some pilgrims who are horseriding, 11 horses in the group, to Santiago. We had expected to see lots of people walking, rushing to the end but today has been quieter than other days, a lot less than we expected.
We had our lunch about 13kms from the end, egg bacon and chips and tuna salad, guess who had what, yes Christine had the egg and chips, for stamina she said. Pressure mounted on our bodies for the last 10k, the countdown distance signs disappeared and we could not yet see the city, so we did not know how far we had to go. Christine at 7kms was in a lot of pain with her knee and feet, being a caring chap I offered her an ice lolly at 5km and then pushed her on. There were tears of pain.
On the outskirts of Santiago there is big statue commemorating the Camino Santiago and John Paul II. One of the pilgrims asked Christine to take his picture jumping in the air with it in the back ground, it was a great success, I tried jumping and could hardly get my feet off the ground, we gave up. (Christine – the difference was possibly he was about 30 years younger!)
When we arrived at Santiago, there was a long trudge from the outskirts of the city, through the new part to eventually the old town plus the signs to the cathedral were unclear, eventually after I had circled the cathedral we found the pilgrims office for our final stamp and certificates. The queue was about an hour long and Christine nearly collapsed from her pain and exhaustion, I had not realised how much the final stages had taken out of her, should have given her two ice lollies.
We went to last night’s service, the cathedral was full, although Christine had gone early and got us pole position seats in the front row, I yawned a bit through the service and was told off by Christine (it was in Italian so didn’t understand a word, he never said ” Buen Camino” or “dos cafe con leche” even once!!)
The botafumeiro hung at centre stage and eventually they arrived with burning coals, (carried through the audience), then 8 attendants were involved in starting it swinging. First they put the red hot lighted coals in it and they walked straight past me carrying then.
The botafumeiro in action was amazing, this great big metal thing, full of fire, swinging up to the roof of the cathedral, which is pretty high!! Health & Safety?? Who needs it!!! We understand that twice during swinging of the incense they have hit one of the high windows. We meet a cyclist outside who we had met in Samos, he claimed that someone had paid for the incense to be swung, given it is the main attraction of a Friday service and the cathedral is full for a collection, not sure someone needs to pay extra for the event. It was the most amazing experience and really a worthwhile climax to the whole Camino for us. Christine assures me that the botafumeiro sight more than made up for the pain of the final day, that’s good cos I was starting to feel just a tad guilty about wife cruelty, making her walk so far in such heat.
Our thanks to everyone who has received our musings, wonderings, rants, complaints etc etc over the past 32 days. Thanks even more to those who actually read them and thanks a trillion to those who have responded with messages of support and encouragement, that really spurred us on.
We were tired last night, Christine almost fell asleep into her Galician pie at dinner
This is the third post of three, the first is walking the Camino Frances, and the second is the middle part of the Camino Frances. Many thanks to Douglas and Christine Ball for writing this and allowing it to be published here.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.