An entire week devoted to nothing more challenging than the decision as to which type of seafood to eat for dinner, and whether or not to open that second bottle of wine. (Inevitably the answer to that question is “yes”). Despite being on what some may call permanent holiday, it has been wonderful to take a break from the break and give our bodies a rest.
We are in Asturias, about 300km north of Santiago on the coast, with mountains on one side and sea on the other. After months of walking, it was a strange and unsettling experience to climb into a car and drive 300km in less than a morning (well, it would have been less than a morning, if my mother and I had any map reading skills between us. As it was, we took the scenic tour and got there sometime before midnight). Our mothers are both here and we are ensconced in a wonderful villa complete with open fire, bath, and every mod con known to man - not to mention the most fantastic landlords ever. Conchita appears like magic every few hours to top up the wood pile, offer us the local cider, and even introduce us to a local journalist who interviewed us!
Today we drove with Conchita, her husband Angel, and their daughter Lucia across to the magical village of Covadonga. Once the base of the Conquistadore Pelayo, it now houses his tomb, inside an ancient place of worship built into the cliffs above a magnificent waterfall. In recent centuries a beautiful cathedral has been built in the town, but the centrepiece (and place of pilgrimage) remains the cliffside shrine. The landscape around it is a dramatic mixture of sheer mountains and fast water courses. Fortunately there was also an excellent restaurant in the village, so we finally got to sample the local Asturian dish of Fabala, a stew of fava beans and chorizo. By the end of four courses we only just had the energy to drive up the mountain to the quite incredible lookout point, from which on one side the snowy Europa Picos rise abruptly, whilst on the other the mountains drop sharply to the sea. It is easy, standing up there, to understand why the Asturias region prides itself on being a natural paradise.
It has been a wonderful place to relax and reorganise ourselves after over a month of straight walking.
We needed it. A week after we finished the camino, I am a little better suited to writing about it. Unfortunately it often seems that when we arrive somewhere there is a mad rush to get the updates written and uploaded, usually when I am still fairly exhausted, and last week it was particularly mad, as we did two 40km days to get into Santiago due to the fact that I had to fly out the following day to go to Sarah and James’ wedding in London. But it was worth every second of sore feet and exhaustion to be at the most beautiful ceremony I have ever seen, and I am so grateful I could make it. Finding myself in proper clothes and shoes was a bit of a bizarre experience, though!
Gary stayed in Santiago with our Mums and met up with Andreas and Ato.
It seems Andreas really suffered with his feet, having major problems with his Archilles, so he is not going to carry on through Portugal but go back to Germany to plan his next trip. Ato seems undecided about his next move despite originally planning an immediate return to Japan; if you spot a profane, Marlboro smoking Japanese bloke scoffing coffee on the road, you will know who it is.
I had a truly flying visit to London, although Jo and I still managed to stay up most of the night and polish off copious quantities of red. It was great to catch up with everyone again, even if only for a night.
Now we are trying to plan our next move. The Camino has a rhythm all of it’s own, and it is a pleasantly mindless sensation to have to worry about nothing more than walking. A guaranteed bed every night and regular food stops on the way make it easy to carry on walking without a break. Refuges rarely encourage pilgrims to stay more than one night, and the walking is so pleasant that it feels natural to just keep on going. Before we started the camino we would not have dreamed of doing more than 6 days at a time without a break. I imagine that now we are without regular refuges, and back camping again, we will return to our old routine; it is difficult to get washing done and dry in a tent, and important to rest the bodies.
The Camino Portuguese, from all accounts, is nowhere near as well serviced as the Camino Frances we have just walked. I am also a little unsure how it will work considering we are walking it in reverse. At least I won’t have major withdrawal symptoms from yellow arrows! If anyone reading this knows much about the Portuguese route, please email me, as we are setting off next Wednesday and are still looking for maps. Not that direction is a major problem. As long as the coast is on our right, we are going the right way. Even I should be able to manage that.
Meanwhile, Gary and I have spread all our belongings out on the floor and are sorting through them to re-equip ourselves. There have been a few big changes. Gone is Gary’s heavy, precious medium format camera; until we are in the desert and able to put it on a camel, we have come to the conclusion that he is just not using it enough. It takes about an hour to stop, set the camera up, take pictures and pack it all away again. With limited time when we are walking, and cold weather, we have decided to swap it for a regular 33mm SLR until the desert leg, which will finally get rid of the big blue bag on Gary’s front.
Obviously we are taking the camping gear again, but we are trying to pack and redistribute it so that it is easier to carry. Our new sleeping bags are slightly heavier than our old ones, but given that we no longer have to take blankets to keep warm, it shouldn’t be a problem. It seems suddenly that after all these months we are actually getting a handle on how to really pack our bags properly. It sounds stupid; I guess it is easy to say that we should have worked all this out before, but no matter how many trial trips you do, it is only when you carry the packs day in, day out, for several months, that you can get a true picture of what is needed. We both feel a lot better about it now after having met experienced walkers who tell us that it has taken them years, and many trips, to work out what is really necessary. It is also very different packing for our trip than just the camino, obviously. If you have a refuge to sleep in every night it makes life a lot simpler than if you have to go up to a week without a bed, roof or shower.
We are militant about the whole process now. Every item gets weighed before going into the packs. Language CDs are being burnt onto an MP3 player instead of carried with a walkman (Gary is still going to learn French, if I have to thump it into the boy’s head!); first aid kit has been halved, quartered, and then halved again until it is a shadow of it’s former bulky self; and all of the tiny things which came in handy but aren’t absolutely necessary are gone. It has been interesting to find that we were never carrying anything that was actually not useful; it was just that we were carrying too many things that weren’t strictly necessary. The distinction is a difficult one to make. We also have the unusual issue of carrying a lot of technological equipment for work purposes, so we have to be unusually ruthless in cutting down on other things to compensate for the added weight.
So this week has found us tripping over our tongues in our eagerness to bore our mothers witless with the minutae of walking, in between eating as many fresh veggies and fruit as we can lay our hands on, and enjoying the sheer luxury of being warm, dry, and rested. It has been a great break, all the more enjoyable as we know it is only temporary and that next week we can get back to our real love of walking. We have never felt as keen, focussed, and positive about our adventure as we do now that we have come this far and are fit, healthy, and confident. Suddenly our goal seems not only viable but indeed almost too close. We keep on talking about all the other places we would like to go and walk, like China and South America, and wonder if perhaps we could just keep walking. I am sure we will feel a little different about it all after we reach Cape Town, but for now it simply seems that this is the best thing we have ever done. It is certainly been the most immense learning experience of both of our lives, and the people we meet every day – our hosts this week are another incredible example - make life a joy to live.
We are more than halfway through the first leg of the trip now. It is becoming much easier to contemplate the walk as a whole – or at least to face the enormous distance with equanimity rather than a sinking feeling of dread. It helps to feel that we are fit and strong enough to get through it. We realise that so far we have done only the very easy part of the walk, and perhaps we will feel much different when we are confronted with the complete contrast of African countries, but on the other hand we will never have to go through the tough process of breaking ourselves in physically again, or getting used to carrying a pack. In some ways the first few months in France were a very difficult period of adjustment. Lucky we had such great food, booze, and company to ease the way.
I realise this is a little more of an introspective diary entry than usual. It must be something to do with all this comfort and a crackling fire. Best I get back to a hard bed and some sub zero temperatures in order to regain my customary sarcasm!
But a final moment of sentimentality: to all of our wonderful, beautiful friends who I was so lucky to see again in London, even if only for a night, it is impossible to convey to you how much your love, support, and friendship means to us both, and I would like to thank every one of you. As much as we love this adventure, getting back on the plane and saying goodbye to you all again was a difficult thing to do. May your lives be full of good food and wine, and lots of laughter, until we are able to share both with you again.
Right. It must be lunch time by now.
And P.S: I can’t leave this weblog without saying that if ever you fancy a really quiet, peaceful holiday, at a rock bottom price and in extraordinary comfort, this is your place. You can contact Conchita and her husband Angel on firstname.lastname@example.org. Much as it goes against our custom to advertise, I honestly cannot recommend this villa highly enough – it is in beautiful condition, cheap, welcoming, and with awesome views. God knows how we’ll go back to the tent after all this luxury. It even has a BATH….