Saturday, December 31, 2011


By Fir0002 (Own work) [GFDL 1.2], via Wikimedia Commons

POMEGRANATES are gorgeous. When you open one, the faceted seeds with their transparent flesh spill out like so many rubies and garnets. Bite one and a tiny explosion of flavour, tart and sweet at the same time, surprises your tastebuds. I have loved them since I was six, especially because they're a rarity, and expensive, as if they really are little caskets of jewels.
But they're messy to eat. The bloody juice spurts everywhere! A child is banished outside to the back step to enjoy one. This is not all bad, because it gives free rein to the desire to spit out the bitter pips. But in November and December when they are most common in the supermarkets of the Great White North, its also quite cold.
I was thrilled today to open a cookbook and discover a method for juicing pomegranates which is mess-free. Not to mention dead-easy!

It goes like this. Roll the intact pomegranate on the counter until it is flaccid. That's what they said! Then, once it has achieved full sogginess, pierce it with a sharp knife, gently, and suspend it over the mouth of a glass. A gentle squeeze is enough to let out the juice, in surprising amounts. No fuss, no mess, no pressing, no straining. And,like any freshly squeezed juice, it tastes SO good!

Friday, December 30, 2011


Guernica seems like a funny place to head for some R and R, given its tragic history. But it also seemed like a place one ought to visit because of the same tragic happenings. It seemed important to stand where such an outrage happened, to bear witness, more than seventy years after the fact.

Gernika (I'm using the Basque spelling, since it's a Basque town), was an important place to the people of Biskaia (Viscaya) as a market town and the equivalent of a county town where legislators assembled and justice was meted out. In the olden days, justice courts and assemblies throughout the Basque country met outside under imposing trees. The tree of Gernika was one of the most famous. When the Basques became part of Spain, at least two Spanish monarchs had to come to Gernika to stand under the tree and swear to preserve various liberties of the Basque people. Most days Gernika was a market town with access to the sea, and beginning in the nineteenth century, had a couple of factories. Bilbao was close by, only thirty kilometres away.

Other than that, it wasn't much to write home about. But things changed in the nineteen thirties when General Franco and his rebels seized control of the Spanish government. In 1937, Gernika became important strategically, in a most temporary fashion, due to its proximity to the area of Markina to the east, where a group of Republicans, the enemies of Franco, were hiding out in the folded, green, and remote hills. Suddenly Gernika was a potential refuge and supply line. General Franco allowed Italian and Nazi air strikes on the town. Instead of destroying strategic targets, during the course of a couple hours,they held carpet bombing raids, destroyed the entire town in a fiery maelstrom, and killing somewhere between two and sixteen hundred people, depending on who you believe. The handful of buildings to survive included the Andra Mari Church and the Hall of Justice,with the Tree of Gernika on its grounds. One of the raid's stated targets, The Renteria bridge over the Oka River was undamaged too. There was, and remains, the feeling that the raid was punitive; an attempt to break the spirit of the Basque people, and bring them into line.

I've been reading the stories of some of the survivors, and even though I've seen the photographs of the destruction, and seen the maps of how little survived, it wasn't until I walked through the streets that I could even begin to imagine the horror of it. Even then, its difficult to believe that this sunny, well-kept little town was nearly obliterated in the course of a market day afternoon. But, if you look closely you can begin to notice the lack of older buildings. If you go to the marketplace, you'll see a large round modern building, strange in itself. Go inside and sit on one of the benches. The glass walls surrounding you are imprinted with photographs of the devastation. You look out through these ghostly images onto the busy rebuilt streets. Then you really get the picture.

I didn't go to the Peace Museum. I didn't need to, and I certainly didn't want any more information on just how horrible it had been. Instead, I chose to go to the Museum of the Basque Culture up near the church. Wars come and go, but the people endure. That is what is important.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


The next morning was grey. I felt a bit grey too, as I left my compatriots. They went to find some breakfast, while I went to find a bus to Gernika, the next town of any size. I negotiated that with little trouble, though the amount of nervous energy that surges through me while I strive to ascertain for absolute certain that I’m on the RIGHT bus is quite ridiculous. On a holiday like this, it wouldn’t even matter if I were going on the RIGHT bus, because everything is an adventure! It turned out to be a journey of mythical proportions, and very nearly proved the old adage that “you can’t get there from here”. In fact I could, but I had to ride into the outskirts of Bilbao, wait for an hour and a half, and then backtrack to Gernika, which despite its size, was not on any direct bus routes. This in a country which is very well served by its buses!

The journey went in stages. The first stage ended in the fishing town of Ondarroa, a mere 8k from Deba. The bus followed the path of the cyclist's Camino through Mutriku. The walkers would be taking a very steep and somewhat remote track through the mountains to Markina. From Ondarroa, I took a different bus which passed through Markina on its way to Bilbao. In less than an hour, I had covered the territory that the other peregrinos would spend a whole day slogging through. I didn’t envy them the mud that the rain was surely creating, but I did envy them the gorgeous countryside that we passed through, and I cursed my swollen knees.

The bus trip itself was an interesting cultural immersion. Basque people seem to sing aloud on buses just to pass the time. I was enchanted to hear a grandmother soothing a cranky baby with lullabies in Euskara. For a language so full of k’s and t's and x's, it has a lovely sing-song cadence. On the second bus, I met a very fine elderly lady named Garmendia, which means “fire on the mountain”. What a name to conjure with! She was headed into Bilbao for the day, very smartly if conservatively dressed in a tweed suit. We communicated in English and Spanish, tried French, but gave it up; my fault, not hers. Garmendia was equally comfortable in them all, and then some. For years she had lived in New York where she taught French. Like most Basque people I met she had been to Canada. The Basques, like the Galicians and Newfoundlanders, had itchy feet, it seemed. They’d been everywhere, man! The next day I met a guy who'd been to the Sault and had lived in Smooth Rock Falls!

I felt very lucky to be sitting with this tiny cosmopolitan, learning the local lore as we passed various villages. I got a pang of remorse when she pointed out the way to the very beautiful monastery of Cenarruza, which I’d had my heart set on seeing. I’ve since seen the video diaries of other pilgrims showing just the kind of hiking I like, rough and rural. The pang returns.

When we got to the transfer point at the big hospital in Bilbao, Garmendia (I just like saying that name!) entrusted me to a young woman who ensured that I was standing at the right stop. I stood there for forty five minutes, having just missed a connection, but it felt good to sit in what I knew was the right place. Bus number three took me halfway back the way we’d come, and then took a left up the road to Gernika.

Friday, November 25, 2011


Once we got to into the town proper, we had to find the police station, where the keys to the albergue were kept. The police were out fighting crime somewhere, so we decided to get some lunch. Ana soon winkled out the location of the restaurant we’d been told about, and that was a good thing, because we would never have found it on our own. It was on the second floor of an office building; there was no sign, and you had to ring a bell to gain admittance. We stomped in, packs and all, and created a bit of an uproar among the very conservative wait staff. Evidently, this was a “local” restaurant. Once the sticks were in the umbrella stand, and the packs had been banished to the geranium bedecked balcony, things settled down and everyone was quite civil. We had a bang-up lunch for 10 Euros, wine and bread included. I ate menestra de vegetales, merluza a la romana; battered hake, and my beloved arroz con leche; rice pudding.

Eventually, the policeman came back and we were able to get a room in the small albergue next to the Red Cross station, at the end of a little seaside park. A good thing too, because if it had been full, and I had had to climb the hill into Deba Alta to the large albergue, I might have packed up and gone home.

This albergue had a tiny room with two triple and one double bunk in it. Thank goodness everyone took pity on my poor knees and let me have the bottom bunk. We crammed in with our two Norwegians, whom I called the Viking Women in my head, and one young Brazilian cyclist, who was finding the going quite challenging, as much because of the dangerous highways as the hills, but the hills were no picnic either. He wasn’t sure he wanted to continue.

No amount of alcohol of rosemary, prescribed by the Vikings, nor Reiki, administered by Gisbert, seemed to help my knees. Like the cyclist, I was questioning my fitness for this adventure. It didn’t help that it was raining and cold.

We decided to find our own food for supper. Bread, cheese, apples, pears, olives and wine were found by various explorers of the town. When we got them back to the albergue we realized that it would be impossible to eat in that room, it was just too cramped. So, in our raingear, and lugging our many plastic bags, we set out to find a picnic spot. We ended up in the arcaded courtyard of the town hall, sharing the space with young kids playing pelota against a wall on which a sign strictly forbidding the playing of pelota was prominently displayed.

We tried to “borrow” a table from an outdoor café which was closed, on account of rain, but the owner rushed out and took his table back, so we were stuck with the stone bench which ran along the wall of the arcade. As darkness fell, we looked out on the townspeople under their umbrellas, scurrying home to supper.

We were cold, but the atmosphere we created was warm and full of laughter. I was only sorry that I was going to have to leave our merry band, because I just could not go on.

Monday, November 21, 2011

BEAUTIES OF GUIPUZKOA: or What goes Up must come Down!

From Zumaia, it was another steep climb through the suburbs to the high farms and vineyards. Without exception, everywhere you looked was so beautiful that it gave you a lightened feeling. Here a beautiful white farm with its giant caserio, a communal farmhouse cum storehouse cum stable; there an ermita on the top of a bluff overlooking the sea. I was continually amazed by the remote locations of the houses; how did they haul the materials up there? Ana emphasized what I was thinking when she explained that when the Basque language came to be written down in the nineteen twenties, there were nearly as many dialects as there were caserios.

It was a great walk, mostly on unpaved tracks. We had to cross the N-634, a national highway a couple of times, which was terrifying, but the rest of the day was spent in farmland, with the occasional hamlet. We had a rest stop in a park just outside Elorriaga, where a public works truck was also parked. One of its two occupants was taciturn and grumpy, but the other was more than happy to converse about the area. He told us the good places to eat in Deba, the next big town. We knew that we’d have to stay there that night, even though it was only thirteen km from Zumaia, because the next stage was 22km, and the hills were terrifically hard work, and not just for me.

There was something quite magical about the little country roads which turned into footpaths. I remember one segment on the outskirts of the village of Itziar which began in a little river valley with sheep grazing on either side of what was a very old road. From here we travelled into a damp little dell, very green with ferns and flowers underneath huge old trees, then up a steep incline, past a magically friendly horse, who didn’t even get up while we passed, but who sniffed our hands and let us pet his velvet nose.

We had thought about lunch in Itziar, but the one choice was a hotel by the main road, which didn’t appeal. At my insistence we went up and up into the village proper because I wanted to see the thirteenth century statue of the Virgin, associated with yet another of the tales of miraculous discovery which have been a theme along both my Caminos. It was worth the climb. The sixteenth century church was huge. Since the Virgen de Iciar is the protector of sailors, there was a model of a full-rigged sailing ship hanging from the ceiling. I wondered how old that was! The back wall of the nave was decorated in geometric wall paintings in dark blue and red and white, on either side of massive wooden retablo, so dark as to be almost black. In the centre of this, backlit, was the golden statue. The story goes that a boy met with an apparition of a woman and child, who told him to build a church on the height of Itziar. Somewhere along the line, he received a gilded statue. The people of the village, seeing the miraculous statue, did as they were told, but decided to put the church in a place less awkward to reach, lower down, and not covered in scrub and thorns. They made a start, but in the night angels descended and moved the stones to the place the apparition had mandated. The people realized that they’d better follow the instructions and a church was built on the site where the current church stands today.

When we came out of the church, it was right into a spirited game of soccer in the courtyard. Children from the ikastole, the Basque-language school were having recess.

We threaded our way through them and headed further upwards. One of the things I liked best about these walks was watching the towns and villages recede as we climbed. I took lots of pictures, but they hardly ever replicated the experience. The lens foreshortens everything and makes the distances look like nothing at all.

It wasn’t far from Itziar to Deba, only about three kilometres. Unfortunately, it was nearly straight down.descending nearly three hundred metres to the sea.

The way was lovely, with the road banks crammed with wildflowers in bloom. Ana and I feasted on wild strawberries. But the last section, on paved roads, and what was likely a 1 in 3 grade literally did me in. Gisbert and Margi went on ahead, while Ana insisted on keeping me company. I felt like such a wimp but I was in extreme pain. I was thrilled to see the town at the foot of the last hill, until I saw that to get to it I had to go down several sets of stairs. When I got to the foot of those I had to laugh because before me was an escalator, and just beyond that was a series of two elevators which led to the town proper. Somehow, seeing those made me feel better. Even the people of Deba recognized how ridiculous it was to be climbing down a cliff.

Elevators. Best. Invention. Ever.

Friday, November 18, 2011


While I'm thinking about food, I want to wax poetical about membrillo, a most unlikely confection. It isn't a very nice word, admittedly. It sounds more like the inside of a cow's stomach than the jewel-like cube of sweety fruity goodness that it is. In English it is quince paste. I don't really like the sound of that either, as it conjures up memories of flour paste and primary school craft projects gone wrong.

Quinceslook like a cross between an apple and pear, and smell like flowers. Unfortunately, when raw, they are dry and coarse to the touch, more like cardboard than anything else I can think of, and I haven't yet got up the nerve to put one in my mouth. But if you boil them up with lemon peel and water and then add an equal volume of sugar to the resultant puree, you get a beautiful ruby coloured gel, which holds its shape and can be sliced or cubed, and paired with cheese. I've eaten it sliced thin and very dry with an aged Manchego, and bright yellow and fresh tasting. My fondest memory of it was at a communal dinner in Ribadiso. It had come from a local cafe, and was soft and salmon pink. We had it with a huge round of the local Arzua Ulloa cheese, which was buttery and seemed to melt in our mouths. A peak culinary experience if ever there was one.

The closest thing I can get to membrillo here is the Portugese mermelada, which is essentially the same thing, but since its mass produced and comes in a plastic tub, it lacks the vividness of colour and essence of the good life in Iberia.

So, to remedy that, I decided to make my own. I had trouble finding quinces locally so I begged some from my daughter, who works in a toney Italian grocery store in the big city. After that it was easy. Boil, puree in the food mill,

add the sugar, boil and boil and boil and simmer and simmer and simmer, and bake in a slow oven....unfortunately, not quite slow enough. After several hours of this nonsense it was the right colour, except around the edges where it was decidedly blackened. It didn't look like it would set into a block, but I let it cool and hoped for the best. It tastes delicate and looks fresh, but is definitely jammy rather than gel-ly. It should look like this.

But, it looks like this.

I have found some more quinces, and will try again, since I seem to have eaten the whole batch! Membrillo Mach II, coming up!


After lunch, we reconnoitred on the main street and headed for the hills. We travelled up and up passing by small aldeas, or hamlets, some with oranges and roses growing in the gardens. In one small place, San Prudentzio, we passed a large building where we heard gorgeous singing coming from a basement room. The windows were frosted so we couldn’t get a look at the singers, but since it was Sunday, and the music sounded liturgical (angelic, even) we decided it must be a choir practice or a church service in progress. We passed vineyards planted with grapes for txakoli, the famous local white wine, too sour and resinous for my liking.

We entered a small village with friendly gray ponies and a donkey pastured near a a church so squat and square it looked fortified.

We met lots of farm animals that day, especially donkeys, some of whom were eager to beg for scraps of food; others more intent on “horseplay” or “pequenos jaleos”—little battles, about sex mostly.

After Azkizu, the land started to drop off sharply, and by the time we reached the paved road on the outskirts of Zumaia, the slopes were very steep indeed. I had fallen behind the other three, and was in a lot of pain. I had to go down the last hill (read cliff) backwards, with Ana and Margi taking turns to steer me by hanging onto the ends of my hiking poles, while I held the grips. We must have looked like some kind of crazy train! It sure helped with the pain though.

As we walked into the town, where we had decided to stay, we passed an ancient ermita with beautiful lush gardens which had become an art museum featuring the works of Zuloaga, a famous local artist, with some Zubaran and El Greco thrown in for good measure. Despite our tiredness, Ana and I determined to come back the two kilometers and see it when it opened at 5.00. In the meantime we crossed a bridge over the Urola River, where locals were fishing, hopelessly and disgustedly. All they were catching were shrimp. This was the second time we’d been told of the failure of the local fishery. As if to prove it, there were rotting fishing boats on the river bottom. It was a shame to see these beautiful wooden craft, gracefully curved at each end, holed and covered in green algae. We also saw a large blue shipyard building with BALENCIAGA emblazoned on it. Apparently they specialize in tugboats. I guess the marine heritage of Zumaia isn’t completely lost.

There was a really attractive promenade along the far shore of the river. Zumaia looked pretty prosperous, although there were a few streets away from the front which looked a bit grim. There were lots of bars and restaurants, and even at 10 at night I found a farmacia where I could by ibuprophen crème for my knees. We found a private albergue in a grand old house. The owner was very kind, and if the surroundings weren’t quite up to scratch, his openness and willingness to be of service had to count for something. He let me use his own internet to send a message home. His kids had left it sticky and with missing keys, but it was better than nothing. Internet cafes, which had been all the rage on my last visit, had been replaced by texting. Eventually, I joined the ranks of those who had no cellphone in the locutorios. Me and the African and South American immigrants.

There were loads of Senegalese all along the north coast. Some had come as fisherman, while others arrived looking for any work at all. One fellow with whom I had a long conversation told me that he and his brother had come to Spain because it was too hard to get papers for France. He had made great progress in learning Spanish, in less than a year. In another village, I saw children with deep brown skins, some African, some Arab shouting in Euskara with the other children, completely integrated. To be a Basque, you must speak Basque.. It appears to be a sufficient condition. My respect for these people was increasing daily!

We had arrived fairly early in the day, so there was time to do laundry before going out to find supper. We had decided to eat out, since we didn't really like the look of the outdoor kitchen in the albergue. We did have some tea there, and got to know some more peregrinos. One pair of Norwegian sisters whom I'd seen in Orio were there, and were quite friendly and eager to chat. They were redoubtable women, aged 63 and 74. I think this was their sixth Camino, and they'd done others in Norway too. They gave me some ointment for my knee, along with the story of how the older of the two sisters had walked two hundred kilometres on a broken leg on her last Camino, after a fall. They were to become our walking companions as far as Bilbao.

Later, Ana and I went back across the river on complaining legs to the museum, only to find it closed. Such a disappointment! I'd have to wait until Bilbao to encounter paintings by Zuloaga.

I forget what the reasons were, perhaps just that it was Monday, but none of the restaurants seemed to be serving food. We went to a couple of bars, and got whatever we could. We were too early even for tapas. I had some merluza and some sidra. Its a funny thing but walking reduces rather than increases one's hunger.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


It was Sunday morning, and as we set off from Rosa’s we could hear the church bells ringing. A stylishly dressed matron hurried by us, late for Mass. Her bright red jacket was a cheery note on a grey and misty morning.

I’d read in the guidebooks how one of the frustrations of the Camino del Norte was the up and down nature of the walk. I could begin to understand it. For every crossing the many rivers flowing into the Cantabrian Sea we had to descend steeply, only to ascend just as precipitously on the other side. I often think I could climb Everest, but getting down would kill me. My knees were beginning to complain about the sharp descents.

We crossed the Rio Orio on a bridge and passed through the industrial part of town. Soon the road gave way to a flowery, hillside trail, with lovely views of caserios, including Rosa’s, in the soft green hills above the town. One of the oddest things for a Canadian on the Camino in spring is to see roses in full bloom while the leaves on the trees are barely showing. Another shocking sight is the crosses commemorating the fallen from the Civil War, one of which we found by the side of the trail overlooking the village. It was quite horrible to imagine someone being killed in such a beautiful place in the woods, possibly in sight of his own home. I suppose in the Pais Vasco, the cross might equally well commemorate an ETA casualty, instead.

Soon we were out in the country walking on minor paved roads. The air was fresh and the grey seas refreshing. There was rain threatening in the distance, but for now we were dry and happy, except on the downhills. By midmorning we had covered the 7km to Zarautz, where we stopped for a break. We walked through the town which looked as if it did a thriving tourist trade. Ana was searching for the casco viejo, the old town, and being Ana, found it without difficulty. We stopped at a bar on the Plaza Mayor. Gisbert and the ladies had a beer and some tapas. I stuck to café con leche, to which I admit, cheerfully, I am addicted. The rain had started to fall, but it was the friendly siri miri , or sea mist, for which the region is famous, and didn’t stop us from enjoying the walking.

We walked together and apart, sometimes one with another, sometimes all together, but always in sight of one another. We chose the coastal route out of Zarautz on an amazing promenade, beautifully paved in stone, with gleaming decorative stainless steel railings, extending an amazing 4 km to the next town of Getaria.

Everyone from both towns seemed to be out enjoying the day. There was heavy pedestrian traffic going both ways. What a great opportunity, I thought, for people to enjoy some exercise and see the sights. It would have been a lovely walk to one town or the other, for some lunch and some wine, and a stretch of the legs in the brisk sea air on the way home to wear it off.

We saw a bit of a shipwreck on the way, a fairly sizeable sailboat capsizing, and other boats in the vicinity coming to the rescue of the crew. As we approached Getaria, we could see the aptly named island, El Raton, (the mouse) sitting off from shore with its humpy back and a small crest looking like ears, very naturalistic.

In Getaria, just by one of the many statues of Juan Sebastian Elcano, the town’s most famous son, we were drawn down the hill by the sight of a crowded street bedecked with pennants, with a Cathedral at its foot.

I think Ana and Margi were contemplating another fish fry, but at 60 Euros for two, it seemed rather too extravagant for lunch. Instead, we sat on a plaza above the harbour, sharing our bread and cheese and a bottle of sidra, which Ana had wormed out of one of the tony restaurants on the front. Below us we could see the local fishing fleet, decked out in red, white and green, the colours of the Basque flag, which fluttered above the boats. A market was also in full swing, odd on a Sunday, I thought.

Behind us was another statue of Elcano, who was with Magellan on his circumnavigation of the globe, and who, when Magellan died enroute, completed the venture! No surprise there! I was starting to realize that to live and thrive in the Basque country, you had to be as tough as nails. Those high hills, that wild sea, and the rain all work together to create hardy self-reliance. Elcano was variously a soldier, merchant captain, debtor, explorer, mutineer, a commander who survived several mutinies, tribal warfare and foul weather. He died of malnutrition somewhere in the Pacific Ocean on his second voyage, but not before receiving a title which he could pass on to his (illegitimate) son. I’ve since learned that Getaria is also the birthplace of the fashion designer Balenciaga, an explorer of a different sort.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


Lost AND Found....wherein the peregrina loses her way, finds a menhir, a magical bar, and several kind people.

Before long I had reached the summit of Monte Igueldo. I followed the yellow arrows across a road, and into the parking lot of a bar. I soon saw one of the wooden montones which mark the Camino in the Basque country.Thetrail was taking me toward the sea. Fantastic! I couldn’t wait to get away from the urban area and I was thrilled with how wild things looked. Thrilled for a little while at least. In about half an hour, though there were yellow arrows aplenty, it became clear to me that if this was the Camino, it was a highly alternative route or perhaps, indeed, a former route. I stopped at a little menhir on a saddle between the mainland and a near island to rest and snack. I couldn't see any trail going on from there, but I had no interest in going back the way I had come, so I pressed on. I was nearly down the other side of the hill near the rocky shore when it became crystal clear to me that I would have to climb back up again and try to find the right road. I was hot and tired. My feet ached and I needed to go to the bathroom.

I passed some sheep huts and saw lots of footprints, both of sheep and men. At one point, I found myself walking on what had once been a tarmac road, but which was quickly reverting to nature. A little later and a little higher, I came upon some huge sections of tarmac which were uprooted, and lying at crazy angles, as if there had been a highly localized earthquake. I decided that it must be a municipal dump of some sort, but there was no choice but to climb up and hope that nothing tottered when it should have teetered. After some pretty major bushwacking, I came out of the undergrowth into a field which led to a lane which led to a road. There were markers advertising a pequeno recorrido, a local walking trail, and I followed it west, hoping that it would, at some point, hook up with the Camino Proper.

I knew I had to be on the right track when I entered a small suburban neighbourhood. I flagged down the first person I saw and asked him the way. He wasn’t a local but was visiting a family to whom he took me. They were wonderful! They assured me that I was on the Camino already and would soon see a yellow arrow. Then they invited me in for a chicken barbecue. I was sorely tempted, but declined. It was such a relief to know I was heading the right way!

Soon I was walking on a section of Camino what was also part of the Gran Recorrido, a system of paths which are intended to make Europe one continuous walking path. This part went up and down the hills along the coast. There were beautiful white farms set into the hills; glorious on a day like this, but perhaps a little forbidding in winter

As the road went ever onward, I was rather wishing I had gone for the chicken barbecue. I had drunk the water they’d given me, and was getting no satisfaction from my map, since I didn’t know if the Camino I was on was the main route or the alternative shown in the guide. I was just wondering how many extra kilometers I had let myself in for when, by Camino magic, the Bar Nikolas appeared by the side of the road. I was thrilled and relieved. I still didn’t know where I was, but here was a source of water, toilets, a place to sit down, and best of all, Coca Cola. There is something about the Camino which makes me crave its throat-stripping, insulin-boosting, sweetness. I had two!

Just after the bar, I understood that I was on the alternative route, since the road disappeared and the Camino went through some beautiful ferny woodland on a dirt footpath, with paved sections here and there. It was very quiet and still, and just a teeny bit spooky, since it was that mid-afternoon time that is always a bit creepy when you are on your own. There were signs on the gates telling you not to let the wild horses out, which made me want to see the wild horses. Later someone reminded me that the horses were food animals, which made me want to leave all the gates open. There were lots of ups and downs and sharp bends, especially when the trail left the woods and came into open grasslands. There were all sorts of trails made by animals and fourwheelers. You had to keep a pretty close eye on the markers to make sure you were still on the right track. Pretty soon I could see and hear the main highway up above on the top of the ridge, so I thought I must soon come to Orio where the albergue was. No such luck! The road seemed interminable. At one point, as I was crossing a style and talking to some inquisitive donkeys, I was surprised by a cycling peregrino. I felt a little silly getting caught like that!

I saw an hermitage up on the hill and thought, “Aha!, at last”. My albergue was supposed to be very close to the hermitage of St. Martin. This, however, was some other hermitage, and I still had miles to go. When I came to the hamlet of Aupe, there was a sign telling me that Santiago was now a mere 787 km away. This was not as daunting to me as the fact that Orio was still 2.4 (Spanish ) kilometres distant, and that the path seemed to be heading down a cliff. I plunged down into the woods below. All was very beautiful except for the new A-8 highway I could see in the valley. The road was obviously an ancient one, made of red sandstone cobbles. They were high and domed and slick. I had to pick my way very carefully, and my knees were starting to protest. My mind was starting to get a bit desperate and my body was very tired.

As I neared the road it looked as if the Camino came to an abrupt stop, but some makeshift yellow arrows marked the detour to the new route, a tunnel under the A-8. If I had had to cross that crazy highway, I might just have given up and gone home. I wanted to do that too, when I realized that on the other side of the valley, I had to climb a road almost as steep as the one I’d just come down. At least this one was paved. I passed the hermitage of St. Martin with scarcely a look. I just wanted my albergue!

I met a couple out for an evening stroll, and asked them if they knew the Albergue de Rosa. They didn’t but were happy to help me look for it as we came into the outskirts of Orio. There was a large house on the left which looked promising. It had no sign but on the front porch were lots of symbols of Basque agricultural heritage, wooden shoes and the like. I told the couple I would ask at this place. As I went up the walk, a woman wearing an apron rushed out, and grabbed me in a hug. “You must be the Canadian!” Putting two and two together, and wiping soapsuds off my face, I exclaimed “You must be Rosa!”. De veras! I felt like the lost sheep and the prodigal son rolled into one! Such a welcome! Ana and Margi hugged and kissed me and told me how worried they had been that I was lost. The couple with whom I had been walking wondered what had become of me, and came round the back to make sure that this was the place. My energy roared back. Suddenly I was having a great day.

Ana and Margi were going into Orio to have some fish roasted on open hearths, and they invited me to go with them, but I had done enough walking for one day. I opted to take my supper with Gisbert and two French couples, in Rosa’s little cabana overlooking the beautiful hills on the other side of the Orio river. Rosa was a great cook, and the company was good. The day was saved.

Friday, November 11, 2011


By the next morning the four of us were bonded. Nothing was said, but all of a sudden we moved in a group. We breakfasted together in the main square, boarded a little tugboat for the short hop across the inlet to Pasaia San Pedro, and started up the mountain.

At breakfast, I learned that our two ladies were Anna and Margi, childhood friends having a short holiday together. Anna, or Ana, as she is now called, is a Swiss woman who married a Spanish architect and who has lived in Madrid for the best part of forty years. She worked as a translator, which was a bonus for me because she became my interpreter with Margi. Ever since I’d been learning Spanish, my highschool French seemed to have been squeezed out of my ears. I could understand what Margi said, but found it difficult to express myself. Margi had French and German, and Gisbert spoke excellent English, so we managed to play ‘broken telephone’ quite well.

Despite our inability to converse, Margi and I seemed to have a connection. She was warm and humorous despite a somewhat dolorous exterior. Ana was lively, and somewhat arch, and laughed at every opportunity. She was also a person who liked things done to her satisfaction, and wasn’t above the odd grumble. She was also really good at getting things for us, like lunch, outside the usual hours. My mother would call her a “going concern”. She was forever being called on her cellphone by friends in Madrid, or her daughter, with wedding plans. “hello, darling” is a phrase I will always associate with Ana. In my mind, I called her my Hispano-Suisa. Gisbert took a bit longer to know, and had depths I would not have suspected.
Once across the water, we set out for a walk that was advertized as strenuous but worth the effort. Right on both counts. We watched a crew of lifeboat rowers out for their Saturday morning training session. Lifeboat racing is a HUGE deal on the Bay of Biscay, with regattas held in almost every town of any size. These lads were relatively young, and very fit and jaunty in their purple jerseys. We walked along the front for the best part of a kilometer before starting the climb. We came round a corner to see a set of concrete stairs hugging the side of a cliff. Very well, I thought, I can do this.

Straight up they went, and round the curve of the rocks, to the next set, and the next, and the next. All told, I think there must have been five sets of stairs stretching up several hundred feet. I remember the watching the lighthouse which we’d encountered at the top of the second flight of steps getting smaller and smaller as we climbed above it.

Finally we reached the road which curved round the hill, still not quite at the top but close enough. The view was entirely worth the effort. Huge cliffs stretched away to the west, and the lesser hills were covered in wild flowers. The sea crashed away at the base of the rocks, and I felt very free, and happy that my body had weathered the effort of the climb. After that we walked on a footpath all the way to San Sebastian, meeting people out for a morning constitutional, and at one point finding ourselves in the midst of a cross country footrace, and having to step off the path to let the runners go by.

We walked as a group down the first promenade in the city. I marvelled at the sunbathers and water bathers so early in April. San Sebastian’s two beaches were fully developed and we were to be walking on pavement for the next several kilometers. We parted ways at the end of the first promenade as we went in search of food. Margi and Ana were going somewhere specific, and I’m sure that neither Gisbert nor I knew where we were going at all.

What a gracious town! Of course there was the usual spate of construction marring the facade, but I was impressed at the prosperous feel of the place and the beautiful fin de siecle architecture. This was after all, a royal watering place. The central plaza was aglow with flowerbeds, and full of laughing children out for a walk with their parents. There was plenty to amuse them, swings and monkeybars and an amazing carousel, with dolphins, horses, carriages; just about any ride you could imagine, all lit up with fairy lights and surmounted by double tailed mermaids.

About midway down the second beach, I found a tourist café that catered to Spanish tourists, where I had some water and tea and some tapas. It felt great to sit down in the relative darkness and take a load off my very hot feet. Refreshed, I carried on to a park at the end of the beach where I took off my shoes and socks and rested. Because I was starting to get some "hot spots", I took the precaution of regreasing my feet with Vaseline, and put my silicone toe protectors in place. I had learned last time to take preventative measures rather than wait until I was injured.

The Camino now entered a residential area and began to climb up the ridge of Monte Urgull. At the top, there was an amusement park which, mercifully, one bypassed, but it might have been nice to take the funicular.
About halfway up, I came across Gisbert, who was sitting on a low wall, obviously in a state of meditation. He nodded, but it was clear to me that he preferred me to go on, so I did.


The albergue I was looking for was newly opened and the buzz on the internet was that it was a good place to stay. I arrived before it opened, and spent a relaxing hour in the shade of an old wall, eating nuts and exposing my feet to the cool air. I unpacked my bag and got out my shoes. I’d had enough of boots for the time being. When the hospitalero arrived, he ceremoniously poured me a glass of water, for which I was mightily grateful. He showed me around and I got clean. Soon after the bearded peregrino arrived. He introduced himself as Gisbert, from Hanover. The afternoon passed pleasantly.

I sat in the kitchen talking with Gisbert about his first camino; and looking at blossoming trees in the garden. Each time I went to check on my laundry flapping, but, mysteriously, not drying in the strong afternoon breeze, I encountered a young teenage couple necking unabashedly behind the albergue, seemingly continuously for several hours.

After I’d had some rest, I braved the stairs down from the church to the town below. I was feeling strange about travelling down through what would have been people’s yards had they been on solid ground;a little like being a kid taking the short cut through other people’s backyards; trespassing. But in fact, these were public stairs which happened to get dressed up with plants and sculptures. Evidently, people require an outdoor outlet for their creativity. All the restaurants in town were pretty pricey, so I opted for groceries. This was probably a bad idea, since the place is a bedroom community for San Sebastian. The places which sold food were poorly stocked. Eventually, I found some cheese and stale bread. I passed the house where Victor Hugo famously stayed. It was a big deal to the local tourist economy, but I discovered that he was only there for a week or so, and didn’t achieve any great literary conquest while he was there. I also passed a shrine commemorating a real conquest, of the Basques over Charlemagne, but didn’t realize it until later.

I remember the resolute closedness of the restaurants, the sound of shoe heels on the empty stone streets, echoing louder under the arcades. The open stares of local teenagers when I sat down on a bench overlooking the harbour. The pro-Basque, anti-Spanish posters plastered on the decrepit building facades, and the ETA flags flying gaily from the jettied balconies of the ancient houses.

As ever, I was struck by the fact that its almost impossible to take a photograph of a building in its entirety, so closely and higgledy-piggledy has development been throughout the ages. Because I couldn’t have (or didn’t choose to afford) any decent food, I was feeling bereft. But when I returned to the albergue, our host had just finished cooking up a tortilla of egg and tomato for himself and his invigorating friend, Saturnino. Saturnino was a force of nature; trim, energetic, his tanned face creased with laugh lines, his mouth crested by a luxuriant yet well-kempt moustache .He seemed to have an endless supply of information; his generosity was boundless, and his enthusiasm was infectious

We, for Gisbert was there too, sat at the table with them. Gisbert had purchased a bottle of wine which he shared with me, and we ate our bread and cheese while Saturnino told inexhaustible tales in Spanish about how the albergue came to have a mosaic of Che Guevara on the wall of the diningroom and of the superiority of Basque sidra, which he more or less forced us to taste. After supper, he took us to admire the church, told us of his recent wedding (second, I’m sure–he was a handsome devil), with a dissertation also on Basque wedding customs. He also took us up into the belfry to see his pride and joy, a medieval clock which he kept wound and greased and in perfect working order.

By the time we left the church, the sun had gone down and the lights were twinkling across the water. There was a gorgeous full moon rising in the blue-black sky. As Saturnino was locking the door, two exhausted looking peregrinas came round the corner. They had gotten lost on Day One! They’d ended up on the seashore, quite a long way down and a long way back up from the trail. The four of us spent what was left of the evening lying on our little cots, sharing our aches and pains in the pilgrim way, making light of it and laughing with one another each time someone let out an involuntary groan.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


A Long Day's Journey into Mid-Afternoon

Leaving Hondarribia was easily accomplished, but taxing. Beginning on the outskirts of the town the Way went essentially straight up. When I got to the Sanctuario de Guadelupe, I was ready for a good rest.
I'd already consumed my water and I was only about four kilometres into it. I'd been able to see the Sanctuary almost the whole way up the near-cliff like slopes of Monte Jaizkabel. In the neatly groomed suburbs, I came upon an early morning ambulance call for an elderly man. Nothing like a heart attack to start your day, and nothing like the reminder of human frailty to start your Camino Proper. On my walk, I saw only one other pilgrim, a middle-aged bearded man with a huge backpack, who caught up with me as I was peering through the windows of a small ermita about halfway up. I said hello, but he didn't acknowledge me.

I needed to fill my bottles, but hesitated at the fountain in the courtyard of the sanctuary. The icon showed a tap with a stroke through it, and after the digestive woes of the first camino, I didn't want any trouble. A local man who was resting on a bench while his wife went inside to make her devotions assured me that the water from the fountain was in fact, fantastic, coming from a spring further up the mountain. The icon was merely to indicate that the water was untreated. Potentially suspect. I took him at his word, and did not suffer for it. Later I read that there is a healing spring at the sanctuary, good for skin conditions in particular. I wonder if that was the one?

The sanctuary was about to be inundated by busloads of the faithful, so I pressed on, after enjoying the great view across the valley of the Bidasoa. Almost immediately I was presented with a detour because of roadworks, but because there was no other way to go, I headed into the construction site.Huge earthmoving machines were gnawing a deep trench beside the established Camino path. The workers looked at me as if they'd never seen a pilgrim in their lives. Disconcerting. And irritating, because I knew for certain they'd seen at least one other that morning. However, soon the path diverged up a vertical rock face to a flat picnic area and I left the machine noise behind.

The bearded man was lying in the sun, resting on his backpack. His eyes were closed and he was smiling. I now had a choice. I could walk along the road to the village of Pasajes, a level route by Spanish standards, and only ten kilometres, or I could take the "alpinist" route up Monte Jaizkabel. It was longer, but promised wonderful views, and I knew there were a number of ancient monuments up there. And I liked to think I was up to the challenge. About halfway up the vertical climb to the ridge along the top of the hill, I began to wonder if I'd made the right decision, but following my motto..."forward, only forward!" I persisted.

The view from the top was worth it. I could see the long beaches of the French coast laid out as if with a ruler. I looked down into the smoky valley at all the little towns lining the river's edge. In
front of me was the vast and sparkling expanse of the Bay of Biscay. As I looked along the ridge to the west, I saw a string of watchtowers, and what looked like a fort on the highest pinnacle. The air was clear and the sun was shining. It felt like the right thing to do. The alternative would have been 10 km by road along the shoulder of the mountain. That didn’t sound like much fun at all. In retrospect, it would have been kinder to my body to take that route, but I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the fun and excitement of being in the high places.
I met lots of pilgrims up there, more than I would have imagined. Long lean French pensioners; Spanish ex-fishermen who’d been to Canada more times than they could count. The walk weighed very lightly on them. They carried only their water supply, and some didn’t even have shirts! They were planning to go to Pasajes or San Sebastian. I have no idea where their backpacks might have been. As usual, all were much quicker walkers than I.

I was more than content to traipse along the spine of the hill. I sat by one of the watchtowers, the Torre Santa Barbara, to eat the provisions I’d purchased in Hondarribia. As I sectioned a delicious Spanish orange, I looked back over the town, and inland along the valley, obscured in places by some kind of industrial smoke. On the other side of the river, I could see other ridges like the one I was sitting on and marveled, as I often do, about the immense size of the world. If we had to go everywhere on foot, we could wander for a lifetime, and there would be more than enough to occupy us.

The sun was hot, and the way was long, though not particularly difficult once the initial climb had been achieved. The trail was mostly over open fields, some containing tough looking little horses. Almost always, I could see the ocean to my right. I did my usual first day foot pampering, changing my socks and applying Vaseline to my feet. At one concrete cross, I had a little lie down, and drank the last of my water. There was no explanation as to why the cross was there, but I had a pretty shrewd idea that it had something to do with the fallen of the Civil War. Other wars had left physical remnants too. The watchtowers were medieval, and one of them had been a rebel hideout in the Carlist wars of the mid-nineteenth century.

I decided not to go up to the fortress of Guadalupe at the very pinnacle, because it seemed an excessive climb if one was only going to drop down again. I decided to follow what looked to me like a yellow arrow off to the right. It turned out to be a flower. Eventually, after having to backtrack one field’s length, I found a stile and got onto a paved track, which ran between the sea and the hill on which the ruins of the fort are located. That suited me fine.

There were much older monuments than any of these forts. Along the ridge lay several ancient tombs, dolmens mainly. One of these, was most impressive, with a tall slab of stone on end in the centre. Someone had marked it with an inscription “Mendiabal“. As I learned later, Mendi means hill in the Basque language, Euskara. They had also marked it with a cross in a circle, which I found irritating, in the same way that the superimposition of a cross on the stone piles at Cruz de Ferro had bothered me. It seemed completely unnecessary, and in the case of the menhir, it struck my conservator’s mind as a defacement of an ancient monument.

On the far side of the hill surmounted by the fortress, I could see San Sebastian in the distance. The way down the hill was precipitous, and I had to pick my way amongst boulders, and pay attention. The sun had started to beat me up a bit, and I was feeling the lack of water. My guidebook showed a village not too far away, so I was looking forward to some refreshment there. I was worried because it was getting close to two o’clock and everything would be shut. I needn’t have worried, because there was nothing there anyway except a couple of farms and a short street of houses. Everything had that hollow stillness of a place where no-one is home.
I was practically despondent, and definitely dehydrated by this point. I sat down in a small patch of shade by the garage of a shuttered house. I couldn’t walk another step.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune when, a few minutes later, I heard someone come out of the house. I scooted round to the steps leading up to the door and saw a woman, probably about my age, with her gardening gloves on. Apparently, it wasn’t just me and the mad dogs out at this time of day.
“Buenas tardes! Puedo pedirle de aqua, por favor?” Even in my semi-delirious state, I was proud of myself for getting the verb construction right! Of course, she was more than happy to help. I drank the entire bottle right down. How far is it to Pasaia? I asked.
She said that I was almost there, just had to go down some steps. Duh! Sure enough, just round the corner the steps down into Pasajes began, and continued for a couple of kilometres.


So, things were not going as planned, but it wasn't so bad. I was glad of the chance to stretch my legs and get the feel of the pack. I had no idea where I would stay when I arrived, but I was sure I would find somewhere to stay, since Hondarribia is set up for tourists, and advertised as a lovely fishing village. The entire 4 km was on sidewalks and there were no hills except the one the town was built on. I soon discovered that Hondarribia is actually a walled medieval town, with ornate gates, cobbled streets, a huge parish church and in the plaza at the top of the hill, a fortified palace, which is now a parador. I walked to the wide open end of the plaza, on a bluff overlooking the sea, and a flock of white sailboats over on the French side, and thought "THIS is why I come to Spain!". The view, the air, the ambience were glorious. The rest of the town was just as picturesque. There was a street of nineteenth century hotels, and a labyrinth of older streets. I was wandering down one of them when I came to the little hotel which I had fallen in love with on the internet, and decided to try my luck at the Hotel Palacete. To my great joy and relief, there was a room available. It was a tiny, expensive room, full of a double bed and a television. It had its own bath, with pocket doors to save space, and it looked out on a small cobbled lane and the Plaza de las Cadenas--which, true to its name was bound with huge chains, probably from ships, I thought. I didn't mind that it was small and expensive, because to get to it, I had to climb an ancient, spiral stone staircase. How exceptionally cool is that! I found some food and some sunscreen in the lower town, and did my laundry in the sink like a good and prudent pilgrim. I fell asleep to the sounds of the children playing soccer in the plaza.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Its always a surreal experience moving from your quotidien world to a different one. It takes a long time too. The drive to the airport was embellished with drifting snow, just to emphasize that I was heading for a big change. It was winter in Canada, but halfway through the spring in Spain.

I arrived dutifully early, and checked in with no difficulty. I headed for the bookstore once I’d checked my bag, choosing the only thing which really appealed, a historical novel about the fireworks industry in London.

As we boarded the plane, I looked longingly at the legroom in business class.....someday, someday.....

What can one say about the getting there except that it is far less than half the fun. It is interminable. An airport is an airport is an airport, with the exception of Frankfurt which is the most boring airport EVER. And I spent five hours there waiting for my flight to Bilbao.

I loved the flight from Frankfurt to Bilbao because for much of it I could see Europe below me, the river valleys with their settlements, the odd Alp, and the vast patchwork of agricultural land. Coming down into Bilbao was impressive. The red tile roofs amidst the green hills and the glittering sea were lively and beautiful. From Bilbao, I backtracked by bus and train to Irun on the French border. I had researched those connections very well, and had the route memorized. Of course, on the ground it was much less straightforward, and looked nothing like the picture I had created in my head. It was so much more. There were smells, and colours, and people and traffic to avoid. And there were hills!

Such hills! When I wasn’t worrying that I was somehow in the country illegally since no-one, uniformed or otherwise, wanted to look at or stamp my passport at the airport; I would look up, (way way up), at the misty tops of those green swathed hills, and gulp at the idea of going up there. What had I let myself in for?

After 25 hours of travelling, I arrived in Irun on the Spanish side of the Bidasoa river. France was on the other side. I left the train station going in what I thought was the right direction, which it was, but I could not find the albergue nohow. I asked the locals; I backtracked a bit. No-one could help me, and all my preparation was for naught. Yellow arrows, on the other hand, I could find, so I followed them. Walking to the next town was not really what I had planned to do with the rest of my day, but that was the way things were turning out.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


I've been away from this and away from home but I'm back again. I'm going in a slightly different direction for a while though. I'm going to put up excerpts from my travel journals. My latest BIG trip was to Spain where I walked much of the Camino del Norte, a smidgen of the Camino Primitivo, and the home stretch of the Camino Frances. It was my second Camino and a very different experience from my first, proving the old adage that you can't step into the same river twice. I saw and experienced my share of wonders, but I will extend beyond my usual theme to include a simple narrative with pictures. I'm feeling a bit chilly-footed about making some of my thoughts public, so I shall be selective.

To set the stage, I'm throwing in some writing from the winter before my trip. Its interesting to me, in retrospect to see what I worried about, and how these worries played out or didn't. There's a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy at work on some issues, but other fears were entirely groundless!

Here goes.

This time round, it should be much easier, because I know what to expect, to some degree. I know what clothes to take, I know which shoes will be comfortable, and I know about Compeed. I know that although I am going alone, I will almost certainly meet other pilgrims with whom I can share the experience.

The volume of pilgrims will probably be less than a tenth of what I experienced on the Camino Frances. There, even in April, I was in a cadre of at least one hundred people on the same road each day. Here, if I am lucky, there might be ten. Unless there is some factor which has recently come into operation, such as pilgrims wanting to avoid the crowded French camino. That might have been true in 2010, the Holy Year, but what will happen in 2011 is anybody’s guess.

When I walked the Camino Frances in 2008, although I met many other pilgrims, during the day I almost always walked alone. This is not the worrisome part of solitude. Security at night is less when there are fewer people. The guidebook I have is very good about introducing one to the hospitaleros one will meet along the way, which is comforting. I have made a pact with myself to never stay alone in an albergue. If that looks as if it will be the case, I will find some other accommodation.

For someone with doubts, I sure spend a lot of time in mental preparation, pretending I’m walking along with my pack on, when really I am walking the dog. I spend a lot of time on line looking for Plan B accommodation. Maybe, as a friend said about her daughter, this is how I quell my fears, by being prepared.

I’ve had slightly chilly feet, on and off, about going by myself. Part of me really wants to be able to share what I see and feel at the time, rather than second-hand, and later. I was reading one of Nuala O’Faolain’s memoirs lately, and was struck by her description of a lonely Christmas Day, and how, sometimes at least, having another person present is a completion. “That together you can unlock the best of the world and the best of yourself”. (Are You Somebody p. 78).

I wonder if, because there are so many fewer pilgrims on this route, if one will see a more authentic Spain. I expect there’ll be much less catering to us. I certainly expect to have to use my Spanish more often.

I bought a silicone bunion protector, even though I have a horror of it and its gooey ways. It reminds me of the wax effigies of various body parts left at the altar in Catholic shrines to give thanks for or in supplication of cures. Touching it gives me a sense of revulsion, too. It feels as if it might be something you’d find in a dark and watery cave, neither animal nor vegetable, but somehow alive. In fact, its mineral. But no matter what my feelings about it might be, so far, I find that it works. I still have a soft spot for Compeed, but if this works as well and is permanent, and won’t tear my skin off, I’ll just have control my feelings and wear it.

I’ve been reading a travel book about Portugal by a guy who glories in the name of Datus C. Proper, an American diplomat. Something he had to say about the difference between travellers and hunters resonated for me, especially as it illuminates the differences I perceive between men and women as they travel.

“Travel is extensive, hunting intensive. Travelers escape; hunters arrive. Travelers look for divertissement, like Pascal. Hunters don’t want to be distracted. Travelers think hunters are primitives. Hunters think travelers are lost. Chatwin the traveler wrote that” If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other God”. It must have been a hunter-gatherer who wrote that “The kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth and men do not see it”. I guess I am a hunter. For what am I hunting?

A reminder that we are one community of humanity

One of the things that this camino is turning out to be about is a chance to think about what I think or believe about God, about Godness. Nice to have figured out what the focus is. Of course that didn’t turn out to be the case at all. I thought a lot about physical limitations, and wondered yet more about whether what was holding me back was as much mental as physical.

Coming home in a snowstorm last night, I prayed to be safe. In times of extremity, I believe almost everyone does this, but to whom or what are we praying and why do we believe that we have the right to do this. As a child, I took to heart the part of the Eucharist which says”we do not presume to come to this thy table, trusting in our own righteousness...” But if we can trust God’s mercy, why are some prayers not answered? Its not a problem we can use science to unravel.

When I went on my Camino last time, I took four pieces of jewellery. One was the first present Nick ever gave me, a scallop shell necklace with lots of dangling shells, on a macrame cord. At that time, I had no idea of the Camino, and only a vague notion that the scallop shell was the pilgrim’s symbol, from skimming the Canterbury tales.

The second was a necklace of juniper seeds and black beads, given to me by a mystical friend, who told me it was made by the Hopi Indians and gave travellers protection. It has become a fetish, an anodyne necklace for me. I always wear it when travelling. If nothing else, it reminds me that my friend wants good things for me. It helps extend the bubble of protection that one likes to feel, the cushioning of knowing one is loved.

The third thing is an antler charm on a string, which is supposed to represent Mishipesshu, the giant water lynx who lives in Lake Superior, and who is responsible for storms and wild conditions on that lake, which really needs no help at all to be terrifying. Steve gave it to me, and I gave the same one to Nick. Mishipesshu is, to me, the God of Uncertainty; a reminder that anything can happen, even catastrophe, and that we are NOT in control of our destiny, despite what precautions we might take. When I hold on to this particular talisman, I try to teach myself to be brave in the face of whatever comes.

All of these seem to tell me that I believe in something.

On a practical level, having experienced one camino, I know that its do-able. Last time, the things which scared me ahead of time were climbing O Cebreiro, 11 km just about straight up, and walking a long straight stretch of 17 km along the Roman Via Triana with no shade or opportunities to stop and rest or get food or water. Those fears turned out to be phantoms. In their place, other problems were much greater. Homesickness and body sickness, to name two.

But this time, I see many more steep climbs on the route, and I am three years older. Never mind that I am 20 pounds lighter and much more fit than I was then. I can still scare myself, no problem. And in the end my fears were realized.
I did hurt my knees and missed out on the Camino Primitivo as a result of my unwillingness to hurt them further. As Gisbert said, a bus ticket is less expensive than a knee replacement. Although I think I may have been looking for outs even before I left, as I took Magda Lewis’s admonition about it being OK to take the bus so to heart.

I think that I might be more of a tourist and less of a Roman soldier on a route march this time, though I’ve left myself precious little space to dawdle. On the other hand, most of the albergues on this route don’t even open until four, so as long as I have the stamina to walk the walk, time shouldn’t be too much of the essence. 71 people did the route in January this year, so the competition for beds shouldn’t be too intense. For the most part this turned out to be true, but I was forced to rent a room one night on the Easter Weekend.

One of the things I have trouble with is wanting it all and knowing I can’t get it. I need to learn acceptance. I have had to say to myself “You will miss the horse race on the beach AND Tito Bustillo at Ribadesella. You will have JUST missed the processions during the week of Semana Santa in Ribadesella. You will also have missed a festival earlier on. Life in Spain goes on, with or without you. Get used to it. Also, by not going for structure, you allow serendipity in. In some ways its enough to know that there is a horse fair going on 10 miles up the road, and that Covadonga really is there, whether or not you get to see it. How funny! This camino ended up teaching me that I am in charge of what happens. If you want to see Tito Bustillo badly enough, you simply rearrange things in order to make it happen!

It is a month to the day before I leave. One of the things which I find most strange is that I will not see my camino pals of old on my journey. How will it be without Ron and Robbie, or Vita? There is a distinct possibility that I will, in fact, see Harold in Santiago. Maybe Harold is like Covadonga? I chose to sacrifice the opportunity to see Harold and Jan in order to go home and see my family. I don’t feel bad about that. I lit a lot of candles for Ron and Robbie and Vita, and one or two for myself. They were with me in spirit.

I’ve opted to take the bus back to Bilbao from Santiago. Its itinerary is almost exactly the Camino de la Costa in reverse. So, in a matter of hours, 10, I will retrace my steps with A Coruna thrown in for good measure (I’ve got a fascination with this place–though I suspect I will see the bus station rather than the Roman Lighthouse). Thirty four days of walking compressed into less than one day. Mind-blowing, really. In the end, although I took the bus back to Bilbao, it was the night bus and went via all the stops on the Camino Frances instead.

It’s two days before departure and I have packed and repacked, winnowed, and added back countless items of clothing and other bumpf. I’m also going through the cold feet stage. I’m terrified that without my steadying influence things will go less than well. Something terrible might happen. From time to time there is a moment of clarity when I realize that I am cutting the apron strings, but that I am also the one hanging on to them. Its like sawing the branch off the tree while you are sitting on it. By leaving I acknowledge that I am expendable. By leaving, I declare that my family and I can be separated, that we are expendable to one another. This is an unpleasant thought to me. But one which will have to be faced eventually.
One of the things that has had to go is my English guide to the Camino. Its heavy, confusingly written and somewhat peevish and old-womanish, full of counsel on avoiding mud, dire warnings against attempting remote, high level sections of the camino if one is on one’s own, and so on. In some ways I’m happy to leave it behind. On the other hand, it does have lots of good information, and is written in a language which I actually understand and speak fluently. I’ve been abstracting information from it and sprinkling notes throughout my Spanish guide to make up for its loss. More apron string cutting! Perhaps it is not necessary for me to have such explicit instructions. Maybe it is better to go forth in the faith that I will find my way. Last time, I had only the most bare-bones instructions and only got turned around once the whole way. Why should this be any different? And anyway, I am “plucky and adventury”. I’m sure I’ll be able to find my way very well, thank you! For the most part, it was easy, even when I lost the arrows in Santander. Keep the sea on your right shoulder and the sun behind you. Go West!
My concession to my fear that I won’t be able to manage is the inclusion of my Spanish/English dictionary. I had thought about only taking one half of it, but have decided that I really do need both languages, so that I can both say what I mean and have my curiosity about Spanish that I see while I am there assuaged. I could just use google translate, but that means saving up words and phrases until I can sit down at a computer. One of the chief characteristics of curiosity is that it needs to be satisfied immediately, or it eats at you. A dictionary is more immediate. But it’s a few ounces I’d rather leave behind.

Then there are the things which people give you, expecting you to take. My mother gave me socks. I received two scarves and some rocks–with special powers. I have to take them.

In the end, I ditched the green scarf and the socks and the dictionary. But I kept the rocks. It just goes to show you what a crazy pagan I am at heart. Google Translate proved to be sufficient, since I understand so much more Spanish than I had even realized

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I spent a happy hour in 1923 today. I was leafing through an old IODE cookbook, that my mom got at an auction. Thats Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire for all you born after 1903. What it lacked in covers and endpapers it made up for in charm and interest. Apart from the printed recipes, it had a patchwork of articles snipped from the newspaper with all sorts of helpful hints for curing sties and cracked fingers, for making paint stick to glass, and other useful nostrums. There were advertisements for long defunct bakeries and candy stores, as well as a full page ad for the Paragon Dishwasher, which operated on the "Shower Bath Principle", with which, I'm sure, you are all familiar. If you'd like to know more, simply visit Paragon Products Limited, 475 Spadina Crescent, Toronto, or telephone Trinity 7038 M.

Several recipes were entered on blank pages, or on foolscap glued in. Mayonnaise Dressing, Chili Sauce, Mince Meat, Mellissa Barr's Lemon Pudding. And while we are dropping names, imagine my surprise as I was leafing through multiple Date Bread recipes (these girls may have been the staunch backbone of the Empire, but they seemed to have a limited repetoire of dishes) I came upon the following entry.

New Moon Pudding--submitted by L.M. Montgomery Macdonald. Holy.....Cow!

This wasn't a celebrity cookbook or anything. But there she was, the writer of my best beloved childhood books, and here I was, observing her in her real everyday clothes, contributing her recipe along with all the other women. The Mrs. William This and Mrs. G. H. That. Of course, something called New Moon Pudding is bound to have some magic in it. I can't wait to make it for Vicky, who loves L.M. even more than I do.

What a treat.

A fox spent TWO happy hours in our backyard today, sunning himself on a patch of open ground. We watched him at intervals, and he saw us, and the dog, but didn't bestir himself at all. In fact, a lot of the time he had his back turned to us, watching the lake and waiting for spring.

Inside, spring is on its way in the form of a blue hyacinth putting out tentative blossoms. The colours are incredible, blue, purple and green, in the most gorgeous and subtle hues.

Sunday, February 20, 2011


Is there anything more soul-satisfyingly blue than a bluejay's back? Bright yet subtle, soft yet striking. Not blue like anything else, really. Perfection.
Photo by Jcart1534 from Wikimedia Commons.


Last night, as I was driving home after dropping Alex at the show, I became aware of something in the ditch by the side of the road. I didn't see it at first, but gradually a shape detached itself from the inky blackness and sped across the road through the path of my headlights. It was blacker than the asphalt and almost without definition, as if a shadow were moving. By its robust silhouette, I could see that it couldn't be a cat. By its athleticism, it couldn't be a porcupine. It was a fisher, out on a night hunt through the scrubby bush.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Ok, well, EYE didn't actually see them, but my friend Wendy, who knows a hawk from a handsaw, did. And while its snowing AGAIN, I was shocked to head back out to work the other night and come to the realization that at 5.41 PM there was actually light in the sky.

I took a picture to prove it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Its been a while! While I can't believe that I haven't seen anything wondrous for six months, I do know that I stopped looking there for a while. Its time to start anew, I think. Today we watched a red-tailed hawk in one of our poplar trees, scoping out the prey scene. I'm hoping he or she hasn't found our bob-tailed squirrel yet. There must be something bringing the hawk to the yard though, because this is the second time in a week we've seen one.

Looking for prey may not have been the motivation this time though. When this hawk took wing and flew north past the window, another rose up from the conifer next to it. Could it be mating season already? Perhaps just the time for a chilly courtship?