Friday, 24 September 2010

An Edinburgh day

It's been a while since I last posted. This was due partly to continuing renovation works in my home and partly to a period of readjusting after the great adventure of the Camino.

But then there was one particular day that just seemed to be the perfect day.

The sun was shining, the sea was flat calm and the leaves of the trees where turning into their autumn colours. My favourite one has to be the horthorn in the garden, who's autumn colours are that of fire, starting on the edges, gradually taking over the whole leaf. There was a smell and temperature that I particularly associate with autumn and it brings about a positive feeling within, inspiring me to make the most of the day. So I started with a great latte at my favourite coffee shop on the promenade, The Beach House, before returning home and packing a rucksack.

Less than one hour later I was setting out from Flotterstone Inn car park in the Pentland hills. The first section was a steep ascent over Turnhouse hill. At the top the wind was blowing strong and I stood for a while looking south across the towns and villages of Penicuik, Roslin and Auchendinny, looking as windswept and interesting as I could. It felt good to be back in the hills.

From there it is virtually a ridge walk, with the path making a short descent and ascent up and over Carnethy hill, down to the saddle below Scald Law, then descending to Loganlea reservoir. A number of fishermen were out on the reservoir, silently bobbing up and down in their little rowing boats. Further on cows were nursing their newborn calves and a family of shags were busy stretching and preening themselves on the shores of Glencorse reservoir.

It was midday by the time I sauntered back into the carpark at Flotterstone, and decided it was time for lunch. I thus tucked into a fine reward for my efforts of roast beef and yorkshire pudding at the inn.

In the afternoon I wandered the streets of Edinburgh with a small shopping list of little items, ticking off each one as I went, enjoying flitting between each shop as I successfully, and very satisfyingly, completed the list.

Later that day I went to the Cameo cinema to see an animation called The Illusionist, by French filmmaker Sylvain Chomet. It had first appeared in the Edinburgh Film Festival but I had missed it. It details the story of the demise of the traditional stage magician, taken over by emerging rock bands and seemingly more exciting acts, and is set in the late 1950's. The animation is beautifully done in warm gentle colours and is mostly set in Edinburgh and the Highlands of Scotland. The renditions of the city were astounding and gave me a warm feeling of pride to live in this city. All this, together with beautiful music and virtually no dialogue, made for an immensely enjoyable experience. The film ends with umbrellas going up and rain falling on the streets, creating silver lines as it runs down the window panes.

As I emerged from the cinema it had started to rain and people's umbrellas were duly being deployed.

It seemed an appropriate end to my perfect Edinburgh day.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

There's something wrong with this picture

Back home I awoke this morning, climbed out of bed, went to the bathroom, then put the kettle on. It didn't seem quite right somehow.

I spent the rest of the morning opening letters, sifting through junk mail, putting on washing and buying a few groceries. I bought my regular weekend newspaper and after a quick glance through, skipping past the death, rape, murder and general demise-of-the-world stories, it ended up in the recycling just a half hour later.

What I felt I should have been doing was stuffing my sleeping bag into it's sack, packing away the tent and loading the panniers onto my bike ready for a new day on the saddle.

I recall saying before I left Santiago that the first thing I would do on Saturday morning was to have bacon croissants. Which I did. The idea of it seemed more attractive than the reality to be honest. I looked at my list of things that I have to do over the next while which create a busy schedule, and realised at that point, that, in reality, they are all just distractions. Things that we think are so important are in actual fact just time fillers, keeping ourselves busy, distracting us from what is really important because of some bizarre hidden fear that we may actually like what we find and give up everything to have it.

For the past three weeks I gave it all up and I never felt so alive. I had very little to consider or prioritise each day other than buying fresh food, finding a place to pitch my tent and planning tomorrows destination with Pauline.

Life back here seems so unnecessarily complicated. We shape our lives gradually, collect possessions and prioritise the most pointless and boring things. We all do this of course. I do it all the time. And I'm bored. I long to be out there, cycling again and being able to say on arrival somewhere new every day: "...and we rode here!"

There are things I really enjoy at home too, of course: the proximity of the beach; coffee at the Beach House; my friends; the convenience of familiar things and places; the highlands of Scotland. I don't take these for granted and indeed appreciate what I have to a fuller degree than before. But the simple way of life that I have just experienced, a way that is entirely sustainable and achievable, and very me, is what I crave. At no time was there an element of everyday stress or worry.

Pauline continues on with the adventure, and I have been fortunate to have been able to join her and witness first hand the joy it brings and I thank Pauline for allowing me to share part of her adventure. The three weeks seemed so much longer at the time, but so short also.

The journey home, from waving goodbye out of the taxi window to arriving in Edinburgh, was a brief ten hours. Such is the instant nature of air travel. It plucks you out of the adventure so instantly, and so clinically, and deposits you so quickly back home, that it contributes to the feeling of never having been away, that it was all a dream you had last night. But it's a dream I'd gladly repeat.

After reading my four blogs you could be forgiven for thinking I felt negatively about the Spanish experience, but actually, on reflection, I would say it is up there with the greatest adventures I've had. It was made all the more memorable by being able to share it with my very special friend. The contrasts of scenery, colours and smells are with me now as I think back. From the vibrancy of the cities to the special little isolated places near mountain tops, bring a tear of emotion for a longing to be there again. Even the challenges of the country's quirks that I laid out in my previous blogs, that now seem trivial, are all part of a sorely missed place.

But most of all, I guess I just miss my friend.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

I´d rather poke my eye out with a sharp stick!

After a relatively easy last 100km, we are now in Santiago de Compostela and the end of the Camino. We´ve been camped on the outskirts for two days, sitting out torrential rain, the first we´ve really encountered, prior to finishing.

It´s been very much a journey of contrasts in scenery, physical effort and hospitality. But before I tell you about the highs of the adventure, let me digress for a moment for a little rant, as is my way.

It may surprise you to learn that the Spanish are a nation of hearing challenged and follow a vampire lifestyle. I know, I´m as surprised as you, but there it is. I have evidence to share with you to prove these two points.

Firstly, if there´s one thing the Spanish do well it´s make a lot of noise. Mostly this comes in the form of standing about twelve inches apart and trying to outdo each other in volume. Not just one at a time though, oh no, that would be far too sensible. This lot prefer four or five in a group, all going for it at once! If it were an Olympic sport Spain would win gold, silver and bronze!

The second of my observations is supported by the fact that virtually nothing is done in this country during daylight hours. However, once the sun has set, and normal folks have pulled their sleeping bags around their ears, out they come, shouting, banging drums, setting off fireworks, clacking castanets or just generally making a noise if they sense it´s getting too quiet! At one point, on the outskirts of Portomarin, a small town of about fifty houses, around midnight, a rock concert to rival Glastonbury kicked off. This was in a town square just 20m by 20m!!! When did it finish? 6.30am, just in time for cornflakes! I felt really sorry for the pilgrims on the trek who were staying in traditional Albergues. They have a curfew imposed on them of 10.30pm when silence must reign. I don´t think anyone told the locals. Portomarin was a very nice town too, and quite unusual. Years ago they had moved the entire town stone by stone to higher ground before flooding the valley for hydro. That night I remember wishing they had left the locals in the valley!

But enough of my ranting I hear you say, what of the rest of the trip since my previous blog on the 1st of September?

This trip was first and foremost about meeting up with my best friend Pauline, on part of her round-the-world cycle. The Camino was a great choice and for me is a separate entity into itself, and Spain just happens to be it´s location.

As we approached Santiago the number of pilgrims increased from tens every mile to literally hundreds, all heading with one single purpose in mind, one joint destination. Some had started just 100km away, others had started from as far away as Sweden and Russia! It had taken us a lazy three weeks to cycle from Logrono, just 400 miles to the east, but here we all were, filtering down to one final path, one final kilometre, that would end at the doors to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago itself is a little bit of an anticlimax. Compared to the impressive structures of the cathedrals and cobbled alleyways of Burgos and Leon, Santiago looked derelict and forgotten. The main cathedral is some what moss-covered and made me think more of Ankor Wat than a cosmopolitan city. On closer examination as we wandered around the narrow, thousand year old cobbled streets, it is evident that Santiago has a somewhat damp climate. Virtually every building is moss and lichen covered and all hotels offer free use of umbrellas. This isn´t for shade I surmise.
This morning we rose early to visit the tomb of St James within the cathedral and the over-the-top baroque interior of the basilica itself, with it´s enormous metre high swinging incense burner, the botafumeiro. Electric candles now adorn the alcoves, presumably to stop the obvious damage from burning candles.

But the adventure is over for me and I must return to Scotland. Pauline continues on to new adventures and we will meet again in some far off country at some future time.

We have experienced dusty, flat, searing hot and barren dustbowls, through abandoned villages and vibrant cosmopolitan cities with their colurful markets and cobbled narrow streets, to high mountain passes and lush forested valleys. We have cruised easily along flat landscapes on roads that are perfectly straight for 5km, or climbed steep ascents for a relentless 35km and down fast descents of 12km or more. I have thoroughly enjoyed every inch of the way, or should I say, Camino.

But what of Spain I hear you ask? When will I return? Well, for the foreseeable furture I prefer to keep that appointment for my eye with a sharp stick!

Want to see the pics? Here´s the link:
You can follow Pauline on her continuing adventure on:

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Yellow Jersey

It´s the 1st of September and today finds us at the last of our big passes in a tiny place called O Cebreiro, about 170km from Santiago, which puts us around three quarters of the way from Logrono where I met up with Pauline.

Last night´s campsite, about 8km past Villafranca del Bierzo, was small and cheap and would have been idyllic apart from one factor: it was infested by flies! This morning we were packed and out of there faster than the last helicopter out of Saigon!

The journey today was great fun, though hard work. It was only 22km but we had 2,500 feet of climbing. And it was relentless. To put that in perspective, we did roughly the equivalent of twelve Royal Miles, loaded with kit. That was challenge enough, but we had just started the climb when the most enormous thunderstorm decided to kick off and putting in that effort in full waterproofs is not the best. It was a welcome relief when we finally topped out at 4,400 feet (1330m) and I claimed the yellow jersey! Pauline says that´s because, bike and kit combined, she´s pushing and pulling more than half her body weight. Does that count? Actually, on the subject of weight, somehow, even with all this excercise and difficulty in finding appropraite food to carry, I´ve managed to gain weight! The muscles in my legs however are finely tuned.

Our first night out of tents was in a town called Astorga in a ¨Pilgrims Albergue¨, which turned out cheaper than camping! Set up on a hill it had many Roman ruins and archealogical digs going on and we both enjoyed the wander through the medieval streets around the large church, which was an architectural mix of Rennaisance and Baroque. In this town, as in many others and sometimes in remote places, we wqould spot manmade large birds´ nests at high points. These are storks nests in the hope a stork will land and nest, as it is seen as good luck.

From Leon to here the scenery gradually started to change from parched earth to a much more lush landscape and an increase in tree cover. Now we are in the mountain region and the landscapes are more familiar. We decided to wild camp at the highest point of the Camino at 1500m (just over 5,000 feet) called Cruz de Ferro. It was a popular place and we waited well past sunset before we could sneak out our tents and pitch for the night. The skies were clear and bright with stars and the silence was bliss, which made for a great nights sleep.

The following day saw an incredibly fast downhill for 12km, which passed through a small pretty settlement called Acebo. There were many warnings about cyclists being killed going through here at speed, so it was cautiously that we passed through. We quickly moved through a fairly industrial looking town called Ponferada, but not before visiting our supermarket of choice, the Carrefour! This one was set inside a shopping mall bigger than some of the towns we´ve been through! We don´t normally shop at large supermarkets, here or at home, but it has been the best place to get something other than tomatoes, tuna or rice.

So we move on again tomrrow, with another great downhill to start. The rain has now cleared and I´m off for a wander through this hilltop village. I love the simplicity of what we are doing: we get up, eat our breakfast and cycle.

It´s what we do.