Monday, 27 June 2011

Mysterious Ways

The mystery began on Saturday, a hot market-day morning in Sahagun. I´d parked up by the pilgrim albergue, and so was toiling back up the hill on Calle Constitucion with my shopping-bag full of vegetables and dog-bones from from the butcher. At the top of the rise, across from the Irish pub, the leafy shade of Asturcon Bakery beckoned to me. The little terrace was full of happy pilgrims downing apple tarts. And the lady in charge turned from one of the tables and called out to me: "Rebekah! Stop a minute!"

Like many people in Sahagun, I know the lady by sight. Even so, after five years of buying buns and tarts and goodies at her takeout counter, I still do not know her name. But she knew mine. I put down by bag under the plane tree.

"Did you see Maria Jesus yet?" she asked. "She has something for you, a bottle. A pilgrim was here, must be a week ago, a pilgrim who needed to get it to you, a pilgrim who said he stayed at Moratinos, and said you were very nice, so we knew right away who he meant. He left it here for a while. And yesterday Maria Jesus took it, to bring it to you."

I thanked her for the nice words, and assured her I had not seen Maria Jesus lately, nor taken delivery of any bottles. I bought an apple tart, retreived my bag, and headed home.

"What pilgrim would buy us wine?" I thought. Some pilgrims leave our place swearing never to drink again. Most know we are fond of a dram. We had a big run of pilgrims in June. Perhaps one of them  forgot to leave a donation in the box, and only realized it after he´d been on the road for an hour. (I´ve done that myself.) This was a way to get something to us, a thoughtful way to ease his conscience. Maybe. But the donation box was appropriately flush. I could think of no likely suspects. 

"Maria Jesus," I thought -- the woman who´d taken the bottle from the bakery. The only Maria Jesus I could recall is better known as "Chus." She is Julia´s daughter-in-law, soon to be mother to Julia´s first grandchild, a fun, talkative woman we see only on occasional weekends. Chus lives in Santander, her hometown is San Justo de la Vega, near Astorga. She is not likely to hang out in bakeries in Sahagun.

There had to be another Maria Jesus around. Someone local. Whoever it was, she had a bottle with my name on it. She´d had it for a day already, and this was Corpus Christi, a holiday weekend, when the families all get together out here on the campo. Wherever the pilgrim´s bottle was, it was unlikely to survive the weekend unmolested, I thought. I let it go. But I felt a prickle of expectation, too.

And late this morning a knock was heard at our door. Under her straw hat smiled the garden lady, another woman I have seen and greeted for many seasons now -- she and her taciturn husband used to run the Escaleras grocery in Sahagun, but retired a couple of years ago to their little house in San Nicolas, the village next to ours. This year, the lady took over the hot, heavy summer brush-cutting and weeding job for both San Nicolas and Moratinos -- a post in the past held by a strapping young man with a hot little Opel. In the spring I interrupted her spading the flower beds and asked her if she needed help. She waved me away, saying she loves this kind of work.

I did not know her name was Maria Jesus. And here she was on the doorstep, with a gift-wrapped bottle in her hands and a big smile. "Don´t thank me," she said. "There´s a note here, stapled on. It will explain, I think."

We thanked her anyway, and took the note out of the folds of the worse-for-wear gift-wrap. It is written with a pencil on paper from a spiral-bound notebook. It says:

"Hello Rebecca and Paddy, it is 17 June 2011 in Sahagun, I am a peregrino from Luxembourg and you don´t know me from Eve, but we have a common acquaintance. An Irishman by the name of John Murphy. He was on his way from the Meditarenean cost and endevored to go to Finisterre and meet Father Atlantic. Unfortunately some problems at home forced him to interrupt his camino. A pitty because we had a similar sense of humor and I got along with him. John must have really appreciated your hospitality, because as we parted he gave me money to buy a good bottle of wine for you. As I was unable to stop at your place in Moratinos myself, I left it to the good hands of this the owner of  cafe-bakery Asturcon in Sahagun.

The ways of the camino are mysterious, as you are well aware. 
All the best, Marc."

Mystery solved. John Murphy is a perennial pilgrim. He´s stayed with us twice now, is never any trouble, is always almost too grateful. Our cat is named for him.

So, thanks to John Murphy, Marc from Luxembourg, the Asturcon lady, Maria Jesus, and Santiago, we now are possessed of a fine bottle of 2007 Bordon Crianza, a Rioja fit to grace any table. I think we should wait for the next pilgrim to open it.  A Texan is expected tomorrow.

Matter of fact, I think his name is John.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Out With the Lads

Stephen and John, Road Warriors

Long time no blog. You Faithful Readers are being pushed aside. Sorry about that.
I sometimes wonder if the blog has passed its sell-by date. What do you think?

After a week of hearty Australian company I finally made a break for it. I abandoned Paddy to the
tender mercies of our Antipodian friends, and I lit out for Palacio de Godas, a rusty, dusty hamlet near Arevalo, in the heart of Valladolid province. There, with two fine Scottish pilgrims called John and Stephen, I started walking northwest on the Camino Levante.

Those two started in Valencia, where the Levante begins. They´d already been at it for three weeks when I showed up, trail-hardened veterans. They had asked me to join them for a few days, and promised to go easy on me, seeing as I am a friend of theirs. It was getting lonesome out there, I guess. Or they needed a bit of comic relief. Or a good reason to get up earlier, cover fewer kilometers in a longer time, and drink more cold, fizzy liquids. (I am good at motivating all these things, I admit.)

And so we walked. The country is rough, rolling farmland, with lots of scrub and rocks, wheat and sometimes vineyard. It is the Spain of Delibes and Cervantes -- severe. Big wide skies, black eagles, tiny towns huddled in hollows. It is not so different from our beloved Tierra de Campos, really... but it feels  more harsh there somehow. (Their wine is better. But they probably need it more.)

If you are a map person, you can trace our route:
Day 1, Arevalo to Ataquines.
Day 2: Ataquines to Medina del Campo. (there we attended a beautiful sung Mass at a parish fiesta);
Day 3: Medina to Rueda (oops! followed arrows for another camino in town! Who knew the Camino Sureste came through there? But Rueda is noted for its lovely white table wine. No complaints here, except 14 extra kilometers makes a real difference when the temperatures are hitting 36C in the afternoon...) Late afternoon we staggered into Sieta Iglesias de Trabancos, a town straight out of a spaghetti western. We stayed at the Castillian concrete version of the Bates Motel. Room decor featured lawn furniture from the San Miguel brewery, and bathroom ventilation inspired by industrial feedlots. But out in the gloaming, under the mimosas, we sipped our Fantas and found redemption. Crickets sang. A church bell rang across the drying wheat fields, and the trucks moaned out on the autopista. Inside the nicotine linoleum bar a boom-box yippy-i-ohed ranchero songs. It called the good men of Siete Iglesias up to the junction for a hand of Brisca and a shot of booze.

Day 4: We agreed to rise very early the next day, for the long haul into Toro. Not many places to stop, and a heat wave on its way. The morning was beautiful, the scenery rugged and lonely. We got a little lost, then found again... added another 2 kilometers to the 30+ on the schedule. By the time we hit 17 kilometers, the asphalt was bubbly in the streets of the last-stop village. We huddled in the shade of the local bar, and I told the guys I was calling a cab. I would take their backpacks with me ahead to Toro, check into the hotel there and ease my already-aching head.

John and Stephen did not cavil, especially when I mentioned a Gin and Tonic prize they´d set aside for the big Toro welcome. They started re-arranging their packs, to ensure they´d have water enough for the rest of the trip. But alas -- it was Blood-Draw Day at the local health center, and all three taxis listed were engaged, right up through 5 p.m. Damn. I was in for it.

It was a beautiful walk, most of the way. It tracked along the great Rio Duero, where cornfields were irrigated with elaborate earthworks and canals. We came round a bend in the road into an apparantly-abandoned village and surprised a little man standing naked in his front garden, showering under a jolly yellow watering-can. He shrieked and ran inside, and we kept right on going, pretending we´d seen nothing. And as we passed he reappeared outside the gate, wrapped in a towel, dripping onto the dirt road. "Where are you from?" he sang out. "Where did you start?" His eyes were full of fun. He told us the path split there, and the right-hand branch went through a bird sanctuary, right along the river. And lo, it turned out to be breathtakingly beautiful, scented with piñon trees, fluttering with white ibis, with water, water flowing all ´round. But it did not last.

Once the trees thinned out, and the river took a bend away from us, we were back out in the sun in a blasted landscape of gravel quarries and scrub oak, skinny dogs tied to tractor-tires, warm water, and no breeze, no shade.  For many miles Toro could be seen, standing brave atop a bluff across the river. Cruel, it was. A mileage sign on the distant highway said "Toro 6." I thought I might cry. Then I told myself I might be hallucinating by now. My head pounded, my stomach was nauseated. I told Santiago he better get on the case, because I have treated plenty of pilgs myself for heat exhaustion. I know what that looks like. And I knew I was there.

I felt terrible and a little scared, but I was still, fundamentally, happy to be there. I was with people I love in a land I love, doing something I believe in, pushing my limits... maybe a bit too hard. I was not really there to walk that camino, much as I enjoy a good hike. I was there to hang out with my friends. And when your friends are long-distance hikers, you sign up for this. 

The last three kilometers into Toro are a showcase of Roman foundations and pavements, and finally a spectacular Roman bridge across the deep Duero valley. I wish I´d enjoyed it more. I promised myself I will go back someday. And the last, 17-percent grade haul up that bluff onto the ramparts? It was a picture of two men very patiently waiting while a Woman Of a Certain Age reeled from one patch of shade to the next, all the way up, making cooling sounds, whispering softly of gin-and-tonics, ice pops, showers...
the Roman bridge and road into Toro

And soon we were at the splendid 3-star hotel that dear Stephen had booked ahead -- lolling in bathtubs, sipping refreshing beverages, napping in crisp sheets. Soon I was back to my vibrant and scintillating self again, albeit a little burnt on the edges. I managed to take a walk round the old town, and had a quick little tasting of the new 2010 jovenes. (Toro is my favorite wine town in all of Spain, you know!)

And so, scrubbed and re-hydrated, we dined on the terrace, with a breathtaking view of the day´s achievement. We agreed it was a very fine few days on the trail, with all manner of topics discussed, problems solved, and plots hatched, even. We ching-chinged our glasses of Cañus Verus Crianza. And we called it a day.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Big Fun in Squidgy Mud

Gordon & his boys
thoroughly modern Miraz
The busy season is upon us, and it may have peaked this week. I did an overnighter to Galicia, where I visited friendly, feisty South African hospitalero Gordon Bell at Casa Banderas, and attended the bishop´s blessing of the newly reconstructed pilgrim hostel at Miraz, a Confraternity of St. James (London) project on the Camino del Norte. I picked up lots of wonderful Galician and Bierzo wine for the bodega, and a fresh cow-milk soft cheese from Arzua, and cherries from the orchards in Cacabelos.

We then spent two fun, raucous days hosting 13 people from the architecture program at University of Michigan. (the Arzua cheese and the cherries and 14 liters of Bierzo Mencia vanished without a trace!) We made earth plaster and cob mortar, and the students rendered one wall of the bodega in the spiky goo that all our houses are made of. Big educational fun in squidgy mud. I would have taken pictures, but I was too muddy to handle cameras. So much of architecture education is conceptual, philosphical, aesthetical. I felt good, showing them how "vernacular architecture" lives and dies before our eyes. And it was good getting them down in the mud, where all buildings really begin... some of them really dug it. 
 I made the year´s first gazpacho! YUM!
Paddy and I also oversaw the ongoing patio and studio projects out back, and looked at a house that´s for sale in San Nicolas. (no, we didn´t buy it.) We got some sobering results of our bi-annual health checkups, and good news from Laurie, a friend who is now in the heart of Galicia, beta-testing the updated Camino Invierno guide. (It works! Now if the CSJ people would only post it on the website, other people could benefit this summer.) 

I started a rewrite on eight chapters of a novel sent over by Mitch, a Pulitzer-winner bud who used to go grafitti-painting with me, back in the day. I love doing re-write. It is a dying craft. I am doing a chapter per evening, after everyone else is gone to bed.  

Over the weekend we rested. We are tired, but still able to smile at one another.  The house is a bit messy, but everyone is fine and relatively healthy. And tomorrow, we pick up pilgrims at the train station, for a hospitalero training session on Tuesday.

Aside from all that, the Camino is calling my name. Once the calendar clears out, I may have to join some friend or other out there on the road. Just for a few days. Just to keep my head straight.

Added later: Yes, I now realize I repeated myself up there at the start with the Miraz stuff... I think it´s because I uploaded the photos of the whole week at once. And because I forgot, OK? Didn´t I say it´s the Busy Season, and that I have lost my mind a little?  

Wednesday, 8 June 2011


Harry, Paddy, Poppies

June is busy. Lots of pilgrims, and lots of plans. I did an overnighter out west in Galicia, with South African gonna-be hospitalero Gordon and his two nice boys, and then to Miraz, a pilgrim refuge on the Camino del Norte that Paddy and I had a hand in for a while. I met the new bishop of Lugo, and re-met with a publisher who continues to make noises at me, and a gang of lovely English Camino-heads who make little corners of the world go around, and the local salt-of-the-earth barmaid at the center of the universe. What an abundance!

Best thing of all was the long drives there and back, through beautiful, beloved places, in my own company. And stopping, poco a poco, at wineries along the way. (Past caminos introduced me to the delights of Valdeorras, Ribeiro, Albariño, Bierzo, and Ribera Sacra wines, so I came back with beautiful young vino from all different little nooks and crannies of northwestern Spain -- as well as a few "drink it NOW" boxes of plonk from Galician and Bierzo co-operative wineries -- Spain´s best-kept secret.)

We shall see what time and dark and stillness does for their constitutions. If we can leave them alone for long.

I returned to a house full of lovely South African ladies, welcomed and duly  blandished by Patrick. And thereafter blandished with a surprisingly dry young Bierzo white Mencia, I found this, which I think sums up a lot of what I love about particular people of Spain:

(I cannot figure out how to make this work smoothly. I will link to it in the next blog. So much for "intuitive posting... I think someone makes this difficult, so someone can make a buck. Sad old world.)

And the photo which opens this post, taken last Sunday on our morning dog-walk. Nothing could be finer than poppies and galgos, a loving spouse, and a community Mass after. Except maybe a vermut, and a hike, and friends who know how to converse.

Life is beautiful, if you let it be. If you just open your eyes and take a good look. It is in there.