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Santiago via Thurning

The modern interpretation of pilgrimage includes all forms of transport – planes, trains, buses and cars. The journeys are as long or short as you want them, and can be travelled in first or third class. You pay your money and take your choice. The idea of self-propulsion and serious effort to get to a destination is now left to the adventurous minority, but that number is growing.

Thurning, a small village in Northamptonshire, bears the traces of a medieval past, both in the continuing celebration of its annual feast (which goes back a thousand years), but also in the date of its feast: July 25th, the actual feast day of St James (Santiago). Its church, in fact, is dedicated to St James, and for hundreds of years has served as a stopping point for pilgrims walking the 1200 miles to Santiago de Compostela in NW Spain.

If you walk up to the church door, you will see the above scallop shell on the gate…..

and other symbols of pilgrimage on the path leading to the main entrance that would have been familiar to medieval pilgrims. I know of one traveller who recently started his journey to Santiago from here. If the medieval pilgrim wanted to get to Santiago, it was either by pony or ‘Shanks’s pony’…..there was no other way. No Easyjet, no Ryanair….it was a journey of 2 million steps…..from Thurning at least. And, of course, another journey of 2 million steps to get back home again. No mean feat. ‘Chapeau’ to our medieval forebears.

 

In summary

Romanesque church, Finisterra

Finisterra to Santiago 91kms (57m)

As I crept out of the albergue in Finisterra, where people were sleeping on bunkbeds ‘cheek by jowl’, there was a massive crowd waiting at the bus stop. Finisterra had truly been the end of their journeys, and they weren’t tempted by the 90 kms trek back to town. As I set off, the friendly 30mph wind of yesterday blowing me southwards, was now directly in my face……and there was a lot of uphill to boot! Half way to Santiago I stopped at the same bar as on the way out, because the lady owner had fed me jamón and chorizo without charging me. She was delighted to see a return customer, chatted incessantly and added a little cake to my coffee (again without charging). Such are the little kindnesses of people. She was full of interesting tales about passing pilgrims.

Along the way, I chanced by other pilgrims, some already friends of the Camino, but others new faces.

Chatting with Ole, from Denmark

Ole, from Denmark, was struggling up the hill out of Finisterra, and when he saw me, he started extolling the merits of the flatness of Denmark, and tried to persuade me that it would be a good cycling destination for me. When he revealed that Denmark had only one mountain, and that was only 200 metres high,  I quietly told him I was never likely to go to Denmark for a cyling holiday. He smiled wryly and took my point.

Antonio from Cádiz

Antonio, a walker, and I had coincided in Lourenzá (he’s from Cádiz) and I said if we were to meet again on this trip, then something was seriously wrong…..! We did meet again…………and he coyly admitted he had caught a bus. I said to him “Qué más da?” (so what?). Everybody should do the bits of the Camino that suit them. He wasn’t chasing a

Irek from Poland

“Compostela” just for the sake of proving he’d completed the journey.

Irek, from Poland, had a serious language problem. His only other language was Russian, and he knew so little English that we resorted to sign language and common international words to get by. I gathered he had done the whole of the Camino francés and was about to return by bike to Lourdes. He certainly understood my farewell greeting of “buen camino”. But he must have spent several weeks communicating his way across Spain with minimal language.

José and Lucía

José and Lucía had cycled the Camino portugués from Lisbon, and we had met in a restaurant in Finisterra as I was tackling a plate of chipirrones en su tinta (cuttlefish in its own ink). José turned out to be a fan of Barcelona, and he was trying to convince me that Man U had no chance in the Champions Final. He realized quickly that he didn’t have to try too hard. Like many Spanish men,

Cuttlefish in its ink!

he was utterly puzzled as to why I had no interest in football nor in supporting a team. The next day, we met by chance in Cathedral Square (Plaza do Obradoiro), and marked the occasion with this photo, and an invitation to visit them at their home in Tenerife.

Marc (from Tarragona) turned out to be one of those larger than life characters

Marc from Tarragona

who was bubbling all the time, and you never needed to find a topic to keep the conversation going. We met at the pilgrim’s free meal at the 5* Hostal Los Reyes Católicos, where we went for breakfast this morning. This is a fringe benefit of being a “Compostela-holding” pilgrim. For three meals each day, this luxury hotel opens its doors to ten pilgrims (and no more) and you make your

The free 5* breakfast!

way through the refinement of the hotel to a staircase that takes you down to the basement. Entering the kitchen, a waiter will serve you, and you take your food to a small dining room to dine with your fellow pilgrims. This morning we enjoyed a huge tray of pastries and churros, with as much coffee and colacao as you wanted. This time, there were only five of us: a Brazilian, German, Argentinian, Spaniard and me, and the common language had to be Spanish. The poor German was reduced to sign-language! Even his English amounted to only five words. This tradition of giving free meals to pilgrims dates back to medieval times when the Hostal had formerly been a hospital for arriving pilgrims, and food and clothing had been dispensed, as well as being a place for recovery from the trials and tribulations of the journey.

As I draw the line under this final post, having a few non-cycling days in Santiago is a huge attraction. It is such a monumental city that you need a quiet time of contemplation to absorb it. But before I sign off, for those who live in or near Kimbolton in the UK, where Catherine of Aragón died, I heard a very interesting story from one of the Cathedral guides this morning. When Catherine came on pilgrimage to Santiago, before heading north to marry Prince Arthur, the huge censer (botafumeiro) fell from its moorings as it was being swung during the pilgrim mass. Remember, this is a huge 95 kilo weight! Enough to kill a few people. Apparently it has fallen only twice in its 1000 year history. The people at the time thought this was an evil omen for their Princess. Mmn…..now that’s an interesting thought.

Santiago-Muxía-Finisterra 138kms(87m)

A few statistics  Some in the world of cycling keep detailed records of statistics, including altitude, average speed, heart rate etc….. My only interest on these long journeys is distance and number of days. My daily mileages through France were high, occasionally just short of 100 miles a day, but once into Spain, a

Sunset over Santiago

combination of terrain, weather and interesting diversions kept my averages to about 65 miles per day. Overall, the journey to Santiago was 1262 miles (2013 kms) over 18 days, averaging about 70 miles (112 kms) per day. Amazingly, my journey from home to Rome (via Canterbury) last year was almost exactly the same distance (1284 miles), and now that I am in the phase of assimilating the current ride, I’m beginning to see all kinds of parallels.

Discarded walking poles

A false summit? For many, the arrival in Santiago is but a false summit. Some will pack their bags and bikes and go home from there, but perhaps the most intriguing leg of the journey is still to come. The journey west will only conclude when there is no more land to traverse. That’s what the pre-Christian Celts did in search of their promised land. They sought the point at which the

Dolmen

setting of the sun was closest, and getting their was their pilgrimage.

Santiago to Muxía 52m

Leaving Santiago

As I headed out of Santiago, the weather had turned very warm and sultry. Climbing the many hills on the route west proved particularly challenging in the heat, but it didn’t prevent taking a diversion to follow a trail to an iron age dolmen that took me along a dirt track for a couple of kms. This part of Galicia is littered with dolmens and castros, to such an extent that trails have been created and mapped out for those who want to take an extended tour.

As I approached Muxía (pronounced “Mushía”) the effect of the wild Atlantic

Japanese lady

had an immediate effect on the weather. It turned very cold suddenly, with a sea fret creating a fine mist in the air.

At the albergue, there was a fascinating assortment of people, many of them travelling

Paulina and Patrick

solo. The most intriguing was a young Japanese lady who, with only a smattering of English, left her job and came to spend two months walking the Camino from France. Despite her challenges with communication, she was radiantly happy with her experience, and intends to make some radical changes to her lifestyle when she gets back home. One change will be to move out of Tokyo. A diminutive lady from Colombia, Paulina, had walked across Spain on her own, and is now going to walk back to Barcelona, where she lives. Patrick, from the French Alps, is the first pilgrim I have met who journeys these routes on horseback. Having come as far west as he can, he is about to turn eastwards and ride back home, which is on the border with Italy.

The rudder?

Why is Muxía on the Camino? The colourful legend describes how the apostle Santiago, who was unsuccessfully trying to convert the people of these parts, had a vision of the Virgin Mary coming to shore in a stone boat. And the proof of this? If you look on the shore, there are rock formations that look like an upturned boat, a rudder and a sail. These legends are the stuff of life!

Muxía to Finisterra 35m

A gentle saunter soutwards along the coast, with a strong northerly

Surfing beach

wind behind, took me to the most stunning coastal views of the whole journey. Theory has it that Cape Tourniñán may be the most westerly point of the peninsula, but the crosswind was so strong I couldn’t stay on the bike to get out to the lighthouse. Heading down to Finisterra, I passed what is reputedly the best surfing beach in the whole of Spain. The conditions were wild but the sun was shining, and a dozen brave souls were

Nicole from Austria

surfing the waves, in waters that were (I’m told) about 16 degrees C. If I had been a surfer, I would have been sorely tempted.

This lady from Austria (Nicole) was on the last leg of her journey, but feeling an intense loneliness. She had set off on her own from St Jean Pied de Port, but teamed up with a truly international group of about 8 people, and had enjoyed their company for more than 7 weeks. Finisterra had been the end of the Camino for most of the group, and they had to say their farewells. The friendships formed along the Camino can be very strong, and she was going through withdrawal symptoms.

Finisterra is a strong emotional draw for people nearing the end of their long journeys. The Cape and the lighthouse are officially recognised as the most westerly point of the peninsula, and people trek out to the end of the isthmus to catch

High above the crashing waves

the setting sun (which will be about 10pm tonight), to leave their boots or items of clothing they have travelled in, even to burn their clothes, and for the hardy, to take a very refreshing swim in the sea (and it was very refreshing!!!). The last little ritual will be to pick up a scallop shell from one of the beaches, but today the scallop shells have such commercial value (1 euro each!), the nearest you’ll find are cockle shells.

As I scrambled down the rocks beneath the lighthouse, many pilgrims were

Now for that refreshing swim!!

having their quiet moments sitting on the rocks looking out westwards. It seemed intrusive to talk, and even more intrusive to be talking on a mobile. There was an atmosphere of quiet contemplation that had as its only backdrop the crashing of the waves hundreds of feet beneath. Thankfully, the commercial impact of tourist shops and food stalls was kept well away from this almost sacred area.

Discarded boots and clothes

The name of this peninsula, Finisterra (the end of the world) is well named for the end of the Camino. The people I have met here have now settled to the full realisation that it is time to go home, and in those immortal world of T.S.Eliot that I have quoted before: “the end of all our exploring, Will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for

Burning an item of clothing!

the first time”. We should all go home and see our familiar home environment with new eyes. That to me, is the whole purpose of pilgrimage, to go back to where we started and know the place for the first time.

Oviedo to Miraz 306kms(190m)

Being out in the Galician “wilderness” for the last three days has meant being distant from modern forms of communication, especially Cyber-cafés and Locutorios. But the traverse across the misty moisty lands of the north of Spain have proved more than a retreat from the ‘civilising effects’ of modern living. It has been another world, where the donkey is still a beast of burden, and a scythe is still wielded to cut the long grass.

Oviedo to Almuña 75m

I’ve never been charged so little for a bed for the night! The pilgrim albergue in Oviedo had almost every bed filled, with a lively mix of walkers and cyclists, not surprising when they were only charging a mere 3 euros for a bed. The economy of the Camino brings Spaniards out in their droves to travel the ancient byways. They can walk or cycle the length and breadth of their own country, and rest their heads on a pillow for the night (and have a shower) at less than an overnight camping fee.

The north of Spain was living up to its not-so-hard won reputation: cloud and mist have dominated the meteorology for

Pinchos

several days, the sun has been noticeable by its absence, but I find the heavy misty moisty atmosphere a magical backdrop as I look at the seascapes to my right and the towering Picos de Europa to my left. These weather patterns are certainly saving me several pennies on sun cream!

Then I hit the ‘north Cornwall-like’ ascents and descents of what the locals call “una costa muy accidentada” (a very rugged, indented coastline). No sooner had I climbed out of a deep river valley, but I was dropping down to the next, only to then have to laboriously climb out of that, and so on.  In the space of  couple of hours I had experienced the heights and depths of 12-15 such valleys, until I got to the point where I was screaming in my head at the sheer injustice to be visited with all of this at the end of a long day in the saddle. But, of course, as all things do, they eventually came to an end…………….. and I smiled when I saw the lure of a bit of flat in front of me.

To brighten up my recovery period from all this, I passed a couple of lads, Quepa and Roque, who were towing a trailer

Quepa and Roque

carrying a  surfboard. Before I could ask them “what on earth are you people doing with all this kit” I noticed that Quepa was carrying a little micro-camera, and he told me I was being filmed while I quizzed them. They revealed they were cycling the Camino del Norte and surfing all the best beaches en route. I told them I had been warned to look out for mad people travelling the Camino and, pointing to themselves, they proudly said “That’s us!” They then showed me on a GPS some of the beaches they were going to surf that afternoon. To meet people like these, you just have to travel the Camino…….you won’t meet them driving up the M6.

Castro de Coaña

Almuña to Lourenzá 64m

This was a day for unearthing some of the Celtic traces here in the history of north Spain. I was initially convinced that most of the fortified “castros” were of Celtic origin, but I was left with some doubts after listening to a few local experts explain that the Celts were only one of several ethnic groups to settle in the area. My 10 kms diversion off the Camino, however, was well worth it. The Castro de Coaña is a carefully dug site that shows the structure of a tight community safely ensconced on high ground, and benefiting from luxuries such as baths and community areas long before the Romans invaded the Iberian peninsula.

As I climbed back up to the Camino, I stopped to chat to this smallholder who was wielding a scythe with consummate ease to cut the long grass around his property. When I complimented him on living on such a fine spot with splendid views across the valley, he looked at it somewhat bemused, shrugged his shoulders and said: “Pues lo tenemos todos los días, y ya estamos acostumbrados” (it’s there all the time and we hardly notice it). That made me think: does this sometimes happen to people who achieve the house of their dreams……………?

Then as I passed through a town, a man shouted at me: “Has llegado primero” (you’ve come in first!).

José from Barcelona

When I asked where my prize was, he told me to go to the Town Hall where they would give me a ‘chorizo’. I jokingly told him the Town Hall might be full of ‘chorizos’ (slang term also meaning ‘scoundrels and cheats’), he then came out with a current favourite description doing the rounds: “No hay suficiente pan para comer todos los chorizos en España” (there’s not enough bread for eating all the ‘chorizos’ in Spain). It doesn’t quite work in translation, but I’m sure you get the gist of it.

At the albergue that evening in Lourenzá, a German couple who had cycled all the way from Germany, not only impressed me with their journey statistics (33 days to cover 2,300kms), but 1,500 kms had been done with his bike’s downtube completely severed. Instead of doing the normal thing (ie. throw the bike away and buy a new one) he had done a series of repairs using ring-clips

to hold the frame together, and he was determined to get to Santiago on the strength of his Heath Robinson experimentations. As I write this, I have just met them in Santiago and they have made it.

Lourenzá to Miraz 52m

Macondeño tart

A brief stop in Mondoñedo revealed the Spanish equivalent of the Bakewell pudding. This larger than life gentleman took an idea for a tart, set up the production machinery and took out a kind of patent, or ‘denominación de origen’ on this recipe and had it franchised out under strict control. All I can say that its filling has something called “angel’s hair” (which I think is based on marrow or pumpkin) and it is absolutely delicious. It certainly put a few miles into the legs for the rest of the morning.

The albergue at Miraz was a wondrous discovery after spending a few hours wandering the small country lanes trying to find the way. My map for this stretch was totally inadequate in its detail, but I had caught up

The family party

with María José again (met in Llanés along with Igor) who had a better map, and we eventually stumbled on towards the tiny village of Miraz. (But more of that in the next post).

Ensaimada

At one point, feeling totally lost, we stopped to ask a family party in a garden the way, and no sooner had they answered our questions but we found ourselves invited to join them in

Empanada

the remains of their lunch, which consisted of “empanadas” (Galician tuna tart) “churrasco” (barbecued beef ribs) followed by cakes and “ensaimada” (Majorcan pastry). For half an hour we were feasted by this wonderful family party, and it was hard to leave their friendly company. They had drawn in these passing pilgrims and shared their table with us. That doesn’t happen up the M6 either!

At Miraz, we were only about 95 kms from our goal, so tomorrow had to be the run into Santiago.


Santiago de Compostela: a Celtic route

After completing the Via Fancigena (Canterbury to Rome) last September, I am about to revisit a journey that I last completed in 1993, but this time taking a different route. This sequel will be another ancient route of pilgrimage, established in medieval times on the belief that the body of the Apostle James the Greater was transported there after his execution, and buried at the spot where the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago now stands.

In medieval times, without the benefit of modern means of transport, pilgrims gathered at a local spot in their community, received a blessing for their journey, and then began the long dangerous walk that would take up to 6 months (not counting the return journey!). Although I will have the benefit of a pair of wheels, my plan is to depart from my home in west Cambridgeshire after receiving a blessing at my local church.

My route will take me down to Portsmouth, where I will catch the ferry to St Malo and, from there, will head towards the Atlantic coast, and follow the coastline to pick up the Voie Littorale at the mouth of the Gironde, and from there head down to the Spanish border. There I will pick up the most ancient of routes to Santiago, called the Camino del Norte (North coast route), used by pilgrims till the end of the 15th century when Spain had been occupied by the Moors, and all forms of Christian pilgrimage had been suppressed. The North Coast Route will link with the Camino francés (the French route) that will take me into Santiago de Compostela, a total distance of over 1200 miles. There I will present my “credential” (a passport that has been stamped along the way) at the Cathedral Office, they will ‘interrogate’ me to check that I have arrived under my own steam, and they will then (I hope) present me with the “Compostela”, a document written in Latin declaring that I was a bona fide pilgrim and successfully arrived in Santiago de Compostela.

If time permits, I will then cycle the 88 kms (54 miles) to Finisterre, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (so-called because, before Columbus discovered the Americas, it was thought to be the very end of the world) and I will pick up a scallop shell from the beach, the symbolic emblem of pilgrims across the world.

Why a Celtic route? My own family background is deeply rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions of Ireland. My father’s ancestors were driven out of Ireland in 1840 by the famine, and came to Britain seeking work in the iron ore mines of Cumbria. My mother, on the other hand, was first generation Irish, born in the village of Cappamore in Co. Limerick. In planning this journey, I wanted to make connections with some of the pre-Roman Celtic places which lie along the western sea-board of the Continent. The region of Galicia itself, in NW Spain, has a history deeply rooted in the Celtic traditions (with clear evidence of this in their music, dance, use of bagpipes and outfits not dissimilar to what you see in Ireland). The name “Galicia” probably derives from “Gaul” (Roman name for Celts), the Gauls being gradually driven westwards by the invading Romans until they occupied all the most westerly points of continental Europe and the British Isles. Many historians also support the thesis that there was a major migration of British Celts across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia in the 4th-5th centuries, and they were given land in the area now known as Britonia, close to the north coast.

My route to Santiago will pass through Celtic Europe and, as I draw near to Santiago, I will visit some of the places that not only have evident remains of a Celtic past, but even now still celebrate ancient rites like the harvest festival of Lughnasadh on August 1st. It is also well documented that the cult of St James and the Camino de Santiago were developed on an already pre-existing route used by the ancient, pre-Christian Celts, called the Via Lactea (Milky Way) which led them to Cape Finisterre, the end of the known world. The ancient Celts dreamed of the mysterious beauty that must lie across the sea to the west, and their journeys along the Via Lactea were a quest to draw near to this land of perfection.

Journeys of discovery

Gerard W Hughes. Kind friends have loaned me their copies of seminal pilgrimage accounts by Gerard Hughes SJ, both of which have harnessed my attention and made me think carefully about the rationale of long-distance journeys to holy places.

In Search of a Way: two journeys of spiritual discovery.  Hughes’ pilgrimage walk to Rome, pre-dates our awareness of the re-established Via Francigena. He started out from Weybridge and calculated his own route across the continent, appealing to the charity of parish priests, convents and monasteries for accommodation when circumstances and weather prevented him from camping. Instead of using sabbatical time for higher or further study, Hughes donned his boots, loaded his rucksack and set off on a venture that turned into two journeys: the physical journey of walking to Rome and the inner journey of his mind and heart as he explored the inner mechanisms of the Catholic Church, his own place within that ‘machine’, and how his own Christian beliefs have guided him towards proactivity in the name of peace and justice in the world.

Walk to Jerusalem. His walk to Jerusalem, from his home town of Skelmorlie in Ayrshire, is also a story of two journeys. Alongside the physical challenge of walking through Holland, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece and then by boat to Haifa, we follow his inner spiritual journey through life with copious flashbacks that occupy his thinking as he walks the highways and byways.

Neither book is a marketing attempt to sell the idea of long-distance walking. Both books dwell on the inevitable mixture of the highs and lows of the physical effort, the challenges of surviving the elements and meeting with both helpful and uncooperative people. The capsules he describes of each day’s journey are an opportunity to create links with his past, people he has met, places he has worked in and projects he has supported. He takes a critical look at the role of the Church in matters of unassailable importance: peace and justice, nuclear disarmament, the role the Church played in Nazi Germany, its attitude to the role of the laity, to mixed marriages, to ecumenism, and much more.

The long-distance traveller, especially the lone traveller, will spend many hours each day absorbed in thought, and the cadence of the journey (walking, cycling, riding horseback) can be a catalyst to reflection, meditation, planning for the future, and generally getting things  in our lives into perspective. Hughes used both journeys to explore his own inner self, and through his ‘mental meanderings’ we gain a privileged insight into who he is and what he stands for.

Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR)

Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR)

This relatively new Confraternity (www.pilgrimstorome.org.uk)was born just four years ago, sprouting as an independent association from the Confraternity of St James (Camino de Santiago). I went to my first meeting with them at the weekend, which took place in the conference room of St James’ Church, Piccadilly, a basement room within earshot of the Christmas markets taking place in the street above. Some of the people assembled there were known to me only as names tagged onto emails or message boards, so it was good to put faces to them. Others came from a variety of backgrounds with a fascinatingly motley interest in the Via Francigena, some as pilgrims, writers and researchers, others who were simply drawn out of curiosity and wanted to learn more.

The focus of interest was much wider than the implications of the VF. We were treated to a fascinating visual account of the meaning of Buddhist pilgrimage, by a couple (Ian Brodick and Rosemary Norton) who had experienced the challenges of the Kailash Kora, a high altitude venture in a remote part of Tibet. Jim Brodie brought us further west and took us along part of St Paul’s journey through modern Turkey, finishing at the site of historic Antioch. Walking the route solo, he vividly focussed on the thrills and spills of venturing into remote areas in search of a destination.

The final session, which had the challenge of re-awakening the audience’s attention after generous servings of wine at lunch, really caught my attention. Ian Holdsworth, an Anglican priest, talked about his sabbatical year when he walked to Santiago de Compostela, and how that ignited his interest in restoring the historical significance of the Camino in this country, and re-establishing a route through middle England connecting several St James’ churches, thus linking Northampton with Portsmouth, where a ferry can be boarded to northern Spain, to resume the journey to Santiago. Check out his webpage here

I liked his distinction between a pilgrimage of journeying (where it is the journey that counts) and a pilgrimage of destination (where the arriving is the key thing), and I applauded his acknowledgement that the most important consequence of pilgrimage is how it changes us as people when we get back to where we started (ie home). In other words, pilgrimage is all about leaving your front door, travelling to a distant place of spiritual or personal significance and returning to your starting point with a new pair of eyes. To quote T.S.Eliot again: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding Quartet).

Day 18 Half day rest in Siena

Filipe. First let me tell you about my encounter with Filipe. We were both consigned to sleeping on couches in Lucca YH, which as you can see, was not exactly Spartan. The couches converted into big sofa beds! Anyway, Filipe is from Lisbon, has just completed his Ph.D. in Physics and has a 3 month wait before his viva and the result of his research, so he took off on his bike. First heading to Belém, then Fatima and  Santiago, then he followed the coastal route to France, going via Lourdes and across to Italy. He is picking up the VF in Lucca to Rome, then will take a boat over to Croatia and make his way to Turkey, then Cyprus, and finally over to Jerusalem. What a way to kill time waiting for your research results! Although we intended to cycle together, our own independent spirits separated us, but I am sure we will meet up again before Rome. I unkindly took this photo just after he had woken up, but he still managed a smile! He very politely asked my age, and when I told him, he said his father was the same age as me, but he could never imagine him doing what we are doing. Hmm…….

Siena. Every place I stop at makes me feel I’ve reached a high spot of the journey……until the next place, that is. Siena is an unbelievable city. Yet another walled community, as soon as you enter the walled historical part you are transported into another era. It has one of the most amazing Piazzas I have ever seen. People sit around on the bricked slopes, it is encircled by bar terraces and restaurants, the arena is used for horse-racing (of a peculiar Sienese style) and in the past, had been a public hanging area and bullfighting ring. This is where life happened! The Sienese wander their narrow, medieval streets which are virtually traffic-free; even I felt a bit awkward pushing a bicycle. In the Tuscan league table, Siena will always play second fiddle to Florence, but it is stunning. Put it on your list for future reference.

A few people I met at Caritas.

Paul from Manchester, has been walking the highways and byways for many years, several times to Santiago, and now he’s heading off to Rome. It became evident he was resolving a few personal issues: trying to overcome a chronic state of depression and desperately trying to kick the smoking habit. He has so little money that he depends entirely on charities like Caritas to keep body and soul together.

Maria is from Hungary and, though not walking/cycling the VF, she is following it, doing an Art History project on the way. She speaks Italian, German and a bit of French, so our communication was a curious mixture of Italian and French. And it seemed to work!

Suora Ginetta is the sister in charge of looking after the pilgrims and feeding those who live on the streets. They open their house every lunchtime to the lonely and homeless, and in the evening they take in pilgrims and travellers. I told her she had a very Irish face, and she laughed. As you can see, she has a very smiley presence. A veritable ‘Mother Teresa’ of Siena.

Mario is one of the several volunteers who help out at Caritas. He was born in the US, of a Puerto Rican father and Italian mother, and his working languages include English, Spanish, Italian and German. Typical of such volunteers, he went out his way to find an internet cafe, camera shop and to make me feel at home. Nothing was too much trouble.