Ponferada to Vega de Valcarce

Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo (23 km)

Thursday, 27 September, 2012

The Camino de Santiago is normally so well-marked with yellow arrows that it is almost impossible to get lost.  But when one leaves the Camino to find accommodation, it is sometimes not so easy to find one’s way back, especially in winding streets and bad weather.

When I left the hostel that morning, I was quite disoriented.

Asking younger people or obvious immigrants the way to the Camino, is usually a waste of time; they normally never seem to know.  It is the older people who are usually most helpful, and I soon found an old lady who pointed me to the Calle Camino de Santiago.  I saw no yellow arrow markings, but in towns and cities they are often not so obvious.  After ten minutes I checked directions with an old man, and he assured me that I going the right way to Villafranca.

But I still did not see any yellow arrows, and after half-an-hour I stopped in a bar to have a coffee and a croissant.  Customers in the bar assured me that I was going in the right direction, but that I was not on the historic route, which followed a path in the countryside.  They suggested that I should follow the road that I was on and that the two routes intersected in about another eight kilometres.

So I was destined to two more hours of heavy traffic through rather grotty industrial suburbs.

Not long after leaving the bar, I came across a young, very attractive pilgrim, looking quite lost and confused.  She had made the same mistake like me, so I explained what we had to do to get back on the historic path.

It turned out that she was Italian, on a break from her university, and was walking from León to Santiago, like me.  She spoke no English, or none that she would admit to, but she spoke some Spanish, and we chatted quite freely as we walked along.

But when she eventually pulled out a packet of cigarettes, the pretty girl attraction evaporated, and I made an excuse to stop for a while, and let her get well ahead.  I never saw her again.

Once back in the countryside, the route undulated through seemingly endless vineyards. But they were vineyards unlike any I had previously come across. There were none of the tidy posts and wires that I was used to seeing. The method of cultivation seemed to let the vines grow wild as a bush, with little or no pruning. But they were heavy with huge bunches of purple grapes, so the method obviously works well.

And at the end of that day’s path, Villafranca del Bierzo, one of the most attractive little towns I had so far come across.

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The Palace of the Marquisses of Villafranca

There was a settlement on the site since before the Romans arrived, but it was when the pilgrims started arriving in the Middle Ages, that it flourished.  A Cluniac monastery was founded in the eleventh century and it was from the French pilgrims that settled there, that the town obtained its name – ‘French Town’.

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Iglesia de Santa María, formerly the Monesterio de Cluny

And once checked into a room, I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting in the warm sun, drinking beer, and watching old men playing ‘boules‘.

 

Villafranca del Bierzo to Vega de Valcarce (16 km)

Friday, 28 September, 2012

The weather forecast for Spain showed heavy rain almost everywhere, except for Galicia.  Given the damp reputation of Galicia, it seemed almost too good to be true, but once the early cloud dispersed, the sun did indeed shine warmly.

The road from Villafranca led gradually up a narrow valley, winding through the hills, following the course of the Rio Valcarce.  Gradually the valley became narrower and narrower, until there was barely room for the river, the footpath and the road.  Where there was a village, it was limited to a row of houses on each side of the road. And all one could hear were an occasional passing car, the sound of rushing water and the chatter of birds.

The road ran alongside the river and occasionally it looped under the road and back again a hundred metres later.  From one of the bridges I could see large dark trout, seemingly motionless in the current, except for an occasional movement of their tail.

At the village of Trabadelo, I stopped at the bar to have a coffee and a sandwich.  The walls of the bar were made of blocks of stone and on every joint and anywhere the stone projected, there were coins, from floor to ceiling.  I tried to leave one too, but I could not find a single uncovered spot.

In Vega de Valcarce I had difficulty finding a room.  In the end I had to settle for a very basic room in a dilapidated house beside a bar that had seen better days.  When I went in, the owner and one of the staff were smoking and playing cards.  The ashtray in front of them was filled with cigarette butts.

But the room did not cost me very much.

Sometimes beggars have to take what they can get… 🙂

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Harvesting potatoes in Vega del Valcarce

 

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And beans drying in the sun

 

 

León to Ponferrada

León

Thursday-Friday, 20-22 September, 2012

My return trip to León was uneventful; a flight from London (Stansted), a bus to Oveido, and another bus through the mountains to León.  I spent the next day wandering around the old city, sitting in the warm sun, watching people, and sipping cold beer and chilled rioja.

With two or three good books, I could have easily passed a month or more like that.

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Basilica de San Isidoro, containing the relics of San Isidoro, and the graves of eleven kings

León to Villadangos del Páramo (20km)

Saturday, 22 September, 2012

I set out just after sunrise and soon arrived at the Hostal de San Marcos.  It was originally built during the twelfth century as a convent, to provide a hospital and shelter to pilgrims.  Over the centuries the building was enlarged and enhanced and today it serves as a Parador – a government-run luxurious hotel.

But it has not always been a place for pilgrims or paying guests.  Between 1936 and 1940, it was used to hold over 7,000 republican and political prisoners at any one time, during the Spanish Civil War, a black era in the history of León.

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Convento de San Marcos

For the next two hours I walked along pavements beside busy traffic, eventually wondering if the city would ever end. And then I was suddenly in the countryside, on a stony path, a little removed from a busy road. But the noise of traffic never ceased all day.

On the way I passed two older people. By their dress and accent in Spanish, I think they may have been English.  They were in terrible shape. The old woman was very heavy and seemed to have very bad blisters. The man was emaciated and walked ahead, but was struggling to get one foot past the other. It was only the second time in 26 days that I have ever passed anyone.

And yet I would bet that those two decrepit oldies made it to Santiago; their determination and faith was written all over their faces. They positively glowed.

And tonight in the only hostel in the village, the pilgrim’s menu and my favourite food: garbanzos, cordero and natilla.

Delicious.

Villadangos del Páramo to Astorga (29km)

Sunday, 23 September, 2012

It was a day of varied weather. When I set off it was cool, but pleasant. Then the wind struck, dark clouds surged overhead and the rain started. There was nowhere to shelter and for more than an hour I was buffeted and drenched in a downpour.

But then the sun came out and I quickly dried out in the gale force winds. And all day the surface underfoot consisted of loose stones. It was not easy walking for me.

At about halfway the path crossed the river Órbigo on a stone bridge of many arches, the origins of which date back to Roman times. And on the river banks a jousting field that Cervantes mentioned in Don Quixote.

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Roman bridge with multiple arches, leading into Hospital de Órbigo

Eventually I trudged up the hill into Astorga and found a very comfortable room on the main plaza.

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Asotorga, with the snow-covered mountains in the background

Once showered, I went to a nearby bar for a beer and there came across a sobering sight that I shall never forget as long as I live. A clean dressed but very laid-back bearded guy wheeled a pram into the bar. In the pram lay a clean-shaven well-dressed man with no legs and only one very deformed arm. The barman knew them and gave the bearded guy a bottle of beer, which he patiently held for his friend, while he sipped on it. They talked, they laughed and despite his awful handicap, the man seemed to be enjoying the moment. When I left, I smiled at him and he smiled back.

Later in the evening I went back to the same bar to talk to the barman about the strange couple. I found him having a break. He told me that the two men were not family, but friends and lived nearby. He said they came to the bar nearly every day. He did not know their history, but they were both locals.

Sometimes God works in mysterious ways.

Astorga to Rabanal del Camino (21kms)

Monday, 24 September, 2012

When I went to bed that previous night, I expected to wake up in the morning to sore feet and an aching knee; I was not disappointed.

I also expected a dark and wet greeting, but was pleasantly surprised to see the sun and blue sky. So with a light heart and an aching leg, I slowly set off past the very impressive church, and the Gaudi-designed palace, to the next village, where I planned to have breakfast.

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El Cathedral de Astorga
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Episcopal Palace of Astorga, designed by Gaudí

And there I ate the best tortilla I had ever had, and I drank a coffee that Italians would die for. If not quite recovered in body, my spirit was soaring. And the countryside was beautiful. It felt so good to be alive.

After a long but pleasant walk, I eventually arrived in Rabanal del Camino, on a hill, as are so many of the villages.

I found a room in a charming and well-preserved hostel, that reminded me very much of the inn in Paolo Coehlo’s novel, ‘The Devil and Miss Prym’. Every time a man entered the bar, I expected it to be Him.

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And the dinner was an honest and filling country meal. I felt that I would sleep well that night. I had a room with a skylight and I had already seen the clouds swishing by. Later I hoped that I would see the stars from my bed.

There was very little light pollution in that village.

Rabanal del Camino to El Acebo (16km)

Tuesday, 25 September, 2012

I awoke to the sound of raindrops plopping ominously on the skylight. After a short time they stopped, but I felt uneasy. With an ascent to over 1500 m and me travelling light, with no heavy waterproof clothing, bad weather was the last thing I wished for.

But that was exactly what I got. It was dark when I started out and I had gone no further than 400 m up the path, when it started. Light at first, it steadily became heavier, and the wind grew in force. The path was rocky and steep in parts and slowly but surely the rain and cold started to penetrate my meagre defences. And the path went from being wet and slippery to being a rapidly moving stream on the slopes and small lakes in the hollows; my boots and socks soon became saturated and my feet became quite cold.

And the heavy rain and gale-force wind continued, without relenting, for the rest of the day.

I passed over the col and its famed cross, with only a brief stop to read the history dating back to Roman times, and to take a quick photo from under a sheltering tree; I was starting to get quite uncomfortable, and decided to stop at the next village, and abandon my previous ambitious objective for the day.

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La Cruz de Ferro, the highest point on El Camino Francés

But my bad leg just would not do as I wished and seemed to have a mind of its own; I could only navigate the rocky steep descent to El Acebo, in the river of mud, with great care.

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The village of El Acebo

But in the village the only apparent accommodation had already been taken.  Luckily I was able to find a room in a little Rural Hostal, in a side street.  There were only three rooms and I was fortunate to get the last one.

After a hot shower and a nap, I felt completely revived. And a delicious vegetarian dinner, cooked by the delightfully hospitable host, capped off a challenging day.

During the dinner I learned that a lot of people had suffered much more that day than I; some had arrived verging on hypothermia.

I slept like baby that night.

El Acebo to Ponferrada (17km)

Wednesday, 26 September, 2012

I awoke in the dark to the sound of much barking. At breakfast I learned that the owner had four dogs; they slept outside in all weathers and kept the wild pigs at bay, otherwise the vegetable gardens and orchards would be destroyed.

When I left after breakfast, two of the dogs came up to me and gently licked my hand and wagged their tails; they did not seem vicious enough to attack an aggressive hungry wild pig.

For four hours, I slowly descended from the mountain, until I crossed the river into the beautiful village of Molinaseca.

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The bridge into Molinaseca
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Entering Molinseca with the yellow arrow indication the way

From Molinaseca the remainder of the walk was on asphalt.

During the Roman period, Ponferrada was the centre of the largest mining centre in the Empire, producing gold and other minerals.  In latter days, coal and tungsten were extracted, but in the 1980s the mining industry collapsed, and today the town survives on agriculture and tourism.

In the centre of the town stands the Castillo de los Templarios, the restored Templar castle, originally built during the 12th century. The Templar knights provided protection for the pilgrims, and escorted them through the region.

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The Templar Castle in Ponferrada

Just after I passed the castle, it started to rain once more, but luckily I soon found a very comfortable and not expensive room, in a hostel beside the market.

And then went for lunch in the bar next door.

 

Badagri to Lagos

16-17 September, 1978

Bob had been in Nigeria for some time when I first knew him.  He was a petroleum engineer and was one of life’s enthusiasts. With his eyes wide open and a permanent grin on his face, he always looked as if he was about to have his photograph taken.  He was an instantly likeable guy.

He had recently bought two adjoining cottages in England, with the intention of converting them into one residence.  His wife and children were there, sorting out the building work and schools, leaving him as a temporary bachelor.  He was enjoying every day to the full and he filled his week with rugby training and the occasional match, tennis, squash and a weekly challenging of all-comers to race around the circumference of the golf course.  And of course all washed down with copious amounts of Star beer.

Bob had recently returned from a trip to Tanzania, to climb Mount Kilimanjaro (5895 m), together with a small group from Lagos.  Unfortunately, Bob suffered from severe altitude sickness, and did not make it to the top.  But not deterred, he was planning to attempt Mount Cameroon (4040 m) later in the year.

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Mount Kilimanjaro
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Mount Camaroon

One evening at the Ikoyi club, after our second or third bottle of Star, Bob told me of his ambition of walking from Badagri, near the Benin border, along the coast to the nearest point opposite Victoria Island and Lagos.  He said that it was about 60 km, but walking during the night to avoid much of the heat, it could easily be done in twenty hours.  He said that he had never found anybody interested in doing it.

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Badagri to Lagos

‘I’ll do it’, I said.

‘Are you serious?’

‘Yup, it sounds really interesting’

‘Fantastic.  How about this weekend? There’s no rugby planned’.

‘Perfect’

We agreed to ask the guys at rugby training the next night to see if anybody else fancied joining us.

The next day, just as I was about to leave work, I received a summons to go to the MD’s office.

‘Come in and take a seat Mr Blackwood. I have heard that two of you are planning a rather foolish venture this weekend, to walk along the coast from Badagri to Lagos overnight.  I hope you realize that the police have little jurisdiction over that area and if you get into trouble, I have no idea how you could get help.’

‘Hmmm, I would not describe it as foolish, perhaps a little adventurous.  But after tonight, there will almost certainly be more than two of us, and we are all fit, so the distance should be no problem’.

‘Well I can’t stop you doing it, but I confess that I would prefer not to have known about it.  It is not the sort of thing that I would fancy doing, but I wish you all good luck’.

I never did find out how he knew about our plans.

And that evening after training and before the second bottle of Star, three more volunteered to join us – Peter, with whom I shared an apartment, Dave, an auditor, and Sean, a recently arrived Irish journalist.

So on the Saturday afternoon, we all met at Bob’s apartment and his driver drove us to the beach at Badagri, and left us there.

We agreed to stay within sight and shouting distance of each other, and to have a ten minute stop every hour, the stop being initiated by whoever was in the lead at the time.

Before long it was apparent that Peter had some sort of problem; he soon fell behind and looked quite uncomfortable.  At our first stop the reason became apparent; in his pack he was carrying a huge container of water, enough to fill a bath.  Needless to say, he realised his mistake and most of it was dumped.

And to cool down – he was already drenched with sweat – Peter went down to the water’s edge, took off his shoes and went in to paddle in the water.  Unfortunately for Peter, a huge wave broke on the shore and washed away his shoes.  Some people are quite accident-prone.

Needless to say, we laughed hysterically at Peter’s misfortune, but we soon realised that Peter had no alternative than to walk the next 55 km in his bare feet.

Within the next hour the sun set, but there was a full moon, so we were not exactly stumbling along in the darkness.  But the going was harder than we had anticipated.  The beach was steeply shelving and in parts we had to walk along the edge of the jungle.

At around 10h00, it started to get much darker, and incredibly we realized that we were witnessing an eclipse of the moon.  It was not a total eclipse, but was quite impressive.

It was not long after that we heard voices ahead of us.  We had not expected to meet anybody on the beach.  As far as we had known, there were no villages on the thin strip of land that we were on and that we were isolated from the mainland by a wide creek.

But there they were, perhaps twenty men, some carrying machetes.  There was nothing to do but brazen it out.

It turned out that they were out hunting for turtles and were just as surprised at seeing us as we were to see them.  They were very curious about us and must have thought that all white people were nuts.  But they were friendly and all ended well.

In the middle of the night it started to rain, gently at first, but soon heavier.  Then the thunderstorm started, but luckily we came across a couple of thatched shelters on the beach.  They must have been built by weekenders, who came up the creek on their motor boats.  We stayed there for about an hour, until the rain stopped.

And so the routine continued, hour after hour. The sun rose, the temperature and humidity rose, and we trudged on.  Nobody spoke, we just kept walking.  Walking on sloping sand is not easy and nobody wanted to know how Peter’s feet felt.  We had expected to get to the end, and the ferry to Lagos, by midday, but we had lost time sheltering during the night, and our progress was slower than anticipated.

But at about 15h30 we finally spotted Lagos in the far distance and an hour later we were at the end of the beach, with ten minutes further to get to the ferry.  We had made it on time.

And then potential disaster struck.

‘Where’s Peter?  Has anybody seen Peter?

From where we were, the beach extended far into the distance, and as far as the eye could see, there was no sign of Peter.  As there was no time to waste, I volunteered to run back and try to find him.

I set off at a steady pace and after about ten minutes, I saw in the distance what looked like a log.  It turned out to be Peter, fast asleep.  I woke him up and soon we were back with the others.  Apparently he just stopped ‘to rest his eyes for a moment’.  And his feet were fine.

With time to spare, we caught the last ferry back to Victoria Island, and were met by Bob’s driver.  We went to our individual homes, showered, changed, and one hour later met again for dinner at the Ikoyi Club.

We did not say much; we were all extremely tired.  We had beer and then ordered a meal. While we were waiting for the food, one by one the heads went down, sound asleep.

When the food arrived, only Dave and I were still awake.

 

Guilty as charged

England & Belgium

1995

I will never forget that summer’s morning when my secretary entered my office and closed the door.  She looked quite concerned.

‘Len, there’s a police sergeant downstairs in reception and he has asked to speak to you.  I have tried to find out what it is about, but he insists that he can only discuss the matter with you.  I have seated him in the small conference room’.

‘Hmmm, it sounds like somebody is in trouble.  I can’t imagine that it is me’

But it was.

The sergeant informed me that the Belgian authorities wanted to prosecute me for driving at excessive speeds on the E411 from Luxembourg to Brussels and the E42 from Namur, east to the Belgian/French border.  Apparently my car had been caught several times by unmanned radar traps.

He showed me the thick file of documentation that the Belgians had forwarded to Scotland Yard, and it had been delegated to him to investigate the case.

‘At what speed would you normally drive on those roads’ he asked.

‘Oh, probably a little over the speed limit, if the roads were dry, it was light and there was no traffic.  I normally drive later, when the roads are more or less empty’.

‘Do you know what the speed limit is for Belgium’.

‘130 km/hour?

‘No, it is 120 km/hour, and you were caught at speeds very much in excess of that.

‘Hmmm, what happens now?

‘I will return with a colleague, tomorrow if it will be convenient for you, and we will take a formal statement from you.  We will send that off to Brussels, and it is up to the Belgians as to what happens then.  As they have gone to a lot of trouble to track you down, I don’t imagine that they will drop the case.  They will probably summons you to appear in a Belgian court.  You can of course decide to ignore the summons, in which case they may seek your extradition, and if you are found guilty, the penalties could be quite severe.’

And so next day the sergeant returned at the appointed time, accompanied by a constable.  They told me that I had the right to remain silent, a condition that rarely applies to me.  The constable documented everything, I signed the statement and that was that.

It never occurred to me at the time, to ask how they had traced me directly to my office.  The car and the owner can be obtained from the government vehicle registry.  I guessed that there must exist a tax file giving each taxpayer’s business address.

Time passed, I heard nothing more, and I assumed that the case was forgotten.  I still drove in Belgium, but not so often, and I tried to make sure that I was always within the speed limit.  Belgian colleagues had told me that, if I committed no further traffic offences in Belgium during three years, the old offences were not taken into account, but to be very careful in the meantime.

In 1998, when I was then managing a Swiss company, based in Neuchätel, I drove north through France to Luxembourg, and next day continued on.  On the way past Arlon, just after the Luxembourg/France border, I spotted a police car sitting partially hidden in a lay-by.  I instantly checked my speed and to my dismay, I was driving at over 150 km/hour.  On an empty road in a good car, it does not feel like it is very fast.

I slowed down to 120 km/hour.  I could see no obvious threat in the rear mirror and started to relax. And then I spotted the flashing light far back.  It soon came up beside me and the driver signalled for me to pull over to the shoulder.

Both policemen got out of their car and one of them came over to my window and demanded my papers – passport, insurance and ownership documentation.  He then went back to his car and I could see that he was using his radio, presumably checking everything with his base.  In the meantime, the other policeman stood watching me.

I admit that I was desperately trying to remember how long it had been since my previous ‘experience’ with the Belgian police.  I thought that it must have been at least three years, but from which date did the three-year period start?  If I was still ‘active’ in the Belgian database, I was in trouble.

After an interminable wait, the policemen hung up his radio and came back to my car.

‘On my radar, I recorded you driving at *** km/hour, ** km/hour in excess of the speed limit, and therefore I am authorized to issue you with a fine of €***.  You can either pay the fine now, or you can follow me to the nearest police station.’

It was rather a large amount to – the fines in Belgium, as in most countries, are not linear, but exponential.

‘I don’t have that much in cash.  Can I pay with a credit card?’

‘Certainly sir, that is not a problem’

So I produced my credit card, the policeman recorded all the details, I signed the payment, and I was free to drive on.

I felt so relieved that my previous speeding offences had not surfaced.  I felt like a criminal who had been acquitted by the judge, for lack of evidence.

And I have been on my best behavior ever since.

Lagos

London and Lagos

1978

‘Would you be interested in a twelve-month contract in Venezuela with Maraven.  It used to be the Shell company in Caracas before it was nationalized?’

That was the question that I was asked by my contact at P-E International.  I had just completed a project of more than a year at Shell International in London, through his company, and he knew that I had traveled a lot in South and Central America, and that I was keen to return.  I was very excited by the opportunity.

‘We don’t yet have a date for the interviews, but I will find you a short term contract to tide you over until then’.

He was as good as his word, and a few days later I started a small fixed-price development project with Ford in Dagenham.  It was a horrible commute from where I lived in Hampstead in north London, but I was able to do a lot of the work at home, and carry out testing in Dagenham in the evenings, when there was less traffic.  I worked at least twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and completed the development in just over a month.  It proved to be a quite lucrative contract.

But still there was no confirmation of the interview date, so I went on a holiday to the U.S. with the intention of returning once everything was arranged.

About two weeks later I received the notification, returned to London, interviewed and a couple of days later, was informed that I was one of two applicants that had been selected, the other one being a P-E employee.  The only problem was that it would take some time for Maraven to obtain 12-month renewable work permits.  The wheels of bureaucracy can turn very slowly.

But Shell was keen for the ‘technology transfer’ to take place, so I was provided with a 3-month contract, to make modifications to a Shell drilling system in Nigeria.  One week later I was in Lagos.

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What followed were three amazing and unforgettable months of my life.

I shared a large four-bedroom apartment on Victoria Island with another P-E employee, and I was given the use of a robust Volkswagen.  The work was interesting and I was provided with membership of the Ikoyi Club, with access to its restaurant, bar, squash and tennis courts, outdoor movies etc.

I exercised every day of the week playing rugby, tennis and squash, and running in handicapped races around the perimeter of the Ikoyi Golf Club, two or three times a week.  I ended up fitter than I had ever been before.

There were parties every weekend and I will always associate the Bee Gees and Saturday Night Fever with Lagos; that recording was played over and over, with the exclusion of everything else.

There was a rugby match against a visiting team from Monrovia (Liberia), a trip to play Kano in the north and a seven-a-side competition.

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Who was the clown making faces?

And there was the 24-hour hike along the coast from Badagri, near the border with Benin, to Lagos, and the trip to Kainji Lake National Park in north-east Nigeria.

But they are stories for another day.

I left Lagos in early November and a few days later, via London and Los Angeles, I arrived in Caracas.

In 1987, I returned to Nigeria, as the UK Director of P-E (West Africa) Ltd, a Nigerian consulting services company.

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And more soberly dressed and serious

And for the next eight years, I traveled regularly to Lagos and Port Harcourt for board meetings, visiting clients and entertaining staff.

When I left P-E International in 1996, my relationship with Nigeria came to an end.  But I still retain very many warm memories of the people and the country.

Burgos to León

Burgos to Homillos del Camino (19km)

Monday, 9 April, 2012

I knew it was not going to be a good day, when I got out of bed a little too enthusiastically, and felt a sharp pain in the inside of my good knee.  I struggled on the flights of steps that led up to the street behind the cathedral.

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For some time, I limped along very slowly and when I finally arrived at the edge of the city, I sat down on a bench opposite a hospital, feeling quite sorry for myself. I hesitated to continue, not wanting to do any more damage to my knee.  But I eventually decided to persist with the walk, and when an hour or so later the first village came into sight, I realised that the pain had stopped, without my being aware.  I took it very carefully for the rest of the day.

The weather was glorious; blue sky, mild, with a soft breeze. The hills were long, but gentle. It was a perfect day for walking.

And before I knew it my objective for the day lay below: Homillos del Campo.

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It was a really small village; there was one street, a church that was locked, a tiny bar and a Casa Rural, at which I was the only guest. I had the beautiful house all to myself.

I had some drinks and dinner at the bar, where I had the most delicious bowl of lentejas and an animated conversation with the owner, who was barman, chef and waiter.

And it was followed by a solid night’s sleep, to be woken in the dawn light by a wonderful chorus of bird song.

Leaving the window open at night can bring such dividends in the morning.

 

Homillos del Camino to Castrojeris (20km)

Tuesday, 10 April, 2012

So this morning I set off in high spirits, with no apparent repetition of yesterday’s knee pain. But the spring in my step soon disappeared when I emerged from the shelter of the village, into the teeth of a strong headwind.

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And as I climbed out of the valley the wind increased in force and for the next six hours I was buffeted and jerked around like a demented puppet.

And there was absolutely no shelter whatsoever.

It was with much relief when I finally hobbled into Castrojeris, where I found a room with no problem.

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And the local food and wine were excellent.

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Catrojeris to Frómista (26km)

Wednesday, 11 April, 2012

I had another challenging day. Once on the open plain, one met the full force of the wind. And thirty minutes later there was a steep climb diagonally up the side of an impressive ridge. The climb was not difficult, just steep and long and led to a wide table top, before another steep descent to a landscape, flat as far as one could see.

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And the wind did not relent. It roared and howled in one’s ears, like an angry Irish housewife. There was no escape; nowhere to shelter, except for two small villages en route.

And then the threatened rain started, not long after an old farmer working in his field assured me that there would be no rain that day, but the next day for sure.

For the next two hours I plodded along, accompanied by both wind and rain, until I finally arrived in Frómista, very wet and tired.

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San Martín de Tours, built in Romanesque style in the early 11th century, and restored in the late 1800s

But with a comfortable room and after an excellent meal, I felt quite revived.

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The wine was included with the meal

 

Frómista to Carrión de los Condes (22km)

Thursday, 12 April, 2012

So the farmer of the previous day really got his weather forecast quite wrong. According to him it should have rained, instead of turning out to be a beautiful spring day. If he ever tires of farming, he would have a job waiting for him at the BBC weather desk.

Today the path was unrelenting; straight and gently undulating for all of its 22km. It ran alongside the local road, separated from it by a ditch. The path was formed of stones sunk into sun-baked clay. Unfortunately, the stones protruded and after an hour my bad foot ached and throbbed with each step, and my good foot started to whinge in sympathy. At times El Camino can be a real test of perseverance.

From the crest of some of the slopes, one could see for two or three kilometres in either direction. That day for the first time, I noticed that the bounce had gone from the step of many pilgrims. They did not pass me cheerfully. Many limped or had their heads down, moving painfully, struggling with blisters, knees, shin splints, hips; the romance and adventure had receded and the personal struggle to keep going had taken front stage. Some will give up, perhaps returning one day in the future, with fresh enthusiasm and healthier bodies, to resume where they left off. Most will continue with their struggle all the way to Santiago de Compostella.

For those who persist, the reward will be theirs.

 

Carrion de los Condes to Calcidilla de la Cueza (17km)

Friday, 13 April, 2012

When I awoke the next morning and looked out the window, the sky was clear and turning blue. And when I left the village the sun was shining and there was not a cloud to be seen. It was another perfect day for walking.  And the birds were singing their heads off, oblivious of my presence. I could have almost touched some of them, as they clung to solitary branches by the path. They seemed to have no fear of pilgrims.

But the wind had slept in that morning, and when aroused felt quite guilty, and started rushing hither and thither, bumping into everything it encountered. And the nosey clouds rushed over from the horizon to see what was happening. So what had promised to be a gentle stroll, became another head down leaning forward sort of day.

It was with some relief that the tiny village of Calcidilla de la Cueza finally came into view.

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Calcidilla de la Cueza to Sahagún de Campos (23km)

Saturday, 14 April, 2012

Walking against the never ceasing wind across the seemingly vast plain was almost hypnotic. One could walk for hours, but seem to be remaining on the spot; a feature on the horizon remains what it was when the day started; a feature on the horizon.

And yet one knew that there were villages between here and there, but where were they? By then one of them should have been in sight. And on one plodded until suddenly, with no prior warning, there it was, a little village nestling below in a hollow in the plain.

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As one descended, the wind continued its frenetic rush above, as if it had more pressing matters to attend to elsewhere; to the mighty wind an insignificant little village was not worth the expending of time and energy to descend. And I made my way down to the welcome shelter of the village bar and a coffee and a slice of tortilla, with a chunk of bread. And so once revived, I ascended once more to the fray.

And when mid-afternoon arrived, I stopped at the first village with accommodation; by then I will usually have reached my limit for the day.

And so for day after day the routine repeats, the wind continues to buffet everything in its path.  Occasionally it rains.

And slowly, almost imperceptibly, I have been moving across the map of Spain.

 

Sahagún to El Burgo Ranero (18km)

Sunday, 15 April, 2012

Sahagún reached it greatest splendour during the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile (1047-1109), as evidenced by a plethora of ancient buildings.  In the 14th century, it housed a university.

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Church of San Tirso

On the way out of Sahagún, one crosses a Roman bridge over the river Cea.

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El Burgo Ranero to Mansilla de las Mulas (19km)

Monday, 16 April, 2012

I always like to leave the curtains open when I go to bed, so that I can awaken to first light, but it is not often that I can lie in bed and watch the rising sun. I remember once witnessing the rising of a huge orange sun as I crossed Sydney Harbour Bridge in the early morning,when I had set out on one of my crazy marathon walks.  In El Burgo Ranero I woke to the rising sun and I did not have to move a muscle to see it, apart from my eye lids.

And I felt incredibly at peace, totally relaxed, a feeling that I only once before recall experiencing, and that was when I was having a stroke. It apparently happens when the logical side of the brain switches off and the sensual side becomes dominant.

I wondered if I will feel so peaceful when I have another stroke. My sight was fine and all I had to do was to raise both my arms to be reassured. But I felt no panic whatsoever and lay without moving, enjoying the sensations. Eventually the logical side woke up. I raised my arms and another day began.

I walked relaxed all day, past a huge wading bird, past yet another wayside memorial for a pilgrimage fatality – I have lost count as to how many memorials I have seen.

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Another helping of tortilla and a beer served by an attractive girl in pink top and tight pants saw me through to the ancient village of Mansilla de las Mulas.

 

Mansilla de las Mulas to Léon (19km)

Tuesday, 17 April, 2012

The first view of Léon was rather deceiving.  It looked as if I was almost there.

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But there remained much more than an hour of suburbs and city streets before arriving at the central plaza, with its magnificent cathedral.

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Logroño to Burgos

Logroño to Navarette (13km)

Monday, 2 April, 2012

It was a choice of either an easy day of 13 km to Navarette or 29 km to Nájera.  Now my average pace of about 4 km per hour may seem rather pedestrian to athletic types, but believe me, with boots and backpack, over undulating terrain, on mud, rocks and occasional asphalt, 4-5 km per hour is what most people achieve.

Of course there are the rather irritating exceptions, going as far and as fast as they can each day, taking no time to ‘smell the birds or hear the flowers’. To them contemplation and inner peace are for the wimps.

On the Camino, most villages and every town had hospitals, that treated the sick and the injured pilgrims.  Some of the hospitals still operate, some have been converted to other functions, and many are in ruin.

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Ruins of the former pilgrim hospital ‘San Juan de Acre

After a relatively easy day of walking, I arrived in Navarette, and had no problem in finding a room.  The village was not exactly crowded.

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Rush hour in Navarette

And I spent a long and laid-back afternoon in the Bar Deportivo, eating tapas, sipping on glasses of local wine, and tapping away at my notebook.  I was blissfully relaxed.

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Tapas and wine – the good life

The athletic jocks don’t seem to know what they are missing.

Navarrete to Nájera (16km)

Tuesday, 3 April, 2012

Normally I set my alarm for 07h00 and wake up before it rings, by 06h30 at the latest, to hit the road early. That night I decided that the alarm was no longer required, and consequently slept in and woke up at 08h50, to find rain dripping on the window sill, and little visible, apart from some cars parked in the plaza below.

And all day it rained, never heavy, but with that persistent drizzle that chills, and somehow percolates ones supposedly rain resistant clothing. I arrived in Najera feeling thoroughly miserable: cold, wet, chilled through. And to cap it all, I had some difficulty in finding a vacant room.

But with persistence and asking several people, I was eventually directed to a very comfortable room, with a very reasonable price, in a back street under the cliffs.  The house was owned by two very charming men of rather obvious sexuality.

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The cliffs above Nájera

With snow flurries forecast for that day and the next ten, I had to recognise that I was poorly equipped for such conditions. So I went back into the town, and by pure luck I stumbled upon a little shop that had a waterproof jacket with a fleece lining, and at €38 seemed to me a bargain. And the old lady who sold it to me was delightful.  I had fun talking to her.

Nájera To Santo Domingo De La Calzada (20km)

Wednesday, 4 April, 2012

So at 07h45 this morning, complete with my new jacket, my fleece, tracksters and hat, I emerged from the hotel, ready and prepared for whatever nature would throw at me.  Despite the ominous forecast of the night before, to my surprise it was quite mild, and the fog and rain had been replaced by a beautiful spring morning. Weather forecasters can make fortune tellers and economists seem quite professional.

Within ten minutes and partly up the first hill, I was sweating and had to stop to take off my fleece. Another ten minutes and off came the jacket and the pack was noticeably heavier. Before the top of the long incline, off came tracksters, of course requiring removal and replacement of boots.  Now I was comfortable, but cursing the weightier pack.

At the top of the hill, once removed from the shelter of the valley, the wind felt quite cold, and before long back on went the fleece and jacket, but my legs remained bare – it was too much hassle to fiddle with boots.

And for much of the day the dressing and undressing was repeated, depending on the state of the wind and sun. I felt like a male model at a fashion show. If I were ever to master mincing and pouting, I could have a new career as an aging clothes horse.

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The cathedral in Santo Domingo de Calzada

Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Beldorado (23km)

Thursday, 5 April, 2012

When walking across Spain, one thing struck me; there were enormous swathes of cultivated land, but no farmhouses to be seen, the reason being that the farmers live in the villages and commute out to their farmland.  This seemed to me as an imminently preferable arrangement, in that it gives much more social opportunities for the farmers’ wives and children, and brings added life to the villages.

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The long and empty road

Until I eventually arrived in Burgos, this region gave me the impression of being rather left behind: remote, overlooked, forgotten. Yet the people were some of the most kind and friendly that I have ever come across. They reminded of Ulster country people: willing, honest, modest, with few pretensions.

Beldorado to San Juan de Ortega (26km)

Friday, 6 April, 2012

Once past Villafranca Montes de Oca, the path climbed to a plateau and for kilometre after kilometre there was nothing to be seen, except forest.  It had rained heavily the night before and one had to trudge through thick clinging mud.

In the Middle Ages the area was quite remote and it had the reputation of being dangerous for pilgrims; they were preyed on by bands of thieves and robbers. The pilgrims had no resource to banks and ATMs; they carried their money on their person and were quite vulnerable, unless escorted by volunteer knights.

At one point the path passed a monument erected by the relatives of the 300 people shot by supporters of General France, soon after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.  It was a grim reminder that not so long ago, the country was very divided.  Some would say that it still is.

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Monte de la Pedraja

Eventually the path descended into a valley and there I spent the night in the tiny village of San Juan de Ortega.

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San Juan de Ortega to Villafría (17km)

Saturday, 7 April, 2012

When I set out next morning, the sun was shining, but soon darks clouds moved in and it turned much colder.  Then the rain started and it continued to rain heavily all the remainder of the day.

On the outskirts of Atapuerca, I passed the archaological complex, where some of the oldest remains of man had been discovered, during the excavation of a railway cutting in 1976.  The site contains evidence of continuous human occupation since over one million years.

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After Atapuerca, the path climbed up to the Sierra and the rain turned to snow.

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On the descent from the Sierra, the snow turned back to heavy rain, and it continued relentlessly.  The long trudge around Burgos airport on the edge of the asphalt road was quite dispiriting, and I decided to stay at the first hotel I came across, enabling me to change into dry clothes and dry my wet gear.

Villafría to Burgos (8km)

Sunday 8 April, 2014

And finally Burgos; kilometre after kilometre of industrial area, before arriving at the well preserved heart of the old city – a jewel of parks, plazas, churches, overseen by the magnificent cathedral.

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And the narrow streets, with their bars and restaurants, were filled with Easter Sunday celebrants.

Just before I left for Spain in March, I had read a book called La Sombra del Viento, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.  It was set in Barcelona and events that took place during the Spanish Civil War were central to the plot.

One of the central characters in the book went by the alias of Laín Caubert.  Now I have a very good friend called Laín Burgos-Lovéce, who is from Santiago de Chile, and our friendship dates back to Caracas in the late 1970s.  In all those years I have never come across another Laín, until that book.  The name is apparently quite rare today.

Fast forward by a month and I was staying in Burgos.  I had just checked into a small hotel and when I left the hotel to explore the surroundings, I noted the street names, in case I got lost.  The street that I was staying on was called Calle de Laín Calvo.  In Spanish ‘calvo‘ means bald, and that would certainly be an accurate description of my friend Laín today.

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The street sign of Calle de Laín Calvo

So were Laín + Burgos + Camino de Santiago just a coincidence?

Perhaps it was a very positive sign that I was on the right path.  I have no idea of where the path might lead, but I suspect that if I keep my mind open, I will come across more signs.