This 'week' has been slightly shorter and we arrived in the stunning city of Burgos yesterday where we are having our rest day. Today is Day 36 and we have now walked a total of 760km. We are more than half way to our destination of Fisterra, about 100km beyond Santiago, at the edge of the world according to the Spaniards in the Middle Ages.
Burgos is the home of El Cid and the most spectacular cathedral I have ever seen - a UNESCO world heritage site. We spent an hour and a half wandering around this afternoon discovering the elegance of the gothic cloisters, alabaster tombs and colourful domes through to hideously tacky eighteenth century cherubs piled on top of each other. There were several representations of our Camino patron saint, James, mainly riding a horse and beheading Saracens, one of the skills he had post-mortem. Some wonderful Renaissance paintings as well as the tomb of El Cid himself.
Logroño - where we had our last rest day - is the (wealthy) capital of Rioja so for two more days we passed beautiful vineyards full of the sweetest grapes ever. But from Santa Dominica where we celebrated our HALF WAY POINT, the land turned into potato fields and then sunflower fields. Some of the time we literally followed either the motorway or the national road; other times we were directed away from the road into tiny villages dominated by at least one church and brought alive by groups of pilgrims hovering around a shop or bar.
Camino Karma: This week we got ripped off by a grumpy man at the top of a hill selling over-priced bottled water - our guide book had misled us about a fountain so we were running low. A few hundred metres too late (little is worth turning around for) we realised the bottle wasn't even sealed. But the next day as we were walking on a particularly boring flat stretch next to a major road, a man passed us in a car offering pilgrims free bottles of water and the next morning a baker opened an hour early for us so we could buy our lunch for that day. We were delighted the day before yesterday to find ourselves in woods again. We have missed the oak trees of the Dordogne where we did quite a lot of our training. And suddenly after miles of empty space (which I enjoy but sometimes it becomes overwhelming) we were high on a plateau walking through pines, oaks, golden bracken and heather. I have decided that woods are my favourite natural environment. The smell, the softness of the leaves under your feet, the shadows and shifting light, the path ahead which is constantly disappearing so you never quite know what you will encounter around the corner. All cliches but cliches for a reason.
Walking in woods always makes me think of my experiences in the Lake District - at an outdoor pursuits centre called Castlehead where I went as a teenager and later where I spent some time working. Frank who ran the centre introduced me to, amongst many many other things, the magic of woods and his words have never left me. I have been thinking of my time as a tour leader in Egypt, Morocco, and elsewhere. Travelling with little, feeling joy when your clothes come back from being washed scented with the smell of Clean, long days, physical exhaustion, the dust and grime you manage to acquire somehow, the wonder of new places and new people. And I have inevitably been thinking of my parents who died nearly six years ago: wishing I could have been ringing them every so often telling them everything I have experienced, wishing they could have known that I was even doing this, but also finding that moments I had forgotten about our lives together have resurfaced. It is a cathartic process, this Camino, and I am by no means the only person I have talked to who is actively acknowledging loss. One of the wonderful Mexican pilgrims we met earlier was wearing six safety pins on her t-shirt to mark the death of six people who had been important to her.
Someone asked me this week how I understand the word 'pilgrim'. I suspect few of us pilgrims know what that word means to us when we begin. In its most conventional sense it means 'a traveller on a journey to a holy place', but we then have to ask ourselves how we understand 'holy place'. I read a very interesting post in the Camino Forum by someone who says he is not a 'Camino Pilgrim'. Rather, as a Buddhist he is on the journey to actively engage with the present. Sometimes I am absolutely in the present on this walk: my physical aches and pains keep me in the moment, as does the wind or sun on my face, the sweat on my back and the weight of my rucksack, the songs of birds or hoots of lorries, the tap tap tap of walking poles behind or ahead, the different sensations of grass, tarmac, gravel, dust beneath my feet. And sometimes I am elsewhere. It is all good, all important. Now and elsewhere.
Please consider donating to the ME Association via my JustGiving site. Www.justgiving.com/fundraising/sophie-breese and thank you to those who have donated this week!