Thursday, 23 November 2017

Preparing for your Camino next year? Festivals in Spain and Portugal

Thinking of walking in Spain or Portugal?

The Iberian Peninsula is a land rich in history, tradition and superstition. Portugal and Spain being “Catholic countries” share many of the same holidays and religious festivals. There are also many legends, some based on vague historical facts, others coloured with religious connotations.  You may wish to take these into account when planning your Camino either to avoid them or to see them!
First of all I’d like to introduce you to some of the festivals I’ve come across on my travels and Caminos throughout Spain and Portugal.

 “Why”, you may ask yourself, “ do up to 300 couples get married on the same day and often in the same ceremony on Saint Anthony’s Day in Lisbon in Portugal? “

The answer lies in the story of Saint Anthony who was born in Lisbon. He became known as a great miracle worker and also for his skills at reconciling couples. In Lisbon the festivities in his honour begin on the evening of June 12 with displays of walking groups and singers and parades and a custom is for young people to write letters on that day asking Saint Anthony to help them find a partner. Then on the 13th , Saint Anthony’s Feast Day, as evidence of how effective this is traditionally 13 couples get married together with all expenses being paid by the city council. But as happens one tradition led to another and for years on this feast it has become the fashion for hundred of the Noivas de Santo Antonio’ (the Brides of Saint Anthony) to get married on the same day.
At the same time the Sardine Festival takes place and this is replicated elsewhere in Spain and Portugal in different places and at different times. On the Feast of Saint John in Galicia the people jump over bonfires (Oh yes they do!) and eat grilled sardines provided by local restaurants for free. A close relative of this takes place in the South of Spain in Malaga and Murcia and other towns when there is the Burial of the Sardine to mark the end of the excesses of Carnival and to herald the start of Lent. Sardines it seems are ubiquitous.
Many Hispanic festivals end when the symbols of the excesses which have been enjoyed are ceremonially burned. There is also at the end of Carnival the traditional Quema del Raspajo when an effigy is burned to represent regeneration and freedom. Often this is used to poke fun at the political order as happened in Santiago last Ash Wednesday:
Other festivals are more difficult to understand. My favourites of these are the Baby Jumping Ceremony in the province of Burgos and the Festival of Near Death Experiences in Galicia. Both cause visitors to gasp in either amazement or anxiety!
Baby Jumping or El Colacho as it is known in the Province of Burgos called Castrillo de Murcia takes place every year around the Feast of Corpus Christi which is usually celebrated in May or June. The tradition dates back to the 17th Century. During the ceremony men dressed as the Devil (the Colacho) in red and yellow suits jump over babies, born during the previous 12 months, who lie on mattresses on the ground.  This is known as the jump of the devil, El Salto del Colacho. The “devils” carry whips and castanets as the jump over the fortunately unaware infants. 
The point of the ceremony is to cleanse the babies and drive out any evil spirits to prepare them for life. It is said however that Pope Benedict asked local priests to distance the church from the Jump of the Devil because the Catholic Church teaches that it is baptism and not jumping over babies which anoints children for the Christian life. Imagine that! 

However weirdest of all in my book is the Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarteme, also known as the Festival of Near Death Experiences. It takes place in a small Galician village on the border with Portugal – Las Nieves, Pontevedra on the 29th July. Here if you are suffering from a grave illness and wish to pray for recovery or if you have already recovered from near death and you wish to give thanks you…rent a coffin, get inside it and your friends and relatives carry you through the village in procession before laying your before the altar in the local church where you remain during mass!

 Ex Votos
At most of the festivals described here there may be stalls selling everything from fresh donuts to wax body parts. Yes, body parts. These are called Ex Votos, votive offerings to add to your prayers for recovery from an ailment to your hand, head, leg... Strange they may seem but they aren’t restricted to Catholicism I have seen them at Hindu temples in India and Buddhist shrines in Japan. For me they are still strange!
So if you are passing a church as I did the other day and you notice policemen lined up in dress uniform wearing white gloves don’t be surprised if it is the Feast of Guardian Angels – the patrons of the National Police. It was!   
Religious Festivals and Public Holidays
These feasts and holidays are observed in both countries except where otherwise indicated. Where the languages are different the names are given first in Portugese then Spanish.

1 January: New Year’s Day and the Feast of Mary, Mother of God - Santa Maria, Mãe de Deus/Santa María, Madre de Dios. 

6 January: The Epiphany - Dia de Reis/ Día del Reyes. In Spain this feast is celebrated as much as Christmas, and presents are often given on this day. There are street processions and celebrations.
Three Kings Procession
Carnaval: This is the period before the start of Lent and is a time of partying and over indulgence.

14 February: Ash Wednesday - Quarta feira de cinza/Miércoles de Ceniza, and the start of Lent - Quaresma/Cuaresma

19 March: The Feast of Saint Joseph - São José/San José. This is when Father’s Day is celebrated in both countries.

25 March – 1 April: Holy Week - Semana Santa, when there will be many religious services and street processions.

25 March: Palm Sunday - Domingo de Ramos 

29 March: Holy Thursday - Jueves Santo 

30 March: Good Friday - Sexta-feira Santa/Viernes Santo

1 April: Easter Sunday - Domingo de Páscoa/Domingo de Resurrección

25 April, in Portugal: Freedom Day - Dia da Liberdade, celebrates the 1974 coup d’état that ended the oppressive Estado Nuevo government and established the Portuguese Third Republic. 

1 May: Labour Day - Dia do Trabalhador/ Fiesta del Trabajo.

6 May: Mother’s Day - Dia da Mãe/Día de la Madre.

May/June (moveable dates):
10 May: Ascension Thursday - Ascensáo do Senhor/Ascensión del Señor (may be celebrated on Sunday 13 May)

20 May: Pentecost - Pentecostés 

31 May: Corpus Christi (may be celebrated on Sunday 3 June), with religious street processions in many places.
Corpus Cristi Procession
10 June, in Portugal: Portugal Day - Dia de Portugal.

25 July: Feast of Saint James - Santiago Apóstol, Patrón de España, Spanish 
National Holiday.

15 August: Feast of the Assumption - Assunção da Bem-Aventurada Virgem Maria/Asunción de la Virgen.

5 October, Portugal: Republic Day - Implantação da República, celebrates the end of Monarchy and the beginning of the Portuguese Republic.

12 October:  Día del Pilar (Our Lady of the Pillar) – Fiesta Nacional de España|Día de la Hispanidad (National Day|Hispanic Day).

1 November: All Saints - Todos os Santos/Todos los Santos.

2 November: All Souls - Dia de Finados/Todos los Difuntos.
Around these dates there may be local church services for those who have died in the community in the last year.

1 December: Portugal Restoration of Independence Day.

6 December: Spain Constitution Day - Día de la Constitución.

8 December: Feast of the Immaculate Conception - Imaculada Conceição da Bem-Aventurada Virgem Maria/La Inmaculada Concepción.

24 December: Christmas Eve - Véspera de Natal/Noche Buena, when traditionally Spanish families gather together at home for a meal. Many restaurants close.

25 December: Christmas Day - Natal do Senhor/Natividad del Señor.

31 December: New Year’s Eve|Hogmanay - Noite de Ano Novo/Noche Vieja.

Local Festivals and holidays in Portugal and Spain

Almost every village seems to have their own Feast or Feria, for example the Feast of the Ascension, which is the annual festival in Santiago de Compostela with street theatre, bands, orchestras and the circus comes to town.
In towns and villages all along the Camino Francés you may encounter a local festival such as:

Running of the bulls in Pamplona
Arzúa Cheese Festival – February/March
Bread and Cheese festival in
 Sahagún – April
Fire water festival in 
Portomarín – early April
O Cebreiro cheese festival – April
May Festival – Festa do Maio in 
Villafranca del Bierzo – May
San Fermin running of the bulls and the city’s most famous festival in 
Pamplona – July
San Cristobo Festival in 
Palas de Rei – July
Estella festival –
 Estella/Lizarra – early August
Santa Marta festival in 
Astorga – end of August
San Zoilo festival in 
Carrión de los Condes – end of August
Rioja Harvest Festival in Logroño – September
Romaria Virxe do Cebreiro dedicated to the patron saint of 
O Cebreiro – early September
Fiestas de la Encina in 
Ponferrada, the city’s biggest annual festival – September
Music Week in
 Melide – November

And finally

The Tomatina
If you are walking the Camino Levante and find yourself in Valencia at the end of August head for the town of Buñol to take part in the world’s largest tomato fight. If it is a choice between running with the bulls or fighting with tomatoes I know which I’d choose!

Saturday, 27 May 2017

This blog

Dear Friends

Thanks to those who have emailed me. No - I haven't given up writing about my adventures although I haven't posted here for a while. You can find me on Facebook where I post regularly here and in the ever growing Confraternity of Saint James Group.  

I'm still walking and this year I walked from Cordoba to Caceres to explore re-opening the medieval walking route to Guadalupe which was once as popular as Santiago. More of that in future.

I've also walked the Camino Ingles (again) been to Rome to meet some pilgrims, walked the Camino Portuguese Central route to update the guidebook and just recently I've walked the Camino Portuguese Coastal and Seaside routes - yes the first detailed Guidebook in English has been written!  Although not posting regularly I'll leave this blog open for people researching the various routes described here. And I may write the story of the last five years living in Santiago – a tale of magical happenings, great food and dark deeds. Watch this space.

Above all I’ll continue to write guidebooks for the CSJ. I’ve now made all of these available on Kindle. Please support us.

Best wishes

The Monastery at Guadalupe

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Meeting Francis

Reiti - Poggio San Lorenzo 22kms
Poggio San Lorenzo - Ponticelli 23 kms
Ponticelli - Montertondo 30 kms
Montertondo - Montesacro 20 kms
Montesacro - Rome 11 kms

Dear Friends
I'm writing this from Leonardo da Vinci airport. I have that strange feeling that I should still be walking although my legs are certainly glad I've stopped.  With a mixture of regret and excitement I'm sorry the pilgrimage is over but I'm looking forward to being home again after a month away.  Thank you to all of you who have been following our journey and especially to those who sent messages of encouragement.

During the last few days of the journey into Rome we had some spectacularly wet weather with high winds, bitter cold and thunder and lightening. Apart from a few nippy elevations the route is very straightforward and we enjoyed staying in some lovely places. Pilgrims preparing for this journey are well advised to research accommodation alternatives on  We stayed in two "bed and breakfasts"  which were charming and situated in stunningly beautiful settings.
It was all too soon that we set out on last day.The route into Rome which was devised for the guidebook is a longer, and claims to be quieter, entry into the city but we decided to walk in a straight line from our hostal direct to the Vatican.  More than an hour shorter than the alternative we were soon approaching with Saint Peter's getting larger and larger as we walked. We had applied for a time slot to walk through the Holy Door in Saint Peter's but when we approached the barrier to go to the Sacristy to get the final stamp we were ushered through the Holy Door. There were no other walking pilgrims.  In the Sacristy they couldn't remember when there had been others.
The last time I was in Rome was with our Archbishop who was being created Cardinal. I played at masses for the massive Scottish delegation in two of the main churches near Saint Peter's.  This time I arrived not in a limousine but on foot,  slightly bedraggled and tired.  On reflection in many ways I looked no different to the dozens of homeless people and beggars of all types who mill around the fringes of Saint Peter's Square.  Needing directions I approached a Swiss Guard. The last time I did this they saluted. This time he looked me down from my windswept face to my muddy boots and asked me to leave. The Big Man hooted with laughter.  I suspect I'll never live down being asked to leave the Vatican.  This pilgrimage thing is very good for my humility. From the ridiculous to the sublime today we were invited to meet the Director of the Pontifical Council which amongst other things is in charge of pilgrimage.  We had much in common between what they hope to develop and our experience in Santiago. As we left his office armed sentries at the door stood to attention. "At least you never got thrown out again"  the Big Man quipped.
This pilgrimage has been challenging and very wonderful.  Some of the early stages are very tough and were made all the more so because we were walking so early in the year. But the rewards of climbing mountains are the views and on this route we saw magnificent vistas in abundance.  Our visit to the Santuario La Verna has left a lasting impression on me. The place exudes peace and serenity.  I was struck by the fact that Francis was actually there. Amongst the relics his simple habit is preserved.  More than that, we were welcomed by modern Franciscans wearing the same simple garb still trying to lead lives of poverty and helping others.  As we walked forward to Rome I was constantly reminded of Francis' ministry. Although I sweated buckets on the climb up to Assisi the visit to the basilica, Francis' tomb and mass will be lasting memories. 
In the midst of this I sent a message to friends in Santiago talking about the selfless love that Jesus has for mankind and the simple way Francis put that into action.  "Where did it all go wrong?"  I mused.  The answer came right back, "If you find the answer to that bring it back with you." 
Perhaps though the answer or the beginning of the answer is already with us in the person of the other Francis - the present Pope. The first to take the name  All along this route in every village and hotel,  in every bar and restaurant, wherever we spoke to people they spoke of their admiration and respect for Pope Francis.  Without exception and spontaneously people told us he was a good Pope,  a Pope who understands ordinary people,  a Pope who is on their side. They spoke of Pope Francis with a fondness I've never experienced before. It made me feel proud to be a Christian and a Catholic when in recent years that has not always been the case.
I feel as if I've been lucky to meet two Francis's on this pilgrimage. One who set a better course for the Catholic Church centuries ago and the other who is trying to do the same now.

Until next time


Thursday, 25 February 2016

Death and New Life on the Way of Saint Francis

Trevi - Spoleto 19 kms
Spoleto - Ceselli 15 kms (not walked)
Ceselli - Arrone 15 kms
Arrone - Piediluco 14.5 kms
Piediluco - Poggio Bostone 22 kms
Poggio Bostone - Rieti 18 kms

These last five days have everything this route offers in abundance. There has been an increased sense of Francis, a realisation that he walked these hills and forest paths. The views have been inspiring and the villages quaint and beautiful. Many communities seem to be built right out of the mountain rock.  They sit atop hills looking out at priceless vistas. It feels as everything is old from 12th century chapels to frescos and fine art.

Yet in many places there are signs of decay. Many buildings remain half constructed, abandoned many years before. In places modern homes and apartment buildings stand unfinished with the builders tools and equipment lying rusting. In village bars the men congregate to play cards. Just like in Spain the economic crisis has hit hard and these picturesque hamlets house high levels of unemployment and are being abandoned by young people heading to the cities for work. Yet people remain cheerful and very welcoming to pilgrims.  Dinner in the lovely town of Spoleto was very funny.  When the pasta course came it was clear that the Big Man had a much larger portion than me.  I hailed the passing waitress who couldn't hide her amusement and demonstrated her English by signs which clearly said, " look at the size of him and the size of you." That particular lady it turned out was a maestra at napkin folding and each course and the presentation of the very reasonable bill was punctuated by a different demonstration.
We had established that the accommodation in Cesseli was not open this early in the season and given our restricted time we decided to go forward. It turned out to be an easy day and by late afternoon we were in the little town of Arrone.
Like many similar towns the church dominates the small main square. The door was open and before we sought out our accommodation we decided to pay a visit.  There were several people at the front of the church standing around an open coffin. We left quietly. 
Within a few minutes we met Rita who led us into our splendid accommodation.  Italian by birth she had spent many years in South Africa before returning to live and let out really good self catering apartments at reasonable prices.  We had a long chat because she spoke English perfectly.  We said that we had been in the church and we assumed there would be Mass later because of the funeral. Clearly moved Rita explained that there would be no Mass because it was their priest who had died very suddenly the afternoon before just before the parish bus outing. "He just died after lunch. The parish were on the bus.  They had to go. After all they had already paid for it." I smiled at this ultra realistic view of death which Catholics have. It seems to border on the callous.  What followed was anything but callous.
Rita explained that there were few priests in the surrounding area and the funeral could not take place for two days because the only other priest around was away "blessing the houses". Not really understanding what she meant we let it pass.  Rita went on, "between us won't leave father alone in the church.  We will be with him until he is buried." And so they did.  We sat in the square as people streamed in to pay their respects, to take their turn of watching. All through the night.  Next morning as we were setting off others were leaving and arriving often greeting each other by name.  "It is what we do." Rita had explained.
As we walked up to the place where in season there are spectacular waterfalls when there is a release of water to power hydroelectricity we pondered the sense of unity in these small communities despite their problems. 
The rest of the day could not have been more peaceful.  The sun came out and we walked along a long tree lined path beside a canal.  Water then became the theme as we could see the beautiful Lake Piediluco ahead.  We visited the 13 th century church of Saint Francis and made our way to our hotel on the edge of the town. The Hotel Miralago is an aptly named 40 room modern hotel right on the lake.  "Every room has a lake view" said the website.  So they did but as we soon discovered the hotel had no staff,  bar or restaurant at this time of the year. When we arrived the front door was open so in we went. There was a sign on reception: phone this number.  So we did. "The receptionist won't be there until later,  make yourself at home."  Eventually when the receptionist arrived everything became normal for about 5 minutes.  We checked in and paid and chatted.  We established there was one restaurant in the small town open.  Then the girl handed us the key of our room and the keys of the hotel. "Just leave them at reception when you leave in the morning and leave the front door open." 
We did as we were told the next morning and had breakfast in a local cafe before beginning the lovely walk to Poggio Bostone. Up and up we went the path snaking up the mountain only to go up further.  The sun was high and the temperature rose.  As we looked out over the vast valley we saw hang gliders floating down. I could have done with one there and then.  We were welcomed to Poggio Bostone by the effervescent Feliciano who runs the local restaurant and hostel. His mother prepared a splendid dinner for us.  On the wall I spotted a small wooden plaque recording the Lenten Blessing of the House. We spoke with more local people who explained that before Easter every year the priest visits every house,  street by street to offer prayers and a blessing. Everyone participates and there is a number to phone if you are not in when he is in your street.  A man explained in very broken English that this was tradition to get ready for the "new year,  no sorry,  new life at Easter." 
The next morning we made our way down from the town passing a large group of neighbours presiding over the butchering of a huge pig which had been suspended from the balcony of a house.  Next year's bacon, sausage and salami. They laughed when we wished them Bon Appetito.
We reflected that these were the same little communities through which Francis had passed.  Still preserving their identities and traditions.

A day of up and down followed through forest path and the Santuario where Saint Francis lived for some time when he was ill. I got a great sense that it is in these quiet places on these journeys we pilgrims make that we become open to the voice of the Spirit. More of this another time.  The ups and downs have caught up with me.  Tomorrow only 5 days to Roma!

Monday, 22 February 2016

One day on the Way of Saint Francis - the Archbishop, the wee ginger dog and the lamb

Some days are just perfect on pilgrimage. You don't know when they will happen nor often why they happen. Things just come together and it is as if that day encapsulates everything. This is what happened the day we walked to Trevi.  It could have been any day or any stage on this beautiful route. The sun shone high in a cloudless sky, we donned our shorts and I slapped on the factor 50  and off we went for an idyllic day walking.  The landscapes were lovely.  Sometimes we spoke and often we walked in silence. Bees sucked pollen from flowering wild rosemary and we startled two slumbering horses in a grove of olive trees.  We were greeted with many "salves" from local people and we had a huge laugh with an older chap pruning his olive trees when we tried to persuade him to walk to Rome with us.
Soon we were rising steadily to the old town of Trevi which seemed to hang on the hillside.  It was hot and we hurried to find our hotel.  This was a simple but beautiful pension run by a young couple,  their children occupying the foyer playing games. It was clear this was their home.  On the lower floor was a dining room and they confirmed there would be dinner later.
I've walked several thousand kilometres with Stephen. We've been friends a very long time and we've got used to travelling together.  There is a set routine. On arrival we check in and get to the room. I take off my boots, sort out what has to be washed, have a shower and immediately assume a prone position.  His Holiness however drops his rucksack and heads off to explore the town,  visit the churches, get a sello and find out if there is an evening mass.  Trevi was no different.  My siesta was disturbed by the chirping of photographs arriving of the cathedral, the old town and the sello he'd got.  His most enthusiastic message was to announce that there was mass with the Archbishop to celebrate the restoration of a local church.  I groaned.
At the appointed hour we made our way the short distance to the little 15th century church of Saint John the Baptist.  I went back next morning to take the photograph above.  The evening before however we had to squeeze in at the back.  It seemed as if the whole town was there. In front the mayor wore a sash of national colours over his anorak. The church had seats for 80 people and there were over 100 squeezed in.  The mayor set the dress code.  These were ordinary working people from the pueblo. There were the senior citizens gossiping in twos and threes, nudging each other to stare when someone else arrived. " Would you look at what she's wearing and her husband barely cold," "look at him, they say he owes the butcher a fortune." There were three young men,  two wearing beanies which never came off all staring at mobile phones,  a smartly dressed young couple who seemed to be glued together and a group of men who came in and out wafting cigarette smoke with them.  Mobile phones rang and were answered none too discretely and a burly man clutched his ringing phone as he went from front row to outside the door only to shout so loudly into it everyone could hear what he was saying. People waved to each other, kisses were exchanged and there were lots of hugs.  A woman arrived helping a very old woman through the throng.  People crowded round her in welcome.  A bustling woman went in search of a seat for her and with a crooked finger called someone from their place to create a space.  A tall, well built man beside us leaned on his walking stick and harrumphed.
There was a stirring at the door as a figure appeared picking his way through the crowd.  Tall and regal he was wearing an elegant black cape right down to the ground.It was fastened at the neck with a silver chain and his shiny patent leather shoes poked out below. Had someone asked, "what have you come as," I wouldn't have been surprised.  This evening the Archbishop had come as the Archbishop. 
As His Grace made his way to the front the volume of chatter did not recede. A priest emerged from the sacristy and rescued the prelate.  Soon the little organ struck up the opening hymn and it was remarkably well played.  The mayor made a short speech explaining that the church had been damaged some years before in an earthquake and had now been restored.  He spoke with obvious affection and the people clapped rapturously.  His Grace then took over and the Mass proceeded.  There seems to be something about Catholic priests when they get in front of a microphone: they either ask for money or speak far too long and frequently they do both. The long introduction over there were the usual readings from Scripture and then the Archbishop stood to give the sermon.  I was concerned that unlike Señor Mayor he had no notes. What followed was a convoluted repetition of holy sounding platitudes delivered in a steady drone.  I looked around. There were quite a lot of people whose eyes had glazed over,  even more chatted in whispers to their neighbours, the three young men were still on their smartphones and the young lovers had left.  Whilst His Grace was in full drone the man with the walking stick walked slowly down the aisle staring at people daring them to give him a seat. He ended up standing right in front of the Arch who continued oblivious. Then with a squeeze he managed to get in beside the Mayor who was left with one buttock on the pew.  My attention was caught by a disturbance near us at the back.  Out from under the folds of a señora's coat appeared a small ginger dog dressed in a doggie overcoat of the Royal Stewart tartan.  "Awwww"  smiled the people round about at the sight.  "AWWWW" smiled more people when the little charmer gave a paw to the neighbouring worshippers.  "Look Gabriella has the wee dog with her"  rippled round the congregation. The boys looked up from their mobile phones and at last the Archbishop finished.  Order was restored the next moment he intoned the Credo,  the great statement of faith. The people rose and with one voice responded "I believe in one God..." The wee dog was lying quietly under a chair and only reappeared at the Sign of Peace when  everyone shakes hands. Everyone around clapped the dog - I was sure Francis would approve!  I think he would also approve of this little community who smiled and welcomed the two pilgrims. I'm sure they meant no disrespect to the Archbishop but he was so clearly not one of them nor did he try to be. Francis could have shown him the way.
Starving we made our way back to the dining room in the little hotel.  The young dad of the family was wearing chef's whites and his wife showed us to a table.  The children were still playing happily in the foyer. Chef brought the menus and we chose a starter of one of his specialities - an antipastone to share.  There was everything.  Cured meats and several cheeses, toast with five different toppings, pickled vegetables and homemade bread. Then placed in front of us was scrambled eggs with truffle.  I'm salivating at the memory. 
We hadn't had lamb on this journey so far.  Lamb is so good in Scotland we tend to think it is unbeatable. However we followed the chef's recommendation and what he served was memorable.  This meat was rich and succulent and cooked to perfection.  When I asked he confirmed the animals are raised within a few kilometres on the Umbrian hills. His very own apple cake followed drizzled with yummy freshly made custard.
That's the story so far.  Days of splendid walking,  worshipping with down to earth local people in little tight-knit communities and eating like kings. I'm definitely not giving up pilgrimage for Lent.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Big climbs, big sleeps, big bells - further adventures on the Way of Saint Francis

Valfabbrica - Assisi 13.4 kms
Assisi - Foligno 20 kms
Foligno -Trevi 13.6 kms

"Assisi is on top of a hill" messaged the Big Man's sister. "There's quite a climb up to Assisi," Wassupped Fr Dominic from London. "I was in Assisi as a student," chimed the BM, "I'm sure we went up a big hill."
"With friends like these..." I thought as we kissed goodbye to Anna Rita and the Hostel San Francisco. Even after another good night's sleep I felt sluggish but the anticipation of reaching Assisi spurred me on.  It was a lovely day walking.  The sun came out and for the first time the factor 50 had to be applied to the bald pate! We made very good time despite a couple of nippy elevations and eventually we could see the Basilica of San Francisco on the hilltop.  Was there an escalator?  Elevator?  Cable car?  None of the above.  Just an almighty hill. Deep breath and 40 minutes later we were up. We went through the archway and immediately I was struck by how beautiful the buildings were.  Tall, built of blond stone, some with green shutters on the windows, some with brown.  A lane to the left wad bedecked with hanging baskets of plants. And suddenly the Basilica of San Francisco was before us.  The plain facade seemed understated, almost disappointing, I thought as we waited in line for the machine gun carrying soldiers to search our rucksacks.  Then I realised that this was the Tomb of the Saint and fount of the Franciscan Order dedicated to poverty and simplicity.  How could it not he so. We entered into the cavernous nave, painted from floor to ceiling with frescos depicting scenes from the Saint's life.  Below in the massive crypt lies the Tomb and another nave. We went to the Pilgrims Office where a priest with splendid disinterest stamped our credenciales and gave us our certificates for having walked at least 70 kms to Assisi.  Such was his diffidence as soon as we were outside the Big Man said, "one pilgrim welcome service in Santiago is enough don't even think about it". We went to the 5.30 mass and we were welcomed by name as two Scottish pilgrims who had walked from Florence. A walk around the town revealed how lovely it is sitting on the hillside above a vast valley which stretches as far as the eye can see.  But we were exhausted.  The days from Florence had been exhilarating but at times very tough.  I went to bed happy.  Tomorrow we'd set out for Rome! 
Having gone to bed early I awoke after 11 hours of uninterrupted sleep.  After a good breakfast and a final visit to the Basilica we were off.  The sun shone and the skies were clear. What followed was a brilliant day's walking following the clearly marked path first to Spello then on to Foligno. Down in the valley we could see the massive church of Our Lady of the Angels - to be visited next time. From the route we could see the whole of the surrounding countryside with communities and church spires dotted everywhere.  As noon approached the Angelus was heralded by the deep sonorous bells of Santa Maria degli Angeli soon to be joined by another, then another and more.  It seemed as if the entire valley was ringing out this call to prayer. I thought of the way the world has changed since Francis's time. At home in London the bells of Saint Mary's ring alongside the call to prayer broadcast from loudspeakers from the minaret of the local mosque as all the while the Sikh community gather less than half a mile away in the local gurdwara. I wondered what Francis would make of it?  I'm certain he would have been more than comfortable.  It seems to me that just as pilgrimage is a spiritual journey we make as much inside ourselves as outside so too must tolerance begin with me wanting peace deep inside. These thoughts were punctuated by the putt-putt of farmers driving to their olive groves in little three wheel pick ups. There were many smiles and waves and soon we were sitting having coffee in John F Kennedy Square in the little town of Spello.  It only has 8500 residents but boasts 27 medieval churches. The bells, the bells! Just a couple of hours later we were in a very comfortable hotel in Foligno. Tired again we had an early dinner of an amazing platter of antipasto with warm creamed butter beans followed by chicken and pork ribs roasted on an open fire in the middle of the restaurant!
Today has been a short day and we covered the 13.5  kms in 3.5 hours. The sun shone all day as we walked up to the village of Trevi which sits at the foot of snow capped mountains. Yes, it is as beautiful as it sounds!

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

More adventures on the Way of Saint Francis - a tale of two dinners

Pieve Santo Stefano - Valfabbrica via

Sansepulcro - 25 kms
Citta di Castello - 32.8kms
Pietralunga - 29.8 kms
Gubbio - 26.5 kms
Biscina - 22.7 kms - not walked
Valfabbrica - 15.9 kms

This pilgrimage wasn't planned far in advance. There was time between lots of commitments,  the long range weather looked not bad and there were flights available.  Now having walked for 11 days from Florence we are aware of how lucky we have been to have set out so early in the year.  Firstly had the weather been even a little more difficult some stretches of the route would have just been impossible. Secondly a lot of the accommodation is seasonal and in two strategic places so far there has been no accommodation available.  However people were very helpful and although in the smaller places taxis are non existent we have been able to arrange to be picked up and dropped off where and when we needed.  We have had to cut the route into 24 days because of commitments in Santiago which has meant dropping about 50 kms in total and one stage. We were able to arrange this easily and all of our accommodation has been reserved on

The days from Pieve Santo Stefano to Valfabbrica have been full of very good walking, two days of torrential rain, overnight temperatures of minus 2 and some of the best hospitality, accommodation and food I have experienced on any Camino.

But there is a fundamental aspect of this pilgrimage which is setting it apart from all of those which have gone before.  I'm sure I won't be able to describe it adequately.  There is a feeling about this route which seems to me to be more holy,  more peaceful and more special than other routes I have walked.  The name Saint Francis of Assisi has been known to me since I was a child. The image of Francis as the role model of selflessness and caring is strong.  And here we are actually walking where he walked and where the great Franciscan Order began.  The fact that Francis chose never to become a priest puts him higher up in my estimation! We pass the sites where he travelled,  preached, and prayed.  It is said he tamed a ferocious wolf which was killing local people.  My most favourite story is when he tried to cure a sick woman.  He tried to perform the miracle but she was still sick.  Embarrassed he skulked off.  Sometime later she sought him out to explain she had got better.  Francis realised miracles were down to God and not him.

Following in his footsteps took us to a fabulous candlelit bed and breakfast in Sansepulcro with walls covered in modern art. As we looked for Mass in the church of Saint John we passed a little chapel with a 15 th century painting on display.  No alarm. I just sat and gazed. 

Then the mighty stage to the walled town of Citta di Castello where we had some issues with changes to the waymarks and flurries of rain but we staggered into the modern hotel La Mura which was warm and had a very good menu.  Although exhausted we dragged ourselves out to Mass " Sunday evening mass would be a quiet and quick affair " I thought.  The Cathedral was stunning and the clue as to what was to come was the 30 voice choir with organist assembling.  Then in strolled the Bishop. Organ voluntary, entrance procession and a full,  glorious sung mass followed.  It was wonderful as was the dish of Taglia which followed.  Thin slices of local beef, served pink on a bed of rocket.  Sleep comes very easily these nights.

Up early next morning we decided to shave 10 kms from the length of the stage to Pietralunga which proved to be a good decision because that meant we only had 5 hours walking in continuous, unrelenting torrential rain.  The day concluded with a steep walk up to the hotel Tinca accompanied by sheet lightening and thunderclaps.  Fabio in the hotel knows pilgrims.  He turned the heating up full in the room, provided newspapers to dry our boots and had hot coffee and sandwiches ready in a jiffy.  The rain continued to pour down and this was an evening to have a quick but very good dinner in the local restaurant then snuggle under the duvet to watch the steam rising from the radiators. 9 hours later I awoke to dry clothes and a little light drizzle.  Fabio gave us a huge breakfast and insisted on coming with us to show us the route. 

It rained on and off all day. We were lucky that it was dry and clear as the path rose above the valleys and the kilometres passed quickly.  I had read about Gubbio with very authentic Francis roots and I was eager to get there.  One day closer to Assisi!

The Big Man who very efficiently does the logistics for this pilgrimage had booked us into a modest 4 star hotel on the main square perched above the town. This was splendid.  I don't know how he did it but the room rate was only 10 euros more than the place some days before which had no heating or hot water!  I got to my room.  Lovely.  Looked out of the window.  Not much of a view. Tried the TV - English news channel.  Then I opened the bathroom door. I closed it again. Was I dreaming?  I opened it again and the jacuzzi bath was still there. With a a radiator from floor to ceiling. This meant an hour in the bath and everything could be washed.

With joy in my heart I called the Big Man and we set out to dinner.  There was only one restaurant.  Very fancy.  In we went. A woman in a gold cocktail dress approached and without a blink at our walking clothes showed us to a table. This was a beautiful dining room with a vaulted ceiling, table linen and silverware, a wall of bottles of wine and a display of very fine brandies and whiskies. The menu was extensive and the prices were eye watering. A very refined Maitre D approached.  He was a man easily in his 70's dressed in a fine suit with an air of being totally in command.  Just as he got to our table I was saying in English how starving I was and "despite the prices we'll just have to get on with it."  I nearly slid under the table with embarrassment when the Big Man said, " do you have a menu of the day?  We're pilgrims walking to Rome and we want something simple and hot."  The man bowed, "certainly sir, just one moment."

He returned to place a plate of five types of bread before us. Then a few minutes later a small bowl of bean broth with herbs and spiced sausage.  It was delicious but I was starving, this would never be enough.  The restaurant was filling up. At the next table the prosecco popped,  at another a deep red wine was being decanted.  Our little soup bowls were cleared away to soon be replaced by a larger bowl of "freshly made pasta with a sauce with cured ham".  This was the business! It was delicious and my spirits were rising by the minute. They removed the plates.  We were wondering what might be for dessert when the Maitre D appeared again placing two plates in front of us.  "Roast leg of pork with a red wine jus. Would sir like some potatoes roasted with fresh Rosemary?"  I was passed caring about the cost.  The food was superb. The lassie in the gold cocktail dress approached to ask if everything was in order. Then she appeared with two plates with a mountain of delicious creamy pastry running with honey.  "The deconstructed mille feuille". Well,  of course.
We declined coffee and asked for the bill.  As we waited the unspoken anxiety between us was exactly how large the bill would be.  Miss Goldfincher swished back with an elegant little leather folder. The Big Man looked and looked and appeared to be checking the addition.  "Is it OK" I asked timidly. He handed me the bill - "two special menus 19 euros each,  water, bread and service included."
The Maitre D came over as I was admiring a rather fine selection of rare bottles of Johnnie Walker. I have some of the same in my own collection at home.  It turned out that his aloofness was really shyness. He spoke perfect English having learned the trade in the Savoy many years before and he was genuinely interested in the pilgrimage.  A perfect end to a lovely evening.

Next morning we were up and ready for the car to take us 20 kms forward to Biscina where in season there is accommodation but at this time it is closed. He dropped us off pointing out the countryside around where from October to December he and his dog collect white truffles. We set off along a beautiful country path with views of a castle and churches in the distance.  Sun broke through the clouds and we had a great day's walking to Valfabbrica where we had booked rooms in the pilgrim hostel San Francisco.  This was very close to a regular albergue as we would know it in Spain. There were 30 beds in total with some singles and triple rooms.  There was a common room and a dining room with long refectory tables. There was heating and hot water but alas no jacuzzi in my room.

We had arranged dinner for 7.30 with Anna Rita the hospitalera. We were joined not by other pilgrims but by three Italian geologists on a field trip.  Guitano spoke English and the other two had been to Scotland.  Conversation ranged from walking to whisky.  There were a number of courses. Cold meats,  spinach and ricotta in pastry,  crostini, tortellini in sauce,  pork chops with roasted baby onions and homemade chocolate tarts.  Simpler fare by far than the night before and served in much more modest surroundings but the conversation with other travellers in English,  Spanish and Italian more than made up for that. Such is the way of pilgrimage, all days are different and you never quite know what will happen.  Like people - they aren't always what they seem. Often they are better.

Tomorrow - Assisi!