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Saturday, 9 July 2016

Ups and downs on the last day

Friday morning was an exceptional time at the Sanctuary of Our Lady on top of Montserrat. I got there at 8.00am, well before the visitors started to arrive, but by midday sitting with a cup of coffee just people watching, I had a decision to make. I would have liked to stay all day but I also wanted to finish this journey before my feet gave up on me and I still had the walk to Manresa. With a reluctant heart but I hoped sensible head I used the Cremallera to take me back to the beautiful little village nestling below in the shadow of the mountain. The weird and wonderful rock formations look like figures and on my walk up the previous day they reminded me of a simple or primitive form of Mount Rushmere but then I learned that it is called the ridge of angels and that seemed much more appropriate as they guard the village below. The walk along the ancient, twisting village streets was as if I had gone back in time but then too soon I was on the modern sun drenched road that would eventually, about three hours later, lead me to my journeys end, Manresa. Feet in a total mess, due to the heat, the outskirts of the city was a welcome yet daunting sight. Far away perched on a hill stood the vast gothic structure that is the Basilica of La Seu which had been one of the principal sources of  inspiration for Saint Ignatius during his eleven month stay between 1522 and 1523, but there was a lot of ground to be walked on before I got there. I crossed the River Cardener on the eleventh century medieval bridge with its eight semicircular arches and suddenly realised that I was actually following his footsteps over the same bridge into the old town, it was a very sobering thought. Parts of the city and its historical significance, not only in European but in World history, cannot be denied and as you walk along Balc street in the medieval quarter the atmosphere can still be felt with its maze of narrow, irregular, poorly lit even on the brightest of days, and so badly ventilated it is almost airless. Narrow arches and overhanging balconies add to the dark sinister feeling that had formed in my mind.  I found the Chapel of the Rapture where Ignatius tended the sick and where one of the best known mystical episodes happened. Around the corner and there was my finishing line. The former college of St Ignatius, the second school formed by the Jesuits, which is now a Regional Museum, also houses the pilgrims office where the final stamp is added to your passbook and you are awarded the Ignatian Way Certificate. Several important places to visit, the Basilica and the cave where Ignatius lived and started to write the Spiritual Exercises. The Gothic Basilica of Santa Maria de la Seu built on a hill is the principal architectural and artistic icon of the city and I walked round and round but couldn't find a way in it was locked. There was a group of people looking to get in and one of them asked me and then we chatted. He was a retired archaeologist and had stayed and done work on Carrickfergus Castle, small world. Anyway the Basilica was closed and wouldn't open until 7 and the same news greated me at the cave. It might seem like a disappointing end to a tough journey but it didn't feel that way. I had reached the end and I was ready to go home.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Montserrat

This morning after a refreshing breakfast I walked about 6k to the Cremallera or Rack railway that climbs vertically from the village of Monistrol de Montserrat, after being told by my hosts last night that no one now walks up to the monastery perched high on the holy mountain, Monserrat. After using the Cremallera I now agree with them,when they told me, I was mad for having done the climb. The Cremallera is a fantastic experience and affords you the opportunity to not only enjoy a great feat of engineering but to wonder and marvel at the amazing scenery with sheer rock formations to your right and a plunging view down into the plains below, on your left. I saw more during the fifteen minute journey today than I saw in the near four hour climb yesterday. You don't see much looking at your feet and with sweat blinding you. At the top and it took me awhile to fully grasp the beauty, magnitude, history, peacefulness and special atmosphere that is the Sanctuary of Monserrat. I have always been inspired by the square and basilica at Santiago along with the special atmosphere created by pilgrims, well today, I experienced something that rivals if not betters Santiago as the finishing point for a walk. I was the only person there who was doing the Ignatian Way and the place was packed with people but such is the peaceful, spiritual surroundings, people show respect  thus creating a silent devotional aura, perhaps because everyone , myself included, is so captivated by the  beauty of mans creation which enhances the setting nature has spectacularly provided. I wondered around, mouth open, just soaking in wonderful sights. I stood admiring the outside of the monastery  and was further taken back when entering through the door that I wasn't inside the church but had entered a large square with cloisters down each side and the door to the church in front of me. I joined the silent queue that had formed to walk past the large, beautifully ornate, 12th Century carved image of Our Lady of Montserrat, the Black Madonna, La Morenta, perched high above the main altar, Santiago style. You would need several days to fully explore the Sanctuary and the beautiful grounds but I did make sure to find, in the Basilica, the sculpture of St. Ignatius which recalls how he knelt before " Our Lady of Montserrat" on 24th March 1522 and offered up his knights sword before dressing in a pilgrims sackcloth. Well I didn't have a sword, not even walking poles to offer up, and sackcloth doesn't really appeal, so I did things the modern way and presented myself at the pilgrim office to get the official stamp on my passbook. I felt sad leaving Montserrat but I still had to finish the walk at Manresa. Taking the train down meant that the walk would be only about 7k but I'll finish now and keep Manresa for tomorrow's blog.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Getting harder near the end.

It was an early 6 am start in order to get some serious miles in before the heat of the sun. Starting in La Panadella this was a long and at times quite boring walk along the side of the N11. It struck me,that all the traffic is now thundering down motorways, in this case the A2, and the wide national roads are relatively empty of traffic except, that is, for cyclists who now have these excellent roads almost to themselves. My walk was mostly downhill and the miles fairly flew by as I first approached  the village of Santa Magadalina del Cami where I was fortunate to find a small cafe and had the pleasure of enjoying a coffee, sitting outside, and watching the village awaken. The next town to pass through would be Jorba, about 8K away so you can imagine my surprise when after an hour of walking I came upon the service station, Jorba, and couldn't believe that that I had travelled so quickly. The answer came about 3K later as I walked into the delightful and picturesque village of Jorba. Service stations are traditionally some distance from where they are called after, silly me. The sun was up so it was time for a cold drink before leaving Jorba and making the final stretch that would lead me to the city of Igualada. Walking down a tree lined avenue that led towards the centre of this city, which according to the large welcoming sign, was the capital for Spanish leather work, I was yet again amazed at the beauty and indeed cosmopolitan atmosphere of a sizeable city that honestly I'd never heard of. Maybe that's just a sign of my ignorance and everyone who reads this already knew Igualada is the capital of the Spanish leather industry. Walking through Igualada further strengthened my belief that our thinking that we are advanced and everyone else isn't, is so wrong. A city that treasures its historic buildings whilst at the same time embracing modern concepts was evident to my eyes. All to soon I was leaving the outskirts of the city to follow the road leading to the famous monastery, sitting above the Spanish landscape, on top of the holy mountain of Montserrat. The advice is that you should use the road, " for pilgrims it is not at all advisable to take the mountain trails". I therefore walked along the N11 until St. Paul de la Guardia where I branched off on the road to Monserrat that stated the distance as being 12K. Three hours of uphill walking and I would be there at around 5pm.  It was definitely uphill, in very high temperatures, on a corkscrewing road, with no space allocated for walkers and large coaches and cars swinging around the bends to and from Montserrat. The scenery was stunning but fear of being hit by a coach or car, concentrating on the climb and enduring the heat, meant that appreciating the beauty of the surroundings was well down my priority list. Imagine my anger and frustration when, after two hours of hard graft, I encounter a sign informing me that Montserrat was now 3 hours and 15 minutes walking time away. What could I do but keep walking. Forty minutes later and on rounding a bend, there it was, the magnificence that is Montserrat, my final destination. These signs need sorted. Honestly, I was to tired and hot to spend time at the monastery and went down to the beautiful little village, Monistrol de Montserrat, where I am staying at Hotel Restaurant Guillaimes. This evening, fully recovered after a shower and dry clothes, I enjoyed an exceptional meal created by Joan and Jordi, in the company of Michael from Belgium and Peter from Germany. Tomorrow I will explore Montserrat followed by Manresa and then the adventure will be over.







Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Where are your walking companions when you need them to vote stay?

Last night the three of us had our last meal, sitting outside in the central square, in Tarrega. Since Aisling has to finalise return to work arrangements, go to a wedding, and see family and friends before returning to Liverpool it had been prearranged that, with Mary, she would fly back on the 6th July. I felt quite emotional this morning at 6.30am as they left for their bus to Gerona airport. I was losing not just my family, but more importantly, my two walking companions. When the arrows disappear and there are several roads to choose from, when you have walked past a town instead of staying and the sun is up, it is at times like these that your true walking companions call you a "dick" or indeed worse, and you have to agree. It was a solo walker, in sombre mood, who tried to leave Tarrega and find the trail to Cervera. No arrows to be seen, no signs and any locals I stopped were not interested in an Irish man, mad enough to walk in this heat. A decision was made when I saw in the distance the A2 motorway and the N11 running almost parallel to it. I would walk the N11. Since most traffic is on the motorway I had quite a pleasant walk along the side of the National road and very soon passed the towns of El Talladell and then Fonolleres on my way to Cervera and the end of today's walk. Arriving in Cervera before midday created a moment for thought. Should I stay and explore this amazingly beautiful old university city or should I keep going and take some of the kilometres out off tomorrow's long 40+K? The decision was taken when I found out that there was hotel accommodation at the highest point of tomorrow's walk, La Panadella, and it would shorten tomorrow by 15K. The walk from Cervera, although through some outstanding countryside, was more remarkable for the heat than the large golden carpet of wheat that covered  the landscape as it seemed to move over the small hills before disappearing into the horizon. The path dropped down to the infamous N11 and after another two kilometres I topped a hill and there was La Panadella. Was someone having a joke? With the multitude of beautiful towns and villages we have encountered during this trip I am stuck at a petrol filling station. Yes a petrol filling station, on top of a hill, with a cafe and a very basic hotel. It is a service station for truckers and yes I did spell it right, before the comments start. On a positive note I'll see the match tonight and tomorrow will take me even closer to Barcelona.

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Shaken not stirred but soldiers on

Today started pleasantly with an early morning breakfast in the Sant Antoni pension where I must add we had the best meal ever last night cooked by our hosts consisting of about eight courses with lots of  red and white wine, beer, coffees and Bacardi costing the princely sum of 32 euros. Waving farewell, we walked through the small hamlet onto a path that quickly took us into agricultural countryside and with low temperature and a slightly refreshing breeze we made good timing as we passed orchards of various fruits with the predominant smell being that of pears. Well in front of our scheduled time we had covered the 8K that brought us to the small sleepy village of Castellnou de Seana and there experienced the continuing mystery of disappearing signage in towns and villages. We thought we were on the right road as we walked downhill past a children's play park, Mary and I together and Aisling close behind. Suddenly we heard a cry, a shout, and on turning found Aisling lying face down in the road. Coming off the footpath onto the road there was a double lip which caused her to lose balance and the momentum of her backpack did the rest. The girl ,who this year had climbed Everest, cycled the Bolivian road of death, explored Machu Picchu, trekked jungles, to mention just some of her achievements was face down with blood pouring from knees and nose, looking as if she might have broken her nose. We got her to a bench in the park and with her professional directions along with her protests proclaiming that she was fine she was patched up with antiseptic ointments, gauze and plasters. Shaken but not stirred and with a cut but unbroken nose she decided to soldier on. The final medical treatment was a Twister ice lolly out of a tabac in the town square. It was a quiet and sombre threesome that did the next 5K, again along quiet country roads to the sizeable town of Bellpuig which would appear to get a fair amount of its wealth from the rearing of pigs. The country surrounding this town was dotted with large farms with huge, factory sheds of pigs whose squealing we could hear as we passed. A quick Coke stop and a walk through a colourful market in the old town under the shadow of the impressive church tower and we were back on our dusty, stony, path making its way through the heart of the Catalan farming area. With an ever soaring temperature and very little shade the walk today was beginning to get tough. We stopped for our now customary lunch of baps, cheese, ham and crisps, all washed down with water in the shadow of the National Catalan Motorcross Centre before starting the long hot, dusty push towards our final destination at Verdu. There was little of interest on this section, the usual orchards, vines, birds of prey, several grottos, and of course the occasional abandoned historic house. What did make it interesting was the increasingly rising temperature that soon turned what might have been a lovely 28K walk into an extreme endurance event. It was with relief that after making the tough climb into Verdu we spied a cafe with outside red chairs and brightly coloured red umbrellas. The first drink on finishing a walk is a real lifesaver but it is the second drink that you real appreciate and enjoy. This afternoon we had several drinks each. An eventful day but thankfully we are safe and well

Monday, 4 July 2016

Early day and we are in Catalan

Yesterday's final comment became a reality today as we awoke, or at least I did, with the aches and soreness after yesterday's long hot walk. Today's 23K stretch from Lleide to El Palau d' Anglesola started at 7.00am when we left our hotel and started the customary long journey through yet another awakening city. This can be the boring section as you make your way along traffic filled roads and go through industrial zones.  After approximately 6K we had made the small town of Alcoletge and encountered a common problem on this Camino. The directional arrows stop at the edge of towns and will start again somewhere at the opposite side of the town and this happened here. We found it difficult to pick up the arrows and ended up on the wrong path but walking in the right general direction. Breakfast was a croissant with a bottle of water walking along pleasant country lanes and life doesn't get any better than this. Walking in the direction of the rising sun our path soon crossed the official one and we were back on track following the orange arrows. The orange arrows led us along paths that ran parallel to the motorway but yet surrounded by fruit trees of apples and pears. We crossed the railway tracks and entered the town of Bell-local d' Urgell where we found a pleasant little cafe. We had reached the half way point in today's walk and relaxed as we enjoyed a refreshing drink but all to soon it was time to pick up the backpack and find our way out of town and on to the right path. On our way out of the town we were entertained by a local information system that broadcast through loud speakers set high up on walls and told the local inhabitants what was going to happen that day. The second half of today's walk was warm and hot as we travelled along stone paths with the now frequent abundant fruit trees but little shade from the burning sun. Sheltering under a bridge in order to get reprieve from the sun whilst at the same time enjoying a bottle of water soon became something to look forward to as we strode closer to our finish. Passing the hamlet of Sidamon we knew that we were in the last 5k which as usual seemed to stretch to about 8K. The church spire of our destination, El Palau d' Anglesola , appeared to be quite close but again as in Camino tradition it took us about an hour to get there. The first cafe got our custom as we plunked down for refreshing drinks and slices of pizza. We are staying tonight in the Pension, Sant Antoni, which is excellent and we are looking forward to our first night in Catalonia and sampling some local food and drink.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

A hot 40K on a Sunday

Sorry that there was no blog yesterday but I was unable to get any wifi signal either in the hotel or anywhere else in Fraga. Suffice to say that yesterday was very hot and we finished in Fraga. Today, because of the heat, we left our hotel at 6.30am and started on the long 40k walk to Lleida. The first four kilometres from the town was a murderous climb out of the valley that not only tested legs and lungs but also mental strength and even though it was early morning it sure did bring the colour to your cheeks. Once over the top we had a pleasant country lane walk for several kilometres and were able to enjoy watching the early morning wildlife come awake. The wall of a small stream was the setting for our breakfast of crusty baps with dry cured ham and cheese, all washed down with bottled water. This was perfect as we enjoyed the birdsong, the gushing waters of the stream, the scampering of nearby rabbits and the general country environment. Breakfast over we set of on our way and were soon out of the rural setting and walking through an industrial estate. This might give a grimmer image than it was in reality. With it being Sunday everything was closed and we almost had the wide tree lined roads to ourselves except that is for the hundreds of rabbits that had come out to play. Leaving the industrial zone behind we were on a dusty path walking through orchards of peaches, nectarines and pears. This really is the fruit basket of Spain and it was a pity that none were ripe enough to pluck and eat. The only disappointment was that the planned coffee break in Cami Real didn't happen because there was nothing there so we continued amongst the ladened fruit trees until we arrived at the quite sizeable town of Alcarras. The town had the customary large church so we entered to get our Camino stamp and were greated by a very large, friendly priest who was extremely proud of their quite elaborate stamp. A bottle of coke, an iced lolly, and we were walking again. The next part to Butsenit was a colourful tree lined path which ran parallel to the river and we were entertained by the antics of storks and other birds as they spent their Sunday afternoon playing on the river. We then had the pleasurable experience of walking through apple orchards with green and red fruit dangling from the branches but again to small and unripe to eat. Even though it was extremely hot there was a pleasant breeze coming off the river and some cover from the trees that made walking  bearable and our pace was such that we seemed to be eating up the kilometres, that is until we saw our final destination, Lleida, in the distance and were informed on a sign that we had 7K to go. That 7K and the rest of the distance it took to walk through the city to our hotel could not be described in print. I will just say that it was exhausted, tired, frustrated and yes angry walkers who arrived at the door of the Zenith Hotel. Why do these paths go round in circles at the finish? This is the ongoing saga of Camino towns that seem to get further away as you walk towards them. Anyway after showering, changing into dry clothes we were ready to explore the town. It amazing after such a hard physical ordeal how quickly you recover. Mind you stiffness and soreness could be another story tomorrow.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Hot, hot and even hotter.

Yesterday we left our hotel in  the beautiful city of Zaragoza, with a feeling of reluctance in our hearts, and started on the 28K walk to Fuentas de Ebro. As you leave the beautiful inner city behind, you go through the outer residential sector before coming to the vast industrial zone which like all industrial zones is drab and boring, but the only consolation  being that perhaps the industrial zones revenue allows the inner city be be so well preserved. The first stop was a small village, come suburb called La Cartuja where we had some difficulty finding the right path. Once the path was found and we were back following the orange arrows it was finally time to enjoy the walk. This was a flat pleasant dusty path that followed the river Ebro on one side and the N11 on the other. The highlight of this section was the multitude of storks nests perched high on top of the electricity pylons,  groups of buzzards circling above us and the orchestral arrangement of feathered wildlife in the skies and bushes. Pleasant, relaxed walking indeed that brought us to the small village of Burgo de Ebro which was to be our half way mark and about fourty minutes in front of schedule. It was in high spirits that we entered a small cafe where we enjoyed toasted ham and cheese sandwiches with a cold drink. It never ceases to amaze me how everything can change so quickly during a hike. The second part of the walk, even though the path passed through open countryside, became memorable by the raising temperatures that soared into the 40's, yes, it was that warm. This part of Aragon has vast areas of arable lands that stretch into the far horizon. Farmers were out in force harvesting as we ploughed through the haze of heat that was fast draining us of all energy. The church tower of our destination, Fuentes de Elbro, appeared in the distance and momentarily raised our spirits until we realised that it was to be one of those Camino towns that get further away with each step taken. It was three, hot, weary walkers who made the final uphill road to the edge of Fuentes where the first bar became a paradise, a saving oasis. That cold beer, from an iced glass, will always be etched into my memory bank as one of the best drinks ever. It is remarkable even after such physical hardship how quickly you recover after a shower and a change of clothes. The village was small but there was a friendly atmosphere as we sat, with the locals, outside in the local plaza, enjoying a pre dinner drink. Dinner in the hotel restaurant that evening will be remembered by the food and watching Wales play great football.

Friday, 1 July 2016

A day of mixed emotions

Today was a mixed day on our journey and by mixed I mean a day of mixed feelings towards the people and organisations responsible for the information and planning of the route. Forgive my rant but if you are planning a route then it should be organised, like Camino Frances or Camino Portuguese , where accommodation is located at the end of each stage. Yesterday the walk took us to Logrono so you would expect today's walk to start there but no it started in Agoncilla and finished at Alcanadre where you then had to find transport to Calahorra for accommodation. The same was to happen tomorrow and at the end of the days walking you were to travel to Zarazoga. As is often said about these walks you do it your own way,so today, we took personal control, and after our walk we travelled to Zaragosa and have planned tomorrow to go to a village where we could get accommodation, . Having said all that, the journey out of Logrono, after you had escaped the residential and then industrial areas, was similar to yesterday with flat dusty paths winding their way through endless rows of vines. I honestly didn't know that Rioja was such a large supplier of wine. The route passes through several small towns on its way to Alcanadre but Agoncilla with its fully restored and majestic Castillo de las Aguas and wide plaza deserves special mention. We did look out for the famous, hugh vultures that nest in the Penas de Aradon cliffs but unfortunately at over thirty degrees maybe it was too warm even for them.
We used public transport to finish the day in Zaragosa which was indeed the next place on our journey where we could find accommodation. Staying in Zaragosa was a good move because as soon as we arrived the beauty and culture of the city lifted our spirits. The old historical city has a Basilica that must have been modelled on St. Peter's in Rome. The plaza has to be at least a hundred meters wide with a large church at each end. At one end we have preserved Roman ruins whilst at the other a large museum and works celebrating the life of Goya. As you walk around, going from plaza to plaza, you are drawn to the sculptures, works of art, ornate architecture and of course fountains that are abundant in this rich setting.