Thursday Morning, 5am
I've lain awake for the past two hours, listening to the Irish collection on RTE Radio, on a reception that has been predominantly very good only occasionally fading.
I don't know whither it's the invigorating variety, intensity and compactness of the subject nature, or the setting, or the time of the night, but it is one of those wonderful experiences, when the senses are at their height and perception and appreciation is enabled to the maximum.
I have experienced such sensation previously in similar settings, awakening in the twilight hours to a heightened sense of perception and with a feeling of being completely attuned with, and involved in, everything I perceive around me.
When such an experience occurs you want to discover the secret of capturing it on an ongoing basis and my longer-term hope would be that tonight's somewhat irregular experience, in such a setting might enable me to put my finger on it.
Tonight I have listened to Pat Kenny discuss the case of Ray Bannister, a convicted prisoner on Death Row in Missouri, who has been executed at six yesterday morning, despite two interview between Pat Kenny and Bannister speaking by phone from his holding cell in Missouri State Penitentiary. Needless to say the interviews provoked a huge response in Ireland and further afield and invoked appeals from clemency at the highest levels, all to no avail.
Later Eithne Tinney discussed the Cello playing of Jacqueline Du Pre and Fredrich Cassells in an excerpt from The Arts Show. This experience, combined with another last week on the BBC, also dealing with Jacqueline du Pre, (The occasion being the publication of an account of her life; A Genius in the Family by her sister and brother) leads me to very much believe that I should like to be able to play the cello, such is the passion it seems to bring forth. I once recall seeing a picture whereby the curvature of the cello was equated with the sensual rounded shape of a naked woman. It is perhaps from this understandable association that the almost erotic appeal of the cello comes.
Listening to Hillary du Pré speak of her deceased sister, of her passion, her devotion to the cello, her marriage to Daniel Barmboin, her tragic illness and eventual death from MS, but also her affair with her sisters husband, whom Hillary literally consented to, such was her love of her sister. All this serves only to heighten my appreciation of the cello. And I can't help but think also of that wonderful Anthony Mingella film Truly, Madly Deeply in which Alan Rickman also plays the cello and, after his death, Juliet Stevenson positions it between her legs in the almost provocative style necessitated by a woman attempting to play the instrument. And the image is again not far removed from a woman straddling her lover.
Another image from the film where Rickman and Stevenson do a very passable duet of "The sun ain't goin to shine anymore" reminds me that the cello can also pass as a double bass. So if I were to learn it (and the double bass) I would be able to meet "like minded friends" for Sunday morning Jazz and Blues jamming sessions in a future where I am truly passionate about life.
My continuing preoccupation with Truly, Madly, Deeply brings me back to my desire to learn Spanish. There is another wonderful part in the film where Alan Rickman quotes The Dead Woman by Pablo Nehruda in not-so-perfect Spanish and Juliet Stevenson, a Spanish language tutor, translates it into English.
The Dead Woman
Forgive me if you are not living
If you, my beloved, have died
All the leaves will fall upon my breast
It will rain on my soul
all night, all day
my feet will want to march to where you are sleeping
And I shall go on living.
From "A new direction paintbrush" (1972)
The hours of programming from Ireland lead me to a new vision of my homeland, seen through the experiences of the past three weeks. I'm now unsure whither I want to be separated for long from my beloved Ireland. On the other hand I am forced to admit that it is only by exactly such separation that one can fully appreciate and regard at a pure clear level, the "real" essence of Ireland, only truly glimpsed, I believe, from the vantage point of separation. It seems to me quite impossible to isolate such perception, amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday Irish living, with its petty preoccupation's, personal power battles, negative attitudes and searing jealousies.
And now at a distance I savour the beauty of "The Real Ireland" and fall in love with it as I listen to Andy White singing about looking for James Joyce's grave from his album Out There and thoughts of further Irish classics from my repertoire come forth. I've previously forgotten to mention Christy Moore's The Time Has Come, a beautiful, sad, tragic song about the hunger striker Francis Hughes, but one which I've often found to be equally applicable to emigration or exile. And yesterday, quite out of the blue, another haunting ballad came to me, "Middle of the Island" is about Ann Lovett who was fifteen years old when she died giving birth in a grotto in Granard in Co. Longford in the mid-eighties. The repeated line "everybody knew and nobody said" cuts right through and quite rightly gnaws at the conscience of a nation.
I'm badly in need of a camping site or hostel where I can do a good hot wash of clothes. All of my T-shirts and both of my thermals are beginning to stink quite badly from repeated dryings from sweat drenchings. I've done some cold water washes and even now three tee-shirts and two pairs of underpants are futilely trying to dry somewhat in an open-sided stable, traditionally used, one supposes, by pilgrims to rein their mounts for the night, but now commandeered to act as my drying hut. But the effort is proving quite hopeless on a calm humid Spanish night.
Thursday Morning, 11am
I've been listening to a wonderful poetry programme on the BBC called "Poems by Post". Two particularly story like poems move me to make a note of their titles and authors. Summer Fog by Raymond Carver and The Pattern by Paula Meehan, both which I understand to be about deceased women. Meehan's is quite obviously about her mother, and I suspect that Carvers might also be, even though he doesn't actually directly identify the "she" in the poem.
As I'm finishing packing up and preparing to leave, the drone of a lot of vehicles draws my attention to a military convoy moving along a road about a mile down the hill from my vantage point. I am returning again to the mountain country that I left behind about thirty miles south of Santander. Despite my earlier belief that Spain seems composed almost entirely of mountains, I have, for the past four days, had experience of its boring, monotonous, featureless plains where even the towns and hamlets have little to offer and also where, it would appear, as per the old adage, a large part of "The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain". I can certainly vouch for this from the soakings I've received over four days.
I am encountering a difficult dilemma in packing. It is incredible, some might argue strange, the sentimental attachments one builds up to the most inanimate or irrational of things. I find myself most reluctant to part with one of my more ragged Dunne's stores plastic shopping bags, a number of which I have used to wrap my belonging in a bid to keep them dry. Even now, having accumulated a considerable collection of European counterparts such as E Leclerc, Intermarche and Lido, and with many of my St Bernard variety reduced almost to shreds, I find myself balking at the prospect of confining them to the litter bin.
I suppose such are the petty sentimentalities which one is prone to desperately cling most to in times of need.
In addition to the problems encountered with both wheels, I neglected to make reference to a pedal whose bearing gave out after less than three-hundred miles, on the approach to La Rochelle. It still functions however, all be it somewhat crackly and squeakily. More relevant and significant at present however is the near collapse of my carrier. A couple of days back, two of the uprights broke their welded attachment to the rest of the frame causing the entire load to brush off the wheel. It necessitated me to effect emergency repairs with the aid of a broken spoke and my pliers. Since then the carrier has succumbed further to the swaying and battering imposed by the considerable weight it bears and the spoke ties have last night been supplemented by a final attempt at makeshift which entailed swarthing each tie with insulating tape. I am hoping this will see me the rest of the way to Santiago, where I accept that I shall now have to buy a new carrier.
Along the road, I recall a dream from last night about a group of Irish travellers failing to gain admission to a pub. I wonder is the cause of this dream anything to do with my developing awareness of the difficulties and dilemmas encountered by one on the road. Certainly with regard to my own efforts to maintain socially acceptable levels of personal hygienic and from my own experience of trying to wash and dry clothes in the absence of proper facilities I can certainly empathise with travelling people from home who have to contend constantly with similar problems.
I recall an experience I had four years ago in Clifden, on a Sunday afternoon after I had cycled out from Castlebar. During the evening I got into conversation with an Irish traveller, who himself was in the company of a group of new age travellers. In the course of conversation, at one point he commented to me "You know I can tell by the look of you and the way you speak, that you're really one of us". I accepted it in the way it was obviously meant, as a compliment, and have quite proudly related the story many times since.
Another song has been coming consistently to mind. U2's One, possibly because of two of the questions posed in it (My actual misquotations I discover later) of "Is it getting better?' and "Is it getting (sic) easier?" bear particular reference to my cycling and indeed my general progress.
Yet again the programming versatility of the BBC delights me. Tonight I listen to an interview with the mayor of a small Turkish town, which is celebrating something of a victory against bureaucracy and big business, in having a mining company plans for operating Turkey’s first gold mine in his town, overturned at the twenty fourth hour. I recall attending a rally in Westport almost ten years ago, where David Bellamy was the main speaker against the gold mining proposals for the area around Croagh Patrick. However, of more impact that night was the statistics quoted by one speakers, of the dangers involved in the use of cyanide leeching pools, for removing the gold from the ore. Again tonight I hear the horrifying statistic, relating the number of people the cyanide required for the operation could kill. Tonight's figure is something like EIGHT BILLION people; such is the scale of the mining activity proposed for this Turkish town.
After that comes a report on the increasing trend of "Gated" communities in the US, whereby people are opting to live basically behind security fences in compounds patrolled around the clock, such is their fear of crime. However in the course of the report, as the reasons for choosing this way of life are teased out, the significant underlying motive emerges as a desire for control, which essentially boils down to control of whom you allow into your neighbourhood and essentially therefore, what your neighbourhood is like. Somehow it strikes me as a sad reflection on modern society, not just American, that forces people to this extreme. It's also something of a sad reflection on the people who feel compelled to live this way.
The pass I traversed today was over 1,000 metres. I'm not sure of the elevation exactly, but the ascent was the best part of seven miles near constantly uphill. About four miles into the descent, while passing through one of those delightful ancient mountain villages with paved streets and houses which appear unchanged in two-hundred years, the inner tube on my back wheel suddenly exploded without warning. I now suspect that the reason was the intense heat caused by the continuous friction of the brake blocks on the new chromium rim. In any case, thankful of my spare tube, I made the replacement and got on my way again.
Thereafter however I was fearful of a reoccurrence, and so began relying increasingly on the front brake instead, only occasionally touching the rear when my ascent threatened to exceed 30mph, while trying to negotiate the hairpin bends. The whole process involved quite considerable concentration very much encouraged by the alternative, if I failed to negotiate the route around the crash barriers, where drops of two-hundred feet or more awaited me on the other side. Even with my hesitant breaking I managed to catch up with and pass out the elderly man on an ancient motorbike akin to a Honda 50 with his box of groceries strapped to the back, who had passed me while I was repairing the puncture.
Another peculiar mind game has preoccupied me somewhat over the past week. In the course of the first twenty miles of my journey each day (Up to 19.97 miles in any case), I try and attribute to each (or as many as I can) hundredth of a mile, a significant historical event in the corresponding year. Some are more obvious than others and after the 18th mile, with my historic knowledge a bit better and more detailed, I can probably attribute over ten for every mile. Some times, when I reach 19.69, I try to attribute significant events in my own life to each year or corresponding hundredth mile. It can be a rapid-fire, fast paced process. Sometimes easy, sometimes surprisingly difficult.
Friday, 24th October
The first twenty miles into the mountains today are pleasant and rather effortless. After that the ascent begins and continues rather consistently for over six miles, up to a hamlet called Laguna di Castella, where I stop to converse with some Swiss pilgrims and refill my water bottle before heading off along the surfaced road again. I continue uphill for another mile or so, to a picnic area, before starting the descent, which leaves me free-wheeling downhill for about two miles. However my instinct tells me that something in my route is now amiss.
I stop to consult with the first person I encounter, a man forking grass in a field. My suspicions are confirmed when he indicates that I should have come down another road, on the other side of the mountain.
Cursing and swearing I turn around and begin pushing the bike back up the way I have come. By the time I have backtracked to Laguna only about an hour of daylight remains. From here I resume the Camino following a minor road, the LU633 to an annoted pass height of 1,270 metres.
A little further on, the scallop signposting denoting the Camino directs me off the road and back onto one of those dreadfully muddy and stone ridden tracks. As the incline in the path gets steeper, making it unfit for a horse or mule, let alone a laden bicycle, I resolve yet again to get off a letter to the authorities, on adequate signposting on the suitability of various sections of the Camino for the various modes of pilgrim transport.
By the time I rejoin the road at the next hamlet along the route, it is dark and I am greeted by another Swiss pilgrim, as I stop to illuminate my bicycle. He tells me that the next ten miles are all downhill to the town of Tricastella.
It is a thrilling, through probably not highly recommended, experience to make a night time descent of ten miles of hair pin mountain roads, with only a small bicycle lamp to light the way. Below me I can see the twinkling lights of little hamlets and even the spread out illuminations of the town of Seorria, some thirty miles distant.
I encounter very little traffic on the descent and so all is silent, save for the wind whizzing past my ears as I accelerate to more than thirty miles per hour. Tricastella doesn't particularly appeal to me (all of it I can see in the dark anyway!) and so I continue on down hill to the next town called Samos, where I camp for the night in a rather dishevelled town park beside a beautiful crystal clear river.
Saturday, 25th October.
Last night on RTE, I heard Val Joyce talk about the Castlebar Festival of the Senses, which takes place at home this weekend. It's very surreal listening to details of it eight-hundred miles away.
Tonight I'm staying in the pilgrim hostel in Pontferon. I ended up here after failing to locate the local camping site and was permitted, indeed encouraged, by the caretaker to stay, regardless of my lack of a creditental. This very much leads me to regret the rather cynical attitude I've held of such places for the past couple of day's, since my non-admittance to the other one back in Santa Catalina de Somoza. I suspect my misfortune the other night was wholly attributable to one lazy and self-important caretaker, who couldn't be bothered leaving the pub after nine o'clock at night. My convenient lack of a creditental gave him the necessary excuse to refuse me. I now accept, both from my experience tonight and from discussions with other pilgrims yesterday, that he was probably an unfortunate unyielding exception rather than the rule.
Today's travelling has only seen me advance some thirty miles. Four miles into the journey my new wheel suffered its first broken spoke. I have now resolved to immediately rectify such a problem any more, rather than allowing the situation to deteriorate further, which I believe greatly contributed to the decline of the previous wheel. The task in hand takes me a lengthy forty-five minutes to complete. I have no block remover for my new gear block and so instead, I am required to indulge in some intricate manoeuvring to draw a new spoke in through an eye on the freewheel side of the wheel.
I am now on the last leg of the pilgrim trail and the distance from Santiago is marked out with quarter kilometre marker posts. For about ten kilometres I follow the Camino through farmyards and along minor roads and dirt tracks, until the trail begins to deteriorate big time after the one hundred and two-kilometre marker.
For the following two-and-a-half kilometres I subject my poor bicycle to the second worst trail that I have ever traversed with a laden bicycle (The worst being the Bangor trail in North Mayo!). I am in apologetic empathy with my dear Pedro and I am pained by the ordeal I am subjecting him to. The path, if one can truly describe it as such at this point, is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than a muddy cow lane, interspersed with ruts and furrows and lumps of rock. In certain sections minor streams literally run down the centre of it. Just when I'm wondering if it can degenerate further, I begin encountering boulders which, being impossible to circumnavigate, I am required to manhandle the bike over. My progress is now down to five metre spurts, after which I have to rest before the next effort. For some illogical reason someone, presumably those responsible for the maintenance of the Camino, have sporadically located rectangular slabs of cut granite along this section of the path as if attempting to indicate good intentions, but these do no better than thwart my progress as much as the boulders.
Just after the ninety-nine-and-a-half kilometre marker, my rear load comes undone as I try and carry the bike across a boulder. Before I decide to proceed any further I figure the best thing to do is probably scout what lies ahead and determine how much longer this terrain is likely to continue. For the next hundred metres the path continues unchanged, before it is blocked completely by the trunk of a big tree which has fallen across it. Along both sides at this point are high ditches and the way the trunk has fallen between them makes the trail barely passable for foot pilgrims and impossible for a bicycle.
For the first time in four days following the Camino, I am compelled to give up and begin backtracking. I go back two kilometres to a junction and with the aid of my compass, begin seeking out an alternative route, which will keep me heading westward. I follow another road in a roughly westerly direction before I am motioned to stop by a farmer and his wife and their son working in a field. They indicate to me that I am heading the wrong way and that the Camino, from which I have parted, is to the north. I try to explain to them that I have had to leave it because it wasn't suitable for my bike and that I am now looking for a road towards Santiago. After some limited bilingual discussion, I produce a notebook and they draw up a map showing the way to the LR353 main road, which will take me, via the pilgrims "Autoroute" to Pontmarin and onto Santiago.
Many of the other pilgrims in the hostel in Pontferon keep asking me do I know a John from Galway, apparently a man with a missing arm. It becomes something of a joke eventually as each; upon discovering that I am Irish, enquires whither I know John and impersonate his lack of an arm. It transpires, or at least my interpretation of it, from what I can ascertain, is that John is a somewhat celebrated (or infamous,) Irish brother or priest who teaches in the Jesuit College in Paris.
In the early hours of the morning, lying in bed, through an ear-piece I listen to a quite good reception of RTE. From a repeat of Seascapes comes a wonderful poem about the dredger Port Lairge, now apparently stripped to a shell and abandoned rusting on a mud flat somewhere in Wexford or Waterford. The poem gives the sad ship a true personality and makes it so real that one can't help but empathise with its tragic plight.
Derek Mooney's brilliant Mooney Goes Wild On One succeeds in coming up with some gems. Today he is talking to a beekeeper who explains that the bees don't leave the hive much this time of the year. Instead they huddle together for warmth. In any case there isn't much pollen to be found in autumn or winter anyway, except for ivy, which tends to be very bitter and makes them irritable.
And I imagine bees with personality and reflect that autumn blues affect more than humans.
Sunday: 26th October:
I am encountering quite a lot of hills today, which I am for the larger part opting to dismount and push the bike up. I have developed another eccentric habit or superstition, whereby I opt to cycle and walk every second hill. This has been further refined however to the practice of accumulating walks by cycling up lesser consecutive hills and saving the walks for the longer energy sapping hills.
Early enough in the morning, as I commence walking up one of these particularly lengthy ascents, to divert from the boredom involved, I turn on my radio and balance it on the top of my handlebar bag. This keeps me suitable entertained for the entire day, even if the first thing I hear on it is the seemingly endless list of English soccer results on the sports report. However today is the big show down between Michael Schumacher and Jacques Villeneuve for the world Formula One drivers championship and the sports report is much more so preoccupied with this.
Later on, a wonderfully evocative Letter from America from Alastair Cooke deals with his personal experience and memory of the Cuban missile crises, as he recalls the way in which the world was literally taken to the edge of a nuclear apocalypse, in particular reference to recently released Kennedy White House tapes from the time.
I'd rather hoped to reach Santiago today but this is thwarted midday by the incurring of two more broken spokes which take the best part of two hours to rectify.
Towards evening, while still listening to the radio, I hear a news report on a gathering of marijuana growers in Madrid. The event was organised in the fashion of a flower or vegetable show to offer growers the opportunity to exhibit their wares and presumably compare notes. However it was intended as much an attempt to provoke and poke fun at the authorities and the law in Spain which permits personal use of marijuana but prohibits the cultivation of it.
In any case the show ended in some chaos when police moved in to arrest one of the exhibitors, whom they claimed was the ringleader and organiser and a verdict on the judging of the best plants had to be postponed until late evening, because the judges, who were each required to sample ten different plants, were too stoned to reach any sort of coherent decision.
By nightfall I have covered fifty-nine miles, which finds me in a little town fifteen miles from Santiago. In the dark there's not much of a chance of finding somewhere to pitch my tent, so I seek out the pilgrim hostel. There I find three other pilgrims, a couple whom I met earlier back along the road, who have walked the Camino from their home town of Lourdes and Juan from Mallorca who has walked from Leon. I am rather wrecked and thinking mainly of bed but they invite me to join them for something to eat in the local restaurant. I accept the invitation and they turn out to be most enjoyable company. Neither of the town's restaurants are open, it being a Sunday, so we settle for an "assiette" of slices of sausage, ham and cheese served with a big basket of bread. Along with this we get a big jug of delicious local red wine which we drink from earthenware bowls. Preceding this however, on the recommendation of Juan, we have glasses of Galacian cider which he assures us is "good for the thirst" which it certainly proves to be, and quite delicious to boot.
For an hour or more we indulge in a three-way conversation in broken English, Spanish & French. Juan speaks quite good English but no French, The couple are quite fluent in both Spanish and English and I apologise to them all for my lack of Spanish and poor French. I never quite catch the couple’s names, but it transpires that they own a religious goods shop in Lourdes catering to the pilgrims. They have left the shop in the care of their family and have spent the last three weeks walking the Camino. They speak about grandchildren, but they are a youthful and very fit looking couple. They have been averaging forty kilometres a day on foot. I relate my tale of my intention to cross the Pyrenees beyond Lourdes and how I'd been advised to not to by Matthew in the Irish pub in Bordeaux.
"You would not have had a problem, There is very little snow in this part of the Pyrenees until after Christmas".
I enquire whither they stock those snow scene grottoes in their shop in Lourdes.
"Ah, oui" comes the reply, "Les boules au neige".
Lourdes, it seems, has a good deal in common with Knock.
This site is maintained and updated by Peter Jordan,
Last Updated 24th March 2001
© Peter Jordan, 2001