Monday, 30 September 2013

Asturias – Picos de Europa (Ruta del Cares)

The Picos de Europa, or the Peaks of Europe are a mountain range in Northern Spain. Even though there are many mountains higher than the highest peaks of the Picos, it’s not even the highest in Spain itself, it still makes a statement with its summits that pierce the sky at over 2000m height.  The range itself is so big that three different communities claim bits of it to themselves: Asturias on the left side, Cantabria on the right and Castilla y León on the bottom. Thanks to this the Picos are divided into three parts and all parts have routes that are very famous. We stayed in the Asturias side and for our first walk we did the popular Ruta de Cares.

This walk (and the Picos in general) is in fact so popular that we didn’t even have a chance to visit it during the summer months. We saved it for September when schoolsstart and there are less people around. The weekend we picked was gorgeous and after finding the town of Poncebos, the start of the walk, we started off on the 20km walk.

The Ruta de Cares is a 10km walk that connects the tiny village of Poncebo (Asturias) with the slightly bigger Caín (Castilla y León) along the crystal clear River of Cares. Even though in many places they call it a gorge walk the route is in fact literally carved into the mountains themselves. The result is a walk that is one of the most spectacular in Spain. (I know I always say this after every walk I do but here it’s actually official.) The path is as obvious as can be and even though it’s only 10km long, you have to do the walk back, too, as this is the only way to connect the two villages, there is no road for vehicles.

The route is just simply spectacular at every single step. It’s definitely not recommended for people with even the slightest bit of vertigo as next to the 1.5m wide path there is often a 10-15m plunge right into the river gorge. It is advisable to bring enough water for the road. In Caín there are many lovely places to refresh yourself with a cool drink before you head back. Bring sun cream when it’s sunny, although you probably won’t feel it as the gorge serves like a wind tunnel, there’s always a refreshing breeze in it.

After all this information let me show you the gorgeous Ruta de Cares.  

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Galícia – Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is the capital city of the Galícian region of Northern Spain. It is also the end destination of all the pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago, as the tomb that is said to house St. James’s remains is here in the cathedral. This is where my long journey ended, too, when I finally got my ‘Compostela’, the official certificate from the Cathedral of Santiago that I completed the journey.

Many pilgrims leave their walking sticks in front of the Pilgrim's Office.

Apart from the obvious emotions I felt when arriving to the capital I think Santiago is a gorgeous city and I’d like to show it to you. I have to apologise as a few days before I arrived my camera broke so I took the rest of the photos with my phone and the quality of the photos isn’t that great.

Nobody knows where the town got its name. Well, the Santiago bit is obvious (James), however the compostela part has two explanations. According to the first one, campus means ‘field’ and stella means ‘star’ in Latin, therefore the name would mean ‘field of stars’. This is also supported by the fact that the town is in such a place that on clear nights you can see the Milky Way. I can also agree with this. We woke up at 4.15am that morning to do walk the last 20km to Santiago. The sun came up after 7 so we did half of our walk in the darkness with the light of torches (thank you for the Duck torch, Sylvia!). We were lucky to have a clear night and honestly I have never seen so many stars in my life! 
The second explanation connects the name to other (seemingly) random Latin words such as compostium, ‘burial ground’ or compositellam, ‘the well composed one’.

The Cathedral of Santiago is in the heart of the Old town. It is huge, very busy and even though there are other buildings around it still dominates the square. It has a cross shape and the masses are held in the middle section. It also has something that made it special, a huge incense burner that during special occasions they swing along the church.

As there are pilgrims arriving every single day in a constant wave, every single day at 12.00 there is a mass especially for them, the ‘Pilgrim’s Mass’. We were so lucky that we arrived on a Sunday as this is the only day of the week when they swing the incense burner.

As I already mentioned I am not religious and I’ve only attended one or two masses in my life although they were ‘special occasion masses’, for Christmas or for a deceased one. I felt that attending the Pilgrim’s Mass was a great way of ending my walk and I have never seen a Spanish mass so I decided to attend.

This was the strangest mass I’ve ever seen. Most of the people were pilgrims wearing outdoor clothes, short and t-shirts and walking shoes. Although they make every effort to make sure that pilgrims don’t attend with their big backpacks and walking sticks for those who arrived just before the start they cannot say no. This why the sides of the church were full of tired looking pilgrims sitting on top of their backpacks, walking sticks everywhere around the walls, sometimes you could here some of them falling with a huge clatter.

The mass itself was very interesting, even through my eyes. At the beginning they mentioned the number of pilgrims who registered at the Pilgrim’s Office in the last 24 hours and the countries they came from. It was mainly in Spanish but there was a lady who spoke for a few minutes in English and made a certain blessing that was repeated in eight different languages by priests who queued up in front of the microphone. Even the church choir (whose uniform was a black shirt and St. James’ scallop around their necks) sang songs in English, in German and even gospel music! One of my Camino friends was American and she recognised it.

When it was time for the incense burner, six helpers came out and pulled the string together. As soon as it started to swing, many people got their phones out and started to take photos and videos! During the mass! I thought that it won’t make any difference if I join in, too, so I took some photos. Again, apologies for the quality.

After the mass we went to find our hotel. Thanks to another Camino friend, a French lady who has done the walk before, we landed individual, en-suite rooms in the very prestigious Benedictine Monastery of San Martino Pinario.

The building is huge (it was the second biggest in Spain) and the hotel only occupies one side of it. The façade is very lavishly decorated although inside the decoration is simple and cold. Some photos of the building.

They have a special rate for pilgrims. We walked in the hotel in awe but soon realised that the rooms we have are on the very top and they are VERY basic. We really didn’t mind as for the first time in 12 days we slept alone, we didn’t have to hear anybody snoring or wake up many times during the night for people going to the toilet or drop something, and we didn’t have to wait for the bathroom in the morning. Bliss! AND buffet breakfast was included.

The view from my tiny window.

After sorting everything out I went to explore the city a bit. Santiago’s old town is full of very old buildings and churches, almost every square has its own church or chapel, even if it’s only a little one. Again, just like walking in a completely different century. I could almost imagine hooded monks and nuns walking on these streets. The scallop, St. James´ symbol can be found everywhere.

Santiago was the first city where I saw a Parador. Paradors are monasteries converted into luxury hotels for the wealthy, often kings and queens stay in them. They were dreamt up by Franco who ordered one to be next to every famous landmark or great scenery. Santiago’s Parador is one of the best and we were cheeky enough to walk into the one right next to the Cathedral (!) and look around in the lobby. Our jaws literally dropped! We asked a guy behind the counter if they have special pilgrims’ rates and he said the prices start form 254 euros per night! I guess the W hotel in Barcelona was double the price but that’s just a hotel, this is a former monastery! I couldn‘t take photos from the inside but took some from the outside.

I didn’t have time to see everything but I am already planning my second Camino so I will make sure to do so on my second visit.