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CULTURE TRAVEL FOOTBALL HERITAGE LIVERPOOL

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El Camino, with knobs on


Monday, 25 July 2011


Far from the madding crowd and its parking attendants on Spain's Pilgrims Way

El vehiculo matricula 7322-HBW ha sido retirado de este lugar por el Servicio Municipal de Grua. Para recuperario debera Ud. Pasar por el deposito de vehiculos del Parking de C/ San Roque, frente al Palacio de Justica. Sotano 1°. Puede comprobar si vu vehiculo esta en el deposito llamando al telefono 948 420 444 o en internet en www.pamplona.es/grua.

Perfect, couldn't be better.

Two hours, 112 Euros and one sour-faced mare behind the counter later, our hire car is retrieved from the pound in Pamplona and we're back on the road - with a farewell Tweet from a sympathetic but amused taxi driver who'd taken a photo of the parking ticket which I'd playfully stuck to the front of my T-shirt and posted it on his Twitter page. Humour, universal language.

The River Aragon (left) and Romanesque church capital

The River Aragon (left) and Romanesque church capital

Twenty-four more hours and we're in the outback doing what we came here to do: walk an itsy bit of El Camino, the fabled pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela that crosses much of northern Spain.

Thank God or maybe St James for hiking sticks or walking poles or whatever you care to call them*. No matter how daft and self-conscious you feel when you start using one, by the end of your expedition it feels like the most natural thing in the world, practically a fifth limb (you, smirking, stand in the corner now).

By then, by gum, it's become the ultimate multi-tasking accessory - no longer merely an ergonomic aid for balance and stress reduction on joints along the rocky road or old straight track, it now doubles as a baton, a 4-iron, a poker, a cane for giving it the old Fred Astaire or Eric Morecambe.

El Camino in late June 2011. The stretch we're walking is in the Pyrenean foothills, a dozen or so miles from the French border where Mount Oroel dominates almost every horizon with its flat summit reminiscent of Table Mountain. Last night there was a cracking storm in Jaca, the small Aragonese town in which we're staying, and its residual ions linger in today's moist air. Does it say anywhere on these sticks 'Not to be used as lightning rods'?

Santiago de Compostela was up there with Rome and Jerusalem on every believer's ticklist of medieval away grounds. They say the remains of Christ's apostle James, which had been brought to Galicia in northwest Spain after his death, were magically rediscovered in the 9th century, and in the nascent Reconquest of Spain from Islamic rule he was venerated as saint and 'Moorslayer'.

The local wildlife have seen it all before

The local wildlife have seen it all before

It's still walked today by tourists and traditionalists, like the three young priests we saw passing through Jaca, dressed head to toe in black - in the stifling summer heat - carrying staffs, rucksacks and sleeping bags. All of them wearing dog collars and wide brimmed hats, too, with the ubiquitous pilgrim's symbol: the scallop shell.

They paused to pray inside Jaca's 11th century cathedral, a massive stone coolbox with action scenes from the Bible carved upon the capitals of its ochre-coloured columns - a recurrent delight, as travel writer Adam Hopkins notes in his 1992 book, A Portrait of Spain: 'The glory of the Pilgrims Way lies in the array of Romanesque architecture that flowered all along its length [and] the most delightful aspect is the astonishing range of sculpture that accompanied it, on portals and façades and capitals, on every crag, cranny and vantage point...'

An hour out of Jaca the landscape is lush, with occasional clouds veiling an implacable Pyrenean sun. The rocky terrain never quite levels off, but the gradient is slight. We pass welcome waterspouts, waymarkers etched with the scallop-shell motif, hilltop chapels, a disused hermitage. Here, like so many places in Spain, the past has yet to be served its eviction notice. There are ghosts in the scrub and stones, the sibilant streams and simple footbridges. It smells of wild flowers and sheep droppings.

Apart from the odd bored goat, every other creature operates at special-effects speed: the ebullient swallows, quicksilver lizards, inquisitive dragonflies and blundering bees are in and out of your space before you've barely registered them. Butterflies with orange freckles or black-and-white patches wink and giggle by, describing picayune spirals and loops like blossom swept up in a sudden breeze.

Liverpolitan pitstop (left) and El Camino waymarker

Liverpolitan pitstop (left) and El Camino waymarker

Sweating cobs now. After a mild flirtation with sunstroke I find my rhythm about an hour in. The body assumes its default mechanical setting and the metaphysical kicks in. Eyes down, hiking shoes on a jigsaw of flinty ground. Eyes up, nothing but blue sky. Blue sky. Hang on, feel something profound coming on...

I reckon the sky is blue in the daytime to stop us going crackers. Scientifically, sure, it's blue because that's the colour which gets scattered the most when sunlight hits the earth's prism of an atmosphere and is broken up by dust and gas (it says on this website to do with NASA); and the stars are still there during the day, obviously, but we can't see them in the sky because it's so bright - like switching on a lamp in a sunbathed room.

But between you, me and the dry-stone walling, doesn't the blue keep us sane? At night we go a little crazy - all those twinkling lights in that dark, vast cosmos make us fearful, superstitious, hostages to sleep - until next morning we feel invulnerable again even though a mere 50 vertical miles of lulling blue separates us from the dark, 'out there'.

Pyrenean village church (left) and Mount Oroel horizon

Pyrenean village church (left) and Mount Oroel horizon

Go home soft lad, your mother's got cake. Still, sidereally speaking it's not hard to appreciate how the Camino legend came about. Here's what novelist Paulo Coelho writes in his arcane account entitled The Pilgrimage: '[James] was buried at a place on the Iberian peninsula where, one night, a shepherd had seen a brilliant star above a field... The site became known as Compostela - the star field - and there a city had arisen that drew travellers from every part of the Christian world.

'At the height of its fame, during the fourteenth century, the Milky Way - another name for the road, since at night the pilgrims plotted their course using this galaxy - was travelled each year by more than a million people from every corner of Europe'.

'A brilliant star above a field' - could it have been a comet, a supernova, maybe even a spaceship? It's no more far-fetched than the accepted version of events, claims Jan Morris in her 1964 book Spain: 'The Galicians will readily tell you why the shrine is there. St James, they say, preached the Gospel in Spain soon after the Crucifixion, and after his martyrdom in Jerusalem his body was smuggled back. During the sea voyage its miraculous presence saved the life of a man who had been carried out to sea by a frightened horse, and since both man and beast were found covered with scallop shells, the scallop became the badge of St James and the pilgrimage. All this, the Galicians say, is well known...

'But in all this, alas, they are deceiving themselves. St James, so all the best scholars seem to agree, never came to Spain at all... There is no historical reason why Santiago should be a place of pilgrimage. It is only an illusion; but so long has it been in the Spanish mind, so attractive is it in itself, that long ago, in the way of all the best hallucinations, it achieved a kind of truth'.

There you go - subjective reality displacing objective fact once again. Nothing for it sometimes but to have a little faith.

*The only serious piece of outdoor equipment I've ever bought is a tent. My late great father would periodically regale me with boys-own tales from the 1950s of him and his pals cycling from the Dingle via the ferry to Heswall or Colwyn Bay or Sumatra and pitching up in some foreign field, cracking a few eggs and gags over a campfire before turning in and rising bright and early for a glorious morning's fishing.

Now I've sat under all those stars I mentioned and savoured the beauties of the night, when you come to believe that you are the sole person in all nature intent on dreaming (© Umberto Eco). But I've only sat under the canvas of a tent once: at the Phoenix Music Festival, on a disused airfield in Stratford-upon-Avon, on Thursday 17 July 1997 (still got the ticket, and the tic).

Putting it up was the easy bit. I merely overlooked two vital accessories: a torch and a set of oars. After watching the live bands it took two hours to reach base-camp that night and rained like something from the Old Testament, and a succession of oafs kept me awake by tripping over the guy ropes and grunting sorry.

Morning brought not blessed relief but sodden socks, a dawn chorus of coughs and farts, and everywhere the fragrant stench of stale cannabis marinated in portaloo. For all that, I did get to play five-a-side football with an even scruffier bunch of pop stars, celebs, has-beens and never-will-be's. Goldie lad, that was me that nutmegged you, twice.


'Here, like so many places in Spain, the past has yet to be served its eviction notice. There are ghosts in the scrub and stones, the sibilant streams and simple footbridges. It smells of wild flowers and sheep droppings'


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