Extramadura

(A post on Lisbon is still coming)

Extremadura. It sounds like a cooking term but it is actually a region of Spain sandwiched between Andalusia, Portugal, Castile La Mancha and Castile & León. It is the driest, most arid part of Spain but is flooded with history. Imagine north west Victoria/South Australia with Roman ruins. Many people from the area tried to escape the harshness of this place in the past and were part of the expeditionary armies of the C16&17th. Some brought back loot and fame.

This area is also know for the Iberian black pig which is let out when the acorns fall to the ground so they can munch on this fruit. Little do the pigs realise that this makes their pound of flesh all the more desirable. It becomes the most sought after, and therefore most expensive, jamon.

Roman ruins are widely spread throughout this area. Merida and Badajoz are well known for their ruins but further south a few kilometres outside the small town of Casas de Reina there is a vast Roman site that includes a theatre. For generations the locals knew it as the place of the ‘thick wall’ but were unaware what archeology lay underneath. Houses, shops, temple and other buildings have all been discovered at this spot.

The white towns with their squares are full of life – particularly after five pm when families come out. Children play and parents and grandparents natter over a drink and tapas.

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Go West (not so) Young Man

After leaving Caceres we headed towards Portugal. The first surprise was the range of landscapes from dry paddocks filled with granite boulders, reminiscent of places in Australia, through to lush valleys covered in crops and orchards. Closer to Portugal there were tree plantations and even gum trees that were at home in their element.

The biggest surprise was the Roman bridge on the on the Tagus River at Alcantara – quite a magnificent structure despite having been damaged in wars over the centuries.

We then moved to the coast of Portugal staying a night Figuiera da Foz. The camping ground wasn’t much to write home about but the sunset was beautiful and surfers enjoyed their time in the water. In the morning we drove to Sao Martinho do Porto, a beautiful harbour and clearly a popular seaside resort. Here we bought a Portuguese version of a churro which was large, hollow and filled with chocolate. The eyes of my child bride glowed with delight. They also had paddle boats with their own water slide which I thought was an interesting innovation. Then we moved onto Perniche, a fascinating town, although another seaside resort, built in and around an old fortress. In the past this was clearly and important harbour. The geology was also amazing. A trip around the peninsula gives the Great Ocean Road a run for its money. It was covered in rock outcrops, tessellated rock platforms and craggy moonscapes.

Finally we drove to Lisboa but that is a story for another day.

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Some days are diamonds and some days are coal

Today was going to be the first day of our drive around Spain and Portugal. I had booked a hire car near the pension where we were staying. A short walk and we would be on our way. With confidence and masculine authority I led my trusting wife to the Avis office only to find it had changed hands and was no longer Avis. Made some calls with International Roaming flying through my credit. It is a couple of kms further down the road. I left trusting bride in a hotel lobby that was willing for her to sit there, and marched up the road. I felt as though I was walking clear of Burgos and the numbers on the buildings had disappeared. I looked down an alleyway and there at the end, 20 businesses away, was the Avis Budget office. Beautifully hidden and camouflaged in a way to keep customers on their toes.

They offered me an upgrade – ‘a cheebrid’. A what? ‘A cheebrid- electricity and gas.’ Oh, a hybrid I muttered to myself.

Papers signed, Keys handed over, and I started the car like any normal car and I drove off. Picked up patient bride with car starting normally and headed out of town. We then stopped in a picnic area to have lunch. It was time to go. Car wouldn’t start. Tried and tried again. Translated instrument panel Spanish into English. Nothing! Called RACE, the Royal Automobile Club of España. My mechanic friend turned up and informed me that once the battery is charged it doesn’t make broom, broom noises. Very sheepishly and exceptionally quietly, I drove away.

I am now in Segovia licking my wounds but my bride is very understanding.

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A Day of Two Lessons

I learned two things today. 1. God’s house needs cleaning. We were in an old church in Burgos enjoying the peace and serenity. I had spent some time in prayer and was about to walk about and look at the art and statues when the cleaning ladies arrived. Dressed in white, armed with mops, buckets and cleaning cloths they swept into the building. Bang! Bang! Bang! As the kneeling rails were raised. Screech as doors hundreds of years old yielded to their unbending resolve. Cleaning materials were scattered over the floor, as the ladies chattered and rushed with purpose as they went to work. The lady at the altar unconcerned over its reverence and holiness scrubbed with gusto and without any genuflection. They had clearly done this many times before and were going to ensure it was done right. I snuck out of one of the huge doors now open to the world with one thought; I suppose God’s houses need cleaning too.

The second thing I learned: I then went to the Burgos Cathedral where I had been before but I wanted to see the museum and historical artefacts again. I was caught behind a group of nuns as they were being shown through. Every time they came to a significant artefact they whipped out their mobile smart phones and took pictures. Now, nuns with mobile phones was not a concept I had ever thought about or considered. These ethereal, other worldly creatures wielding smartphones with dexterity and aplomb was not a thought I had ever consciously considered. The brides of Christ with smartphones – my second lesson for the day.

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Camino Overloaded

Today we reached peak Camino madness. After a quiet community church service next to a monastery we arrived back at the albergue to find well over 40 people looking for accommodation in an albergue that only accommodates 25. Places were found for some in other places but we still had to find places for another 12 or so. People were desperate for a bed. The team was amazing by swinging into action and keeping pilgrims calm and taking people to a variety of other places in other towns. They also started looking for ways to use rooms usually set aside for other purposes. The room normally used for pilgrims to relax in was changed into a 3 bed dorm. A terrace used for drying washing was given a tarp and pilgrims were invited to make a bed in the open. Another room, not used due council requirements, was also pressed into service.

After weeks of relative quiet this week has been busy, but today was exceptional – but so was the team. What impressed me most was how the team rallied to the cause with each person working to do their best. It was inspirational! Extra hands helped at enrolment, with the meal, placing beds and mattresses and even finding extra blankets for the people on the terrace who happened to be there on what is predicted to be the coldest night in ages.

Speaking to pilgrims they were genuinely pleased and surprised by the level of support. Many had been turned away on previous occasions with no idea what to do next.

I saw a real expression of Christlike behaviour and was privileged to be part of it.

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Another Night in Villamayor

Last night we had the first night of a two day festival in Villamayor. The towns in the valley take it in turn to host this event. Although next weekend it is followed by the town festival as well. The evening started with lots of Spanish sausages, bacon and sardines all squashed into pieces of pan rustica, a long loaf like a French stick, washed down with local wines. This was followed at 10:30pm by a bull made out of a drum, bike wheels and other metal bits and pieces chasing children down the street with fireworks coming out of its tail. The kids screamed with delight as it chased them up and down the street. I suppose this is all in preparation for the real thing in Pamplona or another major city when they get older. And then, to finish off the evening a punk band with a rude name played strange music until after midnight. Some of the locals who were well lubricated by this time caroused into the night, or should I say, early morning and took one of our clothes line for a walk.

That was day one.

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More Albergue Glimpses

Spanish kids have returned to school after their long summer break so there are fewer locals on the Camino. However, it seems that September 1st is a signal for everyone else to begin. The albergue is full every night and we have to turn people away. Happily there is a network so that bedless pilgrims are directed to other possibilities. It can be quite distressing for some to find that there is no bed available, so it is important to calm their anxiety.

While walking a section of the Camino the other day we discovered many North Americans ( USA and Canada- I don’t want to offend either!), Irish and even the odd Aussie being dragged along by his wife whose idea it was – a fact of which he kept reminding her.

I also got a chance to take a photo of the albergue’s favourite local sitting on his tractor. He loves to welcome the pilgrims and sit and have a chin wag with them whether they understand Spanish or not.

Tonight a local festival commences – so we will see if we sleep or not. The wind is very gusty and time will tell if the gazebos stay up. However, we can be certain of one thing, nothing will spoil a Spanish party!

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Absconding

Today after setting up for the team’s breakfast I absconded and went for a walk up Montejurra. I made it into a 20 km round trip by taking a few unwise turns. The following are some photos from my expedition.

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A Comforting Presence

In yesterday’s blog (Discomforting Conversations)there was one person I didn’t mention. Accompanying the ex solder was a young lady. She was quiet, calm and occasionally acted as his translator when his words weren’t forthcoming. From where I was sitting she was everything he needed – support, encouragement and most of all, a comforting presence.

It made me think that we all need people like that in our lives with their words of comfort, support, challenge and even those words that cause self reflection.

For those with a Christian faith this can have an even greater dimension as the words and encouragement don’t need come from ourselves but can come from the very presence of God Himself.

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Discomforting Conversations

On most evenings conversations around the dinner table at the albergue are light and breezy: where do you live, work, are you enjoying the walk, what do you do, how do you enjoy your retirement… and whatever.

But now again when when you ask, “Why are you doing the Camino?” You are given an answer that knocks you for six. I had learned that the relatively young man across the table was a blacksmith who wasn’t sure if his body could cope with this job for many more years. I told him how I would love to see him teach his skills to young people in this technological age. Then I asked him the dangerous question: why are you doing the Camino? The answer was not one I expected.

This man was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. He had been indoctrinated to see enemies everywhere and not trust anyone. In war his life depended on a high degree of paranoia. He was on the Camino to reestablish contact with people, overcome his paranoia of enemies around every corner preparing to shoot him and to also overcome, unsurprisingly, his anxiety attacks. After he had described his struggles in detail I was in tears. I did not have the words to respond. Desperately I was asking God for words but nothing came to mind. All I could say was that I would pray for him for his journey and hoped he could achieve the peace he so desperately sought.

There were so many other things racing through my mind that I wish I had the words to speak but the meal ended, the tables had to be cleared and other duties performed. I felt so, so, inadequate in the face of such pain.

After the 8:30 Jesus meditation that occurs every evening at the albergue I asked him how it went. He told me he was blessed by this time of reflection. He then picked up the guitar and spent some time making gentle music. … and I was still lost for words.

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