The Reader’s Gazetteer: A

When I first started thinking about writing this series, I imagined that I’d be ignoring fantasy altogether. I wouldn’t be able to locate Narnia on a map of the world; at least, I couldn’t point to where it should be, so was it worth my while considering the genre at all?

But I realised pretty quickly that dismissing fantasy would rule out one fictional nation that definitely deserves its place in this gazetteer.

I’m talking about Alpennia, from the series by Heather Rose Jones.

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If I’d written a wishlist of all the tropes and themes that I most enjoy reading, and handed my specifications over to an author, I couldn’t have liked the result better than I like this. The series contains nights at the opera, women in breeches, swashbuckling, politics both national and ecclesiastical, relationships between women, and a sensitive portrayal of religious experience. And a fictional state somewhere in Europe. Which is why we’re here.

The worldbuilding is meticulous. Alpennia is made distinctive by physical geography, by history, by religious practice, and, perhaps most obviously, by language. Where some authors would have let matters carry on in assumed French or German, Jones gives Alpennia a language of its own, and it works remarkably well.

How do you get there? How do I get there? Because that’s my main criterion for including a place in this gazetteer. And if getting there had to involve magic, it wouldn’t make the cut.

In Daughter of Mystery, Alpennia’s location is established in relation to Switzerland:

Chalanz was well out of sight around a curve of the hills behind her but in the other direction, to the south, she could see all the way to where the mountains rose, snowcapped, on the southeastern border of Alpennia, guarding the roads to Switzerland and places beyond.

In The Mystic Marriage we get a fix on it from the other direction. Antuniet travels from Heidelberg to Rotenek, the country’s capital, via Basel.

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As it happens, magic in these books might impede travel, but it doesn’t seem to enable it in any meaningful sense. They’re set in the first half of the nineteenth century, and people travel on foot, or horseback, or coach. I imagine that there’s a railway line these days, and perhaps even an airport.

Leaving the realms of fantasy – or, since I’m now turning to Anne of Green Gables, perhaps not – and crossing the Atlantic brings me to Avonlea.

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I suspect that I’ll be writing a lot over the course of this series about how characters enter and leave fictional places, about outsiders and insiders are identified, and about how the established community is set up.

Anne of Green Gables does all of those things within the first few chapters. A typical opening would see the orphan Anne arriving on a train, to be met by Matthew Cuthbert and escorted into Avonlea.

And in fact that’s what happens. But it doesn’t happen until Avonlea has been introduced to us. The novel opens with Mrs Rachel Lynde seeing Matthew leaving Avonlea, and wondering why. It’s a clever move to get the best of both worlds: Avonlea may never have seen anything like Anne, but we can’t understand the significance of that unless we understand a little bit about Avonlea.

In passing, we get a geographical clue:

Mrs Rachel found abundant time to sit for hours at her kitchen window… keeping a sharp eye on the main road that crossed the hollow and wound up the steep red hill beyond. Since Avonlea occupied a little triangular peninsula jutting out into the Gulf of St Lawrence, with water on two sides of it, anybody who went out of it or into it had to pass over that hill road and so run the unseen gauntlet of Mrs Rachel’s all-seeing eye.

Then we follow Matthew out of Avonlea. There’s a little hint of the lyrical descriptive note that the narrative voice shares with Anne, but it’s nothing to what hits the page when we meet Anne herself and she meets Avonlea:

They were on the crest of a hill. The sun had set some time since, but the landscape was still clear in the mellow afterlight. To the west a dark church spire rose up against a marigold sky. Below was a little valley, and beyond a long, gently-rising slope with snug farmsteads scattered along it. From one to another the child’s eyes darted, eager and wistful. At last they lingered on one away to the left, far back from the road, dimly white with blossoming trees in the twilight of the surrounding woods. Over it, in the stainless south-west sky, a great crystal-white star was shining like a lamp of guidance and promise.

This alternation continues throughout the book. Marilla Cuthbert takes over the more prosaic point of view, while Anne keeps the descriptions. (Matthew continues not to say very much.) It’s effective: in the reader’s mind, Avonlea becomes a very beautiful place, but one that’s the creation of a very human community.

How to get there? I refer you to this thoroughly evidenced page matching the locations in the books with real-world settlements. Find your way to Charlottetown, and off you go. Actually, I’m not sure whether, growing up, it ever occurred to me to doubt that Avonlea was real.

Books referred to in this post

Daughter of Mystery, Heather Rose Jones

The Mystic Marriage, Heather Rose Jones

Mother of Souls, Heather Rose Jones

Anne of Green Gables (and, obliquely, much of the rest of the Anne series), L. M. Montgomery

New blog series: The Reader’s Gazetteer

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Earlier this week I updated my ‘About’ page to add a little about what visitors can expect to find on this site. I wrote that the blog is largely about ‘other people’s books, travel, and the writing process’.

This blog series is going to deal with two of those things. I’m going to do an abedecedarium – an A to, I hope, Z of fictional places in other people’s books, and speculate as to how one might find them if they were real. Ever since my father read me The Prisoner of Zenda I’ve been fascinated by places that sound as if they might exist, but don’t, by books that convince me that I could take a train or just walk over the border into somewhere that’s only real in the author’s head, and now mine.

How am I going to choose these places? It’s going to come down to these two questions:

Do I believe in the place? Do geography and politics seem plausible?

Do I believe that I, a normal human being with no powers more sophisticated than being able to hold a map the right way up and knowing how to use the Deutsche Bahn app, could get to the place?

I am not going to be fussy about genre. This series will range across detective stories, fanfiction, teen books, thrillers, classics, possibly even the occasional school story. Sci-fi and fantasy are less likely to be included, for obvious reasons: if I need a spaceship to get there, it’s not going in. Portal fantasy is out, as well. With (at time of planning) one honourable exception.

I am restricting myself to textual canons, though I’m throwing in Tintin for old times’ sake. Much as I adore The Merry Widow, you will not find Pontevedro here (or even Marsovia, as the first English translation had it). Nor am I including the deliberately silly. Barataria and Pfennig-Halbfennig would be out anyway under the ‘book canons’ rule, but you also won’t find Norman Hunter’s Kumdown Upwardz, Gadzooks, or Urgburg-under-Ug. (Which is a pity, because it’s a bit of a struggle to find fictional places beginning with U.)

Inevitably, I will miss some places, and it will probably be because I haven’t read their books. If it turns out that one of them is your favourite, I apologise. I’ll be inviting people to add their own recommendations in comments every week.

I’ll be sharing pictures of the books, and maps where they have them, and I’ll be talking about what makes me believe in the place. I’ll probably also wander onto byways involving my own travels in real places, and my own travails coming up with fictional ones.

Want to join me? You’d be very welcome. Grab a toothbrush and your passport, and I’ll see you back here next Saturday.

Camino Inglés 10: you are not the same people (the journey home)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

Camino Inglés 5: Ferrol to Pontedeume (day 1)

Camino Inglés 6: Pontedeume to Betanzos (day 2)

Camino Inglés 7: Betanzos to Hospital de Bruma (day 3)

Camino Inglés 8: Hospital de Bruma to Sigüeiro (day 4)

Camino Inglés 9: Sigüeiro to Santiago (day 5)

16 May 2017

At the end of Monday I was still not famous. On Tuesday morning we had a train to catch, so didn’t check. We ate breakfast in the café in the station, and then boarded a train headed eastwards. It trundled along at 80km/h for the first couple of hours, then slowed and crept along the sides of steep wooded valleys, following a river. Then it went through Astorga and out onto the meseta, and I sat watching intently out of the window for landmarks I might have seen ten years before, walking the other way. I couldn’t swear to any particular landmark, but I saw some storks’ nests for certain, and was glad.

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We came out into Palencia in the early afternoon, and found intense heat, and pale stone buildings, and a park with a retired steamroller mounted in it, and old men sitting on benches. ‘This is what Spain is meant to be like,’ John said, not entirely joking.

It was siesta hour. I’d been the one to resort to Booking.com this time, and had found us a room in a rather quiet, tired, hotel. We found it and checked in – and found the wi-fi.

Now, it turned out, I was famous. The Society of Authors had put out a press release, and I learned that I was the first ever self-published author to be shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize. I had emails, Twitter notifications. I sent text messages to my parents, linked the story on Facebook and my blog, and watched the notifications roll in for a bit.

Then we went out to look at the cathedral.

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Palencia immediately went to the top of my ‘favourite Spanish cathedrals’ list, knocking Burgos down into second place. It was cool and quiet, with far more stained glass than any other I’d visited, beautiful ceilings, and an actual sensible system for keeping the frivolous out of the way of the devout (or vice versa) – separate doors, sending the latter to a chapel right in the middle of of the cathedral, rather than shoved in a (tiny) chapel opposite the main doors as an embarrassment, as at St Paul’s in London. We came in as tourists, and didn’t have to pay because it was a Tuesday. For us, too, there was huge, silent space, and brightness through high windows.

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In the evening we ate at a table under a canopy in the square, with too-sweet white Rioja (which I suppose I should have expected, with a name like ‘Diamante’), and liqueurs on the house, and talked about how to spend my winnings. ‘If I win the whole thing,’ I said, ‘I’ll go to Brazil, and if I don’t, I’ll go InterRailing.’

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The next morning was cloudy and considerably cooler. We explored some more of the city, looking at an exhibition about the Spanish air force, walking by the river, going into normal shops (I came away with pyrite beads and owl-shaped ceramic beads; John, with a fidget spinner), drinking coffee and watching storks in their nests on the corners of church belfries.

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Afterwards, we sat in the cafeteria in Palencia station watching the rain and waiting for our train. The incoming train from A Coruña and Santiago got later and later, and we became increasingly thankful that we hadn’t attempted to do the whole journey in one day. Eventually our train to Santander turned up and the Coruña train still hadn’t come, and we felt very thankful indeed.

The Santander train was much quicker, of course; it was a much shorter journey. A documentary about Coco Chanel was being shown on the screens overhead. I was quite interested, but the file had some glitch that kept sending it back to the beginning.

Once more in Santander, we returned to Café Royalty for a quick supper before boarding the Pont Aven and investigating all its questionable delights: the duty-free shop, the bars, and the cinemas. The choice of films was, of course, fairly limited: the choice that evening was between the live-action Beauty and the Beast and some action movie I now forget. John and I, possibly compensating for our television-deprived childhood, went for the Disney, and, at the appointed hour, we duly filed into our seats.

Then somebody said my name. ‘Kathleen?’

It turned out to be Father Paul, who had been the Catholic chaplain at my university, and who was walking the Camino del Norte in stages. I introduced John. We attempted to catch up on ten years worth of life and several hundred miles of walking in three minutes before the film started, which didn’t really work.

He was not interested in Beauty and the Beast, though, so he withdrew to the other cinema to watch the action movie. John and I quite enjoyed Beauty and the Beast, and then went to bed.

18 May 2017

I got up earlier than I needed to in order to see the tip of Brittany as the ship passed close in to the shore; but it was good to have the sea to myself for a couple of hours; well, me and the woman hoovering the carpet in the bar, and the rep from the whale charity, and a few other early risers. It was a big ship. John appeared somewhere between ten and eleven and was still in time to see France pass by.

I couldn’t get onto the internet, which was probably good for my peace of mind. I read Madensky Square (acquired from the duty free shop) instead, just sitting there with the sea outside the window and a book and a cup of coffee and no work that I could practicably do. There would be plenty of it when I got back to dry land.

When I packed Four Quartets, I’d expected ‘Little Gidding’ to be the one that had the most to say to me, to be thinking about roses and yew trees and the end of all our exploring. And yet, from the fog-choked eucalyptus of the FEVE, to here, taking the voyage of ten days ago in reverse, my identity as a writer rewritten, it had been ‘The Dry Salvages’ all the way:

You are not those who saw the harbour
Receding, or those who will disembark.
Here between the hither and the farther shore
While time is withdrawn, consider the future
And the past with an equal mind.

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Camino Inglés 9: Sigüeiro to Santiago (day 5)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

Camino Inglés 5: Ferrol to Pontedeume (day 1)

Camino Inglés 6: Pontedeume to Betanzos (day 2)

Camino Inglés 7: Betanzos to Hospital de Bruma (day 3)

Camino Inglés 8: Hospital de Bruma to Sigüeiro (day 4)

14 May 2017

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John outside our albergue

The last day of the Camino Inglés: Sigüeiro to Santiago. It was a pleasant enough day’s walk, especially in the early stages: a cuckoo in the woods above Sigüeiro; gentle slopes; gentle sunshine.

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Fellow travellers

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The view from the Camino

Sixteen kilometres according to the book, but the yellow arrows departed from the book at a left turn (book)/right turn (arrows).

We followed the arrows.

The diversion (if such it was) was tedious: it took us through a bus stop and along a very wet and muddy path, though fortunately not so wet that it got through my boots. The worst thing about it was the fact that there were no waymarkings, so I was constantly worrying that we’d got ourselves lost. The sign for Hotel Castro was a real relief, and the coffee was as welcome as the assurance that yes, we were indeed still on the Camino Inglés, but we then spent much time discussing whether it was a change to the route, a reversion to a previous route, or a scam by the Hotel Castro to drum up more trade. (They got €2 out of us for coffee. I suppose it adds up.) Hotel Castro had set up an ‘enchanted forest’: it was a silhouette of a witch on a white umbrella. It was a little bit underwhelming.

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Hotel Castro sending us back on the right path. Possibly.

We worked our way gradually downhill into the suburbs of Santiago, getting hotter all the while. Actually it wasn’t so bad as it could have been: the arrows had rejoined the guidebook, so at least we were no longer worrying about being led astray.

On the Camino Inglés the cathedral creeps into view gradually: you see the tops of the spires peeping out above the rooftops, and only if you know what to look for. We knew.

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Towards the cathedral

And we found the way there with no trouble at all, but there was no obvious way in: the front was covered in scaffolding.

We went to the pilgrim office instead, and found a massive queue. John recommends going in November. I recommend going ten years ago. Still, we got our compostelas and went to find lunch – after which I felt much happier.

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Completed credencial: evidence of a Camino

John booked a hotel via Booking.com, and I felt happier still. We then wandered around most of the old town trying to find it, and eventually had to ask in a tat shop, by which time I was feeling thoroughly sick of Santiago and all the people in it.

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View from the hotel window

A feeling which, I regret to say, persisted on and off all through that Sunday and Monday. There were moments, but really it was such a shock after the quiet of the Camino Inglés, and it has become such a tourist/pilgrim trap even compared to the last time I did it…

Which I knew. This is why we chose the Camino Inglés. It just hadn’t occurred to me that Santiago was bound to be packed, regardless of where we started.

Getting away from the old town helped quite a lot. We found another fairground, and ate chips from a booth and looked at second hand bookstalls.

I dragged John to the pilgrim mass on Sunday evening – in Spanish; if one has to feel that one’s a heretic, it’s less galling in a foreign language – though we had to stand through an interminable sermon (and they take the trouble to remind you in English that heretics can’t receive communion). After that we picked a pleasant bar and had a drink. Tapas appeared, in the form of an empanada. We shared it: I had the tuna, and John the bread.

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Santiago, watching over the bar.

15 May 2017

We went back to the cathedral early on Monday morning and it was quite a lot better. I was brave enough to give Saint James a proper hug this time, as opposed to the gingerly pat on the shoulder I managed in 2007, and I found that there was a sense of holiness around the crypt, never mind the fact that I don’t believe that his earthly remains are there, no matter that I don’t believe his matter matters any more.

On Monday we went around the cathedral museum, and sprung for the tour of the roof as well. And this was worth doing, for the views over the city rooftops and for the nooks and crannies that one never normally sees. We were also charmed to find in the museum an altarpiece given to Santiago in the late fifteenth century by a man named John Goodyear from ‘Chal, Isla de Wight’ – or, as we know it, Chale, a couple of miles down the road from where our parents live.

We also returned to the café next to our hotel several times during the course of the day, so that I could get into wi-fi range and see whether I was famous yet. Because this was the day that the Society of Authors was meant to be announcing the Betty Trask shortlist, and this would mean that I was finally able to tell somebody other than John.

I was not famous yet. We walked down to the station to buy tickets to Palencia (€26 apiece, which wasn’t bad at all), and spent the rest of the day writing postcards, drinking coffee, returning to wi-fi range to check Twitter again, and going rather overboard in the souvenir shops. (A cycle jersey for John, an extravagant selection of sew-on patches for my camp blanket, and a model horreo for our father to put next his model railway. And more postcards.)

Then, on John’s suggestion, we went to a bar that the internet said would have live music, except instead it had stand-up comedy in Galician, possibly being rude about pilgrims. It was difficult to tell, for obvious reasons. Though stand-up comedy in Castilian would have been just as unintelligible to us. There was live music, in the form of a couple of cor anglais solos. Also a musical box, though that was part of a card trick.

When I went to bed I was still not famous.

Next time: we like Palencia a lot, and then go home. And I get my fifteen minutes of fame.

Camino Inglés 6: Pontedeume to Betanzos (day 2)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

Camino Inglés 5: Ferrol to Pontedeume (day 1)

11 May 2017

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Pontedeume, early morning

The Camino Inglés delights in taking you from sea level, up uncomfortably steep gradients, and back to sea level again. Sometimes this is repeated several times over the course of one day. The route from Pontedeume to Betanzos is a case in point. We started on the waterfront. The bar where we ate breakfast (coffee and cold churros) was on the next street along. (The Japanese pilgrims, incidentally, ate their breakfast in the albergue at ten past six.) After that, we joined the route and it went straight up.

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Uphill through Pontedeume

And it’s not as if either of us is unfamiliar with the concept of ‘up’. Our parents live in Ventnor, which is about as close as Britain gets to those Mediterranean seaside towns where the streets are arranged in higgledy-piggledy lines up a cliff. This was something else. (It was also raining.) Within about fifteen minutes (give or take a diversion to look at the church of Santiago, which was shut, and several breaks for me to catch my breath) we’d climbed one hundred and fifty metres and were looking down on the town and the bay.

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Looking back down across Pontedeume

Once we were out of the town, the gradient became less punishing. The rain, however, continued to fall, and I gave up on any hope of my boots drying out. I kept my waterproof trousers on all day – even after it stopped raining I couldn’t be bothered taking them off, and anyway, they were snug enough to compensate for my walking trousers being a size too big.

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Horreo with entirely appropriate rooftop decoration

We were up and down all day. The first downwards gradient was a gentle one, taking us down through scrubby woodland (a nature reserve, I think) towards a golf course. That was deserted, of course, in this weather. The path led straight across, and then into a copse and across a little brook.

After that there were some fairly tedious bits over and then alongside a motorway, leading at last into Miño. This was a reasonably sizeable town, and had a choice of bars. Sitting outside one of them were three pilgrims we didn’t recognise. We stopped for a cup of coffee in the next one along, and then kept on going.

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Looking down on the railway line at Miño

Downhill, again. Heading out of town, the path led gently down all the way down to sea level, and after that up, and up, and up, above the level of the motorway flyovers. 20%. One in five. At least the maths was easy.

We sat on a bench in a dilapidated children’s playground at the top to get our breath back and eat Naked bars. (Naked bars are very good if you’re hiking with a vegan, or hiking as a vegan. They don’t melt, and they don’t crumble too badly.) Then there were lots of single track lanes. We met two dogs (one a very friendly puppy) on one of them and, a little further down the hill, looked back to find that a dapple-grey horse was following us. We had no idea what to do about a loose horse; fortunately it got fed up with the idea after a hundred yards or so, and turned off into a field.

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A rural bus shelter made a decent spot to stop for lunch. More of the same followed: narrow roads, little hamlets. I was surprised to find the road surface not too hard on my feet, but I was still very tired by the end of the day. Then, at last, a field of allotments (and a briefly interested cat), and we proceeded into the walled town of Betanzos.

The Betanzos albergue was big, and well-appointed. There were two floors of dormitories, laundry rooms (yes, plural), boot racks, sitting rooms, a kitchen and dining area, plenty of showers, and wi-fi. Also the heights of joy and depths of despair that come with hearing, and then believing that one has misinterpreted, the word ‘secadora‘. And the joy that returns when it does in fact turn out to mean ‘tumble dryer’.

Granted, there was a very odd mark on the ceiling above the shower that I used (mould, I thought) but generally speaking it was all that one would wish. We bagged bunks, unpacked, went off to take showers, and, as our father would say, ‘went and died for an hour or so’.

There were more pilgrims here than at Pontedeume. The trio we’d seen earlier had turned up here, and turned out to be Spanish; apart from them, there was an Italian man in his sixties, and, of course, the three Japanese men.

I looked at my boots to see how far the line of damp had receded (not as far as I’d have liked) and dragged John out to see the churches of Betanzos and their fabulous Romanesque architecture. I liked the houses, too; as in Ferrol and Pontedeume, many of them were magnificent affairs of three or four storeys, with graceful glazed balconies on the upper floors.

After that we set off to look for O Pasotempo, and food.

The CSJ guidebook described O Pasotempo as –

‘a sort of rural Spanish Victorian theme park erected in 1893 by a couple of local men who made their fortune in South America and came home to share the wealth and cultural excitement with their home town’.

So of course we had to look at it.

It was a gloriously eccentric nineteenth century pleasure garden, dilapidated in a way that was just the right side of the boundary between ‘charming’ and ‘public health hazard’, and filled with all sorts of weird and wonderful sculptures. Shells set into the walls. A relief map of the Panama Canal. A panel of clocks – the usual London – New York – Paris set-up, except not, because it was made of plaster, and there were about 25 clock faces in total, and the central one said Buenos Aires. Half mermaids. A mandarin duck. A mallard duck with ducklings. (These were real.) Plaster figurines of intrepid explorers on camels. Caves! With fake stalactites! And dragons! We agreed that it was like Blackgang Chine, only considerably weirder. We loved it.

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I had mismanaged my blood sugar to the point where there was no question of holding out for food until we got back to the albergue. But the supermarket that we had passed on the way to O Pasatempo had a café. The café provided sugary drinks and snacks. The supermarket provided longer term sustenance. We stocked up for the next couple of days, then walked back to the albergue to cook and eat some of our purchases. ‘Cook’ in this context meant ‘heat up in the microwave’. It made a change from bread and cheese.

Afterwards, we sat in the sitting room upstairs, reading, and talking to an American pilgrim who was doing a little mending. This was more in resignation than in expectation, as she had been waiting for so long to recover for an injury that her visa had run out, and she was going to have to fly home without completing her Camino. But she was still going to do her sewing.

For my part, I wondered morbidly if I was coming down with a cold. But I embraced the power of denial, and went to bed.

Next time: the most wonderful surprise of the whole Camino. And some eggs.

Camino Inglés 5: Ferrol to Pontedeume (day 1)

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

10 May 2017

The first thing was to get around the ría de Ferrol; it took twenty-eight kilometres and all of the first day. We started at the naval museum – well, we started at the hotel, really; that was where we got our credenciales stamped – and then worked our way around three, or four, or perhaps five, sides of the bay. We were to see the big Navantia arch in the docks from several different angles over the course of the day.

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Busman’s holiday

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The waymarks didn’t have QR codes the last time I walked a Camino (to be fair, we didn’t see many others like this)

Which was not to say that the scenery was uninteresting, simply that it didn’t seem as if we were getting very far. For the first hour or so we were very close to the water, and walking past cranes and ships – and a lonely little red-roofed chapel. Then we started gaining height and walking a little way inland. An avenue took us to a path alongside a major road, and then we crossed around the edge of a roundabout into a trading estate.

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Harbourside chapel

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Snail tempted out by the weather

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Diversion

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Eucalyptus in the rain

A series of short showers brought out lots of scents. Eucalyptus, fennel, seaweed. Some more evasive action around some more major roads, a faintly surreal stretch down an ordinary residential street, and a medieval monastery… Then we went further uphill, finding a path through a eucalyptus forest and under a motorway. The Camino was already demonstrating its variety.

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Inspecting the mill equipment

The path went along the top of a grassy dam, part of a disused tidal mill, and then led us into the town of Narón. We decided that here was as good a place to stop for lunch as any, though it wasn’t quite twelve. This seemed to puzzle the proprietor of the bar we happened across, as did John’s vegetarianism, but neither problem was insurmountable. Not for the last time on this camino, we went for the items on the menu that looked to be the least heavy on the meat, and then I picked out the unmentioned sausage chunks.

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Arty shadow self-portrait against Narón’s shell-shaped pavement

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Bridge across the Ría Xubia

The route crossed the Ría Xubia and almost felt as if it turned back on itself along a pleasant, riverbank path. But we were heading away from the water again, past a cemetery and then a church, and along what the guidebook calls ‘a street called Paraíso’ – which sounds as if it should be a film. Paraíso became the Rúa Real, and the whole thing was one of those streets that manages to be well-preserved yet still very much lived in.

Soon the buildings became less interesting and we crossed under another stretch of motorway. The route went steeply uphill; the sight of an emu in someone’s back garden went some way to compensate for the climb. We could have done without the sight of the Navantia arch. Nearly twenty kilometres and we could still see the wretched thing. We ambled on through this residential quarter.

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Ría de Ferrol. I can’t see the Navantia arch in this; maybe I was so fed up with the thing by this point that I refused to take a photo of it.

The rain was sudden and intense. We had just enough warning to get our waterproofs on. We stopped in someone’s driveway to do it, much to the fury of their neighbour’s dogs. Within a few hundred metres it became clear that repeatedly putting the wet guidebook and taking it out again would reduce it to a pulp; so, too, would keeping it out. Fortunately John had brought a transparent plastic wallet to keep his credencial in: we put the credencial in with mine (in a waterproof bag deep in my rucksack) and repurposed the wallet for the guidebook.

We followed the path downhill and sorted ourselves out in a bar, spreading our waterproofs out over the backs of chairs, getting our credenciales stamped, ordering a coffee apiece, and waiting for the rain to stop. Waterproof jacket, waterproof trousers… It was already becoming apparent that my boots were no longer waterproof. It wasn’t entirely surprising, given their advanced age, but it was annoying.

A little way beyond the bar, the houses gave way to countryside again, and the path headed back uphill, straight up towards the motorway. Looking at the guidebook to refresh my memory, I find myself slightly surprised to discover that this all happened on one day. But then it was one long day. The route had been diverted around some roadworks, which meant that we bypassed the motorway service station that the guidebook had promised us. We ate some date bars instead, and grumbled about the habit of other pilgrims of cluttering up the waymarkings with ineffectual little cairns of stones. This was a particularly egregious example, with the stones in a plastic flowerpot.

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A particularly annoying pilgrim cairn

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Horreo with waymarking

That was probably the most trying point of the day. Once clear of the motorway gubbins we were onto a track through trees and then narrow country roads, empty of traffic, winding downhill, leading us to a pleasant green path and at last down to sea level again. Now we were walking along what I could only call a promenade, with wide pavements and beach cafés and all the rest of it, alongside a band of sandy soil with the water visible between the pine trees. And at last we’d lost sight of that arch.

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Downhill.

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Flat path at Cabañas

The route took us over a long bridge that spanned the whole inlet, and into the town of Pontedeume.

The albergue was on the waterfront, a few yards off the route. It was closed when we arrived, and had a notice on the door with instructions of who to call to get it opened up. Feeling rather daunted, I did. ‘Somos dos peregrinos. Queremos rester aqui esta noche...’ It wasn’t brilliant Spanish, but it did the job; after about ten minutes the hospitalera showed up, unlocked the door, and issued us with disposable sheets and pillowcases. This was a new development since my last camino. I knew from Confraternity newsletters that bedbugs were an increasing problem along the route: this was an attempt to deal with it. There were plenty of bunks to choose from, even allowing for the fact that some had been reserved for what (judging by the notices on the beds, which I didn’t read all that closely) seemed to be an organised group on some kind of sporting excursion.

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In the Pontedeume albergue.

Safely booked into the albergue, we went off the explore Pontedeume. We sat at a tall table outside a bar and drank beer while I tried to write my biography and John found his way onto the wi-fi. At the end of the beer we moved on, and, seeing a shoe shop, thought we might as well see if they could supply a new pair of insoles for John’s ailing boots. My Spanish was nowhere near good enough to cope with this task; we eventually got the message across by dint of John’s taking his boots off – and to pieces – to demonstrate. The shopkeeper was of the opinion that really new boots were indicated, and we tended to agree. I hadn’t realised how inadequate the old ones were. It would be expensive, but it would be worth it.

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Pontedeume in the twilight

Boots purchased, we moved on in search of some food. We picked a bar based on the versatility of its menu, and dined entirely adequately on chips and padrón peppers – though we had some little difficulty persuading the woman who took our order that no, John didn’t want any ham. We were the only customers in the place, which had a slightly incoherent décor of bare stone walls combined with rock’n’roll heroes. Previous patrons had amused themselves by balancing coppers on the protruding edges of the stones; we added a few British pennies to the euro cents.

Returning to the albergue, we found that the Japanese pilgrims had propped the door open, and, having obviously found a supermarket somewhere, were enjoying a makeshift supper. There was no sign of the group with the reservations when we turned in. I couldn’t see how to turn the lights off; besides, the others were still up.

I woke some hours later to find that the lights were still on, but that the sporting group had arrived. I didn’t fancy getting down from my bunk to turn the lights off (and I still didn’t know how to) and I drifted off to sleep again.

Next time: the only way is up. And then down. And then up again. And then down again… Also, a surreal theme park.

Camino Inglés 4: fare forward, travellers

Previously:

Camino Inglés 1: two ways to prepare for a pilgrimage

Camino Inglés 2: Isle of Wight Coast Path (eastern half)

Camino Inglés 3: Isle of Wight Coast Path (western half)

It’s at this point that I apologise to those readers who are here for the walking, because I am mostly going to talk about ferries and trains. If you aren’t interested in train journeys, then you should definitely avoid my series about my Grand Tour, which is coming up in six months or so. For the moment, however, you can skip this post and come back next week for the actual Camino Inglés.

On the catamaran back across the Solent I realised that the pain in my foot was not due to any injury; some part of the structure of my boot had cracked across the top, and was digging in with every step. I had no time to get new boots, let alone walk new boots in, so I resorted to the pair I’d bought in my first year at university.

My stepsister-in-law was getting married in Leighton Buzzard. My father was holding a 75th birthday party in Itchen Abbas. In between the two my brother John and I were walking the Camino.

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These shoes were not made for walking, really.

I constructed an elaborate packing plan across my rucksack and a suitcase, and smiled at the contrast between their contents. Walking boots versus kitten heels; waterproof rolltop bags versus satin clutch; thick socks versus white gloves. My husband hired a car to get us from Cambridge to Dunstable, and from Dunstable to the church, and back to the hotel for the reception (at which I tried a grapefruit-flavoured gin, and didn’t think much of it). And in the morning he took me to Luton station, and I took the train to St Pancras, and then another one from Paddington to Plymouth.

I met John at Plymouth station, together with a friend of his who at that time happened to be living in a camper van on Dartmoor, and we walked down to the port. At this point we had well over an hour to spare before we had to check in to the ferry, so we stopped for lunch at a yachtie place called The Dock. This was appropriate, as the service was laughably slow. Also appropriate was the item on the bill that read ‘BAD/HOUMUS’. The boys, being vegan, both ordered bread, houmus and taramasalata without the taramasalata. They were given the option of double houmus. The order took a very long time to arrive and then it came with taramasalata.

We were five minutes late checking in, which wouldn’t worry me at all on an Isle of Wight ferry, but which made me a little twitchy given the need for passport and security checks. It was fine, really.

The Pont-Aven was the sort of ferry that wants to be a cruise ship when it grows up, and we felt a bit scruffy with our giant rucksacks. The last time I’d done the Camino we’d crossed from Portsmouth to Caen, and skimped on such luxuries as bunks. This time round, a decade older and richer and wiser, I’d booked a cabin and everything. We sat in the bar and listened to a jazz band who were travelling to a festival in Santander, as the sun set over the sea.

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Sunset from the Pont-Aven

And when they sell rum called Saint James, there is really only one possible response. Mojito.

We retired at a relatively early hour, but I went up on deck at about 11pm to see if I could see anything of France. Not from the port side I couldn’t, but the lighthouse on Ushant was very visible, a double flash every four seconds, the very last flush of the sunset above it, and the moon waxing over the other side.

The next morning I woke up some time before John, and got up to see if I could find breakfast and see dolphins. I spent breakfast eavesdropping on my fellow Britons and thinking that the Brexit vote wasn’t such a surprise. They were whingeing about the breakfast, the price, quality, and quantity thereof. But I forgave them when they pointed out my first dolphins.

I saw three separate groups of dolphins in the end: the first through the ferry window at breakfast; then three side by side quite soon after we went up on deck to look for them specifically, and then, after a very long time in the wind staring at the sea and seeing nothing beyond the rainbows in the spray, just as we were about to give up and go down to pack up, one of the other people watching pointed out a group of six or seven, travelling at right angles to the ship and leaping right out of the water. They seemed quite small and almost luminous in the morning sunlight.

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From the station at Santander

In Santander we put our watches forward, which was ridiculous given how far west we were intending to end up, and ate lunch at Café Royalty, where I’d last been ten years before with Anne. The translation of the menu had improved somewhat in the meantime. Then we wandered around the town, poking our noses into shops and covered markets, and looking at street installations meant to show the devastation caused by the fire of 1941. There was also a monument to a ship explosion of1893, and a preserved air raid shelter from the Civil War. We would have gone to look at that, but it was closed. Eventually, being hot and tired, we brought some provisions for the train and went to wait at the station.

We’d previously stopped there to buy the tickets, where my first proper Spanish conversation in a decade had amounted to ‘You know it doesn’t leave until ten past four?’ We did know, and we got the train at ten past four. But I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind to understand about the rail replacement bus service between Llanés and Ribadesella, and, once we’d worked out that was what the guard was talking about, I spent some time in a state of nervous panic before seeking clarification.

Between what the guard told me, logic, John’s memory of the train he’d been on last time, and some signs along the way, we worked out that the reason for the bus was the electrification of that stretch of line. The bus took us through some spectacular coastal villages. I was struck once again with an impracticable desire to walk the Camino del Norte. The bus driver clearly knowing everyone, telling one passenger to give his regards to his mother, and stopping at another point for a through-the-window conversation with an older man.

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View of the railway, from the rail replacement bus

We ate bread and cheese once back on the train (electric, this one). John had downgraded his veganism to vegetarianism for the duration of this Camino. On his previous trip along this stretch of railway he went all the way from Ferrol to Santander in a day, and didn’t bring anything to eat. We stopped for the night in Oviedo, staying in Hotel Favila, blessedly close to the station. After checking in we wandered around the city, and found very little going on. We concluded that either we’d been lied to all our lives about the Spanish nightlife, or that nothing happens on Mondays, or that nothing happens in Oviedo.

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Oviedo bendybus

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Spiritual succour, 24/7

The next morning it was more lively, and we got further, too, into the old town and the university quarter. They were setting up the market when we went there; the night before all the cafés were clearing up, sweeping the floors and stacking the chairs. After the market we worked our way back, through a park with mighty and dark trees. Where Santander does memorials to tragedies, Oviedo does sculpture. Every other street, every other crossing, a statue or a concept piece or a fountain.

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Oviedo breakfast

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Exploring Oviedo

We walked out towards the suburbs and back towards the station. We checked out of the hotel and drank thick, rich, hot chocolate from little cups in holders shaped like scallop shells.

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Hot chocolate

We kept finding ourselves on the Camino, mostly by standing on the pavement being indecisive for too long. Locals saw our rucksacks and directed us in what they assumed was the right direction. In Santander, we’d been accosted by a woman handing out business cards for a hostel on the Camino del Norte. Now, in Oviedo, having an hour or so to spare before our train, we thought we might as well go with it, and we followed the Camino Primitivo for half a mile or so. As far as a bridge over the FEVE line, at which point John saw a bridge a little further down that interested him, a sort of suspension bridge-cum-roundabout, so we went to look at that, and then turned back – and had to explain that no, we weren’t lost, we were going to catch a train to Ferrol.

We found our way back and drank coffee in Café Uría (because it was opposite the station and had a picture of a bicycle on the window) – then caught the train.

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North Spanish coastline, seen from the train

Two hours into the second leg, and the scenery was a sequence of tunnels and steep valleys, eucalyptus trees, viaducts of various ages, hairpin bends a long way beneath us, horreos, houses with shallow roofs of red tiles and yellow plaster walls; maps of the Camino in tiles on the walls of the station buildings; shells here and there. Very occasionally, we glimpsed the sea out to the north.

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Waiting at Ribadeo for the train to Ferrol

The second rail replacement in as many days (a car this time, not a bus) took us from Navia to Ribadeo. A few kilometres east of Galicia, it started to rain; then a yellowish mist rolled down. I read Four Quartets, and decided that I was growing tired of fog and eucalyptus trees. We could go back the other way, via Palencia.

Checking into the hotel at Ferrol, we found ourselves behind three Japanese men in their sixties – obviously pilgrims, and well-organised ones at that. They had plastic folders with step by step (not quite literally) instructions. As the week went on, we would discover that they rose early, walked fast, and enjoyed themselves when they got to the night’s destination. For the moment, though, we were mostly concerned with getting the key to our room.

There was wi-fi. There usually is, these days. The last time I did the Camino my phone had a screen of three square inches and if you wanted to get on the internet you had to hope there’d be a public access computer in your albergue. This was, no doubt, an excellent spiritual discipline, but in the year of Our Lord 2017 it turned out that daily internet access was a blessing.

Because when I connected my phone to the wi-fi in that hotel and my emails started rolling in, it turned out that Speak Its Name had been shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, and the Society of Authors needed a biography, a photograph, and six copies of the book, all of which would have been very difficult to organise without the internet. Not that I did any organising that night. We went down to the bar and drank beer and red wine, and I was very glad that I had one hundred and sixteen kilometres of walking ahead of me to keep me distracted through the embargo.

Next time: we start walking the Camino Inglés. I promise.