Wednesday, 24 May 2017

El Camino: Why Walk the Portuguese Way

I love to travel. But I rarely tell anyone to go to the places I have been.

For the Portuguese Way of the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, I will make an exception. 

You should go.

If you have a passport and you can scrape together the airfare and have 15 days of vacation and you can walk 10 km a day, you should go.

You should go for the solitude and the companionship. You should go for the rest and for the exercise. You should go for the simple pleasure of going to bed each night physically exhausted. You should go to be alone with your thoughts and go to share them with others. You should go for the surprises that lie around each corner. The scenery that will stop you in your tracks over and over again every day. The walled medieval cities and the sleepy villages and the arched bridges and the seaside paths and the wide valleys and the forested mountains and the neighbours chatting by their gates. The ancient stone walls covered in moss and the grapevines unfurling in the vineyards and and the burbling streams and the early morning dew on the newly planted fields and the sun on the lemon trees and the spring flowers and the hills of yellow broom and the overgrown ruins of abandoned homes. The cobblestones leading to charming boutique hotels and rustic albergues. The most magnificent of cathedrals and the tiniest of roadside shrines. Go to see all these things you can only see when you walk.

Go for the green wine and the tiny beers and the espresso and the pastries and the octopus and the trout and the substantial free snacks. Go for the tapas and the three course pilgrim's menu. 

Go to renew your soul and go to remind yourself of what matters. 

Go because you want to walk your own way and go because there are many who will help you find the path. 

Go to feel solidarity with the generations who walked before you and those who will follow in your footsteps. 

Go to prove to yourself you can.

Just go.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Sagrada Familia

The light stops you in your tracks. Warm and joyous, sunshine through the red and yellow stained glass floods the immense space in the afternoon light. If you were there in the morning, the light from the opposite windows would stain the air cool blue and green.

But you are there in the afternoon. The light envelopes you. Your eyes are drawn upwards by the massive tree like pillars. As if you are in a magical forest with alabaster columns supporting a magnificent canopy of stone high above your head. So high, you cannot believe the ceiling stands with so little visible support in this vast space.

A small girl stands in the transept holding an Ipad. "It's St. Jordie's Day, Nana! All the girls give their boyfriends roses and their girlfriends give them books! There are roses everywhere!" She pivots excitedly to show her grandmother the church. I catch a glimpse of Nana's smile and I am struck by inexplicable emotion. I turn away from their moment- so intimate and so public.

La Sagrada Familia. The Holy Family. The church astounds you inside and out. It is Gothic and at the same time modern. The artistry and craftsmanship and the mathematical genius of its construction. From the ornate Nativity facade, covered in detailed and delicate carvings to the austere, almost fascist Passion facade that depicts the sacrifice of Christ with a spare brutality.

Decades ago I visited Glastonbury Abbey with my family. It took centuries to build. Once glorious, it now lies in ruins. "Imagine," said my mom. "Imagine working on something your entire life and knowing you would never see what it looked like when it was finished. That's faith."

Gaudi spent the better part of his life working on La Sagrada Familia. He was 73 when he died in a streetcar accident, the church just one quarter finished. Although he made detailed plans for his church, he knew he would never seen the final product which has an estimated completion date of 2026. 

What would Gaudi think today? Could he have known that the holy temple of his imagining would become a tourist attraction rather than a place of worship, visited by millions of people of all religions? Shared by a child with her grandmother in another land via technology? Or did he simply trust that the end result of his labours would be worth his sacrifice?  

Who among us can ever know what the end result of our work will be? Whether you are an architect, a teacher or a parent, it's impossible to know if your life's work will end up as an awe-inspiring basilica or a pile of rubble. Yet you get up every day and put one foot in front of the other and keep going. 

That's faith. 

Wednesday, 10 May 2017


Those who walk the Camino know the value of the waymark. All along the way, the route is marked with the symbol of the scallop shell, yellow on blue, the rays of the shell pointing you in the direction you should go. Supplementing the scallop shell are actual shells, painted yellow, attached to trees and fence posts. Some adorned with just a simple name. In addition to the shells are yellow arrows, some neat and formal, painted onto walls and lamp posts and signposts. Or wooden arrows attached to stakes or nailed to trees and walls. Others spray-painted low on walls, on curbstones, on sidewalks and the very road itself. Painted by local residents, volunteers and city employees, the signs keep you on a path that is centuries old, leading you past churches and chapels and drinking fountains, to cafes and albergues and hotels. Installed with love to guide pilgrims on their way and keep them safe.

The walker soon learns to search out these marks, always looking ahead towards the next directional sign on highways and on country lanes, in cities and towns. Sometimes the signs disappear, especially in busy cities where there are distractions or businesses competing for the custom of the pilgrim. Rarely but annoyingly, businesses who have lost foot traffic when the route has been changed vigilantly remove new waymarks, crossing them out with black paint and redirecting the stream of traffic back past their bars and cafes. In a world full of conflicting roads, without the waymarks, peregrinos would soon be lost and confused. They would never find their way to their destination.

From one end of the Camino to the other, signs point the way. And when signs fail, the peregrino is encouraged by people who live along  the path, pointing the way, calling words of encouragement from the path, from farm fields, from the balconies of their homes. Although you do not share a common language, the calls "Santiago! Courage!" and " Buen Camino!" cheeer you as you walk, reminding you that you are never alone.

In the end, you arrive at your destination. Tired, sore, worn out from days of walking, you come to Santiago de Compostela under your own steam, but not all on your own. The waymarks left by hundreds of others have led you here. The path trod by generations of pilgrims has led you here.

And then you are done.

There are no more arrows. No marks to watch for. No signs to tell you which way to go. No one lays out a path or calls out words of encouragement.  The road you take is your own.

Perhaps the strength you gained from the road will guide you. Perhaps knowing that you never walk alone will give you comfort. Perhaps remembering that others have gone before will help you forge your way.

Perhaps the path you walk will serve as a guide for those yet to come.

Buen Camino, amigos. Walk well!

Monday, 8 May 2017

Early morning, Albergue

It's pitch dark when the rustling begins. Sleeping bags shoved into stuff sacks. Legs into pants, feet into socks,  gear into backpacks. The morning ablutions. Headlamps and cellphone flashlights dart into the darkest corners, checking nothing has been left behind. Evening pleasantries forgotten, not a word spoken.

You're one of the first out the door, closing it softly behind you. You forego the sleepy cafe across the street, taking one last glance at the village you are leaving, with its shuttered shopfronts and rainy pavements and grey silent church. Then it's uphill on an asphalt road past country houses still asleep, onto a woodland path beneath dripping pines, the rain gentle on your poncho.

Before long the older Dutch couple catch up to you, the petite wife in her high tech gear motoring ahead as she always does. The husband slows briefly to chat, introducing you to a pilgrim's song, its rhythm echoing the pace of the walk. Then he too is off, joining the wife, the two of them singing into the rain.

You enter a town. Everything closed. So quiet, dogs don't even bark. The sun comes out and for a moment you see your shadow. How much do you resemble the other pilgrims who have walked this same path? You, with your broad brimmed hat, your cloak-like poncho and your walking stick. You and thousands of pilgrims have walked this road for centuries, rising early with strangers, walking through the days. Knowing your destination but perhaps not knowing the reason you walk until days or even years after your journey has ended.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Quinta das Cancelas to Ponte de Lima

You walk past vineyards, tiny grapes just beginning to form. There are thousands of vineyards here in northern Portugal that produce "vinho verde". The "green wine", bottled while still fermenting, frothy, fruity, best consumed young.

Down farm lanes and cobbled paths you walk, low stone walls centuries old, mossy green, sprouting tiny pink and white asters. You walk past fields of purple wildflowers, the hills above yellow with Portuguese broom in blossom.

You walk by scenes that have played out for generations if not centuries by these same families. A wife watches her husband plow a field. Laundry is hung to dry. A man repairs a scarecrow. A mother pulls a child in a cart. Hay is stooked by hand.

Farm fields and vineyards give way to a forest path. A brook babbles below. A hillside studded with Cala lillies. Brilliant pink foxglove interrupt the green and white. Birdsong loud overhead.

The forest gives way to farmland, gives way to ancient hamlets, stone wall beside stone wall. Ancient stone churches and immaculate farmhouses and casas in ruins blend one to the next until you reach a cobblestone path. Grape arbours over top, their shadows intense under the Portuguese sun. The path becomes a riverside walkway alongside the River Lima. The magnificent arched stone bridge, Ponte de Lima, appears ahead of you. The city, beautifully restored. The river filled with rowers. Swallows. Music.

You have arrived.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Senda Litoral

To your left stretches the Atlantic, blue green and aquamarine, the colours you only thought you'd see in the Mediterranean. A sandy beach, soft sand broken up by rocky outcroppings, stretches as far down the coast as you can see. On the horizon, far, far down the beach, resort towers stretch upwards. Your destination. Kilometres away. Never seeming to get nearer.

To your right, wildflowers splash across the dunes. Flowers we in Canada cultivate in our gardens and hope they live. Here, they bloom wild. Gerbera daisies, portulaca, California poppies, oleander, calla lilies. Things you cannot name. White, yellow, brilliant pink against the deep green foliage. In the tidy yards, flowers we only see in floral arrangements. Bird of Paradise, orchids, amaryllis, proteus. Oranges fall from the trees to rot on the ground. Lemons bigger than you have ever seen.

Ahead the boardwalk stretches for more than 20 kilometres through sand dunes and past glass fronted cafes and modern apartments and ancient fishing villages, houses painted brilliant colours, where ship-builders build the "best sardine boats in the world."

Senda  Litoral.

The seashore path.