Postcard 8 – The Camino Francés  – With Kathy, Becky and Cecilia – The Final Chapter

The Camino is more than a walk. It’s a source of comradeship, humour, support, love and hope and on this one, it has been a lot about hope.

It’s still dark and I can hear some religious music. It’s one monk, initially, singing Gregorian chants and then it’s several and, whether it’s the acoustics or the extra voices, it could well be in harmony. Either way, it’s beautiful. It’s still a bit early mind and another hour might have been nice but it’s still beautiful and entirely appropriate when you’re sleeping in a monastery. I look at my watch and it’s telling me that it’s not quite six so even another four minutes would have made it psychologically better so I start the process of getting up at 5:57 am in the dark – then it’s not dark. The lights come on automatically at 6:00 am so headlights are not a necessity and the process of getting ready for the next leg of the Camino can start. I’ve seen this process many times and it still fills me with awe at the speed at which the other pilgrims can get dressed, washed, teeth brushed and rucksacks stuffed in less than twenty minutes. This includes toilet use too, now that’s impressive!

I’m doing all of the things above but I do like to take a little more time and being up an hour before breakfast means I can be very leisurely, which I do.

I’ll be taking a bus back to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port today, but it’s not until 1300, so I get to walk for an hour with Kathy, Becky and Cecilia before returning and waiting at the monastery for the bus. I have granddad duties back in London and I’m looking forward to it but it’s still a big wrench coming away from the Camino with people that I have grown to love.

We set off towards Burguete leaving the monastery past its beautiful but unobtrusive church and through the arch and past a couple of magnificent sculptures. One of the sculptures looks like a peeled apple that’s been cut into a long curling strip like an uncoiling spring. My dad would cut apples for me like this with his tobacco knife and the flashback that I had earlier in this wonderful trip is with me again. I’d eat the apple strip trying to gnaw through it without breaking it. The apple would have a slight taste of tobacco from his knife but it would become weaker as I progressed along the coiled fruit and I’m deep in thought. When an artist produces a work of art like this they may have an objective in terms of stimulating thought but they have no control over the direction, intensity or depth of emotions related to those thoughts. They trigger the journey in the recipient’s brain and memories do the rest. I love this piece of art and whilst I’m walking with a tinge of sadness as I know I’m going to say goodbye and turn back, the experience now has prompted a warm glow of nostalgia that’s very much appropriate for this morning.

Cecilia and I have coffee at the restaurant/cafe that we ate at last night and meet Kathy and Becky there then with a quick couple of snaps at a sign that helpfully tells us that we ‘only’ have 790 km to walk to reach Santiago de Compostela and we’re off along the footpath adjacent to the road.

There’s a spring in the step as we walk. It’s a huge contrast from yesterday when we were either going up or down at a seriously challenging rate. Today we’re actually walking more or less flat and it puts wings on our feet. It’s a pleasant start too, through trees and past various crosses and other shrines. We find these on the North Yorkshire Moors and they usually have a folk tale, religious meaning or some kind of legend attached to them. We unpick some of the Spanish and learn about witches and other dastardly things to do with the woods. Even if you’re not superstitious it would have been impossible not to be slightly ‘edgy’ walking through these woods in the evening time with light fading and birds cawing in the treetops. If this had been coupled with the sounds of tiny creatures scurrying about at our feet then yes, ‘edgy’ is the word, I would have been ‘edgy’!

We’re looking for a cafe where we can have coffee together before our goodbyes but the only ‘tienda’ is a supermarket and I walk for about four kilometres into Burguete and at a curve in the road that I knew would hide them within seconds when I turned to walk back… I stop.

I say, “Right if I walk back from here, you’ll definitely find an open cafe around the next corner”. I was trying to joke my way out of it and it didn’t work. Becky and Kathy were both filling up with tears and I was biting my bottom lip trying to stop it shaking. A long hug and a kiss later with all of them and I turn and start walking back hoping that there are no peregrinos too close… there are so I cross the road. 

I’m empty. I’ve always been soft. My wife used to throw a cushion at me when there were sad parts of films and I’d be blubbering in my chair and I laugh through the tears at this thought. She’s still looking after me after nearly ten years and I see her laughing at me now. I can see her mischievous smile as the tree that I’m walking under catches my hat and it feels like she’s thrown that cushion and it’s knocked off my hat. I put it back on and she walks with me for a while and then, with a warm spiritual hug, she gently drifts away and I’m walking alone again…

…but you’re never truly alone on the Camino. 

Tony and Richard (the Hampshire man living in France and the Australian I met on the Pamplona bus) are shouting, “Hey George, y’going the wrong way”. Perfect timing. These two are not only upbeat, they’re also empathetic and as I tell them I’d just left my friends their faces change to caring. I know I’ll not see them again, they’re walking for another ten days and I’m going back, it still lightens the mood and I’m grateful for them.

As I leave them I remember my new ‘sister’ Mary, I hadn’t managed to say goodbye to her last night but it had been great to walk and share thoughts with her over the mountains. I’m thinking these thoughts when I see the silhouette of a lady waving at me through the trees. I can see by the smile that it’s Mary and so I get my final goodbye but this one is a huge hug and a selfie and then she too is gone but this time not as sad. There is a final story attached to Mary that I’ll tell you about at the end.

I spend the morning re-living the last couple of weeks and speaking or writing these words into the phone. The camarera is wonderful and makes me a latte with lactose-free milk, it’s like all my birthdays have come at once. The bus turns up bang on time and the trip to  Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port takes us along winding hair-pin roads with fabulous views all the way. 

It’s a three-hour wait in St Jean as I wait for the ticket office to open so I find a street cafe to people-watch and meet a couple of peregrinos about to embark on the first part over the mountain. They’re walking to Orisson and have waited until now to avoid the heat of the day but it hasn’t worked, it’s hotter now than earlier. In theory, they should be there in less than four hours but I think I preferred our early start and getting there mid-afternoon with time to enjoy such a beautiful place. I don’t mention this though and wish them a ‘buen camino’ and they’re gone.

The train to Bayonne is along a winding track at the base of the valley following the meanderings of the river. It’s another stunning area and I just gaze out of the window without taking photos enjoying the moment.

On the train, I’m overheard by an English-speaking French girl of about twenty who hears me asking about the bus to Biarritz Airport. It’s a bus that she’s used in the past and knows exactly where to go so when we step off the train she walks with me for five minutes to a junction and shows me the bus stop that I need. Then smiles, waves and wishes me ‘buen camino’ and disappears around the corner. It’s only then I realise the shell (that depicts a Camino pilgrim) is hanging out of the rucksack. I’m glowing again!

The hotel at the airport is very average and quite expensive but you win some and you lose some and I’m very definitely on the winning side over the last couple of weeks so I take it on the chin. The upside is that it’s a four-minute walk from the departure lounge so the morning walk is relaxed and stress-free.

Ryanair are on time and I’m back in Blighty within two hours followed by a couple of train journeys over London and I’m bathed in smiles from my family. I love my family.

I’m still feeling rough and do a covid test which is negative so I put it down to a virus – in two days time, I’ll test again but this time it’s a full blown positive so then I’ll know what had dragged at my feet over the Pyrenees. Fortunately, none of the others had picked it up so they continued with their plans whilst I recover in Blighty.

The Camino’s Final Gift

Finally: Kathy, Becky, Cecilia and Mary carry on walking. The day is a particularly long one and hot when they reach the highest point in Zubiri. There’s another 4 km to walk but Kathy’s back is really playing up after nearly 16 km of ‘up’ so Mary (who speaks fluent Spanish) has a word with one of the vendors in the market. Before they know it, he’s sorted his car and he’s taking them the 4 km to their destination where he refuses to take anything for it. Here’s the wonderful twist. His name is Jesus so Mary and Jesus have delivered the latest Camino gift!

Enjoy the snaps.

Until the next one.

Love G x

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2 thoughts on “Postcard 8 – The Camino Francés  – With Kathy, Becky and Cecilia – The Final Chapter”

  1. Having been a pipe smoker since 17 years of age ( I am now a similar age to you, I believe George) I an of course very familiar with the use of a pipe knife, my tobacco of choice is Kendal Brown Pigtail , so I can imagine the transfer of taste from your fathers knife to the apple peal. Thank you for your lovely, emotional post. Kind regards Flick X

  2. Thank you John, it’s amazing how smell and taste can combine to produce such vivid and emotional responses. (and so pleasant too). I’m 72 so I think you’re right about the age. As George Renwick said when we were at the top of Roseberry. I’d made the comment that I never thought I’d be able to do this sort of thing when I was in my 70s and his response was, “It’s because you’re doing this that you are in your 70s” and I think he was right. I do hope I can keep going. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, it’s so much appreciated. Kind regards George


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