Una Fiesta Nacional

With no small dose of irony, this week sees Spain’s National Day coincide with a constitutional crisis that could lead to its disintegration. While Catalonia contemplates and attempts to negotiate its (suspended) path towards independence, the flag waving nationalists of Castilla will line El Paseo de la Castellana in Madrid to cheer a military parade organised by the Ministry of Defence. This celebration needs updating as a small step towards healing a Spain society that is fracturing.

It is time to rethink the way in which Spain celebrates its nationhood. Spain has its opportunity to celebrate the achievements of their armed forces on their “Dia de las Fuerzas Armadas”. The laser-guided focus on celebrating the hung-over militarism of the Franco regime excludes the sentiments of at least 70% of the Spanish population.

Spain needs to move a way from anachronistic nationalism towards an inclusive celebration of what a great country this is.

Since its inception in 1913, the 12th October has been observed to a greater or lesser degree across Spain and Latin America as the day of the hispanic race; “El dia de la Raza”, “Dia de la Hispanidad”, or “la Fiesta Nacional”. More recently it has been re-cast in many South American countries to recognise the genocidal inflection point that was Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. Many South American countries seem to be abandoning their celebration of “Hispanidad” in favour of celebrating days of Indigenous Resistance or Respect for Cultural Differences.

As a (still) british citizen, I find it strange, we don’t have a day to celebrate our nation like the Spanish, much less one to celebrate our “race”. The Scots show their pride in Rabbie Burns, and the English do pomp, when a royal gets married or a Tory prime minister dies. But we would feel uncomfortable with some kind of military celebration as the centre-piece of being British.

No so in Spain, where the parades continue. Forty years after the death of Franco, and two generations into democracy, the celebration of Spanishness is still stuck on a military parade. Battalions of soldiers representing regiments that marched with Franco in his Coup d’Etat in 1936 goose-step along the Castellana, flown over by military aircraft. The only significant change has been the elimination of the tank battalions, through cost cutting in deference to the economic crisis rather than any significant apreciation of its ridiculousness.

Surely there could be a more accurate and inclusive celebration of Spanish life? Surely we could celebrate the diversity of spanish culture and history. A carnival of floats celebrating the infinite diversity of this fascinating country. Here is a quick starter list:

  • Herds of Iberian pigs, and Mountain Goats.
  • School children Enacting scenes from El Quijote, El Cid.
  • Castels
  • Fine Wines
  • Fallas firework displays
  • Carnivals from Cádiz, Canarias
  • Embutidos
  • Flamenco cantaores and balaores, with their rock, jazz & hip-hop fusions
  • Demonstrations of World beating Sportsmen and Women.
  • Cheeses
  • Pride floats celebrating that Spain was one of the first countries to recogise marriage equality.
  • Celebrations of the cultures of bulls, horses and hunting.

And that is just some of the “traditional” Spanish memes. Space should be made to welcome the contribution and influence made by the immigrants and tourists from across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas who have shaped the way Spain is today and who are shaping the culture as it progresses.

That would be a true Fiesta Nacional.

under our feet

Developers in Toledo recently found the remains of what may be a 10th Century cemetery just outside the medieval city walls.  press reports have suggested that the estimated 200 graves may be part of a muslim burial ground dating from the 10th – 12th Centuries.

I joined the curious onlookers this evening to take a look at what is Toledo’s latest archaeological site.

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The bodies appear to be buried in shrouds laying on their sides facing a south easterly direction towards Mecca.

The location of the cemetery is squeezed between the medieval city walls and the remains of the roman circus, an area that has been at continuously inhabited for thousands of years.  The city of Toledo has been inhabited and fought over by the Romans, the Visigoths, a capital city for Muslims, Jews and Christians of the Iberian peninsular.  This area of the city is known to be rich in archeology.

What is striking is how close to the road these graves are.  I had the feeling that you could excavate in pretty much any direction and keep finding graves.

Onimac Day 5: Mon 16th April: O Cebreiro – El Acebo: 88km

Having slept warm and well, I re-packed my dried out kit, noticed how much lighter my panniers had become and headed off on my descent out of Galicia. My objective for the morning was a steep downhill to Villafranca del Bierzo and then on to Ponferrada for lunch.

O Cebreiro to Villafranca del Bierzo

The official route would take me once more onto rocky muddy tracks that would be heavy on the brakes and I was unsure how well my pannier would hold up to the rattling and shaking of a 700m off-road descent.

I stopped off in Pedrafita do Cebreiro, where the A6 motorway from Madrid to A Coruña enters Galicia and hunted around for breakfast.

I found a fairly non-descript bar and ordered a standard spanish breakfast of coffee and toast. I sat and watched the Breakfast News as it blared from the TV. The King’s grandson, Froilán, had managed to shoot himself in the foot during a hunting party, echoing literally his grandfather’s recent metaphical misadventures elephant hunting in Botswana. The scene reminded me that today was a Monday morning, the bar was populated by the regulars going about their daily routine, whilst I was on my adventure, just passing through.

Leaving Galicia

Turning out of Pedrafita I quickly left the snow-line behind me.

The Rio Valcarce valley has clearly been the main route through the Cantabrian mountain range for millennia. Whilst the official “Camino de Santiago” footpath leads up the western side of the valley to O Cebreiro, I chose to take the old road, the N-006a that hugs the contours of the valley wall and traces the route of what would once have been the main valley road and the link between Galicia and Madrid. This road connecting the old wood and stone built villages of the Valcarce valley was replaced in the 1960s by the N-VI trunk road, which was itself bypassed in 2002 with the completion of the A6 motorway that climbs its way up the valley on huge concrete stilts.

After the cold grinding work of yesterday I felt so liberated to be flowing down hill with a tailwind. I covered the 35 km to Villafranca del Bierzo in little more than an hour. The difference in that hour was palpable.

Villafranca del Bierzo

I had left O Cebreiro in freezing fog and snow still thick on the ground, by 11:00 AM I was sat in a spring-time square. planning my route on to Ponferrada for Lunch and then another 900m climb up the Montes de Leon to the Cruz del Ferro, at 1500m, highest point on the Camino Francés.

Before I could get carried away with myself, I needed to attend to some logistics. Villafranca was the first market town for days, so I searched for a cycle shop to look at replacing my pannier and investigate the state of my rear derailleur which had developed a worrying clicking sound. I found an old cycle workshop who could not help me with panniers (those that they had looked as cheap and flimsy as the ones I already had) but the old fella swapped out my derailleur in a matter of minutes and sent me on my way to Ponferrada.

Ponferrada was my first major city of the tour and felt strange after 5 days jumping from village to village. I enjoyed a leisurely Menu del Día and then headed out of town, eager to get back on the road, not even waiting for the cycle shops to open up and offer me their panniers. I tightened up the bungee / zip-tie solution that had served me well enough for three days and headed back onto the camino and to Molinaseca and then an 8km climb up 600m to find a bed for the night in the Albergue at Acebo.

The climb was fairly long and hard, but bearable. The weather was cool but sunny and so I was able to chart my progress with fine views both down from whence I had come and up to my objective.

Acebo

I found my way to the parroquial Albergue and booked myself in for the night, and then looked back over my accomplishment for the day.

All in a day's work

This would be my last night on the Camino Francés and yet my first “churchy” Albergue. I had previously stayed in private or independant albergues or the B&B in O Cebreiro. The private albergues typically charged €8 – €12 for a dormitory bed, and then offered a Menu del dia type evening meal for a similar €8 – €10. This one was different.

The Albergue is owned by a catholic brotherhood and is run by volunteers who travel from their homes and spend a week or two managing the albergue and helping the pilgrims on their way. The atmosphere is distinctly more religious with everyone mucking in together to produce cheap hearty food, that then gets prayed over before eating. I can understand the attraction of volunteering to work in the albergue for a couple of weeks, living in a quaint hill-side village, meeting a never ending stream of pilgrims, but I could not help feeling that given the misery that Spain was suffering in early 2012, church volunteers would be able to find people with more pressing need for the church’s beneficence than what seemed to me to be a varied selection of middle-class ramblers and semi-retired, semi-religious tourists.

Onimac Day 4: Sun 15th April: Samos – O Cebreiro: 36km

I set off on that cold damp Sunday morning knowing that I had a mountain to climb. After a gentle warm-up to cover the first 10km to Tricastela, I stopped at around 9:30 to grab a coffee and catch the end of the early morning F1 race beamed in from China. Outside the bar I saw the ominous sign of Snow ploughs and gritting trucks re-loading and preparing to clear the road ahead. I added my photos to Facebook and immediately got responses from friends and family comiserating with me on the state of the weather, and sharing anecdotes about their cosy Sunday mornings.

Snow ploughs

The official Camino route from Tricastela to O Cebreiro would take me along rocky, muddy footpaths snaking up either side of the main mountain road. In the rain I decided to stick to the road and ascend the 1000m climb on tarmac.

5km at 7%

The route until now had been rolling up and down, with plenty of climbing, but no serious prolongued ascent against which to test myself. I fought my way up 7% inclines and around switchbacks, grinding my way up the hill at 7 kmh. As I gained altitude the rain became colder and the clouds heavier, flecks of white sleet interspersed in the contant drizzle. Every few minutes I would take a break to briefly reduce the wind-chill, take on calories, and receive the good wishes and comiserations of friends and family on Facebook. I plugged my headphones in, selected a playlist and pushed on uphill, keen to make the summit before lunchtime. The heavy cloud above me turned into a mist hanging in the valley. The sleety rain rain began to thicken into a more consistent snow. The slush that had been coating the road signs began to turn white as the snow was settling. I heard a constant stream of pings in my headphones notifying me of updates to my facebook page. I could have felt so cold and alone on that mist-shrouded hillside, but the regular pings and notifcations interrupting The Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin reminded me that I had a support crew back home and out in cyberspace.

Once I got above 900m, the snow covered landscape began to feel more magical, the layer of snow deadened the sound. I also knew that I was nearing my goal for the day. The effort of cycling was keeping most of me warm, and the cape kept the worst of the cold wind off me. My ony real discomfort were my feet. Cycling shoes have metal cleats on the bottom that connect to the pedals, these cleats are adjustable and are secured in place by bolts and plates inside the shoe. My point being, cycling shoes are not water-tight. If you get off your bike when the ground is wet, water will seep into your shoes.

Ice-cold water was soaking my feet.

So I was relieved to feel the hill level out as I approached the summit.

Alto do Poio

I headed into a bar at the summit, ordered a beer and a hearty lunch before attempting to thaw myself out.

socks and sandles by the fire

Lunchtime merged into early afternoon, feeling returned to my toes and my cold wet shoes turned warm and dry. it was time to move on. I only had another 9 or 10km to go, most of which would be a gentle downhill.

I arrived into O Cebreiro around 5 PM, a beautiful stone village that was over-run by local day-trippers. Every verge was loaded with parked cars, kids were playing in the snow, and every bar and restaurant was full of loud family groups enjoying the “sobremesa”. I went from bar to bar looking for a place to stay each one warmer and more welcoming than the last, but each one frustratingly unable to offer a room. The Albergues were all full. Eventually I managed to find a B&B with a room available. I unpacked my heavy wet panniers, turned up the heating and draped every bit of kit over every radiator and hot water pipe in the room before heading into a warm shower.

Once I was warm and clean, I looked out of my B&B window to see that the snow storm had stopped and the mist had cleared.

O Cebreiro

I was exhausted from the days climb, and attempts to keep warm. Despite having progressed a mere 36km I felt a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Onimac Day 3: Sat 14th April: Vendas del Narón – Samos: 53km

Dropping down from the altitud of Vendas del Narón through wind and spitting rain towards the reservoired crossing of the Rio Miño at Portomarin was a cold affair, cruising past the hump-backed pilgrims protected by their plastic rain capes as they hiked towards me.

Entering the village square of Portomarin, looking for breakfast, the squalling windy rain gave way to another full-on torrential downpour. I took refuge under a galleried walkway and secured the bike before heading into the bar for toast and coffee. I comiserated about the weather with a fellow cyclist. When he heard I had come from Santiago he asked my advice, He had a flight home Sunday morning and so needed to get to Santiago that same day. Should he average a better speed and cycle 120km on tarmac or attempt the 80km off-road route? It felt like a terrible choice to have to make, He had cycled 700km from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and was missing out on some great riding though stunning countryside, but his options were running out. That countryside was pretty steep & rolling, it had taken me a disappointing 2 days to get this far, and he only had another 10 hours of daylight. Taking the road would also give him the easier access to bailing out and calling a taxi if necessary. Having said that, after 700km he was tour-fit, and by sticking to the albergue-laden Camino Francés his bike was unencumbered by camping kit. At the time, I think advised the conservative approach, now that I write it out I hope that he ignored me and completed his Camino.

I left the bar, with the rain settling into a steady rhythm, I dug out from my pannier the pilgrim’s cape donated to me by a great friend and cycling companion, Cesar, bid good luck & Buen Camino to my breakfast companion and headed owards through the rain.

I noticed little of the route, focussing instead on trying to make progress and keep dry. The cape was very effective against the worst of the rain. It may not be the most aerodymic approach as a cyclist, but it is very effective means of keeping dry. The more aerodynamic and “technical” jackets tend to soak you with condensation from the inside, while the constant airflow around the cape kept me surprisingly dry, coupled with my Tilley hat to prevent rain dripping into my eyes.

There came a point however, mid afternoon, my extremities were numb, and I needed spend half an hour out of the rain to dry out, warm up and lift my spirits. Unfortunately I seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. So I found a bus shelter and brewed a pot of tea.

Time for tea

And then pushed onto Samos. Where I shared an Albergue dormitorio with a grumpy belgian whose only interaction with the world was “il fait froid.”

He was not wrong.

Onimac Day 1: Thu 12th April: Santiago de Compostela to Saceda: 35km

Over-packed?

I probably over-did the bike packaging. In reality I could have reversed the pedals, bungee’d the front wheel to the frame and the driver would probably have let me on just the same.

Assembled in Santiago Bus Station

By 08:00 I had re-assembled my bike, loaded up the panniers and was heading out on my Onimac.

I took a quick ride around the old town of Santiago, found the cathederal and Plaza del Obradoiro, but felt out of place, for most of the tourists, this had been the objective of gruelling weeks of hiking, the “Pilgrimage of a Lifetime”.

I was keen to get a pilgrimmage card that would enable me to stay in the Albergues, I also needed a guide book to help with the route and to hit the road.

The Compostela office is where the pilgrim presents their compostela card with stamps from each albergue and point of interest along their route to show that they have completed their pilgrimage. Their name will be entered into a register and they will awarded some kind of celestial Nectar points Nectar points to be cashed in at a later date. I went to the office to ask for a blank card so as to take advantage of the network of Albergues as I headed away from Santiago. They looked at me blankly, seemingly unable to coprehend that anyone would want to do the Camino de Santiago back to front.

“I have come by bus and I am going to cycle home”, I explained.

“So we cannot give you a compostela, you cannot do the Camino Santiago”, they replied.

“well, I can, it´ll just back to front. I just wanted a Compostela card to collect the stamps and remember my journey.”

They looked back at me blanky. So I gave up on them and decided to head out of the city and find my way to Monte do Gozo to pick up the route.

I managed to get lost in the suburbs of Santiago just as a storm hit but stumbled upon a campsite where I was able to change into cycling gear and get a beer and a bite to eat while waiting for the worst of a downpour to pass over.

The camino route is marked by yellow arrows and scallop shell signs pointing towards Santiago. Once clear of the city, I got into my rhythm and felt the freedom of the road fill my spirits. Every couple of hundred metres, I would meet a pilgrim heading the “correct” way along the path and we would each holler “Buen Camino” in encouragement. Many were hobbling quite badly as they fought with blisters and over-stuffed rucksacks. The pilgrims were so thick on the ground that Iif i cycled more than a couple of minutes without seeing one appear, I was sure that I had missed a yellow arrow and would need to retrace my steps to the last junction and wait no more than a minute or two for the next cagoule-clad pilgrim to confirm the correct route.

Out of the City

Still somewhat unsure of the availability and protocol for obtaining a bed for the night, I decided to take advantage of one of the many albergues advertised on the path. I stopped a little earlier than planned but nevertheless I was ready to relax, having slept intermittently on the bus and then having been on the go since alighting in the Bus Station at 08:00, I was somewhat disappointed to feel so tired yet to see only 35km of progress.

Posada de Saceda

I consoled myself with a warm shower and a cold beer, followed by a hearty meal served at the comunal dining table shared with the 6 other pilgrims, some of whom were spending their last night on the trail before a long push into Santiago the next day.

Welcome to Güirísimo

Why try and define something that is already well described by Wikipedia:

Güiri is a colloquial Spanish name used in Spain applied to foreigners"

And wiktionary

“Added to adjectives to form the absolute superlative.”

I am a by my nature, my appearance and by my decision to live as an immigrant to Spain, a guiri. From my pale skin and lanky limbs to my propensity to sweat I am a guiri.

Unlike the archetypal guiri, who clings to Spain’s coastal enclaves and keeps Spanish culture at arm´s length, I am bilingual, integrated into Spanish society, and live in a non-descript village on the plains of Castille, within commuting distance of Madrid.

This is a place to tell my story, to vent my frustrations and to share those explorations.