Final preparation for the Camino

The sky purpled darkly as we set off up the hill, packs loaded as though for the journey — plus a bit. The hard part now, is not the packs, but the mind. We have trained physically, walking and increasing distance steadily, the next part was to get used to the packs, then walking with fully loaded packs.

But now, as we prepare to package the packs for the flight, the heavy part is the mind. The long-range weather forecasts are not good, and already the forthcoming French rail strike has changed our mode of travel from train to bus. And to cap it all off, much of Spain and the Pyrenees is still under snow.

But to paraphrase the novel Dune, fear is the mind killer. There is a Camino saying that the weight of your pack is the sum of your fears. It is easy to overthink and try to prepare for every eventuality. This only results in an overloaded pack. It is time to get back to basics — It is time to travel mindfully.

Our basic physical needs are simple: 2 changes of tops, 1 fleecy, 1 pair of trekking pants (the other is to wear), a lightweight Goretex jacket for the wind and rain, and rain pants in case it gets really stormy. 3 pairs of undies (one to wear), 3 pairs of socks (1 to wear) and the same with sock liners. A lightweight sleeping bag a few toiletries and your choice of tech – I recommend at least a phone – for emergencies or to make a booking ahead or to communicate with family. It can double as your camera too.

It is better to pack a bit light and then add along the way if you really need something. For most normal medical requirements there are chemists/farmacia in most towns, and the larger centres will be able to supply any gear shortfalls – including backpacks, poles, fleecies etc. Even the hamlets often have vending machines with blister care and pain relief products, so for these kinds of things, just carry enough for a day or two, and buy more as and when you need them.

But the main thing to pack is your mindful appreciation for those who have gone before and for those who walk with us on our journey, both inner and outer. I call this packing a lighter mind – leave anxieties, judgemental attitudes and enmities behind, and find the world as you encounter it.

Everyone walks their own Camino, and remember, real pilgrims don’t judge other pilgrims. The only requirement of a real pilgrim is to be registered and to walk the last 100kms. The rest is entirely up to you -Buen Camino! 🙂

Hands-free trekking umbrella

What the…?

This post is my solution to using an umbrella hands-free. Sometimes when hiking, or walking with trekking poles, it can be useful to use an umbrella. Now, before I get shouted down by the ultra-lightweight hikers, it is, of course, a personal choice. The problem with an umbrella –aside from weight – is that it requires a means of support, usually a hand, but this is incompatible with using trekking poles, or indeed dealing with using a camera, a phone, or just about anything else.

 

umbrella mount

 

Why use a trekking umbrella?

So why use one at all? Walking the Camino in 2016, I found I was walking sometimes in warm weather, sometimes in rain. In terms of heat, I was walking West in the mornings, and hence the sun was almost always at my back. Despite a hat, and the shade of the backpack, I found I was getting a sunburnt neck, and there were times when it would just have been nice to have a shady tree to walk under. There are not many of those on the rolling plains of the Meseta in Spain, so some form of shade is a good idea. It was too hot for a hood, and it was nice just to be able to take advantage of whatever light breeze might be available.

I did carry a lightweight umbrella last time, but had no way of attaching it to my pack, so it was always a choice between using the poles or using the umbrella – so it got very little use.

As I prepare for my next Camino, I thought I’d sort this issue – and researched hands-free umbrellas for trekking. I wound up buying the ‘Dainty’ model of the Euroschirm trekking umbrella [this is not an affiliate link, and my opinions are my honest response] – it was the lightest one (195g/7oz) that folded down to the smallest package. And it was reflective silver, and UV treated so it can be used equally as a sunshade or against the rain.

Alas, it didn’t have any mounting system, so it was time to devise my own.

How to attach it

My backpack has two loops on each of the front straps – designed to run the hydration tube down either side. The umbrella did not have a loop of any kind, so I drilled a small hole in the plastic handle to take a keyring ring from a $2 shop and threaded the keyring loop through so it was permanently on the umbrella. I then bought a set of four velcro cable ties – called ‘One-wrap’ from Officeworks – $7.30 (NOTE: this is also not an affiliate link – just there to show what I used). The reason I chose these is that they can thread back through themselves, so I could attach it to the backpack loops making them always available for attaching the umbrella. The free end of the velcro is then wound around the umbrella and attached to itself. When you undo it, the velcro remains on the pack and the umbrella can be easily put away for another time.

I threaded one velcro loop on one pack loop and another on the other pack loop on the shoulder strap. I then used these to secure the keyring ring to the lower one and the upper one around the shaft of the umbrella. This gives a secure hands-free mount which can be used on either strap depending on which side the sun is shining. It works like this:

umbrella mount

This system will work with any manual or automatic umbrella and does not require any specialist fasteners (or a specialised umbrella).

Conclusion

The result is I can have my own personal shady tree equivalent regardless of the presence of any shade. And the umbrella has the added bonus of keeping the rain off the top of the backpack too, so is suitable for light rain. Does it work? I took a daypack with me sketching on a clear mid-summer day in Australia with a temperature approaching 40C/104F and deliberately sat out in the full sun while I sketched for an hour and a half. The umbrella performed brilliantly and kept me cool enough to focus on my sketching, rather than on the way the bitumen was melting. With the UV protection and the silver reflective covering, it was like sitting under a shady tree. It felt several degrees cooler than the ambient temperature. From this test, I have decided the umbrella is well worth its 190g/7oz weight and will be coming with me on my next Camino.

Just a small aspect of my Camino preparations for our 2018 walk across Spain.

________________________________________
Why not have these posts delivered to your in-box? Just enter your email address and click the ‘subscribe’ button in the left margin, and don’t forget to respond to the confirmation email in your in-box 🙂 And of course ‘like’, share and subscribe using the buttons below!
________________________________________



Bridges across the Camino and across the world

Bridges. We cross them routinely, often barely noticing they are there. Yet without them, we would have to take long and circuitous detours or make dangerous crossings. So I like to pause sometimes and reflect on the bridge builders, whether physical or metaphorical, and nod my thanks to them for making my journey easier and safer.

Many kinds of bridges

In my working life, I would, at least once a year, board a plane and fly across the globe to talk face-to-face with my counterparts in other countries. And each time I was asked, why not just do a video conference with them? Why do I have to meet them face-to-face? My answer had variations on a theme. And that theme was about building firm relationships between the people of that country and our own. It was only partly about the exchange of formal information, but it was far more about building trust. And that trust was built by sharing a meal, having a joke, by spending informal time with them. And in that process, walking a little in their shoes, and they in mine.

In many ways, the aircraft formed a bridge between our cultures, just as surely as if I had walked across a physical bridge from one side of a river to the other, as pilgrims have done on the Camino for a thousand years. As you enter Santiago de Compostela, you will see inscribed in brass letters the phrase “Europe was built on the pilgrim road to Santiago.” Similarly, I have written elsewhere about the painter Van Gogh and the way he built his own bridge to the print-makers of Japan – notably Hiroshige. The influence of those Japanese prints transformed how painters like Van Gogh saw the world, by literally gaining a new perspective.

Van Gogh’s bridges

I built my own bridge to Van Gogh’s work by seeing the bridges that inspired him in Arles (also a starting point for one of the Camino routes) – the railway bridge near the Yellow House, and the Langlois Bridge across the canal, as well as the Edo Bridge in Tokyo, through seeing the replica in the Edo-Tokyo Museum which inspired Hiroshige, and then Van Gogh.

pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Why are bridges special?

Bridges are special places, whether a few flat stones used to cross a stream, perhaps placed in Neolithic times, or stone spans built by Roman engineers 2000 years ago, or by later medieval builders, and modern freeway spans and great suspension bridges. They are special because they help us cross over. They help us cross safely from here to there over an abyss or a raging torrent, across an absence of firm ground.

Bridges are a place between places, and once you step onto a bridge, you too, are, for that moment, in between. Once you step onto that bridge, you have left your safe homeland, and you are already on that journey to the next place, to another culture, or another town or village. Bridges enable you to do this despite the storm or the deep water, or the treacherous ford.

Where walls enclose “us” from “them”, bridges make more people into “us”. The idea of Europe was made possible because a very significant number of people had for a thousand years crossed national borders and walked as global citizens, until there was enough inter-mixing of cultures to enable Europeans to imagine an “us” that stretched beyond mere national boundaries. Recently those ideas have come to be challenged, with some talking of building walls, and others retreating behind a moat. So it was significant that Pope Francis re-emphasised that it is better to build bridges than walls. What he was saying is that it is better for people to be connected and to build understanding with each other, than to retreat into a narrow, nationalistic view of society. And the evidence of this lies on the pilgrim road to Santiago. So important were bridges to the Romans and early Christians that the Pope even holds a special title: ‘The Great Bridge Builder’ – Pontifex Maximus – or Pontiff for short.

Bridges on the Camino Frances

For medieval pilgrims en route to Santiago in Spain, the journey was long and difficult – even more so than it is today. There were regular toll collectors, who often charged extortionate rates – even though they were only supposed to charge merchants. There were many rivers to cross, either by treacherous fords, by ferries, or on half-maintained Roman bridges. And at times there were bands of thieves lying in wait at the crossing points for unwary and road-weary travellers.

Puenta la Reina

Puenta la Reina

The town is named after the so-called ‘Queen’s Bridge’ – Puenta la Reina. It was originally commissioned by Queen Dona Mayor, wife of Sancho III in the late C11th, as pilgrims had long complained that the river crossing was dangerous at the best of times, and impassable at worst.

 

Puenta la Reina

Here at the confluence of the French Way and the Arragonne Way, Pilgrims had also suffered from bands of robbers. When it was built, the bridge had three defensive towers, one of which featured the Renaissance image of the Virgin of Puy, or Txori (meaning ‘bird’ in the Basque language), which is kept in the parish church of St. Peter.

According to the Navarra tourist guide page, there is a story:

“…that a bird used to visit the image every day, removing the cobwebs with its wings and washing the Virgin’s face with its beak after collecting water from the river Arga.”

This is one of the best maintained of the finest medieval bridges in Spain. And it remains in use to this day – though just for pedestrian traffic. One of the remaining defensive towers can be seen at the town end of the bridge.

Roman bridge

Roman bridge

Not far out of Puenta la Reina there is a small Roman bridge, still in use today, albeit that it is in poor condition and is approached down a steep and rocky path suitable only for foot traffic.

Burgos

Burgos

At the entrance to the city of Burgos, lies the Puenta de Santa Maria which dates back to the C14th. You can still see the impressive Arco de Santa Maria or St Mary’s Arch – a defensive structure forming one of the original gates of the city, and part of the original city wall. This city marks the start of Stage VI of the Codex Calixtinus – the medieval codex on which the UNESCO world heritage route of the Camino Frances was based.

Bridge of Arre de Trinidad

Bridge of Arre de Trinidad

The medieval bridge over the Rio Ulzama (a tributary of the River Arga) leads to possibly the oldest continuously operating albergue – part of the medieval monastery and hospice of the Basilica de la Sanctisima Trinidad de Arre. The hamlet has been a strategic crossing point for the river since Roman times and the place is rich in history.

Puenta de Orbigo

Puente de Orbigo

Puenta de Orbigo is one of the longest medieval bridges in Spain, built in the C13th and crossing the floodplain of the Rio Orbigo. The bridge is built on the foundations of an earlier Roman bridge. The town on the far side is called Hospital de Orbigo. – the latter named after the Knights Hospitaller of St John who built a pilgrim’s hospital there. The long causeway leading onto the bridge is known as the Paso Honroso or ‘path of honour’ named for a jousting tournament that took place there in 1434. The story behind it is in the classic Romance chivalry tradition:

“In the Holy Year of 1434 a knight from Leon, Don Suero de Quiñones, scorned by a beautiful woman, threw down the gauntlet to any knight who dared to pass as he undertook to defend the bridge against all comers. Knights came from all over Europe to take up the challenge. Don Suero successfully defended the bridge for a month until the required 300 lances had been broken, and his honour restored. Whereupon he proceeded to Santiago to give thanks for his freedom from the bonds of love.” – Brierley’s Guide

This story may have been part of the inspiration behind Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nonetheless, this bridge and its Roman predecessor formed part of the cattle route to the coast, facilitating trade and commerce along the route.

Santo Domingo – the Bridge Builder

Santo Domingo de la Calzada, (1020-1109  – Saint Dominic of the Roads – is said to have built one of the first stone bridges across the River Oja around 1044. He was known more as a civil engineer than as the monk to which he aspired, but his efforts in clearing forests and draining swamps as well as constructing bridges and roads on behalf of the pilgrims earned him his place in the pantheon. He, together with his contemporaries, St Gregorio Ostiense and San Juan de Ortega formed one of the first teams of engineers of roads and bridges. The story goes that they met together in Logroño around 1040 and decided to devote themselves to improving the path through La Rioja and Navarra for the pilgrims travelling to Santiago between La Calzada and Logroño.

By clearing the undergrowth there were fewer hiding places for thieves, the road would enable them to cross the swamp more easily, and the bridge across the River Oja completed the work. While there are historical records for the existence of Santo Domingo and San Juan de Ortega, there is little evidence that St Gregorio Ostiense actually existed – he appears to have been a convenient, if somewhat legendary, figure, to make the team a holy trinity.

Whatever the truth, there is little doubt that the efforts to upgrade the infrastructure in the C11th meant a safer passage for the pilgrims at a time when Sancho III was seeking to push the Moors further south and ultimately out of the Kingdom of Spain.

Sarria bridge

And with safer passage came pilgrims in their thousands, many settling along the road and establishing French towns (known as villafranca). And to service the growing number of pilgrims, larger churches and cathedrals were built – with particularly notable constructions of Burgos and Leon cathedrals – both masterful examples of French Gothic style. And in the process, they brought an exchange of ideas that transcended national boundaries, just as Van Gogh brought a Japanese aesthetic to Europe through a painting of a bridge, and in turn my own pilgrimage to Van Gogh’s places and to Santiago built a bridge between our modern world reaching back into the distant past.

 

________________________________________
Why not have these posts delivered to your in-box? Just enter your email address and click the ‘subscribe’ button in the left margin, and don’t forget to respond to the confirmation email in your in-box 🙂
________________________________________