Wednesday 19 October 2005
Back from Jordan late last night and off early (7.04am train from Blackwater) this morning. This is my tightest turnaround and I make the connections at Reading, Paddington and Liverpool Street with time to spare. On arrival at Stanstead Airport at 9.45am, I meet John our guide and the small group, led by a priest I know well, who will lead us through our pilgrimage along the road to Compostela. Ryanair get us to Valladolid in good time. Nothing planned for the rest of the day which suits me as I’m still tired from my return from Jordan. I’m awake enough for dinner: minestrone soup, veal with mixed vegetables and chips, fresh pineapple.

Thursday 20 October 2005
Breakfast is an important part of these tours, so I’m pleased that the Corona de Castille in Borgos does not let us down. Many tours are bed and breakfast or half board. Either way, a good breakfast means you won’t have to spend out on lunch. Except in the United States where breakfast can be had for a dollar or two in big chain restaurants, I would never book a hotel without an inclusive breakfast.

Gloria, who will show us the delights of Borgos, meets us in the lobby. She’s fast-talking, humorous, heavily-accented and full of asides. We walk around the town for a while and head off to the Cathedral. Being a major stop on the pilgrimage route, it has plenty to offer. At one end there’s a curious clock with a gaped-mouth man who strikes the hours. The artwork encompasses many centuries of paintings, carvings, statues and precious plate. We celebrated mass in the Thomas Becket chapel before visiting the small but well-stocked souvenir shop. I made a second and solo visit to the cathedral including the cloisters. One jarring note: there’s a constant tinkle of secular muzak coming from loudspeakers in the cathedral. It’s not very loud, just always there. I can’t believe anyone thought this would be a good idea.

Borgos Cathedral

The afternoon takes us to the Monasterio de Las Huelgas, an active nunnery. The church has five naves and is fascinating with especially beautiful altars and woodwork. Dinner at the hotel was soup, asparagus, fish and peaches.

Friday 21 October 2005
We were required for breakfast at 8am – not a problem for me, being an early riser – but as we were not leaving until 10.30am there was no real urgency. An earlier start might have been a good idea, given the coach driver took a wrong turn on the way to Fromista and we lost time. St Martin’s church in Fromista was still open and we took a tour round this gem of a Romanesque building (1066) with its simple dignity and bare beauty. Our lunch stop at Sahagin offers many choices at €7 and €9 but I prefer just water and wander around this tumbledown town. We arrive at Leon two and a half hours early (!) and check into the hotel Quindos where I have a small single room. We gather to take a walk to the nearby church at the Parador and the streets around the Cathedral which shuts at 7pm. We take a drink in a local bar close to the cathedral square – a successful way to fill in some of the otherwise ‘dead’ time until dinner at 9pm. The Spaniards eat late – and 9pm for them would be a little early. For us, though, 9pm is desperately late, especially if, like me, lunch is rarely taken on these trips. When it comes, it’s very good: cold meats, steak and chips and one pimento, followed by baked Alaska. Some vegetables would have been welcome, though. Wine and water was included. John O’Neill, our Irish guide, is very knowledgeable and tells us of the many things we could do while we’re here. Needless to say, the programme won’t allow them to be included.

Saturday 22 October 2007
After a simple continental breakfast we meet Camina, our local guide, and head for the Cathedral. Leon Cathedral is an impressive building with a great deal to see and Camina is an excellent guide. We have mass in the Sacrament Chapel. Although I appreciate the opportunity to worship in these historic places, I have misgivings about Anglican priests passing themselves off as (Roman) Catholics, especially when, as during the course of this week, the Sacrament from the Tabernacle is used by us for our communion. Perhaps a greater openness would mean that we could not have our mass but at least there would be an integrity about the situation. There are, after all, other forms of worship.

This afternoon was free – until 9pm! There was not enough content in today’s programme. In fact, we could have spent a half day in Leon and travelled on to stay elsewhere for the night. Or we could have visited elsewhere in the area. Worse still, no mass is scheduled for tomorrow, Sunday. This is bad planning. There was an anticipatory mass at S. Marco, it turned out, and some attended. The message did not filter through to the whole party, though, and several of us were left out. I gain the impression that my priest friend has problems organising a party on tour. He does not communicate changes properly and lays the blame on those who are not told. Further, he does not mix with the group members evenly, very obviously preferring the company of some to others. And when there is the opportunity to make an alteration to the timetable, a later breakfast, for example, to match a later departure, he doggedly sticks to the printed programme as if it were holy writ. Dinner (soup, fish and custard) is fine.

Sunday 23 October 2005
We’ve a long journey today so we’re hoping there will be plenty of interesting places to see along the way. At 10.45 we arrive in Astorga to see Gaudi’s palace for the bishop and the nearby cathedral. A good stop. The countryside between here and Villafranca is attractive. Autumn tints have delighted us all the way but now they are joined by rolling hills. One feature of our coach is its on-board live video feed allowing us all to ‘see’ out of the front window. It’s a little like a Grand Prix arcade game, without the ability to control what goes on on the screen.

The Public Gardens at Villafranca

Villafranca is a delightful town with a lovely public garden. Our lunch is taken in a monastery restaurant. The setting is a touch austere but the food excellent. A scrambled omelette with potatoes, peppers and tomatoes was followed by two pork chops with salad. Rice pudding to finish. Had we paid for the lunch (it was included in the programme) it would have set us back €15. With water and wine included, it was snip. We took the opportunity after lunch to take a brief walk uphill to the little church of St James with its door for penitents. The road to Compostela becomes even more demanding from this point onwards, so a special dispensation is offered to those who have got this far but who can go no further. They are reckoned to have completed the pilgrimage and receive all the associated spiritual blessings. Having escaped the coach, we insist on a little time with our feet on the pilgrims’ route. It may only be a few yards but it’s what we’ve come for. A better-planned programme would have allowed us an hour or so walking (at choice, of course) on the road at some point. The road to Compostela entirely by coach really isn’t the same.

Ironically, for a moment it seems we might have rather more walking to do after all. The coach is refusing to start; but it sparks into life and off to Lugo we go! This is a good visit. The cathedral has a beautiful silver reredos at the high altar. As it’s Sunday, there’s a decent number at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. The area around the cathedral is on the desolate side but the square behind is vibrant with cafés and restaurants. We return to the coach and complete our journey to our hotel in Compostela.

Monday 24 October 2005
As the local guide took us round the environs of St James’s Cathedral, she remarked that Spain, along with Italy, is at the foot of the European league for fecundity. This is a cause of considerable concern as an ageing population will have to be supported by the work and earnings of a decreasing pool of younger citizens. Another fact disclosed was that 70% of university students in Spain were now female. This was thought to be a good thing – but I couldn’t help wondering if these situations were connected. Better-educated people is always a good thing, surely, but only women can bear children and if more women occupy well-paid positions during their child-bearing years and choose work over a marriage and a family, they won’t be having children. One hardly dare say it, but perhaps we are beginning to reap the dubious fruits of the feminist revolution and it may be time to redress the balance. After all, it’s hard, even for political correctness, to buck the demands of nature.

Back to the tour. The visit to the cathedral was very thorough and I doubt there was a nook or detail that was overlooked. Again, we were privileged to celebrate mass. We filed past the statue of St James, gave him the requisite hug, even though we were pilgrims only in name, and prayed at his tomb. Word came round that the bulfumero, or large thurible for which this church is famous, would be operated after the 12 noon mass. We gathered at 12.20pm but as the mass was sung, it was not until 1pm that the action started. At least it meant we had seats. The thurible at rest had looked disappointingly average. In action, however, it’s all that’s promised. Eight men operate it, raising it quickly to ceiling height, sparking and fuming all the while. The sight is awesome, almost unearthly. We were assured the whole process was perfectly safe (in spite of the tale, surely apocryphal, that some centuries ago the rope had come adrift mid-flight and the whole thing has punched its way through the south door).

Copostela: the Thurible in action

The organist cranked up the atmosphere with a crescendo of rising chords and every neck was craned to track the thurible’s transit. For once we had been at the right place at the right time. The cost of this display had been paid for by the group at mass, a Spanish diocesan pilgrimage party, we heard. The 2005 price was €240, not a great deal between those present.

Dismissed for the rest of the day (another period of blank time!), I took my own walking tour of the town, seeing parks, old roads, closed monasteries and the university campus. I found my way back to the hotel for a short rest and then out for a sortie round the old city, where there was quite a lot to see, then bought a few items for the family from a small jewellers. Tonight’s dinner at the hotel was the worst meal for a long time: the soup was absolutely fine but the fish rings were at best indifferent and the cake that followed solid.

Thursday 25 October 2005
True to form, today is a free day. That’s to say nothing has been arranged. There had been the prospect of an optional tour to Finisterre (the end of the earth), the most westerly point in mainland Spain. However, John, our guide, who had been there before, decided that it was not worth the effort – in my mind a mistake. You cannot leave a whole day free at the end of a tour and make no provision for people. Finisterre might not be worth visiting twice, but we hadn’t been there before and I, for one, would have appreciated seeing this Spanish Land’s End. It was not to be. Frustrated, I take myself off to the local railway station and having practised my Spanish for ten minutes or so buy a return to A Coruna leaving at 11.15am and returning at 3.20pm. It costs only €6.20.

It’s a slow train and offers a good view of the local terrain. Some is similar to England, but here and there it's reminiscent of Wales, even Scotland. In one field I’m fascinated to see an elderly woman in a white bob hat picking cabbages. Much of the line is single track but an upgrage is promised soon.

On arrival at Coruna, I take a roundabout walk to the Atlantic Ocean, dodging the traffic in this busy town. The day is overcast but dry and promises to brighten.

The Bay at Coruna

The broad bay is ringed with a bank of sand, surely human intervention – for protection or replacement? – it’s not unattractive but would come to life in the summer with bathers and children playing. There was one brave soul in the water, a woman just coming out. A small group of other women came down with their shopping and left their purchases on the sand whilst they paddled together in a little gaggle. I sat watching the world for a while before taking a stroll along the front. The promenade has been newly refurbished with palms, shrubs and a little tramway that runs fro two or three miles along the beachfront. A long circuitous route took me to a large square with an imposing public building, which I took to be the local Galician parliament – completely anonymous, though bedecked with a variety of flags – and the meat market. I made it back to the station in good time and savoured the return leg of this solo venture. At dinner, I made the others jealous with my tale of a dry day at the seaside. They had rain all day in town.

Friday 26 October 2005
We have a whole morning to ourselves. It is called ‘at leisure’ on the itinerary but after yesterday’s day ‘at leisure’ it’s really just a bore. We’re out of our rooms after breakfast and have to hang around in the hotel lobby until the coach comes to pick us up at what would be lunchtime. To add insult to injury, the coach is late and John has to phone to see what’s gone wrong. Nothing serious – we’ve just been forgotten! Or perhaps some additional time ‘at leisure’ was thought to be a good idea. We reach the airport in good time, though, and arrive back in the UK after an indifferent tour. I’m pleased only to have paid half price for the week. At full price it would have been poor value with an itinerary seriously underpowered.