A journey's end is its true beginning...
The Camiño of St James has been done - but to truly get to know this beautiful part of Galicia we take a step away from the beaten tracks and go a little further - this is our story about the wonders of the beautiful coastline of the Rìa de Muros y Noia, where our holiday homes reside.
I sat before a blazing fire and watched my hiking boots bellow black smoke into the brilliant orange sky. The sun was setting on my journey. I had trod a full 1233km across Spain, from Barcelona on the east coast to the furthest point west, Fisterra. "The end of the earth"
The boot-burning was symbolic, the idea of Juan, my friend, with whom I had completed the last 100kms from Santiago de Compostela. We sipped beers, clinking bottles chilled in the Atlantic, while the fire warmed our feet. All I had to wear, now, were a virgin pair of flip-flops I had picked up in Pamplona. Tomorrow I would head for the beach and christen those flip-flops.
As we drained our bottles and stared into the glowing belly of the fire, my mind wound backwards through my trip. I shared stories with Juan about the people I had met. I remembered Jean-Pierre and Antoinette who had travelled from Paris to Santiago seeking respite from stressful professional lives and the spark that would rekindle their love.Back in Paris would they try for the child it was so obvious they both ached for?
I recalled Christiano, a resolute Italian who had travelled from Turin after the parting of his beloved wife. Did he make it to the tomb of St James? Would his grief dissipate?
I had heard the narratives of many lives on the road to Santiago and encountered an eclectic mix of ages, nationalities and personalities. There was no doubt I had been enriched by the experience and found a new perspective, but there had been no flash of euphoric inspiration or defining moment. I felt wiser, blessed but intrinsically the same.
As the embers petered out and with them the conversation, I found myself drifting into thought. What was my story? What would I do now?
I awoke to the noise of Juan packing his sleeping bag and collecting the empty beer bottles, there was a cold morning chill in the air and the fresh natter of excited pilgrims who had made it to the end of the world. My thoughts danced back to last nights slumber. What now? I glanced at the ashes of my hiking boots and then to my once again cold toes. I hadn’t had a euphoric moment of inspiration in my entire month, plenty of pleasant memories, sure. But there had been no real defining moment of elation or indeed rewarding penance. I still felt the same, wiser perhaps, but intrinsically the same.
Juan was going home but I did not feel ready to. I had no job to return to, no one waiting for me and no desire to head back to the world I already knew. Galicia had stimulated my senses and I had an overwhelming urge to feel the sand beneath my toes and continue - in my flip-flops - to walk a little further.
The sun was warming up the day nicely and I craved a day on the beach. On the walk up to Fisterra, Juan and I had noted the beautiful view of Praya de Langosteira; it could be no more than 5kms away. I thought this would be a good place to gather my thoughts and work out my future.
Juan understood. When we parted, grinning, he said a single word: "Carnota." What? - Was my unguarded reply. - "If you really want a fantastic beach go to Carnota!"
And that was it. I was alone once more, though come to think of it as I plodded down the hill to Langosteira, I hadn’t actually been alone for any great length of time during my entire walk.
An afternoon in Fisterra
At the small town of Fisterra I found a café and stopped to sip a mind-awakening coffee and munch the richest cream-filled croissant I had ever encountered. A local fisherman was mending his nets, toddlers played nakedly in the sands, teenagers embarked unsteadily on a small fishing boat and two youths played - do or dare. They both did, diving into the clear blue sea from the end of the pier.
Langosteira didn’t disappoint, a shallow white-sanded beach stretched out in a gentle curve, protected by mini sand dunes and occupied solely by the locals. Unleashing my flip-flops with a celebratory flick of my feet, unshackling my rucksack and dumping it in the sand, I admired the shallow waters of the Atlantic, and made a dash for some instant refreshment, much to the surprise of the natives. Doing my best impression of a skipping antelope, I ran through shallow waters until I reached a depth where I could run no more and dived headlong into the crystal waters. Adrenalin surged through my blood.
I spent the afternoon enjoying the warmth of that wonderful star they call the sun. Stripped of my pilgrim’s uniform and bathing in my underwear, I felt liberated, free from the checkpoints, goals and kilometers per day that had defined the last month. Now it was just myself, the coastline and freedom of choice to go wherever my flip-flops would take me. That night, I slept so soundly, a deep, deep sleep of contentment, my skin and mind glowing from my seaside experience. I wanted more. My mind drifted to the place Juan mentioned: Carnota
Ezaro and the mountains
So I walked. Two days later I passed through Corcubión, a pretty fishing village and Cee, a busy parochial town not without its own charms, but spoilt by an enormous soot-spouting factory. My route took me upwards over steep mountain trails; on high ground, trapped by a typically sudden change of mood in the Galician sky, I was lashed by great swathes of Atlantic rain and slithered ridiculously in my flip flops over a muddy trail to an abandoned stable building where I slept, huddled in my sleeping bag and beanie hat, until I was nuzzled awake. There, snorting sociably, the steam of their breath rising through the cool morning air, were a dozen wild horses.
Onwards and upwards I thought. Surely I couldn’t be too far from Carnota? I passed through the mountain town of Peneda, as the cockerels crowed, dogs barked and locals waved. I found myself a more manageable trail, leading to a twisting, descending road which took me past a huge dam flanked by picnic tables and at one I sat, captivated by the play of light sparkling through the clouds and dancing on the stunning view below.
I spent that afternoon in the small village of Ezaro, an idyllic coastal abode pitched perfectly against the grand backdrop of the dam and harbouring a quaint white-sanded beach and shallow watered bay. The next day, plodding along the coastal road with mirages shimmering on the tarmac in the heat, dehydrated, my eyes blurry, I spotted a sign for the Boca do Rio where cars were turning in. Anticipating a cool river from where I could bath my weary feet, I too made the turn, but there was no instant pleasure of finding water. The road ahead, which stretched past a little football stadium, appeared endless; cars seemed to simply disappear through the forested pine trees and into the wilderness. But I plodded on and ten minutes later rediscovered the cars, abandoned on either side of a dirt track. Ahead of me I could see the silhouetted figure of a man, stood on top of a giant boulder. As I got closer the scene became clearer, the broad mouth of the river was to the left of me, its mirror like surface glistening in the midday sun. Families camped beside it, bathing in its fresh waters as the river calmly made its way to the ocean. It was an absolute oasis, a lost paradise.
It was definitely time for a dip, I surveyed the river, spying in its middle a free flowing current making its way out to the sea and, taking my cue from showboating teenagers who lay on their backs letting the current take them out to the ocean, dove into the sun-warmed waters and emerged at its epicenter, enjoying its natural power as I navigated my way past the boulders and the watching spectators. Faster and faster it drew me in, winding its way out until the ocean and the river met with a gentle crash of waves. I surfaced, exhausted, disorientated, exhilarated and to my delight, only waist deep in water. Shaking the salt water from my frame like a rain soaked dog, I grabbed my bearings and, looking to my right I saw it. An enormous crescent shaped one, at least five kilometers long, extending further than the eye could see. I was there. I had in the most magical of ways found myself on Carnota Beach.
I had travelled widely and enjoyed the spectacular beaches of Australia, New Zealand and the Asian Islands, but this place left me breathless. Kilometres of peninsula, hugged by a comforting arm of enormous sand dunes. It was almost deserted save for a few romantic couples sheltering in the dunes and some brave souls playing in the waves. The sands continued as far as my eye could see. I sank down in wonder, mesmerised by the enormity of its presence and the gentle beat of its waves.
I spent the next three days exploring and observing Carnota. It had a variety of guises, tempered by the time and the tides. In early morning the sea retreated to reveal a vast naked beach bathing in the soft morning light. A few locals would walk its shore for their daily exercise, nodding pleasantries as lone fishermen cast rods into the shallow sea. The army of boulders seemed to stand taller at this time of day, handsome and proud, looking out to the horizon, untroubled and undisturbed. It was a peaceful place to be, set against a backdrop of gentle pastel colours and the quiet rhythm of the still sleepy sea.
As the sun rose through the sky, Carnotta’s community changed. The tide would creep forward slyly as sun worshipers and holiday-makers arrived. I watched these unfolding tableaux and passed hours reading, writing, snoozing and strolling, waiting patiently for my favourite time of the day.
In the evening, with the tide retreating, only a few of us would remain to watch the magic of the sun sinking slowly into the horizon, this great orange orb of energy gently surrendering to the night sky with a final flourish of explosive colour. I loved this moment more than any I could remember on my journey. I guess it was a contemplative time for me, a lonely yet fulfilling juncture, and part of me wanted to stay forever and just watch the world go by, watch the sunrise and set and admire the clear night skies, when every star in the galaxy appeared visible and the ocean seduced the moon. That was the romantic in me: the dreamer, the traveller and the bystander. The realist knew it was time to move on.
Discovering Monte Louro
The signpost on the AC-550 indicated Muros was 12km away and off I set, along a coastal road almost flush with the Atlantic. This was the Costa del Morte, (The Coast of Death) where jagged peninsulas, steep cliffs, strong tides and unchallengeable currents had claimed victims down the centuries. From the lighthouse at Larino I looked back upon the coast all the way to Fisterra, stretching out to the Americas. I had travelled a fair distance since my boots went up in flames but, revived by Carnotta, I felt I could finally look to my future. Passing another incredibly glorious, crescent shaped beach leading its way up to Mount Louro.
My tired feet and aching body suggested I should stay the evening there so I booked myself into an apartment and, not wanting to miss the sunset, forced myself out onto the sands once more. Giant sand dunes added shelter and protection to the beach. I climbed one of these and plopped myself down on its crown. I felt like the king of this particular sand castle.
I looked behind me and there was an amazing change in scenery, marshlands anchored a wide variety of green and brown grasses and at its centre, a lake mirrored the evening sky to perfection as birds flew overhead. Such a contrast in landscapes I had not witnessed before, so different and yet perfect.
I looked once more out to the open ocean and then, from nowhere, a pod of dolphins swam by. I froze. It was truly unbelievable, magical: a mummy, a daddy and a baby dolphin swam just five meters from the shore. I grabbed my camera and took as many photos as its mechanical wind on would let me, and then the end. No more film. So I just sat there in astonishment watching them parade up and down the shoreline a couple of times. I was not the only lucky observer. A man in the sea had witnessed these magnificent creatures swim just a meter away from him. A couple enjoying the last moments of the day had shot to their feet with their camera and a young girl sat upright in the sand. We all hung around, waiting for them to reappear, but they had gone, leaving us with a perfect memory.
The couple were from Germany and beckoned the rest of us to see their photos. They had some great close up shots, as they had been sitting not ten metres from the dolphins. I’d been 50 meters behind them and could only hope that my zoom lens had captured the moment. The girl, who was called Sophia said I could get my photos developed in Muros. If I had any good ones, I could bring them to show her at the restaurant her family owned in the town.
I really enjoyed chatting to Sophia, she had a delightful, infectious energy about her and I became acutely aware of how well we seemed to, almost without effort, connect.
The next day, waking from a delicious sleep, my first thought was seeing her again. I walked the five remaining kilometres to Muros with a bounce in my step and when got there, discovered a place alive with activity. There was a neat central square, a harbour from which medium sized fishing boats left early in the morning and a parade of bars and restaurants along its sea-front. I strolled around the backstreets and found a small photographic shop: using their express service, my pictures would be ready in three hours. Using that time, I explored the enchanting old town of Muros, finding crooked little fishermen’s houses which zigged and zagged their way up little cobbled alleyways providing a setting, which I am sure hadn’t changed for a hundred years. Over a coffee, I fought nagging questions; What if I hadn’t captured the dolphins on film? Should I still go and visit Sophia? Did she want to see me again or was she just interested in the photos? Why was I thinking like this? An old mantra of mine shook such thoughts from my head: what will be will be.
Dolphins, dolphins, dolphins. I had ripped open the packet of photographs I collected at the shop. Not bad, a couple of good pictures, yes, I had definitely captured them, if only at a distance. Then a one-in-a-million shot. Not so much of the dolphins, but of the moment. The Germans were standing up snapping away, another figure sat beside a towel, admiring the show and then there she was, Sophia, sat in her white mini dress, arm to her brow, alert to the dolphin’s presence. It was the perfect picture. Oddly, I felt myself flushing a little in excitement. Definitely worth sharing, I thought. I had my reason to go and see Sophia and yet at the same time I reflected, did I really need a reason?
We spent three glorious days together. Sophia was a passionate soul, she adored Galicia and in particular the coastline with its spectacular beaches and hidden bays. She wanted to show me the best spots, the places that only the locals knew about and she went about this task with boundless enthusiasm. She took me hiking in the earliest hours of the day to watch the sunrise at Tremuzo; where a blanket of mist wrapped itself around the tallest mountains in the region, apparently, according to Sophia - keeping them warm - until the sun majestically rose from behind the jagged horizon to reveal the Ria in its entirety.
She showed me the bay in Muros when the tide was out, to watch the army of cockle pickers hanker in the mud for their daily quota. It was a great snapshot of seasonal life in Muros, where hardened Galician women toiled ankle deep in mud, sweating in the midday sun. We spent afternoons discovering hidden beaches, which only the locals seemed to know about, enjoying the rays of the sun and each other’s company. I hadn’t felt this happy in years.
We went mountain biking through rich pine forests and past fields of corn where ancient women scythed their way through their harvest in the midday sun. We visited Port O Frexio to watch the men at work in their tiny fishing boats, hoisting great nets full of muscles and cockles into their buckets. We went to the fish market in Muros in early evening as the bigger boats made their way back from their days voyaging and, stocking up on supplies for the restaurant, we bought bag loads of the freshest seafood available from jolly-faced traders. We ate there, feasting on platefuls of muscles, lobster, giant stir-fried prawns and the local delicacy of fried and salted Padron Peppers, followed by the most incredible home made cheesecake. Best of all I went back to Carnota, this time with Sophia. Wordlessly, huddled close, we watched the sunset together.
The following Sunday, I flip-flopped my way through the streets of the market town of Noia. At Noia’s market old ladies, faces worn in by time; sat on crates selling their cabbages, eggs, tomatoes and fruit while young clothes vendors bellowed bargain prices. Roasting chestnuts and fried churros scented the air. I sat myself down for a coffee in the beautiful old town square, opposite the engaging church of San Martín and watched children freely run and play across the crazy flagstones. On closer inspection, the church seemed to be missing something, two pillars now stood without purpose where once there would have been a perfect partner for the remaining tower.
It had been a few days since I had said my farewell to Sophia and I suddenly felt very alone and tired. I had travelled a further 100 kilometres since Fisterra and it had been the most emotionally draining experience of my entire tour. Sophia, on our last night, had urged me to continue travelling, for there was so much more to see and experience, she spoke animatedly about the beach at Aguilera, the ancient Celtic dwelling at Castro de Barona, the wild beaches that made their way to Corrubedo, which, like Fisterra had a lighthouse marking the end of the peninsula and in effect the end of the Ria. This would be a natural end to my journey she had enthused – Another 40 kilometres in my flip-flops?! - Was my quipped reply.
Now, I couldn’t see myself walking any further. I was exhausted. For the first time in six weeks I felt like taking the short bus ride to Santiago where I could catch my flight home. I had so enjoyed my time with Sophia and the spirit of sharing experiences that to contemplate continuing the journey by myself seemed futile.
A new beginning
That evening I climbed up Mount Lois, cracked open a bottle of beer and watched the sun again work its magic on the calm waters of the Ria. Its other half, the moon had already arisen for the night, full faced and beaming a therapeutic light over Muros where streetlights twinkled in the distance. That view seemed to further intensify my emotions and I made my decision. It was indeed time to move on. Back in Noia, at an internet café, I wrote a foolishly long e-mail to Juan telling him all about the last two weeks that had become my personal adventure. And then I wrote a short but heart-felt letter to Sophia.
A week later and I was looking down at my flip flopping feet as they pounded the tarmac, they had served me well for over 100 kilometres, but I intended to burn them with much delight and a bottle of beer at Corrubedo. That had been my decision to stride on to the end of the Ria. To my right I could see the waves crashing in on the wild beach of Portinos and ahead of me, I could at last see the lighthouse of Corrubedo come into view. Beside it stood a single house, a car and a silhouetted figure that seemed to be watching me. As I approached this final landmark, the lighthouse seemed to stand taller and prouder, almost acknowledging my journey’s end in a salute. I looked out to the horizon for what felt like one last time as the sun began to kiss the ocean a gentle good night and I thought about the dolphins, destiny and fate, and if she really was ready to start a new journey with me.