2 Days in Rome


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Just a few weeks before my wedding, I got the chance to spend 2 days in Rome with an old friend. We’d both been to Rome before, so despite the usual pitfalls of going in peak tourist season, it wasn’t a stressful quest to see the Sistine Chapel or fight our way through the forum. Instead, we took it easy, taking in a few new sights, walking thousands of steps, and eating plenty of gelato. It was also a chance for me to take my new Nikon camera for an outing.


The cat sanctuary at Largo di Torre Argentina.

As a self-acknowledged cat lady, this place was a must-see for me. The cats have the run of a large archaeological site which isn’t open to the public (lucky kitties). The cats are pretty much all abandoned pets, and you can visit their sanctuary, staffed entirely by volunteers, for free petting. Don’t forget to buy something to support the cats’ upkeep – I got a black tote bag.


B looking out over the Forum.

One of the best parts about the trip was the fact that my friend, B., is a Roman history expert. She wrote her Ph.D thesis on the ancient Roman army and now teaches classics and ancient history, and naturally made the perfect tour guide for our stay. If it weren’t for her, it’s unlikely that I would have made it to the Mercati e Foro di Traiano – and this museum is very much worth it. Unlike the nearby Forum (which it overlooks) it’s pretty quiet – and, bonus, it’s also shady and cool. The exhibition that was on while we were there was I Fori dopo i Fori (the Forums since the Forums), which explored life in this part of central Rome since the fall of the Roman Empire. Apparently both Giotto and Michelangelo lived in houses on the site of the Forum, and dwellings still stood there until as late as the 1920s, when Mussolini knocked them down and rehoused the residents.


The Vatican on 29 June – St Peter & St Paul.

While we were there, Rome also hosted its annual saints’ day celebration for St Peter and St Paul on 29 June. The Pope gave a special address, museums and civic buildings closed, and the cardinals came out in force on St Peter’s Square.


A nun waiting for her train at St Pietro overground station.

The first time I came to Rome I was fascinated by the numbers of nuns and members of religious orders thronging the streets. That fascination hasn’t gone away, and I spent quite a bit of time taking (respectful) photos of nuns in their natural habitat – in the heart of the Catholic church.


The Trevi Fountain.

Paying a visit to the Trevi Fountain was probably the most obviously touristy thing we did. It was busier than ever (should have gone late at night, or first thing in the morning…) but I was able to throw my coins in to assure my return to Rome. It’s a ritual I’ve repeated every time I’ve been in town. I hope to be able to do it plenty more times, too.


The Ecstasy of St Teresa by Bernini.

Last year I read a travel book, Un otoño romano, by Javier Reverte.  I found the author a bit pretentious, but he made a lot of this statue (to be found in the church Santa Maria della Vittoria, not far from Termini). I was eager to see it for myself. Some people, Reverte included, claim that St Teresa’s “ecstasy” is more earthly – read: sexual – than it is divine. I’m not so sure -and I’m no art critic- but it’s a lovely Baroque statue by an acknowledged master, free for anyone to see in the church.

B and I are already making plans to go back again next year.

A Scandi Summer Solstice


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In Scandinavia, the upside of the long, dark winters is the summer inversion of them: long, light nights when the sky never truly darkens and twilight stretches until almost midnight.


A June 11pm sunset (taken in the Scottish highlands)

In this northerly part of the world, the solstice feels more meaningful than it does in places further south with more equitable hours or darkness throughout the year. While solstice celebrations may hark back to ancient civilisations and pagan practices, the Danes do a pretty good job of reinventing the oldest of cultural traditions in a modern, inclusive style. And why wouldn’t they? Danes like to do things well, and are impressively accomplished: they are the world’s second best non-native English speakers, the world’s happiest nation and the EU’s most digitally advanced country. But they also like to wear flower headdresses, drink beer, and sing songs around a bonfire, and aren’t deterred by unpromising Scandi summer season temperatures.


Cloudy daytime scenes in Nyhavn

Always a fan of a fiesta, I spent the summer solstice in Copenhagen in 2014. I didn’t write about it at the time, but with the summer solstice once again just days away – and having just got back from the Scottish highlands, where I watched a glorious full-colour sunset at 11pm -it seemed to make sense to find my old photos and turn my experience into something to share more widely.

The best place to watch the celebrations in the Danish capital is in Nyhavn, the charming, picture-postcard perfect harbour filled with colourful houses and little fishing boats. The bars have plenty of outdoor seating, along with heat lamps and cosy blankets – they are under no illusions about the weather – if you can, get there early, buy your pricey pint and settle down for a bit. Soon, groups of impressively tall and good-looking blondes will begin to gather by the waterfront with cans of beer and picnic blankets, and by 10pm there’ll be a bonfire on the water and rousing singing.


The bonfire for the solstice in Nyhavn

Midsummer in Denmark is celebrated on 23 June, St John’s Eve – known locally as Sankt Hans Aften, although the astronomical solstice is usually considered to be 21 June. As in the UK, the bonfires lit burn an effigy, although here it’s a witch that gets the fire treatment, rather than an early modern terrorist. They say that the witches on the Danish bonfires are burnt to symbolically send them, and evil generally, to a town in Germany. The celebrations are held throughout Denmark – beaches are a popular location – although the festivities at Nyhavn is one of the biggest and most well known.


Pretty Copenhagen

My experience of the summer solstice in Copenhagen was very mellow. Children, families, and couples all attend, and locals mix with the tourists. As a city it’s a great place to visit outside of the midsummer season too – just make sure you take a jacket.


Sunshine on the town hall.

Bringing Eggs to Santa Clara


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While making a pre-wedding visit in the past few days to see my familia política in the north of Spain, my mother-in-law told me about an old tradition to assure good weather the day of your wedding – making an offering of eggs to the nuns of the order of Santa Clara (or St Clare, in English). These nuns are known as the Clarisas in Spain, or the Poor Clares in the UK. These nuns live an especially austere life, with strict fasts and little communication with the outside world. 

As I grew up outside of the Catholic tradition, a lot of the habits, customs, and rituals which surround it have a strong fascination for me. That was how I ended up, this past weekend, in the convent of the Clarisas in Santillana del Mar. What drew me in was the fact that these holy sisters, las Clarisas, are known for their baked goods – they sell a range of biscuits, cakes, and other sweet treats to the public in order to keep their convent finances healthy. Drawn in by the promise of sugar and mesmerised by the display of delicacies, I initially missed the marked doorbell that has to be rung in order to draw the nuns away from their inner sanctum. I thought perhaps they weren’t selling anything today as their shop hatch was firmly shut. It was only when Carlos asked if I didn’t want anything after all as I began to head out that I realised my mistake.


The Clarisas’ home


A street scene in Santillana del Mar


Flowers in the window, Santillana

Returning inside, I rang the bell…and waited. Nothing. I rang again, more insistently. A smiling young woman duly appeared behind the revolving hatch, and I hesitantly gave her my order (250g of the huellas de San Francisco – crunchy almond biscuits in the shape of St Francis’ footprints). She placed the packet inside the revolving counter, turned it towards me, and I removed my prize. I put the money in its place, and the nun revolved the hatch again to take it. She didn’t say a word – the Clarisas don’t, because they mostly live in silence.

Taking the biscuits home, I opened the packet to sample the nuns’ work, sharing them with my mother-in-law in front of the TV. It was then that she told me that couples who plan to marry take eggs to the Clarisas’ convent to ask the nuns to pray for good weather on the day of their wedding. The nuns use the eggs to make their cakes, naturally. As I’m marrying Carlos in the Scottish highlands and good weather is hardly assured – even in July – I naturally liked the idea of heavenly intercession to ensure a sunny nuptial afternoon.


Advertising the nuns’ wares

So my mother in law has promised to take two dozen eggs to the convent the week before our wedding. Curious to know more, I’ve been googling away but not come up with much – apparently St Clare is associated with good weather because her name means “clear”. It has also occurred to me that in Spanish, egg whites are called claras – no doubt due to their transparency, but I haven’t been able to find a satisfactory answer about the origins of the tradition. Still, Carlos’ family assures me that even the kings of Spain take eggs to the Clarisas before their weddings, and the tradition is pretty widely known throughout the country.

Equally, anyone who’s ever been married – or has helped plan a wedding, or has even just been to one – knows that they’re as much about ritual and tradition (and superstition) as they are about public declarations of love or making a legally binding commitment. So sending eggs to the Clarisas is just another one of many such rituals – but one I rather like for its whimsy as well as its practical element. We get good weather, the nuns get to make cake. Ideal.

Camino day 6: Monte do Gozo – Santiago, 4.86km


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After a poor night’s sleep in the albergue (a dorm mate was snoring, it was hot, the light in the corridor was on all night…), we got up and left before kicking-out time and didn’t stop for breakfast, partly to get into Santiago de Compostela quicker, and partly because we’d almost entirely run out of cash, only having a few coins. We found throughout the walk that paying by card is pretty much the exception – on the Camino, cash is king.

On the way into the city we stopped and were able to withdraw cash and have breakfast in a neighbourhood bar. It was obvious as we walked through the suburbs towards the centre that the city had grown over time and absorbed surrounding villages – we saw little churches and old houses that looked like they properly belonged in a pueblo deep in the Galician countryside rather than forming part of a large modern city.

Santiago was quiet when we arrived – maybe because it was still early, or because it was Easter Sunday, but I later read in the Voz de Galicia that the pilgrims’ office had awarded around 1,000 compostelas each day during Easter week.  Continuing to follow the Camino (although here in the city, the yellow arrows are replaced by golden scallop shells embedded in the pavement) we both felt our excitement build as we left modern buildings behind and entered the casco viejo with its first glimpse of the cathedral towers. We were here – we’d done it!


Our Latin compostelas.

The first stop was, naturally, the pilgrims’ office to collect our compostelas. We got slightly confused finding it, but if you’re in Praza do Obradoiro with your back to the cathedral, find some steps in the right-hand corner leading down from the Parador. At the bottom of this flight of steps, you turn right and the pilgrims’ office is a little further up the street. The queue for compostelas wasn’t large, and they’re also free, although we decided to buy a little tube printed with golden scallop shells to transport our compostelas home safely.

We were concerned we’d be given the third degree about our journey and where we’d stayed each night, but it seems our credenciales spoke for themselves.  We filled in our names; where we came from; where we started our journey; and our motivations. When my sister-in-law completed her camino about 7 years ago she got her compostela in Spanish because she didn’t complete the pilgrimage for religious reasons. Apparently it also specifically noted that her sins were not forgiven. Those who had completed the route for devotional reasons received their compostelas in Church Latin, complete with absolution. This two-compostela rule has now been done away with, and everyone receives the same Latin compostela. They even translate your name: I became Christianum and Carlos became Carolum.

Afterwards, Carlos was keen to go to mass to see the botafumeiro in action. Because it was Easter Sunday, the pilgrims’ mass was at 11.15 rather than 12pm and the atmosphere in the queue for the service was decidedly unholy with people pushing in and attempting to enter the cathedral via the exit. Not being one of the faithful, I decided not to attend. Instead, I stayed outside and watched the final Semana Santa processions. They came much as they did last year in Seville, with mournful music and clouds of incense, although both the nazarenos and onlookers were fewer – which made for a both a better experience and better photos. There were trumpets and drums, and both Jesus and Mary rocked side-to-side with each of the nazarenos’ steps. I saw Cristo Resusitado (Christ Resurrected) and two different versions of the Virgin, one in a black mourning veil and then another in a green veil embroidered with stars.


Cristo Resusitado


The black-veiled Virgin and nazarenos.


The Virgin from the steps of our hotel, San Martín Pinario.

Once I seen my fill of the processions, I went out to buy a dress. This proved pretty tricky as all the large shops were closed for the holiday, although after much fruitless wandering through the modern city centre I found a tiny boutique open not far from the cathedral where I was able to buy a simple long-sleeved dress. Despite laundry facilities on the way, I had nothing in my pack that wasn’t crumpled, dirty, or dusty, and I wanted something nice for our few days’ holiday. We also planned to visit Carlos’ aunt in A Coruña and I didn’t really fancy turning up at her place looking a state.

As a treat, I booked us a two-night stay in the fancy Parador. However, this first night we were staying at San Martín Pinario. Incidentally, San Martín Pinario is also a gorgeous medieval former pilgrim hostel just metres away from the cathedral- just like the Parador. However, in keeping with its monastic history, it eschews the Parador’s luxury and accommodation is simple and facilities basic. What that means in practice is that you can stay in this fabulous historic building without spending a fortune – just don’t expect a TV or a minibar. Incidentally, the lunch we had there was the best of the whole Camino. For just 12 euro a person we shared a bottle of red wine and another of mineral water, and ate local speciality pulpo gallego, delicious fish, and torrijas (recipe) – a kind of custardy French toast that’s eaten at Easter in Spain.


Pulpo gallego – Galician octopus, normally served with spicy paprika, potato, salt, and olive oil.


Torrijas – like a few Spanish desserts, this goes a bit too heavy on the cinnamon for me.


Yummy cheeses seen, sampled, and purchased at the Mercado de Abastos.

We did it – we’d completed our Camino. While my motivations weren’t religious ones, I did take the time to embrace the statue of Santiago, as well as light a candle and make a promesa in the cathedral. And Santiago de Compostela is, in my opinion at least, one of the most impressively beautiful cities in Spain.



Camino day 5: Salceda – Monte do Gozo, 23.1km


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This morning in Salceda I had the best tostada con tomate of my life – the bar owner told me he added garlic and “his own special mix” to the olive oil/tomato topping. I don’t know what it was but it was amazing. The bar was called Casa Tía Teresa if you want to look it up.


A cross in O Pino, early in the morning.

The moon was still in the sky as we left the albergue – we’ve been getting better at getting up early. We were both in good spirits for the final day’s walk, which were dampened only slightly by the number of pilgrims’ memorials dotted along the very last section of the route. Carlos wondered: did these unfortunate pilgrims die so close to their goal, or further back along the camino, with their friends or families putting their memorials closer to Santiago? There was no real way of knowing. We decided to leave the pebbles we’d brought from our back garden at the monument to Guillermo Watt.

It was annoying that people have had the habit of stealing the wayside markers, because for the first time in this (very) well-marked walk we had a moment of genuine confusion at Santa Irene. We ended up taking the camino complementario not entirely by choice, and, as most of these “complementary” routes do, it passed by the church – sadly closed.


The morning was quiet.

We stopped for a coffee (and my now-customary second breakfast) in O Pedrouzo, and we caught up with the Nicaraguan women who we met on the first day in Sarria. They’d come with plenty of luggage which they had sent on ahead, and it was clear that a couple of members of the party were really struggling with the walk and had fallen behind the rest. One of them confided in us that they’d resorted to taking taxis on a couple of occasions in order to make it to their pre-booked accommodation.

I’ve been feeling much more confident about my Spanish, as I haven’t spoken anything else all week and I haven’t had problems making myself understood. I feel like I’m finally getting the subjunctive (the present subjunctive, the aptly-named imperfect one still needs work) – let’s see how it holds up once we’re back in Britain.

It was a bit of a pull out of O Pedrouzo, and San Antón passed by without me really noticing it. We passed Santiago airport, where we flew in, and finally reached Lavacolla where we had a lunch and a minor argument in a bad bar that made me feel a bit sick.


This pretty church at Lavacolla is just metres from the airport boundary fence.

Carlos especially was keen to press on without much of a break, being concerned about lodging for the night given the slight difficulty we had yesterday. We needn’t have worried though – Monte do Gozo has a massive 400+ bed municipal albergue complete with bars and shops (all closed) which has been rather unkindly likened to a concentration camp. It’s true it’s not a beautiful medieval or otherwise historic building as many pilgrims’ hostels are, but it’s in a very convenient location and cost just 6 euros for the night. When we arrived, only one of the dorm buildings was open but we got a spot easily, sharing with some Italian erasmus students. It was our only stay in a municipal albergue, but everything seemed clean and in good order.


An old wayside marker.

We had dinner in the only other albergue, in Monte do Gozo, a Polish catholic youth hostel. The food was simple and the wine came in a small carafe rather than a full bottle, but at 8 euros each for a 3-course meal we could hardly complain.

There not being much else to do, we headed back to the hostel to get an early night, intending to leave first thing to get into Santiago early in the morning – it’s just 6km away as Monte do Gozo is essentially a suburb of the city.

Camino day 4: Melide – Salceda, 25.51km


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Inside Santa María de Melide.

After a poor night’s sleep thanks to Jueves Santo partygoers, we get up early and rejoin the Camino through Melide’s picturesque old town, where we stop for breakfast in Hostal San Anton. I eat a massive croissant with jam. As we’re leaving town, and old man hands us a religious pamphlet.

It’s much cooler today, cloudy with a light drizzle that’s totally welcomed. Perfect for walking after all the heat. Just outside of town, a beautiful old Romaneque church, Santa María de Melide, is standing open so we go in for a stamp and a look around. The volunteer on the door is passionate about his subject and rattles off the church history at full speed as if from a memorised script, not letting us leave for a good 15 minutes (I catch about 10% of what he’s saying). After we leave the church and somewhat further along the road, we see a cyclist waiting for his friends. When they finally arrive, one of them says they’d been in the church too and habia un tío chapas que no nos dejaba irnos (there was a windbag who wouldn’t let us leave).

There were apparently processions for Semana Santa in Melide at 9am this morning, which I only find out about after reading a pamphlet I picked up in the church. It isn’t too late to go back to catch them, but on the Camino, as in life, there is no turning back, and regretfully I follow Carlos away from Melide.


Along the way today.

We also meet a Hungarian man named Roland who speaks excellent Spanish and who is walking through Europe with his donkey, Rocinante. In exchange for donativos, he lets pilgrims feed carrots to Rocinante and gives stamps in credenciales. Apparently he’s walked all the way here from Turin.

There’s another open church in Boente, and we begin to see much older stone waymarkers by the edge of the Camino which led pilgrims before the days of the brightly-painted yellow arrows. Sadly, most of the modern waymarkers since the 100km point have had their distances or their scallop shell insignia stolen (or else they’ve fallen off, been taken away, and not replaced). It’s not really in the spirit of the Camino, but people behave badly everywhere, I suppose. (A much worse example: the arbeit macht frei sign got stolen from Dachau).


A beautiful old waymarker in Boente.

After a tough climb, we stop for a coffee (and a slice of empanada for me – I’m eagerly embracing the daily second breakfast on the Camino) in a tiny place called Castañeda. This section of our route is described in the guide as rompepiernas (literally: leg-breaking), and so it is. Thankfully, without the heat of the past few days it’s much more manageable.

The next larger place along the way is Arzúa, which is fairly unremarkable except for some delicious local cheese which I sampled with membrillo (quince jelly) at a bar called A Queixeira. I’m a cheese fan but this soft, creamy dessert cheese is something else. I take a break from the usual Estrella Galicia and wash it down with a different Spanish beer, Alhambra. Carlos has a sandwich of cheese and membrillo too, but the cheese isn’t quite as tasty as mine.

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Cheeses in A Queixeira, Arzúa.

Due to the cooler weather, We decide to push on a little further today. We had been intending to stop in Burres, a little way off the Camino, but we go on around 7km further to Salceda, with a stop for an ice cream for me and a beer for Carlos at a bar called Casa Calzada on the way. Here, a blister on my toe is giving me so much trouble that I switch out of my boots and into my Birkenstock sandals, complete with hiking socks. I look ridiculous, but no-one cares and I finally feel comfortable.

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My sexy sock/sandal combination.

A few kilometres further up and we reach our goal for the day – the hamlet of Salceda, which has a few options for accommodation. It’s already 5pm though and the first place we try is already full, and the hospitalero warns us that we’re unlikely to find anything else within 4 kilometres of here. Worried, we try another place across the road. Their dormitory is full too, but they’ve got a triple room that they’ll charge us a 2-person rate for. It’s a little more than we’d like to spend, but it’s been a long day and we don’t fancy walking much further. We take it and enjoy an extra-hot shower each before heading out for dinner at a bar up the road.

Camino day 3: Airexe – Melide 23.69km


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An early-morning pilgrim selfie in Melide.

Today was Holy Thursday – or Maundy Thursday as we call it in the UK, and we’re finally hitting our stride.

Having said that, today was definitely the hardest so far, not because of distance but because of heat and lots of climbs and descents. We set our alarm for 6.30, and quietly made our way out of the cosy Pensión Eirexe: our favourite on the Camino due to the friendly hospitaleros, cleanliness, comfort, and value for money. Sadly, the only bar in Airexe was closed, although they had promised they’d be open from 7 o’clock (“Spanish 7 o’clock,” said Carlos ruefully to a fellow waiting pilgrim). So we decided to leave without breakfast. We helped ourselves to a stamp in our credenciales from the desk in reception in our accommodation, filled our bottles from the spring, and set off with the moon still in the sky.


Some of the crosses and cruceiros we’ve seen along the way.

In the next place over the hill, Portos, the bar was also closed, and the lack of coffee and tostadas was starting to affect both our moods. We carried on to Lestedo where a stone cottage, a turismo rural called Rectoral de Lestedowas opening for the day and the attendant let us in. We ate looking out over the hills and with another stamp we were off and out. From Lestedo it was less than 5km to the next larger town on the map, Palas de Rei. Walking into town after 2 days in the countryside was a welcome return to civilisation as I desperately wanted to go to a pharmacy both for some aftersun lotion and for a remedy for some (umm) digestive troubles I was having. I was able to find both pretty quickly and in small backpack-friendly packages, thanks to the helpful pharmacist (hurrah!).  We grabbed another coffee at a bar and I was also able to replace my lost fleece (new word: polar) for €7 in a dedicated Camino shop, although most of the businesses in town were closed as Maundy Thursday is a public holiday in Spain.

Today was the first day without mist, and it really started to get hot at about 11am. As Palas de Rei is a stopping point in a lot of Camino guides, we saw crowds of pilgrims for the first time since we were in Portomarín. By the time we reached San Xiao do Camiño -the prettiest Camino village we saw during the whole time in Galicia – the heat was really starting to become oppressive as there was little shade. I grabbed a refresco in a bar, we looked at the church (locked), took pictures, and pushed on.

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San Xiao do Camiño.


Rural Galicia – also taken in San Xiao do Camiño.

By the time we arrived in loverboy namesake Casanova just over 2.5km uphill later, we were both glad to sit down in the shade. There were a couple of bars and we just went to the first one. We each had a delicious bocadillo de tortilla de queso (cheese omelette sandwich) and an Estrella Galicia, and I took my boots off (blessed relief!). Opposite us and sitting next to one of the charming rustic elevated Galician granaries a couple of young girls, clearly not pilgrims, were having an animated, emotional conversation which culminated in an intense phonecall to a third party.

The rustic granaries in this style are only found in Galicia, although I remember seeing vaguely similar things in Astrurias and Cantabria. They are known as hórreos and they became emblematic of our Camino for me.

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A typical Galician hórreo (photo credit).

The walk was just as hard after lunch – lots of climbing and descending a gravelly track, although in the afternoon we mainly had the Camino to ourselves. The hardest part, without a doubt, was the industrial estate which we had to walk through on the outskirts of Melide. It was all concrete, filled with memorials to dead pilgrims who expired walking the same route not so long ago, and with zero shade. It was all a bit much. Luckily I’d started dipping my buff in water every time we saw a stream or water source, and putting it back on sopping wet. It would dry again within 45 minutes, but would keep me significantly cooler during that time.

I stopped talking for the last 5km. It was too much effort. Once we reached Furelos, only 2km short of Melide, I slumped by a wall in the shade. Carlos said afterwards that he didn’t think I was going to make it to Melide, but of course I was. I just needed a moment.

In Melide we had our least favourite accommodation of the Camino – the Albergue Privado Orois. It was clean -and we had our own bathroom, always a bonus- but sterile and although it was recommended in our guidebook (the generally very helpful El Camino de Santiago en tu mochila) it wasn’t really a pilgrim place. Lots of people seemed to be looking for a cheap room so they could make the most of the Easter holiday and drunken partygoers kept us awake all night.

If my first impressions of Melide were bad, I quickly revised them. Outside of the shabbyish modern part, Melide has a truly beautiful casco viejo. As we approached the church, they were preparing for mass but a lady at the door instantly recognised us as pilgrims by our dishevelled appearance and plastered toes. She stamped our credenciales and as we left the church we heard gentle singing. It turned out that local women were singing in a parish building for Maundy Thursday, and maybe it was because I was exhausted after walking all day in the sun, but tears came to my eyes listening to it. It was lovely. We took an outdoor seat in a bar so we could listen – I sampled the local wine, albariño.

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Parroquía de S. Pedro de Melide.

Melide also offered an exceptional dinner at the Pulpeira Ezequiel, which the guidebook said had an almost legendary status on the Camino. It seems they were right (order the tarta de queso!) and as we entered the communal tables were packed with pilgrims. We sat next to a couple of German girls, and I had my first conversation in English for several days (I’ve been keeping my Spanish-only promise, but it seemed rude to refuse to speak English to friendly non-Spanish speakers).

We went for an orujo nightcap by the church in the old town, and then off to bed.

Camino day 2: Portomarín- Airexe, 17.59km


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The road out of Portomarín.

A shorter day today as we put an extra day in our itinerary, worried we wouldn’t be fit or strong enough to complete the final 113km Sarria – Santiago de Compostela stage in the recommended five days. So we have six days’ walking, which makes things easier.

It gets light much later in Galicia than at home in the UK or further along the coast where Carlos’ family comes from: the sun doesn’t rise here until around 8am in April, although it does stay light until well after 9pm. There’s talk in Spain of changing the clocks so that they match GMT, as this would better suit Spain’s geographical position mainly west of the meridian. The slightly out-of-sync timezone affects Galicia the most, being so far west, and in fact we catch a short TV programme looking at the debate about why Spain should switch to GMT while we’re on the Camino. Either way, it makes early morning walking difficult, and we see pilgrims’ torches lighting the way as we look out from our window in Portomarín at 7am.

We grab a quick breakfast in the bar at the albergue and I have toast with olive oil and tomato, a typical breakfast of the Spanish south, which Carlos is embarrassed to ask for as it marks us out as tourists – as if my heavily-accented Spanish didn’t do that already. Incidentally, we’ve both made promises to do things we know we’ll find hard this week: Carlos isn’t eating any meat, and I’m not speaking any English.

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A pilgrim cross with offerings (and rubblish).

As we leave town I’m in good spirits as I slept better, and I’m full of breakfast. It’s misty and cool as we climb up into the hills into the woods, and Carlos tells me legends about witches (meigas in Galicia and brujas elsewhere) and spirits (duendes) who supposedly live in the woods in his native Cantabria. I’m learning plenty of new vocabulary: the wood of oak trees we’re walking through is called a robedal.  A little later on we follow a yellow arrow pointing across farmland, indicating a camino complementario, or scenic route/detour through Gonzar. These “complementary” routes often lead to churches that the main Camino passes by. We see the church – sadly locked, as others have been – but grab a cafe con leche in nearby Casa García. We’re the only pilgrims present and I want to relax, but the sun is getting hotter and it’s time to move on.

Next, we go through tiny Castromaior and I want to stop for a drink in the appealingly-named Hospital da Cruz, but its one bar is shuttered and its albergue is slightly out of our way. Instead, we push on to Ventas de Narón where we grab a bocadillo de tortilla de atún (sandwich with tuna omelette) and a bottle of Estrella Galicia each. Sadly, I leave my turquoise fleece top on the back of a chair, and although Carlos phones the bar later there’s no sign of it – it’s lost to the Camino.  A little later on, as the heat is getting intense and we are both suffering, we spot a plain black scarf made of light material at the side of the road, dropped or discarded by another pilgrim. Carlos was able to use it to protect his neck from further sunburn, and I hit on the idea of wearing my buff like a Muslim woman’s headscarf to protect my neck and shoulders.


A well-earned bocadillo and a beer in Ventas de Narón.

We found our first rural church open as we were leaving Ventas de Narón, attended by a blind man whose hand I guided to stamp our credenciales. He shook hands with us both and told Carlos to buy me a beer later on. In the afternoon, we see a medieval pilgrim cemetery and the house where Philip II stayed on his way to A Coruña to catch a ship to England to marry Mary Tudor. We also see more horseback pilgrims.


A medieval pilgrim cemetery.

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The views from the top of this hill (almost) made it worthwhile climbing it in the heat.


Sunset in Airexe.

Finally, after a further climb rewarded by lovely views, we stop in tiny Airexe (population 35). We walk first into the municipal albergue, but there’s no attendant and we feel uncomfortable just grabbing a bunk in the dormitory without speaking to anyone first, so we go to the private Pensión Eirexe where we get a comfortable double room with sink and shared bathroom for just €25. We have our laundry done and relax with another beer at the bar opposite. We walk around, but there’s not much to see: a locked church, a few stone houses, an old cruceiro. We walk back down the hill to a bar we passed and have a pilgrim menu for dinner. As a pescatarian/vegetarian the pilgrim menus aren’t always ideal, but bars always seem willing to prepare me egg and chips as a main course when I ask politely. After, we talk to the older man who owns the albergue where we’re staying. He’s always lived in the area and he says when he was a child the pilgrims who passed all used to dress in brown robes, like monks.

Camino day 1: Sarria to Portomarín – 22.75km


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The first day out.

After an inauspicious start yesterday which involved heavy traffic on the way to Stansted Airport and getting to the wrong gate for our flight, we’re finally about to start our long-planned Camino de Santiago. We arrived at our starting point of Sarria in the late afternoon – we flew to Santiago de Compostela, caught the bus from the terminal to pretty Roman Lugo, and then caught a train to Sarria, where I was excited to see other pilgrims on the same train. As we arrived, there was a party atmosphere in town: groups of young people were playing music outside their hostels, and other pilgrims were chatting and enjoying drinks in the sun. We quickly found our accommodation (we pre-booked Casa Barán which was right on the Camino in the old town in Sarria), had a delicious 3-course pilgrim menu with wine nearby, and headed to bed. By 11, the town was completely silent and still.


Lugo, where we stopped on the way to Sarria.

I woke up a 6.15 when I heard talking in the street. I also heard what sounded like a taxi – plenty of pilgrims use a luggage transportation service to take their backpack from one stop to the next. I couldn’t get back to sleep. Breakfast was plentiful and delicious – we got talking to the waiter who brought us some local soft cheese from O Cebreiro as a treat, which we ate with honey. We also met some charming Nicaraguan women who we’d see again and again on the Camino – and finally in Santiago itself.


The view of Sarria from our room in Casa Barán.

We made at late start, at 8.45, with our first stamps in our credenciales: I was worried when the man on reception at our hotel told us that the first stamp had to be from a church – but that the local church was closed until 11. He had some pre-stamped church ones in his desk, but as we’d already written our details in ours, he didn’t offer us one. Feeling slightly that we were off to a bad start, we stopped for a photo at the turn of the Camino out of town, and followed our first yellow arrow.

I needn’t have worried. On the outskirts of Sarria is an old monastery with albergue attached – and it was opening its doors as we passed by just before 9am. The older man inside happily gave us a sello, and invited us in on an impromptu tour with some other pilgrims. We left happier and continued past the cemetery and up the track, where we climbed a steep hill that had me seriously wondering if I was cut out for pilgrim life.


Convento de la Merced, where we got our first religious stamp.

The weather was perfect for walking: misty and cool, and Galicia’s Celtic heritage really shows in the deep green of its hills and fields. We kept walking until about 12, where we stopped for a couple of bottles of Estrella Galicia and a slice of empanada at Casa Morgade, just before the 100km waymarker.  It was a relief to take my boots off, but I wasn’t really feeling in a chatty mood. Carlos was though, and he quickly made friends with an older Russian couple who live in Germany. They had walked all the way from León but were going slowly today as the man, Aleksander, had a leg injury.


Green Galicia.

We put our boots back on, the sun came out, and we carried on refreshed. Despite suncream, we both burned – Carlos on his ears, me on the side of my back. I had on a new sports top with a cutaway design that I wasn’t used to: the exposed skin burned red and later peeled. We stopped briefly another couple of times – once at the farmhouse of an hospitable couple who provided homemade wine, buñuelos, and treats in return for a donativo. We got talking to a Mexican couple there (the man was recording everything including our conversation with a prominent camera on his backpack, which made me feel sort of nervous). The couple were in Europe for a friend’s pre-wedding party, and they’d already been to Madrid, Paris, and London – now they were on camino. I wish I’d got a stamp so I could remember where we were.


Near the farmhouse – another stall offering refreshments in return for a donativo.

Sweaty and tired but still very much alive, we arrived in Portomarín in time for a well-deserved late lunch of wine, empanada, tortilla, and Santiago almond cake. Despite dire warnings along the way, we had no trouble finding a place to stay.

This was a feature of our time on the Camino – we were told almost everywhere that the next place would be full and we’d struggle to find a place to sleep, but we never did. We were also told in Melide that attending pilgrims’ mass at 12 would be impossible unless we arrived at 10am. I’m not sure where these rumours came from – canny private albergue owners or worried pilgrims? – but even though the route was busy because it was Semana Santa, there was plenty of accommodation everywhere and we were only turned away once – so we got a room in another place, 20 metres away.


L-R: lunch in Portomarín; a pilgrim statue in the town; tasty treats at a farmhouse along the way; the 100km waymarker.

We got a simple room in Portomarín with shared facilities in Albergue Gonzar, near the bridge leading into town. We dumped our backpacks and went to explore the town and pretty local church. I bought a postcard, then we bought cans of Aquarius to drink in the little park overlooking the bridge in the sunshine as we watched the stragglers walk into town. We caught up with the Russian/German couple briefly, and headed to bed.



Secret Rome: the temple to Mithras in the Basilica San Clemente


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Twelfth-century apse mosaic (photo credit)

Seeing as San Clemente features in most of the larger guidebooks, this church isn’t technically much of a secret. Nevertheless, Rome has more monuments than any other city in the world, and an estimated 4 million tourists a year visit an attraction just metres away from San Clemente: the Colosseum. The crowds are just something you have to deal with if you want to see the top sights. I visited the Vatican once, on my first trip to Rome, and I have to say the sheer number of people piling through (of which I was one, obviously) took the shine off the experience. Everyone’s favourite don, Mary Beard, visited more recently and seemed to feel pretty similarly.

So let’s put it this way – any smaller attraction in Rome has pretty stiff competition. With the Forum, the Vatican, St Peter’s and the Pantheon taking up most tourists’ time, if you’re willing to go off the beaten path a little not only will you see something pretty spectacular that most visitors pass by, you’ll avoid the worst of the crowds and earn bragging rights once you get home. Rome is full of underplayed quirky sights which in most cities would be headline-grabbing attractions, and San Clemente is one of them.

So what is the Basilica San Clemente?

At street level, the Basilica di San Clemente is a fairly ordinary-seeming medieval Roman church – which even on its own is something quite extraordinary. As you walk in, although it’s not impressively old by Roman standards, the floor tiles are fancy marble mosaics from the 1100s, and there are pretty 15th century frescoes behind the altar (and as a place of worship, it’s free to enter).

What’s not obvious from the outside though is that the current church was built directly on top of an earlier church, dating to 392 CE. That in turn was built on top of a Roman house which dates as far back as the first century CE, and around 100 years after its first construction, it was used as a temple to the mysterious god Mithras whose followers used to undergo complex initiation rituals and congregate in shady underground temples.

Most impressively of all, these layered ancient structures still exist, one on top of the other, and you can visit them by taking a narrow staircase down from street level. As a tourist attraction, you do have to pay to visit the excavations: 10€ per ticket when I went in June 2016 with my old friend – and Ph.D in Roman history – Blanka.

So what’s below the ground?

To help preserve the early Christian setting -or perhaps for other reasons- you’re not allowed to take any photos below ground (that’s why the photos in this post have been taken by others). On the first level you reach from the staircase is the old church, containing the tomb of Pope Clement I and of St Cyril, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet and brought Christianity to the Slavs. For that reason, the church is a place of pilgrimage for Slavic people who leave behind tokens such as flowers to their saint. The walls are covered in faded frescoes, and the damp, cool air gives relief from the heat and sunshine of the street outside.

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The preserved Mithraeum (photo credit).

It gets better (and a little more claustrophobic) as you descend down another level to the Roman foundations of the building. You walk on Roman streets and you can see the Mithraeum – the temple dedicated to the god Mithras – which sits in a cave, above a subterranean river. There’s an altar, featuring Mithras knifing a bull, and a river rushes even further beneath you – and you’re already around 10 metres below street level. Here, it’s cold, close, and echoey. The rooms are tiny, tortuous, and small. In places there are small gaps in the stone floor where you can see and even touch the fast-flowing water beneath. People also throw coins in, which Blanka told me was popular in many Roman cults, and is also a practice which dates back to pre-Roman Celtic civilisations in Europe. Interesting that people still like to throw coins in water and make wishes.

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The very deepest level: the underground river, thought to have formed part of the Roman sewer (photo credit).

The quirky, less celebrated sights sometimes make for more meaningful experiences. Certainly it’s not remotely possible that I could ever see everything worth seeing in Rome in a handful of tourist trips (and our upcoming visit to the city will be my fourth). Even an Italian friend, who lived in Rome for 13 years, says there’s so much of the city she’s still yet to see. But as the Basilica di San Clemente is only five minutes’ walk from the Colosseum, I might just be going back.

The history part

If you’re interested in the history of temples to Mithras (and this temple to Mithras in Rome in particular) my good friend and travel companion Dr. Blanka Misic wrote the following for this blog post. The photo is also hers:


Bull-slaying Mithras.

Mithras is a god of Indo-Iranian origin who becomes very popular throughout the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries A.D. Mithraism is often regarded as a mystery religion, since worshippers had to be initiated, and rituals were performed in dark, often underground, temples. The worshippers of Mithras, often called Mithraists, were exclusively male, and were often soldiers, slaves and/or government officials. The cult of Mithras had small, independent temples throughout the Roman Empire, often called “spelaeum” (meaning “cave” in Latin) or “mithraeum”, where each Mithraic community would perform its own rituals, often consisting of initiations and ritual meals.

The mithraeum below the church of San Clemente formed part of an ancient Roman courtyard-style house and dates to the late second century A.D. Once you enter the subterranean levels via the staircase through the sacristy, you will first see a free-standing cast of an altar to Mithras, dedicated by Gaius Arrius Claudianus, the Pater (“father”) and leader of the Mithraic congregation (IMG 1923). On the altar is the iconic scene of Mithras killing the bull – often interpreted as a symbol of life and renewal. If you proceed further down the subterranean levels, you will find yourself in the earlier Roman period, among the remains of a first century house. The central room of this house was transformed into a mithraeum sometime in the late second century A.D. You can see the room today through a gate – along the walls are benches where Mithraists would have partaken in the ritual communal meal, and at the far end is the original altar of Claudianus (IMG 1927). Above it is a niche through which rays of light would have illuminated the altar. The mithraeum was abandoned in the fourth century A.D., likely due to the official suppression of the cult and the rise of Christianity.