Can we walk to Jerusalem in time for Easter?
We’ve done it. Well done to everyone who has walked, cycled, ridden, run and rowed. We have made it to Jerusalem and back again.
We have travelled 1235 miles this week
Monday 22nd February
By the time we have bought new boots and succumbed to an expensive note book bound in gorgeous Italian marbled paper, it is almost lunchtime but we have a long way to go, and new boots to break in.
‘Don’t throw away the old ones yet!’
Instead of sinking into a chair on a Florentine Piazza, we buy picnic food and set off for the coast. Tempting as it is to call in and say hello to the leaning tower of Pisa, we take the more northerly route through Lucca and Viareggio, past the marble quarries at Carrara and on to La Spezia and the Cinque Terre. Here we join the Sentiero Azzurro, the cliff path connecting the five towns with their brightly coloured houses that cling to the steep coastline.
It is getting dark by the time we reach Genoa and the new boots have done quite enough for one day. The birthplace of Christopher Columbus seems like a good place for footsore travellers to stop for the night.
We set out bright and early.’Lunch in Monaco?’
‘Are you kidding? You need a mortgage for a cup of coffee.’
There are cheaper places, although not much cheaper, along the Côte D’Azur.
As soon as we cross into France we become aware of a huge black super yacht that appears to be following us along the coast.
The boat is sinister and its slow progress alongside us has the menacing air of a panther preparing to pounce. Who do they think we are? Fortunately, we don’t have to follow the coastline, there are good trails through the maquis, a little way inland, where the sea glints in the distance and the hill towns huddle under plane trees. Pines leave a springy carpet on the track and the cork trees, much fewer than they used to be, have beautiful, tactile bark. It is a good time to be walking here as the threat of forest fires in the summer means that these trails are often closed as soon as the weather gets too dry.
We come down off the hills at Aubagne, birthplace of Marcel Pagnol, but we don’t see any goats, or any authors that we recognise, nor even Jean de Florette. Marseilles sprawls along the coast, industrial and not particularly friendly so we stop short at picturesque Cassis so that we can explore the Calanques, the deep fjords that snip into the coastline between here and the Rhône.
The walking along this bit of coast path is as demanding as anything we’ve met so far but it is worthwhile. We scramble down the sides of deep gouges in the white rocks and find turquoise water lapping the beaches. It is deep water and those of us who dip a toe testify to its being very cold.
From there we have to turn inland to pick our way around the Rhône delta, up to Arles where we call in at the Roman amphitheatre. They still hold bullfights here in the Spanish corrida style but not today.
A further detour brings us along the edge of the Camargue with its white horses, black bulls and pink flamingoes. As dusk falls, the flamingos take off and fly in formation, the black and red streaks of their broad wings a contrast so striking that they barely look like the same birds. They gather in large flocks to roost together for safety. The Camargue is also notorious for mosquitos, although perhaps less so at this time of year. Even so, it is not the place to camp.
On la Place de la Comédie in Montpellier, at the foot of the medieval town, a lone busker plays. The sound of his amplified Spanish guitar lifts over the rattle and thrum of the trams, reverberating off the tall buildings around the square. We sit under the restaurant awnings, glad of the heaters as lamplight glistened on the wet pavement listening. The guitar’s voice speaks of long summer evenings, of cicadas and the smell of dust.
Today will take us almost the length of the Pyrenees so this is goodbye to the Mediterranean. It feels like a big moment. As a final farewell we take the coast road from Sète and follow the narrow isthmus between the Étang de Thau and the sea, a morning stroll along the beach, before turning inland to Narbonne.
We approach Carcassonne along the Chemin de Montlegun, the high road with a broad view across the plain, so it is only as we draw near that the turrets of the Château Comtal come into sight. As we swing downhill along the footpath which skirts the castle of the Cathars, the size and scale of the fortress walls become more awe-inspiring with every step. It was here that the papist French Albigensians besieged the Cathars in 1209, determined to wipe out these puritanical, heretical Christians who refused to accept the leadership of the established church. The Albigensians purged the people of this region of Occitanie: they destroyed the towns, stamped out the culture and the language. The last of the Cathars was burnt at the stake in 1244, screaming from the flames the Cathar prophecy that the Church of Love would be proclaimed in 1986, that it would have no fabric but only understanding.
Our walk continues through gently undulating agricultural land with glimpses of the foothills of the Pyrenees, dusted with snow, to the south. Most striking is the change in the light. It is not just that it is more cloudy but that the air feels, tastes, looks different now that we have replaced the sea with the mountains.
The elegant architecture of Tarbes reminds us that this is Gascony, from where, some way to the north of the region, D’Artagnan rode out to join the Three Musketeers. We come to the turning to Lourdes and decide to make the detour, but are disappointed by the vast acreage of barren car park and the horrid commercialism that surrounds the precincts of the shrine. A few miles further on the handsome château of Pau, more a palace than a fortress, alerts us that we must turn off into the Pyrenees and begin to climb. Some of the place names no longer have a French ring to them, and yet nor are they Spanish: Lohitzun-Oyhercq, Juxue, Ostabat-Asme. Basque is an ancient language seemingly unrelated to any other, which has survived in spite of the cultural ravages of the centuries.
A little way short of the Spanish border we stop for the night in St Jean Pied-de Port, the official beginning of the Camino Frances.
Cobbled streets lead under stone arches to narrow bridges across the river where the houses hang huddled over the water. We find the Pilgrim Office and pick up our Carnet de Pélerin de Saint-Jean. It gives us a sense of a new phase in our pilgrimage. We’ve been to Canterbury and Jerusalem and Rome, we’ve looked in at Lourdes; we’ve enjoyed the company of our band of pilgrims; the sight of 86 of us turns heads along the roads and by-ways but here at the start of the Camino we are joining a long established pilgrimage. There is among us a slight sense of losing our independence mingled with excitement at being, for the first time, ‘official’.
‘¡Vamonos! Let’s go.’
At first the landscape is reminiscent of the Shropshire hills, we could be back in Carding Mill Valley, but the higher we get, the more vast the skies. Forested mountains rise and fall away into the distance and there is snow on the summits. Indeed, there is snow only a little way above us and when we cross into Spain at the Col de Bentarte we find ourselves in thick cloud with snow under foot. Thank goodness for the well-worn track and the distinctive and frequent blue way-markers showing the pilgrim’s cockle shell. We are soon in Roncevalles where Roland, the favourite younger son of Charlemagne, held off the Moors on the French army’s retreat from Spain, famously blowing his horn only when he was the last man standing, too late to summon help.
We drop down into Pamplona, too early in the year for the San Fermin bull run, and roll along the edge of the plain, the mountains rising to our right this time, through Logroño to Burgos, the ancient capital of Castile. The Gothic cathedral, its twin pinnacles pointing heavenward, is a most imposing edifice to the glory of God and the Castilian rulers and the medieval city remains intact despite centuries of ever more destructive wars. From there to León is unrelenting, undulating plain, the fields fuzzed with early greenery; it must be hard going here in high summer. After a lunch pause in the city, we are glad to get back up into the mountains.
It is too early in the year for crowds of pilgrims, for which we are thankful, but those we meet are friendly and curious about our story.
‘How do you cover the distances so quickly?’
‘Team effort,’ is the only reply we can give. They’ve allowed a month or more for the Camino alone.
One of the rest places, an área de descanso para peregrinos, is called Cruz de Ferro.
‘Are they trying to tell us something? We’re heading for Ponferrado, the iron bridge, and here’s Cruz de Ferro, the iron cross.’
‘We must be steely people.’
‘The next albergue is at El Acebo de San Miguel, St Michael’s Holly; perhaps it’s not meant to be a comfortable experience.’
To prove the point, it starts to rain.
Ponferrada finds us back among the Knights Templar as we pass beneath the walls of their magnificent fortress. It’s turrets and battlement seem as clichéd as a child’s toy castle but it’s original 12th century purpose was to protect the Camino pilgrims so those fortifications mean business.
‘They were a ferocious lot, the Knights Templar, you didn’t wan to get the wrong side of them.’
The next leg to Sarria provides another stiff climb and the reward of open skies and distant views. This large Galician town marks the point where pilgrims qualify for the Compostela, the Certificate of Completion for the Camino Francés so from here we meet many more pilgrims, each with their story to tell. Some are doing the Camino because they can, others, the ones who will truly qualify for the Certificate, have more spiritual reasons: devotion, thanks, atonement. We slow right down and decide to spend the night at Portomarín, a ‘new’ Medieval village which was moved uphill in 1960, to make way for a reservoir when the Miño river dam was built. This involved moving the more important buildings, including the 12th century church, stone by stone. Imagine.
Saturday 20th FebruaryMichael’s recommendations mean we make a slow start today. Coming to the outskirts of Perugia we agree that it would be a dereliction to bypass the town so we loop up into the medieval centre before carrying on to the shores of Lake Trasimene.
‘Hannibal defeated the Romans at the battle here in 217BC.’
‘With or without elephants?’
The shores are peaceful, the water twinkles but we don’t stop at the beach and we only pause for coffee in Arezzo, lovely as it is, because Florence is now not far away and we are all keen to get there. We wind down through lush green Tuscan hills and villages punctuated with columns of poplars and cypresses. The villages come thicker and faster until they merge into one. At the point where we get our first view, Florence is a distant smudge, the Bruneleschi dome rising alongside its Campanile out of the wide sweep of terracotta rooves. The really romantic view is from Fiesole but our approach is south of there on flatter ground.
Florence, the seat of power of the Medici princes, displayed its wealth through its buildings.
‘So what’s changed?’
‘Look at London.’
‘Look at Paris.’
‘Everywhere we’ve been.’
The Duomo is a statement of the city’s might but it is also an architectural wonder: Bruneleschi, the architect, was an innovator and the interior is light and airy, with a feeling of vast space largely thanks to the unsupported dome sweeping heavenward. Breathtaking. The opulent Medici chapels in the Duomo leave us in no doubt of their status. The family exercised immense power over a small area but with far reaching influence. Even the Pope trod warily with the Medicis. In the days when Italy was made up of principalities, continually at each other’s throats, Dante Alighieri, he of the Divine Comedy, was exiled on pain of death from Florence. He lived out his life barely a hundred miles away in Lunigiana.Michael catches up with us later in the evening and quizzes us on what we have seen and done so far.
‘Have you seen the Brancacci Chapel? and the Fra Angelico at San Marco?’
‘We’ve only just arrived, Michael.’
‘Tomorrow, first thing. You must see them.’
The frescos of the Brancacci Chapel are the work of 21-year-old Masaccio. The colours are vivid, the play of light brings the faces alive; the images, familiar from prints and cards, leap off the walls in a way no reproduction ever can. Masaccio died in 1448, aged only 27. While Fra Angelico’s fresco figures in the convent of San Marco do not bring to life portraits of Rinascimento figures with quite so much energy, the natural simplicity of the Annunciation is just as captivating.
Week 6 update
86 of us, covered 1,477.48 miles last week which took us from the Lebanese border (thank you Mikka) to Samos (in fact to somewhere in the sea between Samos and Piraeus). However, as you will see from the blog, below, we’re stuck on Samos for a few days where the weather is fine, 15C today:
Monday 8th February
We turned right a little way before Beirut and headed inland into much tougher country with deep rocky valleys and steep climbs. The final approach to Baalbek is along a wide valley with snow topped mountains rising in the distance on either side. The name Baalbek written in Arabic on the signposts looks like a two masted ship.
The city was known to the Greeks as Heliopolis, City of the Sun, and the temple complex is a reflection of its importance in those times: it is breathtaking. For all the conflict that Lebanon has know over the centuries, and particularly over the last fifty years or so, the temples dedicated to Venus, Mercury and Jupiter as well as Bacchus, have remained undisturbed. The temple columns soar overhead, broad ceremonial stairways sweep up to monumental porticos and massive doorways have fine carvings still as sharp as they must have appeared to the Roman pilgrims who came to worship here. Built with brute force and muscle power and built to last with huge stones of unimaginable weight.
‘This is a single stone, taller than me,’ marvels Terry, standing with a hand on the pediment of a column.
‘How did they do it? How did they move these stones? Even a modern crane wouldn’t be up to this.’
‘How many of our 21st century buildings will still be standing in two thousand years’ time?’
Or will inspire this much awe?
As our ferry from Tripoli was not going to wait for us and the next wasn’t due until Wednesday, we climbed out of the valley and dropped back down to the coast through deep green valleys dotted with villages. The nearer to Tripoli we came, the more modern and groomed these became but the landscape remained timelessly dramatic.
Before boarding we took the opportunity to have one last, delicious Lebanese meal in Tripoli. The ferry crew greeted us with complete indifference, we found our cabins and sailed away into the night, passing the panhandle of Cyprus along the way.
Waking up in Mersin we turned left and followed the coast, whenever possible diverting off the D400 dual carriageway to follow quieter roads and explore the villages and towns along the way. We made good progress and stopped for the night at the broad beach of Anamur.
‘Is that Cyprus?’ We stare out to sea at the outline of a coast.
‘Could be, it’s only about five miles away.’
Susie suggested an alternative route to take this morning so we turned inland to follow the Lycean Way from its starting point near Antalya almost to Fethiye. The track was rugged and traffic free, the views across the hills and the sea magnificent; we strode along, covering the ground in no time.
We came to Marmaris. Even out of season, this is a brash, noisy place.
‘Rhodes is only an hour away,’ came a wistful suggestion. However, a quick check at the harbour master’s office showed that ferries are few and far between at this time of year so it will have to wait for another time.
We were not deprived, however, of a Crusader castle, since St Peter’s Castle at Bodrum, our next stop, was built by the Knights Hospitalier of the Order of St John, with the familiar St John’s cross as their emblem. This was their mainland staging post on the way to Rhodes and was, apparently, begun in 1404 under the watchful eye of a German knight and architect glorying in the name of Heinrich Schlegelholt. The Turkish government has put the castle to use as an underwater archeology museum so we spend a happy couple of hours travelling back in time.
Bodrum airport, as we skirt it in the morning sunshine, seems like an alien beast crouching by the bay, belonging to a different world.
‘Do you know that the sound of aircraft taking off and landing at airports near the sea can be heard by marine life miles away?’
The morality of flying keeps us in heated discussion as we walk up a road, lined with olive trees, towards the mountains. As we climb, the slopes around us are covered in dense forest, wilder terrain than we’ve met for a while, and the air is cooler.
’17C, we can’t complain.’
‘I wonder what the weather’s like in UB?’
‘Colder than this!’
Our route returns to the coast at Azbük in time for lunch on the seafront. The map shows another busy D road between here and Kusadasi but there are plenty of country roads on either side so, although it makes us zigzag from one side to the other, we are able to walk free from heavy traffic.
‘Ephesus isn’t far from here, it’s only a little way north of Kusadasi.’
‘Is it worth the detour?’
‘UNESCO world heritage sight: the Temple of Venus is one of the seven wonders of the world.’
We make the detour and yes, it is definitely worth it.
In the theatre we sit where the citizens held a meeting to decide to expel the Apostle Paul from the city. It seems Christianity was threatening to drive the silversmiths out of business because they could no longer sell their tiny figures of Artemis to the pilgrims who flocked to worship at her temple. The facade of the library still stands despite earthquake, wind and fire, the tomb of Cleopatra’s sister is just along the street. The houses of rich burgers were decorated with beautiful mosaic floors and frescoes. Mary Magdalen is buried here as well as St John and in the long grass are the remains of the tomb of St Luke. Ephesus has been a place of pilgrimage for Greeks, Romans, Muslims and Christians so we were glad that we went there too.
After a comfortable night in Kusadasi we went down to the harbour to enquire about a ferry to Samos. They are not too frequent at this time of year but it was pleasant to wander around the harbour while we waited. It is only a short hop across to the island and it is nice to find ourselves so easily in Greece. We discover, however, that we have missed this morning’s ferry to Piraeus and that the next is not due until Tuesday.
No-one seems all that disappointed.
Week 5 Update
We have reached Jerusalem.
Thoughts from our blogger
Friday 29th January
Meeting in the early evening at the pier, we had to resist the temptation to turn around and go back into town because our route from here takes us to the south coast of Turkey where next ferry only goes on certain days of the week, Saturday being one of them. Reluctantly we peeled ourselves away from the Byzantine glories of Istanbul and watched the minarets recede as we crossed the Bosphorus.
We spent the night in Yalova, an pleasant enough modern city, and set out early this morning to find our route ran, again, along a narrow valley by way of a dual carriageway. We had visions of delays for accidents that we couldn’t afford so we were lucky to run into a group of young Turks in the filling station who were, apparently, off on something similar to a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition. They led us cheerfully over the mountain tracks and brought us safely down onto the banks of the Iznik Gölü, a large lake where we hardly saw a soul, apart from some intrepid swimmers.
From here we made rapid progress over the wide open rolling plain, through settlements of concrete buildings and dusty vehicles that had enjoyed (if that is the right word) a long life of toil. Late afternoon brought us to a somewhat daunting mountain range that stood between us and the port of Mersin. However, we were well into our stride now and were soon looking down on the Mediterranean where the ferry was, we hoped, waiting for us. Over the blue horizon was the Middle East, the Holy Land and probably the most perilous part of our journey.
The ferry crew barely looked at us, barely looked at our passport. We found our cabins and reassembled in the cafeteria. We were tired and hungry and would have eaten anything, within reason, so were thankful to find the meal on offer was tasty and filling trucker food and it hit the spot. We slept, lulled by the waves, all the way to Lebanon. Morning found us basking in warm sunshine with the cranes of the port of Tripoli dipping and waving at us, and the high rise buildings tumbling down the hillside. “Like Lego bricks” someone remarked.
Southwards to Beirut, we enjoyed the views of the sea on our right, enjoyed delicious Lebanese food and felt generally as if we were now on holiday. Sidon, Tyre were left behind and then abruptly the atmosphere changed. As evening fell we came to Naqoura and were conscious of a considerable military presence. We were stared at but not stopped until, south of the town, a large, solid, menacing 4×4 came screeching up the road and blocked our way. The doors opened and out came soldiers in blue helmets, their weapons twitching in their hands. UN troops. Peacekeepers. We’d be all right. Surely?
The man who came towards us was a tall, heavily built European.
‘Were are you going?’ his accent was Scandinavian.
‘Jerusalem,’ we replied in chorus with more confidence than we felt.
‘This way?’ he asked incredulously.
‘Yes? Israel is just there,’ we pointed over his shoulder.
‘Israel is there, yes. Crossing here: no.’
A female officer sidled up. Whatever it was she said to him made him look more closely at us.
‘Why are you going to Jerusalem?’
We explained and as our nervously garbled tale unfolded his face softened. After a while he threw back his head and laughed.
‘You English -‘
‘British,’ came a chorus of Welsh voices. He laughed all the louder.
‘You British are crazy. As mad as, what is the expression? A box of frogs? Stark staring bonkers. I love the English language, so expressive. Come with me.’ He turned and led the way through a gate into the barracks.
He introduced himself as Mikka Haraldsen, a Finn. ‘You are lucky,’ he said. ‘It is Sunday. Wait there.’
In no time at all four military trucks drew up and we were ordered onto them. Blue helmeted soldiers got on behind us to sit by the tailgate and off we went into the night. The trucks stopped and started and stopped again and we sat very still and quiet.
Eventually the trucks stopped again, the soldiers jumped down and let the tailgates down. Our laughing Finn cried ‘Welcome to Rosh Hanikra. The grottoes are world famous tourist sight in northern Israel. Please tell me,’ he added in a more serious tone. ‘Please tell me that you are flying home from Tel Aviv.’
‘No, no, we’re heading for Athens next and then Rome. It’s all right, we’ll take the ferry from Tel Aviv to Limassol.’
‘No. It no longer operates. We are in a war zone. Ferries don’t run here.’
‘That’s all right, we’ll walk to Alexandria and catch the ferry to Heraklion.’
‘No. Nine years ago you might have done but not this year.’ Mikka rubbed the back of his neck and sighed. ‘Be here – why am I doing this? Be here at ten o’clock next Sunday evening. 22.00 hours. I might wait five minutes but no longer. Understood?’ he scowled.
We began to thank him but he waved a hand and he and his men disappeared into the dark, back the way they’d come. We camped on the beach.
Southwards through Haifa, we turned left at Tel Aviv and arrived in Jerusalem in the late morning. None of us could quite believe it.
So what is the plan? We’re stuck here until next Sunday, although ‘stuck’ is entirely the wrong word: there is so much to see and do and an enforced week of walking leisurely from one site to another will be a great pleasure. After that? Thanks to our laughing Finn, all being well, we’ll go back north to our ferry from Tripoli, the Lebanese Lego port, and from there west along the Turkish coast to find a ferry to Piraeus then to Athens. We’ll wend our way across to Italy, stop in Rome and, when we get to Marseilles, decide whether to turn north along the Rhône valley then hook up with the Loire, or carry on west into Spain and to Santiago de Compostela before heading back to the dear old familiar Caen-Ouistreham ferry to Portsmouth. England seems like a world away. In the meantime we have the Holy Land to discover.
Week 4 Update
We are now 78 pilgrims, between us we have covered 2012.4 miles and, thanks to your generosity, we have raised £635 which will go a long way towards repairing the church porch roof so a heartfelt “ThankYou” to you all.
Thoughts from our blogger
Monday 25th to Thursday 28th
It was only when we woke up after our evening’s trek in the Carpathians and looked down on the Danube in daylight that one of us remarked that we were now below the famous Iron Gates gorge. Patrick Leigh Fermor came this way before WWII and travelled through the gorge where mountains ‘soared on either side in precipices’ and the river ‘swelled and boiled in protest.’* Since his travels a hydro-electric dam has somewhat tamed the water but the vitality of it is still evident this morning. We didn’t follow the banks too closely as the river winds and sweeps through the Romanian countryside. Instead we took the more direct route across the fields, hardly seeing a soul until we came to the Danube again in Bechet. Waiting for the ferry crossing, some of our pilgrims fell into conversation with Father Silviu, a local priest who took a keen interest in our adventure and pressed into Graham’s hand a wooden madonna and child statuette.
‘Take this,’ he said, ‘to watch over you on your way. There is a great renewal of faith in Romania in the last few years. Do you know? We are building ten churches a month in my country. Ten! Every month!’
The ferry from Bechet in Romania to Oriahovo in Bulgaria is a 20 minute ride as the boat crosses the river diagonally and the Danube is all but a mile wide. It gave us a different perspective and a feeling for the power of this mighty river.
While we had had a good view of a magnificent castle from the ferry, the Cold War architecture of Oriahovo is not the most inspiring but at least the town provided us with shops where we have been able to stock up. Sadly none of us (we are now 74 pilgrims) speaks Bulgarian and the locals don’t speak English but sign language works well enough. We find ourselves back in flat country, sprinkled with snow, but fortunately there are lines of hills and forest to break up the monotony. In the villages all the signs are written in cyrillic but luckily the road signs are also written in the roman alphabet, which helps us to make decisions about the route. The locals are not as open as our friends in the Czech Republic, they regard us with wariness, but those who venture to taken an interest are encouraging. They look at our maps, nod and smile and point out the route. At the bakery, they recommended we try Banista, a pastry which comes with infinite varieties of filling from feta, through cabbage and onion, to apple and walnut, perfect sustaining picnic food.
Gradually the landscape has become more mountainous and we were glad to rest our legs in Gabrovo before facing the steep climb through the Balkan mountains. Here there is evidence of the magnificence of the Ottoman Empire with a handsome historic city centre. Apparently the city of Gabrovo prides itself on being the international capital of humour and satire. Everyone we’ve met was cheerful and helpful at any rate, even if we don’t understand their jokes.
The climb over the mountains, mostly in forest and scrubland, was taxing but the road was largely deserted and the people we did meet share the sense of humour of the inhabitants of Gabrovo so we carried on happily. Hairpin bends brought us back down onto the plain and to the pleasant city of Kazanlak where we have stopped for the night. This has given us time to visit the Thracian tomb, a UNESCO world heritage sight where the inside of the cupola is painted with a fresco showing scenes of everyday life in vivid and beautifully preserved colour.
We were conferring over the map when a voice asked in English ‘Can I help you?’ This was Stefan who was a delivery driver who lived in Croydon for six years. We had been hesitating between the E85 and a more northerly route which looked less direct.
‘There’s not much in it,’ said Stefan. ‘It all depends how much you like walking along the dual carriageway.’
We didn’t fancy that so decided on the more northerly route.
‘You’ll need to buy food here, in that case. It’s very, how shall I say? Rural.’
We are again in vast open country, not entirely featureless. For a while we thought we might have made a bad decision when we came across a huge area to the south east of Radnevo which was completely devastated: a gigantic scar of nothingness on the landscape. It was quite upsetting and an ecological wake-up call to us all.
Our day has been a long steady tramp over rolling country which is, indeed, very rural. In time we came upon mile upon mile of trucks lining the road, their despondent drivers standing around, mobile glued to their ears. Someone remarked: ‘I didn’t know we were back in Kent!’ but it was the Turkish border we were approaching. We worried that there might be difficulties for us but when we got there, the border police looked at our passports, glowered at us and waved us through without a word.
We thought we would stop for the night at the village of Koyunbaba (where Google Earth has not yet penetrated). The locals brought us tea and coffee and stood around looking at us as if we were a travelling zoo. Our maps are of little or no interest to them. We thanked them and walked on, preferring to camp in the open.
Will we make it to Istanbul tonight? There is a buzz of excitement among us and our good humour has redoubled since we discovered shops in Kirklareli where were are currently buying supplies.
Today’s walking has been largely through miles of woodland, mostly, it seems young trees. Excitement grows as we come to a bend in the dead straight road or to the top of a rise. What do we see? Trees and another stretch of dead straight road. (Aren’t you glad you’re doing this virtually?) Eventually we emerge onto open fields where the villages are not quite so far apart and here we begin to see aircraft, large commercial airliners taking off and landing at Istanbul airport. Arnavutköy, by the airport, is the biggest town we’ve seen for days. It has a bustling, modern air of wealth which feels at odds with the many miles we have travelled over the last few days. It is as if we have stepped back into the 21st century after a trip back in time to the mid 20th century: a bit of a culture shock.
The route along the valley between here and the outskirts of Istanbul is, unfortunately, a very busy road. There is no option, it seems, but to trudge along in single file, gritting our teeth until we get to the other side.
As soon as we could, we turned off into the side streets and filtered our way southwards to the heart of the old city, the Sultanahmet on the banks of the Bosphorus. Now the talk was all of our day off in Istanbul, the prospect of a proper shower, a good restaurant, clean sheets, the sights to be seen, the Hagia Sophia (‘Look is that it coming up on the right? Yes, it is!’) the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the Topkapi Palace.
We agreed a meeting place tomorrow evening at the Eminönü ferry terminal and went our separate ways.
*see the end of Between the Woods and the Water and the beginning of The Broken Road.
Week 3 Update
Thoughts from our blogger
Hungary, the bits we’ve seen of it, is, on the whole flat. We walked on into the dusk and crossed uneventfully into Romania, which promises us mountains. This, we reflected, might be a mixed blessing: easier on the eye, harder on the calf muscles. We were, however, still on the great Hungarian plain even here and couldn’t see now, in the dark, whether the landscape before us was changing much. It didn’t feel like it.
Eventually we arrived in Timisoara, a city big enough to offer us a comfortable night’s rest.
Monday 18th – Thursday 21st January
And so we passed into the Czech Republic. We found ourselves somewhat out of our comfort zone here as no-one had very good, if any, Czech. The going is easy enough: flat agricultural land, interspersed with large areas of forest. It inspired a few people to remember stories from Grimms fairy tales, with some contemporary twists. To say the countryside is sparsely populated is no exaggeration and by the time we reached Belá nad Radbouzou we were quite hungry. It was then that we realised what a large group we had become: sixty-one people descending on a smallish village drew the attention of the locals. They came out to stare. There was a café but the owners were not terribly pleased to see so many of us and it took a long time to get served as the waiter was seen first at the village shop then knocking on doors for extra supplies.
Out of one of the houses came an imposing woman wrapped in a voluminous overcoat. We could see her trying to count heads. Eventually she came over and fired questions in rapid and incomprehensible Czech. Interpreting her gesticulation, we guessed she wanted answers to the obvious questions so we wrote down the number of pilgrims and showed her our maps. As soon as she realised where we were going and how far we’d come already (we wrote 765 miles down then remembered to convert it to 1,231km) her whole demeanour changed as did that of the assembled locals when she bellowed our news to them. Suddenly we were welcome guests and a coffee stop became a party.
Our friend in the coat pulled a mobile phone out of her huge pocket. She dialled and, while she was waiting, dabbed a broad finger on the map and then indicated her phone. She shouted excitedly at the person who picked up, dabbing all the while at the map. We peered: Horsovsky Tyn. It looked bigger than Belá nad Radbouzou. When she’d finished she looked us in the eye with a smile of satisfaction and said: ‘Piotr, Piotr’ dabbing again at the map with one hand while indicating food and sleep with the other. The locals nodded in agreement. With only the haziest idea of what it was all about, we smiled and said ‘thank you’, gathered up our belongings and were escorted cheerfully out of the village.
At the village of Srby the people stood on their doorsteps and waving. Word had got out. We were met outside Horsovsky Tyn by a broad man in a red pickup who introduced himself as Piotr and led us triumphantly into the town centre where it was evident that we were expected and that we provided an excuse for a party.
In a sports hall, beer flowed freely, tables groaned with food labelled in Czech: Vepřo knedlo zelo turned out to be pork with delicious dumplings and Česnečka was a potent garlic soup. There was music and dancing until, eventually, we were led away to soft beds in local houses. How to repay so much wonderful hospitality? They wanted nothing in return but seemed delighted to have had a reason to brighten up a winter Monday evening.
And so it continued: our arrival was expected all along the way so it was just as well we had a good walk in between feasts. The town band of Klatovy turned out in our honour on Tuesday night; on Wednesday we had a warm welcome in Ceske Budejovice and were treated to Svíčková na smetaně, marinated sirloin. With the utmost reluctance we prepared to cross the border into Austria on Thursday afternoon. What wonderful people our Czech hosts were: they entered into the spirit of our adventure and wafted us through their country in a haze of garlic and beer and kindness.
A couple of times as we walked a ghostly figure appeared at my side. When I looked, I was met by the steady brown-eyed gaze of a whippet, a Crusaders’ dog, an appropriate link with out forefathers. He trotted quietly by my side for an hour or so and then was gone. I hope I’ll see him again.
Week 2 Update
Congratulations to everyone who has sent in their week 1 mileage. We have covered 761.5 miles which has taken us just over the border into the Czech Republic, crossing east of Eslarn in Germany, south-west of Dresden. We are well on our way to Vienna and, as some big walkers have joined us now, at this rate we’ll be in Timisoara (1,289 miles from Upton Bishop) in no time at all.
A total of 41 people have signed up and we have raised more than £300.
Blog from a walker
Week 1 Update
Ten people have signed up and we are currently sitting in Parliament Square.