Alright, so I’m a bad traveller and a bad writer. I’m actually in Strasbourg, France, at the moment, although my diaries are currently languishing somewhere in Portugal. If I try to properly recount the trip up to date it’ll take me another three weeks and I’ll never catch up, sooo… gonna just rush through a few cities right now. Here I go.
After Ericeira came Sintra, after Sintra came Lisbon for one last evening, and after Lisbon came Porto. I spent three or four nights in Porto, and I liked it very much except for how hilly it is, which made every 5-minute excursion into a sweating-cobs puffy-cheeked odyssey. I made a lot of friends from all over the world, particularly an English guy called Jermaine, a Brazilian guy called Pablo, and a German guy called Mike. They were all a fair bit older than me, which was a nice change of pace.
Jermaine, Pablo and I did exactly one cultural thing in Porto, which was to visit a Banksy exhibit that Pablo fancied. I’ll admit I wasn’t wildly impressed, as I used to live in Bristol and therefore saw a lot of Banksy’s works for free around the city, rather than photographed and placed in a gallery. But hey ho. Something to do.
Porto was great – a lot smaller and much grimier than Lisbon, it had a very authentic, chilled-out, artsy feel to it, and the riverside was beautiful with its enormous steel bridge and little boats and hodge-podge buildings all leaning on one another, painted in faded colours.
Most of my time in the city was spent drinking, if I’m honest. Not entirely proud of it, but there you go.
After Porto I took a bus five hours north, out of Portugal and into Spain. No passport control at all – gotta love the Schengen. Northern Spain looked nothing like I expected. Far from crunchy, brittle grass and chirping cicadas, it’s all lush forest and gorgeous mountains and sweeping sunset bay cities. It looks like photos of Sri Lanka or Costa Rica I’ve seen, all verdant countryside peppered with little red-roofed houses with white walls, and the occasional brown cow standing in a field beside a well.
I spent four nights in Santiago, which is the end-point of the trans-European pilgrimage known as ‘El Camino de Santiago’, or ‘The Way of St James’. Basically, you start at one of dozens of locations across Europe – Porto, Lisbon, Bordeaux, Seville, even as far as Hungary and Turkey if you’re truly nuts – and make your way to Santiago de Compostela, where there’s a massive cathedral in which St James’s bones are reportedly interred. Hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world make the journey each year, some for fun, some for religion, some for exercise, some to find peace. Mostly it’s older people, which is why Santiago is chock-full of silver haired folks with hefty boots and hiking poles.
I liked the architecture in Santiago; I’d genuinely not seen anything like it before. It looked very Catholic and very ornate, but somehow not dainty or fragile; the detailing on their structures was chunky and substantial. These weren’t the spindly minarets and twiggy spires you see around other religious towns. Strasbourg’s impossibly detailed cathedral, for example, although beautiful, looks as though it might blow away on a summer breeze. The cathedral in Santiago looks as though it could eat a cannon ball with barely a shrug. If it wasn’t for the fact that the town sits in a broad valley, I might have thought the churches and homes of Santiago’s labyrinthine old town were hewn straight out of a cliffside. It put me in mind of the dwarven cities from The Lord of the Rings, but then I’m a millennial and everything puts me in mind of The Lord of the Rings.
My time in Santiago was mostly spent with a surly Scot named Henry and a naïve young American called James. We went out most nights and had a couple of adventures and close shaves, including one involving a lot of arm wrestling and an aging Italian MMA fighter on a fearful amount of cocaine. On our last night we went to a free music festival with thousands of people, and I fell irrevocably in love with one of the backup dancers (centre-left, tiny white denim shorts, if you’re reading this call me), despite my being some two hundred metres from the stage.
My best moment in Santiago, however, was simply standing in front of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. I found myself there one drizzly afternoon by mistake, just sauntering aimlessly – in the giant square, Praza do Obradoiro, that expands before the cathedral’s gates and great looming towers. It took a moment for me to realise where I had arrived: at the end point of the Camino – the finish line for every last one of the hundreds of thousands of trekkers who pass through Santiago every year. I drifted through the square in a daydream as all around me, from different alleyways and off-shoots, hikers trickled into the square to congregate in the centre, before the gates of the cathedral, to finish their journey.
I didn’t stand in the centre of the square; I felt I hadn’t earned it. Instead I stood at the back, sheltering from the rain beneath an archway, and watched for half an hour the slow procession of hikers arriving from various routes. Some arrived in groups, some in couples, some solo. I saw people laugh, cry, cheer, take photographs, and hug one another very tightly. Hiking poles waved overhead, and people climbed on each other’s shoulders for team photos.
The square is a special place; the stones resonate with love and gratitude. All day long, a steady stream of people step into the square and into their finest hour – the completion of an odyssey that’s taken weeks or months. You can feel the emotion in the air like steam.
I stayed in Gijon for one evening only, as I wanted to zoom along Spain’s north coast as quickly as possible to get to my favourite country, France. Stayed in a surf hostel, didn’t really get chance to see the city but it looked pretty enough – a lovely long beach and lots of people zipping around on surfboards. I’ve been toying with the idea of trying a surf camp somewhere. If I can find a cheap one, perhaps I’ll do it.
Another one-night stay. I had a night out with a few English people I met (from Pudsey, bizarrely – the town in Yorkshire where my grandparents live). It wasn’t a very good night, however; I got sloppily drunk, despite only having five or six bottles of beer, after which I’d usually only be tipsy. I woke up feeling very anxious and unsure of myself. I put it down to dehydration and not eating enough and gave myself a slap on the wrist.
In the morning, my ego bruised, I took myself to explore the Guggenheim museum. While queuing for tickets I tried to hype myself up to lie and say I was a student in order to get the €9 ticket, but when I reached the till I panicked and said ‘adult’ immediately and paid €18, god dammit. It was worth it in the end, anyway – I spent an hour or two enjoying the exhibits, which included artistic cinema pieces, a gigantic indoor maze-thing with weird echoes, and a collection of beautiful classic cars.
Before the time came to take my bus to the next city, I spent a few hours wandering Bilbao’s old town, and felt guilty for not staying longer – it was very beautiful, with a lot of picturesque alleyways full of local people chatting and drinking wine and eating pintxos, which is a bit like tapas except all the little tasty treats are served on a small piece of bread.
Only had one night here again, racing across Spain. I arrived late, so I couldn’t do much of anything with my evening. I spent it in the hostel, talking to a couple of backpackers, one from Aus, one from France, and for dinner I ate a bread bun with a thin square of cheese slapped in the middle. This would be a paltry dinner anywhere, but there was a particularly cruel irony in San Sebastian: the town is famed for having the most Michelin-star restaurants of any town in the world. But of course I’m perpetually skint, so… dusty cheese sarnies it is.
In the morning I worked a little on the hostel terrace, then in the afternoon lugged my backpack the forty minutes into town, past the beautiful golden beach ringed with lush green hills and cliff-islands shooting up out of the cove. I wished I had more time to explore, but it was okay – my next stop was Bordeaux, and I was excited.
The bus took forever to reach Bordeaux, but the journey was easy and I had two seats to myself. I watched Spain become France, and felt comfortable and happy to watch pretty little villages flick by as we wound slowly up France’s western coast. It felt good to be in a country where I could (in theory, at least) speak and understand the language. My French isn’t pretty – it’s angular and crude – but it’s at least functional, and I have enough language to get just about anything I need and hold a (slow) conversation.
I tested it out as soon as I got off the bus from San Sebastian; I asked a young girl if the tram I’d just stepped onto was going the right way.
“Excusez-moi, je ne parle pas beaucoup de Francais, mais–”
“You speak English?” she asked. “I can speak it if you need.”
“I do speak English,” I laughed. “But I’d like to practice my French.”
You have to press to keep speaking French sometimes – people try to switch to help you out. I was able to speak enough French with the girl to discern that my train was headed in the right direction. Once I’d got my bearings, I thanked her and took a seat, feeling very happy and accomplished. I’ve got years before I’ll be anyway near ‘good’ at French, but it’s fulfilling and satisfying to be able to get by with whatever I’ve learned so far.
Bordeaux is absolutely beautiful. I spent four nights and five days there, and met a multitude of backpackers from all over the world. I was continually astonished by how consistently gorgeous Bordeaux is; every alleyway seemed to contain some quaint secret, and the façade of every building seemed to gleam in the sun, adorned with sandy-coloured stone detailing. Every terrace looked like the front of an opera house, and the streets shone with smooth black tiles or cobbles. Faded, peeling paint gave front doors character and charm, and clinging vines crawled up and twisted around ancient metal balconies. Ramshackle signs hung above busy cafes, and red and white awnings sheltered coffee drinkers from the beating midday sun.
Every corner I turned left me increasingly besotted, and I took photos of everything. I tried to compensate for my lack of sightseeing through Spain by visiting several of Bordeaux’s cathedrals. I spent an afternoon at a hipster skatepark/bar/graffiti-hangout called Darwin, I walked through picturesque squares, I ate in cafes, and I crossed the gigantic medieval bridge that spans the river. I spent my evenings drinking beer and wine by the riverside, because neither I nor any of my fellow backpackers could afford to drink in the bars.
My last night in Bordeaux was spent drinking no alcohol at all, but instead chatting to a couple of genuinely lovely backpackers – one Mexican, one German – by the riverside. We sat for hours and watched people pass by, some jogging or cycling, others unicycling, skating, scootering or anything else – sit there long enough and you witness modes of transport you’d never imagined existed.
It was actually one of my fave nights of the trip so far – just chilling and talking and not boozing for a change. It was so good, in fact, that I came to a bit of a revelation. But this is already a long entry, so I’ll write about that tomorrow.
Until then! x