Home from home

No sooner had we returned home from our first trip to the UK in almost two years than our thoughts turned to continuing southwards to Asturias; not because we felt the desire for an easing-of-Covid- restrictions travelfest (far from it, in fact) but because we needed to check the state of house and land before hunkering down in Mayenne again and tackling some major projects in the coming months. I hadn’t been back to Asturias since February and I must admit it felt like a slightly surreal home from home, waking in our old bed to the sound of village cockerels once more, almost as if we’d never left. Mind you, there was so much I had forgotten in the intervening months: how even on the gloomiest, wettest, cloud-shrouded day the air remains blissfully warm; how steep the mountain roads are, giddy with hairpins; how the air is pungent with the smell of eucalyptus and rings with the music of cowbells; what a luxury it is to pluck fresh figs from the tree for breakfast; what a pest mosquitoes are in the night; that forgetting to carry a brolly is downright daft; how mesmerising the skyscapes and sunsets can be; how everything grows so ridiculously quickly and how it is all so verdantly, lusciously, eye-wateringly green. I was slightly perturbed to find I had lost far too much Spanish, although in truth my grasp of the language had only ever been tenuous at best and obviously I’ve been operating in French for the last nine months (my excuse!). Even worse, my mountain legs had gone, too, so that walking about seemed far more difficult than it used to be. That said, the sight of a heavy moon hanging over the morning valley was enough to set me climbing the steep lane to wander through the woods in the same way it always used to. Ah, Asturias. Still special.

Time to wander.

I’m not naïve enough to expect the garden to have benefited from neglect but it was still bittersweet to see the jungle it had become and the sad lack of vegetables in what previously had been such a productive patch. No need to feel too downhearted, though, as there was still plenty of colour to enjoy with roses, geraniums, Californian poppies, calendula, cerinthe, pansies, dahlias, verbena bonariensis, hydrangeas, hibiscus, hollyhocks and nasturtiums still giving it their all. We had taken a huge box of fresh veggies from our French garden but there were a few little edible surprises in the jungle, too: some self-set parsnips (how ironic, given they were a nightmare to grow when we lived there), rocket, landcress, oca, New Zealand spinach and, judging by the row of bright sunburst flowers on the terrace, a good crop of Jerusalem artichokes.

Bonus New Zealand spinach amongst the nasturtiums.

I was surprised that no squash had emerged from the compost heap (there’s a first time for everything, I suppose) but there is one in the polytunnel and the less said about that, the better – just don’t try opening the door! The kiwi, ever the thug, was dripping with unripe fruit beneath its dense canopy and both fig trees were loaded with huge crops of soft, sweet fruit, sending the blackbirds and blackcaps into a frenzy of clacking and fighting. I’d forgotten how numerous and aggressive they are in fruit season but can’t say I blame them, those figs are fabulous.

Breakfast!

Having spent so many of our final months in Asturias living in virtual isolation, it was lovely to have a brief chance to catch up with friends and neighbours and make up a little bit for the lack of ‘normal’ socialising during that difficult time. Beyond that, we’d expected to have a fair bit of work to do but had hoped to grab something of a mini holiday, too, perhaps doing a couple of long hikes to stretch our travel-weary legs. No such luck; it quickly became very obvious that there was more to be done than we had bargained for so much of the week felt just like the good old days, working hard up and down those merciless slopes – no wonder we were so fit when we lived there! – then collapsing with a glass of Rioja on the terrace, enjoying the evening warmth, the sweet scent of honeysuckle and Japanese quince and revelling again in that beautiful view. Mmm, it could be worse . . . we didn’t really need a holiday, anyway, did we?

We had at least made sure of a brief respite from work by booking a night away in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela and there is a rather lovely story behind that little excursion. Several weeks ago, I was contacted out of the blue by Emma, a former primary school pupil of mine, who was walking the Camino del Norte and wondered if I fancied meeting her for a coffee as she passed through Luarca. I felt very sorry to say we no longer lived there and definitely wouldn’t be around when she trekked though the area. However . . . we were planning to be in Asturias a couple of weeks later so maybe we could catch up with her somewhere else? In the end, we decided to head to Santiago and be there in the Praza do Obradoiro when she arrived at the end of her incredible solo walk of almost 500 miles. I’ve written about visiting Santiago before and how the atmosphere in that huge square literally crackles with emotion as sore-footed pilgrims finally reach their destination and stop in front of the magnificent cathedral.

The reasons for walking the Camino are as diverse as the people doing it and their responses to arriving in the plaza make for some fascinating people-watching. Some sink to their knees in prayer or sit cross-legged in quiet contemplation; some throw their arms into the air and cheer while others collapse in a heap on top of their rucksacks; some rush in to be greeted by family or friends or other pilgrims, others wander around in stunned silence. There is so much chatter, a babel of different languages joined together in celebration, so much laughter, singing and tears; it is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. Emma and I hadn’t met for twenty years yet we recognised each other instantly and it felt like a complete privilege to be with her once again and helping to celebrate her wonderful achievement (actually, walking the Camino had been peanuts compared to some of the things she has done since I last saw her, I am in utter awe of the interesting and adventurous life she leads!).

Still smiling after all those miles . . . bravo, Emma!

I love continental cafe culture, so it was no hardship sitting over coffees for a couple of hours and catching up on news as the world bustled by, a joyful carnival of colour and life moving through the beautiful streets of the old city. We agreed to meet later for dinner and left Emma to grab some well-earned rest while we checked in to our hotel, several kilometres out of town. By a complete coincidence, we discovered it was on the Camino so decided to walk back into the city that evening, following the iconic blue and yellow signs and brass scallop shells set into the pavements. Compared to the pilgrims, we only did a fraction of the walk but it felt right somehow to be following in their footsteps and I could only imagine the range of emotions they must feel winding through the cobbled streets past ancient buildings (there is a wealth of history here!), drawn by the sight of the cathedral’s spires to journey’s end. I still don’t feel any desire to walk the Camino myself but it was lovely to be in Santiago once again and share another tiny chapter in the story of this fascinating city . . . and spend time with a very inspirational young lady, too!

Following in the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims.

On arriving home, we did a quick review of all the tasks that still needed to be done ahead of our impending return to France and then had one of our famous ‘soddit’ moments: did we really want to spend the afternoon beavering away at jobs when the sun was shining and the great Asturian outdoors beckoned? It didn’t take long to answer that one! As a brief nod to us both doing at least something useful, I stuffed a load of laundry into the washing machine while Roger promised to go walnut hunting before we got to boar o’ clock later. (On our recent UK trip, I spent several hours playing a complicated game invented by our little grandsons, part of which involved escaping from imaginary sneaky creatures called Pigsnozzles. Trust me, that is the perfect name to describe a family of wild boar discovering a carpet of fallen walnuts at dusk, they hoover up the lot in a trice. We know from experience that the even sneakier two-legged Snozzles need to head out early with a collecting bucket and outwit the pigs if any kind of walnut harvest is going to be enjoyed!).

Hah! The wild boar didn’t get these beauties.

We brewed a flask of strong Spanish coffee, packed a modest picnic of bread, local cheese, olives marinated in lemon, garlic and rosemary (which I’d made for our Galician trip and promptly forgot to pack) and a decadent slice of caramel-crusted homemade tarte tatin, then set out on our favourite local walk of all time: Las Hoces del Esva.

The path winds around rocky outcrops with spectacular views.

I’ve written about this walk many, many times not only because we’ve done it many, many times, but because it simply never fails to delight; as Roger remarked, you just can’t help but smile along the route. The first couple of miles are pretty enough, passing through apple orchards, a small village and long tract of mixed woodland but then you arrive at the head of a stunning gorge and the real adventure begins. From there on in, it is challenging enough to keep me on my toes – literally, at times – but not so unrelenting that I can’t lift my eyes from the path and drink in the incredible landscape.

The boardwalks are the easiest part of the route, despite some missing and wobbly planks in places.

It’s not just the natural beauty of the surroundings or the incredible peace of the place that I love (the vast majority of times we’ve walked this route, we’ve never seen another soul) but also the sense I always have of it being somehow a showcase for the elements. Earth is the ancient mineral solidity of the fascinating rock formations and the path beneath my feet; air, the soft breezes soughing through green branches, spiced with heady scents of woodland and sun-kissed heather; the fire of sunlight breaks through the clouds and sends down bright long fingers to set the river sparkling; water, water everywhere – dripping from the leafy canopy, oozing and trickling from mossy rocks and the crystalline waters of the beautiful Esva itself, babbling and chattering through the deep gorge, rushing ever onwards to the sea. It is completely magical.

We’ve never seen the otters that are known to live there, but there is no shortage of wildlife to enjoy: bright green lizards basking on rocks and scurrying along the boardwalk handrails, clouds of butterflies of every size and hue, damsel flies decked out in electrifying blue, so dainty compared to the huge stiff-winged dragonflies coursing the river’s surface for prey. We stopped to watch a busy dipper, bobbing on a rock mid-stream then diving into the water and reappearing elsewhere, its underwater activity leaving a stream of silver ripples on the surface. As we ate our picnic beneath the spreading branches of a chestnut tree, a robin serenaded us with its sweet autumn song and I felt a deep sense of contentment and peace suffuse my entire body. Santiago was fascinating with all its buzz and bustle but I will always be a child of the wilds; to quote a favourite line from W.H Davies’s poem ‘The Kingfisher’, “I also love a quiet place that’s green, away from all mankind.” Enough said.

I don’t have a single regret about leaving Asturias, for us it was absolutely the right decision and I am deliriously happy to be living in Mayenne once again. The year so far has been full of the kind of busyness I love as we settle into our new home and start to create an outdoor environment to sustain ourselves and the rich biodiversity of life with which we share this precious patch. We will hang up our travelling trews for a while now and let the car sit and collect cobwebs; I shall press my trusty bike back into service, wander up the lane to check on the coppice now and again and get busy once more in the garden. I’m happy to be a homebird – always! – and rarely feel the desire to go anywhere unless I really have to. However, we will need to return to Asturias at some point so instead of digging in my heels and looking for excuses not to go, I shall try and remember that when all is said and done, it’s only a case of going home. I am so very lucky.

13 thoughts on “Home from home

  1. I loved reading this post! So many adventures pack into it! I’m a fan of pilgrimages. There is a famous pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku Japan- the “88 Temple Pilgrimage”- if you are so inclined you can look it up on the internet. It’s been a dream of mine to walk it but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to. It takes about three months and several thousand dollars. Many of the minshuku where pilgrims stay have closed up. My husband has no desire to do it and doing it alone …. hummmm…

    But anyway- there are smaller pilgrimages and one not too far away.

    What a lovely trip you have had! It’s refreshing to read that people are slowly returning to “normal”!

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    1. It was really interesting getting a true insight into the Camino walk from Emma, we’ve seen many pilgrims over the years in various places (the routes seem to meander a lot) and I’ve often wondered what the experience was like. I love walking but the idea of daily distance targets and albergues with shared dormitories, etc, just doesn’t appeal – I certainly won’t be doing it any time soon! I do like the idea of doing a few days’ walking somewhere wild and stopping B & B en route, maybe one day! Yes, despite lots of continued social distancing and mask-wearing, the feeling of greater freedom and the chance to socialise again in France and Spain is lovely. I hope you are able to travel to be with your family very soon! Saipan looks totally gorgeous.

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    2. A lovely read Lis,and so glad you enjoyed your visit to Asturias once again! A friend of mine, from here in Llanymynech, did the Pilgrim Trail a couple of years ago,and thoroughly enjoyed every moment!

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  2. Surely, a bonus of teaching must be to meet up with a primary school pupil twenty years later. That’s a wonderful story.
    I’ve been meaning to mention to you that we enjoyed watching La Vuelta d’Espagna, in particular the stage through the mountains of Asturias which was impressively tortuous. We are fans of the cycling tours and have watched all three major ones this year, loving the aerial shots in particular. It’s possible to get a real feel of a place from the air, and certainly the closest we’ll ever get to Asturias!
    It’s amazing to see how much your garden has naturalised itself in your absence.

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    1. Yes, it’s always lovely to hear what former pupils are up to but I don’t often get the chance to actually meet up with them again – the last time it happened, I was given a huge bear hug and thanked for reading Harry Potter to the class! I’m always delighted to see what confident and interesting young people they have become. My goodness, I am in awe of those cyclists! It’s hard enough walking in the Asturian mountains yet alone racing on a bike, although like France, cycling is a huge sport. I suppose I should be used to the rate of growth in Asturias by now, it’s a good job we went or I think the barn would disappear for ever under that kiwi . . .

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  3. So happy for you finally getting back to be with your family, what a strange time it has been. I love hearing about your Asturian home from home aswell. I do understand your decision however. When we are in the Picos and escaping the heat here in Murcia, we always chat and muse about having a home in the mountains! Realistically as we get older, having a home off the hill, one where we didn’t need the car and could walk or cycle for the bits I inevitably forget when in Mercadona is much more likely! Santiago de Compostela is wonderful, like you, I spent 2 days there a few years ago meeting friends who had completed the pilgrimage. The atmosphere was very special even if it did rain solidly for 2 days!! As you say the Camino weaves in and out of so many places, we have covered chunks of it on the motorbike! I don’t think that counts however!!

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    1. Hola, Yvonne! Yes, there’s no doubt in my mind – Asturias is beautiful but life is far easier on the flat and I love being able to go everywhere on my bike. Mind you, we did wake to a frost here this morning 😲 which was a bit of a shock and well beyond ‘normal’ for the time of year. Hopefully it was just a blip and nothing seems to have suffered although the squash plants have drooped so I think it’s time to harvest them. Motorbike sounds like a great way to do the Camino . . . all the views and experience but no blisters! 😉 Bises x

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  4. A lovely post. I quite literally got lost in your descriptions and pictures. Perfect tonic since I am stuck at home with the crashing and banging of roofers and solar panel fitters this week. There is no peace here at present and not much chance to do much other wander round the garden once they have packed up for the day. Your post spirited me away!

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    1. Thank you, I’m glad my post brought you some peace! That all sounds very exciting, though, what a difference your solar panels will make. Are they for electricity? We have a solar hot water system which works well but going for electricity just doesn’t cost out and we would have to tie ourselves to EDF rather than the 100% green company we use. It’s all a bit of a minefield, isn’t it? Good luck! 😊

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      1. Yes, Solar for electricity. It is very exciting but has been very fraught as all tied up with getting the roof replaced. Hence I was very glad of the peace!

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  5. Oh wow! Your writing is absolutely delightful. Your words transported me to those steep hills and your overgrown garden, drinking coffees for hours, and I suddenly have a desire to walk a 500 mile trek! I will thoroughly enjoy catching up on your adventures. What a beautiful and blessed life you live!

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    1. Thank you and welcome! Yes, we are very blessed and I feel immense gratitude every single day that we can enjoy such a simple but beautiful life. There has never been a single regret for making that decision to walk away, our lives have become so rich in time, wonderful experiences, laughter, simple pleasures and permission just to ‘be.’ Mind you, I’m still not tempted to walk the Camino myself!!! 😆

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