Friday, 28 June 2013

Walking Through a Green World

Moving through the green and cultural landscape along the Camino at a walking pace is a tonic. Coming from the “new world” where our idea of a heritage building is often less than 100 years, the tangible connection with the past is striking.  In fact as a painter, it was tortuous to keep moving, when my instincts were screaming for me to stop and sketch. 

My Camino was in May and this year the weather was unseasonably cool through most of the month.  This cool weather delayed or extended the bloom of many plants and kept the landscape green and verdant. Green is a calming colour.  Prisons and so called green rooms in theatres and television studios are painted green for its psychologically calming effect.  It was a soothing experience to walk through those lush fields and forests. At times I felt I was drinking in the greens through my eyes and was constantly thinking about how I would mix paint to reflect the subtle range from blue to yellow hues of green as I walked. 

There were a few overcast days on the Meseta especially on the long stretches between villages, where I started to take the landscape for granted.  However form day to day and certainly over the weeks I passed though many different and often dramatic landscapes, usually accompanied by birdsong and drifts of wildflowers.  How could that daily proximity to the natural worlds not be restorative to the spirit? 

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Anticipation - The Night Before Camino

Eric Viotte in an uncharacteristic still position

Julian, one of the many volunteers I would meet in coming weeks

It had rained all day, but by late afternoon it was letting up when I arrived in St. Jean Pied de Port.  I was full of anticipation about the journey and my first stop was to pick up my Pilgrim’s Credential, which is the document required to stay in Albergues and when stamped by each accommodation along the route, is the proof required to secure the Compestella certificate in Santiago de Compestella.

The albergues were filing up but I did find a bed at the Gite le Chemin vers Etoile, which means “Cottage on the way to the Stars”.  A beautiful name referring to the start of the journey to Santiago de Compostella, which is named for the discovery, by sheppards, of St. James (Santiago), the apostle and brother of Christ who been led to the relics by the stars (compostella).  Here I met the delightful and energetic owner, Eric Viotte, who was setting the stage for the Pilgrimage to each guest as he signed them in and showed them to their bunks.  I’d been itching to draw and say down to sketch Julian, from Belgium.  He had completed the Camino last year and was volunteering his help to Eric for a couple of weeks.  I met many of these volunteers over the coming weeks.

Later, I managed to get Eric to sit down in the kitchen for few minutes.  Between interruptions he gave me some insight into his passion for the Camino.  He walked the Camino in 2007, starting in France and had to lay up in St. Jean Pied de Port for 10 days to recover from tendonitis. His experience was so profound that 2 years later he quit a very senior position with an international corporation in Paris and bought the albergue.

He told me that I would only be a “walker” until I completed the journey and attended the Pilgrim’s mass in Santiago de Compostella.  He passionately advised me not to expect anything, but to throw away my preconceptions and the special magic of the Camino would reveal itself.  He hinted that there are some predictable stages and emotions over the four weeks, but emphasised setting my own pace to intentionally choose (or leave) companions.

He closed my little interview with these nuggets of wisdom. 
“You will come to love yourself and stop judging others”.
“Open your heart.”
“This is life.”

Good advice.  Thank-you Eric.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Wise Trees

Santo Domingo
 I arrived from Paris in Bayonne on the second day of May in cold, pouring rain.  I had a couple of hours to have a late lunch before the train to St. Jean Pier de Port departed and did manage to find a cafe under an arcade facing the town square where I could sketch.  This public space would be delightful in the heat of summer as it was defined by pollarded Plane trees and contained a fountain.

I anticipated seeing these trees all along the Camino and was looking forward to them sprouting out and forming leafy canopies to enjoy as the month progressed.  Wrong.  It was an unusually cool May and the wise old Plane trees knew it.  They were waiting for warmer weather and just starting to sprout a full month later when I arrived in Santiago de Compestella.

Pollarding is the practise of severely pruning branches back leaving only stubby, club-like structure.  Additionally, many of the plane trees were grafted to each other, so that when the leaves and branches do sprout out for the season they form a living trellis. Pollarding also prolongs the life of these trees, which also are exceptionally tolerant of air pollution, which is another reason they are so commonly planted in urban conditions.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Barcelona Primaries

I used my little water colour field box for the majority of the sketches, but a few times I did experiment with mixing from three primary colours.  I had a couple of sunny hours on a Sunday afternoon in Pamplona and worked with just three tubes of paint.  I would have done this more often, but didn't have a cover for my little palette and didn't want to goo up my paint kit.

I got onto this through one of my on-line mentors Shari Blaukopf who is going to use this as part of her sessions for the Urbansketchers Symposium this summer in Barcelona.  Her Barcelona mix is French ultramarine (blue), Aureolin (yellow) and Rose Madder (red).  The green, orange and purples are obvious, what I didn't expect was the subtle range of beiges and greys possible by using all three pigments.  Shari introduced me to limited palettes last summer in a workshop and believes they contribute to harmonious paintings.  She has a very sophisticated understanding of colour, so I'll take her advice.

This 'Barcelona primaries"mix will be perfect for the stone buildings and crisp shadows in Barcelona, but I haven't been too pleased with the range of greens.  I learn by doing and only then investigating theory.  After two years of blundering about with watercolour, I'm now ready to do some reading as well as experiment with some other primaries to see what I can mix for greens.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Local Colour

Sinin, the propritor of Bar Torres in  deep discussion with one of his regulars
underground houses in Religious
Sinin, complete with his signature
Away from the larger cities, rural Spain can be delightfully eccentric.  Many of the towns are nearly empty, with plenty of abandoned buildings and closed up houses. Religious was a tad busier than some places, but had its own special twist.  The Torres Bar, seemed to have several names painted on it, including "The Elvis Bar". The proprietor, Sinin, is one of those lean hansom men who appear to run on caffeine and nicotine.  Graffiti covers the walls and while the music was predominately Elvis Presley, the odd jazz tune was thrown in for variety.  I don't know if smoking is allowed indoors in Spain, but this was the only place I noticed that happening.

The other curious thing we saw in a few of these small communities were underground houses.  When I first saw them I thought they might be kilns.  However looking in the the entrances, there were well kept doors, flower pots, benches and the like.  There wasn't anyone about the evening I was there so maybe they are a weekend thing.  Who knows?  Maybe its a hippy thing.  I would have loved to meet one of the owners and get a peek inside.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Roman Bridges

Next to churches (with storks) the other ubiquitous painting subject were the ancient bridges along the Camino. I would have liked to paint more of them, but alas, the pressure to get the walking done often trumped sketching. We encountered many of these Roman built structures and some sections of old Roman roads as well. Aside from the astonishing age of the structure they were always surprisingly narrow.  Less material to construct and easier to defend, I imagine.  I guess if you know what you are doing the stone is inert and will last indefinitely as long as the joints are well done and distribute the load evenly.

The upper sketch was done at the end of one of the hotter days as I soaked by swollen feet in the icy cold river.  The lower one was a quick morning break sitting on the grass beside the trail, looking back as the stream of perigrinos paused and flowed over the bridge.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Just Follow the Yellow Arrows

Sahagun was nearly the middle of the journey, between Burgos and Leon.  These mid trip-days were my "Forest Gump" phase. In the movie Forest enters a running race, but likes it so much he proceeds through the finish line and continues - like for months.  That was my state of mind, get up and follow the yellow arrows, like the one in the upper sketch, day after day. Simple.

The Sahagun churches are Romanesque in design,although  I don't think stork nests are necessarily part of Romanesque style.  The church in the upper sketch is now a nice newly renovated  Albergue (hostel). 

Wednesday, 12 June 2013


A major part of my rich Camino experience was the other pilgrims (perigrinos) that  I met along the journey.  Some I only talked to for a few minutes or hours while walking, and did not see again.  Others, who were doing similar daily distances,  became good friends.  Time and time again I would loose track of someone only to bump into him or her at a cafe or hostel a few days later. 

Within a week I was part a loose group of friends.  Some referred to this as their Camino family. I thought of it as my tribe, especially when seeing the stream of pilgrims walking along the trail every day which always made me think of nomads or caravans of itinerant tribes.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Find Plaza - Meet Pilgrims

Pamplona was early on along the journey.  It has a well defined old city within the ancient defensive walls.  It was here that I figured out that if you show up at the main plaza, you'd find other pilgrims at the cafe tables.  Just walk around the perimeter and you'd end up sitting down and getting to know people you met while walking.

These outdoor cafe tables were generally my prefered location to sit down and draw as they had great views and I could set my sketchbook on the table.  The sketches generally took 1 glass of wine to complete, so I began to think of it as renting studio space.

Monday, 10 June 2013


I noticed the first stork nest on an industrial chimney on the edge of Puente de Reina and from there through to O'Ciebro it was rare to see a church steeple that did not have a nest. I developed affection for these large birds and was disappointed that I did not find a stork souvenir to bring home.

One of the things I did in my journal was list questions, and the stork question was "are storks considered to be good luck?".  It is obvious they are are not likely good for masonry and the size of the nests could easily collapse an old roof, yet they are tolerated.  Although I did see a few platforms constructed to keep them off the heritage masonry, like in the upper sketch. Perhaps it isn't good luck, so much as a superstition that destroying a nest would bring bad luck.

I did learn that what we saw were White Storks and that their population has been rebuilding after years of decline due to pesticides.  Despite that, one web site cited the number of storks in Spain at only 3,000, so we were fortunate to see the ones that we did. As for good luck, apparently storks are referred to as good luck in many Spanish proverbs, but I did not see a direct explanation as to why the nests were not pulled down.  That author also described them as charismatic, which aligns with the affinity I developed for them and their young.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Puente la Reina

Puenta de Reina was the fourth night out of St. Jean de Pier Port.  That day I felt that I had a sense of the trip's character and rhythms.  On reflection that evening was pivotal in meeting the core group of other perigrinos who more or less formed my Camino family over the remaining month.  It was while having a drink with this core group that the individual stories started to come out and I was struck by the collective wisdom shared back by the group. This was my first insight into how my companions had self-selected themselves for a reflective journey and how rich those friendships were to the experience.

Walking into Puente de Reina we saw our first storks and had opportunity to contrast the elaborate ornamentation of the Ingesia de Santiago el Mayor with the monestic simplicity of the Knights Templar chapel - Iglesia de Crucifjo.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Problacion de Campos

It was late afternoon at the Albergue Amancer with moody wet skies.  My friend Emilio suggested I attempt a more abstracted approach to the open fields behind the village, to try and capture the subtle range of green colours.  We walked through endless wheat fields for days and it felt like my eyes were drinking in the calm and subtle ranges of green colour .  I had been constantly thinking of which yellow and blue pigments would best mix to represent those hues, so it was fun to finally lay down some paint.

Friday, 7 June 2013

My Friend Emilio

Midway along the Camino I ended up in a rather strange little albergue (hostel) for the night.   It was a sort of hippy set-up complete with tee-pees and rather cold, sketchy dormitories. My companions and I had walked around 26 km and the next town was an hour away, so as it started to rain it was an easy decision.  Luckily it was not large and the dozen or so pilgrims there that night were good company.

Part of the ambiance was Emilio the donkey who stood under the open roof attached to the bar and joined us while we chatted before dinner. The stamp on the drawing is from the Albergue.  Each alberge has its own stamp, which is used to record where a perigrino has stayed in order to apply for the compestella certificate at the end of the journey in Santiago de Compestella. Many churches and restaurants also offer stamps, particularly in the last 100 km.

Santiago de Compostela

I arrived home from Spain yesterday, complete with my sketches done while walking the Camino de Santaigo. I did about 90 sketches, which I plan to do organise into a book over the next few weeks.  I'll post some of these here on the blog, starting with these from the final days of the trip.

I started on May 3rd in  St. Jean Pier de Port, France and walked into Santiago de Compostella this Monday, June 3rd. A 32 day walk.

It was an challenging but immensely rewarding journey whose only disappointment was not having more time in the vibrant city of Santaigo de Compostella.  I obtained my compostella (Pilgrim's certificate)  on Monday and attended the Pilgrim's mass at the Cathedral on Tuesday.

 The service was beautiful and done in several languages. It happened that the choir from Notre Dame University was visiting and filled the cathedral with beautiful music. The highlight was the swinging of the huge incensory which bellowed frankincense smoke to purify the gathered pilgrims. That is the large object hanging in the lower sketch.