Up in the air down to earth

The Portuguese Camino, Tash said, from Lisbon. To think about my ancestors, the Soares’s that brought their name to Madras. And to walk. 6 weeks starting in April 2024. Do you want to come?

This was a year ago, so the yes that tripped off my tongue was firmly in the abstract realm. The months that followed involved industry and research, the creation of a plan – two nights in Lisbon, a rest day here and there, daily distances calculated, a budget formulated, fellow travellers welcomed. I nodded keenly, cast my eye over the maps, but contributed almost nothing. I felt busy with the standard fare of our lives.

About two months before exit, the fear crept in. Money? Time? Energy? A month later I couldn’t wait.

Pre-season Camino training involved a small trip, a minor fall from grace, following a feint that was a surprise to my feet, not so much fleet footed, but briefly winged, and comically mercurial. The earth quickly welcomed me home. Knees first, and then hands together. Do you pray? Take care.

As deracinated as danger can be in our modern age, the shuddering wings at take off still stretch my credulity in shiny techno engineering, and risk and jeopardy silhouette my fear of the unknown. But that is where my dreams lie. I look around our airborne seed pod, and imagine all the plans, intentions and desires, from the mundane to the glorious, carried above the clouds. Unmoored from the earth temporarily, we inhabit the realm of ideas. It’s bright, very bright up here. So set sail!

The map is not the terrain, so with Lisbon a drone’s spy view would weirdly flatten the land below. Impossibly neighbourly neighbours, trains moving slower than walking pace and terminating after 400 metres, an inexplicable density of buildings clustered on the edge of a wide river like mussels revealed by the retreating tide. The negation of altitude and the brief triumph of the two dimensional polarity. The experience on the ground is that it is all up or down. Calves and hips are the mainstays of my ship. I am in the Escher print, Ascending and Descending, eternally. An armyless Grand Old Duke of York.

We walk and climb, admire the tiles, narrow lanes, look up and down stairways, enjoy the sun, some spectacular views across the bay, try to imagine the lives behind the front doors.

Earlier, such adventures, with all their jeopardy, meant leaving land for sea. Not above the clouds but beneath or in them. 500 years and more since the carpenters cooks tailors soldiers navigators translators clerks physicians preists cats goats pigs rats and Vasco de Gama set sail from here to claim new lands for Portugal. The clanking groaning creaking hull, their hollowed portuguese cork a toy in the expanse of sea, carried them all, and then a hundred more, a thousand. Off to scurvy hope and tropical abundance. Set sail!  Aye captain.

We visit the old tower in Belem, up to its ankles in the bay, from where these journeys began. There is a cathedral and a monastery, a few museums, a monument to those early adventurers, landscaped waterfront gardens, curved and straight promenades linking them all. Underfoot the generic white roughly two inch square cobble, laced here and there with stylish waves of black, covers every path. None are square, or the same, and their number overwhelms any metaphor. Occasionally you see a disinterred heap waiting next to a ragged hole. I think of emigrants, immigrants, ancestors, the sometimes beautiful landscaping of history, each little life quarried out from the earth and finding its place in the path.

The next morning we get our pilgrim passports stamped at the Cathedral, spot the yellow arrow on a corner stone, like a spray painted sign for a temporary diversion, and begin picking our way through the narrow lanes heading out of the city. Except the city doesn’t end at fields and farms anymore, there’s the epic segue through old industrial zones, now being given their C21st repurposing, and then on to a brave new world Lisboa, all eateries and corporateness butted up against the river.

Then we take a train.