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Test 1 / 25

The Camino de Santiago

The snaking routes of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage convene at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of north-west Spain’s Galicia region and the alleged burial site of St James. For more than 1,000 years, people have made their way along these paths to pay homage to the apostle, but for a small number of travellers who arrive in the hallowed city, the journey isn’t yet complete.

From the city’s main square, another, lesser-known path creeps west. The cathedral spires fade into the distance as the trail leaves the city and continues for 90km to the raging beast that is the Atlantic Ocean – and Cape Finisterre. Taken from the Latin words finis, meaning end’, and terra meaning Earth’, this windswept corner of Spain has a spiritual history stretching back more than four millennia.

Geographically speaking, Cape Finisterre is of course not the end of the world – nor even the most westerly point of mainland Europe as is sometimes claimed (Cape Roca in Portugal holds this distinction). But Cape Finisterre is an area whose mythical pull has drawn travellers since the time of antiquity. Pilgrims were brought here by religion, by adventure or simply to stand at the edge of the then-known world and stare out at the Mare Tenebrosum, the Sea of Darkness.

Since 1500, this stretch of coastline, forebodingly known to locals as Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death, has witnessed numerous major shipwrecks. The weather can be violently unpredictable, with merciless rocky outcrops to match. Spain’s worst ecological disaster began here on 13 November 2002, when the oil tanker Prestige was caught in a storm off the coast of Finisterre and sank a week later. The small town of Fisterra sits above a south-facing promontory, Monte Facho, a gentle hill with commanding views around it. Fisterra is like many other towns on this stretch of coast; wrapped around a quaint fishing port with a long beach curling east, away from the ocean. In truth, it is far from the rip-roaring, ‘end-of-the world’ town you might imagine.

The Romans named those who lived here Gallaeci – Celts – because their light skin and fair hair resembled that of the tribes in Gaul – now France. The Gallaeci were animists, meaning they held strong beliefs that everything in the physical world, be it the sun, stars, rocks, trees or water, all possessed a spiritual entity. There is a significance about rocks and water coming together, because they are of course both non-negotiable, and there’s a deep human emotion connected with these natural elements, said Colin Jones, chairman of the Confraternity of St James, an organisation specialising in information on the Camino de Santiago.

The densely forested Monte Facho, criss-crossed by small trails, rises to a height of nearly 240m. Its eastern face gently rolls down into the town, while the western flank plummets dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean. Nestled in the undergrowth on the eastern side, overlooking the harbour, lie the ruins of the San Guillermo Hermitage. It was at this same spot that the conquering Romans first set eyes on a simple stone temple built by the Gallaeci to honour the sun the Ara Solis consisting of four granite columns and a slender dome above, as described by Galician historian Benito Vicetto. Sadly, nothing remains today of the Ara Solis, which is believed to have been a place of pagan sun worship. For the Romans, the Ara Solis, situated at what they considered the end of the known world and facing the setting sun each evening, must have been a captivating and enigmatic sight.

What point is made about Santiago at the beginning of the text?
What do the words raging beast in paragraph 2 refer to?
What does the writer suggest about pilgrims' attitudes towards Finisterre in the ancient past?
What is the writer's opinion of the town of Fisterra?
A comparison is drawn between the appearance of the townsfolk and that of
The writer refers to the western flank of the area to give an example of
Test 2 / 25

Are you a ‘slumper’?

Amanda Stevens cured her bad posture – and her chronic back pain – with the Alexander technique.

Many people will have heard of the Alexander technique but have only a vague idea what it is about. Until earlier this year, I didn’t have the faintest idea about it – and saw no reason to think I should. But, hunched over a computer screen one day, I noticed that the neck and backache I regularly suffered were more painful than usual. I was brought up to think that the preferred way of dealing with aches and pains is to do nothing and hope they’ll go away, but I eventually allowed myself to be dragged along by a friend of mine to talk to an osteopath who had performed wonders on her. After examining me, the osteopath said: I can treat the symptoms by massaging your neck and upper back. But you actually have bad posture. That is what you need to get sorted out. Go off and learn the Alexander technique.’

I had regularly been told by friends and family that I tend to slouch in chairs but had been under the impression that bad posture was something one was born with and could do nothing about. With hindsight, it’s hard to believe just how far off the mark I was. Dentists and car mechanics, among others, tend to develop bad posture from leaning over patients or engine bays. Those of us who are mothers often stress and strain their necks and backs lifting and carrying children, and those who sit in front of computers all day are almost certainly not doing our bodies any favours.

After a little searching online, I found an Alexander technique teacher, Teresa Stirling, in my area of town and booked a first appointment. Three months later I am walking straighter and sitting better, while my neck and back pain are things of the past. I feel taller, too, which I may be imagining, but the technique can increase your height by up to five centimetres if you were badly slumped beforehand.

The teaching focuses on the neck, head and back. It trains you to use your body less harshly and to carry out the sorts of movements and actions that we do all the time with less effort. There is very little effort in the lessons themselves, which sets apart the Alexander technique from pilates or yoga, which are exercise-based. A typical lesson involves standing in front of a chair and learning to sit and stand with minimal effort. You spend some time lying on a bench with your knees bent to straighten the spine and relax your body while the teacher moves your arms and legs to train you to move them correctly.

The key is learning to break the bad habits accumulated over years. Try, for example, folding your arms the opposite way to normal. It feels odd, doesn’t it? This is an example of a habit the body has formed which can be hard to break. Many of us carry our heads too far back and tilted skywards. The technique teaches you to let go of the muscles holding the head back, allowing it to resume its natural place on the summit of our spines. The head weighs four to six kilos, so any misalignment can cause problems for the neck and body.

The Alexander technique teaches you to observe how you use your body and how others use theirs – usually badly. Look how a colleague slumps back in a chair with his or her legs crossed. That puts all sorts of stresses and strains on the body. Even swimming can harm the neck. The Alexander technique can teach you to swim better, concentrating on technique rather than clocking up lengths.

So who was Alexander and how did he come up with the technique? Frederick Matthias Alexander, an Australian theatrical orator born in 1869, found in his youth that his voice was failing during performances. He analysed himself and realised his posture was bad. He worked on improving it, with dramatic results. He brought his technique to London 100 years ago and quickly gathered a following that included some very famous people. He died in 1955, having established a teacher-training school in London, which is thriving today.

So if you are slouching along the road one day, feeling weighed down by your troubles, give a thought to the Alexander technique. It could help you walk tall again.

What does the writer suggest in the first paragraph?
What does the writer say about bad posture in the second paragraph?
What principle of the Alexander technique does the writer identify in the fourth paragraph?
What does the writer say about bad habits in the fifth paragraph?
What does the writer suggest about Frederick Alexander?
What is the writer’s main purpose in the article?