....To Santiago

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pilgrim, Who Calls You?

This poem is written on a wall outside of Najera on the Camino Frances.
I have spent quite a lot of time at the end of my walks trying to
 translate it as gracefully as I can.  
I thank Roberto, Manuel, and Irene for their input 
over the course of a late afternoon in front of a hostel 
as they pored over this poem with me.  

Dust, mud, sun and rain
are the Camino de Santiago.
Thousands of pilgrims
and more than a thousand years.

Pilgrim, Who calls you?
What mysterious force draws you here?
Not the Field of Stars
nor the great cathedrals.

Not the bravado of Navarra,
nor the wine of Rioja
not the bounty of the seas of Gallego,
 nor the Castilian plateau.

Pilgrim, Who calls you?
What mysterioius force draws you here?
Not the folk of the Way
nor the ways of the country folk.
It is not the history and the culture, 
nor the cocky Calzada rooster
not the palace of Gaudi,
nor the Castle of Ponferrada.
All these things I see in passing,
and they are all a great joy,
but the voice that calls me
fills me with an even greater feeling.

The force that compels me,
the force that draws me here
I cannot explain:
Only the Most High knows!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Day 28: The Galician Portal

Walking through the mountainous regions of the Bierzo region and entering Galicia marks the final stage of our pilgrimage to the city of Santiago, which is now about 125 km away.  Climbing to the village of O´Cebreiro, scaling a mountain in a straight vertical climb to its summit at 1,500 meters, gave a great sense of accomplishment to every pilgrim who surfaced in the lovely town at the top.  At the summit, the westerly winds from the Atlantic are suddenly tangible, and the climate shifts into a maritime brew of breezy, wet seaborn air as we enter Galicia, the fourth and final region through which we will pass.

Two days earlier, we scaled Monte Irago where the Cruz de Ferro stands as a solemn monument for pilgrims who have left their momentos, carried from home or picked up along the Way, at its base for centuries.  The foundation of the soaring wood and iron cross is covered with an extraordinary pile of stones, tokens, messages, and a multitude of pilgrim prayers.  Stuart and I also left our tokens there.

Tonight, after following a grueling 24 km detour through what seemed like endless up and down switchbacks, mud and scree, we are in Samos, a grey-stoned monastic city perched in a Galician mountain valley, lost in a quiet murmur of waterfalls and mossy verdure.  The contrast with the sunny Meseta of just two weeks ago is reflected in what we now wear as we hike:  the rain poncho rarely comes off now as the weather in Galicia is wildly changeable from minute to minute with wind, rain and sun mixed up in this crazy patchwork climate.  We attended Vespers and Mass this evening in the monastery and a cheery priest sang a sweet blessing over the pilgrims in attendance. 

Having come this far along the Camino, many pilgrims we have met along the way are reappearing in these last days, some of whom we have not seen since Pamplona or Burgos.  They all co-mingle in  loose Camino families who travel together in bands.  Some of these pilgrims have shared with me their more personal reasons for being on the Camino and I have been deepened and humbled by their stories.  So now we travel together in twos and threes, sometimes talking, often silent, often fatigued, but eager to reach the end of our journey in Santiago.  Some of us will go on to Finisterre, but that is up in the air for most.  Our walk together, one way or another, is coming to an end.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fuentes Espirituales

Camino Photos here

Astorga is still home today as Stuart is not strong enough to continue on just yet.  We don´t know if he got infected with bad water, food or other pilgrims, but gastroenteritis is a common ailment among pilgrims.  We will probably be very cautious about our water sources going forward because the feuentes in the villages and towns, refreshing as they seem to be, may be suspect.

But what about the spiritual founts that spring up on the Way?

A visit to Astorga Cathedral yesterday evening gave us a taste of local life as Mass was underway, with incense and a booming cantor, and dozens of seminarians in white albs seated at the front of the nave.  We could not enter but we took in the ambience of reverence, sitting in a sweet chapel dedicated to Mary, and finding a compelling statue of St. James, who stood fast with a world-weary, yet compasssionate gaze in his pilgrim garb of cape, shells, staff, gourd and bare feet.  In the Camino Pilgrim museum next door in the Gaudi Palacio, there were several such images of St. James, each one a contemplative masterpiece, and each one speaking to an aspect of the pilgrim soul.  At this point in our journey, we are more and more thirsty for such reassurances from Santiago that calm perserverance on the Way will bear fruit within our beings.

The outer landscape may be challenging for each of us, but it is more a reflection of the inner landscape, which is even more challenging and magnified as we steel ourselves for the hardships of the Path.
I found a poignant piece of French graffiti in a small hermit´s beehive hut--my rough translation:
The important thing is not to arrive;
The important thing is who arrives.

And there is also this anonymous poem from Navarre:

Alone with others 
Thou thyself thy rivals
Thou thyself finding thy companions
Thou thyself seeing thy enemies
Thou thyself making thy brothers

Thy head knows not where thy feet take thy heart

Pilgrim of the world


Thou art born for the Way

Thou hast an appointment
Where? With whom?

Thy steps thy words
The road, thy son

The fatigue, thy prayer
And thy silence, finally thy speech.

Thou art born for the way
That of pilgrimage
That other way leading to thyself
and thy quest

So that thou may find
at the shrine at the end of the world
Thy peace
Thy joy

Already, God walks with thee.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rest in Astorga

I must first apologize for lack of communication from the Camino.  I can´t even check my email without intense frustration, and am giving up, so if you need to reach me, do so by comment here or message me on Facebook.  I am on free wifi for the first time in three weeks, which is allowing me the questionable luxury of catching up on things electronically.  I am finding myself cursing aloud in this hotel lobby, so I think it best to blog quietly, more befitting of my pilgrim status.

Today, we rest in Astorga before heading into the mountains for the next few days, as we enter the final 300 km of our pilgrimage to Santiago.  We have walked over 300 km to date, so are taking a much needed respite from the albergues at a hotel here in Astorga with hot baths!!!!  We are both exhausted from weather exposure, the weather having taken a decided turn towards the autumnal, with chill and rain and wind.
Stuart fell ill two days ago, so we limped into Astorga yesterday to collapse.

Astorga is our last chance to kit ourselves out before heading into the mountains of the Maragatos region:
I caved in and purchased gloves since the use of socks on our hands is becoming inadequate against the cold winds.  The wind was blowing so strongly from the mountains ahead two days ago that we were forced to turn back to Hospital de Orbigos in the foot hills where we stayed in a hippie-communal albergue with a vegetarian meal, rousing Spanish song on guitars, and some yoga to boot!  It was a center of Buddhist peace, and the hospitaleros there were fresh-faced and full of what I can only term camino caritas.

The Spaniards like their pork dishes, much to the dismay of any veggie-inclined pilgrim.  I hate to say it, but Spanish cuisine is a hardship for me, as there is only variation in the styles of pork available:  each region has specialities in how it cuts and cures its pork, and so the variety of pork dishes is absolutely bewildering!  Even more bewildering is the fact that we have not seen one pig farm, but only multitudes of cattle, sheep, chickens and dogs and feral cats.  The pigs must be in the south of Spain with the orange groves.  The cuisine for the peregrinos menu is predominantly pork, potatoes, eggs, cheese, bread and tomatoes--basically the warm reds, oranges and yellows of the Spanish flag.  In all fairness, though, the seafood is also wonderful in the larger towns.  As we near the Atlantic,  we are now entering ¨pulpo¨ territory, the specialty of the region which I am greatly anticipating!  I don´t think I will ever tire of the variety of octopus served here!  There are pulpo-terias in Galicia!  I can´t wait!

Have I mentioned the vinto tinto?  The peregrino menu may be humble, but it usually comes with a bottle of lovely red wine, which here runs as cheaply and freely as water from the village fuentes.  It is very good for restoring the muscles and is very low in alcohol content,so pilgrims live on it.  In the middle ages, when the water was questionable in every village (til the 1980's, actually!), the only thing pilgrims drank was vino tinto!
The vino tinto is young wine imbibed at every meal, and the vineyards in the Rioja region are resplendent with ripe grapes--we have walked through miles and miles of vineyards and curious earthen bodegas built on the outskirts of every hamlet and town.  At first, we thought they were low-income housing for the very poor, who were squatting on the outskirts, as the bodegas look like they might be inhabited by hobbits!  Silly, naive Americanos!
Today, we will visit the Camino Pilgrim museum here in Astorga inside the Gaudi Palacio.  The history of the various camino routes is fascinating and complex with the interplay of ancient tribal, feudal, and religious fealties forging the identities of these regions.  The Camino Frances, I am learning, developed as the northern front-line border of Christendom, forging a path of commerce, feudal alliances and religious infrastructure, with heavy and equal investment from both the kingdoms of France and Spain (Castile, Navarra, Aragon) creating a great display of fortified towns and cathedrals which were hastily built in the 12th century to fend off the Moorish expansion from the south. 

In a couple of days, we will reach the Cruz de Ferro, a pilgrim landmark on the peak of Monte Irago...
I will report in as soon as the bandwidth and the skies clear...

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Bonds of Song

Before these experiences fade into the mists of the road behind me, I want to recount a couple of moments on the camino which have been extraordinary.  They have been moments where music was the medium of
fellowship:  On a most dreary pre-dawn morning in the albergue at Viana, as I was packing to leave,  I heard the sound of a rousing  men´s chorus of voices singing in harmony from what sounded like somewhere in the building.  I thought, Wow!  What energetic pilgrims to sing like that before a cafe con leche!  Soon I realized that these men, probably part of a church choir on their way to Mass that Sunday, were outside the refugio standing on the street singing a rallying pilgrim anthem for us, simply to cheer us on our way!  It was such a gift!

Each time we enter a town or hamlet, Stuart makes a beeline to the first church he sees and tries the doors to enter.  We have had the most luck with the smaller town churches, and in a couple of them, I have managed to offer up some chants and hymns into the empty stone naves with their fabulous acoustic. In a tiny hamlet near Santo Domingo de Calzada, in a church called Our Lady of the Street (!) I was singing away in the cool interior of the nave when I sensed another person entering at the back of the church.  I fell silent but did not turn around at the end of the chant, and in a few moments a sweet soprano voice began to sing a hymn in Latin.  She sang for only a short time and I entreated her to continue. She sang another delicate hymn verse in what I think was French.  For a few more minutes, she and I traded off singing chants and hymns, and then she sang a lovely descant over my Dona Nobis Pacem.  Then she left, an anonymous pilgrim, and I only saw her back pack as she made her way up the street out of the village.  Stuart said she came out of the church beaming!
So these are wonderful moments on the camino, which just arise and disappear with each passing day.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Day 15: Big City Burgos

Tonight we are in the municipal albergue of Burgos,
which is a fast-paced burg with seemingly endless
affluent corridors and plazas of commercial offerings.
Not to mention the home of one of the most elaborate
Gothic cathedrals in the world,  where many illustrious
sepulchres of notables, including El Cid, are interred
in great splendor.  What a feast of Gothic, Baroque,
Renaissance and Rococco architecture and art we had
this afternoon, walking around in our rather strange garb...
all our clothes were drenched last night in a freak thunder
storm out in the dark countryside casa rural where we lodged,
so all we had to wear were some long underwear and odd
matching anoraks. 
What a contrast to last night in Villamayor del Rio where
the smell of cow dung wafted in the windows all night
in the deep darkness.
I have been told by a kind senor in the albergue
that I must retire promptly in ten minutes....
There are kind senors everywhere who usher us to and
fro in every town....caritas Spanish style. Signing off for now!

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Day 10: Somewhere near Logrono

At the city gate of  Puenta de la Reina
The days are becoming a blur, a slog from albergue to albergue.  We are learning what it feels like to be a homeless person, with everything you own carried in one bag.  It takes so much effort to hold onto your "stuff"; your socks try to leave you and fall on the stairways of the albergue, your hat lies on the road for an hour before being picked up by someone walking behind you, your toiletry bag is a mess and washing clothes everyday becomes a serious drag.  Living from meal to meal, the desire to take off your pack and collapse in a chair, the effort to make conversation in several different languages, usually all mixed together in some horrible Franken-speak, is taxing after long stretches schlepping through sun-parched landscapes.

I have inched up many a hillside singing an ancient and effective pilgrim marching song called Stella Splendens, dating from the 12th century.  It is amazing how effective a strong beat can be in keeping one foot moving steadily and rhythmically in front of the other.  I walk quite slowly, leaning on my staff heavily, and have learned this is the best way to avoid blisters.

 There are many, many blistered feet on pilgrims at this point, and Logrono Hospital is filled with crippled pilgrims.  Blessedly, I have only one hot spot I am nursing, and Stuart´s feet are in great shape.  Blisters are the physical manifestation of suffering on the camino, but many pilgrims are walking with painful back-stories too, and while most are willing to talk about their foot injuries, they are much more guarded when it comes to talking about their inner pain.  And so, we all walk, haltingly or briskly, or some speed in between, knowing that this walking in itself is salutary on many levels. 
My bastone

Many of us attend pilgrim masses when we can, but for the most part the churches are closed to us, which is a little sad, for it feels symbolic of the times.  Only one of the several monasteries we have stayed in has been active--all are abandoned and refurbished to house pilgrims, but no religious population lives there anymore, save a handful.  The church Masses, I must say, are perfunctory and not satisfying, in spite of the richly decorated churches where they are held.  The quiet, empty Templar chapels are still very holy places, though and the natural landscape is the temple for the wanderers here. 

Tonight we are in a dreary, windowless municipal albergue, hoping to sleep in our three-tiered bunk beds.
Again, it is a monastery, next to a church damaged in the Carlist War and demolished int eh 18th century.  In its time, it was a formidably beautiful church fortress.

Tomorrow, we try to make our way quickly through Logrono to Navarette, about 20 odd more km onward.  The larger cities hold little appeal, and are in fact jarring to the psyche after the tranquility of the countryside.   The sun does not rise before 8 am and days are becoming shorter, so we walk the entire time it is light. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Day 7: Eunate and Puente La Reina

Day 7....
Today we are starting out slowly, having trudged for 23 km yesterday from Eunate to Villahuerte across fields and through groves and up and down massive hills.  It is quite warm in the heat of the day.
Beginning to harden off physically, and now the inner landscape begins to change as I log in mile after mile with only myself for company.  I lost Stuart yesterday and walked for five hours without seeing him.  He caught up with me later at the albergue we had luckily discussed settling into.
Many people on the camino seem to be here for the "motif sportif", and it has been surprisingly secular in tone.  Surprising to us, but as someone told me, the camino has its way of transforming the pilgrim´s motives as they move deeper into the experience of this long walk.

We stayed at a very special place two days ago, a detour off the camino called Eunate.
Eunate is a Romanesque church from the 15th century, allegedly built by the Templars, and housed pilgrims who were suffering from the hardships of the road.  It rises out of nowhere in the fields like a mirage.

The hospitaleros at the simple albergue, Marie Rose and Girard, put us and seven others up on the mattresses on the floor.  Girard took us into Eunate church after dinner for a pilgrim prayer in three languages, and we sang a chant and a Frenchman sang an ancient pilgrim anthem.   We all held hands and laid candles on the altar.  Eunate is a very special place of hospitality and serenity.  Two young pilgrims arrived on horseback, and the horses were lovingly tended by all.
I´ve been unable to post pictures, but will keep trying.
Today, we move further into the lovely vineyards.  Ultreia!