Tag Archives: cathedrals

Arriving in Santiago

The day from Ferreiros turned into our longest of the Camino. We dodged Galician rainshowers for much of the day, but got caught in a short downpour in the mid afternoon. We spent some more time walking with Joe from Ireland all the way to Palas de Rei, which was about 35 km for us on the day.

With the skies beginning to part and the promise of quieter villages a short walk farther, Anne-Claire and I pushed on, only to run into my greatest worry about the structure of the Camino. In village after village, hospitaleros had shuttered their doors for a Saturday night of rest, and what should have been an extra 3 km turned into our first 50 km day as we were forced to walk all the way to the city of Melide to find accommodation.

We dragged ourselves into town around 9:15, and I had to keep myself from falling asleep in my soup during dinner. Every part of my body ached when we finally went to bed, though I was surprised at how little soreness I had the next morning. Apparently, there are cumulative health benefits to be had from walking 12 to 30 miles a day for almost a month straight.

New friends from our last night on the trail

The next night’s bed wasn’t nearly so tricky to find, and was perhaps our most comfortable on the Camino, a welcome treat after our penultimate day of hiking. We had a lovely dinner with an Irish doctor and his daughter, and two women, one South African and the other Dutch, who had met their first night in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port and had walked together ever since. The South African woman had caught the eye of a Hungarian pilgrim with an injured leg, so she’d walk with her Dutch friend during the day, and then her suitor would typically come and find her late in the evening, just as he did during dinner on our last night.

That evening, at the private albergue in Santa Irene (the public hostel was closed for repairs, joining the long list of unavailable accomodation in the final run-up to Santiago), the beds were so comfortable that we slept in until past 7 and set out on the trail for the very last time at 8:30. Though only 20 km or so, it felt like a long day as the anticipation of reaching our destination, indeed the namesake for the trail we walked, pressed us forward.

AC and Elena in Santiago

The city of Santiago is visible for the last hour of the walk, the spires of the massive cathedral beckoning from the hilltop perch surrounded by modernity all around. As we walked the final few hundred meters through the old town to the cathedral square, we were greeted by street musicians – first a sitar player, then a bagpiper who, even late into the evening, seemed to be tirelessly heralding the arrival of pilgrims.

We walked out onto the square, anchored by St. James’s church and flanked by a five-star parador and a monastery, to see the mishmash of tourists and pilgrims shooting photos, weeping, smiling, lying on the cobblestones, and sitting in reflection as they stared at the 800-year-old cathedral.

It seems a lot of pilgrims don’t really know what to do when they arrive. “I walked all that way for this?” a Finnish friend of ours joked. But after weeks of walking, what would be a fitting end? The cathedral is spectacular, make no mistake – an imposing behemoth of lichen-covered granite that’s not as well-polished or restored as the cathedrals in Burgos or Leon. Indeed, it seems to be almost melting in the wet Galician climate. That gives it the feel of a church that’s alive and in use, rather than that of a preserved museum.

A cool picture AC took of the cathedral in Santiago

It might seem cliche to say you realize the Camino, as with so much in life, is about the journey, not the destination. And yet, that destination that draws so many people to one place does have its importance, however arbitrary the place itself might be. Whether it’s to mobilize Catholic Europe in the direction of Spain to oust the Moors as in the Dark Ages, or simply to provide a common path that allowed us to meet people from other cultures, the Camino is significant because it ended in Santiago.

And yet, it seems many pilgrims aren’t ready for it to be over when they arrive. You see many sitting in the square late into the night. I imagine, like me, they’re pondering the totality of what they’ve just done, what it’s meant, and what to do now that it’s over. I suppose that’s why so many continue the three days further to the “end of the earth” at Fisterre. And now, it’s in vogue to extend the hike even longer and do another day on top of that to Muxxia, and even complete the loop back to Santiago for a second triumphant entrance into the city.

My Compostella, entitling me to six years off my stay in purgatory, according to the Church

To me the importance of what we’ve done over the past 28 days hit me the next morning when our friends from the trail began pouring in. Anne-Claire tells me we got just a glimpse of this excitement, as we had to catch a bus to Portugal that morning and weren’t able to hang around Santiago the rest of the day. “It’s your city for the next few days after you arrive,” she said. Indeed, as we walked back to the square from breakfast the morning after our arrival, we saw several of our friends from various points along the way still shouldering backpacks and beaming from the completion of their journey.

It was Anne-Claire’s favorite part of the Camino when she and her dad did it a few years ago, and after a taste I can see why. Arriving in Santiago isn’t about seeing the Cathedral or visiting St. James’s bones or hugging his bust on the altar of the church. It’s about sharing a moment or two where you’re happy to see a familiar face, a chance to relive a happy memory because that face reminds you of a meal or a drink or a stretch of trail that the two of you shared in the midst of your disparate journeys.

Leaving Burgos

On Saturday, Anne-Claire and I left the relative buzz of Burgos, a city of 170,000 people through a park on the edge of the city. Compared to the grimy eastern entrance to the city – an industrial zone we’d walked through the morning before – the morning quiet of the river promenade transitioning to the wheat and grass fields of the meseta was sublime. Much of the way was flat, and we had a clear goal in mind – to reach the tiny town of Hontanas more than 30 km away, a village Anne-Claire and I had visited with Amable and Michel last summer.

The Burgos cathedral is a true hidden gem in Europe, palacial in scale and ostentatiously ornate beyond all expectations. Outwardly Neogothic, its interior blends its Gothic roots back to the 12th century and the heavy influence of the in-vogue French churchs of the time with Baroque and Rococo ornmantation. While impressive, it does seem that any bishop or patron with enough money could arrange to have a chapel (most of which would be massive churches on their own stateside) built in their honor. A South African friend of ours commented that the term “stinking rich” came from this practice, as selpulchres of old weren’t air tight and the fumes from decomposing bodies would escape into the church.

Beyond the grasp of the city are just wide open fields and big blue skies so vivid they don’t feel real. Every so often, a fallow field blanketed in poppies in full bloom. Though we arrived exhausted from a day of sun and wind exposure, the hike to Hontanas was one of my best days on the Camino.

Imperfect Pilgrims

My apologies for this post being a bit scattered. I’ve been thinking about what to write for hours while walking – perhaps a bit too much. Hopefully, something coherent comes out of this.

From our first day on the Camino, I’ve been impressed with the level of faith that sustains some of our fellow pilgrims through what for many of them is the toughest endeavor they’ll ever undertake. My worries about the annoying pain in my foot pale in comparison to the blisters and tendonitis and arthritis and extra pounds that plague other hikers, who come in every shape, size and (starting from a minimum of around 20 years old) age. While people seem to walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, we’ve noticed that most folks are older, and typically the reasons these pilgrims are walking at least tangentially religious.

Even more broadly, I don’t think I anticipated how much weight many Spaniards, especially older ones, give to the Camino. Whether they’ve done it themselves or they’ve just seen it grow from the tiny trickle it must have been during their childhood in the early 20th century, their respect transcends language.

In Pamplona, a woman shook her fist at us from a hunched position over a set of braced crutches. Until this point, we’d gotten only chilly receptions from locals, so I expected more of the same – not the wishes of “Buen Camino!” and “Via con Dios!” that she yelled as we passed. Occasionally, we’ll walk into a restaurant, and thanks to my light hair, blue eyes, or, more likely, the slightly hobbled walk of an all-day hiker, we’re spotted as pilgrims and toasted or wish a safe journey. Or people who help us along the way take a second out of their workdays to make things just a little bit better, like the woman at the post office in Burgos who mercifully spoke more English than we spoke Spanish, spent 45 minutes with us as we sent extra clothing ahead, and gave us a fistful of postcards to remember our trip by. And sometimes, we’ll step into one of the Tuesday evening mass for the pilgrim blessing. Incidentally, the song they sang for our protection in Santo Domingo de la Cazada sounded an awful lot like “This Land is Your Land,” a tune that’s stuck with us for hours of hiking over the past few days.

The other day in a beautiful town called Estella, a woman stopped us in front of the ruins of an ornate 12th century church. She asked us if we were pilgrims, and when we said yes, she launched into (so far as we could tell as she was speaking in Spanish) the story of the church and how most pilgrims only stop to take a photograph and move on. When she realized we weren’t understanding much, she smiled and dropped her gaze from ours, then put her hand on my shoulder and wishing us well for our journey. As we left Estella, we were greeted by a pleasant surprise – a wine fountain provided by a few resident monks.

Of course, it’s important to realize this respect is for this path we’ve chosen to walk and the month of reflection it entails. I imagine also it’s a reflection of the place her faith has in the lives of those we meet along the way.

In many ways, my experience on the Camino has opened my eyes to the best of what religion can be. Community, discipline, thoughtful reflection – you find all of these benefits in some measure in most pilgrims you meet.

And yet it’s difficult to reconcile the sort-of personal purity we get to experience in these momentary interactions with the broader doctrine that Catholicism, and most faiths in fact, espouse. Yes, belonging to a church provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded folks, who are often pretty nice people. It provides the impetus for hard work and discipline, out of which accomplishment and success are often born. And I find myself truly missing the ceremony, the rituals and the practice of faith on a weekly basis that I had growing up in a church-going family.

But in someway, being part of a faith implies the tacit if not explicit acceptance of church dogma, doesn’t it? Throughout history right up through the present, that has translated into the exclusion/subjugation of certain groups based on gender, race, orientation, etc., the glorification of wars in the name of God for land or commodity or souls, and the exaltation of worldly materialism. And this from faiths whose very name comes from an inclusive pacifist who by all accounts was a communist (note the small ‘c’).

But here along the Camino, we’ve met pilgrims of faith who demonstrate the good parts of religion – taking each other based only on our shared humanity, absent the shackles of unacceptance that can come with doctrine. These are perhaps incomplete exchanges, as we don’t know much about the people we meet in these momentary interactions.

The institutions that we create as imperfect people aren’t in fact the perfect, unerring sages we hold them up to be. I remember a favorite priest growing up teasing my sister (but serious, in a way, as well) that she would be the first woman priest. This tiny act of dissent seemed to me to more closely follow all the teaching we seemed to be getting during mass. So too, many pilgrims I’ve met actually more closely follow the tenets of Christianity than the grand institutions, even the one (Catholicism) that has made this pilgrimage so important for more than a millennium. I suppose in some way it’s a good example of individual parts being greater than the whole.

Wearing in the boots: Roncesvalles through Pamplona

We left our pristine hostel attached to a stunning 12th century church in Roncesvalles. The signpost at the edge of town says Santiago de Compostela is 790 kilometers away, though by foot it should be a bit shorter.

After crossing the Pyrenees the day before, we spent much of our second day ambling through pine forests and in and out of sleepy farm towns in the Basque countryside. The island of Euskadi (Basque Country) straddling the mountains is fascinating, in part because it’s so tough to find out much about the people who live here. A language resembling neither French nor Spanish in any discernible way presents the first barrier. I get the impression that there’s a secrecy to the culture, a pride that depends little on what others outside think. But this is just a gut feeling, as I’ve done little primary research.

Adding to the air of mystery is an undercurrent of witchcraft and mythology. I’ll try to look up the story about the statue to the right welcoming pilgrims into Roncesvalles.

Aches and pains have started to pop up that either weren’t an issue or were masked by adrenalin and excitement. Still, it’s a privilege to watch the landscape change with each step. After lunch, we climbed through the rather ugly industrial town of Zubiri to one of the countless hillside villages paved in cobblestones with walls lined in rose bushes in full bloom. Often you can smell the villages before you see them.

We spent the night in Larrasoana. Just a few days in, we’ve picked up on a bit of frustration with the pilgrims, which is understandable. In general, we’ve found most of us are pretty respectful, but mob mentality takes over a bit and we can be a selfish lot, descending in huge groups on tiny towns, demanding dinner and beds and then taking off the next day. So I’m a bit resigned to the idea that most of the people we meet will be fellow travelers not locals, with a few momentary exceptions here and there.

Let’s start with the travelers. Speaking English makes walking the Camino easy (and traveling in general, I suppose). But Anne-Claire’s French has opened us up to a larger swath of pilgrims. We had the good fortune to sit next to Patrick from Paris and Claude from Quebec at dinner. Claude speaks English, so we had a nice mélange of that and French and enjoyed sharing a meal with them. They both start from Le Puy in France about a month ago. They’d walked together their first three days, then had been separated until just a few days ago, when they ran into each other at a tiny stopover on the way over the Pyrenees called Orisson.

They passed us on the trail the next morning when we’d stopped for breakfast. This is how the Camino goes, I’m told – you see people, make flickering connections and only providence will allow you to meet again.

Much of the rest of the day was spent hiking up to, through and past Pamplona. After the countryside, the bustle of the town’s cars and people were a little overwhelming to us, so we didn’t linger too long, though once again, I was impressed at how beautiful Pamplona is – parks, monuments and a festive atmosphere beg for another visit.

We stopped for lunch in a suburb 5 km outside of town, only to realize we had little cash and were headed to an even smaller town up in the hills for the night. Even what the guidebook calls an “affluent dormitory community of Pamplona” didn’t have an ATM, so Anne-Claire walked a few kilometers to remedy the problem.

We arrived that night in a tiny town that was little more than the hostel and a massive church to find a near-empty hostel (one of the benefits of going just a bit farther each night than the guide suggests). The two other occupants

were none other than Patrick and Claude. We laughed off the day’s toils and shared a bit about our families over beers and the ham and chorizo that Patrick always keeps in his pack, before embarking on a tedious dinner, thanks to a few late-arriving guests. I’m striving to keep snark and cynicism out of this blog, so if you want to hear the story, perhaps we can share a few beers (and some cured meats) in person.

Spanish Whirlwind

As so often seems to happen at the end of a long trip, the places we visited in our last weeks of traveling fell behind more quickly than we wanted. This wasn’t helped by the succession of quick stops we made as we headed toward Burgos in the Castile region of northern Spain, where we hoped to see Anne-Claire’s host family.

We traveled north from Porto with the vague goal of getting to Santiago. Two trains, a cross-border cab ride with a tri-lingual taxi driver later, and a short hike from the train station, we arrived in the bursting endpoint of the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. Our original intention had been to hike a few days on the Portuguese Camino, but backpacks laden with too much port and cured meat discouraged us from hitting the trail.

Santiago was pleasant enough, beautiful in fact, with its winding streets and sprawling cathedral. But not having done the hike, I felt more like a spectator as most of the folks in the town’s streets – many of them with 

Reflections of Molinaseca

bandaged knees and taped-up feet from 500 km or more of hiking – were basking in the catharsis of their journeys’ end. Still, it didn’t stop us from bellying up for some delicious food and beer.

The next day took us to Molinaseca, a charming little town on the Camino that Anne-Claire and her dad had both fell in love with on their hike a few years ago. We spent the afternoon napping at the river on the edge of town that greets pilgrims as they trek toward Santiago. If you know Sycamore Pool in Chico in Lower Bidwell Park, it’s sort of like a miniature version of that. At some point, the

The cathedral in Burgos

townspeople paved part of the bottom of the river and built walls along the banks to make a nice swimming area. Many pilgrims can barely keep their shoes on long enough to cross the stone bridge before they plunge into the icy water.

From Molinaseca, we took a bus to Burgos, now home to a Disneyland-like town center with another sprawling Gothic cathedral (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) begun in 1221. From there, we took another bus into the countryside, through streets in tiny villages that didn’t look big enough for a Smart Car, let alone a full-size motor coach.

Antonio and Michel in Castrillo de Murcia

Our destination was one of these small towns, a place called Castrillo de Murcia, where Anne-Claire’s host mother Amablé (who we’d seen in Aix-en-Provence in June) was born. Like many of the town’s residents, she moved away for work and to raise a family, but she returns every summer, when the population swells from a winter-low of 100 to about 500 in the summertime. Built around a hillside, with a skyward-reaching church at its axis, the village feels like a permanent block party. Folks mostly rest during the heat of the day in their houses built of chilly stone, but at night, kids fill the streets of the walled center, playing (as their parents do) well into the night.

Once again, we were treated to meal after meal of fantastic Spanish dishes. The first night, we sampled morcilla de Burgos, a local blood sausage made with rice, onions and salt. Lunch the next day repeated a favorite meal I’d had in quite a few countries on this trip – lamb and fried potatoes. This time, Amablé’s partner Michel cooked the steaks over a wood fire in the fireplace he built in their courtyard.

Michel has this insatiable curiosity that’s led him to pick up Spanish (he’s French by birth) and English in the last five years, and he loves to tinker (called ‘bricoler’ in French). Amablé’s mother’s house (where we stayed) is littered with small improvement projects he’s done over the years to the hundreds-of-years-old structure. Little would tip you off that he’s 70 years old, apart from the thick shock of white hair on his head that shows no signs of thinning. He and I took a 25-30-km bike ride through the countryside and through a handful of small towns that sit on the Camino de Santiago, which Michel has biked twice. He has plans to pedal along the route from Castrillo de Murcia to Molinaseca this September.

We rode up a short hill to a plateau that afforded us unimpeded views of the wheat and wind farms that stretch across the rolling hills in every direction. We each rode bikes Michel had salvaged from the trash and fixed to usable condition for just these types of rides.

After coming down the other side of the plateau, we happened on these spectacular church ruins in San Antón just outside Castrojeriz, which boasts its own specatular ruined fortress perched on a hill high above the town, a vestige of the protection once needed from Moorish invaders. The church in San Antón now houses a hostel for pilgrims on the Camino, but standing inside the roofless walls, you get the sense of what a grand cathedral this must have once been. Huge buttresses arc right over the roadway, supporting now-imagined walls that must have soared. Later that night, we drove out here with Amablé and Anne-Claire to see the church in even more splendid light.

Before dinner that night, Michel took me to the family’s cave, which Amablé’s father and his friend had carved out of the thick bedrock decades ago. True to his French roots, Michel brings a few dozen bottles of his favorite French wine with him every summer, and he stores it, along with vegetables in this chilly cellar with a green door and an almost-comically huge key.

It’s a big key

Given the hospitality they’d shown us not once but twice on our journey, it was tough to say goodbye the next morning. Amablé is pretty good with farewells, perhaps thanks to the practice that hosting 9 or 10 students over the years has given her. A few touches of cheek to cheek and we were off in Michel’s car as he drove us to the bus station in Burgos.

Still traveling guidebook-less, we wanted to head toward Pamplona and then up through the Pyrenees to see another of Anne-Claire’s host families back in France.