It was still early morning when I started out from Pontevedra. The sun was barely up and there was still a distinct chill in the air. The attendants of the early mass were filing out of the church in the main square, and one of them, an attractive girl with gorgeous eyes and long jet black hair, grabbed me and insisted on telling me the names and history of all the buildings around me. For a fleeting second I felt as if I was once more thirty something and attractive to younger women, but of course she just wanted to make sure that a passing pilgrim left her town with a favourable impression of its architecture and history. I could hear my mother say – ‘There’s no greater fool than an old fool’. Still, there was a spring to my limp as I headed down to the river and across the bridge. And I felt at least forty years younger.
For the last three days, I have been on a high; the sun has shone from a cloudless sky; what little wind there has been, has been a balmy breeze; everywhere one looked, spring was rampant; old people, some quite ancient, were slowly digging, spreading manure and planting; the birds were singing their heads off; it felt so good to be alive and back in Galicia.
The landscape never ceased to be undulating; long stretches of uphill, a short top and then steeply down, only to start uphill again. It repeated itself quite hypnotically. It is not a flat part of Spain.
From Pontevedra, my nights were spent in Caldas de Reis and Padrón, the latter being where the two followers of Saint James brought his body to bury it somewhere a little inland. Legend has it that the two followers were eventually also buried with Saint James and the tombs became overgrown through neglect, and their origin forgotten, until their chance discovery by a local peasant some 800 years later. The remains may have been moved to Santiago and the rest is the history of the camino.
Of course, the cynics say that it is all bullshit and that it was just a cunning fabrication by the local church hierarchy to gain power and induce the faithful to travel to Santiago. We will probably never know the truth, but the romantic in me loves the legend.
So, some 70 km from Pontevedra, I struggled up the last long hill and into the city. The walk through the suburbs and city proper seemed endless, but suddenly I was alongside a familiar park and a few more blocks bought me to my usual hotel.
I felt as if I was home once more.
And the sun warmed my shoulders and blessed my third visit to Santiago de Compostela.
Today finds me in Porto, in northern Portugal. I arrived two days ago from Cape Town, via London Heathrow and Gatwick. I did not want to leave the beautiful weather and wonderful people of Cape Town, but needs must; my visa would have expired the next day. I will soon return.
In the meantime I intended to undertake another of my annual walks in the direction of Santiago de Compostela, this time from Porto.
But just prior to leaving Cape Town, I learned of the serious illness of an old lady, for whom I had a huge respect. She was my former mother-in-law, but I have never ever thought of her as an ‘ex’. From day one, she welcomed me into her extended family. They were exiles from Castro’s Cuba – some prospered, some struggled. She was an elegant woman with artistic talents. Her paintings are witness to that. On many occasions she even cut my hair.
A few years ago I walked part of the pilgrimage coastal path from Bayonne across Northern Spain and diverted to Mundaka, from where her Lázaga ancestors originated. I sent her an account of what I had seen. Perhaps I will re-publish that account.
To say that I loved the woman would be an understatement.
I did not learn of her death until I arrived here. It greatly saddened me and I felt no enthusiasm for my planned walk. I always have problems with my partially paralysed foot and leg after a long overnight flight, but this time I was struggling more than normal. I was sorely tempted to abandon my plan and do whatever old farts do, but then that would not be me.
So tomorrow morning, in the forecast rain and wind, I will set off north, one step at a time.
In the meantime I have had a long walk around the old city, up and down steep hills, through a maze of narrow lanes.
Norma Suárez Lázaga – this pilgrimage will be for you… 🙂
When I set out on this walk from France, I had the intention of continuing from Santiago to Fisterra on the Atlantic. But the weather changed for the worst, and after three days of waiting for the torrential rain to ease, I decided that ‘discretion was the greater part of valour’, and I caught a bus for the last 90 km to Fisterra.
The Galician name Fisterra was derived from the Latin – finis terrae, meaning ‘end of the earth’. In Spanish it is known as Finisterre and in French, Finistère. For anyone who remembers the Shipping Forecast that used to precede the one o’clock news on BBC Radio One, Finisterre was one of the shipping areas.
Fisterra is in fact not the westernmost point of continental Europe; that honour lies in Portugal, with Cabo da Roca, which is about 16.5 km further west.
All the way to Fisterra the rain continued to pour down. Luckily there was a hotel just 100 m from the bus terminal, and I had no problem in getting a room, as there was only one other guest.
For the next twenty-four hours the rain did not cease and the street beside my hotel resembled an Amazonian river in full flood. At least I was dry and comfortable. I did not venture out that day.
In late morning of the next day the sky brightened and the sun shone, albeit only between heavy showers. I decided to set off for the short one hour walk to the Cape. Half-way there the sky suddenly darkened, and the rain fell in buckets. I sheltered successfully in a grove of trees until it passed.
The cape with its lighthouse was bleak, with a strong wind not encouraging hanging around for very long.
Far out in the Atlantic I spotted a large black blob, that I realised was a rain storm, and it was heading directly for the cape. I found a building behind which I could shelter and watched it approach. And for the next thirty minutes it lashed down and visibility was close to zero.
It is not surprising that the area is known as ‘La Costa da Morte‘. In 1596 twenty-five boats sank in a storm off the cape, with over 1700 drowned. Few years have ever gone by without a sinking, even in modern times.
But as suddenly as the squall hit and dissipated its energy, it gradually eased and visibility and the sun slowly came back.
I wandered back down to the village and a leisurely lunch with Caldo Gallego, a chunk of bread and a bottle of wine.
That morning I ended up a little lost. I was going in the right direction, but not on the pilgrim’s path. I stopped at a bar and had some breakfast, and was directed to where I wanted to be.
I had not gone more than 200 m along the correct path when I came across an incredibly beautiful sunrise through the trees. I shall never forget it as long as I live. It was as if heaven was lighting my way.
Much of the previous two days had been spent walking on paths through forests; the scent of clean air and wood has been almost intoxicating. I have never before smelled anything so saturated with purity.
And the path wound steeply up and down, through small villages with ancient churches, and hamlets with only a handful of houses.
I spent the night in O Pedrouzo.
O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela (20km)
Saturday, 6 October, 2012
For the previous day the weather had been perfect; not too hot and certainly never cool. And yet that next morning all was changed; the sky was grey and threatening. I envisaged a depressing six hour walk, arriving in Santiago, soaked and cold, with a room yet to be found.
But the rain held off, and after a long walk through the hilly outskirts of the city, wondering how much further could it possibly be, there it was, down a steep and narrow street: the cathedral.
With the downpour now seeming imminent, I decided that my priority was to find shelter. With a map from a very helpful girl in a tourist office, I found a room close by, and just in time; the heavens opened to welcome me to Santiago de Compostela.
I decided to leave the sanctuary to the next day.
Santiago de Compostela
Sunday, 7 October, 1912
It felt strange that morning to not pack up and head out to spend the day walking to the next overnight stop. I spent most of the morning having a lazy breakfast, washing some clothes and generally wondering what to do next.
At lunchtime I wandered down to the cathedral. It took me quite a few minutes to get up the steep stone steps and in the main door; a mass had apparently just finished and the participants were in mass exodus. I found an empty pew to the right of the altar and sat quietly watching people and letting my mind wander.
It was not long before another mass started and the pews around me quickly filled; it seems that the masses were almost continuous throughout the day. Two nuns and a woman in normal street clothes led most of service, joined by an old priest who mumbled for what seemed like an eternity.
The ritual seemed unchanged from my previous experiences of mass; the same standing, sitting, responding, crossings. It left me feeling quite uninspired; it was about as motivating as watching a tap drip. I suspect that if Jesus and his disciples returned that day, they would not have felt inspired either.
After the mass finished and the aisles cleared, I left the church by the side door and went back around to the main square. As I turned the last corner, I heard beautiful singing; it sounded very similar to the melody of ‘Danny Boy’. It was coming from an archway by the corner of the cathedral and the acoustics were projecting the notes across the huge square.
And as I got closer, I realised that it was indeed ‘Danny Boy’, in heavily accented English, sung by two young tenors. When sung well, the song can bring tears to the eyes of a statue.
It’s the melody and lyrics that mean a lot to me, and in his time, to my father too; he played it at almost every performance he gave.
The singers were very talented, and when they hit the high note at the end of the last verse, I felt a wave of intense emotion surging through me, like an electric current.
It was the feeling that I so much wanted to experience inside the cathedral, at the end of my Camino. But the dogma and the ritual and the old mumbling monotone priest left me completely empty.
Was it just a coincidence that I walked into the square just as the two tenors started singing ‘Danny Boy’, and ending my Camino on a high note?
The objective of most pilgrims on the Camino is to reach Santiago and obtain a Compostela, a certificate stating that the holder has completed at least the last 100 km on foot or 200 km on bicycle.
The evidence for the claim is the credencia or passport, which should contain stamps from at least each place where one has spent the night. For those who declare that they completed the camino for religious or spiritual reasons, the Compostela is in Latin, and it has somewhat different wording in Spanish, for those who completed it for cultural or historic reasons.
The Compostela is not an indulgence, nor is it a pardon for sins, nor is it a pass to heaven. It is just a certificate.
So given that Sarria is the first town just beyond 100 km from Santiago, I expected to find a horde of ‘tourist pilgrims’ when I set out the next day.
I saw almost none. I suspect that I had started out in advance of the crowds.
For the first time on my Camino I had emerged to thick fog. It was not an impenetrable ‘pea-souper’ of my 1960’s days in London, but thick nevertheless.
Once in the countryside, one could see barely twenty metres and one had to be aware of the markings on the walls and on rocks displaying the path. There was a blanket of silence laid over the countryside and the air was dripping with moisture. The birds were silent.
But as the path ascended, the fog gradually thinned, and suddenly one was clear, and in a most beautiful countryside. It reminded me so much of my native Ireland; emerald green, rolling hills, small fields fenced with stone walls and scattered stone farm houses and outbuildings, all looking as if they had emerged out of the land.
All day I walked through similar country, until later in the afternoon the path descended to a deep and wide river valley, and across a huge bridge. On the other side, up a long series of stone steps and a steep road, lay the attractive town of Portomarín.
Portomarín to Palace do Rei (26km)
Tuesday, 2 October, 2012
I set out at about 08:30 and soon realised that something had changed; where I would normally see a handful of other pilgrims, there were now dozens and dozens of them, and they kept coming; they seemed to be deserting Portomarín like rich French fleeing from M. Hollande’s tax collectors.
And because I walk rather slowly, I was being constantly passed, and just about everyone said ‘Buen camino‘, ‘Hola‘, ‘Buenos dias‘ etc. After a while responding politely every few minutes started to become irritating and I took to saying nothing and just raising my hand. Before the morning was far gone I just was plain rude and ignored them.
And so many, seeing me limp, wanted to offer me advice and administer first aid and would not accept my response of ‘No es nada’ or when quite frustrated ‘Déjeme tranquilo por favor’. So many did not seem to understand my rule of the road; that one does not offer help, unless asked. The discomfort and pain are an integral part of the penance.
Almost as irritating were those who carried on a conversation in loud booming or quack-quack voices and moved along only marginally faster than I was able to. I could not escape their inane chatter; what a load of utter crap seems to constitute the conservation of so many people.
And to top off my irritation along came a big black guy with a huge device on his shoulder, playing rap music at discotheque decibels. It was all becoming too much for me and I was being quite unpleasant.
But by then I had realised where all those people had come from; they were the ‘Tourist Pilgrims’ who walk the last 100km to get their Compostela, whatever that may mean to them. They start at Sarria, most on Saturday or Sunday and take five days to get to Santiago and then back to work the following Monday. I had unwittingly caught up with the hordes.
I suspected that my last few days to Santiago would be less aggravated if I slowed down and let them get well ahead, for I was rich in time.
Of course I realized that I was being rather arrogant and was feeling superior to the ‘virgin pilgrims’. My reaction was similar to that which I have when on a train and stuck close to someone talking on a telephone in a loud voice and making call after call.
It seemed that here was not likely to be much peace and solitude during the last kilometers to Santiago.
But it occurred to me that the noisy pilgrims needed to pay a little more penance, rather than just strolling along in beautiful weather, having a social fun week. What was required was a thorough drenching for a few hours with strong cold winds; that would soon quieten them down.
And behold, my unspoken thought was soon a reality; within ten minutes the sky darkened and the rain started, gentle at first but soon more penetrating. The raucous laughter and inane conversations ceased and the heads dropped.
And when I went to bed that night it was still raining heavily.
Welcome to a pilgrimage.
Palace do Rei to Melide (15km)
Wednesday, 3 October, 2012
When I left Palacio do Rei, it was not yet light. It was still raining steadily and the air was quite cold. I reasoned that the tourist pilgrims would not leave before they had finished their breakfast, and in northern Spain there are not many bars or restaurants that open much before 08:00. So I had at least two hours’ head start and I only intended to walk half the distance to Arzúa.
Once up and over the ridge, the rain stopped, and shortly after the sun appeared. The undulating walk to Melide was pleasant and I did not stop, nor did I see many people. My plan of avoiding crowds had worked well.
I arrived in Melide around lunchtime and a very helpful local directed me to a comfortable hotel within sight of the pilgrim path. Later I watched the hordes struggling up the hill, with another 15 km to go.
I had a good dinner, watched Real Madrid thrash Ajax, and slept like a log.
Melide to Arzúa (15km)
Thursday, 4 October, 2012
That morning I left the hotel feeling so completely relaxed, and I had a perfect five-hour walk through priceless country. I even had two stops for coffee and croissant. I saw nobody on the path for the first three hours, and after that only a handful of pilgrims.
Not far from Arzúa I stopped for a drink of water. Just as I put down my pack there was a loud crack, and a branch came crashing down on the path, no more than five metres away from me. I pulled the branch to the side of the road and continued the rest of the way to Arzúa.
Later in the afternoon I was in Arzúa, sitting in the sun outside a little bar, having a cold beer. On a pharmacy sign I could see that it was 20°C and the time was 18:30. The bells of the church across the road had just tolled for the half-hour.
Compared to the cold dank morning of the previous day, it felt positively idyllic.
James was the son of Zebedee and Salome, and together with his brother John, was one of the first disciples of Jesus. Legend states that after the crucifixion of Jesus, he went to Spain to preach and convert. Later he had a vision of the Virgin Mary and subsequently he returned to Judea. He died there in 44AD, decapitated under the orders of Herod Agrippa, the then King of the Jews. After his death, his disciples took his body back to Spain, where he was buried at a place somewhere inland.
The legend claims that in 813 his tomb was discovered in the town of Iria Flavia – today known as Padrón. Bishop Theodomira of Iria was informed, and after he told King Alfonso II of the discovery, the remains were moved to Compostela, for ostensibly political and religious reasons. A basilica was built over the tomb, and over the centuries this building evolved to the current cathedral.
By the Middle Ages Santiago de Compostela had become an important destination for Christians seeking forgiveness for their sins. It ranks equal with the other two important Christian pilgrimage destinations – Jerusalem and Rome.
In the early days of the pilgrimages to Santiago, much of Spain and Portugal was still under the control of the Muslim Moors, who were not finally defeated until 1492. In that era, the majority of the pilgrims were French.
For pilgrims, their route started from their door. They would make their way to the nearest town or city and join other pilgrims, for there was safety in numbers. One of the major staging posts was Paris and the church of Saint Jacques la Boucherie, close to Nôtre-Dame, on the north side of the Seine. Today only the church tower remains. And Le Puy-en-Velay was the main gathering point for pilgrims from the south and east.
As trickles form a stream, before joining to a tributary, and finally flowing into the main river, the pilgrims converged on Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port for what was the most convenient crossing of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles in Spain. From there they went on to Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León and finally to Santiago de Compostela. And along the route hospitals and hostels sprang up, many of which still exist today.
With the exception of recent years, undertaking the pilgrimage was not without risk. Not only were pilgrims liable to be attacked and robbed by bandits, but disease was rife, and many died on the way. Indeed, even today, though the route is quite safe and secure, there are still casualties, mainly due to physical exertion or from exhaustion in the prevalent heat of the summer months. One can observe many crosses and memorials by the path.
And one must not forget that in all but modern times, the pilgrimage was only half completed upon arrival in Santiago de Compostela; there were no buses, trains and planes to take one home, and the arduous outward journey had to be repeated in reverse.
During periods of war or plague, the number of pilgrims would have been greatly reduced, although some would have persisted, by taking the more challenging northern route that follows the coast.
Formerly the pilgrimage was undertaken for purely religious reasons, but for most people today, it has evolved to being a leisure activity. Modern pilgrims may be participating for the physical challenge, for the exercise, the fresh air, the experience, the opportunity for solitude, to meet other like-minded people, or for a host of other reasons. Some may complete the journey from end to end in one go, while others, who may have limited time or resources, progress in sections over a period of years.
Although most people complete the pilgrimage on foot, there is an increasing number of cyclists, and I even saw some people running from village to village. There were several accompanied by a dog and I was even passed by a couple on horseback.
Not everyone carries their possessions on their back. There are many who contract a specialist tourist agency to reserve accommodation along the route, and arrange for their bags to be transported from place to place. And at the other end of the scale there are the low-cost options of the albergues, with dormitories and the local restaurants with their ‘cheap and cheerful’ three-course pilgrim menu. As one Spanish family told me – ‘It can be a quite inexpensive holiday’.
Are many participating for purely religious reasons? I suspect that these days they are very much in the minority. And perhaps this is reflected in the fact that, apart from being open during their occasional mass, most churches and chapels in the villages are shuttered and locked.
Does the crypt under the cathedral in Santiago actually contain the remains of Saint James? Until the tomb is opened or x-rayed to reveal a decapitated skeleton, and I suspect that the Church will remain reluctant to ever give permission, it will have to remain a matter of individual faith.
But does the veracity of the legend really matter? Every year thousands upon thousands of people of all ages and all nationalities walk for weeks for hundreds of miles across a beautiful landscape in all weathers. That is surely no bad thing.
And if some of them benefit spiritually, that’s their bonus.
Belorado is a small village that lies between Logrõno and Burgos in northern Spain, on the pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostela. The location has apparently been inhabited since before Roman times.
On the way into Belorado we came across a sign stating that four hundred casualties of a local battle between local volunteers and the occupying army of Napoleon were buried beneath the ground on which we were standing.
Quite a sobering thought.
A little further on we came across the Albergue A Santiago and I took a room for the night.
Later, having a beer outside in the warmth of the evening sun, we chatted with two Frenchmen. They were of early retirement age and were on their fourth pilgrimage to Santiago. Walking from village to village for days and weeks on end can be quite addictive.
They told us of a sailor that they had recently met who had been involved in a shipwreck off Iceland many years previously. The sailor had sworn to the Virgin Mary that if he survived he would spend the rest of his life walking to Santiago de Compostela. He was subsequently saved and to date he had completed 25 pilgrimages, including one from Saint Petersburg in Russia.
It was not until later that I recalled having taken a photo in Logroño of a huge wall painting of an old man with body tattoos of the stamps of various Camino villages.
Was he the old sailor that the Frenchmen were describing?