Thursday, July 3, 2008

Introduction to this blog

This blog records a pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James), made from St Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in the north-west of Spain, in May and early June 2008.  I had travelled from Sydney via New York where I visited one of my adult children.  Hence, the first blog post is from New York, on 28 April 2008.

Apart from this first post, the text of each post is as written on the Camino--the temptation to update them at journey's end was resisted. (I have had stronger temptations.) However, the photos were added at the end of the Camino, numbered and captioned.  They relate to the stage of the journey covered in the blog post to which they are attached.  

The posts are shown in reverse chronological order, that is, the most recent is first and the first last.  That seems scripturally appropriate although I doubt that scripture is the driver of that design.

The purpose of the blog, and an invitation to readers

The blog was principally written to describe for those whom I had left behind in Australia something of what I was seeing and doing, to share the experience more fully with them and to feel closer to them. Hence, the blog has a strongly descriptive character.  Writing this publicly available blog more than satisfied my instinct for exhibitionism and so the blog is less a personal reflection on the experience than a record of the journey itself. It is inevitably only part of the story and experience.  If anyone reading this blog is interested in learning more, especially if they are planning to make the Camino, I am happy to respond to their queries by email or the Comment facility on this blog. 

I should add that I made the Camino alone in the sense that I did not set out in company with any other person.  However, it will be apparent from the blog below that I was never alone. The Camino Frances especially can be an intensely communal experience as well as a meditative one. That was my experience of the Way of Saint James.

Camino resources

Online resources

There are many online resources available on the Camino Frances and the other Camino routes to Santiago de Compostela.  The following are some that I found especially valuable.

The Confraternity of Saint James (UK): 

The Pilgrim Forum hosted on the CSJ website but independently moderated:

The website associated with the Pilgrim Forum above:

A valuable collection of satellite etc maps of the Camino routes:

Caminolinks (a useful collection of sites):


Books of value on the Camino

There are many books of great value in preparing for the Camino and reflecting upon it afterwards.  I recommend the following.

John Brierley, A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino de Santiago (Findhorn Press, 2008) (a valuable guidebook that I carried with me on the Camino)

William Bisset (ed), Pilgrim Guides to Spain 1, Camino Frances (Confraternity of Saint James, published annually) (a valuable nuts and bolts guide)

Alison Raju, The Way of Saint James (Cicerone Press, current edition) 

David M Gitlitz & Linda Kay Davidson, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook (St Martin's Press, 2000) (the subtitle is a fair description of a comprehensive, well-written work covering history, art, architecture etc )

William Melczer, The Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela (Ithaca Press, 1993) (a translation of Book Five of the C12 Liber Sancti Jacobi, the first guidebook to the Camino; Melczer has added an excellent introduction on the history of the Camino and the medieval pilgrims who made it)

Jonathan Sumption, The Age of Pilgrimage: The Medieval Journey to God (Hidden Spring, 2003, reprinting his Pilgrimage first published by Faber and Faber in 1975) (looks at the meaning and purposes of Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, to Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela and Canterbury)

Joyce Ruff, Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lesson from the Camino (Orbis Books, 2005) (an American nun, a well-known spiritual writer, reflects on her pilgrimage experience)

Tony Kevin, Walking the Camino: A Modern Pilgrimage to Santiago (Scribe, 2007) (an account of a pilgrimage made from Granada in the south on the Via Mozarabe and Via de la Plata)

Roads to Santiago: A Spiritual Companion: Twenty-Five Pilgrims Share Their Journeys (Confraternity of Saint James and Redemptorist Publications, 2008) (a heavily illustrated  booklet of 36 pages only that captures briefly some individual pilgrim experiences)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Completing the post from Santiago de Compostela

These photos relate to the post below and follow the (chronological) sequence of its narrative.
439. A monument to a pilgrim who died at this spot in 1993, just one day's walk from his destination. Two small bronze shoes are in the centre of the grotto.440. A small church in a peaceful grove
441. Here at last, at least in an outer suburb of Santiago
442. The chapel of St Mark at Monte do Gozo
443. The interior of the chapel
444. The closer we got to Santiago the more the cyclists emerged445. The sculpture at Monte do Gozo
446. The facade of the pediment showing marking the pilgrimage to Santiago that Francis of Assisi made in 1212
447. Detail of this facade. The flowers and stones have been added by the faithful.
448. Further detail of the stones added to Francis's basket
449. Another facade of the pediment. This represents the several Camino routes as the fingers on a human hand.
450. Just arrived in Santiago!
451. The Plaza de Praterias and the southern facade of the Cathedral
452. With Nicole (Switzerland) at the Pilgrims Mass
453. The Botafumeiro, the enormous incense holder, at rest454. Self-portrait of Master Mateo, creator of the Porta de la Gloria, at the rear of the pediment of the centre piece of the entrance, facing towards the main altar
455. Some happy pilgrims in Santiago. The three happy amigos had walked from Le Puy in France.
456. Marjolein and Manon (Holland) about to embrace the Saint behind the altar
457. A view of the Cathedral's western facade, reconstructed in the C18 in the Baroque manner
458. The Hostal de Reyes Catolicas, a state owned luxury hotel in the Plaza de Obradoiro on the western side of the Cathedral. The building was constructed on the instructions of Ferdinand and Isabel as a pilgrim hospice in 1492. The hotel's name refers to them.
459. Celebrating arrival in Santiago: Erica, Gerhard, Gudrun and Angela, all from Germany
460. More celebrations!
461. Farewell drinks: Gabor (Hungary), Slawomir (Poland) and Marjolein and Manon (Holland)
462. Swinging the Botafumeiro in the Cathedral at the conclusion of the Pilgrims' Mass
463. With Di (Daylesford) and Annette (Fremantle) in the Pilgrims Office
464. Courtyard of the Colegio de San Jeronimo.  The statue is of Bishop Fonseca. 
465. Three lively women in a Santiago park. Pick the interloper.
466. The view from the Quintana of the Living onto the eastern facade of the Cathedral. The Door of Pardon is immediately behind the young woman using the mobile phone.
467. Looking back at the fishing village and port en route to the end of the world, Finisterre
468. Erica resting en route to Finisterre
469. The coast leading to Finisterre
470. Approaching the lighthouse at Finisterre
471. The end of the way
472. A pilgrim monument. The lighthouse at Finisterre is in the distance.
473. A last view of the Cathedral, looking into the fading western light down one of the outer aisles

This post belatedly completes that commenced in Santiago in early June but abandoned because of difficulties in using the computer in my hotel. 

Azrua to Monte de Gozo, Tuesday 3 June 2008

My last post had taken the journey down to Boente on Monday 2 June when I had planned to walk onto the lovely riverside xunta albergue at Ribadiso but, impatient to push on (and to find a farmacia for my cough), I went onto the larger Azrua.  Stayed at the fine xunta albergue there and had dinner with Franz and Celia, the lovely Dutch couple with whom I had shared much of the journey on and off.  Franz is a retired plumber, enjoying in retirement gardening, walking his dog and spending time with his three daughters (not necessarily in that order).  English is his third language, German his second.  Celia, who reminds me so much of my sister in law, Betsy, has stronger English.  (I have no Dutch, of course!)  Indeed, I do not think that there is another native English speaker in the albergue tonight or last night either.  Tonight, the dominant tongue is French (including from Quebec).  They are mostly new faces to me since I have, in a footling impatience to be in Santiago, have left a few friends, including Thomas from Heidelberg, behind.

I awake on Tuesday a little unsettled.  On the previous night group of Spanish school kids had talked long after lights out lin the area just outside the dormitory.  They were friendly, happy kids without a word of English, I suspect.  I didn't give them any gratuitous advice about beauty sleep as I threaded through them in my underpants (who wants to carry pyjamas 800 kms?) en route to the toilet.  It seemed too risky.  Anyway, I woke finally at 6 am with the Frenchman in the lit next to me, who had studiously avoided eye contact, breathing over the back of my neck and snoring loudly.  (All beds were pushed together.)  This was not a welcome spooning.   Time to get moving.  

Again, as yesterday, the walking was not especially memorable, mostly through small hamlets and farms, a lesser version of what we had seen before but diluted by increasing modernity, urban landscape and the built environment.  I even missed my beloved cuckoo this morning--it has been such a treat to hear his/her call.  This is post-cuckoo Spain.  It hit me this morning why the Compostella is given only for the last 100 kms to SdC:  the previous 700 kms do not need any further reward.  There was nothing today of great historical interest except for the delightful chapel of San Marcos at Monte del Gozo (see below).  But, like yesterday, there were stands of eucalyptus forests imported for pulp timber production.  Any Australian would feel at home here.

I had planned to walk on only to the albergue at Arca do Pina, completing Brierley's (my guide book) second last stage (20 kms).   A heavy cold made that seem prudent, with only 21 kms then remaining to SdC.  However, I'm afraid that I missed the turn off to the Arco do Pina albergue (who says you can't get lost with the Camino's generous signage?) and kept going some way before I realized my mistake.  No backtracking!  I kept on going until I reached Monte del Gozo (the Mountain of Joy), from which medieval pilgrims might, on a clear day, see the Cathedral at SdC, a mere 4 kms away.  Nowadays, the view is obscured, including by a football stadium.  The albergue at Monte del Gozo is an enormous, ugly xunta albergue that houses 800 pilgrims in barrack style huts that have 8 persons in 4 bunks per room.  Brierley calls it a "modern grief", not a joy, but it had a very friendly hospitalera and it is reassuring that there will be accommodation for all comers.  

Looking back on the day's long walk to Monte del Gozo, some things stay in the memory.  

The first was the hamlet of Lavacolla (literally 'washing one's loins') where medieval pilgrims washed themselves in preparation for their arrival in SdC.  

Second, by the roadside on the way towards Lavacolla was a memorial to a German pilgrim who in August 1993 collapsed and died at the spot just one day's walking  short of his destination.  Tiny bronze shoes stand inside the stone grotto.   There have been a number of other memorials to pilgrims who died en route to SdC including a fine sculpture to a German cyclist pilgrim near Molinaseca.  (Both of these memorials are captured in photos on this blog.)  To my knowledge, only one pilgrim died on the Camino in or around my cohort of pilgrims, a 60 year old Frenchman who had a heart attack climbing the hill to Cirauqui from Puenta la Reina in early May, a day before I made that climb.  Death is not a constant companion on the Camino but the pilgrim demography and the demands of the road make it no stranger either.

Some reflections on expression of faith

In Monte del Gozo, there was a memorable Mass in the Capilla de San Marcos, celebrated by a young Latin American priest for a congregation of 7 only.  He and I were the only males.  The altar server was a girl of about 6 or 7 with her grandmother (they were locals, not pilgrims).  The capilla is very simple and is the last physical connection with the site that medieval pilgrims would have known.  There is a a stone pieta (Mary cradling the crucified Christ in her arms) behind the altar.  A modern statue of Mary is adorned with the many pairs of Rosary beads.  These add greatly to the simple beauty of the medieval capilla as a powerful, moving witness to the deep faith of the local and pilgrim communities that it serves.  This was one of the most moving Masses that I took part in in Spain.  

Indeed, it is impossible not to be moved by the faith of the church communities in modern Spain that add Rosary beads to a simple statue, stones to the numerous grottos, a plastic madonna to the base of a 200+ year old tree and a thousand other manifestations of a faith deeply held and comfortably expressed.  Take one further example at Monto del Gozo itself.  There is a large sculpture there commemorating Pope John Paul II's visit as part of his pilgrimage to SdC in 1992.  At its pediment are four bronze sculptures.  One shows St Francis of Assisi as a pilgrim.  In the sculpture the saint's face is entirely bare--there is no representation at all of his features--but he is given a basket and a cane walking stick.  The basket has been filled by pilgrims or other faithful with stones and the stick festooned with flowers.  These additions are deeply moving, for this pilgrim at least, for their spontaneous expression of affection and belief.

So also is the thought of the privations suffered by the millions of pilgrims to SdC who, unlike their modern successors, turned around and walked home.  Many would have carried from Tricastela to Castanuela the large limestone blocks used for the production of lime for the mortar in the construction of the Cathedral at SdC.  Their spiritual relief was hard earned.

Monte del Gozo to Santiago del Compostela, Wednesday 4 June 2008

At about 8 am I arrived at the Praza Obradoiro, the square on the western side of the Santiago Cathedral and the traditional pilgrim entry point to the Cathedral.  It was a grey day but that did not dampen the joy of completion.

Pilgrim rituals in Santiago

Pilgrims would ritually enter through the Cathedral, the terminus of the pilgrimage and the site of the remains of the Apostle in shared belief, through the interior portico created in the C12 by Master Mateo, the Portico de la Gloria.  To do so they would first climb the steps of the Cathedral and enter via the external portico (the present exterior portico was rebuilt in the mid C18).  The entrance and both porticos are both closed for restoration work, presumably in preparation for the Holy Year in 2010 when the feast of St James, 25 July, falls on a Sunday.  (This would not be a good year, and July especially not a good month, for a pilgrimage unless you are the Pope.)  

The pilgrim ritual involves attending the daily Pilgrim Mass at noon at which the celebrant announces the countries of origin of the pilgrims who have just obtained their Compostella (the certificate of completion of the Camino) from the Pilgrims Office.  At the conclusion of that Mass, the botafumeiro, a giant incense burner, is swung across the altar, from transept to transept by a team of 8 men.  (Transepts are the lateral arms of the cross that with the long nave make up the church's design.)  It is great theatre and rather steals the show.  The botafumeiro's original function may have been to fumigate the pilgrims or the smell and contagion they introduced despite loin washing at Lavacolla.  Now it is the entertainment de jour.  Cameras go mad, including mine.

The more individual elements of the pilgrim ritual in the Cathedral include putting your hand in the Tree of Jesse, the central column of the Portico de al Gloria.  (The portico itself tells the Bible story in stone.)  Holes have been worn in in marble by the millions of pilgrims who have done this over the millennium.  The pilgrim then touches her or his brow to that of Master Mateo, the creator of the portico, whose statue stands at the pediment of the central column but facing the altar.  (The hope is that his genius is contagious.  Sadly not, in my case.)  When I arrived both actions were formally denied by Cerrado signs and barriers although some determined peregrinos were sighted crossing them in a quiet moment to complete these rituals.  When one elegant woman in high heels, who had walked clearly no further than a car or tourist bus, jumped the barricades to be photographed, the guards intervened and added a further barrier and heavier policing.  One pilgrim is happy that he got there first, and placed his hands with those of earlier pilgrims and shared their journeys more intimately. 

Another element of the pilgrim ritual is to climb the stairs behind the mail altar of the Cathedral and "embrace the saint", that is, hug the large gilt covered statue of St James from behind.  Brierley's guide says "Perhaps lay your head on his broad shoulders and say what you came here to say."  

Finally, you may proceed to the crypt under the altar and kneel before the gilt casket containing the relics that inspired millions to make the pilgrimage to Santiago, far from their homes, often in inhospitable conditions, and then turn around to make the return journey.  It is not clear how many modern pilgrims believe these to be the remains of the Apostle beheaded by Herod in Jerusalem in 44 AD.  Even for those like the writer, whose motivation for the pilgrimage has a substantial religious component, the authenticity of the relics need not be the core underpinning for the journey.  Uncertainty does not diminish either the pilgrimage experience generally or that of prayer in the crypt.

In one sense it is fortuitous that I was unable to enter Master Mateo's Portia de la Gloria.  This means that my pilgrimage remains incomplete, unfinished.  That is utterly apt.  Even if I had crossed the portico, the pilgrimage, my Camino, would have continued upon my return home to Sydney and in the years beyond.  Not entering this portico, not making the entrance to the Cathedral that so many pilgrims made before me, emphasizes the Camino's incompleteness.  All who leave Santiago as pilgrims remain such;  some of us have this reminder of our continuing pilgrimage with an interrupted journey through the Portico de la Gloria.

Meeting old friends again

I spent a few days in Santiago that I had originally planned to spend in London catching up with someone very dear to me.  (Plans changed with her return south.)  That gave me time to catch up with old friends from the way as a new wave of pilgrims arrived each day and to meet new pilgrims such as Chris and Jean from NZ.  Some friends are shown in photos above.   Others who are not include Terry (Dublin), Jennifer (Rhode Island), Thomas (Heidelberg), Deiter (Germany), Franz and Celia (the Netherlands), Harry and Lisa (the Central Coast, first met at Orisson and not seen since Roncesvalles), Francois and his buddies from Le Puy, also met at Orisson, Greg and Annette (Fremantle), Serano (Byron Bay) and a number of the German women from La Faba. Jennifer and I were looking out for Sallie (Ontario) whom we had farewelled in Leon, hoping that we might see her one last time on the Camino that she had been reluctantly forced to relinquish because of the risk to her health.  We did  not.  She had been in our thoughts then and is in mine now as I write this.

There is a great sadness in knowing that I shall not see most of these people again. However, we have the tie of the shared journey and fellowship.  These greetings and partings are bitter sweet.

Journey to the end of the earth

The extra time in Santiago also allowed me to take the bus to Finisterre (Fisterre in Gallego), literally the end of the earth, some 90 kms west of SdC.  This pre-1492 nomenclature expresses the medieval belief that the (flat) earth ended here and that the pilgrimage took you to its outer limits.  Pilgrims returned home the better prepared for another journey beyond this world's limits.  Some burned their clothes to mark the rebirth.  Francois of Quebec told me that he intended to do so--he had lost so much weight that they no longer fitted him, anyway, he said. 

At Cape Finisterre where I walked the 5 kms from the bus terminus with Erica (Koln) and Francis (Belgium), some did burn clothing but none that they were wearing and none to the extent of Brian Sewell in his documentary The Naked Pilgrim.  But then Sewell made the Camino almost entirely in his Mercedes (the closing portion was on horseback) and so some extravagant gesture might have been expected as a compensatory mechanism.  

Saturday, June 7, 2008

De Santiago de Compostela

These photos relate to the blog post below. That post covers the journey from Palas de Rei to Azrua on 2 June 2008. The photos follow the (chronological) 0rder of the narrative in the post.
423. Navigating the watery path from Palas de Rei
424. These raised boxes on a stone plinth seem peculiar to rural Galicia
425. C12 Iglesia de San Xulian do Camino
426. Medieval Magdelana bridge over the rio Seco leading into Disicabo
427. Medieval Ponte Vehla leading into Furelos
428. Romanesque church of San Pedro in the main street of busy, industrial Melide
429. The doorway of the church of San Pedro
430. C14 stone cross adjacent to San Pedro. It is reputed to be the oldest in Galicia.
431. Detail of the Cruce de Melide: on one side, Christ in Majesty
432. The other side of the Cruce de Melide: Christ crucified
433. Iglesia de Santi Spiriti, now a parish church but in the C14 an Augustinian monastery serving pilgrims
434. Iglesia de Santa Maria, leaving Melide
435. Eucalypt stands. We might be in the Australian bush.
436. Peaceful crossings
437. The interior of the simple parish church of Santiago at Boente. The parish priest greeted us personally as we passed (and mostly entered) his church.
438. The albergue at Azrua

This post is sent from SdC where I arrived early on Wednesday morning, 4 June. It updates the journey since my last post, from Palas de Rei. That seems so long ago. This post completes the narrative of the journey for any interested, patient readers. [In fact, that narrative was completed in a following post sent after my return home. See below for explanation.]

Palas de Rei to Arzua, Monday 2 June 2008

After dinner on Sunday night with Angela and her father, both from Koln, it was a passable night in the xunta albergue in PdR. The most interesting cultural aspect was the contest for some fresh air between some Germans and a forthright Spanish woman who immediately got out of her bunk and closed the window that the Germans had presumed to open a little. She did so with a strident "Yo tengo frigo" (I am cold). The Germans muttered but said nothing although they seem to have had the last word, thank God, since the window was open during the night.

The walking to Azrua was not especially memorable, through ancient oaks and great stands of eucalyptus forest imported for timber production. It is a lesser version of country passed in the last few days. There was a long entry into Melide via its charmless suburbs. On the main road in Melide is the church of San Pedro with a C14 stone cross with Christ in Majesty on one side and Christ crucified in the other. It is thought to be the oldest cross in Galicia. There is also a memorable parish church of Sancti Spritu, originally a C14 Augustinian monastery.

In Boente the parish priest greets us to welcome us to his church of Santa Maria. It is near the ancient village of CastaƱuela where the lime for the construction of the Santiago Cathedral was made from the limestone carried from Triacastela by the pilgrims. We modern pilgrims are finding it tough enough without carrying limestone blocks!

I think that I might end this post now--it´s not a convenient place in my hotel to be sending it from, a little too busy and intrusive. I´ll complete the log when I get home next week and add photos. For now, it will have to suffice to say that it is wonderful to be in Santiago with the pilgrimage complete and catching up with follow pilgrims. Tomorrow, Sunday 8 June, I´ll go to Finisterre by bus and on the next day fly to London. On Tuesday 10 June, I take the plane home.

Thanks again for your company and support.