Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Precious memories on the camino

We met a delightful Irish girl on the camino who, for various physical reasons, could not carry a heavy pack and who chose not to sleep in the albergues. She started at St Jean Pied de Port and walked to Santiago staying at small hostals or pensions having her luggage transported from place to place by taxi. Some people seemed to disapprove of this kind of pilgrimage but I am of the opinion that where you sleep or what you carry has no bearing whatsoever on your spiritual status as a pilgrim. She walked the same paths, through the same villages and towns and visited the same churches and cathedrals and monuments. She walked the camino and has a Compostela to prove it.

The camino has many levels - something for everybody. It is a physical journey and a spiritual journey. It offers religion and science, art and architecture, history and legend, fauna and flora, music, literature and much more. For me its richest blessings are the pilgrims who walk it and the people who care for them. I do feel that staying only in hotels deprives one of experiencing the wonderful camaraderie and social interaction pilgrims have with hospitaleros and other pilgrims which you only find in the pilgrim refuges. Sure, you can chat to fellow pilgrims on the road and at café bars but it is usually at the end of the day when most pilgrims are relaxing that you meet and befriend so many different people and have the most amazing encounters.
After arriving at a refuge most pilgrims attend to their daily chores of washing clothes, finding food and preparing for the next day. This is never done in isolation, but by patiently waiting your turn at the washtub, chatting with the people around you or sharing your food. Everyone shares, not only food and wine but information, medication, blister products. You break bread every day. Friendships are formed. Distrust among pilgrims disappears. One keeps meeting the same pilgrims in different refuges and if separated for a few days, familiar faces are greeted like long-lost relatives.
The scenes around a modern albergue can’t be too different from a medieval hospice. Pilgrims relaxing together in a meadow sharing food and wine, tending to each other’s feet or massaging aching shoulders. An ethic develops where those pilgrims who need to be alone are left alone and those who need a shoulder are treated with empathy and compassion. Pilgrims develop an open mind and a culture of acceptance, compassion and caring rarely seen amongst strangers. And, many hospitaleros display these same attributes.
In Villamayor de Monjardin the hospitalero took one look at my raw heels and insisted on treating them from her first aid box. In Granon, we had to sing for our supper and had a special blessing before bedtime. In Tosantos, after dinner we climbed into the attic to find a delightful makeshift chapel where we were asked to take a piece of paper out of a box containing the requests for prayers written by other pilgrims. Mine was written by a woman who asked that we pray for her son who had been diagnosed with a kidney disease. In Logrono we could take a prayer from a box (written by children) to present at the altar of St James in Santiago. In Bercianos we all had to watch the sunset over a hill before we were allowed back in to the refuge for our communal meal. At Arroyo San Bol, a young Italian Rastafarian chef cooked us the most amazing meal. At Villafranca del Bierzo, Jesus Jato performed his healing Reiki on pilgrims who were in pain and at Manjarin, a young man with a Mohawk hairstyle and studs in his face cooked us lunch and dinner in between gently caring for a mother cat and her kittens.
These are the jewels of the camino and my most precious memories are not of a soaring cathedral or of stunning stained glass but of the kindness of strangers, the astounding generosity of the Spanish people and the many humble refuges that brought us all together.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The last post

This will be our last post from Spain - Anneliese left for Germany at 11h30 this morning and we will be leaving Pamplona at 9pm for Madrid where we get our flight home at 12h35am. It has been a restful 2 days in Pamplona. We did a 5km self-guided walk around the walls of Pamplona yesterday morning, which took us almost 2 hours with all the stops and photo opportunities. Pamploná was a strategic defense town close to the border with France. The walls were considered an engineering masterpiece and many cities sent their engineers to examine it and suggest new architecural designs for its fortification. The walk ended at the Citadel - constructed in the 1500’s but breached by the French in the 1800’s. It forms a green lung in the centre of Pamplona and yesterday the parks and gardens were filled with children, jumping castles, athletic events, joggers and families out strolling in the sunshine.
After lunch we had a siesta and then walked to the new town to have a look at the large Stuttafords type department store, which covers 5 floors. We were a bit overwhelmed so didn’t stay long. On the way back into the old city we came upon a marching crowd, shouting slogans and tried to avoid them by going down a side street. Then we heard police sirens and the crowd began to disperse and people ran in all directions. The police vehicles disgorged riot police with batons and shields who charged at the running people. Finn and I got caught between two teenage girls and charging police who brutally smashed the girls with their batons. One girl sprawled on the floor and they hit her whilst she lay on the ground. Finn put his back to a pillar and held me. The police changed direction and started chasing other running people. It was like the Running of the Bulls but with police and ordinary citizens instead of bulls and young men. We were quite shaken and Marion was almost ill with shock. We went back to our little street and Finn found an Irish pub that was broadcasting the Australia-vs-England rugby match. That was him done for the day! In the evening we walked back to the Plaza and around the corner found windows smashed, large garbage tips overturned and on fire - remains of a barricade. Later on, in the hotel room, we saw news items showing the police baton charging demonstrators in many cities in Spain including Pamplona. (We think it was an ETA demonstration.)
We have had a very quiet day today as we had to vacate our room at mid-day and could not leave our luggage at the hotel as the concierge was going off duty at 12h30. So, we carried it to the square, sat in the sun for a while watching the people go past and then sat for another hour and half having lunch at a sidewalk cafe. Finn has now gone off to watch the SA vs Fiji match at the Irish pub (The Harp) and Marion is watching the luggage whilst I am in this little internet place.
We will arrive in JHB at 10h30am tomorrow and will be in Durban at 13h30. Marion and I have been away from home for almost 7 weeks - a very long time - and Finn for almost 2 weeks. It is time to go home.
Thank you all for sharing this journey with us. There is so much to absorb, so many thoughts, experiences, sights and sounds to sort through and put into perspective. I have taken almost 1000 photographs and am sure that many will evoke all sorts of memories.

Love to all - from a sunny and warm Pamplona,
S M and Finn

Saturday, October 06, 2007

None of us can believe that our walks are over

We are now in Pamplona and have just walked down the street where the bulls run during the St Fermin running of the bulls. At Santo Domingo do Silos, we attended the 13h45 session of the Gregorian chants and Finn was a little disappointed because it only lasted 15 minutes. However, we went to Vespers at 19h30 and heard a full session of prayers in Gregorian chants. Now we know why the monks at Silos are famous for their chants - it was absolutely beautiful. We decided to stay for the 9am mass as well and that too was a special treat. The Benedictine church has amazing acoustics and the gentle chanting echos through the aisle into the vault of the church. There is no ornamentation at all in the church. One large wooden Christ on the cross behind the altar is all that breaks the stonewalls. The altar is a grey granite with a simple white cloth cover. There were no chalices, cups or jugs on the altar. During the mass one of the monks collected the cups used for mass from a side granite server and these were returned straight after communion. There were about 24 monks at mass - 12 in white robes and 11 in black robes with one ‘new recruit’ in civvies. Finn and I decided to visit the museum and the cloisters - the most amazing 'narrative pillars' with biblical stories in stone on every pillar. One set of pillars are curved and when I asked the guy in the museum why he could not answer. The floors are a mosaci of pebbles and the ceilings beautifully pained. It is also a double storied cloister with a later structure built over the earlier one. We left Santo Domingo at about 10h15 and drove mostly along the N120 - the Camino road route - towards Pamplona. It was quite exciting to see peregrinos walking alongside the road on the asphalt trail and also when we stopped at Los Arcos we felt quite envious of the pilgrims walking through. We then followed the main roads up to Roncesvalles where we spent the night at the Casa Sabina Inn. The sun was shining, there were only 19 pilgrims registered at the albergue when we visited it to show Finn where we had slept the first night. The Dutch hospitalera told us that the refuge is closed from the end of October until May. We had a pilgrim menu at the Inn and then attended the pilgrim mass. We all went up to the altar for the peregrino blessing. It rained during the night and was very misty when we awoke this morning. We felt quite sorry for the pilgrims that were setting off down the trail in the rain. By the time we left the mist had cleared and the sun broke through. We drove over the Ibenta Pass to St Jean Pied de Port where we walked up a rather quiet and deserted Rue da Citadelle, visiting the pilgrim centre and having coffee at a restaurant next to the river. We did some sightseeing and left St Jean at mid-day.

We stopped once more in Roncesvalles (Finn can’t pronounce it properly so he calls it Rondebosch!) before driving on to Pamplona where we dropped off the car and checked into our hotel in San Nicolas, just around the corner from Plaza del Castillo. We walked around Pamplona for a couple of hours before having a picnic dinner in the hotel’s sitting room. We have tomorrow and Sunday free in Pamplona before we head off for the airport at about 6pm. None of us can believe that our walks are over - the last 7 weeks seem to have flown by so quickly. We will return to this internet cafe before we leave to give you the ‘last post’ from Spain.

Love to all,
S A M & Finn

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


We whizzed along calmly in the car today - me driving again - through spectacular scenery. The lake district enlarged, lots of stony hills, forests and lakes. The roads are excellent with extremely high bridges spanning across deep ravines built on impossibly tall, thin spindle legs. We have also been through some pretty long tunnels through the mountains. We decided to skip Leon (big City blues) and headed straight for the camino road instead. We felt quite nostalgic watching peregrinos walking along the asphalt next to the road with trees planted every 9m. We arrived at Castrojeriz just before lunch and checked into the Puerta de Monte, a very nice hotel overlooking the plains. We explored the little town for a while before retiring for a siesta. We are now in the La Taberna and have bought some excellent olive oil from Antonio (shhh... don’t tell anyone because it is a private oil not for sale and he would be up the creek if anyone found out!) The bar is filled with pilgrims but we are attuned to the ‘camino lingua’ of part German, part French, part Spanish part English. Finn, poor thing, is a bit lost as he only had 7 days induction into pilgrim communication. Tomorrow we will have a short drive to Santo Domingo de Silas where we hope to hear the Gregorian Chants sung at mass in the cathedral. I have a feeling that I will be driving again and we will stick to the camino road.
Its getting darker earlier now and sunrise is also later - about 8h15. We met pilgrims in the square and although I am missing the walking and would love to do a bit of exploring around her, I almost felt sorry for them - such a long way still to go!

Cheers from Castrojeriz!
S A M & Finn

Monday, October 01, 2007

Then we got lost

The saga of our car continued this morning when we checked out of the hotel and walked to the car park. The electronic lock would just not open. The garage attendant told us that the lights had been on all night so, guess who made a boo-boo and left the lights on when she parked the car! We went back to the hotel and the concierge very kindly phoned the Road Assist who came and charged the battery. We finally left Lugo at 11:15 so went straight onto the National road and instead of going south headed up north to to Oviedo - about 300kms away. No problems! Easy-peasy with the Michelen maps I'd downloaded before we left home and posted ahead to myself in Santiago. We arrived, headed into town and - then we got lost. We drove around and around looking for our hotel but could not find the road even though I stopped to ask a number of different people for the way. I finally hit on the idea to put Marion and Anneliese in a taxi and follow them to the hotel. It was such a short distance that the first taxi driver refused but luckily the next one agreed and so we followed them around the corner to the hotel. It actually wasn't a proper road - almost like a passage where cars can come down, off load and then have to drive off again. But that wasn't the end of the saga because Finn and I then got lost again for over an hour trying to find the parking garage, which was actually just around the corner. After shouting at each other and building up a bit of road rage I spotted the garage name and drove in through a one-way and parked the car. We spent the rest of the afternoon sightseeing and visiting the Sudarium in the Camara Santa at the Oviedo Cathedral. The Sudarium is a dishcloth sized piece of fabric and is the 2nd most important Christian relic and is one of the most tested of all relics after the shroud of Turin. This relic was the cloth used to wipe Christ's face when he was on the cross and after he was placed in the tomb. Recent studies have shown that the blood on the Sudarium and the Shroud are the same type. It has been kept in a rather modest underground chapel called the Camara Santa - Holy Chamber - since the 11th Century. We were all quite awed in it's presence. We then walked up and down the boulevard with all the smartly dressed Spanish ladies and gents and had dinner in a little restaurant off the boulevard. Most restaurants have 3 prices next to the list of dishes - the cheapest being if you eat at the bar, the 2nd one if you eat at a table inside and the most expensive if you eat outside. The difference can be as much as R15 so we ate inside at a table. Tomorrow we drive down south to Leon and then to Castrojeriz where we will spend the night. I think I will drive the car out of town and then Finn will take over on the highway. The weather has been great - sunny skies and warm sunshine. Hope it continues till we leave for home on Sunday.

Love to all,
S A M and Finn