Monday, June 9, 2008

Ponferrada, Spain

Friends: The Camino de Santiago could well be known as the Camino of Miracles. There have been a veritable Bible´s worth over the centuries associated with the road. One monastery alone along the way takes credit for 114 of them. Many rival any found in the Old or New Testaments. There could easily be a third Santiago Testament recounting them all. More than a few involve the raising of the dead, not only human but of horses and poultry.

The parable of the chicken is so revered, the town where it occurred keeps chickens in its cathedral and charges admission to see them--two-and-a-half euros for pilgrims, three-and-a-half euros for all others. The story goes that the handsome son of a mother and father making the pilgrimage together caught the eye of the daughter of the owners of the inn the family stayed at in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, about 350 miles from Santiago. When the son spurned her advances, she slipped a silver goblet into his pack and alerted the police to the theft. Justice was swift and severe. He was hung on the spot.

His parents continued on completing their pilgrimage. On their return weeks later their son was still hanging from the tree where he´d been strung up. But he was alive and twitching, saved by the intervention of St. James, rewarding his parents for the faithful completion of their pilgrimage. The parents couldn't get him down, so they rushed to the town mayor to rouse some assistance. He and his family were just sitting down to a dinner of roast chicken. The mayor was incredulous at the parent´s declaration and roared, "He is no more alive than the chickens we are about to eat." With that the chickens immediately sprung to live, squawking and dancing on the table.

This tale makes Santo Domingo one of the more popular places to stay on the camino, along with the charm of the narrow streets of the old town, a small pocket in time surrounded by a modern conventional town. One hostel with 35 beds was already full at two when I arrived. Another with 125 beds, that maintains a stable of chickens, had a line of anxious pilgrims hoping they wouldn't have to resort to one of the various pricey hotels or having to push on to the next village.

The distinctive scallop seashell indigenous to the Galacian seashore beyond Santiago de la Compostela early on became the emblem of the Camino thanks to another miracle. There are different versions to the story, but the main thrust is that a horse and rider happened to drown in the bay when the body of St. James was returned to Spain by his followers for burial. He had been beheaded by Herod in Jerusalem. A while later the horse and rider emerged from the waters covered with sea shells.

The shell is big enough that early day pilgrims could use it as a scoop to eat out of and drink from. Since the shell is only found along the Galacian coast beyond Santiago, returning home with one was proof that one had completed the pilgrimage. One can purchase a shell along the way for one to two euros with a sting attached and often the cross of St. James painted on it in red. Frugal pilgrim that I am, I hoped to find one along the road that had fallen from someone´s pack. On my second day I thought I had found one but it was one of those flimsy white nose and mouth masks that workers use to keep from breathing in fumes or debris. But with its shape and lines, it closely enough resembled the shell, at least from a distance, that that was good enough for me. Plus it is an emblem for bicyclists protesting the fumes from cars. There is a bicyclist version that comes with "Cars Suck" stamped on it.

I can't say that I've experienced any miracles yet, though a couple of days of strong tailwinds was close to a miracle. One day I averaged nearly 16 miles per hour for the day, about my best ever. For spells I was breezing along at 19 miles per hour on the flat. After 70 miles, well on my way to a 100 mile day, I was overtaken by a set of seven Spanish cyclists in matching uniforms, each with a banana peeking out of a rear pocket, and shaved legs. They even had a support vehicle with a spare bike and water trailing behind them.

I dropped into their two-rider wide revolving pace line and was able to tag along at 25 miles per hour for ten miles using my big chain ring for the first time on this trip. I could feel the strain in my legs, but I hung on until we came to a half-mile climb. I stuck close, falling just three or four bike lengths behind by the summit. They let up a bit, letting me catch back up and recovering a bit themselves, but that effort had toasted me. I clung to them for another mile, but I couldn't recover enough to stick with them. Still, it was a minor miracle of ten free miles.

Earlier in the day I caught up with three bulky, non-drafting, older Germans who were struggling to stay together, especially on the climbs. Only one spoke English, but fortunately he was the strongest of the trio. He and I left his companions way behind on a long climb at a very relaxed pace that was killing my average speed for the day. Like most on the road they were neither Catholic nor particularly religions. They were drawn to this as a bonding experience and adventure. They were among the many Germans inspired by the recent best-selling book by a popular German comedian\television personality who made it sound like a fun undertaking. His book was alternately reverent and irreverent. He wasn´t much of a pilgrim, often staying at hotels rather than the communal bunkhouses.

These Germans had had no problem staying in the hostels, though at times they were told they would have to wait until early evening before they were granted beds. Like many I met, the English-speaker asked where I was staying that night. I never have a clue. When the going is good, I keep going. It has been no challenge whatsoever to wild camp. I generally find a hidden and discreet spot, but knowing that pilgrims are given special dispensation, I know I could camp just about anywhere in plain view, just as along the Tour de France route the night before the racers are due to pass. But I am virtually the lone camper. None of the hikers want to carry the extra weight and only a few cyclists. After a spell, still a ways from the summit, we looked back and noticed the other two were nowhere to be seen. My companion said he ought to stop and wait for them to catch up. We parted with the traditional farewell of the road, "Buen Camino."

Later, George

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