Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Portomarin, Spain

Friends: For centuries the Camino de Santiago has been a vital strand of Spanish culture and heritage, deeply embedded in the national consciousness. James Michener fully understood this, devoting the last 80 pages of his opus on the country, "Iberia", to the route. The pilgrimage is something all Spaniards feel obligated to accomplish, just as the Japanese would all like to climb Mt Fuji, and all Americans ought to bicycle coast-to-coast across the US.

Santiago is Spanish for James.  The pilgrimage route is named for the apostle James, as his remains are believed to be buried in Compestela.   Not only is James revered for introducing Christianity to the country, he is also celebrated for defeating and driving the Muslim Moors out of the country just after the millennium, coming down from heaven and leading the Spanish forces in battle on a white horse. St. James Day, July 25, is Spain´s most celebrated holiday.
The towns along the Camino honor the route with statues and creative renditions of its symbol, the scallop shell.  A wide variety of versions of the shell emblem mark the route.  In Ponferrado a magazine kiosk in the corner of the city´s main plaza on the Camino route featured a golden sunburst of rays in the form of the scallop shell on its facade with an arrow indicating the way. There were a handful of pilgrims scattered about the plaza resting and meandering. I didn't have to wait long for a pair to come along to pass beneath it for a photo.

They were an Australian husband and wife who had started their hike in Le Puy en Velay, France, over 300 miles before St. Jean on the France-Spain border, the most popular starting point. Most of the pilgrims cut the 500 mile distance from St. Jean to Santiago short, starting somewhere along the way. But an intrepid few extend it significantly, starting at a much further distance, as they had. They had been at it nearly two months. They were fully aglow and quietly exultant, hale and hearty despite having been without Vegemite for weeks.

They were among the set of pilgrims who undertook the journey to try to decide what to do with the rest of their lives. Before they left Brisbane the husband sold his business, the wife quit her job, they sold their house and put all their belongings in storage. Their children were all off on their own, so they felt totally obligation-free.

So far they'd come to no conclusions other than they had greatly enjoyed this experience. They were a week from Santiago and then another three or four days to Finesterre on the Atlantic, where St. James' body was brought back to Spain for burial. At the time, the Romans thought it was the western most point of Europe, thus it's name. But the actual most western point by a bit more is a couple hundred miles south in Portugal.

After reaching Land's End the Aussies intend to take a train back to France and linger there, as they had enjoyed it much more than Spain and much more than they had anticipated, especially the food and wine. In France they had gone days without encountering anyone on the trail. As many, they complained about the commercialization of the route in Spain, perturbed by the businesses along the way selling souvenirs and refreshments to the pilgrims.

There are certainly businesses catering to the pilgrims, but they aren't all unwelcome, nor are they as tacky as those found in many tourist areas. Complaining about them is similar to those who malign the business aspect of Cannes. I submerge myself in the cinema of Cannes and have a sensational movie-going experience, while only being dimly aware of the mercantile interests. It probably helps that I don´t hang out in restaurants and bars and have to listen to all such conversation. Likewise, I shrug off the small entrepreneurs on this Camino selling slightly overpriced drinks and souvenirs, even Camino-themed Lance Armstrong-type wrist bands for three euros, almost five bucks.

One thing Spain has over France is it is significantly cheaper. The most pronounced for me is the price of Internet, less than half that of France and much easier to find. My favorite energy food, a 750 milliliter yogurt drink, goes for one euro in Spain. In France it is 1.80 euros, up from 1.50 last year. With the dollar so weak making the exchange rate 20% higher than a year ago, those yogurt drinks are more expensive than gas in France. Gas isn't taxed as heavily in Spain. It goes for 1.30 euros or less for a liter, compared to 1.50 euros or more in France.

Like many, the Aussies weren't inspired to take this walk for religious reasons, but rather by friends who had done it several years ago. They hadn't been disappointed in the least by the experience. Their only surprise was how few people spoke English, not only among the locals, but also among the pilgrims. They'd been told they'd meet English speakers everywhere. I've often heard that too when I've gone off to distant places such as India and Greece and Finland and Germany and elsewhere. The only places it has been true is the Netherlands and Iceland and certain parts of Great Britain.

They scoffed at the idea of dangling a shell from their packs, as most do, though they intended to pick up a couple on the beach in Finisterre, if there are any to be found. They weren't carrying a Bible, nor had they encountered any one who was. They did notice someone, though, fingering a rosary on a steep, long climb. I suggested, that if they truly enjoyed this vagabondage way of life, they ought to invest in a couple of bikes and travel in the grand style of a touring cyclist, unrestricted by hotels and the limited carrying capacity of their back packs. A second choice would be to buy a bed and breakfast in an out of the way place like Ecuador, and make that their life, letting the travelers of the world come to them.

One tradition of the Camino they had embraced was having their pilgrim passports stamped wherever they have stayed. Many people make a contest of trying to accumulate as many stamps as they can. Even if one doesn't stay at a hostel, it is accepted to stop in for a stamp. Many small businesses also have their own stamp and all the tourist offices of the towns on Camino. A German fellow wanted to explain each of his many stamps to me as we waited to get our passports stamped at the tourist office in Leon. Many are unique and interesting.

Only once have I encountered a place where the stamp was left unattended and it was self-service. It was at the small church in Cebreiro. There were actually four different stamps to choose from, two featuring the Holy Grail. This isolated Benedictine cathedral on a hilltop near the highest point on the Camino, tried to attract attention centuries ago by claiming to have the vessel that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. The chalice is still there, just sitting on a pedestal.

I will long remember Cebreiro, as I missed the yellow arrow on the road pointing to the right as I left the town and kept going straight instead, descending 1,000 feet in less than three miles. When the road dwindled from two lanes to one and then became caked with dried cow manure, I realized I was on a road to nowhere and had to turn back for a brutal climb at seven pm after having just climbed 3,000 feet to get to Cebreiro. It was a good test of my conditioning. I continued on til after nine pm, as I needed to descend to warmer temperatures. Even at 2,500 feet elevation, the temperatures have been getting into the 40s at night.

I know enough not to regret such happenstances, knowing they always lead to something I wouldn't have otherwise experienced. One was a great photo looking down on the cathedral in Cebreiro. Another was meeting a fabulous Dutch cyclist the next day, who I otherwise would have been too far down the road to have encountered.

Later, George

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