Thursday, June 12, 2008

Santiago de Compostela

Friends: The pews in the mammoth and magnificent Santiago de Compostela cathedral, built on the burial site of St. James, are arranged in a T with two sets fanning out from the sides of the alter and a much longer set facing it. There are well in excess of 100 of them and they were packed, shoulder-to-shoulder, for the daily noon Pilgrim's Mass, some with tourists, but mostly with recently arrived pilgrims and their packs. Dozens more had to stand. A handful were barefoot, having shed their footwear at Mount Joy overlooking the city, treading the last few miles without shoes, as did the arch penitents of the early days of the pilgrimage. And this isn't even the height of the pilgrim season. The local pilgrim campsite beside the 500-bed pilgrim's hostel on Mount Joy is only open in July and August.

It may have been just another mass for the priests, but for most in attendance it was the mass of a lifetime. It was a tremendously moving experience to be amongst the amazingly diverse array of people from all over the world who had come hundreds of miles by foot and by pedal, all focused for days and weeks upon their arrival here. A good many had just pulled in, dirty and dusty and sweaty, holy ointments all, but hardly noticeable, overshadowed by their sun-bronzed faces and limbs, and an unmistakable, even brighter and shinier, aura that could have illuminated the gloomiest of dungeons or darkest of hearts.

Many greeted fellow pilgrims with hearty hugs and tears, having gotten to know each other's souls as intimately as their own over the days of walking and eating together and sleeping in communal halls. A row of priests in tiny confessional booths along one wall were kept busy. A stately cathedral full of "backpackers" was a most surreal, Bunuelean site. And Bunuel has made a movie about the Camino, back in the late '60s, called "The Milky Way." The title is taken from the mass of stars that seems to follow the route. Some say it was created by all the dust the pilgrims kicked up in the early years of the pilgrimage route.

I circled the pews several times hoping to spot Jan, a Dutchman I had cycled with for eight hours the day before. We parted the previous evening 30 miles from Santiago, Jan stopping a little earlier than I cared to as he was a bit worn down from having stayed up late the night before to watch the Netherlands play Italy in the first round of the European football cup. Jan was in a great mood, as the Dutch won three-nil, upsetting the World Cup champs. If Jan had been staying in the pilgrim's hostel that night, rather than a private hostel, he would have gotten to bed earlier, as the pilgrim hostel had a ten p.m. curfew. Jan admitted, too, to having a bit of a hangover, drinking one beer too many.

Jan still hoped to be up early enough to knock off those thirty miles to Santiago by noon. I pushed on to within twelve miles, so I would have no worries. I was glad that I did. There were still some steep climbs to do, and the extra time allowed me to leisurely follow the slow-going, sometimes dirt and sometimes gravel, footpath with its steady stream of walkers, rather than sticking to the mundane highway through the sprawl of Santiago. It also gave me time to search out a grocery store before mass.

Unfortunately, Jan was not to be found, denying me one last conversation with a kindred spirit of the highest order. Jan was a full-fledged pilgrim, having biked all the way from Holland, 1,750 miles in five-and-a-half weeks. He had left April 30, the Queen's birthday, Holland's biggest, most raucous holiday. He'd earned a six-week sabbatical from his job as an educational consultant. It was the longest he had been away from his wife and 14-year old daughter, though he had met up with them in Barcelona two weeks into his trip, renting a car and driving down from Toulouse as a birthday surprise for his daughter.

He was a long-time, ardent cyclist, but this was his longest bike tour. Several of his biking friends, who had joined him on forays to the Alps and Pyrenees to climb the storied Tour mountains and on other cycling trips, had wished to join him on this trip too, but he preferred to make it a solo venture. He would be turning 50 shortly, and he wanted time alone for reflection.

He followed what is known as the Dutch route, staying at authorized hostels most of the way but camping occasionally too, getting his pilgrim passport stamped at all of them. He was taking the train back and having his bike and gear shipped back separately. There are 17,000 members of the Dutch St. James chapter. Enough Dutch cycle the route every year that the Dutch chapter has arranged a weekly service to return bikes from Santiago to a member's doorstep for 100 euros, a little pricey, but Jan confessed to being a "luxury pilgrim". His cell phone rang twice in our time together.

Still, Jan was exactly the person I had hoped to encounter along the Camino--a seasoned, devoted cyclist wizened by many years and miles of cycling. Like many of the Dutch I have met over the years, he was a swell guy without airs or pretension or any seeming grievances. He pulled up alongside me on a long climb at 8:45 yesterday morning and would have passed me, as I was easing along in a lower gear, if I hadn't engaged him in conversation. I most certainly would have eventually caught up with him, as it turned out we rode at a most compatible pace. He too recognized in me someone with years of cycling experience, unlike the vast majority of those cycling the route. He gave me one of my highest compliments ever--"It was nice to meet you. You are a great cyclist," a true accolade coming from a Dutchman.

Jan is an exceptional cyclist even by Dutch standards. He rarely uses a car. He reaches all the schools he services as a consultant, even those 50 miles away, by train and/or bicycle. He's able to rent a bicycle at or near most train stations if he can't take his own along. At first, he said, many school administrators he dealt with, questioned his capabilities when he showed up on a bicycle. Even in Holland, the Kingdom of the Bicycle, the car is an emblem of one´s worth and if one doesn't use one, is suspect.

Jan was hoping for a book from his wife sent general delivery to the post office for his train ride back. But two other deliveries along the way he expected from her had not arrived, so he was happy to accept a couple of books on France I had finished and had been saving to give to a friend who I intended to visit in the Dordogne of France in ten days or so. Unfortunately, my friend had to return to the U.S. prematurely, so I'll miss her. But at least I was able to lighten my load a little early.

It's now south to Portugal, 75 miles away. I don't have the time to go all the way to Lisbon, but will spend a couple of days in northern Portugal before cutting back across Spain to France. Initially I thought I might follow the Spanish coastline, but Jan mentioned he passed through the town of Indurain, where Tour de France legend Miguel Indurain grew up south of Pamplona and how nice the cycling was there. Depending on how the winds go, that is a tentative target. Then I'll have passed through the home towns of all five five-time Tour de France winners.

Later, George

No comments: