Ultreia

Cathedral of Santiago de CompostelaFor some people, this is the goal. This is what they are walking to. Whether from Saint Jean Pied de Port, their front door, or the Galician town of Sarria, a convenient 106 kilometres from the cathedral and therefore just far enough to “count” as a pilgrimage – from any of these points of origin, this is their destination. To stand in the Plaza del Obradoiro and gaze up at the ornate facade is to stand at the foot of the holy mountain. Only, you don’t climb up, you climb in; it is your eyes, and your heart perhaps, which ascend the peak.

For some, this summit is only a plateau. It is not enough – they feel, as we use the word sometimes, that they have plateaued: reached a height and flattened out, with the unsatisfying feeling lurking inside that greater heights are possible if only they can keep going. They arrive at Compostela and feel that their peregrinations cannot possibly be over. They have reached their ostensible destination, but they keep on walking.

For us, it was neither. We walked into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on 29 October 2005 neither overawed nor underwhelmed. Our Protestant leanings may have had something to do with this: pilgrimage “proper” is one of the traditions the Reformers were wary of, and the piece of paper we received from the official office will not, in our estimation, be of much use in clearing our own or our sinful forebears’ souls from purgatory.

So what was it all for, then? Certainly it was still, as they say, a mountain-top experience. Three mountains stand out for me, and I guess I’ll relate them chronologically. Continue reading

One Line to Last You

Galician hillsideI popped into the bank a little while ago. I seldom need to go in, as I can do most of what I need on the internet or at the hole in the wall, but we had recently moved from Scotland to Wales, and I had a mittfull of Scottish bank notes which are not widely embraced as currency south of the border (even though they’re still pounds sterling. Even at the food shops in King’s Cross Station, where the Edinburgh train tends to arrive. Don’t get me started.)

Anyway, I was at the bank, as I said, and they had a table out with some used books for sale, raising money for some charity or another. Cancer, I think. Most of the books on the table looked pretty carcinogenic, if you ask me, but that’s often the way of these things. The dregs and the disposable circulate, whilst the books that are actually worth reading tend to stay on our shelves. Funny that.

But I looked at the table anyway, and on it was Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist. I know a lot of people get pretty jazzed about his stuff, and his books and his thoughts were present with many of our fellow peregrinos on the camino, which we walked ten years ago on the button. I was not tempted, nor did I put much faith in Shirley MacLaine’s also-influential account. She got a lot of people scared about dogs – people practicing their faux-fencing skills with those wonderful Nordic poles in case they had to defend themselves on the journey. (We did meet a dog – a yappy thing with a blue ribbon around its neck. I wanted to take a picture for Shirley’s sake.) Continue reading

Better Down the Road without that Load

Michael and Maxime in Villar de MazarifeMusic has been a constant fellow-traveller in my life. Last week, I wrote about the music in my head on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which my wife and I walked ten years ago. I did manage to make some music on the outside, too, where other people could hear it. I didn’t bring a guitar with me – I had to carry everything I had for 800 kilometres, so toting a musical instrument would have been foolhardy (but more on that later) – but some of the places we stayed in had a guitar propped against the wall. To pull it down and play was a welcome act.

The most memorable of those nights – indeed, one of our most memorable on the whole journey – was in Villar de Mazarife. We had heard about this albergue by reputation: the Albergue de Jesus sometimes offers the queimada, which is an apparently impressive flaming alcoholic communal drink experience (not this). The account we read made the place out to be a hippy party spot, and I could see how it might become such a place in the right conditions. This guy, describing the queimada at another spot on the route, is of the opinion that those conditions involve several attractive peregrinas. Perhaps he’s on to something: when we hit Villar de Mazarife, it was off-season and getting chilly, and there was nobody in sight as our hospitalero showed us to our bunk room. The room slept eight on military-style metal bunk beds with bare, unadorned mattresses, but we had it to ourselves. The albergue had dorms on four sides facing into a quad, but all was lifeless.

Not all: we went to the kitchen to prepare our dinner, and a scruffy, curly-headed, bearded Canadian guy (hey, wait a minute!) was just taking his off the hob. His name was Maxime – a francophone from St. Isidore. He ate his meal whilst we cooked, and we made small, brief conversation. He seemed very internally focused and perhaps uncertain about speaking in English. The kitchen was the only warm room in the place, though, so he hung out, plucking the guitar from the corner and strumming softly as we finished our meal. Katie did our washing up, and I gestured for Max to pass the guitar. Continue reading

Buen Camino

Peregrinos on the border from France to SpainMy wife and I are counting everying in tens right now. On Sunday, we ate discounted pain aux raisins outside the Tesco with the kids before walking home with our shopping, and I said, “Hey – ten years ago tomorrow morning, your mum ate a pain aux raisins on a bridge in Bayonne.”

It’s kind of a weird way to talk, and both the mathematics and the significance were not immediately obvious to the kids. But it’s deep enough to be ingrained for Katie and me, because ten years ago today, we walked into a new way of experiencing life. From Bayonne, we had caught the slow Pyrenean train to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, from whence we began a month-long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

It was the kind of experience that telescopes so many of the sensations, such that I can know a decade on that I was a jerk (albeit an unwitting one) when I bought the pastry, missing the cue that the clerk at the patisserie was in fact trying to serve someone else first. Boorish American, she might have thought. Me struggling with French was a constant theme on the journey, though so was me gaining competence in Spanish. But the more important language for us was the rhythm of walking, the movement on an elemental scale. Continue reading