Ul­treia et Su­seia!

On­wards and up­wards!

Timeless Travels Magazine - - SPAIN -

In April 2017, I achieved a life­time’s am­bi­tion of walk­ing the Camino Francés, the his­toric pil­grim­age route across the north of Spain, from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyre­nees to Santiago de Com­postela in west­ern Spain.

When we set off, I ex­pected to walk through mod­est lit­tle vil­lages and glo­ri­ous coun­try­side. What I wasn’t pre­pared for was the wealth of out­stand­ing Span­ish ar­chi­tec­ture in an eclec­tic mix of styles, as well as the va­ri­ety of gorgeous bou­tique ho­tels and qual­ity bistros pro­vid­ing com­fort and a lit­tle lux­ury along the way.

I had of­ten joked with travel writer col­leagues that I would like a se­ries of ‘Not-so-rough-guides’, I have reached the age when I ap­pre­ci­ate a com­fort­able mat­tress and some well-pre­pared lo­cal dishes. I still have my ad­ven­tur­ous, pi­o­neer­ing spirit, but oc­ca­sion­ally my knees give up on me at the most in­con­ve­nient mo­ment.

Dublin-based travel agency Fol­low the Camino of­fered me a way to dis­cover whether this Camino was the one for me. The trip com­bines bou­tique ho­tels and qual­ity restau­rants with the essence of El Camino - the walk­ing, the soli­tary con­tem­pla­tion, and the ever-chang­ing coun­try­side. They whisked us by minibus through the less in­ter­est­ing sec­tions and - best of all - they hauled our suit­cases along the way.

‘Camino’ usu­ally trans­lates as a ‘path’ or ‘road’, but it can also mean a jour­ney. This path leads to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Com­postela, where the re­mains of the dis­ci­ple were en­shrined af­ter his mar­tyr­dom in 44 CE.

This pil­grim­age way has been walked for cen­turies by thou­sands and nine main routes to Santiago have de­vel­oped.

We walked and drove along the en­tire length of the most pop­u­lar route; the Camino Francés, which starts in France at St. Jean Pied de Port, crosses the Pyre­nees, passes along the north of Spain, through the Basque coun­try, Navarre, Rioja, Castilla y León and Gali­cia be­fore reach­ing Santiago de Com­postela.

Nor­mally, this route of 790 km (490 miles) would take around 32 days to walk, av­er­ag­ing 25 km (15.5 miles) a day. We did it all in one week.

The good thing about walk­ing in a group is that you don’t have to talk if you don’t feel in a chatty mood. I lead walks in Sus­sex, on the South Downs, and I agree with Clare Bald­ing, who says of her BBC Ra­dio4 walk­ing and in­ter­view­ing Ramblings pro­gramme; “You get the best out of peo­ple, when you’re not sit­ting face to face, grilling some­body, and they of­ten re­veal more about them­selves when walk­ing and ad­mir­ing the nat­u­ral beauty all around.”

How­ever, the Camino is no longer a soli­tary, de­serted path to Santiago and en­light­en­ment. It de­pends what time of year you walk, but I wor­ried that it would be like Lon­don’s Ox­ford Street in De­cem­ber. As the Camino is about find­ing one­self and en­joy­ing the si­lence and soli­tude, how would it be on a group trip?

As our guide, Caro­line Aphes­setche, said “the best way to do the Camino is alone”.

I had other con­cerns about the ba­sic hos­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion, the pil­grims’ al­bur­gues along the way. I could cope with ‘ba­sic’, but I fret­ted about dis­turbed nights from (other walk­ers’!) snor­ing, the mixed dorms and the sto­ries of fu­ri­ous rows over open­ing windows at night.

Th­ese fears were com­pounded by a doc­u­men­tary, Six ways to Santiago, that I watched as part of my re­search, when a slightly neu­rotic wo­man set off on her solo jour­ney of self-dis­cov­ery, but woke one morn­ing to find an el­derly bearded man shar­ing her pil­low, snor­ing gen­tly.

How­ever, I had to find out for my­self, and one sunny April morn­ing, I set off on my slightly less rough Camino pil­grim­age.

“Many peo­ple ask why the Camino goes the way it does,” said Alberto Bosque, from the Junta de Castilla y León, “and the an­swer is that the route was de­cided in me­dieval times by those that walked it.”

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a charm­ing French com­mune in the Pyre­nean foothills. The town is also the old cap­i­tal of the tra­di­tional Basque prov­ince of Lower Navarre and the tra­di­tional start­ing point for the Camino Francés, the most pop­u­lar route for mod­ern-day pil­grims.

Above the town at the top of the hill is the Mendig­uren Citadel, built in 1628 by An­toine de Ville, re­mod­elled in the 17th cen­tury by the Mar­quis de Vauban, a great mil­i­tary en­gi­neer, and now hous­ing a school and sadly closed to the pub­lic. The grounds are open, though, and the view of the sur­round­ing coun­try­side is spec­tac­u­lar.

The cob­bled Rue de la Ci­tadelle runs down hill and over the River Nive from the 15th cen­tury Porte St-Jac­ques to the Porte d’Es­pagne by the bridge.

The Porte St-Jac­ques was, along with the Routes of Santiago de Com­postela in France, made a Unesco World Her­itage Site in 1998.

The 14th cen­tury red schist Gothic church, Notre-Dame-du-Bout-du-Pont, stands by the Porte d’Es­pagne. The orig­i­nal was built by San­cho VII ‘El Fuerte’ of Navarre to com­mem­o­rate the 1212 Bat­tle of Las Navas de Tolosa, an im­por­tant turn­ing point in the Re­con­quista of Spain, tak­ing back con­trol from the Moor­ish oc­cu­pa­tion.

San­cho VII was King of Navarre from 1194 to his death in 1234. He was ex­tremely tall; over seven foot (2.23m) in height and, judg­ing from his nick­name, ex­tremely strong.

San­cho con­tin­ued the con­struc­tion of a new cathe­dral in Pam­plona, be­gan by his fa­ther and com­pleted by his suc­ces­sor.

When San­cho VII died in 1234, he be­queathed his king­dom a wealthy trea­sury and a li­brary of 1.7 mil­lion books. He was orig­i­nally in­terred in the church of San Ni­colás, but was later moved to Ron­ces­valles, where we viewed his sar­coph­a­gus on the next stage of our walk.

We set off in a group of seven, led by the im­mensely ca­pa­ble and kind guide, Caro­line, and first called in at the Camino of­fice at 32, Rue de la Ci­tadelle to col­lect our Cre­den­cial del Pere­grino (Pil­grim’s Pass­port). Th­ese were to be filled with stamps from hos­tels, cafes and monas­ter­ies along the way, then pre­sented at the Of­fi­cial Pil­grims Of­fice in Santiago to re­ceive the Com­postela, the Cer­tifi­cate of Com­ple­tion.

We also pur­chased scal­lop shells to at­tach to the back of our ruck­sacks. The shell is a sym­bol of the Camino and acts as a way marker along the Way, found on road signs, hos­tel and cafe walls, and sign­posts in the mid­dle of nowhere. Over the cen­turies the scal­lop shell has taken on myth­i­cal, metaphor­i­cal and prac­ti­cal mean­ings.

There are sev­eral ver­sions of the myth con­cern­ing

the scal­lop and they are linked to Saint James, who was mar­tyred by be­head­ing in Jerusalem in 44 CE. One tells how, af­ter James’s death, his dis­ci­ples took his body by boat to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain, a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. Af­ter some time, how­ever, his body washed ashore un­dam­aged, but cov­ered in scal­lops.

The scal­lop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell meet at a sin­gle point, rep­re­sent­ing the var­i­ous routes pil­grims trav­elled, even­tu­ally ar­riv­ing at a sin­gle des­ti­na­tion. For prac­ti­cal pur­poses, the shell was the right size for gath­er­ing wa­ter to drink or for use as a food bowl.

On the sec­ond day, we set off from Ibañeta, a high moun­tain pass in the Pyre­nees on the FranceS­pain bor­der and walked down through beau­ti­ful birch and oak forests to the his­toric monastery at Ron­ces­valles.

Ron­ces­valles is fa­mous for the de­feat of Charle­magne and the death of his nephew Roland in 778, dur­ing the Bat­tle of Ron­ce­vaux Pass, when Basque tribes at­tacked the rear guard. Roland was an iconic fig­ure in me­dieval Europe and his life was im­mor­talised in many min­strel songs, po­ems and epic tales of the noble Chris­tian killed by Is­lamic forces. “Many peo­ple ask why the Camino goes the way it does,” said Alberto Bosque, from the Junta de Castilla y León, “and the an­swer is that the route was de­cided in me­dieval times by those that walked it.”

The Camino al­ways passes by the cathe­dral of a city, or the main church or monastery in a smaller set­tle­ment, so even when it passes through mod­ern, built-up sub­urbs such as Pam­plona, our next stop, the route can still be lo­cated.

The his­tor­i­cal cap­i­tal city of Navarre, Pam­plona is fa­mous for its San Fer­mín Fes­ti­val - the Run­ning of the Bulls - which takes place in July. Ernest Hem­ing­way de­scribed the event in his 1926 novel

The Sun Also Rises. Founded as Pom­paelo by Ro­man gen­eral Pom­pey in 75–74 BCE, the area served as a camp in the war against Ser­to­rius.

From here, we drove along a stretch where the Camino trail fol­lows main roads and flat, unin­spir­ing ter­rain. How­ever, there was one high­light. Lo­cated 770 m above sea level, the Mi­rador Sierra del Perdón is a nat­u­ral view­point with ex­cel­lent views north­wards to the Pyre­nees, and to the south, the ce­real fields and me­dieval vil­lages. The reg­u­lar high winds here meant that the El Perdón moun­tain range was cho­sen as the site of the first wind farm in Navarre.

This lo­ca­tion is seen by be­liev­ers as a sym­bolic sum­mit where all sins will be par­doned. The sum­mit fea­tured in the 2010 film, The Way, di­rected by Emilio Estevez and star­ring his fa­ther, Martin Sheen, as a doc­tor who car­ries the ashes of his re­cently-de­ceased son to Santiago. The film is cred­ited with in­tro­duc­ing thou­sands of new walk­ers to this pil­grim­age route.

Vin­cent Gal­bete cre­ated the life-size, sheet metal sculp­ture Mon­u­ment to the Pil­grim which rep­re­sents a group of pil­grims, chil­dren and don­keys from dif­fer­ent eras cross­ing the line of

wind tur­bines. The in­scrip­tion reads; 'Where the route of the wind crosses that of the stars'.

The Way then passes right through the pho­to­genic lit­tle town of Puente la Reina, where Queen Mu­ni­adona of Castile (995-1066), wife of King San­cho III gave her name to the town and built the six-arched bridge over the Río Arga for pil­grims on their way to Santiago de Com­postela.

We spent the night in the bustling city of Logroño, cap­i­tal of La Rioja wine re­gion, so, of course, we couldn’t miss a tour of the 50 bode­gas and pin­txos (the name for tapas in this re­gion) bars in the labyrinth of tiny streets. I par­tic­u­larly en­joyed the lit­tle green Padrón pep­pers sautéed in rock salt, and gi­ant mush­rooms drip­ping in gar­lic but­ter.

In 1984, the Cat­e­dral de Santa María de Bur­gos was de­clared a Unesco World Her­itage Site and the spec­tac­u­lar Gothic struc­ture was one of the high points in my jour­ney. Con­struc­tion be­gan in 1221, and while the fa­cade is quite over­whelm­ing in its im­mense de­tail and en­gi­neer­ing, the in­te­rior is crammed with ar­chi­tec­tural, sculp­tural and pic­to­rial trea­sures, from the tomb of Castil­ian no­ble­man and mil­i­tary leader El Cid (1040-1099) and his wife Ji­mena Díaz, to the ar­tic­u­lated ‘Pa­pamoscas’ statue that opens his mouth to chime on the hour. En­trance costs €7, which in­cludes a recorded guide. I could hap­pily have stayed there all day as I was to­tally blown away by the stained glass windows, the pow­er­ful arches and del­i­cate ma­sonry fil­i­grees.

We drove across the stark, arid Me­seta Cen­tral, lit­er­ally ‘ta­ble moun­tain’, a sun-drenched plateau be­tween Bur­gos and As­torga, where there are few trees and lit­tle shade.

The ru­ins of the monastery at San An­tón, founded by Alonso VII in 1146, re­call the Hos­pi­tal Brothers of St. An­thony who ded­i­cated their lives to car­ing for those suf­fer­ing from the con­vul­sive and gan­grenous me­dieval dis­ease, St. An­thony’s Fire. Mem­bers of the or­der, the An­toines, wore a black habit with the Greek let­ter Tau in blue. The sym­bol of a large 'T' can be seen around the ru­ins, pro­tect­ing against evil.

The beau­ti­ful, uni­form yel­low sand­stone vil­lage of Cas­tro­jeriz rises up on a hill above the scorched flat earth all around. For tired and thirsty pil­grims,

there is a su­perb restau­rant, El Mesón, fre­quented by crowds of lo­cals en­joy­ing hearty peas­ant dishes of cab­bage, chick peas and ev­ery part of the pig.

I sat out­side a cafe, drank a juice and ad­mired the land­scape stretch­ing out in front. A Dutch lady Elsa Veringa sat down be­side me and im­me­di­ately took off her train­ers and socks. This is ac­cept­able so­cial eti­quette on the Camino. Elsa was walk­ing for spir­i­tual rather than reli­gious rea­sons and ex­plained; “Some­times you don’t find out the rea­son for walk­ing the Camino un­til you are well on your way.”

Hav­ing taken the wrong footwear en­tirely, I be­came ob­sessed with study­ing the shoes of the pil­grims who passed me along the way. For fu­ture ref­er­ence, as long as it’s not mid-win­ter, then a good qual­ity pair of com­fort­able, worn-in train­ers is per­fectly fine, and take flipflops or some­thing light and cool for the evenings.

Along the Way, we saw many pil­grims hob­bling along, many sit­ting by the side of the road, shoes and socks off, air­ing their poor gnarled trot­ters. There are very few ac­tual benches to sit down on along the way - if you stop, you drop. “The first three days are the hard­est,” said our guide. Af­ter three days of hell, I de­cided that pain was an im­por­tant part of my jour­ney to en­light­en­ment. I re­ally had no choice! It’s very im­por­tant to pace your­self and not do too much, oth­er­wise you end up with ten­donitis. A dis­tance of 15 miles a day is the rec­om­mended amount.

I saw many women of all ages, walk­ing the Camino alone, and Caro­line told me it was pretty safe. How­ever, in 2015, an Amer­i­can wo­man, Denise Thiem, was lured away from the main trail near As­torga and mur­dered. Be­cause al­most 300,000 pil­grims walk the Camino ev­ery year, the per­cent­age of at­tacks is very low and Span­ish au­thor­i­ties are keen to play down the lev­els of crime. To be safe, choose a more busy sea­son to walk - from May to Au­gust is the most pop­u­lar - and don’t walk in the early morn­ing or late evening.

I met many mid­dle-aged, solo-walk­ing women, and I re­ally ad­mired them. I don’t think I could do the shared dor­mi­tory thing any­more; the ar­gu­ments, the over-friendly mid­dle-aged sin­gle men, the shared dorms, drunken par­ties, and worse still, the ones who wanted to talk to me about Je­sus. On the Camino, I found my own per­sonal mo­ments of won­der and awe, but th­ese usu­ally arose from wit­ness­ing the beauty of na­ture and the in­cred­i­ble ar­chi­tec­ture.

I have to ad­mit that I felt moved spir­i­tu­ally by the stun­ning Bur­gos Cathe­dral, un­til our guide in­formed me, rather cru­elly and cyn­i­cally, that the kings, ar­chi­tects and en­gi­neers who cre­ated th­ese im­mense palaces of wor­ship were not do­ing it for the glory of God or by di­vine in­spi­ra­tion, but merely to show off their wealth, outdo their neigh­bours and im­press the peas­ants. Well, this peas­ant was very im­pressed!

In León, we spent the night in the Ho­tel Real Cole­giata San Isi­doro in the 11th cen­tury San Isi­doro Col­le­giate com­plex, with its Basil­ica, clois­ters and mu­seum. The Basil­ica de San Isi­doro holds a rare trea­sure, the Chal­ice of Doña Ur­raca; a jewel-en­crusted onyx chal­ice, al­legedly the Holy Grail from which Je­sus drank and served Holy Com­mu­nion. Since the 2014 pub­li­ca­tion of The Kings of the

Grail, claim­ing that the chal­ice is the Holy Grail, mu­seum staff have with­drawn the chal­ice from dis­play, as the crowds were over­whelm­ing.

Santa María de León Cathe­dral also called Pulchra Leon­ina (The House of Light) was built on the site of sec­ond cen­tury Ro­man baths, con­verted into a palace 800 years later by King Or­dońo II.

When leg­endary ar­chi­tect An­toni Gaudí was work­ing on the con­struc­tion of the Epis­co­pal Palace of As­torga, his friend and pa­tron, Eusebi

Güell rec­om­mended that he de­sign a ware­house for a fab­rics com­pany in the cen­tre of León. The Mod­ernist Casa Botines was built in 1891-92 and its nick­name came from the com­pany’s for­mer owner, Joan Homs i Bot­inàs.

In 1929, the sav­ings bank of León, Caja Es­paña, bought the build­ing, which Gaudî had de­signed to re­flect León’s me­dieval her­itage with many Gothic touches. To ven­ti­late and il­lu­mi­nate the base­ment, Gaudí cre­ated a moat around two of the façades, a strat­egy he would re­peat at the Sagrada Família in Barcelona and at our next stop, As­torga.

Bishop Joan Bap­tista Grua pro­posed that An­toni Gaudi build the new Epis­co­pal Palace in As­torga af­ter the orig­i­nal one burnt down in 1886. Gaudi put for­ward his plans, but dropped the project in 1893 due to the con­stant bu­reau­cratic strug­gles with lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. Another ar­chi­tect, Ri­cardo Gar­cía Guereta, com­pleted Gaudí’s mas­ter­piece in 1915.

The Palace is con­structed in a neo-Gothic mod­ernist style, and Gaudí took El Bierzo gran­ite to make the build­ing stand out against the red sand­stone cathe­dral across the square. The four pointed tow­ers and moat give the build­ing a fairy­tale ap­pear­ance.

From As­torga, we walked through the hippy vil­lage of Fon­ce­badón, and came across a Scot­tish High­land land­scape of rolling hills cov­ered in pur­ple heather and bright yel­low gorse. In the dis­tance the snow-cov­ered peaks of the Sierra de los An­cares, a moun­tain range of the Gali­cian Mas­sif rose up in north-west Spain.

Leav­ing the vil­lage, I passed what re­mains of the church and hos­pi­tal built in the 12th cen­tury by the her­mit Gaucelmo. At the top of Monte Irago is the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross).

The Cruz de Ferro is a five-foot-high wooden pole, mounted with an iron cross, and sur­rounded by a mound of peb­bles. Leg­end says that when the Cathe­dral of Santiago de Com­postela was be­ing built, pil­grims were asked to con­trib­ute by bring­ing a stone. The tra­di­tion is to throw a stone, brought from the pil­grim’s place of ori­gin, with one’s back to the cross, to sym­bol­ise the jour­ney.

At Man­jarín, pil­grims have left sign­posts stat­ing how far it is to their homes. I noted that it was 2,615 km to Bu­dapest, my old home.

At Man­jarín, a man of­fers free cof­fee to pil­grims from his rudi­men­tary shack. There is also a very ba­sic out­house toi­let over a hole and open to the

Above, left: Sign along El Camino

Above, right: Pil­grim statue near O Ce­breiro

Above: The ru­ins of the monastery of San An­ton

Left: Colour­ful pots at a house in Puente de la Reina

Above: Door of the Coronería (13th cen­tury) at the Cat­e­dral de Santa María de Bur­gos

Right: Statue of El Cid in­cluded in the 14th-15th cen­tury Santa María gate­way, at Bur­gos

Above: Walk­ing through the coun­try­side near Cas­tro­jeriz

Above, in­set: The sign­posts at Man­jarin

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