Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We Enter the Home Stretch of the Camino and Savor Galicia

Some of the women of our group pose for a photo at O Cebreiro, overlooking
 the mountains and valleys we traversed over the last few days.
From left: Dawn, Elissa, Alison, Greta, Erin Elaine, and Jackie.
With so much walking behind us now -- nearly 650 kilometers -- we recognize we're true peregrinos (pilgrims) of Santiago. Many of us discovered muscles we'd never known existed before. 

In our 2,100 foot climb from Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro we heard barely a peep of complaining. The only signs of the effort were beads of perspiration, caused as much by the sunny day as the exertion. We are now camino tough. Tested, tried, and admittedly a little tired. We are strong walkers who can take on any pilgrimage the ancient traditions of the church could throw at us. Who knows, perhaps next year we'll try the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, or perhaps the greatest of all medieval pilgrimages: the Via Jerusalem from Rome to the Holy City in Israel/Palestine! Well, we can dream.

We left Villafranca del Bierzo early in the morning a few days ago and walked up the old highway, taking the advice of the sign at the foot of the mountain trail option to avoid the steeper climb unless you are an Olympic athlete. The old highway is little used anymore, thanks to the beautiful new A6 freeway that quietly snakes above us on slender concrete piers. After awhile it was back to the path which was actually rather steep with loose gravel for several kilometers. We stopped for photos at the "Welcome to Galicia" monument, a painted and graffitied slab that marks Kilometer 0 of our walk through the semi-autonomous region of Galicia, of which Santiago de Compostela is capital. 

At the summit town of O Cebreiro we came to understand why this little village is known throughout Spain. It's a living museum that depicts life the Galician way, with round stone huts and thatched roofs. We could imagine medieval Gallegos wandering through the village, tending their chickens and flocks, scratching out a meager subsistence on this windswept mountain. 

Our evening at O Cebreiro was a celebration. We gathered as a group in a delightful pub and shared our first plate of true pulpo gallego, along with our first bowls of genuine caldo gallego, the hearty Galician soup. We started to strategize for our reunion meal back in Seattle. We'd certainly have paella, which Sandy agreed to prepare. We'd also definitely want the two Galician dishes we were just then enjoying. We'd also have to have someone bring Spanish tortilla (perhaps best described as a crustless potato/egg/cheese quiche -- nothing like a Mexican tortilla). Someone would need to bring ample quantities of Riojan wine. And someone would need to make some plates of ensalada mixta, the omnipresent Spanish salad. Surely we could also hunt down some true Spanish jamon and chorizo in Seattle. As we enjoyed planning our feast we realized that one of the joys of the Camino is the cuisine of Spain. 

After O Cebreiro we walked on to the tiny and picturesque village of Triacastela. Tonight we took it easy and walked only 10 kms through forests and between small farms to the Monastery of Samos. We realized how important monasteries were to medieval Spain and remembered how throughout Europe they were looted and destroyed because of their power and accumulated wealth. The 14 monks of Samos go about their quiet business in a building that could house hundreds. We joined them at Vespers and were transported to centuries past as they chanted their Latin service.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Bierzo is a Welcome Respite for Weary Pilgrims

Relaxing in Molinaseca following the long walk down
from Cruce de Ferro.
After unburdening our souls and our packs of sin-laden rocks at Cruce de Ferro we headed down the long incline to the little town of Molinaseca, a welcome reward after a two-day mountain hike. Here an ancient Roman bridge crosses the Meruelo River and following a Tall Cool One and an ice cream bar many of our group splashed our feet in the cold, shallow water. The river revived our energy and prepared us for yet another menu del peregrino at one of Molinaseca's several tiny pilgrim restaurants.

As we came down the mountain it was clear we'd entered another region of Spain. Although we are still in the semi-autonomous province of Castille y León we had entered the Bierzo Comarca (county). The most obvious difference we noticed is that roofs are now made of black slate, rather than the red tile of much of northern Spain. The other difference is the preponderance of vineyards, something we hadn't seen since the La Rioja province a few weeks ago. 
Ponferrada's Knight's Templar castle,
scene of the RAM ceremony in
Coelho's The Pilgrimage

Molinaseca has two Main Streets, one for cars and the other for pilgrims. So we enjoyed the tranquility of our car-free pilgrim alley and imagined what life might have been like for pilgrims who walked the narrow streets of this town many centuries ago. Soon it was off to Ponferrada where we scrambled over a 12th century castle built by the Knights Templar as their regional headquarters and restored just a few years ago into its original crenellated splendor.

We tore ourselves away from the treasures of Ponferrada with the goal of Villafranca del Bierzo by nightfall. This little town at the end of a valley filled with vineyards is where your humble pilgrimage guide heard the news in 2008 that his mother was having heart trouble. He left the Camino here and headed back to Seattle to be with her for her treatment, then returned to the exact spot with wife, Gail, to pick up the trail once again. 

We overnighted at the Albergue Ave Fenix, a jumble of aged stone buildings joined by a grass courtyard with laundry flapping on clotheslines in the breeze. We walked past the medieval fortress and down into the heart of the city to find the many restaurants clustered on the main square and enjoyed a glass of local Bierzo wine as we watched our pilgrim friends dribble into town, ready to relax with a cool drink and perhaps a slice of pizza in the afternoon sun. That night we fell asleep under the rough rafters of Ave Felix with the familiar sound of pilgrim snores and the family albergue smells of boots and shampoo. The next morning would bring our ascent of the mountain up to O Cebreiro, our final climbing challenge of our Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

View Cyber Pilgrimage in a larger map

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

We Lay Down Our Burdens at the Foot of the Cruce de Ferro

After a good sleep at Hospital de Orbigo our pilgrim band was ready to climb up the Montañas de Leon for our penultimate big climb of the Camino. Before the big ascent, though, we walked a short day to Astorga and enjoyed the delights of this ancient city.

Astorga, known in Roman times as Asturica Augusta, dates back to Celtic times. The Roman town was founded in the first century A.D. and, indeed, as we walked toward the cathedral of this delightful city we walked past a Roman floor mosaic, recently discovered and now sheltered by a tent. The age of the city was apparent even in the albergue -- certainly the most delightfully antique place we'd so far stayed in our pilgrimage. The jewel of the town, though, is not the mosaic, the albergue, or the cathedral. The jewel is the "Bishop's Palace" built by Antonio Gaudi, famous architect of Sagrada Familia Cathedral in Barcelona.
Astorga palace by Gaudi (or was it Disney?)

The palace seems to have been lifted right out of a Disney movie with its tower and turrets and fancy archways. Gaudi, a son of this region of Spain, cut his teeth on architecture like this. His Sagrada Familia is his most famous work and is certainly one of the great cathedrals of the world. 

After a pleasant night in the medieval albergue it was time to begin our ascent. We walked through small farms, gradually climbing to the tiny village of Rabanal del Camino with its tiny 3-monk monastery. The British volunteers at the local albergue were kind and hospitable and told us about the 7:00 nightly service at the monastery. We enjoyed a quiet time of prayers int he ancient, derelict and tiny chapel, then adjourned to the local pub for a fine menu del peregrino.

The next morning it was time for our entry to the nearly-deserted village of Foncebadon. Here Alison told us the story of Paolo Coelho's epic (and fictional) battle with a rabid dog, which chased him through the deserted houses of this decaying place. The dog, Alison, said, is symbolic of all kinds of bad things -- the devil, Coelho's inner demons, his lack of humlity, etc., etc., etc. Although the story is fictional we all kept a wary eye out for our canine brothers who might want to test us as the Black Dog of Foncebadon tested Coelho.
Our pilgrims gather at the foot of the cross
atop the enormous pile of stones left by
pilgrims over the years at Cruce de Ferro.

After a bite-free visit to Foncebadon we headed to Cruce de Ferro and left our rocks at the foot of the cross. Rocks? Well yes, you remember how Rev. Sandy instructed us each to bring a rock from home to leave at the foot of the cross, right? Each of us had a quiet time of prayer at the enormous pile of stones at the foot of the Cross of Iron -- each stone symbolizing a sin to be forgiven or a hope to be fulfilled -- and then we headed down the mountain to the pilgrim town of Molinaseca. 

It was a great few days in the mountains, with grand vistas of the surrounding countryside. We're all admiring each others' well-developed lower leg muscles now. Blisters have been healed, cramped muscles are now strong. We're real walkers now, ready to take on most anything a Camino day can throw at us, which is good since in a couple of days we'll be making the climb to O Cebreiro, our hardest climb since the first day out of St. Jean. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Report: The Pilgrimage by Paolo Coelho

[Alison writing]

Shoelace breakage has been a big problem for us here on the Camino de Santiago, so much so that I gave away half of my yarn supply to serve as emergency laces! I only had enough yarn left to knit one sock, and a couple of weeks ago I finished that sock. "Great" I thought. "Now what am I going to do for a relaxing evening activity?" Jackie suggested I could un-knit the sock, then knit it back up again, but Gwynne and Dawn both thought that was ridiculous. That's when I remembered the book I'd been carrying with me all the way from Seattle - The Pilgrimage by Paolo Coelho. I thought I'd better get to reading it!
Alison describes how RAM means
more than computer storage.

The Pilgrimage tells the story of the author's journey along the same road we're traveling now - the road to Santiago. Paolo never really wanted to walk this road. At home in Brazil, he had been a student of a tradition called RAM (rigor, adoration, mercy). Paolo was fully expecting to be promoted to the highest rank of the RAM tradition. He was to receive an indestrucable sword in a special ceremony. However, at the very last minute, the RAM Master decided Paolo was not worthy to receive his sword. You see, Paolo had failed to demonstrate the saintly virtue of humility. The Master sent Paolo to France to seek his sword and to learn some lessons by walking the Road to Santiago.

At Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Paolo met his guide, Petrus, and they started down the road together. They encountered many hazards along he way, all on purpose! Petrus was a tough guide. He required Paolo to do things like climb waterfalls and wrestle with rabid dogs. By comparison, our guide has really been taking it easy on us so far. Who are we to complain about a few blisters?

At several points along the road, Petrus assigned Paolo to do certain spritual exercises. I've been teaching a few of these exercises to my fellow Cyberpilgrims.

First came the Seed Exercise. You can read about that here:

We decided to do the Seed Exercise first thing in the morning. It was very energizing! After the screaming part, we were ready to hit the trail. Well, most of us were ready. Elissa and Bart were still balancing on one foot each in perfect tree poses. Their yoga instructors should be very pleased with them.

Then there was the Water Exercise, for the Arousal of Intuition:

Make a puddle of water on a smooth, nonabsorbent surface. Look into the puddle for a while. Then, begin to play with it, without any particular commitment or objective. Make designs that mean absolutely nothing.

After this one, Sandy and Jackie started making plans for a new sanctuary banner composed entirely of suspended water droplets. So much for a lack of objective! We are all looking forward to seeing the finished banner. It will be an inspiring backdrop for our worship services back in Seattle, and it's sure to earn Jackie an A+ in her applied calculus class.

For the Blue Sphere exercise, I tried to think of a song from childhood that we could all sing together. A song from childhood... hmmm... well, there was "Walk Whenever You're In the Hall." That was a big hit at West Carlisle Elementary School, but I'm not sure it enjoyed the same popularity in other districts. My dad was always playing his Neil Diamond records on the stereo when I was a kid. Perhaps we could do Sweet Caroline? Nah, too much like karaoke. Other than that, I just knew a bunch of Sunday School songs. Aha! Sunday School songs! That gave me an idea. 

I checked with Sandy first and he said it would be okay for us to sing this one, even though it was almost Lent, because any time is a good time to praise the Lord. He even borrowed a guitar from a local Flamenco musician in order to accompany us. We sang:

Allelu, Allelu, Allelu, Alleluia
Praise Ye the Lord! (x2)

Praise Ye the Lord!
Alleluia! (x3)

Praise Ye the Lord!

and we sounded really good, thanks to the Holy Spirit and the many choir members among us! The second time around, Dana and Greta got out their recorders and played along. Then, much to everyone's amazement, Jeanne reached into her small backpack and pulled out an autoharp! She strummed and plucked away just like a professional autoharpist.

We sang and sang until the intense blue light of agape filled the room. We kept singing, and the light spilled out into the Spanish countryside, over the Atlantic Ocean and across the Americas. Our friends in Seattle saw it, including those who are sick and those in prison. The light also went south to Africa, where it covered Tunisia and Egypt, Libya and the Sudan. Eventually that light circled the whole world, spreading energy and peace wherever it went. It was a beautiful thing!
Blue light encircles our room, then the continent, then the
world, and has last been spotted encircling the
Pleiades in outer space.

I don't want to give away the end of the story, so if you want to find out if Paolo found his sword, you will have to read The Pilgrimage for yourself. You can find a copy at the Camino Branch of the Seattle Public Library:

Monday, March 7, 2011

Tales of Knights and Damsels and Roman Bridges

The bridge at Hospital de Orbigo that dates from Roman
times, where medieval knights strutted their stuff.
It felt like we left León with a hangover, but in reality it was two things: a) the dismal suburbs west of the city that resulted in a half day of slogging along on bleak sidewalks, and b) our sadness at having to leave such a wonderful town. León definitely was a high point of the Camino with its combination of rich history, great architecture, rich nightlife, and pilgrim subculture. Sitting at a cafe on Calle Atoche one can watch the Camino march right by as pilgrims from all over the world funnel into the old city to soothe their blisters and whet their appetites.

It's now clear that our ragtag group of walkers consists of two pilgrims styles. We'll call them the "walkers" and the "runners."* Some of our group enjoy a leisurely stroll through the countryside, noticing flowers and stopping for photos of mountains and buying an extra ice cream bar at an alimentación. Others of us sprint ahead and quick rack up the miles. The runners include Bart, Jackie, Elissa, and yours truly. The rest are walkers, with the exception of Susan and Gwynne who stick to a slower pace, but relentlessly accumulate miles under their feet.
At Hospital de Orbigo. Front frow from left: Elissa and
Dana. Rear, from left: Bart, Erin Elaine, Alison, Sandy,
and Susan. 

The first day out of León we managed a good, long day of walking, surprising ourselves with a 37 km journey that landed us at Hospital de Orbigo. The town is named for a pilgrim hospital from the Middle Ages and the Camino crosses the River Orbigo on a long bridge here, surprisingly long for the tiny river below. In Roman times, when the bridge was built, the river followed a broad, shallow track at this point. Now its channel is narrow and deep. Over the centuries the bridge has accumulated a hefty amount of folklore. Here's a description of some of its history from a Camino cultural guide:

A strategic point on the Roman route connecting the Roman city of Astorga and the silver mines of the Bierzo region with France, the town has witnessed many battles in its long history. The Suevi and the Visigoths met in battle here in the fifth century, and four centuries later Alfonso III defeated the Moors and recaptured the city for the kingdom of León.
However, it was not any of these military engagements that made the town´s name famous for all time, but a contest of a more romantic nature that took place in the mid-15th century. That was when a Leonese knight named Suero de Quiñones issued a challenge to the best lances in all of Europe, vowing to meet them in battle for 30 days on the stone bridge that spans the river in order to prove his devotion for an unnamed noble lady who had rejected his declaration of love. Some 300 jousts and one month later, having proved his love for his lady and considering himself released from what he regarded as his "prison of love", the victorious knight removed the iron collar he had worn around his neck as a symbol of his enslavement of love and took to the Camino de Santiago as a pilgrim. Upon arrival at the cathedral, he deposited a jewel-encrusted golden bracelet as a symbol of his release from the prison in which love had kept him prisoner. The bracelet can still be seen around the neck of a bust of St. James the Lesser in the cathedral museum in Santiago.

The albergue at Hospital de Orbigo was a delight, with artfully painted walls and handcrafted stone floors. To be honest, the uneven floors were a little painful for our tender feet, but nothing could stop us from enjoying the great pilgrim company of new international friends and the nice tastes of a nearby Italian (!) restaurant. Tomorrow, Astorga!
And whose knight in shining armor
might this be?

*Our exercise miles continue to accumulate. Elissa, Jackie, Bart, and Sandy are training for a marathon and half-marathon on April 16, so their miles are accumulating rapidly. As of Week 5 the individual totals are: Bart, 115; Jackie, 102.8; Sandy, 94.6; Susan 94, Gwynne, 93.3; Elissa, 81.9; Alison, 59.3; John 58.9; Erin Elaine, 49; Dana, 24; Greta, 19.5; Jeanne, 4; Dawn, 4; Lisa,3. Team Charles has pulled out to a commanding lead with 433.3 miles, while Team John is pulling up the rear with 376.5.