Thursday, May 29, 2008

Day 5, Rabanal del Camino to Molinaseca

Despite the cold and the rain on this fifth day of the walking, we all managed to come out with a great experience. We left Rabanal off pre-bought or albergue ordered breakfasts, and proceded to make our ways up Monte Irago. The air was cool and the flowers were lovely. The smell was wonderful.

A short while into the walk, the Cruz del Ferro, a mysterious yet well known site awaits. It is a cross of iron, atop a huge pile of stones. Legend is that it goes back centuries and that the first pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela left stones at the base to represent their journey. In all likelihood, the place was a Celtic shrine, and the Romans left a stone pile marker for the mountain pass, and then Christians adopted the site as well.

In any case, the Cruz del Ferro is a milestone in the modern pilgrimage. Modern pilgrims bring a rock, either from someplace significant or from Monte Irago itself. Some decorate them. The stones represent the burden they bear.

Then we moved on up and over and down the mountains. The day was cold and there were lots of puddles, but also lots of gorgeous wildflowers, and cows and even sheep!

One of my best experiences that day was Manjaharin, an alburgue-town which provides hots beverages and those ever present cookies we all eat to pilgrims. My hands were very cold, but the woman warmed up my hands, made me mint tea, and gave me gloves. She was so sweet. I gave her a long hug. The man, who thought he was a Templar, offered me (what I assumed were) courage-boosting words.

Another peregrina I had met the day before, Pilar and I helped each other get over the huge puddles. Later, when the sun came out, and we were descending, a German man and I talked to each other in a mix of our two languages, and arrived in Molinaseca together. We also figured out a tricky part when the road sign seemed to be mixed up.

Everyone else has told me how great of a day they had as well - it was a great walk, they really enjoyed the company they were in, they had some great talks, and so on.

Molinaseca was a cute little tourist and holiday town. Everything seemed to be closed, but our hotel was very nice. It provided towels! For someone who does not have one this is a great luxury. Also, the owner of the house turned on the heat, twice. Both of these things lead to one of the most pleasant nights. Also, great times were had at the very long table, at which a picnic of bread, ham, cheese, olives, fruit and wine was had, and then fascinating games of mafia were played.

The whole day has the common rosy warm glow of cozy satisfaction about it.


Day 4, Astorga a Rabanal del Camino

Good afternoon! Following are excerpts from my personal journal, which the class is encouraged to update daily with reflections and notes. It details some, but not all of my travels today from the bustling, dynamic Astorga to the relatively low-key Rabanal del Camino:

On things people leave behind on the Camino:
(1) At least from what I have observed today, garbage! It is possible that some pilgrims are also litterbugs? I was shocked that, along the long stretch of dust and dunes between Astorga and the next town, wrappers and other non-biodegradable items idled along the side of the path, tossed by careless hands. This is our Camino! Keep it clean! Treat it like it was your home! I think this observation/criticism marks the point on the journey where the Camino becomes my Camino, at least physically. I notice the little details now, and am personally concerned with its upkeep.

To the pilgrims' credit, though, some of the trash very well could have been from passing cars, vehicular vandals of the environment :P. As an afterthought, I myself am guilty of depositing something on the Camino, in a time of need...a blanket that doubled as a towel, which was weighing me down immensely on my 35-Km odyssey to O Cebreiro. So shoot me! There was no garbage can in the wilderness, and holding on to it would have been counterproductive to my desire tp of losing it.

(2) Stones "in memoriam." I've taken notice to the various and numerous pillars where people pile stones to recognize something of importance to them. How touching! I never think to carry a stone, but I suppose that I must, as I approach the Cruz de Ferro tomorrow. Any person is simply in my prayers for now.

(3) The Fence of Woven Crosses. Just 5 K from the end, someone erected a wire fence, and the tradition has sprung to place crosses of sticks within the wiring. I placed a cross there for my two sisters, and moved on. It was only appropriate, and I hope they are doing well! Love you Kim and Danielle.

Dr. Gyug expertly remarked on the involuntary, spontaneous evolution of certain traditions, like the Fence of Woven Crosses. It is entirely manmade and very very new (maybe the last 5 years), yet is already a phenomenon not to be missed on the Camino and of equal spiritual significance as other, older traditions, like the rubbing of the pillar of St. James in Santiago. The creation of the Fence just goes to show how people's creativity and faith can be channelled into something beautiful and meaningful, out of the blue.

Today I made my first friends on the Camino outside of my class: Harriet and Margaret, two wonderful ladies from the Netherlands whose English made it very easy to communicate with them all the way to Rabanal. As I passed them, we just started talking, then we decided to stop and have lunch together, then we decided to leave together, and before you know it we're chums. I do hope I see them again - they were considering, however, passing Rabanal and moving on into Foncebadon for the evening. Buen Camino, ladies, and may our paths cross again!

The last notable event of my walk was being literally chased down a street by a wild dog :(. He was seriously angry at me! I didn't have a stick at the time, so I couldn't get diesel on him and defend myself. I had to wait for a German couple who was properly armed with sticks to provide safe passage for me. St. James protect my soul and my life from these savage beasts!


Despite my pre-arrival optimism, there really is not much going on in Rabanal.

Actually, that is a grand mis-statement of the history and wonder that one particular site of Rabanal has to offer; I refer to La Iglesia de Santa Maria de la Asuncion (pictured below).

Believed to be constructed around the 12th century and of dubious affiliation with the Knights Templar (!), La Iglesia is small but truly stunning and a bit eerie inside. Its architecture is of the Romanesque style - lower ceilings, rounded arches, simpler construction - and is currently being maintained and run by 3 German Benedictine monks living across from the Church in the Monastery de Monte Irago (pictured below).

In 2001, these three monks were on the Camino themselves, albeit probably a little more ascetic than us modern hi-tech students, and were moved by the spirit to establish a monastery across from the church and to serve other pilgrims´spiritual needs by holding mass at various hours of the day. The most popular, and most awesome of the services are Vespers, which are daily evening prayer services sung in Gregorian Chant.

In the middle ages, Vespers were traditionally held at 4 PM, or "the hour of the lights," in accordance with Byzantine Catholic ordinance, or the Rule of St. Benedict of the 6th century. The Vespers we attended were at 7 PM, though it was still very bright outside.

At the mass I attended, only 2 of the 3 monks sung, so I didn´t get the full solemn affect of the Gregorian Chant, which usually makes my stomach stir because of its majesty and power. Often only one monk would sing and the other would chime in. :( Not quite the chorus of twenty all in perfect unison (but not harmony! - too early in the development of music) and in deep registers. This monk who did his solos had a high voice.

REGARDLESS, It was Beautiful and appropriate for pilgrims of any religion or sect, because the music could put you perfectly in touch with yourself and impel you to focus on the "inner light" that we all are feeding. I really fell in love at the Vespers, and could have listened to those talented, selfless monks all night.

The refuge is purportedly cold, although I don't believe the other students, I feel fine.

We also walked by the Refugio Guacelmo, which is the other cultural landmark of the town. It was established from an abandoned parish house of the 9th century, and it´s establishment pretty much revived the life and popularity of the town, which was formerly "moribund." We saw the statue of Santiago Peregrino outside, but did not go in.

I eagerly anticipate group activities later with my class, such as Mafia or cards. I´m really glad that we are in a bunker to ourselves tonight, to facilitate the bonding.

Much love from the Camino!
Joseph Robert Bertino

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Day 3, Part 1

We set out for our second day with sore legs and under gray skies. Fortunately, the weather cleared as our legs warmed up on the short first leg of the day´s hike to Hospital de Orbigo, a classic medieval town, noted for holding the last official jousting tournament in 1434. The story of the Passo Honroso reads as if it were striaght out of an arthurian romance. In short, Suero de QuiƱones, a local Spanish knight desired freedom from his lady mistress, for whom he posessed an unrequited love. His task was to guard the Puene (bridge) de Orbigo and force all who wished to pass with honor to compete in a joust with either him or one of his ten companions. Sixty six knights, one hundred and sixty six spears and many injuries later, Suero and his companions stood bruised and battered (only one knight was able to compete the last day), but victorious.

The bridge itself was, in my opinion, the most striking site we have seen thus far. The river, the fields, the medieval flags and the tents set up for an upcoming rtecenactment truly brought us back to the thirteenth century and the last spectacular display of pageanetry that was medieval tournament jousting.

Leaving Orbigo, the Camino took us away from the highway for the first time. The small villages we passed through were truly charming and the hills, plateaus, light forests (and even a clay quarry) provided for some breathtaking scenery.Although our pace was slower than the first day and the weather was much colder than I expected, our trek to Astorga was infinitely more enjoyable than the prefvious days. I partially believe this was due to us leaving behind the mass transit and industrialization of the N-6 highway (along which we walked for almost the entire first day of hiking), and were able to observe more local farming of hops, cabbage, grapes (although they are not in season yet) and wheat. The mileage covered gives all of us an excellent sense of accomplishment, although it is for some rewason demoralizing to realize upon entereing astorga that our day long hike would have taken a mere 15 minutes in a car ride.

So we made it to Astorga, a beautiful, Roman-walled city situated on the top of a hill in the middle of a valley. Due to its placement, we could see the city from many kilometers away and arduously walked the last hour & a half trying to not constantly stare at our destination in the way that a student attempts to ignore the classroom clock that moves like molasses in the last five minutes of the period. In futre, keep in mind that cities on hills, for all that has been said about them in the political and religious realms, are not all that they´re cracked up to be. I sincerely doubt that the author of Revelation or Ronald Reagan have ever had to climb up said hill on the bruised feet and with the aching back of a pilgrim.

However painful the trek up the hill, Astorga was certainly worth the climb, with its breathtaking Cathedral of Santa Maria and its dubious relic of the holy cross, its Roman baths and mosaics, and its Epsicopal Bishop´s Palace designed by Gaudi in the style of a neo-gothic castle. (Not to mention its numerous choclate stores.)
In theCathedral´s museum and the Plaza Mayor, we finally leanred something concrete about the region´s elusive Maragato culture: They dress in a fashion that lies somewhere in between that of a sterotypical gypsy´s and that of a mariachi band member´s clothing. Thank god that no one seems to adhere to this dress code anymore because we stand out enough as it is.

Besides the main tourist attractions, we also got to experience a night in the pleasant Albergue de San Javier, complete with skylights and a Canadian (and therefore English speaking) staff member, which was a treat for us non-Spanish speakers. Unfortunately, this nice little albergue also came complete with some rather odiferous pilgrim roomates from various EU countries that seemd to enjoy snoring loudly and running about in speedos at odd hours of the morning. Not to worry though, it seems to be our group´s opinion that Astorga that Astorga has been our favorite city thus far, despite the lack of sleep that we found there.

In conclusion, we are enjoying our walking and learning a good deal about Roman and Medieval cities, as well as ourselves. (Sorry for the cliche.)

P.S. We woudln´t be upset if someone mailed us some snoring remedies for our peregrino companions or a space heater for our numb fingers...It´s freezing here!

- Freddy & Laura

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Day Two - 25 May 2008

Our first day walking. Our first morning waking up in a 140 bed albergue. Most of us began our journey after few hours of restless sleep - interrupted by snoring, rustling, and uneasiness due to the uncertainty of our future.

25 km (about 15 miles) went by surprisingly fast. Leaving shortly before 7 am, we all arrived about 5 hours later, at noon. We left Leon, passing through its outskirts, following the long N-120 highway, traversing a seemingly unsurpassable water body formed by last nights´ rain and the desolate town of Villadomingos. Finally we came to a long stretch of farmland with our destination on the horizon. It seemed to take ages to reach what we saw before us, the village of San Martin 5 km ahead. We are now resting in the small, warm, and friendly private albergue Ana, in this barren town. Several pilgrims attempted to visit the only open store, to find that it was sold out of bread for the day!

We are relaxing, stretching, and both mentally and physically preparing ourselves for tomorrow´s journey, with a better understanding of the challenges of the Camino.

Buen Camino!
Scott & Mari

Day One - 24 May 2008

Today our group of 15 met in Leon, Spain. We toured the famous historical sites that we have been studying for the past semester. The Leon Cathedral has the 2nd largest amount of stained glass of any church. Basilica de San Isidoro is known for its Panteon de los reyes, where 11 kings of Leon and Castille are buried and boasts the oldest painted ceilings in Europe. We also visited the monastery of San Marcos, Palacio de los Guzmanes, and Casa Botines.

Leon is a rather large town of abut 100,000 people, with modern and medieval sections. The medieval part is fit with small winding alleyways not fit for cars, smokey bars, and all the tradition that we expected a Camino town to have. Some of us with an adventurous spirit tried a staple of the local cuisine - tripe - or pig innards.

After a pilgrims blessing from the nuns who ran the monastery and albergue, we were ushered to our barracks early, in preparation for our journey ahead.

Buen Camino!

Mari & Scott