12 August 2009

The Way of St. James

A few posts ago I mentioned (amidst a bunch of otherwise irrelevant observations) an interest in Santiago, which is a city in North West Spain, and also the Spanish name for the apostle we call St. James in English. The city is named after him because the cathedral of Santiago is believed by some to contain the apostle´s remains. The story of how they got to be there is a pretty good one, but that doesn´t seem to diminish the appeal of the city. As a result, the city is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year, and the route through North Spain you walk on to get there is known as the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James.

Some people do the walk for genuine reasons of faith. Others, like me, just think going hiking for a week through Spain sounds like great fun. Unfortunately, when I picked my rucksack up when I left Madrid all those weeks ago, it became obvious fairly quickly that I wasn´t going to be carrying it 400km across the north coast, so I abandoned that idea. But I´ve also never let the fact that I haven´t actually done something stop me writing about it like I know what I´m talking about. So I hereby present my impressions of the Camino de Santiago.

What would have happened

As I lay in my hacienda in Barcelona, looking up at the stars and wondering what had happened to the roof, I had a sacred vision. I saw St. James walking over a field of sunflowers. I could tell it was St. James because of his pilgrim´s staff and his sea-shell emblem. He was also wearing a pirate hat and a kilt, but I suspect that had more to do with the extra chorizo I had with dinner than with liturgical iconicry. In any event, they were almost certainly non-canonical.

St James was beckoning me westward and offered me a stone tablet, upon which was inscribed "You won´t walk 750km to Santiago and visit my crypt".
"I will" I replied. And with that, I set off, armed with only the clothes on my back, a big stick with a sea-shell on it, my bible and my iPod. With only the stars to guide me, I set my face to the west. When I reached the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, I decided to buy a compass. Navigating by the Southern Cross gets a bit tricky in the Northern Hemisphere.

The first couple of hundred kilometres were lonely and perilous. I was plagued by visions of inner demons and of sirens, telling me they´d saved me a spot on the beach and asking me where the bloody hell I was. Fortunately as I made my bed for the night in an out of the way albergue in Frómista I happened upon a small group (although I believe the fashionable term these days is 'connect group') of pilgrims also bound for Santiago.

There was Nikolai and his charming wife Svetlana who had both walked all the way from St. Petersburg and were quite obviously completely nuts. There was a Kiwi girl named Ella and a big Frenchman named Claude who had come on the pilgrimage hoping to be blessed with the recipe for the perfect dim sim. I think he may have been slightly misinformed.

But the pilgrim who immediately caught my attention was a young woman, sitting slightly apart from the group, her face covered by a long forest green hood. She said nothing, but her very countenance exuded a feeling of peace, well being and fair trade. I now had two reasons to make the journey to Santiago; one, to find the identity of this mystery woman, and two, ... hmmm, nope, I guess I just had the one reason then.

Over the next few days, as we drew closer and closer to the city, the pilgrimage began to take its toll on the group. The summer heat was becomming a problem for the Russians, who as it turned out were made of parmesan cheese. As we approached Ponferrada they began to melt and had to turn back to Russia. Ella was picked up in Cebreira for over staying her visa and deported back to Wellington. Somewhere between Sarría and Lavacolla Claude was accosted by a band of gypsies who demanded that he surrender immediately. Being French, he agreed and ran screaming into the hills.

That just left me and the mysterious stranger. Given that she didn´t talk, that didn´t leave us with many options in terms of stimulating conversation. Eventually I decided to make her a deal.

"I´ll make you a deal," I said, redundantly. "If we make it as far as the cathedral, will you at least tell me who you are?" The woman still said nothing, but nodded her assent.

As more days passed and we got closer and closer to Santiago, I grew more and more curious, but less and less enchanted, as her thick velvet hood was covered in mud and sweat and was starting to stink a bit. Finally, when it seemed I could no longer stand the suspense and she could no longer stand the smell, we arrived at the gates of la Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

"Now, sir, I believe I have a promise to keep," said an enthralling, but oddly familiar voice from beneath the veil. "It´s time you learned my true identity". With an anti-climactic flick she flipped her hood back to reveal...

"Oxfam Girl? Oh you´ve got to be kidding me.
"What? I thought you´d be pleased to see me."
"Yeah, I am. It´s just... don´t you think this gag is getting a bit old?"
"Oh gee. You really know how to make a girl feel special, don´t you?"
"Oh shut up and help me find this damn shrine so we can get the hell out of here."

We climbed inside the main sanctuary and I was immediately struck by what a firm grasp of the basic tennets of Christianity the folk who commissioned the cathedral must have had. Everything was so huge and overstated and covered in gold. It would have been enough to make St. James roll over in his grave, if it wasn´t for the fact that, actually, it was his grave.

We passed through the sanctuary and now I have a certificate I can show St. Peter, redeemable for a 50% reduction of my time in Purgatory, assuming I get as far as St. Pete in the first place, that is. Quite how I´m going to transport the certificate into the hereafter with me is anyone´s guess, but I´ve decided to take the Pope at his word. Oxfam Girl was unfortunately deemed unworthy and was instantly transformed into a sea-shell.

She got better

Far from h... Oh no, wait...

What actually happened

I caught the train in from Porto and found myself a bed for the night, then set out to view the cathedral. I walked under the sanctuary to see the big silver coffin that supposedly contains the apostle´s remains. Not being Catholic or remotely superstitious, it would probably have been an utterly underwhelming end if I had walked all the way from Bilbao to get there. The pipes for the organ looked like they could blow the roof off the place (maybe even wake up St. James) if you pulled all the stops, but I couldn´t see the keyboards anywhere. They must have been tucked away in a loft up the top.

While all this was taking place, the flu (non-porcine, thankfully) that I had been attempting to out-run finally caught up with me, which was ironic since I was supposed to be a in a city of purity and healing. I decided to stay an extra night and rest up, leaving me with just a little too much spare time on my hands, since apart from the cathedral, there´s not much to see in Santiago as it turns out. This may or may not have resulted in the quantity of inane drivel you had to get through to make it this far.

Enough already!

Far from home




Garry with 2 Rs
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