Sunday, May 27, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 13: Agés to Burgos

It is 5:10 p.m. as I sit down alone to write in a café window looking out on the plaza in front of Burgos Cathedral. In two hours, I will meet Marian and our traveling companion Alann for the 7:30 vigil mass here. Meanwhile, in the leisurely manner of Spain, I am watching the world go by, including some of my fellow pilgrims, as siesta comes to an end and the plaza begins to fill again with life.

It was a long slog into Burgos this Saturday morning. The village of Agés, where we spent Friday night, is in the country. Only a few kilometers west of Agés, a thin sense of Spanish suburbia began to take over. House lots were fenced in; a Burgos talk radio station blared from a café where we stopped for second breakfast; and as we watched, three men stood talking around a gargantuan all-terrain vehicle, which one of them soon mounted and drove away with a roar.

The Camino ran around a large regional airport and then hit the city limits of Burgos. For block after block, kilometer after kilometer, we passed warehouses and office buildings and car dealerships and tacky furniture stores, while the pavement hammered our feet. It is Saturday, and most places were closed, which only deepened the sense that the Spanish economy is somewhere between wounded and moribund. Simon limped on his chronically pained left ankle, Sam complained about her failing shoes, Alann looked beat, a certain daughter of mine was cranky, and let's just say that between complaints of hunger and self-pity over fatigue, I didn't win any sainthood points this morning.

But there had been small joys along the way. Before country gave way to city, Marian and I spent nearly an hour walking alone together, with Simon, Sam, and Alann walking ahead. "Granddad would love to see us together this morning," she said under a bright sun cooled by last night's cold front. "I bet he's smiling down on us right now." Smiling indeed, because Dad and I took three long trips together in the five years before he died, and he would love watching this one. Marian asked me which of the three Dad trips I had enjoyed more, and it came down to the Midwest roots trip and the Civil War battlefields tour.

Our conversation soon moved in wider circles, as she shared her impressions of some in her generation who, burdened with student loans, grab the highest-paying jobs they can, though it means living in cities they can't afford. (Did you know that total student loan debt in the USA is greater than total credit card debt? Neither did I.) We talked about the rationale for local food movements, E. F. Schumacher's book Small is Beautiful, the Universal Catholic Church as the Body of Christ, and other big topics. It was great.

After a nature break, we shifted to a discussion of "Talladega Nights," the NASCAR comedy starring Will Ferrell. That movie's connection with local food or the Catholic Church is something you'll have to imagine. I'm not sure I can explain the sudden tangents in these father-daughter conversations. In any event, we moved effortlessly from the cosmic to the cinema, and when we rejoined our walking partners, popular culture took over completely. Marian, Alann, and Simon launched into a version of "The Piña Colada Song," which all three agreed had been sung by Jimmy Buffett. My in-depth Wiki research this afternoon says that it was written and performed by Rupert Holmes.

As we rounded into town and onto the pavement, we were overtaken by a trio of British adults Marian's age or a bit older. By now, I was walking at the back of the pack with Simon. As the two of us listened, the trio of Brits started in on Mel Gibson, his recent PR disasters, and "that absolutely horrid" hit film of his, "The Temptation of Christ." My hackles start to rise whenever I sense indiscriminate criticism of Christian faith by idiots.

The speaker's friend proposed that "Apocalypto" was a far more accomplished film than "The Temptation," and I was tempted to round on the young whippersnappers. But I held my tongue until the first Brit pointed out that Gibson's first movie, "Mad Max," was best of all.

Now I couldn't hold back. I shot over my shoulder, "His first film was 'Gallipoli.'" Feeling that I had scored a small point for Truth, I walked on smugly.

The problem is, I checked Wiki on this point too and found that "Mad Max" (1979) may not have been Gibson's first film, but it has "Gallipoli" (1981) beat by two years. Fortunately, I wasn't called on the error. Hopefully, I won't run into the Brits again—but the Camino will determine that, not me.

Update, 7 a.m. Sunday At 6 p.m., after completing the above entry, I sat leaning against a fountain outside the western entrance of Burgos Cathedral as the sun began falling. I started drawing one of the doors of the cathedral in my journal when the realization dawned that there were an unusual number of Spanish men in shiny dark suits and women in wild red dresses and waterfall hair-dos gathering around me. When I looked back and saw a classic limo behind the fountain with streamers on it, I figured there might be a wedding going on. We all waited nearly 45 minutes before the bride and groom exited the cathedral, from what must have been a private wedding mass. The crowd threw rice and confetti and blew noisemakers, and an enormous explosion of firecrackers went off just 15 meters to my left. That was just a mild prelude to what proved a wild night in Burgos.

Marian called out to me from the porch of the cathedral, where she and Alann were waiting. We went into the 7:30 mass in the large side chapel dedicated to St. Tecla, arriving early enough to sit through the last two decades of a rosary and a litany as long as the Staten Island phone book. The mass was beautiful, especially because several recognizable pilgrims were attending with us. Marian elbowed me. There were Mr. and Mrs. Kim from Korea! On the train into San Jean Pied de Port, he was the first pilgrim I met. He had noticed my prayer bracelet and gestured to it. Then when I tried to explain (I speak no Korean, he has little English), he smiled and pulled a fist out of his coat pocket. It was wrapped in a heavy wooden chaplet. Now here he was again at mass with his wife and us.

Just as mass began, a heavenly children's choir struck up with notes clearly unrelated to the liturgy but nevertheless somehow complementary to it. This chorus continued until the readings began; then it faded, only to be taken up again near the end of the mass. Apparently something else was happening elsewhere in the cathedral.

The concelebrant was a priest from Venezuela who was en route to Santiago himself. At the end of mass, he addressed the congregation of about 125, and although I do not understand Spanish well, I heard the words pelegrinos and Camino several times and could tell by his warm smiles that he was wishing those pilgrims present (maybe 25) a safe and fulfilling journey to Santiago, another word I easily recognized. Marian filled in the details later.

We passed out of the chapel into the main cathedral, where we discovered that a confirmation was taking place: No fewer than 40 young people were being received into the church at the hand of the local bishop. The center of the nave, grilled off from tourist prying, was jam-packed. We circled the service beheath the great white stone vaults, admiring the many chapels around. When we finally sat down to a supper of paella across the plaza, Alann and Marian each made a comment that was telling.

Marian had visited St. Peter's in Rome for the first time only a month ago, but now she said that this visit to the Burgos Cathedral was somehow more impressive. To interpret her comment, I would say that St. Peter's is vast and heavily trafficked by tourists, while in Burgos we saw one of the great gothic fruits of Catholic culture, though smaller in size, filled with life, a vital place of worship in the midst of an active Christian community.

Alann, not a Catholic herself, was clearly impressed by the whole experience. She asked only why a Catholic church has so many chapels.

After dinner we came out onto the streets and into one of the densest crowds I have ever passed through. For street after street, Burgos was shoulder-to-shoulder with men, women, and children dressed up and partying. It was some kind of "White Night" in the city, a civil fiesta that included artists in booths, folk dancing, and music just about everywhere. I wanted ice cream, but the long lines for this and other treats at shops along the way would have meant waiting. Instead, we made our way back to the Albergue Acacia, well away from the city center. Thank God. Even at this distance, we could hear through the open window the sounds of distant reveling—all—night—long.

Marian is rousing now, and pretty soon we will set off from Burgos, heading west onto the north Spanish plains. Today's walk will conclude our second full week on the road to Santiago de Compostela. It's still possible that we may arrive there on Father's Day, June 17, three weeks from today.

Thanks for following us!

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]

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