Monday, June 11, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 28: Vega de Valcarce to O'Cebreiro

Most hard days on the Camino begin in glory and end in pain. An example was our climb to the Cruz de Ferro. Our fifth Sunday on the Camino (6/10) was the reverse, beginning in agony and ending in triumph.

Ah, but triumph for Spain or Italy? That is a question to be resolved only when I finish this post and head downstairs for the (Sunday 6pm) broadcast of the qualifying match between Spain and Italy. The European Soccer Championships have everyone but the Americans chattering on the Camino, and any competition between these two countries is heated. Today is probably the biggest sports day for Spain since the finals of the 2010 World Cup, when the Spanish team beat Holland 1–0. While we wait for the soccer match, Rafael Nadal is playing for the French Open title, his fourth, fifth, or sixth, I've lost count and frankly don't care.

Marian and I began bright and early Sunday morning in what our guidebook said was the last village before the climb to O'Cebreiro, the first stop in Galicia for pilgrims on the Camino Francés. As we walked away from the bakery where we had enjoyed double coffees and free wifi, the sun looked like it might peek out from behind heavy clouds. I joked that it was the kind of weather meteorologists call unsettled. I didn't know how right I was.

By the time we had started up the heavily rocky dirt path from Herrerias to La Faba, a steep incline through woodlands, the rain was pelting down. Water flowing downhill toward us turned the rocks into islands and the path into a river of mud. I had done a wash Saturday night in Vega de Valcarce and left my clothes out to dry, only to find that it had rained overnight and my wash was wetter Sunday morning than when I hung it out the night before. Now those sopping clothes were partitioned from the rest of my pack in a stuff sack, and I was wearing my last dry clothes. These included a Gortex jacket and pants. By the time we reached La Faba the jacket had made a mockery of Gortex's supposedly breathable watertightness. It breathed all right, sucking buckets of water onto the rest of my clothes. At the bar in La Faba, I stripped to a tee shirt and hiking shorts, even though I was chilled to the bone and there was no discernable central heating in the place. When I put my jacket back on for the next stage of our climb to O'Cebreiro, it was like wrapping myself in a shag rug that had been left to soak overnight in ice water.

We arrived at the top with ten minutes to spare, having targeted the noon mass in the Iglesia de Santa Maria Real. Built originally in the ninth century and lovingly maintained today, it is the oldest church on the Camino. For Marian and me, it was among the most beautiful we have visited. The thought that Catholic pilgrims have been worshiping here for over 1,000 years is moving.

A Franciscan monk prepared the altar before the mass and also tended a small welcome office at the entrance. I don't know the church's connection with the Franciscan order, or even whether the celebrant wore a Franciscan robe beneath his vestments, but there is a statue of St. Francis prominent to the left of the sanctuary. To the right of the sanctuary is a statue of the Virgin and Child from the twelfth century, an object of great veneration for the parishioners here. During the mass, no collection was taken before communion. Instead, the locals lined up in front of the Virgin after mass and placed their offerings in a box at her feet.

In a side chapel on this side of the sanctuary are a chalice and paten associated with a miracle that took place here, at which the Virgin was said to have bowed her wooden head. What touched me more than statue, chalice, or paten, however, was a pew set up before this chapel. Arranged in front of the pew on a long lectern were open Bibles in many languages, labeled Korean, Chinese, Arab, Catelan, Gallego (the language of Galicia), Castellano (what we know as Spanish), Basque, Danish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Polish, Greek, Slovak, English, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Dutch, and German. There was also a child's Bible in Castellano and, largest of all, a complete Old and New Testament in Braille.

I picked up the book labeled Ingles, a copy of the Navarre Bible reader's edition of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. Alert to the significance of the page where the Bible fell open, I read eagerly at first and then with something like remorse: It was Luke 22:47–62, the stories of the arrest of Jesus, courtesy of Judas, and Peter's denials.

Yesterday I wrote, Thank God for Marian, and today I'll write it again: Thank God for Marian. After using her fluent Spanish to find us another perfect nest for the night after mass, she took care of her old man by finding a dryer in the municipal albergue up the road and putting my wet clothes into it, then retrieving them an hour later. Meanwhile, fortified by a picnic lunch in our room where I sat huddled in a blanket, I had a deep 90-minute nap.

By the time I woke up, Marian herself was settling in for a rest. I headed out onto the very short main street of O'Cebreiro, where I was thrilled to find my friend Christian from Lausanne and his traveling chum, Martino from Italian-speaking Lausanne. We passed a pleasant quarter-hour catching up. All of us plan to arrive in Santiago in time for the pilgrim mass next Sunday (6/17). So, God willing, we will meet again. Against the unlikely chance that this was our encounter, Christian and I exchanged e-mail addresses. Then I went off to visit Santa Maria Real once again before beginning this post.

Spain and Italy tied 1–1 in a thrilling game. Nadal's match was suspended due to rain, with Rafa leading 2 sets to 1. Marian and I returned to the church one last time after the soccer game, and she almost got locked in, seated alone reading the multilingual Bibles. I had left earlier to pick up a heavy-duty poncho, which already paid for itself Monday as we descended from O'Cebreiro in another rain storm. I am writing this update in Tricastela, where we've stopped for lunch, with free wifi. I hope to file a complete report on Day 29 when we land later on Monday or sometime Tuesday, wifi accessibility permitting.

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

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