Friday, February 13, 2015

Our Camino, Chapter 4: Navarrete to Burgos

(This is the fourth installment in my newly edited story of walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012. The third chapter is here.)

Marian and I were out the door of the friendly albergue in Navarette by 6:15, saying good-bye to our Belgian friends André and Hubert. It was just light enough to see the ubiquitous yellow arrows marking the Way of St. James. We headed west through the vineyards of La Rioja (pictured), irregular interlocking shapes laid out like the work of an abstract painter with a thing for green. Beyond the wine fields in every direction lay clayey hills and above them on this day a cacophony of clouds.

We had been walking in and out of rain for three days, and the skies tried to clear all morning to prove a forecast of sun and warm weather. By mid-afternoon, grapes gave way to grain as we approached the boundary between La Rioja and Castilla y León. My gaze seldom rose higher than a meter in front of my plodding feet, which beat out a steady rhythm for the Jesus Prayer on my lips. After eleven and a half hours and 38 kilometers (24 miles), the longest distance I had ever walked, we arrived in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, a town famous for the chicken in its church.

“On the Camino,” André had told me in Navarette, “you must empty yourself.” Tuesday’s long march had emptied me after a fashion. While washing up for my pilgrim meal at the refuge, I looked at myself in the mirror. The tanned, bearded face appeared healthy and the eyes had sparkle, but behind the eyes there was no one home. The best I could think to do from moment to moment was whatever—is—necessary—now. 

Marian and I were among the last to leave the albergue on Wednesday morning, and we took an extra ten minutes at a wifi cafe to check e-mail. So when we stepped out onto the cobbles at 8 a.m., we expected to be walking alone out of town. We took half a dozen steps, then heard a familiar voice shouting “Bull!” It was Sam, female half of Simon and Sam, our happy hobbit friends from the north of England. By the time I turned back, Sam was running toward us with exaggerated slow-motion movie steps, and Marian was returning the favor in her direction.

This was getting weird. In our previous nine days on the Camino, we had run into the couple no fewer than half a dozen times and never by design, at least not human design. They had spent the previous night in the town just behind us and had set out toward Santo Domingo as if intending to catch us straggling, though they had no idea of our whereabouts. “We thought we´d never see you again,” Sam said. “Ï was feeling so down, and then I saw you!”

Now that they had seen us, it was clear that they didn´t want to lose us. Simon said that he and Sam wanted to walk into Santiago with Marian and me. He asked us to consider following the itinerary they had already mapped out for the next three or four days, as we passed over some sharp peaks, through the city of Burgos, and out onto the Spanish plains.

We passed a sign saying Santiago de Compostela, 576 km. Sam jumped for joy at our progress: over 200 kilometers covered so far. “I´m doin´this,” she crowed. “It´s goin´ down!” By this time, Alann had fallen in alongside us. A native of Saskatchewan, this friendly, quiet woman in her 40s had lived most recently in Vancouver, a city she found unfriendly.

Alann and I spoke of our religious beliefs and experiences. Her father was a Catholic, her mother a Pentecostal, and the result in her own heart was religious confusion. But she spoke of a remarkable experience when, as a young woman, she visited the Old City of Jerusalem. There she walked the Way of the Cross and suddenly found herself placing her hand on an image of Jesus falling, where she said many thousands of Christians had placed their hands before her. “I don’t believe in organized religion,” she said, “but at that moment I felt a strong sense of participating in something. It wasn't me and them. It was us.”

This is the magic of the Camino or any pilgrimage: not I alone, but we, us, a communion of saints and sinners.

The Famous Five

Thursday morning, Marian and I trekked out of Viloria de la Rioja with Simon, Sam, and Alann. We had begun calling ourselves the Famous Five. Simon had declared that he had the Camino “sussed” (figured out), by which he meant that he knew the right way to structure each day's itinerary. For the time being he had convinced me that walking together in a fixed group and following his lead was the way to travel. In this, I think I was susceptible to the model set by Martin Sheen and his three traveling companions in “The Way.” In the movie, that quartet remains a quartet all the way to the cathedral in Santiago.

We followed Simon, and we followed our own shadows. From the Pyrenees the Camino Francés heads steadily west. So when you head out each morning the sun is behind you; and if the sun is shining, you spend the morning following your shadow. As the sun moves across the southern sky to your left, your shadow orbits around, watching you from the right and then from behind you later in the afternoon.

Thursday night we stayed in Villafranca Montes de Oca at an albergue behind the Church of San Anton Abad (pictured above), an Egyptian hermit and the patron saint of domestic animals. The village was a little Spanish paradise with diesel trucks roaring through, said to be favored by both pilgrims and truckers.

On Friday, our shadows led us across three hills, then down into the town of San Juan de Ortega. Pilgrims of the 11th and 12th centuries were welcomed by this saint and his friend, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, namesake of the town where we had spent Tuesday night. San Juan de Ortega is interred in the church named for him at the head of the square. Over his rude stone sepulcher is a striking retablo of the Last Judgment. It shows four levels of souls from bottom to top: those in hell, covering their heads and faces with their hands; those in Purgatory, raising their arms in supplication; the Virgin and Child, flanked on each side by six Apostles; and over all, Jesus Christ. The former monastery in San Juan de Ortega serves as a pilgrim refuge.

We continued six kilometers past San Juan de Ortega to the tiny town of Agés (pop. 60) and checked into our albergue by 1:00 p.m. By 2:30 p.m., after showers, laundry, and lunch, Marian and I were sitting at a plastic dinner table under a canopy, playing Triominoes with Simon, Sam, and Alann. Down time at last! Our little family had a congenial time together. “This is right proper relaxing,” Sam said with her strong north-of-England accent. A mother and grandmother, she got up at one point to gather and fold our laundry that was hanging on the line beside us. When she finished, she said, “Well, that's me motherly duties done for the day!” I got out my iPad and we began listening to some of my collected tunes, shuffling from Mark Knopfler to Patty Griffin to U2 to northern England's own Kate Rusby.

Pretty soon, a competing party started up in the café 50 meters away. Until now, the Camino had not shown much of a party scene, or youth scene, but by 4 pm on Friday afternoon afternoon, a serious international frat party was underway, complete with a howling guitarist singing French and English songs badly and much drink being consumed. The music got so loud that Marian asked me to turn off the iPad, and by 5:30 we had to retreat inside the albergue, chased off the street by the noise. At 9:30 p.m., as we all settled down hoping for sleep, the party continued outside the windows. I had to keep reminding myself that this too was the Camino de Santiago.

It is tempting to think of the Camino as a nature walk—and to resent it when you have to walk through a city. Likewise, it is easy to feel entitled to peace and contemplative quiet—and to find any partying offensive. It was offensive, of course. But that didn’t make it any less a part of the Camino de Santiago. It was good for me to remember that for one thousand years pilgrims had been walking to Santiago de Compostela through the towns and buildings and people of their particular cultural moment. These cities, these frat boys were part of my Camino. I had to understand this or be caught up in my own useless reactions and silly sense of entitlement.

Into the City

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 being Saturday, most places were closed, which only deepened the sense that the Spanish economy was somewhere between wounded and post-mortem. 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.

But there were 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, referring to my late father, under a bright sun cooled by the previous 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 have loved 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 versus 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 may have to imagine. I could not explain the sudden tangents in these father-daughter conversations. We moved effortlessly from the cosmic to the cinematic, 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 later that afternoon said that in fact it was written and performed by Rupert Holmes.

Saturday at 6 p.m., I sat leaning against a fountain outside the western entrance of Burgos Cathedral as the sun fell. I had begun drawing one of the doors of the cathedral in my journal (left) 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 saw a classic limo behind the fountain with streamers on it, I figured there might be a wedding going on.

We 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 15 meters to my left. That was just a mild prelude to what proved a wild night in Burgos.

Marian, Alann, and I went to 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. As mass began, a heavenly children's choir struck up with notes clearly unrelated to the liturgy but 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.

After mass we found out what it was. 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 beneath 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 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 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,” 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. Even at this distance, we could hear through the open window the sounds of distant reveling. All. Night. Long.

(Continue reading Chapter 5 here.)

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