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…to Santiago de Compostela and the ocean at Finisterre, North Western Spain.

The first entry, for those who wish to follow chronologically:

STARTING IN LE  PUY-EN-VELAY…

***

(For a different read, my short fiction blog is here. Among stories relating to the Way of Saint James are The Cock and Hen, Devil’s Bridge, Truffles and Demons, and The Thief of Saint Faith. I am also writing an historical novel as a serial. It starts near the Way in the Auvergne and may finish – if it ever finishes – on the Way further west. In between, the main character will be visiting all sorts of places, including Rome and the East.)

 

By the Atlantic Ocean, well into spring.

From the town of Fisterra, there’s one more tiny stage to complete: a walk to the lighthouse at the tip of the cape.

Here it is. It’s a lighthouse, but with tourist and dining facilities. One can’t walk further than this.

Last marker.

Last cross.

On the way back to town, an exquisite turquoise cove, Nearby, a last Romanesque church, Our Lady of the Sands, twelfth century.

***

Last evening as a pilgrim. Well, for now.

I’d clambered down to the town beach and found a suitable little shell, more a clam than a scallop, but ridged the right way.

Dinner was a plate of gambas, in one of the numerous fish eateries.

After dinner, a stroll.

A tiny girl skips down a flight of steps, surprises me.

¡Hola!

I’m not señor. After France, the lack of formal address is still odd. Still, when You’re from Oz, you can hardly object.

¡Hola, guapa!

Further along, a little boy is sitting on the step of his house. He looks up at me with that macho composure so essential to Spanish males.

¡Hola!

¡Hola! A flat answer from me, respecting his shot at male brusqueness.

He seems happy with his tone and mine.

¿Qué tal?

I tell him I’m good, ask if he has a tip for the upcoming Madrid-Barcelona clash. And does he like Messi or Ronaldo? (I know the answer: Spanish boys want to play like Messi but they want to be Ronaldo.)

I pass on.

The frequent bars and eateries are pretty full, even at this quiet time of year. Full of brusque Spanish men, of Spanish women with a surface of tart-and-tomboy in this male tilted society, and more of those forward, rompy Spanish kids.

And I know I’m soon going to miss something.

I’ve grown accustomed to my hosts, and their ways. Maybe the scarcity of pilgrim company had a purpose. Something I haven’t come looking for has come looking for me.

While I was intent, in my dawdlish way, on a long, quasi-international line called the Camino de Santiago, the love of Spain and of its people has caught me from the side. Caught me good.

TO CAPE FINISTERRE

The track to Cape Finisterre is the only pilgrimage route away from Santiago de Compostela. The body of Saint James is said to have arrived there by boat, and his original tomb is said to have been at Finisterre. Like everything associated with Saint James, I’d have trouble proving it.

For many, the ocean is the true end of the Way. Of course, they’d have trouble proving it.

It’s a bit like “true” pilgrims. How does one establish that? On the way to Negreira, on my first day of the walk to the coast, I met an older German gentleman going the other way. He had started like many pilgrims of earlier times and simply walked out of his front door – in Germany! Now he was walking back to his front door –  in Germany!

He said that he did not feel this made him in any way authentic: he was merely curious to reproduce that medieval experience. Further, he was not sure that what he was doing was Christian, being one of those who believed that the Way may well be a prehistoric Celtic tradition.

He had been asking people he met what was the true reason for the Way of Saint James, and was dissatisfied with all the answers. It was my turn to disappoint. After very little thought – I’d rather chatter than ponder – I suggested it would help if he were more Celtic and diffuse in his thinking, so the true reason would matter less, or change its signification. (The appeal to cliché Celtism was silly, but I do feel some Germans wrestle too much and too clumsily with abstraction. Their language makes it that much more strenuous.)

Of course, my babbled response was useless, a void-filler. I was simply recommending that he should be more like me, a shirker of left-brain exertion who thinks in Technicolor and talks in shorthand. If he ceased to be a puzzler, he would have no puzzle. How was that going to help?

There is no greater sincerity than that of the German, when his sincerity is unfeigned and unforced. I was only with this gentleman for a few minutes, but I’m fond of him forever. I like to think we were attracted opposites. He was trudging up a steep hill the last time I glimpsed him, something he wouldn’t mind in the least.

***

The track to Finisterre is through hills, then into some well-watered farm country, with an ascent to some higher ground again before the ocean comes into view. I feel like exhibiting this region without comment, not because it’s uninteresting – it’s choice – but because this phase was a wind-down for me. So let the blog wind down too.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

All the talk of early Christians floating the body of Saint James into the Atlantic, then round the coast to Galicia…

All the stories about Charlemagne coming west to the tomb of the saint somewhere near Fisterra…

The belief that Compostela means Field of Stars…

Replace it all with some different stories. Will it matter?

Speculate, if you will, about Santiago’s pre-Roman significance. People say Celts were making pilgrimages to or through here before the birth of Christ. The word Compostela most likely means “well constructed”, a reference to its new fortifications after Al Mansur wrecked the town in the eleventh century. Yet it may also mean “burial place” and the notion might be traced back to Celtic burials, rather than James. If you want more, there’s the chance that the name refers to ancient mines.

Even if you like “Field of Stars”, the stars might be those of the Milky Way which guided Charlemagne to the west; but they might be the guiding star(s) that appeared to a shepherd in 813 AD, who told his bishop, who then found the bones of Saint James in Compostela, not on the coast – which rather takes Charlemagne out of the picture. (This is Spain, and Santiago doesn’t want to share its saint with a fishing town fifty miles away.)

Really, just take your pick of stories and etymologies.

I came here, like so many others, for reasons I know, and reasons I don’t know. And here it is: the very end.

A bleak day makes it look cheerless. In fact, it’s a wonderful plaza. The eighteenth century facade of the church is an ecstatic baroque riot. Some tack-ons don’t work, this one does.

I’d been told by geobiologists, way back along the track, that Santiago de Compostela is a church without energies since it lost its “Jordan”. Certainly, I didn’t feel much on entering. I was tired and the day was very dull, so I quite ignored the Portal of Glory on the way in, a bad oversight. I did note some other lovely details.

A lap of the saint’s tomb. Hope he was there.

The pilgrim’s mass. They didn’t swing the big thurible, the Botafumeiro, for some reason. Quiet time of year, perhaps. Much of the service was in Italian, because there were many Italians that day.

And the sermon was, I’m guessing, a standard one. Yet that sermon may well have given at least a clue to the survival and dramatic expansion of a certain obscure Jewish cult. The priest said nothing too ecumenical or sugared, but kept the message upbeat. He said that forgiveness was the most potent general remedy for the bulk of man’s afflictions, and forgiveness was more important than any of the bling or piles of stone that are meant to help convey the message.

Can’t argue. As a person given to sarcasm and sharpish resentments, I found that my forgiveness levels went a little higher after the mass, which did indeed seem to apply a general balm to every level, even the physical.

Can’t argue with any of that, and it may well alone have justified the thousand miles. Forgiveness. Can things be that simple? I’ll be buggered.

***

A pilgrim in Santiago is commonplace at any time of year. You are business. Even the gypsies seemed off-handed. They replaced one another in prime positions without bothering to change the hand-scrawled signs; they ate, chatted amongst themselves and even smoked. Santiago had made them a little slack.

I had my pilgrim passport stamped one last time and received my certificate of completion. Even in the quiet season, the pilgrim office is busy, and they have a lot of  persons and personalities to handle, some difficult. What is exhilaration for us is work for them. I was careful to congratulate the other finishers, to lift the mood. We pilgrims have the time for that at the end, the office people may not.

***

If you’ve read earlier posts, you’ll know I’m fond of Spain’s regional centres. Quite apart from its status as a focus of pilgrimage, Santiago is capital of Galicia, though other cities of the region are larger. The casco historico, or old town, is lovely in parts, with a buzzy bar and restaurant strip around Rua do Franco.

Come for a stroll.

***

People hostile to pilgrimage have good grounds for their disapproval. They must not think, however, that their views are modern. All sorts of people have opposed and even stifled the Way of Saint James. French revolutionaries, political heavies like the Sun King and Napoleon Bonaparte. Sophisticates in general, across the ages. And Al Mansur, obviously.

For a while, the Way was favoured by powerful people and institutions: Charlemagne’s heirs; popes and episcopal figures; counts and monarchs of  Navarre, Castile, Asturias, León, and Aragon; the great monastic powers, especially Cluny; Templars and Hospitallers, needless to say.

One likes to feel worldly and knowing when talking of political reality, convenience and contrivance. With the way to Jerusalem blocked by Muslims, and Roman pilgrimage less desirable at times, the appearance of the bones of Saint James was better than miraculous. It was good politics that became good business. But does that explain the urge of millions to follow the line of the Milky Way? We can be too shrewd.

The Way is now so solidly back in fashion. It’s taken a thousand years for warm weather and political stability to coincide and make it easier. Nonetheless, it’s surprising that we do it now, in our hundreds of thousands.

This blog is not concluded, because, after some muddling, I ended up walking from Santiago to Fisterra, which, for some people, is the true end of the Way. But because I’ve arrived at what for others is the true end, I’ll make a concluding comment here.

I don’t do Deep. But I’m going to have to sound a bit that way. Sorry.

There are a few minor reasons for walking the Camino, and one compelling reason.

I know the minor reasons, I don’t know the compelling reason.

***

Look! Sun’s out!

HOME, JAMES

The last two days were spent dodging bad weather. On top of this, I missed a turn at Pedrouzo and had to do one of those thirty-plus kilometre hikes so foreign to my character. My approach to Santiago de Compostela was an undramatic scurry.

Spanish agriculture isn’t usually this quaint.

Galicia doing its Australian mimicry gig…

A stiff climb to thin heathland, with the look of an Australian heath in spring: yellow peas flowering under scrawny gums and wattles.

This monument to the most famous of modern pilgrims is a jolting change from charming Romanesque chapels and stone crosses. But thanks for the job you did on the totalitarians, Pilgrim Karol. Taste isn’t everything.

At Santiago’s outskirts, my mind on edibles, as ever…

Should be feeding the spirit, but…you know me.

And now, after maybe a thousand miles, every inch walked…

Santiago de Compostela, in cold, cold rain. With a bagpipe tune and an urgent intake of chocolate with churros. That’s how I arrived.

The Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, wrote wistful verses in which people love hotly all the things they are losing or missing. He’s completely human, without philosophy or illusions: just a nostalgia too deep and too wild for pessimism.

His relevance to this subject of Camino expectations? It’s this: You don’t get what you want, but at least you get to want it.

And when, after I’d completed my Camino, I saw some famous verses of Cavafy, translated to Galician, displayed on the wall of a tourist office, they helped me get sorted. Here’s my own very loose rendering of that part of ’Ιθακη, or Ithaca. Maybe you’ll see why it was on the wall of that tourist office, and why it chimed with me after I’d completed the Camino.

***

 

Find Ithaca each day inside your mind:

Bare landfall at the end of all the ways,

Poor rock to which the final wave must roll.

 

But stretch the journey, find delays;

Let the innumerable days and seas unfold,

Let wandering years unwind…

 

Then come, life-crammed and old.

 

Only in age, cast anchor by your isle,

Heavy with riches gathered all that while,

Not seeking wealth, here where you pined to live -

 

Your journey all that stony Ithaca could ever give.

 

***

So, Cavafy.

Now gearboxes.

They can be manual or automatic. If I have a spiritual nature, it’s a manual spiritual nature. And my manual is an old fashioned one, very chunky and clunky. This means that I never reach a point where things work because of a contrivance or mechanism. I always have to make the changes, and expect to make the changes. No automatics.

Which means no searching for transformations or breakthroughs. Reaching Santiago was to be part of a long hike, undertaken for reasons known and unknown to me. Not only was I not expecting an exhilarating conclusion, with a big psychic door opening, I didn’t want it.

To arrive at Santiago exhilarated, even triumphant, may be right for some folk, particularly those who have trudged classically, in pain, uncertainty and hardship. I’d love to clap and cheer them as they enter the plaza before the cathedral. I’d love to soak up some of their overflow.

My way and my Way aren’t like that. Nor do I want to manufacture a mock-up pilgrim experience to parade for others. I’m happy to accept my tourist status and my dawdliness. I don’t want to be elevated, to feel suddenly and wholly in charge of my being. I can’t afford large emotions that cancel the past or pre-empt the future.

Today, as I wrote the translation above, a large tooth filling fell out. How I handle this little disaster is up to me, right now and today. What occurred on a spiritual plane when I walked from Le Puy to Santiago is up to someone else. Who knows…maybe James? But not me. My job is the filling, and just today. The struggle of practical action against paltriness, fretfulness and resentment converts a gap in a tooth to my grandest spiritual arena. Silly, but there you have it.

It may sound as if the remainder of my cold-weather Camino was a fizzer. Not so.

On the contrary! If you’ve enjoyed this account of my travels, please read on.

Some years back, I saw a magazine article showing Portuguese farmers demonstrating with placards. The protest was against the Australian gum tree, or eucalypt. Species of eucalypt have been planted all over the Portugal and Galicia, exploiting similarities of climate and soil between parts of Iberia and parts of Oz.

As a bush-dweller, I have no trouble understanding the protest. The eucalypt is a fast growing but long lived tree which is hungry, violent and monopolistic. A gum is dense, brittle, and uses its branch losses to smash or stab any competing plants underneath. It loves fire. There are millions of eucalypt trees in the vicinity of my home, and I need them. But I don’t let them get too close.

You grow up around these big, ragged monsters but find glamour elsewhere: pictures of autumn forests in New England, for example. Then you travel and miss them badly, miss them in your very blood. I found one growing in a park in Rome, and had to hug it. Most moving is the story of Sydney-bound soldiers returning by ship after WWII. Some could smell Australia before they could see it, as the odour of eucalyptus oil wafted out to sea.

In spite of protests, they are now one of the foundations of a Spanish timber industry, along with pines. And Galicia contains half of that industry. As one walks west from Melide, the scale of eucalypt planting is more and more apparent. What may surprise non-Australians is that these species are quite foreign to me, originating in another part of our vast continent. For us, a gum is not a gum.

Such drastic clear-felling of gums is not that common in Australia these days, even in plantations. In Galicia, I saw whole hills planted to eucalypts, near previously planted hills which had been shaved bare in one operation. Maybe they know what they’re doing.

***

Early spring turned foul for the walk to Arzúa, but there were charms:

Some other noteworthy features of the Arzúa area are the Roman bridge over the Iso, rejigged once or twice over its fifteen centuries…

…the Madalena Chapel, from the fourteenth century, always associated with pilgrims and their needs…

…and these structural oddities, where gum (or other) saplings combine with traditional Galician granite.

The town of Arzúa was shaking with road and path works when I was there. I don’t know if it was the continual noise and vibration or the fact that the town is the last bustling stop before the dash to Compostela…but the theme of Arzúa is impatience. Everyone I spoke to or dealt with was impatient. They were the opposite of those bercianos of a couple of weeks previous. I later asked other pilgrims if they had noted the mood of haste in Arzúa and some said they had.

In particular, I wanted to inquire more about the town’s most famous product, the Arzúa-Ulloa, or cow’s milk cheese. I was keen to sample some older specimens or different grades, but no-one was in the mood to sell me on anything. Even the cheese guy was impatient. The lump I bought was very undistinguished cow’s cheese, not greatly different to many a soapy Aussie cheddar with insufficient aging.

Yet, in some ways, Spanish cheese is the best of all. Spanish sheep cheeses may be just short of the glory of pecorino or roquefort, but they are often half the price. At one meseta supermarket reached just before closing time, I hastily bought some slices of cheddar-like stuff in plastic and a sachet of azul, or blue, cheese, both carrying the brand of a large Asturian dairy corporation. The slices, as expected, were typical of processed cheeses everywhere, and good for upholstering a slice of supermarket bread. The azul is remembered as one of the best cow’s milk blues I’ve tasted, creamy like Danablue, but with the intensity of Stilton.

Of course, it’s not just cheese.

It happens all the time in Spain: the bright flare emerging from dankness and disinterest. If you come to love the country – and I have – you learn to filter out the shabby and the humdrum. So many of Spain’s wonders are unconstrued. Passive reception won’t work: you search, you sift.

I met a Spaniard elsewhere in Galicia, a very travelled photographer whose opinion I came to trust, who said his nation’s commercial problems lay with its off-handedness and lack of presentation. It was Spain, not France, which had the world’s richest patrimony after that of Italy. But France was a perfectly wrapped parcel with florid ribbons. And France had a middle class.

As for Spain, it is the great nursery of artists and artisans…who too often deem themselves navvies. More than that, there seems to be a bit of Arzúa right through the Spanish character: a smudge of impatience which besmirches a very great brilliance.

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