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Archive for July, 2010

Here is where we’ve been, minus the three concluding days in Spain.

This blog is now put to bed. Some time in the next couple of years it will be continued, as I trace my steps from Pamplona to Compostela.

Please feel free to make any comments on any of the posts, regardless of date. I’ll be checking regularly.

From back-home in Dondingalong, thanks for popping in and….

ULTREIA.

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What remained of my trip was an evening in Paris.

The Place des Vosges area is where I like to hang in that city. It’s compact, unreconstructed, lively. I’m not meant for the big, wide end of Paris, which always seems to be triumphing over something or other.

Here in the Marais I find a park and a shop I love, and an intimate Jewish Quarter that’s a nice mix of grunge and posh. Maybe I’m too “Sydney”.

From the Marais I walked, via the Bastille, back toward the Gare de Lyon where I was staying.

There it was, above the traffic of the Rue de Rivoli. The newly restored tower of Messire Jacques. I’d touched it many weeks before, on leaving for Le Puy.

The Tower of Saint James has lost its church, and has been lucky to survive. Yet it was once the head of the Way of Tours.

And now, with the revival of the Camino, some pilgrims start walking from that tower, and go all the way to Compostela.

***

I have trouble believing that James existed. I have trouble believing in most things. But I’ve worked out that Saint James, real or not, represents something. That something is, by all appearances, contradictory and unworkable. Christopher Hitchens has wittily described it as deriving from “the boring village quarrels and Bronze Age fables that were drawn from what remains the world’s most benighted region”.

Yet this nonsense has been the generator of a civilisation that is marked, above all, by a flexibility and dynamism that seem taken from nature itself.

By contrast, the very sensible philosophy of atheism is so sclerotic and impotent a thing that it can produce nothing but short-lived slave states, busily but oafishly controlled by a grotesque alliance of theorising lout and murderous intellectual.

So I’ll be a pure skeptic and doubt skepticism. On the grounds of poor results, I’ll reason there must be limits to reason.

Rather than expound further on whether that thing represented by James – namely, Western Christendom – was worth all the effort, I’ll offer an observation.

By his feast day this year, it’s likely more pilgrims will have made their way to Compostela than at any time since the middle ages. Most pilgrims are disciplined types, open, with a wide experience of life.

So quite a few sound-minded people think that James is worth the long trudge; and that what we call the Western Experience must not only be recalled by pilgrimage, but reaffirmed by pilgrimage. That belief, even if half-conscious, draws them along the Camino, far more than the hope of an indulgence or a finisher’s stamp in their credencial. Perhaps these people are products of a century which got to look harder at the alternatives to that Western Christendom.

Finally, I think things are pretty for a reason.

***

Spending time in Sydney before heading back to the bush, I passed a certain church built by an emancipated convict in the early 1800’s. The convicted forger was supported by a dynamic if nutty governor, amid disapproval and adversity. The church was clearly meant to represent something. In connection to that building, which is a very beautiful one, I once wrote in another place:

After the debacle of William Bligh and the Rum Rebellion, a Scot would take charge: a turbulent but humane fusspot. He too would exhaust and impoverish and even disgrace himself  in the struggle to establish that “harsh meritocracy” of the many. He would go far beyond the aspirations of his predecessors, and even the wishes of the Crown.

Opportunity, emancipation, and a durable, even beautiful, infrastructure: his aim was a rough kind of nationhood, achieved within one wrenching decade. And, in a rough way, which was the only possible way, he succeeded.

Can you see where I’m going with this? Australia was once faced with a choice: to become a plantation for investors, or a nation for all its inhabitants. Under Lachlan Macquarie, it took the second way.

Governor Macquarie was a cranky idealist, yet with the shaping energy to force the most unlikely results. He was even a kind of martyr. Sound like someone we know?

The name of that church is Saint James.  It´s an Anglican church, but I suggest it would be an excellent place to erect a sign with a stylised scallop shell in blue and gold, an emblem very familiar to pilgrims. And right there could be the head of the Way of Saint James, a point from which Oz pilgrims could walk toward Sydney airport…and, ultimately, toward Santiago de Compostela.

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I like walking, dislike travel. The exception is that heady moment of departing from Sydney airport, family around me. In general, though, people who can city-hop, cover lots of bases when travelling, have my admiration but not my company.

Visiting a place as interesting as Bordeaux, I would normally stay for a week or more, without concern for places left unvisited. It’s the pressure to get on to the “other place” that makes conventional tourism difficult for me, not the popular facilities, guided tours or souvenir stalls, which are simply handy services I can take or leave.

To those who like to cover all the bases when travelling: don’t change!…

But leave me to dawdle. So, I was only a day and a bit in Bordeaux – not nearly enough – mainly to break the long train journey to Paris.

***

If there’s an example of successful urban planning, it must be 18th century Bordeaux. It’s spacious without being draughty, formal without pomposity. It’s also a flat city that knows how to be flat. “Human scale” may be a cliche, but what else describes the counter-balance that gives this solid, ceremonious town its chirp? Of course, Bordeaux was rich from selling wines to England, and even from being English, long before its lavish makeover in the 1700’s. All that claret bought a lot of stone. Some people love central planning on principle. I love it when it works, and in Bordeaux it works. Sainte-Catherine Street (shown higher above) is the longest pedestrian shopping strip in Europe. To be there on a Saturday afternoon is to inhale the pure spirit of bordelais commerce that is as old as the city’s first stone.

Since 2003, a tram network, though buggy and experimental, has nonetheless finished by enhancing the civil feel of the centre.

***

And while enjoying Bordeaux, my mind off the Camino, I passed under the Big Belfry, survivor of an earlier era, with later embellishments. And there it was. The marker.

I was standing right on the Via Turonensis, the Way of Tours. This was Messire Jacques’ gate!

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The way home.

I’d decided on a bus to San Sebastian and some time by the sea before joining the train at nearby Hendaye, just over the French border.

The view from my bus: a real sierra, a saw-toothed range such as I hadn’t seen to this point.

The vivid aquamarine was also a first on the Camino. I’m leaving the Camino, you say? We’ll see.

San Sebastian is an elegant 19th century city, with its neo-Gothic cathedral, Haussmann layout, well proportioned apartment buildings, and ornate ocean promenade.

In the old town, some delicious barroco.

And the main thing, though surfless.

A Sydney boy can’t do much with a beach like that except cool off. I decided on some long strolls, and one of them took me to the elevated west end of the Concha, along the superb sea wall…

…to the frozen-wave rock formation at the point, more arresting than the nearby “sea-comb” sculptures…

…then high up over the ocean.

I saw it, so unmistakable.

A familiar figure was shuffling up the hill before me. A slight, older lady took off her backpack and rested by the road, so I was able to draw level with her and ask the usual questions. I tried Spanish: it’s wise to use the language of the country, rather than English, which some people find presumptuous.

The lady was German, and, yes, she was heading to Compostela!

This was the Camino del Norte, the coastal route from Irún. After a typical pilgrims’ conversation, she headed off west, and I made my way back down the hill to the city. On the way I encountered a group of German pilgrims, older men, barking gutturally at one another, looking for their gîte for the evening. Why was I so eager to help them find it? Why did I feel so engaged with these people?

Ah, Messire Jacques!

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I was a civilian.

The Hotel Eslava, where I rested for some nights, was near to the Camino’s continuation out of Pamplona. Several times I gestured to pilgrims passing through, said things like ultreia!, bon chemin!, buen camino!. Some of them seemed to understand I was also a pilgrim…or had been. Damn.

It’s July as I write this, and yet another Australian has been badly injured in the corrida and been brought home for hospitalisation. Nonetheless, Pamplona must be a wonderful city for the young. I saw groups of youthful Americans arriving and knew they’d enjoy such a civil yet lively town. Lots of buzz and just enough grunge.

I experienced something like severe jet lag when I stopped walking. Does anyone else get that? Was it the altitude variations, the nine hundred kilometres advanced mainly from east to west? It proved to be limiting.

A personal rule about galleries and museums: no more than two hours every two days. Nothing makes me more hostile to culture than relentless cultural tramping, especially in these days of the hellish school group. Yet the jetless jet lag was so severe I neglected to visit any cultural centres – a disappointing oversight.

The externals of Pamplona made for very rewarding strolls. There’s an easy mix of styles, the colour is unabashed…and I love the way the tight Spanish architecture bursts open into crazy flourishes.

Of course, there’s the bullfighting thing. And Ernest Hemingway, who has his statue and his name about the place.

Let me digress a bit.

I remember an aboriginal soccer player, one who deeply resented Australia, speaking of his dismay when he saw an entire European mob chase a single referee. For all his resentment of us, he confessed that Australians would never form such a mob.

Am I explaining myself well? I like my sporting violence one-on-one, and prefer my bulls slaughtered as humanely and surreptitiously as possible…before they’re put on a plate.

So no bullfighting stuff. No Lorca, no blood on the sand, no poetry of death etc.

As for Hemingway, I just can’t get into him. That spare style and those staccato sentences are more distracting and fatiguing than the excesses they so deliberately avoid. It’s an excess of simplicity. The Hemingway themes – male potency, cathartic risk and violence etc – are a bore. In reading, I can’t excise the chest thumper, wife beater and Chivas Regal socialist from the text. (My love of America and things American is intense, but it’s the frankly popular which I admire: Sam Goldwyn and Richard Rodgers are towering cultural figures to me. Seriously.)

***

Pamplona began before Christ as a defensive settlement for Pompey the Great. It’s always been a resister, a fighter. Some say that as capital of Navarre it was the primary channel of European influence into the Iberian peninsular. Would the Camino exist without it?

Don’t know. I gave thanks, just in case.

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It looks different to the French side. Is it a gun-metal colouring in the hills, or the sleeked-down shape of those hills? The different way the snow finds the creases on this side of the Pyrenees?

It’s still Basque country, still Navarre. Yet, with that suddenness with which the language changes, everything changes.

Spain looks other.

The structures look different. Roofs are clipped, oblique like the hills behind them.

An almost featureless church thrusts up with pert, martial air.

I know only very little of where I’m treading. The area finally called the Kingdom of Navarre was meant by the Franks to serve as a buffer between themselves and Islam. Charlemagne wrecked its main stronghold, Pamplona, to stop anyone getting too strong. Interestingly, the local Basques soon rebelled against Frankish rule and for some time the new kingdom was called Pamplona.

More than a buffer, Navarre became something of a Christian power. Later came the partitioning and merging with France and Aragon and so so on into confusion. Juan Carlos gets to call himself King of Navarre when listing his titles, and someone in France probably claims the title as some kind of Bourbon descendant. (Good luck with that.)

But it’s not too romantic to talk of a proud Basque kingdom that defied both Franks and Moors. And that’s where I’m treading.

***

I’m easily pleased. The approach to Pamplona was described to me as dull. It’s not. An ancient bridge, a series of spillways…

Even stopping at my first Spanish cafe before heading to Pamplona proper was an experience. There’s the shock of fumes indoors. I’ve never smoked, so I tend not to be puritanical about it, or to remonstrate when others partake. But a tiny heated bar full of smoke is a shock after years of smoke-free eating across the world.

Best were the tapas, or pintxos as they are called in the Basque country. Eating is easy, cheap and informal in Spanish bars  – quite a change from France – though the quality of these counter snacks can vary. The combination of smoke and mayonnaise was too much for one of my companions, but the amount of coffee and food purchased for a few euros is bound to impress the constantly famished pilgrim.

Also encouraging are the little slot machine internet points, cheap and common across Spain. (One reflects on that fine wall of cultural resistance which, for better or worse, always has to be negotiated in France. The internet is a bit too Anglo: we know it, they know it.)

So it’s on to Pamplona proper, across a large area of parkland which, as I would learn later, is abundant and proudly maintained all around the city.

Pamplona has serious fortifications, built in the era of artillery. No-one would find these walls an easy take.

The pilgrims pass on into the ancient and largely traffic-free city, modern trekking poles clattering on ancient cobbles. Knowing nothing of Spain from experience, I was expecting some local squalor with my local flavour. There is no squalor, just plenty of flavour.

Pamplona is a handsome and well-kept city, both in its ancient centre and its wider boulevards beyond. It’s almost posh.

We dined that evening in a bar area thronged, mostly with locals, till all hours. Even in the cool season before the corrida and tourist peak, Pamplona buzzes at night.

Confectionery shops are a feature of Pamplona. They were numerous, and full of people of all ages spooning loose lollies into bags for weighing. My Irish companions were like sharks attacking the flesh and blubber of an injured whale. I had to turn away!

***

This would be my last evening with these delightful travelling companions, who were walking on for another day before concluding their brief holiday elsewhere. God speed, Celtic-minority-language-chicks.

My Camino was suspended at Pamplona, to be resumed at Pamplona some time in the next year or two, in a cooler and quieter season.

When you are tired, and know that tomorrow is a definite rest day in a well serviced town, there are no negatives. It’s only when you realise, on that last rest day, that you are no longer an active pilgrim on the Way of Saint James that things feel strange. Strained, even.

Yet there are still some entries to be made before I close off this blog for the year. While the best was behind me – the Voie du Puy! – Saint James still gave the odd nudge, the odd surprise.

I won’t diverge too much into personal reflection and travelogue. It’s about the Camino. For anyone who has found this blog of some interest, you may want to read on a little more.

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Walking off into Spain in fine weather, belly awash with cafe con leche, I was exhilarated.

Arroyos!

Montañas!

Pueblos!

Just the words! But now I’d been pulled down a level. All through France I was able to talk with anyone. Spanish, however, is a language I’ve read often but seldom spoken. I could only speak haltingly, and hear with difficulty.

***

Navarre had its ruler called “the Great”. Why mention Sancho the Great? Well, he was the 11th century king who used his Spanish conquests and influence over Gascony and Cluny to lead a good pilgrim road all the way from Gascony through to León. For pilgrims. Nosotros!

The Sancho tradition of deluxe pilgrim trails is being revived in modern Spain.

And you need some pious prompting on any good pilgrim trail.

Day’s end was at Zubiri, which has a famous medieval bridge good for curing rabies.

The Irish girls, after enduring the snoring symphony at Roncesvalles, were ready to try a pensión where they could have a room to themselves. Here I must give special praise to some of the finest pilgrim accommodation on the whole Camino: the Pensión Usoa, at the bridge at Zubiri. Superb accommodation for the price, and a hostess who must have been a descendant of Sancho the Great.

And all rabies-free!

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