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Archive for the ‘R. TOWARD SANTIAGO’ Category

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.

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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.

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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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Santiago not far, spring advancing: most pilgrims would be pressing forward in excitement, lengthening the stride, extending the walk-time. You know what that lot are like.

Your dawdler had other things in mind. This was the first monument visited in the interesting historic centre of Melide.

One of Spain’s most renowned pulperías, or octopus restaurants, is far from the coast, and right here on Melide’s main drag.

One can eat other things, but pulpo gallego is the big item: freshly boiled octopus plucked from its steaming vat and scissored into bite sizes. The normal flavourings are olive oil, salt and pimentón, and it is common to be offered hot pimentón as an alternative to the normally sweet-and-smoky stuff.

Not expensive or fancy, and almost a must for the pilgrim or tourist.

Do not attempt to lick or bite your computer screen. It is an electrical device.

***

Rain was drifting in, the cold had returned. When I found a very modest hotel where the staff seemed intent on my comfort, I surrendered and took a rest day. The Hotel Xaneiro‘s proprietor is not just willing but keen to speak English, so keep these excellent folk in mind.

One can only eat so many cephalopods. There was time for cultural rambles, and Melide, traffic-ridden but cheerful, has a shabby charm. It lost its citadel completely in those class struggles known as “Brotherhood Wars”, when the Catholic Monarchs decided that nobody could have a citadel, since they wouldn’t share. Yet the Romanesque and other old styles and traditions find representation here, where modern expressways now meet.

***

I don’t bother with the novels or ideas of D. H. Lawrence. However, I have often read and remembered his verse, of which there is a great deal, though mostly forgotten.

In one spare and effective piece, he writes of an encounter with a snake near water. After watching the animal with fascination, he ends up throwing something at it to make it go away. One of the concluding lines of the poem is, as I remember: “And so I missed my chance with one of the Lords of Life.”

The Camino makes you more alert to certain things.

I was sitting at the internet table in the hotel, when none other than that angry and unhappy German mentioned previously came and sat behind me. He had his bumptious way of letting me know I was keeping him waiting for the computer. Yet I sensed he was letting me know something else: that he needed some contact or company, and it would only need to be brief.

In no mood for awkward greetings, let alone a rant about the superiority of Peruvian poverty to Western superfluity, I simply vacated the chair when finished and moved away without a glance. It sticks in my mind that I neglected something. Swayed by my own opinions and the man’s unpopularity, I had descended. It was just a slight descent, just a moment’s lack of urbanity.

And so I missed my chance with one of the Lords of Life.

***

If dawdling is a rough sort of craft, idling is one of the lower arts. But don’t over-praise it.

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.

So said Stevenson in his famous essay, An Apology for Idlers. He was really too kind to me, a genuine mucker-about, and too harsh on himself, an industrious author who struggled mightily against ill health. But I’ll take the compliment!

No, it is far too flattering. And when Stevenson goes on to characterise busy and acquisitive folk, he makes little allowance for the contradictions of human character: for that tycoon with an off-switch who can insulate his recreations from his work and find needed refreshment, as opposed that idler who frets and fiddles neurotically.

I speak as a realist of idling, one who views it from the inside. It is no superior train of life, merely an accidental condition best mitigated and exploited, rather than denied. Those who can concentrate for an hour on an academic lecture, those who can keep to a thirty-plus schedule on the Camino…they are the types who make my world function. Let them be a majority! What can I give in return? I can’t become a faint imitation of a focused and effective striver. All I can do is half-fulfill the few requirements which justify idling: good cheer, curiosity, and what Stevenson describes here:

His way takes him along a by-road, not much frequented, but very even and pleasant, which is called Commonplace Lane, and leads to the Belvedere of Commonsense. Thence he shall command an agreeable, if not very noble prospect; and while others behold the East and West, the Devil and the Sunrise, he will be contentedly aware of a sort of morning hour upon all sublunary things, with an army of shadows running speedily and in many different directions into the great daylight of Eternity. The shadows and the generations, the shrill doctors and the plangent wars, go by into ultimate silence and emptiness; but underneath all this, a man may see, out of the Belvedere windows, much green and peaceful landscape; many firelit parlours; good people laughing, drinking, and making love as they did before the Flood or the French Revolution; and the old shepherd telling his tale under the hawthorn.

Oh, I know the tone is Victorian and the sense a bit muddled. Yet RLS has got us right. An idler may be a pessimist, but, really, he can’t afford it. In adopting complaint as a posture or philosophy, the idler abandons the only currency the world will readily accept from him.

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Best to combine two days in one post, since weather and other distractions limited photography.

In Portomarin, there was a mass pilgrim dinner in a bar overlooking the Miño. Here I made several new acquaintances, including a New York priest called Bob, and a whip-cracking group organiser, an asturiano whom I later titled El Cid Roncador, based on his penchants for leadership and for snoring. (A roncador is a snorer.) I resisted his demands that I book into an albergue with the group, and instead stayed in a pensión. This meant I got a good sleep, but also missed an interesting clash between my Cid and the splenetic German gentleman met at lunch. More on that later.

Walking with an experienced mason, Yarrow the Canuck, on the previous day, I had become still more attentive to the raw stone at our feet and the finished stonework of this part of the Camino.

So important were Galicia’s stonemasons, that they developed their own variant of the Galician language, fala dos arxinas. Knowledge of stone was to be passed on in its own argot: one way that pride and professionalism could be preserved in what must be the most strenuous of occupations. Galician short-cutters don’t become Galician stone-cutters.

***

Here plush green fields alternate with spring forest, where a world-wide pattern is repeated: yellow pea-flowers, legumes preceding the year’s growth.

The day was taken up with the problems of two Korean ladies, who had come on Camino less than prepared. I missed a number of photo-ops, including a renowned stone cross at Ligonde. Mind you, I’m not big on crosses.

I found my friends from the previous day at a village short of Palas de Rei, and once again we had a joint dinner. Here I was able to order a cocido gallego. Every region boasts its own version of boiled dinner, and the most minor variation is grounds for discussion. In truth, by the time the ingredients have lain in the crush of a huge pot throughout the day, the broth is more interesting than the solids. I do prefer a carefully home-made cocido, and the French custom of serving sharp, cold sauce such as a ravigote with boiled meats makes the whole exercise more interesting.

Nonetheless, a fine dinner. El Cid Roncador was sad that I had once again escaped his authority and his snoring by booking an individual room. Here I was told of the previous night’s experience at the municipal albergue in Portomarin. The forceful German gentleman had decided that the windows should be flung open on what was a glacial night above the river. El Cid Roncador invited him to take even fresher air…en la puta calle! “On the street” is a polite translation. The windows were closed. You don’t mess with Mio Cid.

As I passed through the historic town of Palas de Rei, named for a Visigothic ruler who hung out there, I missed everything due to weather. Yet the day would have its compensations, such as this plump little Romanesque chapel.

A haunted looking forest was still in winter mode.

These are primulas, right? They don’t do it wild in Oz.

Saint Mary’s Church in Leboreiro is so plain, yet it draws so many eyes, mine included.

The story about the cute Madonna sculpture over the portal goes like this. The statue of the Virgin inside the church would not stay in place but continually popped up outside. The only way they could solve the problem was to sculpt another Madonna on the outside. It worked. To this day, however, it’s not known if the statue on the inside stays there because it is happy with the duplication, or because it resents the competition.

Now, to round off the day, a pilgrim bridge.

The weather would stay foul, but in the town ahead there are eight-legged compensations. That’s right, eight!

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