The British Confraternity of St James recently took ownership of a parish house in this littlevillage and, with the help of generous donations from members, they have extended, furnished and equipped this new albergue to a very high standard. It stands stretegically to provide the walking pilgrims with another choice of albergue, on a stretch where there is little in the way of basic accommodation.
The reception at Miraz was warm and friendly, from volunteer hospitaleros who come out at their own expense to do a few weeks service on behalf of the pilgrims. On duty were Bob and Barbara, with Ted and Avril there to help with a lot of practical issues, including the assembly of furniture and repairs. Although we were welcomed in to stay, the albergue doesn’t officially open until June 7th, when the Bishop will come to give the house a formal blessing and inaugurate its future role as a pilgrim hostel.
Reaching the goal
The end of a long, arduous journey brings a mixture of conflicting emotions. Any pilgrim will understand this. There is adeep sense of relief that the journey is over, that you have attained your goal, but there is also a “what next….?” feeling that dogs your heels. I have only spent 18 days getting here, but many
walkers take several weeks, if not months to arrive. Although cycling/walking for several hours every day is exhausting, there is something blissfully simple about the process. You have only three basic needs: travelling, eating and sleeping. Life is shredded down to simple fundamentals for a few weeks, and when the journey is over, there is the almost immediate prospect that all those other things that keep us busy from morning till night will reappear in our lives, and we have to acknowledge our responsibilities (family, work, domestic duties etc….).
For me the journey is not quite over. After a day in Santiago, I plan to head out to Finisterra, believed to be the most westerly point of the peninsula and, in pre-Columbian days, it was the end of the world. In medieval times, those pilgrims who could make it (at least another 6-10 days
return) would go out to Finisterra, pick up a new scallop shell, burn the clothes they had travelled in, and bathe in the fresh waters of the Atlantic. Symbolic acts to herald the start of a new life as they headed back for home.
This was also the route taken by the Celts as they sought the land of the setting sun. So in the last stages of my journey, I will be picking up some of the pre-Christian pilgrim traditions and seeking the land of perfection that may lie beyond the horizon.
Santiago de Compostela
Pilgrimage is a major industry here. Groups travel from all over the world to visit the Cathedral and the shrine of St James. Peppered amongst all these groups you will spy the tired dusty walkers and sweating cyclists who will arrive like planes into Heathrow, except they are limping or struggling to pedal up the last steep hills. To cycle into the Plaza do
Obradoiro and stand in front of the great Cathedral is breathtaking. But to my surprise, the square was largely given over to a major protest by young people, protesting about the lack of job opportunities in the current economic crisis. Just like Parliament Square in London, the Plaza is a sea of tents, posters and food kitchens. I believe that in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, they have the protest so organised that they have set up nurseries for children, clinics and other essential services to keep the protest going in the long term.
The big spectacular event in the Cathedral is the pilgrim mass at mid-day, which is packed daily with thousands of people from around the world. The real pilgrims will be carrying backpacks or wearing lycra and will struggle their way through the crowds to line up to “hug” the statue of St James high up behind the main altar, and wait for the amazing feat of the swinging of the huge censor, the botafumeiro, which wafts incense throughout the Cathedral. This is an inheritance from medieval days when the incense was needed to mask the intense smell of unwashed pilgrims, and to kill off the many parasites they would bring with them. I stood right underneath this huge swinging censor (that weighs 95 kilos and needs six men to operate it) as it whizzed only a few feet above me, and inhaled the full strength of the incense as it billowed out from all sides.
Monumental Santiago is a place to spend a few days in. When you collect your pilgrim “Compostela” from the
Cathedral Office (a certificate of completion written in Latin), you can use it to some benefit in museums and claiming your free meals at the 5* Hostal de los Reyes Católicos on Cathedral Square. Dirty pilgrims, however, don’t eat with the five star diners upstairs, but downstairs in the servants’ quarters, and they can only cater for 10 pilgrims per meal. So you have to plan you stategies.
To mark the end of journey, before having the obligatory photo taken in front of the Cathedral, I rummaged about in the depths of my saddlebag to find the small bottle of Iona Whiskey given to me by John Rawlinson (who had led the blessing at St Andrew’s in Kimbolton), to mark the meeting of two great places of pilgrimage. It was appropriate that it was from Iona, a place where Celtic christianity was diffused throughout our land, because I had been following a Celtic route through France and Spain to get to Santiago. As I raised the bottle and took a wee dram, I not only toasted St James, but also the Celts that had preceded him who had laid the foundation of this great journey through Europe.
Everybody has heard the news and seen the images. So little has been done in the 12 months since the earthquake. The NGOs are all in place, there is money in the bank to move ahead rapidly with reconstruction, but the whole country is in a state of paralysis. A lack of stable infrastructure and deep-rooted corruption are responsible for the stalemate. Money that is released into the community for reconstruction will disappear into the wrong hands, hence the slow progress.
We are delighted to report that we have been able to send out £6,500 to the Claretians in
Port au Prince to help with the reconstruction of their Elementary School. It is but a drop in the ocean in terms of what their actual needs are, but every little will help. And the donations keep trickling in. View this short video about the destruction of the earthquake and what the Claretians are achieving 12 months later:
I have been invited to speak about my cycle pilgrimage to Rome by several groups, which gives me the opportunity to both advertise the delights of travelling along the Via Francigena, but also to highlight the current situation in Haiti and keep their cause alive in people’s minds. Groups that I will be visiting in the next few months include: Kimbolton Rotary, Ferrar House at Little Gidding, Kimbolton Probus, Rockingham Forest Wheelers, and the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome.
Gentleman of the road. I was battling my way in through the nasty industrial suburbs of Reims yesterday, trying to get to the Office de T. and Cathedral before they closed. Another local cyclist, Christophe (yet another Chris!), on his bike next to me at some traffic lights, offered to guide me all the way. Being an experienced urban cyclist, he knew the streets well, we jostled with the traffic and he delivered me to my destination. Yet another gentleman of the road!
Internet access is very sporadic. I am using the local library’s service in Brienne, but it won’t allow me to download photos. When I can’t get to a computer, I text a short message to Jenny and she uploads for me. There’s always a solution.
Youth Hostel in Reims. I had a couple of very pleasant N Africans as room-mates, until it came to turning out the lights. Because it is Ramadan, they insisted on going through their prayer routines in the room, then afterwards they watched movies on a laptop. When I eventually got to sleep, I was rudely awoken by security who were checking for gatecrashers, and I realised there was another person in the room who hadn’t checked in as usual. When security had left, the extra person slipped out of the room……. But before I could resume some kind of sleep, the two remaining lads rose at 4.30 to have breakfast before sunrise. As I crept out of the room at 7.30, they were well into the land of nod, and probably didn’t rise till much later. I night never to be forgotten!
Tonight I have been offered free accommodation at a small pilgrim bunkhouse in Brienne, but I have yet to work out how the lights work……….
Today’s route can be described in two parts: the morning forced me onto a very nasty Route Nationale to Chalons en Champagne. I kept jumping off at the slightest chance, but all roads kept returning me to it. However, the visit to Chalons was well rewarded. It’s streets and buildings ring of former days of great wealth, and the stain glass windows in the Cathedral are worth the journey in themselves. Put it on your list when you are next this way.
This afternoon was a sheer delight. 50 miles following deserted country roads, through villages with their “Village Fleurie” ratings and prettily situated churches. The roads stretched out ahead for miles across the tremendous prairie landscape of the southern Champagne region, but not a vineyard in sight. They are more over to the west, towards Epernay. The crops that entertained me were maize and the hanging heads of sunflowers awaiting their destiny. I associate proudly standing sunflowers with the Tour de France in the month of July.
My thoughts today were dominated by the psychology of the long-distance traveller and the coping mechanisms. Marathon runners know all about the “zone”: that mental state, when coupled with the ideal pace and cadence, puts them into a kind of comfort zone (even though it is not that comfortable really). The very same happens in cycling, and when you find your “zone” you find yourself carried along a bit, and the miles slip by.
Also, what works for me, is not to think of the whole day’s distance ahead (whether it’s 60 or 100 miles) but to break it down into chunks of 25-30 miles and reward myself with a break and refreshments. Completing each chunk then becomes a victory in itself, and your total for the day is the number of chunks you achieve. The old cliche is true “How do you eat an elephant?” (one bite at a time of course). Now that got me wondering just how many elephants (ie the equivalent of) have I eaten in my lifetime? I would be shocked to see before me the mountain of food I have ingested over my lifetime.
The things we cyclists think about as the pedals are turning :0)
“May life’s winds be ever at your backs!”
A gentle day with a following wind. What more could you ask for? But following the A2 (another dead straight road probably of Roman origins?) can get a bit monotonous. The bank holiday traffic is out in force, and so are the boy racers!
Canterbury. Arrived to a city making the most of the last holiday weekend of the year. Heaving with visitors, interspersed by endless individuals cashing in on the moment. I was even stopped in my tracks and offered an historic boat ride on the canal. When I asked if they would take my bike for free, he gently dissolved into the crowd.
Cathedral. The pilgrim’s passport definitely works. When I showed it at the gates of the Cathedral precinct, they ushered me in free of charge (normally £8) and took me immediately to the Welcome Office, where I was told that Canon Clare was expecting me. Even though I had arrived early, she adjusted her schedule to accommodate me, and guided me into the inner sanctum of the Cathedral to a chapel not normally open to visitors, but reserved for pilgrims either at the beginning or end of their journey. The chapel is called Our Lady of the Undercroft, remote in the crypt area of the Cathedral, and bathed in a mute light that gave it a fitting atmosphere. She very kindly pronounced the words and prayers given to pilgrims as they set off on their journeys. Afterwards, she told me a little of her 32 day walking pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and we were able to share one or two experiences in common.
Then she took me to see the stone that marks the beginning of the Via Francigena outside the Cathedral, now becoming known as the “Kilometre Zero” of the journey. For those who would like to check out further information on this route, the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (founded in 2006) has an informative website (www.pilgrimstorome.org.uk) and needs people (like me) to report back on their experiences to expand their database.
Returning to the Cathedral for Evensong (still clad in my yellow lycra!) the visiting choir (Cantique from near Wigan) led the singing for the final hymn, which turned out to to be “To be a pilgrim” by John Bunyan. Serendipity plays its role yet again. That the start of my pilgrimage journey to Rome should begin on the day that the life of John Bunyan (a Bedfordshire lad) should be commemorated. If I’d planned for, it wouldn’t have happened!