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.
Being out in the Galician “wilderness” for the last three days has meant being distant from modern forms of communication, especially Cyber-cafés and Locutorios. But the traverse across the misty moisty lands of the north of Spain have proved more than a retreat from the ‘civilising effects’ of modern living. It has been another world, where the donkey is still a beast of burden, and a scythe is still wielded to cut the long grass.
Oviedo to Almuña 75m
I’ve never been charged so little for a bed for the night! The pilgrim albergue in Oviedo had almost every bed filled, with a lively mix of walkers and cyclists, not surprising when they were only charging a mere 3 euros for a bed. The economy of the Camino brings Spaniards out in their droves to travel the ancient byways. They can walk or cycle the length and breadth of their own country, and rest their heads on a pillow for the night (and have a shower) at less than an overnight camping fee.
The north of Spain was living up to its not-so-hard won reputation: cloud and mist have dominated the meteorology for
several days, the sun has been noticeable by its absence, but I find the heavy misty moisty atmosphere a magical backdrop as I look at the seascapes to my right and the towering Picos de Europa to my left. These weather patterns are certainly saving me several pennies on sun cream!
Then I hit the ‘north Cornwall-like’ ascents and descents of what the locals call “una costa muy accidentada” (a very rugged, indented coastline). No sooner had I climbed out of a deep river valley, but I was dropping down to the next, only to then have to laboriously climb out of that, and so on. In the space of couple of hours I had experienced the heights and depths of 12-15 such valleys, until I got to the point where I was screaming in my head at the sheer injustice to be visited with all of this at the end of a long day in the saddle. But, of course, as all things do, they eventually came to an end…………….. and I smiled when I saw the lure of a bit of flat in front of me.
To brighten up my recovery period from all this, I passed a couple of lads, Quepa and Roque, who were towing a trailer
carrying a surfboard. Before I could ask them “what on earth are you people doing with all this kit” I noticed that Quepa was carrying a little micro-camera, and he told me I was being filmed while I quizzed them. They revealed they were cycling the Camino del Norte and surfing all the best beaches en route. I told them I had been warned to look out for mad people travelling the Camino and, pointing to themselves, they proudly said “That’s us!” They then showed me on a GPS some of the beaches they were going to surf that afternoon. To meet people like these, you just have to travel the Camino…….you won’t meet them driving up the M6.
Almuña to Lourenzá 64m
This was a day for unearthing some of the Celtic traces here in the history of north Spain. I was initially convinced that most of the fortified “castros” were of Celtic origin, but I was left with some doubts after listening to a few local experts explain that the Celts were only one of several ethnic groups to settle in the area. My 10 kms diversion off the Camino, however, was well worth it. The Castro de Coaña is a carefully dug site that shows the structure of a tight community safely ensconced on high ground, and benefiting from luxuries such as baths and community areas long before the Romans invaded the Iberian peninsula.
As I climbed back up to the Camino, I stopped to chat to this smallholder who was wielding a scythe with consummate ease to cut the long grass around his property. When I complimented him on living on such a fine spot with splendid views across the valley, he looked at it somewhat bemused, shrugged his shoulders and said: “Pues lo tenemos todos los días, y ya estamos acostumbrados” (it’s there all the time and we hardly notice it). That made me think: does this sometimes happen to people who achieve the house of their dreams……………?
Then as I passed through a town, a man shouted at me: “Has llegado primero” (you’ve come in first!).
When I asked where my prize was, he told me to go to the Town Hall where they would give me a ‘chorizo’. I jokingly told him the Town Hall might be full of ‘chorizos’ (slang term also meaning ‘scoundrels and cheats’), he then came out with a current favourite description doing the rounds: “No hay suficiente pan para comer todos los chorizos en España” (there’s not enough bread for eating all the ‘chorizos’ in Spain). It doesn’t quite work in translation, but I’m sure you get the gist of it.
At the albergue that evening in Lourenzá, a German couple who had cycled all the way from Germany, not only impressed me with their journey statistics (33 days to cover 2,300kms), but 1,500 kms had been done with his bike’s downtube completely severed. Instead of doing the normal thing (ie. throw the bike away and buy a new one) he had done a series of repairs using ring-clips
to hold the frame together, and he was determined to get to Santiago on the strength of his Heath Robinson experimentations. As I write this, I have just met them in Santiago and they have made it.
Lourenzá to Miraz 52m
A brief stop in Mondoñedo revealed the Spanish equivalent of the Bakewell pudding. This larger than life gentleman took an idea for a tart, set up the production machinery and took out a kind of patent, or ‘denominación de origen’ on this recipe and had it franchised out under strict control. All I can say that its filling has something called “angel’s hair” (which I think is based on marrow or pumpkin) and it is absolutely delicious. It certainly put a few miles into the legs for the rest of the morning.
The albergue at Miraz was a wondrous discovery after spending a few hours wandering the small country lanes trying to find the way. My map for this stretch was totally inadequate in its detail, but I had caught up
with María José again (met in Llanés along with Igor) who had a better map, and we eventually stumbled on towards the tiny village of Miraz. (But more of that in the next post).
At one point, feeling totally lost, we stopped to ask a family party in a garden the way, and no sooner had they answered our questions but we found ourselves invited to join them in
the remains of their lunch, which consisted of “empanadas” (Galician tuna tart) “churrasco” (barbecued beef ribs) followed by cakes and “ensaimada” (Majorcan pastry). For half an hour we were feasted by this wonderful family party, and it was hard to leave their friendly company. They had drawn in these passing pilgrims and shared their table with us. That doesn’t happen up the M6 either!
At Miraz, we were only about 95 kms from our goal, so tomorrow had to be the run into Santiago.
A night sleeping on the floor in a ferry lounge, constantly disturbed by drunken Morris dancers, didn’t lend to a fresh start on the first day in France, and a 25mph head wind meant that Sant Iago was definitely not on my side!
I picked up the first traces of Brittany’s Celtic (even pre-celtic) past immediately, passing ancient dolmens and pausing for breath in
Dinan, a town of ancient Celtic roots ( later to be ‘colonised’ by incoming Brits in the 19th century). Further proof of Celtic roots was the Celtic Cross in an isolated churchyard outside Tressaint, but with obvious Roman decoration in its design. The Celts (Gauls) had been romanized (just like the Anglo Saxons), which led me to ask ‘why hadn’t Asterix and his crew sorted those Romans out’ before it came to this?
I wanted to make up for the lost mileage of yesterday, so it was “Nantes here I come!” Several interesting serendipities crossed my path today:
*First of all, the wind was still from the south, but not as strong as yesterday (phew!)
*I was constantly surrounded by birdsong that was so persistent, I couldn’t ignore it. The cuckoo announced several times that the sanctity of
yet another nest had been invaded. I was distracted frequently by hunting kestrels and kites, and villages were once again hosting the return of the swallows.
*In France today they are commemorating those who had died in WW2 fighting for the Resistance. As I sped through St SenouxI caught sight of an elderly gentleman proudly wearing his medals, stopped, took his photo, engaged him in
conversation…………..only to discover that he was profoundly deaf! We slapped each other on the back, bid each other farewell, and parted company.
*Picked up the riverside bridleway along the Vilaine, only to meet a couple riding tandem, and they were astonished to chance by someone on a dirt track cycling all the way to “St Jacques de Compostelle“. Being a tandem rider myself, we shared a lot of cycling experiences in 15 minutes.
*That very track alongside the river was closed at one point because of a fishing competition. I was tempted to
ignore their closed sign, but then remembered I was a pilgrim……………:O(
*Approaching Nantes I chanced by a major protest movement against the building of an airport near N.D. de Landes. It reminded me forcefully of the peace garden and mass protests against nuclear power at Molesworth, near where I live. (For those who remember them, they were led by Mgr Bruce Kent.)
My general impression of crossing Brittany has been one of enjoying the quietness of the open road, crossing huge landscapes marred little by passing traffic…………….and the road surfaces are smooth and clean. How do they do it?
After completing the Via Fancigena (Canterbury to Rome) last September, I am about to revisit a journey that I last completed in 1993, but this time taking a different route. This sequel will be another ancient route of pilgrimage, established in medieval times on the belief that the body of the Apostle James the Greater was transported there after his execution, and buried at the spot where the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago now stands.
In medieval times, without the benefit of modern means of transport, pilgrims gathered at a local spot in their community, received a blessing for their journey, and then began the long dangerous walk that would take up to 6 months (not counting the return journey!). Although I will have the benefit of a pair of wheels, my plan is to depart from my home in west Cambridgeshire after receiving a blessing at my local church.
My route will take me down to Portsmouth, where I will catch the ferry to St Malo and, from there, will head towards the Atlantic coast, and follow the coastline to pick up the Voie Littorale at the mouth of the Gironde, and from there head down to the Spanish border. There I will pick up the most ancient of routes to Santiago, called the Camino del Norte (North coast route), used by pilgrims till the end of the 15th century when Spain had been occupied by the Moors, and all forms of Christian pilgrimage had been suppressed. The North Coast Route will link with the Camino francés (the French route) that will take me into Santiago de Compostela, a total distance of over 1200 miles. There I will present my “credential” (a passport that has been stamped along the way) at the Cathedral Office, they will ‘interrogate’ me to check that I have arrived under my own steam, and they will then (I hope) present me with the “Compostela”, a document written in Latin declaring that I was a bona fide pilgrim and successfully arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
If time permits, I will then cycle the 88 kms (54 miles) to Finisterre, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (so-called because, before Columbus discovered the Americas, it was thought to be the very end of the world) and I will pick up a scallop shell from the beach, the symbolic emblem of pilgrims across the world.
Why a Celtic route? My own family background is deeply rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions of Ireland. My father’s ancestors were driven out of Ireland in 1840 by the famine, and came to Britain seeking work in the iron ore mines of Cumbria. My mother, on the other hand, was first generation Irish, born in the village of Cappamore in Co. Limerick. In planning this journey, I wanted to make connections with some of the pre-Roman Celtic places which lie along the western sea-board of the Continent. The region of Galicia itself, in NW Spain, has a history deeply rooted in the Celtic traditions (with clear evidence of this in their music, dance, use of bagpipes and outfits not dissimilar to what you see in Ireland). The name “Galicia” probably derives from “Gaul” (Roman name for Celts), the Gauls being gradually driven westwards by the invading Romans until they occupied all the most westerly points of continental Europe and the British Isles. Many historians also support the thesis that there was a major migration of British Celts across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia in the 4th-5th centuries, and they were given land in the area now known as Britonia, close to the north coast.
My route to Santiago will pass through Celtic Europe and, as I draw near to Santiago, I will visit some of the places that not only have evident remains of a Celtic past, but even now still celebrate ancient rites like the harvest festival of Lughnasadh on August 1st. It is also well documented that the cult of St James and the Camino de Santiago were developed on an already pre-existing route used by the ancient, pre-Christian Celts, called the Via Lactea (Milky Way) which led them to Cape Finisterre, the end of the known world. The ancient Celts dreamed of the mysterious beauty that must lie across the sea to the west, and their journeys along the Via Lactea were a quest to draw near to this land of perfection.