I’m writing you from my favorite cafe at the end of the world, a cheery place to counteract all the endings. Seagulls shriek, cry, bark, howl, meow, and moan; I’ve never heard anything like it, all day and all night. A person with too much imagination could easily hear them as the souls of the damned, wailing before they are carried away. Did I mention that Finisterre is built on a graveyard? Hey, I watch movies: I know what happens when you build on burial sites. Or maybe only Americans notice.
Camino de Santiago
Ghost Cafes and Silver UFOs
I can hear the shriek of seagulls outside in the pre-dawn light as I sit writing to you from the ghost cafe in Santiago. It’s a very ephemeral city, forbidding when cold and grey, a huge party town with people from all over the world when sunlit, and everyone, everyone, with strong legs and a look of relief.
The cafe is actually part of the wonderful Hostal Susa. Hostals in Spain are not youth hostels or albergues, but rather grouped with pensiones or lower-priced hotels. I have a tiny, immaculate room with a bathroom in the middle of the old town of Santiago for 20 euros a night… the lowest price yet. There is a bar-cafe attached to the hostal, but visually blocked and closed off from the street. It is only accessible if you have a room, yet two people work there. Dishes are washed, but there is nothing but coffee and scanty, used-up bottles of liquor on the shelf… if you can get in. There is a menu, but when I picked it up, the barman, with a look of alarm on his face, asked me to put it down, as nothing on the menu was available. And yet, I sit here writing to you, with the magic of Spain tolerating me..
I realize I am skipping the days before my arrival in Santiago. I’ll share that in another post. I arrived on July 3, but saved my entry into the Cathedral until 7AM the next day, to avoid the crowds. The seagulls were shrieking and it was raining, with the echo of a Galician bagpipe filling the square.
Every pilgrim is supposed to do 4 things, more or less in order. The first is to admire the portal with the Tree of Jesse, designed by the master artist/architect, Master Matteo. There are so many portals to the Cathedral that I had no idea which one that was. Then you enter the vast, new universe of space that is the cathedral. They actually designed it to be a Cathedral of Stars, for Compostella, field of stars. That’s the positive reading. It was really built on an ancient Roman cemetery . Anyway, it is about the transition into other worlds, whether the starry Way or the passages of death.
In the old days you could walk up to the Saint and touch his feet. That is no longer allowed, to preserve the sacred marble. Personally, I think that to touch the place where millions have touched with a full heart is worth a lot more than the sculpture.
It’s an amazing place. So much of the gothic stonework was painted in the old days, but for some reason the paint is never restored. I know from illuminated manuscripts how vivid the pigments were. Yet the original paint is faded and almost gone, increasing the forbidding aspect of the cathedral.
So now I have not been able to do two out of the four things that pilgrims traditionally did. On to number three. This was news to me, but apparently there is actually a chance to touch your forehead to the head of an image of Master Matteo in order to receive divine artistic inspiration! Bring it on, said I. So I set out to search for Master Mateo.
But I couldn’t find him, lost in the echoing dampness of the Cathedral. It’s dark in there on a rainy morning.
Then God intervened. A German woman cathedral docent approached me and asked in German if I needed help. Apparently there is a mass in German in a side chapel at 7:30 and she thought I was looking for that. She spoke no English, but I could use my German to ask for the location of Master Matteo.
One of the towers is under renovation. You can see it here. I had hardly noticed, as any Gothic cathedral has so many towers that having a couple of spares is not a problem.
So I went under the draped tower and there, barricaded in darkness, was Master Matteo, a delightful, lovingly executed sculpture around 4 feet high, just right for the shorter midieval pilgrim to lean over and get some forehead inspiration. But there were iron barricades and almost total darkness. So I asked myself, what would Matteo do ? He would find a creative solution.
First I used my bendy tripod and a low light program to take a picture of him. But I couldn’t stand being so close to him and not touching him. I reached out my arm, and I swear I was within an inch of touching him, but no dice. Time for another plan. You are talking to a woman who actually managed to take rubbings from Assyrian bas-reliefs under the noses of the guards in the British Museum. This was not going to stop me.
I checked the area and no one was around so I stepped through the first layer of iron bar barricades. I was close enough then to press my hand against his forehead. I left it there for awhile until the cold of the stone seeped in, then pressed my hand to my forehead. I could swear the Master smiled.
Part of the deal was to draw him as well, so this is my journal page.
The last of the four items is to visit the silver box full of bones, and say your prayers. So I did.
My timing has been so good… I found out from Severin, the Swiss colossus youth who always knows everything, that every Friday night they have a mass where they swing the giant incense holder. The Botafumerio is an icon of the pilgrimage, and you also saw it in the film The Way. So I went 1 1/2 hours early to get a place in a pew underneath the action, having learned from Christmas in Rome that you don’t fool around with the big masses if you want to get a seat. The timing was good…. the Cathedral filled with around 1200 people. They don’t swing the thing every day.
You have to wait through the whole Mass to get to the good part– the Catholic Church knows how to keep people in their seats. They are firm. “Silencio! Silencio!” But finally the B.F. is lowered. Up there in the vast cathedral space it looks around 2 feet high. Then it is lowered and you see that it is bigger than a man. They pour coals into it and heap on the incense, then raise it and begin a controlled swing over your heads.
What the films can’t show you is that it is on fire, sparkling with red flame from the bottom, and emitting these giant clouds of sweet smelling smoke: copal and frankincense, if I’m not mistaken. It’s just the most joyful thing to be under… you instinctively duck as it goes over your head. Everyone was smiling and laughing… you have never seen anything like it, and never will again. Talk about an unidentified flying object!
I’m always glad to leave the church… I felt like a ginormous golden Baroque angel was glaring at me through one eye. I wish we could skip the Baroque decoration and just take the music. This photo gives an idea of how full the church was.
I feel full, happy, and yes, blessed by the Cathedral. The seagull shrieks are calling me on to the coast, so I’m hopping a bus to Finisterrae, the end of the ancient world. Many consider it to be the natural, prehistoric end of the Way. The two workers in Ghost Cafe have spent the last hours reading the newspaper, and I, the only customer, am ready to pay up and get on the road. I’ll write you from the Atlantic coast, and I’ll tell you more of the saga of my journey.
Santiago is like a goth girl, full of spikes and jewelry and Celtic signs, very emo, and tattooed with the marks of millions of pilgrims. I leave her now, but will probably return. Buen Camino, Suzanne
Beautiful, Eerie Galicia
Since I last wrote you, I’ve been on the road for four days in the manure-pungent hobbit-land of Galicia. In spite of the thousand years of Camino passing through, it is still remote, with stone houses topped with grey slate roofs, a lot of mossy rock. The photo above is of tombs, many decorated with the twin towers of Santiago: the tomb as a cathedral, which Santiago is. Created around the dubious bones of a discovered saint, and on the site of old Roman cemeteries, there is more than a bit of death built in to the pilgrimage. But nature redeems the melancholy at times. It is spectacular here.
I am mostly walking through green tunnels. I discovered yesterday that I could make it rain on me, even when it wasn’t raining. As I passed under certain trees, a pattering would start, as if the tree was raining only for me. It was strange and delightful. Often no drops would fall on me, but water was clearly dropping in a delightful way. I experimented and found out that my footsteps and two walking sticks were enough to send an imperceptible signal through the roots up into the branches. I could feel myself enclosed in a delicate, quivering bubble of green world, where I felt the reality that a flap of a butterfly’s wing can start a chain reaction… viscerally felt it. This tree language felt communicative and magical, as if the trees were greeting me.
On the other hand, some trees really scared me. They seemed positively threatening, especially this one with the pentangle hung in the branches and piles of salt at the roots. Witches are common here in Galicia, and with due respect to nature worship, I am not sure all of them are benificent. The Galicians would agree, even though they have shrunk their local witches into little cute souvenir dolls. This is the kind of tree that might grab you in these old-growth forests.
Misty mornings, cold– in the 50s– and often rain. I was walking through the forest and came on a little old lady selling raspberries and a beautiful fuschia colored raspberry liquor in a little bottle. She took me for five euros for a basket of strawberries and a small bottle of whatever that drink was. I don’t know if she was a good or bad witch… I suspect just mischievous. That was a hard day, over 15 kilometers and late in the day. I had to do some business for a morning in Sarria, the biggest city around. Travelers, do you remember how much time and energy it takes just to get into a new town and find an ATM and a store? I was buying a new pancho for the rain, one with sleeves and zipper, like a raincoat that can cover a backpack.
You know you’re doing real travel when the locals don’t really care that much about you. Though not pleasant, you can be sure that you are in the midst of true travel. There is a good tourist structure here and there in the woods though… adequate albergues. But some parts of the day I was just grateful to hear traffic somewhere, anywhere, or see another hiker. I am still hiking mostly by myself…wonderful for contemplation, but sometimes eerie in the green, stony world of Galicia.
Donkey and Company
This beautiful girl, Jenny, came all the way up the Le Puy route, over 60 days into her journey with her French master. They stayed at the country place because there was a stall for her and a couch for him. I told you it was the right kind of inn.
This hound would lay directly in front of the albergue entrance so you had to step over him to get in. Later I saw the three huge German shepherds roaming through the fog like spirits of wolves. I’m walking in fog and chill wind, but thankfully no rain. I am sitting in the first place in the mountains of Galicia that has weefee , so I can post a few pictures.
The fire, as a primal element, deserves its own photo.The owner would heap huge logs covered with moss and lichen into it, and urged us to dry our shoes in front of it. Here’s a travel tip: stuff old pages ripped out of your guidebook into your shoes to help dry them.
Beautiful brown cows make a beautiful fresh cheese with the consistency of soft tofu. A heap is served on a plate with a little compressed square of quince jam to eat it with. Delicious!
This is a beautiful 12th century virgin. She is the patroness of O Cebreiro, and her feast day is celebrated on my birthday. Since it is the custom to dress up many of the more doll-like virgins in costumes, I felt free to dress her up digitally, and a halo appeared. The landscape is just honeycombed with virgins, each dripping a blessing into a little village.
The thunderstorm that soaked me.
A sadly graffittied shrine to a virgin of the Camino. You can see the mural on one side and the defacing on the other. This was on my creepiest walk, right in the middle of the day. I saw only vandalism and violation and not one other person, either caminante or citizen. It was during the siesta apocalypse outside Ponferrada. Suburbs are the scariest walking of all.
<img src=”https://saltworkstudio.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/20140629-091934-33574463.jpg” alt=”20140629-091934-33574463.jpg” class=”alignnone size-full” />This isn’t my sketchbook, but an image from the Templar Library. I was struck by the ancient illuminations. They have a dream-like quality. These illuminated manuscripts must be the most beautiful books ever made.
Have to get back on the trail now. Suzanne
This is Carlotta, my sort-of friend for three hours climbing into the ancient hilltop village of O’Cebreiro. The landscape looks like this. To Carlotta it all looks like food.
It was three hours of pure bliss. Julia and I both hired horses from Victor, who guided us and the mounts up the mountain. I haven’t ridden a horse since childhood and it was great. We went through dark tunnels of forest, breaking out to amazing views on the switchbacks. Carlotta likes to eat. My only instructions with her were 1) don’t make any fast moves or she’ll throw you and 2) don’t let her eat. Both were easier said than done. She wanted to lean in to eat all the way along, and Victor would shout “Ayee, Carlotta!” I like to graze too, so I could sympathize. Eventually I got better at controlling her, but as Victor said, wisely, “Horses are big.”
That’s Bonnie trying to drink water from a flowing pilgrim spigot, although there were plentiful horse troughs. I found myself going up a mountain on a horse by accident. I had walked a few miles out of town and someone called out to me, “Are you on the Pilgrim’s Forum?” It’s an online information site about the pilgrimage. We started talking at a bus stop. Julia is from Britain and Nadine is Australian. Turns out they had this plan to take horses up. I asked if they minded if I joined in… the rest is history. Horse’s shoes on stony paths really do sound like the coconut shells of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And they have a 10th C. chalice in the church. Close enough.
I bought Victor and his daughter Carlotta a beer afterwards. He would like to develop a sort of Pony Express for the Camino, with horses, half day rides and food and lodging. I loved this ride so much. Victor told us that you can ride horses directly into one entrance of the Cathedral of Santiago. Can you imagine the steps of the horses echoing in Gothic arches? I would love to do this.
Dawn now, and veils of mist drift through. I have decided to stay one more day. This place has a sort of poignant, piercing beauty I have felt in only a few places: Big Sur, the Lofoten Islands in Norway, Karpathos in Greece, Hampi in India. I’ll catch up with my writing and sketching.
I keep losing photographs and writing because there’s no wifi here. I’m doing everything on a wavery data signal from my phone. Time to stop.
More later, I hope. Suzanne
Not tourism, not backpacking, not blisters
Sitting here in another no-name place watching the World Cup, after eating a meal of morcilla and eggs. The picture of the labyrinth in the oak landscape expresses for me the puzzle at the heart of the Camino. Some of you have asked for more of an inner-process report. I’ll try. I’m at the exact middle of my Camino, and will need to skip ahead to finish and get my Compostela. This will be introspective, with a bit of navel-searching, so you can feel free skip on to the photos if you like.
The Camino Intensifies
The Camino intensifies life, your relationship to your body, your desires and fears. By assigning the meaning of pilgrimage to your trek, you travel with a metaphor. It gives you time to be introspective. Every decision resonates with contemplation, because the Camino gives you time to think about things for hours.
For example, why have I chosen to travel so slowly? In my life, I’ve been an achiever. I am fairly certain I could work my way up to the 20-30 kilometers a day many pilgrims walk. But I don’t want to.
I am traveling half as far as everyone else, except a few people, who I see again and again. I’ll tell you about them in a minute. But back to slow travel. I think in my life that I have crammed two lives into one for a while, my work and my art life. I’ve been so fortunate in both, and am grateful. But I’m tired. So my whole body says, go slowly, and if I push, I am immediately brought down with blisters and exhaustion. If I stay within my limits, I am happy and productive.
My Camino Pod
I never developed a Camino family, because I travel too slowly and too erratically. The Camino Family myth was fostered by the movie The Way, where a troubled Martin Sheen meets exactly the right group of affable characters to help him grieve. It also helps if you follow the guidebook exactly, because then you will be with a common group over many kilometers. But I do see the same people over and over, and that has a meaning too.
Apparently my Camino Pod is composed of elderly hikers, both alone and in couples, all happy and healthy. One of the reasons I wanted to do this walk was so that I could continue to hike well into my seventies, which, at this point, is right around the corner. And so I see Ana, and the Italian couple, all over 70 and hiking the whole Camino. And that has its meaning, even if it’s not the way my ego pictured it.
Hey, there she is now, at the counter. I just snuck this photo. She’s so adorable. Her whole pack (not the one on her back) must weigh about 12 pounds. She is so organized! What an inspiration. Okay, get this: the 70 year olds leave me in the dust while hiking. The only people who hike more slowly than me, with my writing in notebooks, photos, frequent breaks, are young dreaming men, the Siddharthas. They walk really slowly, thinking of God, the meaning of life, and the girl who broke their hearts. I constantly have to try to explain to other Caminantes (great word– a word for those who walk the Camino) why I am walking so slowly. I am just not in the same groove as others. This is nothing new.
Decisions on the Way
Every decision resonates. I had originally thought I would break the Camino about now to fly up and try to go to the caves of Altamira and the Guggenheim in Bilbao. It’s a seductive concept: The entire span of Western Art from the Paleolith to the 21st century contrasted in a few days. But that has a few disadvantages. It re-identifies me with my artist life, and I don’t want that right now. I want to get some space from it. And it puts me back into multi-tasking and a sort of frenetic changing of identities, which I experience too many times in my daily life. I don’t want to change from pilgrim to culture tourist, like Superman changing in a phone booth.
What does the Camino say? It’s so simple. Just keep walking. Solvitur ambulando– it is resolved by walking.
I’ll be taking the train to Ponferrada tomorrow to resume walking the next day through Galicia. I’ll be finishing the Camino from here. This feels like a turning point in my Camino, and I feel a bit sad. For three glorious weeks I could do exactly what I wanted to do, drifting along in a sweet little eddy in the river of time. Now I really have a goal, Santiago, and a time frame, a couple of weeks.
I’ve been so lucky all along. I’ve really had almost uninterrupted beauty and help from others. I haven’t even had to walk in the rain, though that will change in Galicia, Gaelic Spain. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Stay tuned! From your Slow Camino, Suzanne
P.S. 16km today.
Life’s Not Just Blossoms and Busty Beer Taps
This morning was a very flowery walk, on this bright Sunday right at midsummer. The Solstice is called Sommerwende in German–summer’s hinge, summer’s turning point. in a tiny village I ran into a personal Gabriel angel carrying lilies.
As I’m sitting here at this very moment church bells are ringing madly. Congregants are carrying an effigy of the Virgin into the hills to a shrine, some combination of Solstice with the Virgin. The Catholic Church always covers all its bases.
Flowers were strewn in the path of the effigy. I think that’s what I saw in another village I walked through today, the sidewalk blossoming with wildflowers for a block or so. The trailside flowers are spectacular too. See why I said it was a flowery day?
The bells just stopped… they literally pounded the heck out of my ears for a half an hour. There’s no way to miss that it’s midsummer. I started out in the church to see it, but I felt like a voyeur. This celebration is for the village, not for me. The ancient bells turn 360 degrees, mounted on a huge wooden top that rotates on an axis. Centrifugal force keeps them turning. They have not stopped after all. The turn of the season is worth a little noise.
I was so lucky to stop in this village to witness this. I got a lovely bed in its own cubicle, with a view out the French doors. This hotel is built in an old monastery and the owner is a pilgrim himself and built in some luxury pilgrim lodging.
I am walking much too slowly to do the entire Camino in just six weeks, what with flowers and paintings and magic soup and monasteries. I am about twice as slow as the guidebook. I’ll be going on to Galicia to finish up and get my Compostela. Galicia is Celtic and believes in its witches. The main witch of Galicia is made into beer taps. She’s very inspiring, and whispered to me that it was okay to skip ahead.
It’s this kind of breezy day, with high horsetail cirrus clouds all prancing toward the west, in the direction of the Camino.
Your slow Camino wanderer, Suzanne
The thunder rolled down the valley like waves crashing on the beach, with lightning flashing an irregular strobe. We didn’t care, tucked away into the smallest (10 people), most magical albergue, an ancient village building where all the rooms slope and exposed beams are not a designer fashion.
The village has only 50 souls and no stores. The Pan (bread) truck, a white van I’ve seen everywhere in Spain, skids into the plaza and begins earsplitting honking. For many minutes. Bread is a matter of urgency.
I’ve had the feeling this whole trip of being enclosed in a kind of bell jar of bird song, and even more strongly here. Swallows thread the sky with the invisible silk of flight. The village is cradled in rolling farmland, much of it in poppies. I walked through many fields of blossom today. I could not help but remember the Wicked Witch of Oz crooning “Poppies…”
This albergue is the home of Acacio and Orietta. They are good friends with the author Paolo Coelho and there’s a book in which you can leave a message for him. Their business is run entirely on donation. Both of the couple have walked he camino many time. Their house is full of books, warmth, easy chairs, and superb hospitality.
Cameras can’t catch the implacable golden sweep of the wheatfields, and a photo can’t convey the warmth of that dinner. “Soupa magica” is Acacio’s term for pilgrim soup, a combination of soup and the Portugese sopa.
It’s difficult to write about the Camino. A lot of your inner experience is private. The writing tends either to become Shirley Maclaine-ish or degenerate into a kilometer-sore foot-lodging blog. Orietta told me that a way a pilgrim can give something back for all the kindness extended is by the sharing of experience: being hospitable and open in your heart to sharing what you know.
Thank you, Acacio and Orietta. Acacio is an passionate advocate for the inner necessity of the Camino. He also has much hidden knowledge about the history and soul of the Camino, but you’ll have to ask him yourself, over a bowl of Soupa Magica.
Writing you from Santo Domingo, where the magnficent Gothic cathedral keeps live chickens inside to commemorate a milagro, a miracle. I’ve been waiting all trip for this because I had a dream about it some months ago
The day started badly but ended well. Every night I take off my glasses and put them in a stuff sack in the bottom of my sleeping bag along with phone, passport and money. When I took them off this morning, an earpiece had broken off. In a foreign country, this can seem to be a really big problem, but I closed my eyes and thought “What would Scott do?” He’s the guy who can fix anything.
Here’s what I might do, before I became a wise Peregrino: panic, don’t change schedule, stick glasses with duct tape, have lousy, sticky and disfunctional glasses for the rest of the trip. Here’s what Scott would do: while away several hours until an optician opened and have them fixed. So I had a coffee, potato and egg tortilla, and an Aquarius (fizzy Gatorade type drink, supposedly with electrolytes). For two hours. And painted a few notebook pages. The nice thing about the illustrated journal is that it always gives you something to do. And I got them fixed.
By that time it was late in the morning, so I decided to take the bus to Santa Domingo. And I’m so glad I did. It turned into a completely relaxed, pleasant day. I had one of those extended lunches at a cafe facing the cathedral. I went to the small prayer meeting offered by the brothers who ran the albergue. I did laundry and visited the backyard chicken coop that supplies the cathedral chickens, who are not even on ground level but in a ridiculously backlight sort of alter a story high so you can’t even interact with them. Now that was disappointing, but I went back to talk to the patio chickens.
The albergue is lovely. The cathedral is grand and I think I saw Santa Domingo’s skull, but I’m not sure. He was a supercool saint. He came from a poor, lower class family and so the church nixed his becoming a priest. He said, fine, and proceeded to build a pilgrim bridge, a hospital, and improve the roads and highways… and founded a town and a cathedral. The church’s loss was the pilgrim’s gain. Domingo was a do-er and fixer, as is Scott, and like Scott, he can often be found with a few chickens at his feet. It was a day where a possible mishap was transformed into a fine, unexpected travel day.
True confession: I LOVE deciding things on the spur of the moment. What a luxury, what freedom. I’m grateful that everyone has been so kind– the optician fixed the glasses without charge because I’m a pilgrim. It’s the little things. Buen Camino, Suzanne