Journey along the Way: a pilgrim's perspective
We zoom out of Madrid past orderly residential areas. The landscape is tan and green with distant flat mountains. Yellow bushes and green lollipop trees are on both sides of the excellent interstate. In the distance is a cross dedicated to the fallen soldiers silently alone on a hillside. Occasional towns surround churches and walled castles. Spain’s countryside is modern and productive. Tractors carry around bales of hay. Solar arrays and wind towers power the nation. Watering systems make green circles and vineyards are everywhere. A blackbird highlighted in white swoops down in the median, stork nests atop antenna towers, and hawks soar overhead. We are greeted at Leon by grazing cattle and a gentle river and, of course, a McDonalds replete with a play area. We then see an incredible edifice that served as a hospital for pilgrims, followed by our roman walled hotel and within it the possible Holy Grail.
Let’s begin at the beginning. We spent our first night at the ancient Monastery of San Isidoro, built on Roman fortress ruins in Lyon. We had a wonderful dinner in the old town square and stumbled into bed at midnight. Our host and hostess, Juan Carlos and Laurie Duperier have put together an immersion tour which treats each dimension of the experience equally importantly - the walking on the Camino, the culture of the special region of Galicia, the food, wine and history that is of the region and of Spain.
When the Holy Grail was recently discovered to be in Lyon, and in the chapel museum of our accommodations, they adjusted our trip so that we could be the first to see it this morning. There is more research that is going on, but when you put this Christian icon in the context of the other items of Spain’s museums, and the museums and Roman Catholic cathedrals I have seen in Madrid and here, it seems probable that this is in fact what those historians have discerned.
After our visit to the museum, we got on our bus and drove through the suburbs that surround the Camino. Finally, in the countryside, we started our walk of eight miles, then on to a marvelous restaurant for a late lunch.
The Path traverses pastures, fields of wheat, plantations of trees, and a few natural areas. It is the beginning of the pilgrimage season but the heat of summer and the cold of winter (believe it or not, we are at the same latitude as New York city) but the climate is more like northern Arizona. We must have seen a hundred or more walkers, a dozen bikers and a few horses along the way.
Tomorrow, the Iron Cross.
It is hard to imagine topping the Holy Grail. So we did something different and special. We visited the iron cross at the top of a stone covered mound with mementoes of all the sins, fears, and disappointments that the pilgrims want to leave behind. Suddenly as I walked alone I heard what was a chorus of canyon wrens, cookoo birds, doves and more, they sang and I forgot my sore legs. Tonight we rest in a place that reminds me of The Lord of the Rings.
There is more to “sacred” than churches and sacraments in Spain. The Camino is cut through a world of beauty and frugality. Nothing seems to be wasted. The path is a narrow way through villages, fields, and forests. It is almost designed so that you have to greet other pilgrims and local farmers, lazy dogs, and pots of flowers.
The fields are free of rocks which all seem hand carried and placed in stonewalls. Crops cover most of the landscape or plantations of well-ordered poplar trees. The roads are just wide enough so that every driver is alert for oncoming traffic. This region of Spain is rich with verdant hills and 200 days of rain.
Last night we stayed in another mystical inn run by two generations of a farm family that has lived there for several hundred years. The place where the animals stayed in the house is now the dining room for guests.
The end, or the beginning
Today I stood in the crowd of the famous Santiago Cathedral with thousands of others, many of whom had walked the Camino. I had walked about 60 miles throughout the entire trip. Others had walked as much as 500 miles from France and Italy and then there were the faces of those from around the rest of the world.
The cathedral was the reason for the walk. It was where you were absolved of your sins. Believe it or not, our guide said that in the year 999, people feared the end of the millenium as we did with “Y2K” a thousand years later. They thought that the end of the world was coming and they sought forgiveness of their sins and the Cathedral was the place to get it.
We are staying in a monestary built by St. Francis of Assisi who also came to have his sins absolved and decided to use his personal wealth to build a monestary for monks, for helping the poor and for other noble causes.
The final walk was beautiful in many ways, and tough in others. The level of excitement and joy seemed to grow among the pilgrims I saw.
The more I got to know our group of 13, the more I loved them - a family of four with a brother in law and friends who all seemed to gravitate around the family; a mother and daughter who seemed to be sharing life every step of the way as they walked and talked; us who were “solo.”
The “farewell” dinner was full of toasts and fun, shared experiences, references to jokes that still brought laughter despite their repitition. The constant flow of wine helped us accept the fact that our bond was probably unbinding. Tomorrow, it’s time to rent a car and follow the ancient coast of northern Spain. Promises of the the pagans’ “end of the world,” the oldest and largest lighthouse, the cathedral coast, and more wonderful food. Somehow I think I will return.
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