Camino de Madrid

Camino de Madrid
Camino de Madrid

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

May 6, 2015. Last Wourdes from Lourdes

And a certain man went down from Jerasulem to Jericho 

I returned to the place from whence I had come, there to meet with Paul of Lyon. There were more pilgrims at the gite this time and I was able to give them advice about the road ahead. Once again we stood on the balcony and watched and listened to the procession below.

In the morning I wandered through the town towards the grand avenue which leads up to the church. Beggars were everywhere, troubling the conscience of Christians who passed by on the other side of the road. Nuns were wandering about in pairs, reminding me of the old joke which I won't repeat here. 

Always curious, I decided to tag along at the end of a procession. Here I witnessed the sadder aspect of Lourdes, the infirm being wheeled along in their chairs, hoping for a cure to their illness. Inside the entrance to the avenue, they paused for a simple service before making their final approach to the church. Either the hymns were unfamiliar, or the priest had begun in too high a key, for the pilgrims joined in only on the lower refrain. I didn't see any young people among the faithful.

And just across the street from the church was the worst aspect of Lourdes: its blatant commercialism, a long row of shops, all selling religious trinkets, statues, beads, holy pictures, and crosses enough in this one place for all the Christians in Christendom. Bernadette would have been horrified at this commercialism, and as a good communist, so would Jesus, I'm sure. It's a pity that the Church can not retain a monopoly on the sale of its religious products and give the proceeds to the poor.

The town itself was little better. Half the shops were selling religious paraphernalia.Two houses were competing to be the authentic house of Bernadette. One was an old mill, the house where she was born and where her parents had loved her tenderly. But the other was the house where she had lived when had her visions, so clearly this one had the better claim. And of course, you couldn't get in to either without paying.

The hotels had all got into the spirit as well. The first had claimed the most obvious names, Hotel Sainte Bernadette, Hotel Sainte Marie, etc., so that the Johnny-come-latelies had to dig deep into the catalogue of saints to find a religious name. I was puzzled by la Pharmacie de la Grotte. Were their drugs supposed to offer miraculous cures? Sometimes the sigs were quite incongruous.

I was glad I had returned. In short, I was impressed by the number of the faithful, saddened by the sight of the sick, and disgusted by the commercialism which surrounded this holy place.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Day 4 (day 41). May 4, 2015. Deba to Markina-Xemein. 26 kms

Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life

It was a difficult day, but a satisfying one. The steepest climb yet. I passed a couple of gum trees on the way up, one of them trying hard to shed its yellow arrow, and then picked my way around a narrow path on the side of a hill, nettles to the left, plunging chasm to the right, onwards and upward to to a little church, and then a gentle descent down a bitumen road, slimy black slugs on the surface, a very holy way with large concrete crosses every 30 yards, but no statuary or inscriptions and too many crosses to be stations. I passed a little taberna but decided not to stop in mid-climb and kept on going up to the summit at more than 1100 feet. 

Then down into a deep valley giving up much of the height I had gained, where, next to the ugliest church I have ever seen (I'll spare you the photo) was another bar. This time I stopped for a cafe con leche, the tranquillity shattered by the cracked bell on the ugly church sounding eleven o'clock, but restored somewhat when a couple of chooks came visiting.

And then it was a very serious climb out of the valley and up and around a mountain at 1,600 feet. I walked for most of the day with the young Quebequoise, Carolanne, and we talked of everything from Harry Potter to Edith Piaf to Quebec separatism. Like so many other Quebecers she had fallen under the spell of Jack Layton, but wasn't sure how she would vote now, other than ABH. She was inclined towards independence but had voted for Action Solidaire in the last provincial election. I hope that our conversation may have given pause to her separatist leanings. She is only 22 and studying to be a Phys. Ed. teacher. She will be a asset to either Quebec or Canada, or both, I hope.

This is one of the beauties of he Camino: you become quite close to someone you will never see again, and your lives are enriched just a little by the encounter.

Along the way I came upon a very creative cairn. I should explain that pilgrims build piles of stones on anything that doesn't move. This was one of the smaller ones.

I wondered about the symbolism here. Was the artist saying something along the lines of, if life gives you a lemon then make yourself a lemonade? Or perhaps,

If you find you're in the poo,
Then make your way to Santiagoo

This leads me to a more serious question. My Aussie mate John, with whom I shared my first bottle of beer and sang the songs of Tom Lehrer at a Presbyterian Youth Camp more than 50 years ago, is of a philosophical frame of mind and gives me these questions to ponder as I plod. Every year they get a little harder. Here is his question in full. 

Some months ago I asked a friend of mine to state in one sentence or so, based on his observations or experience, how he would sum up life. He eventually replied: life is unfair. I don`t think anyone would disagree with him, but I felt it was insufficient and needed qualifying. However I have been unable to think of anything. Perhaps you can give it some thought as you stroll along.

It reminds me that many years ago Malcolm Fraser, a former PM, famously said, "Life was not meant to be easy" and was then crucified by the media. Much later he pointed out that he was only quoting Shaw who had gone on to say, "But take courage. It can be delightful."

I doubted whether his current prime minister or mine would be able to quote Shaw, or Shakespeare for that matter. 

The question preoccupied me during many a plod, and sent me off on many tangents. My response is neither original or profound.

I kind of like Tom Lehrer's image of "the razor blade of life". A bit hard on the bum, but better than toppling off on either side.

One joke has it that life is like a sewer. What you get out of it depends on what you put into it. But of course, what you put into it depends on the resources at your disposal, and these are not handed out fairly.

To different people, life is gift, a boon, a comedy, a tragedy, or to someone I knew, a vale of tears. That some people encounter the miseries and others the wonders of life is not fair.

What is life? Even to ask the question evokes those lines:

What is life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare

which are perhaps not so trite after all. Life is nothing, if we have no time to stand and stare. That's the unfairness, but if we have the time, we see that it's a bloody wonder!

Life is certainly unfair. As I have been walking, hundreds have suffered an earthquake in Katmandu and a consequent avalanche on Everest. Atrocities have been committed in Syria. Thousands of migrants have drowned for trying to seek a better life. In responding to one unfair hand, they were dealt another. Some countries receive an unfair share of typhoons, earthquakes or floods. Some people live on islands that will soon be submerged because the rest of us don't care what we are doing to the planet.

And individuals in every country are dealt uneven hands as well. Some lives are cut short by ill health or accident or poverty.

But much of the unfairness of life is the result of our own selfishness. And in consequence we need a principled government that does not pander to individual greed but which seeks a just society. Balance the budget, because not to do so is unfair to future generations. But do so by raising taxes, and not by cutting social programs which redress inequities and give every body a fair start in life. How any government can allow the rich to get richer at the expense of the poor, and the planet, is beyond me!

I used to be an optimist and think that we were gradually creating a better world. And strong social programs, and well managed overseas aid without an eye on what we could get in return might have produced a fairer world. Instead, well, you know what happened, and we now face the possibility of a quick end from a disenfranchised maniac with a nuclear weapon or a more lingering one from the pollution caused by carbon fuels. Hardly fair to future generations!

But life is still a wonder. We are only here at all because gravitational and other consonants were just right to prevent us from imploding or exploding. And somehow life has evolved into the wonders I see and hear all about about me as I walk: the cuckoos and the songbirds, the blackbirds and the magpies and the swallows that sweep under the eves, the bluebells and the buttercups, and the newborn lambs and foals and kids and calves that love to be alive.

 Today is my last day of walking. I took a bit of a risk in coming here, because I have to catch a train from Hendaye tomorrow afternoon, but people assured me that the bus service would provide.

I had been giving Spanish churches a miss. Garish baroque does not appeal to me. But the hexagonal church of San Miguel de Arretxinaga just outside Markina is quite unique. A photo does not do it justice, as I could not back up far enough to encompass the interia. The church was built in the 11thcentury around three megalithic stones which occupy half the church.

Another curiosity in the town is this piece of artistic graffiti. Like Guernica, this town suffered terribly under Franco's bombing, and the artist depicts the evolution of our species into a monster. It stretches for perhaps 30 yards around a wall.

I had the pilgrim's menu tonight at a local restaurant. Now there's value for money: three courses including a monster salad, three slices of very thin beef fillet, a bit tough, but so what, it's probably grass fed, and dessert. And of course, bread and wine, wine being a bottle to drink at will. It was only 10€. Eleven years ago, it was typically 8€.

I did not know when I walked this last step how I would get back to Hendaye for my afternoon train, but it was really quite simple: one bus into Bilbao, which was two days ahead on foot, and then another back to Irun, which in fact continued on to Hendaye and dropped me there. Travelling with me on the first bus was Victoria the Floridienne, who had found the Camino del Norte a bit lonely and was going over to Logrogno to join the crowd on the Camino Frances. As it turned out, a Belgian had come over from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port because he had found too many people there, so she is taking his place. Since she had finished with it, she gave me her guidebook to the Camino del Norte. I take this as a sign that I must come back and finish this walk.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Day 3. (Day 40). May 3, 2015. Orio to Deba. 36 kms

If the Dons sight Devon,
I'll quit the port o' heaven
And drum them up the Channel as we drummed them long ago

I was one of the early risers this morning, poking around beside my bunk to make sure I'd left nothing behind, trying not to wake anyone. I walked down the steep hill into the town where I found a cafe/bakery open for breakfast. I find that the Spanish croissants are heavier and stickier than the French ones. As I type this, I'm getting the iPad quite sticky. I hope it's not coming through at your end.

Then down to the harbour, across a bridge, and along the other side of the river towards the sea, keeping pace with the outgoing tide. Then up a couple of hundred feet, vines on the slope on either side, over the headland and down again to the seaside town of Zarautz, gorze and broom in full flower up the slope to my left, and the open sea on my right, a tiny little sailboat in the offing.

Another coffee, a cafe con leche this time, and then what must be one of the most delightful promenades of all, stretching all the way along the sea wall from Zarautz to Cetaria for five kilometres or more. A lone kayaker, a sailboat or two, and several rowing crews, always accompanied by a coach in a motor boat, for safety's sake as much as anything, I imagine, for if you caught a crab and capsized, you wouldn't last long in the cold sea. And yet, in the water just before Cetaria was a swimmer, paddling lazily, not splashing madly in a hurry to get out. And a young woman, tracing on the sand, Zana 💛 --,  but I never did find out whom. And aways the dogs on the beach, racing after the stick, returning it, and then facing the big dilemma of whether to hang on to it and be chased or to give it up and fetch it again. 

After Cetaria, it was up over the hills, into wine country again, with the sour smell from empty barrels coming from a winery somewhere. And always on the right the open sea, the Bay of Biscay, where Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey and Nelson and Drake kept the French and Spaniards at bay.

I sat  down on a bench in a public square in the next town of Zumaria, and suddenly the exodus from mass flowed through the square. This was no dwindling congregation. Little girls in white dresses for their first communion, and a tiny baby in arms for a Christening, but why were the little boys wearing smart little navy uniforms with braid on their sleeves and epaulettes on their shoulders? Here a lieutenant, there a captain, there a petty officer. Who were they? I found out later that this was the boys' dress for their first communion.

And then began the last stretch. Up 500 feet, then down again, up and down, up and down, along the road and then a rocky path, finally reaching 750 feet before descending rapidly into the coastal town of Ceda. A brutal final stretch! How many Mount Dougs I climbed today! I am staying tonight in a converted railway station. Trains still stop at the station down below, but the several floors above have been converted into a comfortable alberge.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Day 2 (Day 39). May 2, 2015. San Sebastián to Orio. 14 kms.

The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft aglay

In France, I was travelling first class. I was usually on my own in a gite, with room to spread my belongings far and wide, and leisure to sleep in if I wanted to. Here, I am confined to steerage in stuffy quarters with snoring companions and not enough room to swing a cat.

My English teacher used to complain, "You boys let off at either end whenever you feel like it." And we did. We were very competitive. It is a bit like that in the alberges. You have to get near a window if you want to survive the night. And you have to keep it open. 

In the morning the serious walkers are stirring before six. It is still dark, particularly as the small windows let in little of the light of dawn. I usually get up then as well, because it's not possible to sleep. Everyone is fiddling around trying to find things.

But this morning I took my time. When I looked out through the bars of my window, I saw blue skies and clouds tinged with red. A good sign. No need for my poncho.

I left soon after eight and climbed steadily up to about 1000 feet. I can see that this is going to be the pattern: sleeping at close to sea level, and then climbing up the hills the next day. 

As always, I talked to the animals that I passed. Some young foals were gambling about in a field. What fun they were having! And I was touched by the way this kid was snuggling up to her mother. 

 And then I passed the Marilyn Monroe of moocows. One milking from this one would whiten my coffee for the rest of my life.

I was planning to go further than this, but have ended up at the wrong alberge. The Ladies from Lyon had booked places at a gite a bit further on and had included me in their booking, and when I arrived here and the hospitalier said she spoke a little English, I asked her if she was expecting me. Yes, she said. And the French ladies? Yes. Several hours later when they hadn't arrived, I asked someone to translate my questions. No, she had received no booking. So I am about six kilometres behind schedule and will have to make it up tomorrow. But it is delightful here, and more pleasant than where I am supposed to be.

It was empty when I arrived, but is now almost full. I have met a Dutchman who is two weeks older than I. In the bed above me is a young girl from Quebec. When I said I was from Canada, she said she was too. I liked that.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Camino del Norte. Day 1. (Day 38). May 1, 2015. Irun to San Sebastián. 30 kms

Sumer is icumen in
Llude sing cuckoo

(This was the beginning of the Norte for me, and the end of my walk along the Piedmont from Montpelier.)

The ladies from Lyon did indeed get up at six o'clock, and not soon after that some Spanish music was rumbling through the alberge, so there was no sleeping in. I left soon after seven o'clock. Pilgrims were strung out ahead of me, some with sensible packs like mine, others carrying all their goods and chattels on their backs.

We climbed steadily, up and around a mountain, reaching about 800 feet over a dozen kilometres. One of the French ladies was flat on her back after the first steep ascent. Soon the beach and harbour of Irun appeared, and then a wide sweep of mountains, but down in the valley below were miles and miles of apartment buildings and heavy industry. As I walked on high, far removed from the industrial world below, I heard my first cuckoo.

I find I am in the middle of the pack. I do not reach the young blades, who are far ahead, but I overtake stragglers, especially those with heavy packs. Except when I miss a turning, and then I am at the back of the pack again.

There were yellow arrows everywhere: on the trees, on the poles, on the posts, on the road, on the rocks. It was impossible to get lost. Or so I thought.

Towards lunchtime, we started going down steeply, giving up all the height we had gained, going all the way down to the little port of Pasajes, where apparently some of the Spanish Armada was built. I walked through the medieval streets, seeing no arrows, I supposed, because no one wanted to disfigure the stone. Finally I thought I had better ask someone where the Camino was.

I must digress for a moment to explain that because it's my practice to leave for Europe straight after my choir concert, I often have tunes in my head which sustain my plodding or my marching rhythm. Two years ago, Haydn was particularly helpful in getting me up hills. Last year Carmina Burana was the wind behind my back on the ridges. But this year, none of the concert pieces was in my head.

An old lady whom I asked for directions to the Camino, was totally bewildered, but a man in a bar got very excited, took me outside, and pointed in the direction I had come. It couldn't be, I thought, I can't climb that hill again. He spoke in a torrent of Spanish, and I didn't understand a word -- except one: barco. I heard the phrase in my head from a work we had sung this year: El  barco. A boat, I have to catch a boat, a ferry, to take me across the harbour. And so I did. And I sang the words.

But then on the other side, it was up again, flight after flight of stone steps, perhaps a thousand or more, a 600-foot climb. And then along the cliff with beautiful views of the sea. But eventually it was down again, and I could hear the thunder of the surf, and there was San Sebastián, rows of stately hotels around the two large bays in which wet-suited surfers were doing their best to catch the waves (or looms as we used to call them). We walked for several kilometres along the promenade to a youth hostel on the other side of town. I was lucky enough to get the last bottom bunk. In fact I was lucky to find a place at all. Today is a feast day in Spain, and the youth hostel is not reserved for pilgrims. Some people were turned away.