El Camino de Santiago: Among sceptics and believers

These are excerpts from my travelogue while on the Camino de Santiago (The Way of Saint James) in 2010.

Sant Jean-Pied-de-Port (France) – Roncesvalles – Burguete – Bizkarreta – Zubiri – Larrasoaña – Pamplona – Cizur Menor – Zariquiegui – Uterga – Obanos – Puente la Reina – Cirauquí – Villatuerta – Estella – Ayegui – Irache – Los Arcos – Torre del Río – Viana – Logroño.

Camino de Santiago – I: Call me a pilgrim

How I ended up as a ‘pilgrim’ on the road to the much-venerated “Arab-Slayer” remains to be a mystery…
Why we crossed the formidable Pyrenees on foot from France and deep into Spain, hiking some 170 kilometres, is still a question mark…
Ten days before, my wife had handed me our pilgrims’ passports, credentials that allow us to stay in pilgrims’ hostels and refuges along the way…and by “the way” I mean the Way or Route of Saint James, better known as El Camino de Santiago.

Just like the Silk Road, the Way of Saint James is not just a “road”, but rather a network of roads and routes that come from all over Europe, and end at the Spanish pilgrimage city of Santiago. This route is one of the three most important Christian pilgrimage routes in the whole world, together with the route to Jerusalem and the one to Rome.

Four principal routes come from France and converge near Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains on the French side, and this is where we started our trip. The route then extends through Spain for over 750 kilometres till it reaches Santiago, and this route is known as the French Way, declared World Heritage by the UNESCO in 1993 as ‘Route of Santiago de Compostela’ for its religious, historic and artistic value. The route has over 1,800 buildings of incredible artistic value, and it played an indispensable role in connecting Europe through the cultural exchange it brought through the encounters between millions of pilgrims from different backgrounds. It comes as no surprise that the Council of Europe proclaimed this very same route as the ‘first European Cultural Itinerary’ in 1987.

Who was the Santiago Matamoros (Saint James the Arab-Slayer)? What was his story? Why do people go on pilgrimage to kiss the ground at his tomb? Stay tuned in.

Camino de Santiago – II: The Arab-Slayer

A decapitated cadaver is ‘smuggled’ out of Palestine by two men…they sail all the way across the Mediterranean, crossing the Pillars of Hercules and reaching Galicia in North-western Spain where they burry the cadaver…
Some 8 centuries later, a hermit is guided by ‘strange celestial lights’ to discover the headless cadaver and its tomb, and declares it to be that of the Apostle Saint James (Santiago), one of Christ’s disciples, believed to have brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula.

The much-needed ‘image’ of the saint was celebrated through the erection of a church, later destroyed by Almanzor (al-Mansur, chamberlain of the Umayyad Caliph), then rebuilt again. Pilgrims started visiting the tomb, and the road eventually became a very important pilgrimage route from the 10th century onwards, since Rome was in turmoil and Jerusalem was in Muslim hands.

With the tough grip of the Islamic rule in al-Andalus, Christianity needed a hero, and this is how Santiago emerged as the Matamoros (Arab-Slayer) following his ‘miraculous’ appearance on the Christian side in a battle against Muslims. Funny enough, when the Spaniards conquered the Americas, the figure of Santiago Matamoros converted into Santiago Mata-Indios (Native American Indians’ Slayer)! Incredible just how many brutalities could be attributed to a saint that –originally- was a Jew and –by today’s geographical concepts- came from an Arab country (Palestine).

Among the believers and the sceptics, the solitary backpackers and the ones who go in the company of donkeys, those who lost something and those looking for something without knowing what it is…the road did not change my life, it only gave life to the change inside me. Stay tuned in for the experience.

Camino de Santiago – III: A Walk in the Clouds

Earth on fire, or so it seems as the hefty fog in the high Pyrenees conspire with the wind and the mud of the ages to make our day impossible.

A walk in the clouds as we hike up the Pyrenees, crossing the French borders to Spain. A vast French landscape dominated by green and red, dotted with healthy horses, white sheep and happy cows.
Muddy paths, thick woods, hills with misty villages that seem embarrassed by their insignificance, green valleys where medieval bridges hang over little rivers. Finally we are in Spain…

How many villages did we stroll through? How many churches did we marvel at? How many bridges did we cross? I cannot remember, I only remember that we strolled, we marvelled, we crossed…
We celebrated little victories and fleeting moments that were made immortal by an improvised company of friends with nothing in common other than the road.

A tiny cloud can make the world a very dull place, and as the sun shines again, the landscape comes to life and the road reveals its marvel…Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained.

Camino de Santiago – IV: The Dilemma of Arrival

At night at one of the albergues (pilgrims’ hostels), originally a medieval church. The nights become alike as I listen to an almost synchronized symphony of snoring and squeaks as tens of exhausted pilgrims turn in their small beds, with an occasional cough interrupting the recital.

The dilemma of arrival for a true pilgrim is a simple one to explain, an impossible one to solve:
As a true pilgrim, you can have only one destiny: Being a pilgrim. Where that takes you is not the issue, because if you have a final destination and you reach it, you lose the ‘state’ of being a pilgrim.
If you have no final destination, how can you ever ‘arrive’?
A true pilgrim yearns to the road, but does not aspire for arriving.

Those pilgrims you meet on the road, they become part of the road, your road.
You may like them or dislike them, but they are part of your pilgrimage and part of the collective memory of the road.
You meet someone, you talk, you see that someone on and off along the road, with joy or with irritation, then that person is gone when you have just learned to miss him/her…but the road is long and tomorrow brings more…there’s always more.

Camino de Santiago – V: The Milky Way

All these little rivers, where do they come from? Are they sad about leaving the mounts or are they eager for reaching the sea? Do they correspond to other rivers in the night sky above? Do they make the same trickling sound? Do they obey the rules of the music of the spheres?
On the road, all is possible. At Zariquiegui we came across a monument to the pilgrims, a silhouette of a caravan with a sign that read:
Where the way of the wind crosses with the way of the stars.

A splendid starry night in a godforsaken village, constellations showing off but Orion dominates the scene and rules supreme. A hazy band, like a distant river, flows, or floats, across the night sky.
Does the Route of Santiago really follow the celestial Milky Way? Or is it the other way around?
Is the Milky Way really made of galaxies, stars and stardust? Or is it made of dust stirred by the footsteps of millions of pilgrims along the way to Saint James?
A romantic would tell you “Yes, it is the dust from the pilgrims’ footsteps.”
A sceptic would smile mockingly saying: “Get real.”
A pilgrim, however, would tell you that the road is long and tomorrow is a tough day along the road where the way of the wind and that of the stars are one.

Camino de Santiago VI – The Road

The more you walk the road, the more it absorbs you. The tougher it gets, the tougher you become, and the softer at heart.

The road makes you hungry then rewards you with figs, almonds and walnuts…lots of them. It gives you despair as it seems infinite, then gives you pleasure as the next village slowly reveals itself to your tired eyes.
The feelings are intense, the senses sharp, and it all seems to be a set of variations on the main theme that revolves around Pain and Passion: two sides of one and the same coin, and I tell you: Pain, I win…Passion, you lose.

Sleepy Spanish villages…silent as if unaware of their own existence…an existence that they owe to the Route of Santiago, without which they would be mirage points on an alien map.
Tiny villages that don’t even have a bakery or a pharmacy…
Then came small cities with many charms like Puente la Reina and Estella…
Then big and monumental cities like Pamplona and Logroño…
The road takes you to them all; the road stretches your limit through them all.

We gained many things along the road, and lost some others. Every day our cultural baggage –and obviously, our bags- felt heavier, but our souls lighter.
You need the road to learn about yourself, inasmuch as you need a crisis to learn about your friends. You need passion to make sense of the road, just as much as you need a companion to make sense of life, and this is why I am grateful.

Camino de Santiago VII – Among Sceptics & Fanatics

A peaceful Romanesque church with a wooden life-size statue of Christ on the cross. A French group walks into the church disturbing our solitude.
A man inserts a coin into a slot, turning the spotlights on. The crucified man suddenly comes under an attack of camera flashes, then the lights went off, and he –again- falls into oblivion…and I wonder what was it that offended me more: The lights being turned on or off?

A bar on the road, a heated discussion with two religious fanatics who called me ‘moro’. Following some racist comments against which I maintained my calmness, one of them tells me of a place in his province (Jaen) called Despeñaperros, which means “hurl down the dogs”, and with a wink explains that this place is where the Muslim captives were thrown into a deep canyon following the Christian victory in Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212. The two men did not know that the very name of their province, Jaen, is an Arab word meaning “meeting point,” and what an offence they took when I told them this! Offended or not, it is history, and I told it, also, with a wink. I wanted to add, but didn’t, that if they are that irritated about the ‘moors’, then better not speak at all, because over 15% of their language (Spanish) comes directly from Arabic!

Walking down the Roman path in Cirauqui…how many armies must have walked these very same stones? And how many lovers? How many pilgrims must have crossed the Roman Bridge here? What did they find on the other side?
Many are those who set on the road to Santiago, but few are the ones that make it all the way to the apostle’s tomb and kiss his feet, and even fewer the ones that go all the way to Finisterra, burn their clothes, bathe in the ocean, wash their sins, and come back with the scallop shell that symbolizes the road and guide the pilgrims. Does the world really end at Finisterre? It once did for sure.

I contemplate my shell, as the grooves in it resemble the many routes that come from all over Europe and converge at the tomb of Santiago. Tomorrow is another day.

Camino de Santiago VIII – From Charlemagne to Amir al-Moamineen

It was in 732 that Charles Martel stopped the Islamic troops in France in the much-celebrated Battle of Poitiers. Later, his grandson, Charlemagne, would also score other victories and suffer losses against Muslims, but one day, after crossing the Pyrenees back to France, a part of his army led by his nephew, Roland, got ambushed by the natives and was massacred. This half mythical tale is still told today as the Song of Roland, a French epic celebrated throughout Western Europe, but instead of the natives, the Arabs are the ones guilty of ambushing and killing the Franks.

At Roncesvalles, I contemplated the famous Chess Set of Charlemagne (a masterpiece of the 14th century that has nothing to do with Charlemagne!), then shifted my looks into another curiosity of the Museum of the Royal Collegiate of Santa Maria: A huge green emerald known as the Miramamolín (from the Arabic Amir al-Moamineen, Prince of the Faithful), a trophy won by King Sancho the Strong at the Battle of Navas de Tolosa in 1212. Supposedly, after his blasting victory against the Almohads, Sancho took much booty, including parts of the chain that defended the tent of al-Nasir Mohammad (known in Spain as Miramamolín) and an emerald that adorned his crown. Today both the chain and the emerald form part of the coat of arms of Navarre.

In Pamplona, the capital of Navarre, we were told that part of the iron gates inside the Cathedral’s cloister also comes from the Battle booty…in Roncesvalles we saw another part of the chain in the burial chamber of Sancho the Strong…this chain seems to be everywhere, a reminder of the Christian victory over the heathens. In the same chamber, an exquisite coloured window features a scene from the battle.

Charlemagne, Roland, Sancho the Strong, Miramamolín, you meet them all along the road to Santiago.

The sun slowly yawns then climbs up some imaginary celestial stairs, setting the dark blue clouds on a pure orange fire…a fire that slowly consumes our vacation days. The vacation is over but our journey is not…we leave the road and part of us stays there till we go again one day to resume the pilgrimage.

Camel – Camino de Santiago, Oct’ 2010

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