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Bin Ridin
27-07-07, 16:19
Sat 21/7

A sort of (well-fed) pilgrimage

Madam, - I'm amused by the diary of your two middle-aged bikers in balloon suits en route to Santiago de Compostela, who are fortified one evening with Burgundian red wine, prawns, ham, duck, kidneys, and cheese. They are (self-confessed) impostor pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago or "Way of St James", which was officially recognised some years ago by the EU as a "Great Trans-European Walk".

Are they not embarrassed to be mingling on wheels with the ghosts of those hardy souls, heady souls, and perhaps lost souls plodding along that pilgrimage trail since the 9th century? Those walkers embarked on that daunting journey firstly to find themselves and secondly to reach the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the bones of St James the Apostle, brother of St John, were reputedly interred.

Christian legend has it that angels carried the saint's remains from what is now Lebanon to the distant spot in the north-west of Spain. So Mr Murtagh and his companion are not the only unorthodox travellers! - Yours, etc,

OLIVER McGRANE, Marley Avenue, Rathfarnham, Dublin 16.

Madam, - I read with interest about the meal the two bikers ate in Vézelay. It sounded delicious, but I'm sure Tony's cardiologist will not be pleased. Neither am I. I am Tony's wife! - Yours, etc,

ELIZABETH SULLIVAN, Ballydonagh Lodge, Delgany, Co Wicklow.

Bin Ridin
27-07-07, 16:20
Sat 21/7

Ascetics, bikers and bon viveurs meet on ancient pilgrim route

To Santiago/A sort of pilgrimage: On an uneventful day's biking, Peter Murtagh tells of the rigours of former Santiago days and finds out what motivates the modern pilgrim.

On May 15th last, Jan and Jeanne Kolen closed the door of their home near Utrecht in the Netherlands, hoisted on to their backs two rucksacks weighing 20 and 17 kilos each, and began walking south.

They haven't stopped yet and don't expect to until about September 15th when they hope to be in Santiago de Compostela.

So why does a 21st century retired local government official and housewife whose children are raised decide to walk several thousand kilometres across Europe to the shrine of St James the Great, one of the Twelve Apostles.

Christian history has it that James was at the Last Supper, witnessed the Ascension of Christ after His crucifixion and shared the first Pentecost with Him. Later, James fell foul of the authorities and is said to have been put to the sword in Jerusalem by King Herod Agrippa in AD44.

On his way to meet his maker, James allegedly cured a paralysed man who was so enthused that he got up and walked with the saint. So startled was James's accuser, Josias, that he converted on the spot. This did not endear him to Herod who ran him through as well.

About 800 years after all this, James' remains are said to have been transported to Santiago de Compostela and entombed there.

So what can all this mean to Jan and Jeanne Kolen, two pilgrims Tony and I came upon on a stretch of the pilgrim route known as the Napoleonic Way a little south of Thiviers in Perigord?

"Are you very religious," I asked Jeanne, a slight, smiling woman who, like Jan, has a scallop shell, the pilgrims' symbol, on her rucksack.

"Religion?" she says and, throwing her head back and laughing, pronounces "de Boel". This is pronounced dee bull and is roughly the equivalent in English of "that's rubbish!"

Nicola Roberts, a solicitor and law lecturer from London who tired of her legal vocation and now runs a pretty two-star hotel, the Hotel de France et de Ruisse in Thiviers, describes two types of pilgrims.

There's the serious devotee for whom the pilgrimage is undertaken for purely religious reasons, alone or with maybe just one companion for company. Often ascetic types, they are happy to survive on not much more than water and fruit from the markets. They haggle over prices and seek the cheapest room, says Nicola.

"I don't know why we don't offer them a bed of nails in the shed," she jokes.

The other type, usually younger than the ascetics who are generally in their 50s or older, tend to travel in groups and walk a limited length of the route each year. They want lashings of coq au vin and locally produced beverage. For them, it seems, the pilgrimage is more about having a different type of holiday, perhaps with a dollop of spirituality thrown in.

At St James's Gate in Dublin, when Tony and I were getting our pilgrim passport (dispensed by Guinness on behalf of the Irish Society of the Friends of St James), the lady at reception said the number of applicants has been rising in recent years.

"A lot of young people," she says as she rubber-stamps our first scallop shell into our passports.

The stats do support claims of growing popularity. Records of the cathedral in Santiago show that in 1986, 2,491 pilgrims paid their respects. By 2006, the number had climbed to 100,377.

That's nothing to the Middle Ages, however. According to Roger Stalley, the Trinity historian, the number of pilgrims in the 15th century peak years were up to two million a year. A staggering number.

Many came by sea from Ireland - from Drogheda, Dublin, Wexford, New Ross, Waterford, Youghal, Cork, Kinsale, Dingle, Limerick and Galway. Hospices to cater for ill pilgrims were built in Dublin and Drogheda.

The trip across the hazardous Bay of Biscay took them either to Bordeaux (often on wine ships returning empty to France) or to the Spanish fishing port of La Coruña. Conditions were often awful. In his essay, Sailing to Santiago, Stally quotes a vivid medieval poem in which the writer describes sleeping arrangements on deck: "For when that we shall go to bedde The pumpe was nygh our beddes hede, A man were as good to be dede As smell thereof the stynk."

Happily, the devotion of the contemporary pilgrim is not so tested.

Yesterday - an uneventful day's biking - we rode through several more wine-producing regions in Bergerac and near Bordeaux.

We passed near Sauternes and Monbazillac, regions of competing dessert wines. It is said that in medieval times while bishops drank Sauternes, the pope would settle for nothing less than Monbazillac.

Bikers had neither.

© 2007 The Irish Times

Bin Ridin
27-07-07, 16:20
Mon 23/7

A little bit of heaven as we pass into Spain

To Santiago/A sort of pilgrimage - from St Jean-Pied-de-Port to Ona: St Jean-Pied-de-Port is a bustling tourist town on the northern slopes of the Pyrenees, the final settlement of substance on the French side of the mountains.

This is the area where the four major pilgrim routes that traverse Europe, northeast to southwest, converge into the Camino de Santiago - the Way of St James - which wends its way between the mountains of northern Spain to the place that bears his name and where it is said his remains are interred.

In St Jean, there is a visitor centre for pilgrims. It is in the old town, inside the citadel on a steep, narrow cobbled street.

There are maps on the walls, photographs and various notices. Behind three tables sit three helpers who take their role very seriously and are only interested in genuine pilgrims.

They are jealous guardians of the integrity of the Camino - tourist-type queries are waved in the direction of the tourist office.

A visitor book holds messages from pilgrims in a variety of languages - French, Spanish, German, Dutch, Korean, Japanese and English.

The messages are generally of a piece: "My pilgrimage begins," is a popular one; "finally here" is another; "wish you all an enlightening experience," says another; "I hope you find what you are looking for," wrote Rachel from the US. "Nothing is impossible," wrote Bridgid and Damian, the final message when Tony and I examined the ledger.

Outside back in the modern town, our bikes have attracted attention. "Nice machines," says another biker from Kent. "BMW. Hmmm, ideal for touring."

His bike is a vast red and chrome Harley-Davidson, a machine almost the width of a car. It has a fat, wide low-slung seat and half-moon shaped handlebars that can only be grasped with outstretched arms.

The bike is really an armchair on wheels. On the exhaust pipe, there's a statuette of an impressively curvaceous naked woman lying outstretched. The inspiration for this could well be the female getting off another Harley, his companion apparently.

The road over the mountains rises from St Jean like a corkscrew, twisting and turning right and left every few hundred metres. It is almost impossible to get out of fourth gear but a pleasure to drive. "If there's a heaven, I hope there's bikes like these and roads like those," says Tony.

At the top and through the Cize Pass, Spain unfolds 1,000m below. Here for the first time since leaving Vézelay in central France, we see pilgrims in abundance. They are walking along a path kept clear by the sheer numbers using it but someone has also gone to the trouble of cutting back growth on either side.

A little further on is Roncesvalles, a large monastic settlement with a modest-sized collegiate church, open to the public.

The inside is in almost total darkness. A young man is sitting in silence in deep contemplation of the altar, behind which is a representation of the 12 Apostles, Joseph and Mary and, on top, Jesus.

The silence is broken when a couple enter, put money into a slot machine and cause the lighting system to burst into life.

They set up a tripod in the nave and start taking flash photographs from all angles. The young man exudes stoical indifference to this insensitivity.

There's an extraordinary photograph in a nearby cafe. It looks like it was taken in the 1930s or perhaps 1940s.

It is a view down a tree-lined street in winter, on either side of which are walking two rows of young male religious.

Strapped to the back of each man is what looks like a tree trunk with a cross-piece on to which their arms are strapped. Why would a person inflict such discomfort - pain surely - on themselves as a totem of zealous devotion? And is the difference between this and the way Shia Muslims flagellate themselves and draw blood only one of degree?

The road from Roncesvalles drops down to Pamplona and west to Logroño and Burgos, through Navarre and Rioja.

The land here is flat and dull but with mountains in the distance north and south. Cereal crops are grown on almost every piece of land visible from the road.

Not far from the modern road is the 1,000-year-old Camino, linking a necklace of pilgrim refugios, places of food and rest for the walkers stretching over 700 km from Roncesvalles to Santiago.

We take a detour north, into the mountains to a place named Oña, a small town discovered some years ago by my research assistant, Sancho Panza. The Hostal Once Brutos has single rooms for as little as €15 a night.

The Sidreria Bar La Terraza nearby does everything possible to deter customers. Its formica-clad interior is filled with ghastly Pepsi-cola-supplied plastic chairs. A deranged man who chainsmokes inflicts himself incoherently on all comers.

And then we have a meal of squid in garlic and butter - deep fried squid, octopus and then steak. Cooked perfectly, served with cheer and washed down with rioja served in the local fashion - ice cold. The Once Brutos and La Terraza will never make it into a tourist guide. More's the pity.

Next: Burgos cathedral and vespers with the Benedictine monks; and an Irish pilgrim

© 2007 The Irish Times

Bin Ridin
27-07-07, 16:21
Tue 24/7

A powerful symbol of Christian faith - and power and wealth
Peter Murtagh

To Santiago/A sort of pilgrimage - from Ona to Foncebadon: A pilgrim will travel a very long way before they find anything quite like the cathedral at Burgos. The Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James from the Pyrenees in France over 700 kilometres through northern Spain to Santiago, goes through La Paloma Street in Burgos, right past the cathedral door and reception centre.

And while the pilgrim has to pay a mere €1 to enter, compared with €3.50 for everyone else, more choose to continue on their way, or so it seemed to Tony and I.

A steady stream shuffle by, all rucksacks, walking boots and staves; chatting amiably among friends, some stopping for fruit and water, or just pausing for a rest. The cathedral is proud of its boast that it is the only cathedral to be a Unesco world heritage site, an honour bestowed in 1984. It's not hard to see why.

The architectural style is gothic (classical, florid and Renaissance), from the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, classical baroque from the 17th century and some small baroque additions from the 18th century.

Inside, it's a riot of vaulted ceilings, merging gothic arches, flying buttresses, towers, naves, transepts, stained glass windows and not one, but two cloisters.

There are 18 separate chapels, around the main nave. They commemorate various saints and aspects of faith, like visitation, presentation or relics. Most have altars, behind which are huge, ornate representations of Christ, his parents, the Apostles and aspects of His story.

Many are bedecked in jewels and silver and smothered in gold leaf. The choir, which dates from 1502, has 103 stalls carved from walnut. They took 100 years to craft. On opposite sides of the stalls facing each other stand two huge organs. Buried beneath the floor of the crossing is the grave of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, otherwise known as El Cid, Spain's revered Christian warrior and his wife, Doña Jimena. Above them is the intricate and heavily ornate dome and tambour, rebuilt between 1540 and 1568 after the original collapsed in 1539. When the rebuilding was finished, Philip II gazed up in awe and pronounced it was "more the work of angels than of men".

And everywhere you wander, there are alabaster sarcophagi, each with a recumbent sculpture of its occupant on the lid - usually a bishop or a rich person, a patron of the cathedral in whose name some bit was added.

My favourite is of Doña Mencia de Mendoza y Figueroa, whose much-loved dog is remembered in alabaster, sleeping in the folds of her gown by her right foot.

Burgos Cathedral will say many things to many people, things about faith, devotion, architecture and art. But to me it says most about power - vast, extraordinary power and wealth and fear of being at the receiving end of such power.

A greater contrast with this could not be found than the one we came across in the tiny hamlet of Rabanal del Camino, farther west. Four Benedictine monks from the monastery of San Salvador del Monte Irago are saying vespers in Latin in their little whitewashed chapel, half of which has been dug up by archaeologists, exposing ancient and, happily, empty graves.

The altar has a small, silver tableau showing Christ and the 12 Apostles, a goblet and a large vase of lovely pink roses, nothing else. About 80 people are crammed into the chapel. We are all shapes and sizes, several races and nationalities, and everyone is respectful and attentive to the ceremony.

We are reminded by a kindly, softly-spoken man in robes that "it is possible to confess in English, French, Spanish, German and Italian". "You are pilgrims and you are going in the direction of Santiago and St James. But I think also you are all going in the direction of God as well," he says.

Grattan Lynch, a tall, handsome young man from Celbridge, reads 2 Peter 1, 19-21 from the Scriptures. After holidaying in Andalucia, he decided to do some of the Camino. He's bubbling with enthusiasm and revelling in the camaraderie of the pilgrimage. He loves staying in the refugios and the banter that erupts around communal cooking.

The monks finish their vespers with The Lord's Prayer in Latin. They do it this evening, as they do every evening, and they will do so to a packed house.

Next: More Irish pilgrims and across the mountains into Santiago

© 2007 The Irish Times

Bin Ridin
27-07-07, 16:22
Wed 25/7

Listening in to the vital transmissions of Radio Camino

To Santiago/A sort of pilgrimage: As pilgrims mingle along the Camino, the information they exchange begins to travel as well, writes Peter Murtagh .

Information travels up and down the Camino. A pilgrim on their way to Santiago is likely to mingle with others and exchange information - "this refugio is better than that one", or "so and so from such and such country was a nice person/is best avoided", and so on.

As a pilgrim rests for a day at one point or another along the Camino, another crop of pilgrims will pass by and further mingling will ensue. In this way, information passes along bands of the Camino as pilgrims progress east to west.

Grattan Lynch calls it Radio Camino. And Grattan is the Joe Duffy of Radio Camino. He's full of information about pilgrims around him, behind him and in front of him.

We leave Rabanal del Camino for Foncebadón, a few kilometres farther along and 1,500m up in the Montes de León. "If you see Emer," says Grattan, "say hello from me." In the small hostel in Foncebadón, a slight young woman with a Dublin accent is asking the barman for something.

"You must be Emer," I say. "Howya!"

"How did you know that? How did you know my name was Emer?" she asks, startled. "That's really freaky."

Emer is a science teacher from Rathmines in Dublin who works at a school in Shanghai. In 18 months, she wants to do South America. She's doing the Camino now simply because she felt it was something she ought to do.

Nearby, there's a young couple from Liverpool. The woman gives me the most precise reason for making her pilgrimage of anyone I've spoken to. "I just wanted to get away from all that technology and have time to reflect on my own," she says.

In refugios dotted about the tiny village and in a few tents, the pilgrims are mostly asleep by 10pm, in preparation for a hard day's walking tomorrow. It is a clear night with the sky ablaze with stars.

Even before the sun has broken the horizon the next day, a stream of pilgrims has begun to flow through the village, past crosses that dot the route.

Where the Camino reaches the peak of the mountains a little further on, there's a tall, telegraph-style pole with a cross on top erected in the centre of a pile of stones. Its base is festooned with items left by passing pilgrims - flags, hats and scarves, a Dublin-Barcelona flight boarding pass, shells, broken sunglasses, a beer bottle and a small Buddha statue.

There are poignant messages too: memorial cards for dead friends or family members, one for a Markus Messner from Germany who died last year aged just 16; and thoughts about an Elton, "my South African friend . . . you'll be missed".

Around the corner, another weird sight. Manjarin is an abandoned hamlet, save for one dwelling - a stone rubble building that might once have housed goats. In front of it is a little terrace that looks like a Greek taverna.

In front of some pilgrims sitting there, two men - one in his late 60s, the other perhaps 45 - are dressed in hooded white cloaks with bright red crosses of Malta emblazoned on them. They each carry crusader-style swords, unsheathed, clasped in both hands, the blades held aloft and touching their faces.

They stand in front of a cross and, in a droning chant, say words like "Christos", "Iago" and "peregrine". The older of the two occasionally makes t'ai chi-like movements with his right leg and drags the tip of his sword across the ground as though drawing a line to keep out some undefined evil.

The spectacle is like a snippet from Monty Python's Life of Brian. But it's harmless and an amusing distraction. And there, perched on the terrace amid this surreal performance, is Grattan. He looks at us and gestures an uncomprehending shrug of his shoulders. It's about as good aexplanation as is possible . . .

The Camino winds its way across the top of the mountains, with spectacular views in all directions. Three pals from Limerick, Maoliosa Quinn (19), Donal Treacy (18) and Paul Murray (19), are making good progress on their pilgrimage, which they began in León.

They were classmates at Crescent College in Limerick, where a teacher, Fr Jim Maher, enthused about the Camino, which he walked regularly.

They had heard of us before we heard of them (Radio Camino was at it again). Their reasons for doing the Camino were similar to those of so many others - the physical challenge, a bit of craic, and meeting people of different backgrounds and cultures.

Maoliosa was doing some of it barefoot. "I don't know why," he says. "I just wanted to do it."

Santiago beckoned. We rode down from the mountains and ate up the kilometres. I had hoped the city would present itself over the brow of a hill, suddenly below us, gleaming in the sunlight and beckoning.

But it was pouring rain and there was a howling wind. It was all we could do to stay upright.

Next: St James's Day and the end of our sort of pilgrimage

© 2007 The Irish Times

Bin Ridin
27-07-07, 16:23
Thu 26/7

Pilgrim joy and riotous fiesta all part of final day
Peter Murtagh

To Santiago / A sort of pilgrimmage: There is near constant whooping, cheering and laughing throughout the eve of St James's Day as groups of younger pilgrims rush into the great square in front of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Finally, they are at their destination and they are ecstatic. They let rip - shouting and hollering and hugging each other with unbridled delight.

Some will have been walking or cycling for between 700 or 800km, depending on where in the Pyrenees they began their journey.

Some will have joined the Camino - the Way of St James - at points across northern Spain nearer Santiago, such as Burgos or León.

Other pilgrims who enter the square, the older ones, usually restrain their delight but are no less pleased at their achievement.

It must be an extraordinary, and not necessarily comfortable, feeling to arrive at the end of a pilgrimage characterised by contemplation, spirituality and camaraderie to be plunged into a city bursting with life.

Yesterday was St James's Day, the most important day in the calendar for Santiago and the place was packed with thousands of pilgrims and tourists.

It was marked the day before by prancing, dancing Macnas-style street characters, buskers galore (some classical but most playing Galician pipes), restaurants and bars overflowing on to the narrow old town streets and the whole thing rounded off by a midnight fireworks display.

All a far cry from life on the Camino . . .

The Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance cathedral of Santiago is another extraordinarily impressive sight. It is built of granite, the local rock, and is festooned with statues, many of them pilgrims, and scallops, the symbol of St James and the Camino.

The most ornate part is the altar and choir. Lots of gleaming gilt, gold leaf and silver, and lots of baroque.

But beneath the altar is a tiny crypt and what the pilgrim has come to see: the tomb of St James the Apostle. "Go forth to every part of the world," Jesus reputedly said and James obeyed his command.

He is said to have brought Christianity to Spain, the evidence for which is St Isidore, the bishop of Seville, who maintained that James "preached the Gospel to the peoples of Hispania and in the western places . . ."

Which is where his remains were said to have been interred, in Compostela, after his execution in Jerusalem in AD44.

They were rediscovered in 818 and today lie in a silver and gold-coloured metal casket sitting on top of a white marble table on which are carved two peacocks drinking from a bowl. (Peacocks were an early Christian symbol because, in ancient mythology, their flesh was said to be immortal.)

Pilgrims descend into the crypt and file past the casket silently. It is at the rear of a recess in a wall, beneath a single bright light, and beyond touch.

Yesterday, over 5,000 people crammed into the cathedral for the special pilgrims' Mass.

The celebrant was the Archbishop of Santiago, Julian Barrio Barrio, who was assisted by 25 priests, including Fr Eamonn O'Higgins, recorded in the sacristy ledger as a member of the Legionnaires of Christ from Ireland.

An elderly nun sang at various stages. Her voice had the sweet piercing quality of a 16-year-old but she must have been well into her 60s.

The cathedral's massive organ gave musical depth but, sadly, was little used.

Other Masses continued hourly throughout the day. Outside the cathedral, a raucous and well supported rally of Galician nationalists of the BNG and communists from the UP party, vied for attention.

The night before, jeering separatist youths ran the gauntlet with baton wielding police in the narrow streets.

They have the running of the bulls in Pamplona; here it's the running of the separatists. Young girls gazed admiringly at the youths and applauded their goading of the police.

Galicians are proud of their saint. But they are proud also of their cultural identity which, as far as my travelling companion Tony and I can detect, a very substantial number want to see translated into a degree of political separateness from the rest of Spain.

As St James's Day mellows into a lazy evening, pilgrims are still streaming into the square. They are all ages, but younger ones - teens to 40-year-olds - dominate. They are all nationalities, races, social backgrounds and, for all I know, creeds.

Religion, or adherence to organised religion, does not seem to me to be the chief motivating factor for most pilgrims.

While most clearly believe in a God, it is more a spiritual yearning that propels them to walk to Santiago.

And when they arrive, they enter the cathedral by the Portico of Glory, where statues of prophets - Moses and Isaiah laughing in greeting - gaze down.

A central column supports a welcoming statue of St James. When pilgrims enter, they touch the base.

So many - millions upon millions from all corners of the earth - have done so since it was made in 1188 that the imprint of a hand can be detected on the smooth stone.

But the column is fenced off today for restoration and is out of hands' reach. I want to come back when I can touch it.

• My thanks to the historian Dr Oscar Morales of Trinity College, Dublin, for pointing me to the works of Dagmar Ó Riain-Raedel ("The Irish Medieval Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela", History Ireland, August 1998) and Roger Stalley ("Sailing to Santiago: Medieval Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and its Artistic Influence in Ireland", a chapter in Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland: Studies presented to FX Martin ; ed John Bradley; Boethius Press, 1988).

Series concluded

© 2007 The Irish Times

01-08-07, 14:26
just back from trip through spain, portugal and france so here's a wee clip which fits in with your story! we decided to turn off the main road and ride some of the actual pilgrim trail for a laugh. excuse my wife's commentary during the video! enjoy...

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