Friday, January 30, 2009

Greetings from Sunny Spain

The rains of Spain may be staying on the plains, but I'm in the mountains where SPF45 is needed and a jacket is not :-)

I've just arrived into the Benedictine Monastery in Ronscavalle that has been here to help pilgrims for centuries. The Basque Country on both sides of the frontier between France and Spain is glorious. Rolling hills, cows and sheep grazing, small cheese and salami vendors in villages. Really nice area.

I encountered two pilgrims yesterday on the French side of the Pyrenees. The first, a Frenchman on the trail. He was heading back to his home in France. We spent some nice moments talking - my first co-pilgrim of the journey. The second was a Pole at the pilgrim house in St Jean Pied de Port, the last town before the pass. My first dormitory 'bedfellow' on the trip. The unusual situation exists in Pilgrimland, of sleeping three feet away from a married man and we're both wearing just a tee shirt and undies, and it's all very acceptable. Odd.

More soon...

Fat and Happy Stonecutters

From what I've observed on my slow, long walk, I've concluded that there could have been no one fatter or happier than a 12th-century stonecutter. There must have been a lot of them, too. And if stonecutters are fat and happy, well then, it stands to reason that the butchers, the bakers, and the candlestick makers were surely getting their cut, too.

I conclude this from the preponderence of 12th-century stone structures that exist, both civil and religious, in cities, towns, and the smallest of villages.

I ask myself, looking around me through all of these regions, why the 12th century? Something special must have been going on to prompt the burst of thoughtful, artful, meaningful big things hewn from stone. How did it get started?

In the north, I learned, William the Bastard went abroad looking for a better name for himself and came back from England as William the Conqueror. Bad for the English, maybe, but it brought side benefits... not the least of which was Middle English, which really makes more sense. His control over vast lands eliminated the battle over them and put money in his pocket - then he kicked off the whole 'gothic' thing.

Much further to the south, the king of Genoa took full advantage of the budget problems of the previous Emperor of the Eastern Empire. In the late 11th century, the ready solution to the cashflow situation was to cancel the standing army in order to fund the arts. Rock on. It may have initiated the ultimate demise of the empire, but what a great way to go. Threat of countryside skirmishes thusly eliminated, the Genoan king, faced with a myriad of problems associated with urban overcrowding, sent teams of priests and monks into the countryside, each given compass direction and number of days' walk. Go, build a church, people will follow. Following these orders, the populace displaced themselves willingly resulting in the quaintest of countryside villages today. It's particularly interesting to walk in the hills above the Cinque Terra and stumble on the ruins of a church that for whatever reason never attracted the villagers it was built to serve.

Meanwhile, the successful 8th-century Muslim invaders down in Iberia, settled in with the invaded by exercising broad religious tolerance - use the synogogues and churches already in existance, or join us in the mosque, whatever. They supported education in a big way, allowing the copying of clever scientific manuscripts by anyone with some vellum and a pen. Algebra, anyone? Humanities, philosophy, all sorts of subjects now being copied sure opened the market for scribes and illuminated monks.

In a big chunk of what's now France, Eleanor of Aquitaine married into England for political motivations in the middle of the century and much later her grandchildren began their squabbles over their inheritance in the 100-years'-war between France and England. Bad all around, but how many plays would Shakespeare have written without that family providing the tales?

Sadly, but key to the evolution of European culture, the whole 12th century, and those to follow, was funded by the ridiculous crusades. After centuries of wars and local battles throughout the continents, having an 'away' for a good 100 years allowed for the home fields to be tidied up.

So the stonecutters were pulled from all quarters, and of course, engineers, project managers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, the tile guys, an occasional plumber, let's hope - all hands on deck to create the cathedrals, those massive and those minor, parish churches, abbeys and monasteries, and the massive fortified chateaux of the rich and famous.

Technology advanced by leaps and bounds long before the end of the century. Word got out about the enormous cathedrals of Chartres, Paris, Reims, and other northern cities. Some dude named Armand Picaud wrote what is claimed to be the first tour guide - a pilgrim's guide to Europe from five different footpaths to Santiago de Compostela. Copies still exist; it's quite well quoted even today. The copies were aided by the 12th-century development of papermaking in Europe, hand in hand with wind- and watermills. Technology went wild, like electronic technology today.

Toward the end of the century, the exchange of knowledge was incredible... scholars going all over in search of higher education, universities opening everywhere. Many of the scholars were monks. Francis was preaching 'don't think, just love one another' in Assisi; Dominic, in Spain saying 'learn everything possible'. Pilgrims were on the move - men, women, from all walks of life, to Santiago, Rome, Mont St Michel, Canterbury, loads of other towns with a Saint or a martyr attached to it, many attracted by all relics or trinkets brought back by the crusaders who needed to justify their behavior.

And those stonecutters kept carving their wonderful architectural sculptures creatively depicting biblical stories and mythological allegories for us to enjoy today. Everything unique. The centuries that followed were also full of beautiful art and architecture - that renaissance thing going on in Italy by the 15th century particularly comes to mind - but to wander around and look at the remains of 12th century really highlights those stonecutters' efforts.

Monday, January 26, 2009

An exceptional pilgrimage

With the rain of late, the rivers had long burst their banks before the storm hit. The saturated soil couldn't hold onto the roots when the winds came and those that didn't snap like toothpicks were uprooted at their base. Whole forests tumbled like dominoes, and I was there to see it. All of southwest France and the north of Spain have been hit hard in this exceptional natural disaster.

What else can I do but walk? Electricity and phone lines are strewn about like discarded spaghetti. It'll take weeks if not months to get it all straightened out. The last three pilgrim houses I stayed in had no power, heat, or hot water. I've finally walked to a high point and a larger city that has power - 80 kilometers from where the storm hit hardest, lucky me for having been in the worst of it. Kind people have offered me hot soup and have allowed me to dry my clothes in front of their fireplaces. It hasn't been cold at all... 10° to 14° (=mid 50s). Every day I've had the joy of dry socks and undies, so comfort isn't really a problem. It's a natural disaster here, everyone makes do. There are many silver linings to these clouds, not the least of which is that with all of the downed pine trees, the fresh scent of Christmas is in the air. I find it all very interesting.

After Christmas, I walked through weeks of exceptionally frigid weather, unlike what had been seen in a lifetime. After that, exceptional snowfall - the first snow in a decade. Now the exceptional wind. The flooding has already begun, but I'm just at the foothills of the Pyrenees, so I don't expect that to affect me negatively. What could be next? A few day of exceptional sunshine really wouldn't hurt at this point :-)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I'm not the only winter pilgrim!

The further south I travel, the more pilgrim houses are available. Small refuges owned by the municipality and run by local volunteers; three or four bunkbeds each with a pillow and a blanket; a shower and restroom, heat and a kitchenette. Basic things a pilgrim with a sheet and a towel needs, all for a donation or a small fee, tea bags and pasta included.

Importantly; there's always a 'Livre d'Or'; the Gold Book for registering and leaving a pithy comment.

In the village of St Martin de Lacaussade; one day's walk north of Bordeaux; I saw the notation of a Belgian pilgrim who passed there on New Year's Day; nearly three weeks ahead of me. The gracious keybearer of the pilgrim house is proud of her headcount - my arrival in the same month puts the count ahead of previous Januarys'.

I expect that once I cross the Pyrenees in a week and a half; I'll start seeing others. Though happy in my solitude, there's comfort in knowing I'm not alone on the trail.

In Saintes, between Poitier and Bordeaux, the pilgrim house is built against the 12th-century church of 4th-century St Eutrope, whose tomb lies in the much older crypt beneath. The painting is of one of the eeriest capitals of a crypt column I've ever seen. The funny thing (as in odd, not haha) was that the light in the crypt, dim as it was, is on a timer. It took three cycles of the light switch to finish the sketch. Just my luck that the eerie capital is on the furthest corner away from the light switch, leaving me groping in complete darkness every time it switched itself off. Just me and the remains of St Eutrope down there...

Half Way There...

...not that that matters. I'm enjoying it. More than 1,100 kilometers have somehow passed beneath my feet and I've almost as much diverse and interesting land and culture yet to encounter.

Forty days walking and 30 watercolors to show for it. Three paintings every four days - not a bad output, considering the weather. I'll be sure to post all of them when I can. I'm not counting them, either.

A former pilgrim - a 'jacquard' I've learned the term for the fellas and 'jacquaire' for the ladies - told me of his camera-bearing companion on their pilgrimage from La Puy to St Jacques. He took over 5,000 digital photos of their journey. Compelled to do the math, I worked it out to be 10 photos every waking hour of every day of their walk. One photo every 6 minutes. I could imagine flipping through all of them would be like jogging along with them. However well organized they are afterwards, it would still take 80 hours to view all of them at 1 minute apiece. Maybe that's not the point. Whatever floats your boat.

What to do about the weather

I sadly overtrimmed the toenail on one of the little piggies who had roast beef and it turned out to be a bit of a blessing. The minor but constant annoyance of the sensitive skin against my wool sock took my mind off the miserable rain for a while. Some days are just crappy, it's a fact of life. It wasn't cold, there was no difficulty with the backroads, it was just a day that required an all out slog through the steady rain if any progress were to be made. Five hours of my life. The minor distraction helped, but it wasn't quite enough.

Another blessing - I was a 'band fag' as a schoolkid. That was the unfortunate term of the generation, but I was among good company. Our marching band director, getting on in years, turned over active football field and parade participation to me - as head drummer, I set the tempo and the other 125 band members followed. I tapped my sticks together three times, did a short roll-off and we all set off left foot forward. Even now as a pilgrim, the mental hum of '76 trombones in the big parade...' sets me off on my left foot at a comfortable pace of 5 kilometers per hour. Heavy rain, though, needs more...

On such days as the southwest of France has been producing lately, the diversion of a tender toe cuticle and the humming of a marching band standard haven't been cutting it. Deep in my pack, I'm prepared with upbeat favorites on my little MP3 player. I can listen to Vivaldi's Winter storms and anticipate his flowers of Spring. He's written tempest and tranquility in each of his Four Seasons and his allegros get my legs moving.

Although I prefer listening to the world around me, there are times when I don't mind reaching into the micro-electronic age for a little musical assistance. Big, energetic, get-those-feet-moving sounds like William Tell, Ride of the Valkyries, Overture 1812, Carmen... go, pilgrim, go! And there's nothing like Ravel's Bolero for endurance - start to finish and another kilometer's behind me.

Tempests, as Vivaldi has shared with us for centuries, do come in every season. A former pilgrim I met in Tours admitted that it rained for 15 days straight when he started off for St Jacques one April. I wouldn't have the battery life to get me through a 15-day slog, but for now, I can loose myself inside the two tiny wires coming down from my soaked cap and get through a few bad-weather days.

The painting is one of a group of bronze pilgrims in the town of Pons, a few days north of Bordeaux. Slightly larger than lifesize, the modern sculptures show medieval pilgrims experiencing chronic difficulties with weather, with the leader pointing the way to the pilgrim shelter. I did the sketch in the pre-dawn pouring rain hiding under the bronze cloak of another statue.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sunny and 10°!!

The best thing about starting off recent mornings at -13°, -11°, and -9°, is that the morning when it's +1°, it feels like a refreshing heatwave. Do I wear wool longjohns or silk or, dare I, none at all? What a tough decision. (These are all in Celsius, American friends, 10°C = 50°F). After the exceptional coldness of the last weeks, the relatively deep snow after Tours, and the fatiguing icy streets and paths, the weather through the countryside these past few days has been perfect for hiking.
I've been seeing new sections of France for me - interesting and quite different than other parts I've visited. Charlemagne's been everywhere it seems. In Tours, a tower named for him marks the grave of his wife, who died accompanying him on one of his journeys. Aw. In Aulnay, the silver mine discovered during his reign provided the substance for his coinage. The mine is closed to visitors in winter but would be interesting to see. Chuck's grandfather, Charles Martel, gets more signage time in the area around Poitiers - he led a charge against the invading Moors and forestalled the area's enemy occupation for a while.

I arrived in St Jean d'Angély today, where Chuck's grandson, Pepin, had a vision to stop the war his was in against the Normans and to go to the nearby coast to meet a monk named Felix, who had his own vision to bring the skull of John the Baptist from the Holy Land to Pepin on the coast of Aquitaine. Intermixed visions... who'd have thunk it? In gratitude, Pepin sponsored the Cluniacs in building a grand abbey here. Sadly, though, the area fared poorly during the 100-years war with the English and the subsequent War of Religion, which became a local civil war. The relic of the great Saint was desecrated and the abbey destroyed many times over. There was a late 18th-century attempt to rebuild, but the revolution put a halt to construction and the part that was completed is now a lovely European Cultural Center and pilgrim house. Nice digs.

Wandering through the villages provides interesting opportunities. In overgrown thickets, there are many uniquely ornate private graveyards of Protestant families. 'Temples' are identified, though with little information about them, as places of late 17th-century worship. Austere is the word. I asked around and it seems they're still used today, but because of the dearth of Protestant pastors, services are limited to once a month or so. These are contrasted by the abundance of spectacularly ornate Catholic churches, several of them designated as UNESCO cultural heritage sites. I've attached a few watercolors, though the colors look pretty funky...

This is historically interesting as being the place where St Hillaire did his thing in the mid 4th century... I saw his reliquary. The big thing about him, other than converting the populous during the Gallo-Roman era, was being the big influence to St Augustine, who studied his methods and commentaries. Augustine became a pretty influencial guy himself, what with the whole monastic-rule thing, but attributed much to St Hillaire. St Martin then came to town, leaving his life as a Roman soldier behind him, to study under St Hillaire. Martin founded a monastery in Ligugé. I stayed there the other night, with the 24 monks who chanted the psalms in the gregorian style in their modern chapel. I'm sure Martin assumed they'd modernize the place since he built it in the 4th century. It's all pretty cool stuff.

Europe on $5 a day?

It's really possible. $5 a day.

These days when people say they backpack through Europe, there's an implication of Eurail Passes and youth hostels, and it costs more like $45 a day. To actually backpack through Europe, though, by walking, not taking the train, is not only fully do-able, but it's a terrific experience and low cost.

For pilgrims to Santiago or other major traditional routes (Rome, Mont St Michel, among others) and for Boyscouts and Girlscouts, it is entirely possible to walk through Europe, from small town to small town, to discover the places and the people for very little money.

In many towns, local residents put themselves on a list at the mayor's office or tourist information center to host such a traveller for a night and give them dinner and breakfast at no charge. 'Chez l'inhabitant' is the designation. They're often retired couples with empty bedrooms since their kids have moved away. It's a win-win convention, like the modern 'couch-surfing' idea. In larger towns, where there's a priest in residence, checking in at the parish office, is another place to find a place to sleep for the night - the priest knows a lot of people.

I highly recommend travel for anyone who's interested in expanding their horizons. Walking not only allows for an intimate discovery of the land and people, unachievable by car or even bicycle, but is terrific for fitness. In summer, for those who can tolerate the heat, a light sleeping bag, a change of clothes, some basic personal items, and a few odds and ends in a small backpack, is easy to manage.

I send out an appeal to anyone with a sense of adventure and a little time on their hands to give this a try - in France, in Spain, in Italy... wherever. Students - step up, show some courage, set off and learn about life. Language teachers - what better way to keep up your language skills on your summer holiday. History teachers - walk the walk, don't just talk about it in the classroom. Architects, engineers, artists, musicians, journalists... who couldn't benefit?

What are the arguments against this? It's dangerous. Life's dangerous, get over it. The chances of encountering some nasty diabolical person are no different in the French countryside than in your own hometown. Don't understand the language. What better way to learn? It's far away. Bah... just an excuse.

There are people who want life to be multiple choice - a list of all the different things to do with everything explained in detail, and after thorough evaluation and consultation of appropriate guidebooks will select from the list with full expectations and no surprises. How safe. How unrealistic. Others just open the door and start off without any preconceived ideas. What's the worst that can happen?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

... in Amboise, former home to kings

Greetings all,

The weather's been uncommonly cold, even for the middle of winter. Three inches of snow covers the land since yesterday afternoon, sadly, not the beautiful winter-wonderlandy kind, no, the gray dingy kind under a low gray sky. After struggling through 8 kilometers of slippery unbroken trail along the left bank of the Loire this morning, I finally came out to a road, dangerously unplowed, and promptly accepted a lift into Amboise, my planned desination for the day. Walk 8, take a ride for 20... in these conditions, there's no shame. On the bright side, since I'm wearing nearly all of the clothes I've brought, I'm carrying next to nothing :-)

My early arrival has given me time to take a tour through the castle. Among other French royality who lived here for centuries, Charles VIII is prominantly featured. I notice in the carvings and paintings of him, he's always shown with scallop shells around his collar - big sign he was a pilgrim to Santiago. Maybe yes, maybe no, but scallop shells symbolize St James.

I'll go in search of the parish priest - the curate in Blois gave me the heads up that the parish here has pilgrim lodging. Excellent. I look forward tomorrow to arriving in Tours. I read that the Amis de Saint Jacques meet in a pub in the old part of town on the first Wednesday of the month. Grand and happy coincidence.

Amboise has a nice little cybercafé with a scanner - so here are a few paintings attached - that's the St James' Tower in Paris, an interesting gargoyle in Suévres - the devil on the shoulders of a monk, and a nice room with a fireplace in the Amboise château...

A pilgrim?! - EEK!!! A pilgrim?! - Cool.

It's not always good. On Sunday morning, I walked through a small town on the Loire - a château, a former abbey, now a 5-star hotel, closed for the winter. Just past dawn, which is to say around 9 am, I went into the church. The abbey is long gone, so the once grand abbey church is now a parish church. The fact that it was formerly an abbey is evident - 11 arches around the apse. I was alone. There was no heat. Nonetheless, I took off my pack and set down my walking sticks. With an information card in hand, I learned about the art and carvings, about the history and significent events of the church. Lots to learn, lots to see in the dim light. It was gorgeous.

After a while, just as I was collecting my things to leave, an old woman came in. I assumed she was a kind person, but when she saw my backpack on a pew and looked over my clothing, I could see she jumped with full abandon to the wrong conclusion. Right there in the apse, she started shouting at me, so loudly I expected lightening to strike at any moment. She shouted and ranted, threatening to call the gendarmerie, the police - shouting that a church is a sacred place, not a campground for vagabonds! I tried to get her to calm down, to explain what somehow my scallop shells failed to do. I'm a pilgrim, not a vagabond. If she had a broom, I'm sure she'd have been hitting me with it. She was relentless. Fine, call the gendarmerie, save me from her. I had a stamp from the chambre d'hôte from the night before 10 kilometers away, I had done nothing wrong.

I was saved by the arrival of another old woman. The first nasty bag holding me by the arm shouting to the newcomer that she'd caught a vagabond, clearly wanting some glory. The new woman took one look at me and smiled - Bienvenue, madame pèlerine, would you like a stamp for your credencials? Sure, why not. I now have proof of my visit to Our Lady of Beaugency. Pray for our parish when you arrive in St Jacques, would you? Of course.

A few hours later, further on in another village, just after I finished painting a frosty bucolic scene of the Loire valley, a couple pulled up on the one-laned road. Pilgrim to St Jacques, would you like to lunch in our home? Oh, yes! (Sundays are difficult days to find anything open and I often don't eat.) I was welcomed into the village home of Odine and Phillipe, who wish to make a pilgrimage to St Jacques soon, now that the last of their children have left home. Utterly kind. Pray for us in St Jacques? Most definitely.

Can it really be the hair?

My search for a warm, dry place to sit one afternoon was hampered by a locked village church. The reason some of the churches are locked and other not are varied - some churches hold precious relics or priceless art, some are completely unattended, some have notes on the door with the keybearer's address, usually on the same square. About half, in my experience, are unlocked, but it happened one cold, raw day, the village church was locked. There was no café or bar; the school and mayor's office locked, too.

At the edge of the village, I saw a light on behind steamed-up windows of a 'Coiffure'. The Christmas decorations around the bay window invited me to peek my head in the door. I saw two women smoking cigarettes and chatting away, a small dog with a bow on top of its head wagged its tail at me. I explained that I just wanted some place to sit for a little while. They invited me in graciously. The older women got me a cup of coffee, the younger took my hat and gloves to the radiator.

Out of occupational habit, obviously, the younger woman studied my hairstyle as we talked about my pilgrimage. She probed at it and arranged it - natural? she wanted to know, the color, the waves... and you wear a hat all day?! I'm lucky that I don't even need to brush it or blow dry it after a shower - it just always goes into place, regardless of the type of shampoo, no gel or mousse needed. She was heavily made up herself, with big complicated hair. Attractive, in a fashionable sense. I could never be a pilgrim, she concluded, I don't have the hair for it. It takes an hour every day to get my hair just right.

Who knew? Could simple hair be key to a pilgrim's life?

Meet the Mayor

There are times when I've just want a warm place to sit and rest for 10 minutes. A side-benefit of a long walk in winter, maybe, but I seek places indoors whenever possible.

A city has plenty of cafés and bars, of course, but standing in a village square, options are limited... the mayor's office, of all places, is a strong candidate for a place with a seat and heat - 'Mairie' in French. Sometimes the hours it's opened are very restricted - to Wednesday afternoon, often, when school's out. The school and mayor's office often share the same building.

If people are there, though, my experience has been that they're always happy to receive a visitor to their corner of the world - usually offering a cup of coffee and cookies or homemade cake, and warm conversation.

The mayor of St Fiacre, a village named for the Saint, patron of gardeners, who lived and died there, could not be more proud of his dominion. He opened the church for me and gave me a guided tour; he took me to the only place in the village for a cup of coffee, and was a bit embarrassed that it's so skanky; he introduced me around - a pilgrim, from America; he took me to the grand residence of the local Count, who was entertaining guests for the holidays, so we didn't ring the bell (I'd have loved to have met a Count!); he told me all of the details of Fiacre's life, death, and beatification with great enthusiasm. if anyone is in north-central France the first weekend of September, this mayor puts on quite a festival for the Saint.

I've met many happy mayors and others who work in the village hall. The reception has always been positive, the experience delightful. Meet the mayor - it's a terrific way to discover Europe.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Two Woman in Chartres

I made it to Chartres in time for New Year's Eve. It was a bit of a push, but I was interested in being in a city of size rather than in a little village - easier to find a place to stay. Foiled, a bit, though; the pilgrim lodging was closed for the night and the next, the priest's house had no room, and the kind nuns at the convent strongly urged me to find something else. They care for the aged infirmed, and aside from a piece of cake at 7:30, there would be no celebration but sleep.

Happy workers at the tourist information center stayed a little beyond closing time and found a room at a brand new, reasonably priced hotel for me. That set, I went to the famed Cathedral. The very first impression is that it could take a decade or more to just look at all of the carvings and stained glass themes, longer to really understand the meaning of them all. If Christian and classical symbols could fill an olympic-sized swimming pool, what I know could maybe fill a wineglass.

Standing mesmerized in front of the ornately carved screen that surrounds the choir, I was approached by a woman with two small children. The way I was dressed, my backpack, walking sticks, and scallop shell, wide-eyed, she wanted to know if I'm really going to St Jacques. Yes, by foot. She held my forearm with both hands. The Virgin protects you, she said to me, but whether it was a statement or a question, I couldn't tell. Either way, it's hard to know how to respond appropriately. I go with an open heart, I said. She gasped, and reached out to another group passing by. Before an instant passed, she had a small crowd gathered explaining that the Virgin is protecting me on my way to St Jacques. Everyone reached out to touch me, Bon Courage, Courageous, La Vierge... The woman told me she would pray for my safe journey and asked if I would pray for her in St Jacques. Her mother lies dying, she said, pray for her. Okay, of course.

An American couple sidled in, the woman in a fur coat, wanted to know in a heavy Long Island accent what was going on as she touched my arm like the dozen other people. I explained briefly - I'm a pilgrim to Santiago. Are you a celebrity, she wanted to know. No, just an ordinary pilgrim. Why does everyone here touch you? I don't really know... it just makes them feel better, I suppose. This woman with the children believes I'm being protected by the Virgin Mary. They touch me and wish me a safe journey. But why you, the American woman demanded to know. Because I'm taking the winter to walk from Germany to western Spain... it's difficult; some people find it inspiring. Well, how does it work, she pushed on, do they give you a map and tell you where to stay? It sounds expensive. There's no they, I just figure it out as I go. It's been done this way for centuries. Well, if you say so, she concluded and wandered off with her husband in tow.

The first woman with the children circled back to me, now that I was free again. What can I do for you, Madame la Pélerine? Her question was so genuine, I wished I could think of something. I need nothing now. I've eaten, I have a place to sleep tonight, I walk toward Orléans tomorrow. I'm fine. It's all good.