Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Best Pilgrim House – Saintes

The idea of modern pilgrim houses is a spectacular one, and little known by pilgrims off the main Camino Frances, the most popular pilgrim trail across northern Spain. The concept of inexpensive basic accommodation for people passing through on a long journey is ancient. In its modern usage, it’s not just for pilgrims. Scouts from teen years up to mid twenties traveling around to explore the world as well as students pursuing their studies generally have access, too.

The expression in French is ‘gîte de pèlerin’; in Spanish, the terms ‘refugio del peregrino’ and ‘albergue del peregrino’ seem to be used interchangeably. In Italy, ‘albergo per pelegrino’ worked well for me. I’ve never seen a map of them or found reference to them on a town’s website, but a network exists. I found them by asking at the tourist information center or at the mayor’s office or at the parish office of a priest, or failing the existence of such public institutions, asking at the bar/café/grocers/bakery generally works well, too. Sometimes the key is possessed tightly by a volunteer who comes out to receive each visitor, giving unnecessary militant instruction on the house rules; more often and more comfortably, the key or combination to a keyless entry is given freely for the asking.

This type of random accommodation may not be the thing for people who insist on planning out every little detail before leaving home, but 42 of the 84 pilgrim nights of my journey, I slept in a pilgrim house. They’re generally on the high end of ‘adequate’ – clean, tidy, organized, supplied with some basic kitchen items. Only a few times was there no heat source, and on just three of the 42 nights there was no blanket available. These digressions from my desires were all on the over-used Camino Frances in Spain.

The form of the pilgrim houses varies. In the Spanish autonomous regions of Castilla y León and Galicia, pilgrim houses are owned and operated at a central government level and therefore have a similar institutional appearance. The fee in these places is set at three euros a night. All in all, I paid an average of 6 euros per night at all the pilgrim houses I stayed in and never more than 11 euros.

I always considered it great luck to be able to stay in a pilgrim house, hoping for the off chance that it would be one particularly full of character. Of these, the pilgrim house in Saintes in the west of France gets my hat for the best pilgrim house.

Saintes was no doubt a spectacular and bustling place during the first centuries of the Christian era. In the third century, the story goes, when Christianity was still an outlawed activity, Eutrope, a pal of Saint Denis who met his martyrdom in Paris, became the evangelist of the day in the local community of Santones, who gave their name to Saintes. He did his job well enough that he got his head cleaved in two for converting the daughter of the governor. His work was appreciated to a level that his followers entombed him in a massive sarcophagus and later brought his case to the Pope so he could be sainted.

A series of churches were built around his tomb on the hill and the version that stands today is a massive gothic structure with soaring stain glass windows in the upper part and a lofty white stone crypt below where the sarcophagus stands surrounded by creepy but ornately carved columns.

Today, the roads of centreville Saintes retain their original Roman alignment and the ruins of the amphitheater, aqueduct, triumphal arch, and thermal baths are sprinkled around the steep hillside along the bend in the river, and the historical pilgrim path from Paris to Santiago de Compostela follows the same route as it did in the Middle Ages.

As in the Middle Ages, traditional accommodation is offered to pilgrims. A stone shed has been added onto the south wall of the church of Saint Eutrope, tucked into the space between two flying buttresses where the transept and apse meet. It’s large enough to house a handful of bunk beds, a kitchenette, and a restroom. Because the room was added onto the outside of the gothic church, two of what were exterior walls in the 14th century are now interior to the pilgrim room, complete with little statuary niches. Full of character!

I’m not sure when the pilgrim room was added – within the last few decades, I would guess. I applaud the inspiration the local folks had to build it and the volunteers who manage it. I doubt I would have known anything about Eutrope and the efforts that led to his sainthood had the pilgrim house been placed somewhere else in town. I went into the crypt and saw the sarcophagus and the sinister images carved into the surrounding columns. But as spine-chilling as I found some of the carvings in the crypt on the other side of the wall from my bunk, knowing the story of Saint Eutrope sort of allowed me to ‘befriend’ them. I slept as peacefully as always after a day of hiking and sightseeing and put the key through the mail slot when I left in the morning. A fine exchange of my 6 euros.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Best Pilgrim Gift - An Unexpected Candle

Pilgrims need very little. A big thing about being a pilgrim is that material possessions are minimal. The focus is on the experience. A gift to a pilgrim should be lightweight, small in volume, useful, meaningful.

I’m experienced and carry a small, light pack. Everything I carry fits in neatly and efficiently. Had anyone asked, and many did, I’d have said I need nothing.

On Christmas Eve, I arrived at the Abbey of Jouarre, a Benedictine monastery of nuns in a small village east of Paris. The nuns welcomed me warmly, invited me to Vespers and an evening meal, followed by Midnight Mass with the community and finally to a party. Having walked more than 35 kilometers (22 miles) on that cold sunny day, and despite a short nap after Vespers, I was too tired to enjoy a party and just put in a brief appearance for courtesy’s sake.

The nuns had invited me to stay a second night in the abbey, my first day of rest after 12 days of walking. On Christmas morning, the nun responsible for greeting guests pulled me into the room where the party had been. From the fir tree bedecked with handmade decorations, she untied a small package with a neatly written tag ‘La Pèlerine’, and handed it to a very surprised me. A gift for me. I unwrapped a simple tea light of aluminum punched through in a simple winter scene and in-filled with tiny bits of colored glass – a cabin surrounded by pine trees. A sweet little gift, for me. I thanked the nun and put it safely in my pack.

Nearly a month later, in the southwest of France, the hurricane hit. I was walking through the land of Landes and was taken unaware. In a day, the region was devastated; the forests felled in broad sweeps. Power was of course knocked out early in the storm, even before the floods hit, and wasn’t restored during the three days it took me afterward to walk to the higher ground toward the Pyrenees.

Who knew on that Christmas morning that the candle from the nuns would be so important to me? As I walked during and after the storm, residents, with many houses destroyed by fallen trees and floods, offered me tea candles to replenish the first that I burned during the first evening without power. It’s even possible to brew a cup of tea with a tea candle – cherished in the raw weather after the storm hit.

The lovely tea candle was the perfect gift – small lightweight and absolutely useful. While it burned for light and warmth in the unheated pilgrim houses after the storm, I thought of those kind nuns who gave me such an important gift.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Best Food – Logroño Tapas

Eighty-four days of walking means a lot of opportunity to eat regional food. I like to eat. While I’m hiking in early winter, I can’t really devote too many of the daylight hours to doing much else than walk, or I’d make little progress. For that reason, lunches during December and January are on the go – maybe a flaky roll from a boulangerie or some fresh-made cheese from a fromagerie, but mostly just some handfuls of ‘pocketfood’ like raisins, nuts, or the odd Clementine or apple. I usually carry a bar of dark chocolate with hazelnuts to satisfy mid-hike munchies. Simple, filling food I can eat on the go.

Dinners in Belgium and France were the main way not only to get the nutrients to offset the 5,000+ kcals of expended energy, but also to enjoy a delectable part of the local culture. To be sure, though, not every evening meal proved to be a gourmet’s delight. I ate a whole lot of potage, thickly puréed vegetable soup sometimes orange if heavy on the pumpkin, sometimes green if rich in spinach or kale, sometimes pale if loaded with cellared cabbage. I learned early on that this is the mainstay of country cuisine offered at private houses, monasteries, and country inns. What it lacks in excitement, it easily makes up for in nutrition, heartiness, and comfy-ness. Not outstanding, but who can complain?

It’s commonly understood that Europeans use far more of an animal than do Americans on the table, a fact that’s clearly revealed in the homemade andouille often proffered – all sorts of unmentionable organ meats loosely encased in intestines that tumble out odiferously when pierced. When hungry enough, and when served with enough wine, I can say it's not bad. I ate all of the pig’s cheeks and pig’s feet put in front of me, and credit some chopped unknown bits of the animal to impart a strong pigginess and depth to a simple potato casserole. As a break from pork, I learned that I prefer hare to rabbit if given the choice, though they seem to be equally common in winter stews throughout all the regions where I walked. This is the country fare of Belgium and France.

As I headed further south and west and closer toward spring so the days grew long enough that I wasn’t occupying every dawn-to-dusk hour with an uninterrupted pace, I was able to ease into the Spanish custom of eating a substantial bit midday and a lighter bit late in the evening. More time could be devoted to enjoying the essence of eating rather than just absorbing the calories and nutrients. Although I certainly enjoyed the foods I ate in Belgium and France, the foods of Spain really stand out in my memories. The trail I walked along in Spain crosses through six distinct gastronomic regions (Navarra (Basque), Rioja, Burgos, Palencia, León, Galicia), each with different specialties. Yum.

Of all of the food that I tried and enjoyed and tried to enjoy, what stood out as the most outstanding meal of my pilgrimage was in Logroño, the capital of Rioja situated just steps over the border from the Basque land of Navarra. It’s an old city with a mix of cuisine that comes from long being situated on the pilgrim trail. I benefited greatly from being in Logroño with two pilgrims: a Basque and a Mallorcan – Spaniards from different regions who have insider’s perspectives on how to get a good, inexpensive meal. It’s not too difficult to get a great meal in northern Spain, but with the greatest density of Michélin-starred restaurants in the world, working within my pilgrim’s budget and timetable was an added challenge.

The city-center pilgrim house in Logroño has a sadly early curfew of 9:30 – the restaurants don’t really open until 9 pm. Conveniently, as early as 7:30, the otherwise quiet narrow pedestrian streets began to come alive with the gradual unfolding of countless shot-gun bars, with shop fronts only as wide as the width of a door and a window; tall wine barrels rolled on edge to the alley to serve as table tops for the overspill patrons in the tiny places.

I would never have figured out, had it not been for my native companions, that each bar specializes in a particular item for their tapas-hungry crowds, though they all serve a broad menu of other items. One is known for mushrooms, another for squid; one for chorizo, another for shrimp… To ask the hard-working proprietor of one where to go for octopus, he gladly gave up a name an

d where to find it. Apparently, the specialties vary with the season and market, so every day's a new gastronomical day.

At each bar, local table wine was served in small jelly glasses for about 70¢ apiece and a tapa to share was had for $2 to $3. The three of us passed through the small streets right up until lock-down at the pilgrim house satisfying our appetites and palates for the going rate for the hearty 3-course ‘pilgrim’s menu’ at most restaurants.

What a fabulous custom of strolling through the lively alleys to have a little bite at several little establishments. In addition to the quality and taste of the food, it was the companionship of knowledgeable pilgrims, the pleasantness of Logroño as a city small enough to walk around yet large enough to offer a variety of foods, the din of the happy crowds, all the fun we had – everything came together that evening to make it the most enjoyable meal of the pilgrimage.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Best Saint Story – St Hilaire

I couldn’t count the number of times during my winter walk when I sought out a relatively warm place to take a little rest during the day. In rural Belgium and France, in towns too small for a café or a mayor’s office, or when the café and the mayor’s office were closed, an unheated church often served this purpose – none too warm and generally lacking a restroom, but at least a place to sit out of the elements, sometimes even with a few toasty pillar candles. Sitting in a pew surrounded by fabulous statues and paintings, some so sooted from long-extinguished candles that they’re nearly black, I can’t help but play Name-that-Saint.

I’ve noticed two categories of Saints – those mentioned in the Bible and all the rest. The Biblical gang – Saint Mary, probably the most ubiquitous, Saint John the Baptist a distant second – are usually depicted in some allegory of their Biblical roles. Nice art, nice meaning. The others were once everyday people who such lived influential Christian lives that someone after their death decided that they should never be forgotten and started the paperwork to sainthood. I never kept track, but Saint Denis, the Parisian Bishop holding his own head, Saint Georges, slaying an evil dragon, and Saint Martin slicing his cape in two to share with a beggar are maybe the most represented. I saw them in nearly every church, at least one of the three, anyway.

The further west I walked, through a lot of snow and ice as it turned out, the more I started seeing images and references to Saint Hilaire, whom I never heard of before. He’s often identified in a Latinized style as Saint Hilarius, which is just plain funny.

There are tons of churches, streets, and plazas named for him in the region between Chartres and Bordeaux. In Aulnay, the impressive Eglise St Hilaire is a designated UNESCO site for its cultural contribution. He must have been a pretty cool guy,but frankly, he doesn’t make a good Name-that-Saint contestant, not having any particular attributes to distinguish him from the rest – if there’s no name tag, I have no way to recognize him.

It wasn’t hard to find out why he became the namesake of so much in the west of France; the region is pretty good about having information signs outside historical sites.

An early fellow, he evangelized the area around Poitiers, his bustling Roman-settled hometown in the early 4th century. That was a while ago, in the Christian calendar sense – the Edict of Milan, in which Emperor Constantine declared religious tolerance so it was no longer illegal to be Christian – happened in 313, just two years before Hilaire’s birth. He started his life as a wealthy pagan, then became highly educated and traveled widely, then read the Bible in Greek and converted. When he returned home, he became the first Bishop there – maybe the only one qualified for the job? – and set about evangelizing western Gaul, in person and in his writings.

He was an early pioneer in a sense; most of those around him would have worshiped either the Roman gods or the remaining Druids. I could imagine there were more than a few Roman soldiers who weren’t so hip to Constantine’s new order not to toss the Christians into the arena with lions. Nonetheless, Hilaire is attributed with transforming a Roman structure into a fancy Baptistery, which is purported to be the oldest Christian structure in France, and can be viewed in Poitiers still today. To stand in front of the Baptistery is to stand where Saint Hilaire actually once stood.

The information signs make it clear that Hilaire was an active guy, most particularly a persistent voice against Arianism, the widespread view that took the position God was God above the Son and the Holy Spirit, and instead pushed for the concept of the Trinity, which became the strong foundation of Catholicism and Protestantism practiced today and became inextricably embedded in church art and architecture. Without Hilaire’s effort, how different the world may have become. His work influenced his North African contemporary, Augustine, who came up with the whole monastic rule thing. Augustine and Hilaire both became known as Doctors of the Church, and later Sainted for their contributions so that the world would never forget them. Charlemagne spoke well of Hilaire and sponsored many a chapel in his name.

Martin, a converted Roman soldier from Turkey, came to Poitiers to learn from Hilaire, suggesting Hilaire at least had some press time in his day. Martin, a hugely present Saint in all of Europe since the Middle Ages, is the reason for big parties in every village, town, and city on each November 11th through the ages. Hilaire encouraged Martin to establish monasteries in Ligugé on the outskirts of Poitier, which he did and then lived there for some years until he became Bishop of Tours, four days’ walk north of Poitiers, where he established another one. During the Middle Ages, these monasteries become standard stopping places for pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela.

The wild thing about modern pilgrimages: I stayed at this monastery in Ligugé – the same one that Saint Martin lived in and Saint Hilaire visited. The artistic community of monks today have very nice accommodation for pilgrims and people on religious retreats. Tucked beside at the mouth of a small canyon, the village around the monastery is a quaint one. There are other monasteries in the area where pilgrims to Santiago can stay for a night, most notably a community of Benedictine nuns at Saint-Benoit that was also established long long ago with the influence of Saint Hilaire. Sometimes, it’s difficult for a pilgrim to choose. Hurray for the low-profile Saint Hilaire and his remarkable story.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Best Astronomical Architecture

History is sometimes full of fascinating, mysterious examples of thought-provoking ingenuity, sometimes beyond sensible comprehension. Astronomical architecture has been around for unconscionable millennia. Stonehenge springs to mind, dating back to the Stone Age, along with some enormous structures in South America and other far-flung places that are aligned with the sun and stars for some particular event.

The designed alignment of structures so that the shadows cast at sunrise or sunset on particular days of the year are phenomena usually associated with pagan practices, not so much Catholicism. When I came into the monastery village of San Juan de Ortega in Rioja, Spain, I was struck by the enormity and age of the former monastery church. Its unique and interesting architecture is quite remarkable on its own. Juan de Ortega, the story goes, was an engineer/monk of the early 12th century who built bridges and roads for pilgrims on their way to Santiago in addition to building this church and hospice for pilgrims. It's a common enough story along the Camino. The monastery served its purpose during the Middle Ages and dwindled during the Age of Enlightenment, like so many, until the sitting government of the early 19th century sold off church property and let it drift into ruin.

The astonishing part of this particular tale comes in 1973 when a scholar made some measurements and discovered that on the spring and autumn equinoxes, late afternoon sunlight comes through a small window and, in a sweeping arch, progressively illuminates the three sections of the top of one column where the Biblical passages of the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Adoration are carved.

The church, along with San Juan's ornately carved tomb in the crypt, has since been restored and part of the former monastery has been transformed into a modern pilgrim house. The warm tradition of the resident priest making a simple garlic soup for pilgrims is widely known on the Camino, but when I arrived, the pilgrim house was closed and the priest wasn't around. The church was fortuitously unlocked, though, and I spent a fair amount of time there on a beautiful sunny day in early February.

Even though I stood before the column many weeks before the spring equinox, and thus missed the phenomenal illumination, I was still amazed by two things - first, that the 12th-century architect - was Juan on his own? was he under the instruction of an abbot or king or someone? maybe, maybe not, who knows - would design this pagan-ish feature into the church for the purpose of Christian devotion, and second, that this spectacular, beautiful, intellectual feature needed to be rediscovered in the late 20th century. How could this be? Was the equinox illumination a big secret when it was built or was it widely known? It's easy to speculate that if it were a fact widely known, it would have been documented all over Europe by the multitude of pilgrims during the Middle Ages... maybe it was only known by the subsequent abbots or other monks for their personal contemplations. Could it have been that the architect/sculptor/engineer never even told anyone?

The feature was built centuries before Copernicus, et al. and the other Renaissance geeks who developed complex measuring devices for scientific application. Many post-Renaissance churches I've seen, mostly in Italy, have small portholes on the south walls and curved meridians on the floors that allow the calculation of a date for Easter - traditionally the first Sunday after the first full moon after the equinox - but these were clearly built as calendar tools and centuries after San Juan's. San Juan's church has this special feature only to draw attention to one specific carving among dozens depicting important Biblical passages.

Juan was a contemporary of Dominic de Guzmán, born and educated nearby, who founded the Dominican Order and eventually became a Saint - the patron Saint of astronomers, oddly enough. Pretty thought-provoking. If this one church built to help pilgrims in the 12th century had such a 'undiscovered' feature, do other churches have astronomical features, too? Did Dominic, something of a brainiac, have an influence in Juan's design? Would the secret illumination design only be associated with equinoxes and solstices, or could there be solar alignments designed to reveal something special on the churches' patron Saints' days?

When I stood there, I thought of Saint Michael. In my extensive travels through Europe, I've seen loads of Saint Michael churches, each one, it seems, built on the highest point around - he was after all the Archangel and generally depicted as an over-muscled Adonis with beefy masculine wings and wearing a short toga. His feast day is September 29th, not far from the autumnal equinox. With these churches always being the highest structures around, it seems logical that the knowledgeable design team would integrate some solar illumination feature into them if they were going to do it anywhere.

I really enjoyed seeing the church at San Juan de Ortega and learning for the first time of the remarkable astronomical feature it contains - I don't carry a guidebook, so was completely and delightfully surprised by it. The church has always been on the trail to Santiago, but now is a pilgrim destination in its own right. Huge crowds apparently gather on the 21st of March and 22nd of September to witness the 10-minute-long solar spotlight on the carved Biblical passage. Wild stuff. I'll be sure to look more closely at churches built during this time period, especially if there's a connection with St Dominic. San Juan de Ortega is an outstanding example of Best Astronomical Architecture that I saw on the pilgrimage.

"Best of..."

Now that I've returned to the States and have gotten the general re-entry done, I've been able to get back to tidying up the collected thoughts and artifacts from my pilgrimage. I miss the pilgrim trail a lot and can't help but be thinking of the next long journey. In the preliminary planning, I've been giving hard thought to the exceptionally outstanding things I liked about my trip across Europe so that I can seek similar things out on the next walk.

Categories spring to mind like a "Best of" list - the best place I stayed, the best food I ate, etc. There are so many outstanding moments to reflect on because even in the worst of times, the pilgrimage was great - even the hurricane, even the nasty gallbladder problem. So I begin a series of "Best of" thoughts...