Monday, July 27, 2009

Next train leaving the station…

Wow, have I stumbled onto some place great! I love this type of travel: the next train out of the station. Literally.

I arrived in Madrid Chamartin station at 8:30 am, by night train from the north. It’s Monday – the Prado is closed (I always seem to end up in Madrid on a Monday) – and my flight leaves in the morning. What to do with 24 hours… quiet, cool, interesting, stress-free, unique. These are the desired criteria posed to the tourist information desk at the train station. They were of no help. Typical. If you ask a question outside of their standard repertoire, ya get nada. With temperature set to reach, yet again, 100F, hanging around a concrete city I’ve seen many times (save the Prado) wasn’t appealing. After a night train – a shower and some rest are high on the list, and were I to stay in the city, I’d seek out a hammam center for the baths and a massage.

I looked at the board: next train 09.14 Alcalá de Henares. I checked the timetable – 34 minutes away (no idea which direction). With a mere 2.55€ ticket and grabbing a general area map, I boarded. What’s the worst that could happen? A wasted day in a dull place, industrial, maybe, a bedroom community for Madrid commuters? Not so bad.

We have a winner! The birthplace of Cervantes (1547) – his very house! (now a museum, closed Mondays)… on the Calle Mayor, only the longest arcaded street in all of Spain – right next door – actually sharing a wall – with the stuccoed massive brick Hospital of Antezana, which has operated continuously in the Palace of Don Antezana since 1483, and where Cervantes’ father was a blood-letting surgeon (he had to be something, but who would have thought a blood-letter?) …and, as if it’s place in history isn’t firmly enough set, the very building where Ignatio de Loyola (before he founded the Jesuits and became a Saint) lived while he attended Alcalá University, at the high end of the street. Well, who knew?

I sit with a bottle of the local Vino Tinto that comes with the delicious Menu del Diá of gazpacho, salmon, salad, and watermelon for a scant 8€ (try getting such a bargain in Madrid!) under the massive arcade with zinc downspouts formed into serpents on every of the many columns.

It gets better. Some Saints have sisters, and St Ignatio’s sister was a nun in an exquisite convent around the corner. The architecture of everything – the Cathedral, the university, the various convents and monasteries, the patricians’ palaces – show influenced of Mudehar, neo-Gothic, Italianate, and Spanish gothic styles. Not to be dismissed as insignificant, Roman-era college in a typical 1st-century Roman villa… pretty wow, even in my well-traveled experiences… I’ve seen many a Roman villa, but I don’t recall any Roman colleges…

The Cathedral’s story is interesting – twinned with one in Lovain, Belgium, which, titled ‘Magistral’, requires all canons (kind of like an abbot, but devoted to a Cathedral instead of a monastery) to have doctoral degrees in theology from the university here. The Cathedral was built over the tomb of two schoolboy Saints martyred here in 305, Justo and Pasto.

It wasn’t hard to find a room – everything from rooms-to-let in a boarding house to a 4-star hotel – I found something quite suitable (very nice in comparison to anywhere in France where I stayed) for 24€, including a pool, breakfast, and wifi.

What a great find, this Alcalá. If I were a tourist information worker in Madrid and someone asked me how to expend 24 hours beneficially, I’d tell them to get out of the city and go to Alcalá de Henares – not a disappointment. Sadly, being Monday, most of the museums are closed, including Cervantes’ house decorated as it would have been in his day. (I love the bronze statues of the dishevelled Don Quixote and the jovial Poncho Villa on the park bench in front of the house.)

Oh, and also, there is the synagogue – just off the Calle Mayor. We all know well that 'in fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,' but it was also the year that Jews were expelled from Spain, not to return for many centuries. Predating the expulsion, back many centuries when the Moors ruled the area in the 12th century, the Jewish population was strong, and the Jewish quarter of that era survives today. Pretty impressive little thing to come upon – rare in Spain.

To tie my travels together, there’s a cool-looking sister convent of Saint Catherine of Siena here – and I was just in Siena a few days ago. Go figure.

Playing the next-train-out-of-the-station game more often pays off well than poorly in my experience. Parks, palaces, museums, history, countless sidewalk cafés on narrow pedestrian street and fountain-cooled plazas… serenity, Roman, medieval, modern combined… For me, a calm, cool day on the arcaded Calle Mayor is a lovely alternative to a hot day in Madrid when the Prado is closed. Hopped the next train out of the station into a UNESCO town, of all places, and the tourist information folks had no inkling. Maybe this is what is meant by ‘Bon Courage’ I hear in France so often to people who travel – the courage to go to someplace unknown and see what it’s all about. Sometimes kind of dull, sometimes, like this place, pretty fantastic.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monteriggioni's History & Magic

Monteriggioni is a pretty special place, by all accounts. Only a lovely 12-kilometer walk north of Siena, on a well-marked path through the forest, punctuated by information signs along the way indicating historic events and monuments of yore, it’s a gem that’s endured 800 centuries. Like a piece of coal that’s undergone extreme heat and pressure to become a diamond, Monteriggioni has extracted itself from its militant beginning to something to be treasured as priceless today.

The via francigena began as a military road - and what a great story this is… - Julius Caesar: “Build me a road to the North Sea,” he told his road engineers when he became leader of Europe, “I’m going for that rock on the opposite shore.” Those orders were bellowed in 58 BC and in 55 BC he succeeded in his goal. That road, because they all led to Rome in his day, was dubbed the via francigena, the road originating in the land of the Franks.

Skipping ahead, Sigeric, a 10th-century Saxon monk, walked the same route in the year 990 on his way to and from Rome to pick up his Archbishop stuff to take up his new post in Canterbury Cathedral. It was still the primary north-south conduit through Europe. The blessed little guy left a travel journal behind, naming all of the places where he stayed. Today, the via francigena is not so much a paved path as a list of all of his way places, identifying the route originated by Jules. How colourful a story is this?! There are still many many miles of the original Roman road to walk on… the actual paving stones that Jules and his troops marched along… huh. It’s the route that Hannibal took on his way to destroy Rome and that, much later, Napoleon took to conquer Italy. Lot’s of action along this path… did Jules have any idea of what he created? Go figure.

Skipping ahead a couple of more centuries, business and trade associations were getting pretty influential and caused a lot of significant cultural evolutions - not to mention a sideline of art and architecture as the rich guys felt competitively compelled to outdo their rivals - and so the big towns of Tuscany became enormous merchant centers based along the via francigena, still the main trade route between northern and southern Europe. The exhibition of their rivalries can only be described as a guy thing, but Monteriggioni resulted from a rivalry between wealthy Sienese merchant/brigands and wealthy Florentine merchant/brigands.

Siena fortified the hamlet on the hill known as the ‘round mountain’ with an incredible encircling wall with 13 towers, with one gate opening to the south, toward Siena, and the other, more difficult approach, to the north, toward Florence. The purpose of this militant action was ostensibly to protect the merchants travelling with their wares along the via francigena, but there’s an argument put forth by the local monks of nearby Abbadia Isola that the hamlet wasn’t rightfully theirs to begin with, so in effect, they were no more than invaders and occupiers. Whatever. It’s history now.

The fortified castle hamlet wasn’t a stopover of Sigeric the Archbishop/monk - as it didn’t yet exist, and Sigeric walked right by the conical hill of the countryside and stayed with the boys at the Abbadia (abbey) not ever seeing the unique towered architecture that was to come. It was a thriving place when Dante did his thing in Florence a few centuries afterwards. He wrote about it in the Inferno, deservedly so, being built for defensive purposes and with a sullied history and all.

When I arrived a few weeks ago, the village was in the midst of its annual Medieval Festival, in which the defining battle between Siena and Florence is re-enacted, complete with jousting, troubadours, and pigs on the spit. Lots of fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. Every year, a few dozen actors play various Medieval roles for days (and take over the pilgrim house, I can add without much glee). I spoke with the guys portraying pilgrims of the day, sporting scallop shells instead of crossed keys and living out a stereotype rather than the real thing. They didn’t even know real pilgrims still exist! Actors!

In the late afternoon, I sit in the crypt of the diminutive church of Santa Maria Assunta, built at the time the walls of the town were raised - 1213, and await pilgrims. There’s a small exhibit about the via francigena for tourists to enjoy while simultaneously benefiting from the coolest place in the village - I mean cool as in temperature… the thick-walled crypt is on the east side of the church, below the altar, and because the town is the crown of a hill, every entry floor from the square, has a floor below it that walks out to the gardens interior to the wall. Such is the crypt, with north- and east-facing windows, well lit, but well protected from the sun and the heat of the summer day - hot hot hot, too, in July (I don’t know how any pilgrim can survive in this heat!) But the crypt is cool and bright, isn’t at all creepy, and has an enjoyable little exhibit along with some religious and secular hand-crafted items for sale to raise funds for missionaries in the Philippines and Brazil.

In English, French, and German, and still oh-so-pathetic Italian, I’m here to share with tourists the rich history of the via francigena and what it is to be a modern pilgrim. When pilgrims arrive, I greet them, help in any way I can, and later prepare them a simple Tuscan dinner from the local gardens, supplemented by the local Co-op. This hamlet, presently with 24 inhabitants, has greeted pilgrims since its origins, and the current priest, Don Doriano, has a colossal and genuine passion for the tradition to continue.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A word about language…

Isn’t it funny how we speak our own language so well, we don’t need to speak it correctly to be understood?

If someone asks us a yes-or-no question, how often do we actually begin our answers with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’? I’m smacking my head against the wall often enough these days, but little by little, my Italian is improving in my role as Ospitaliera in magical Monteriggioni. A pilgrim or two comes through each night, generally, though equally from France, Germany and Italy so far. Consequently, the language varies within those in my skill sets. Italian still lags, dramatically, but I can get through dinner conversation adequately.

I’ve concluded though, if we all just put enough thought into an answer to begin our diatribes with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the world of tourists and foreigners would run much more smoothly.

I’ve been right there with the next guy:
‘Is this the train to Siena?’ [how easy it is to respond ‘yes’ or ‘no’]

‘Sure thing, you bet’ [not words on the beginners vocabulary list, now, is it?]

From one English speaker to another, this exchange is absolutely clear, but by simply adding ‘yes’ to the beginning of the sentence, to the beginner English speaker, it does no harm and yet is so much more widely understood [Yes, followed by unintelligible babble the asker hopes is meaningless.] ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are pretty high on the list of words understood in another language.

Of course, my difficulty is not in expressing English clearly. This same thing happens in Italian. French, German, and Spanish from my experience, too.

Spread the word and spread some happiness: when dealing with someone who clearly doesn’t know the language well, please, answer a yes-or-no question with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Ja/Nein, Oui/Non, Si/No, Da/Nyet, etc…

(No need to shout, either, it really doesn’t help.)
(And if your experience tells you that most of the world speaks English, you’ve limited yourself to touristic places. Most of the world does not speak English. And that’s how it should be.)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Via Francigena or the Camino to Santiago?

I’m in a position again to put forth objective information to those deciding between the two long-established and historical pilgrim trails across Europe. Last week, making my way to the pilgrim house on the Via Francigena in Tuscany, I stopped one night at a pilgrim house on the Camino in Ponferrada, Spain, thus, I can contribute decision-making knowledge first hand from both winter and summer experiences to those planning their pilgrimages.

- The Camino is incredibly crowded; the Via Francigena, is not. In summer hundreds upon hundreds of pilgrims daily versus maybe two (individual) pilgrims staying in any given pilgrim house (I saw it in Spain and am currently experiencing it in Italy). In winter, it’s more like 10 a day in Spain versus 1 a month in Italy.

- The villages along the Camino are heavily subsidized to receive and provide for pilgrims, which they do in a uniform, mechanical way; the villages along the Via Francigena make varying efforts to welcome pilgrims - if the town or village happens to be very touristic (e.g.., Siena), pilgrims blend right in with the other foreigners; if it’s not touristic, pilgrims are treated with rather high regard, acknowledged for their historic effort, especially if they’ve traveled a great distance.

- Companionship along the Camino is certainly and uniquely with other pilgrims; along the Via Francigena, companionship is with the people of the communities along the trail. On the Via Francigena, pilgrims are still an uncommon sight, thus intriguing. Of course, intimacies can strike up along the Camino among pilgrims in ways that would be difficult along the Via Francigena because of the fewer number.

- From my observation, large groups walk along the Camino, with a minority of solo walkers; on the Via Francigena, solo walkers predominate, and groups that come through are generally no more than two to five people.

- Both northern Spain and Italy are equally hot in summer 30-35 degrees these days (86 - 95F). Because of this, on both trails, there are those who want to get a predawn start to beat the heat. Dawn is around 5:00 in Italy and 6:00 in Spain at this time of year. Others, especially those walking short daily distances, want to sleep in until 7 or 8. Thus, in the crowded houses of Spain, the noisy pilgrims getting an early start wake everyone - it’s no fault of an individual, but in a house that holds 200, even 5% of them getting up early still amounts to a lot of collective noise from movement and repacking, lights going on, doors slamming, water running. In Italy, in a house with 3 pilgrims, if only one wants an early start, he can be out pretty stealthy without disturbing the others. There’s more of an interpersonal courtesy among fewer people than among a crowd; it’s human nature.

The pilgrims I’m encountering here in Italy as a pilgrim greeter have a unanimous voice that they have no interest in the Camino because of the crowds. The Via Francigena is unquestionably the better alternative for pilgrims seeking solitude and contemplation. It’s not just the pilgrim houses in Spain that absorb the throngs of pilgrims - the restaurants, cafés and shops, too, and the trail itself. I find it unsettling when long-legged Germans come up from behind sharply pinging high-pitched little bells they wear on their fingers to signify they’re getting ready to pass on the left. (Not a slam against the Germans, but they’re the only one’s I’ve seen do this, and many of them do it, in Germany, as well. Germans are second, behind Spaniards, in the nationality of those walking the Camino; they’re similarly outnumbered only by Italians in walking on the Via Francigena.) Parts of the trail are a veritable parade of pilgrims walking in single file or spread out across the broader paths. They’re just short the marching band.

I can’t imagine walking in the heat, but that could be dodged by walking early, taking a siesta, and then walking again late, if I had the time only in summer to walk. I certainly can’t imagine finding enjoyment in walking with the crowds and struggling to find a bed in the enormous pilgrim houses and, if successful, then struggling among the swarm of pilgrims to get to a shower - which will be cold - and doing daily laundry, then struggling further to find a place to eat, because the kitchen of the pilgrim house will be overtaxed well into the night. Not my idea of fun.

The crowds continue to walk and bike to Santiago because of its current cultural popularity. The number may wane in future years, but there’s no sign of that yet as the municipalities continue to build more and larger pilgrim houses to accommodate the predicted numbers. Next year is a Holy Year in Santiago and 250,000 pilgrims are expected to walk or bike into Santiago, significantly more than the 177,000 on the trail in 2008. The numbers in 2009 and 2011 are expected to be much higher than the past, too, as people wanting to avoid the Holy Year crowds spread themselves out. (The next Holy Year in Santiago isn’t until 2021.)

What’s the motivation to do this? Keeping with the ‘in’ crowd may motivate some people; wanting the bragging rights may motivate others. There is a financial consideration, that’s more tangible. My experience (in winter): during 50 days in Italy walking 1,007 kilometers, I spent an average of 31€ per day for food and lodging; in 30 days walking 916 kilometers in Spain, I spent an average of 21€ for the same, although I walked considerably faster while in Spain, so the cost are low in a direct comparison. In any case, an excursion though Italy will cost more (30%?) than through Spain. True whether a pilgrim or not.

My advice to pilgrims wanting a cultural excursion steeped in history and supported to an adequate degree by the communities along the way with pilgrim houses is to consider strongly the Via Francigena. True, the pilgrim houses are fewer and further between and those that exist suggest a higher donation (10-15€) than what the municipal houses (3€) demand in Spain, and true, there aren’t as many guidebooks, nor in as many languages, but for those who don’t need or want to rely on some unknown forebear’s experiences to find there own way across the continent, and are willing to ask at parish houses and town halls for advice on accommodation, then the Via Francigena totally rocks.

But hurry! The Associazione Via Francigena and other official groups are putting great effort into popularizing the route in its own right and as an alternative to the Camino, so the tranquility here won’t last forever. I feel a little ambivalent in promoting the Via Francigena like this, because it might just make it incrementally more popular, incrementally closer to the ruination the popularity of the Camino has caused - like once Rick Steves declares some little village in Europe to be a charming, quiet, off-the-beaten-trail place, the trail gets instantly beaten, it’s no longer so quiet, and the charm is gone. Alas. For the moment, objectively it can be stated that the Camino is grossly over-utilized and the Via Francigena is still grossly underutilized.

Monday, July 6, 2009

These days in Tuscany

These days in Tuscany are not hard on me. Relaxing is the better word, save for the heat, but we all know by now that I’m no sun bunny. I’m volunteering as a pilgrim greeter in one of the most picturesque pilgrim houses along the whole of the 1,400-mile length of the via francigena, and I’ve stayed in nearly all of them, so I know of what I speak.

Among the benefits of having made a pilgrimage along either the via francigena or the camino to Santiago, is it qualifies one for being a pilgrim greeter in any number of houses in Tuscany, for example. This is entirely different from being a volunteer in one of the pilgrim houses in Spain. From what I’ve heard and what I’ve witnessed, that’s hard work. The smaller houses accommodate 100 pilgrims; the larger ones more than 3,000! Yikes, what a business! Okay, I don’t like the heat and I don’t like crowds.

In comparison, this is a vacation in the Sienese countryside. The pilgrim house here sleeps five, but if needed, other rooms in the building usually rented to tourist families can be reserved for groups of pilgrims to increase the number to 20. Most commonly, two pilgrims wander in every day in the summer from San Gimignano, some 30 kilometers to the north. The next pilgrim stage is Siena itself where convents abound to accommodate pilgrims and tourists alike.

I have very nice accommodation in an attached townhouse to a 13th century church, my own bathroom and kitchenette, a desk where I can write with an incredible view down from this castle town of Monteriggioni, across the vineyards, the fields of sunflowers, and the olive groves separated by the ubiquitous Italian cypress trees… this idyllic tranquillity is hard to beat.

I only just arrived yesterday evening. As there was no pilgrim greeter last week, the tireless priest covered the needs of the pilgrims in addition to his parish duties, but left the cupboards rather bare. I look forward to heading out in the morning to re-acquaint myself with the contadinas, the local farmer-ladies who attend bursting kitchen gardens. Last year, I shared the pilgrim greeter position with an Italian grandmother who showed me the ropes of being a greeter and who insisted I only speak Italian (really, the best way to learn a language).

If there’s luck like last year, in my morning walk, I’ll be able to get some surplus tomatoes, zucchini, eggplants, and herbs, and some eggs with real luck… to supplement the pilgrim dinners I’ll prepare nightly to any of the pilgrims who want it.

It’s hard to go wrong making a meal out of the ground around here - the table wine and olive oil that come from the hillsides below this castle, the chickens and pigs are free-ranged on all of the farms around. I hope to walk further afield in my free mornings of the next two weeks to find some good cheese… Life here is pretty hard to beat.