Cloister in Los Arcos on the Camino de Santiago

Cloister in Los Arcos on the Camino de Santiago

Thursday, March 3, 2011

St. Jean Pied de Port here we come!

Another baby step

The Monkstown Friends listened to my plans for the Camino and many approached me after my brief talk to offer me money and pledges. I was surprised and delighted to receive in the post a very generous sum of money from a Friend who also sent me a lovely encouraging note.
Michael Fitzgerald who produces the excellent blog provided a link to mine, so I will return the gesture and offer a link to his –
Biarritz here we come! Courtesy of Ryanair we are due to arrive in the early afternoon of Monday 16th May. Looking at the websites for Biarritz I discover it is beautiful place. I am sorry we will not have the time to enjoy is marvelous beach and the surf for which it is famous. Maybe we will find another time to visit this elegant seaside town once the haunt of the British Royal family during the summer months.
Instead we will take the airport bus (euro 1.20) to the train station in Bayonne, Previously the capital of Aquitaine, the province owned by England for three hundred years from 1150.
I have booked our train tickets (euro 8.80) to St Jean Pied de Port on the 18.00 service that will get us to our destination in 90 minutes. I have great hopes for the train journey. The track seems to snake though lovely countryside, filed and forest as it snakes its way to the terminus at St J P de P.
Disappointment turned to joy in my efforts to find accommodation in St J P de P. The hotels recommended in the guide books were all quoting euro 50 – 60 per night which seemed a bit heavy.
Thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Google I found a marvelous hostel, house, home – Gite Ultre├»a – of Bernard and Fafa – an ancient four storey house in the middle of medieval town, on the cobbled Rue de la Citadelle. The UK Tripadvisor site was ecstatic about this hostel which opened only in the last year and has got rave reviews. We have tow rooms one of four and one of two beds,
The following morning we can make our way to the Pilgrims office and get our Credencial (passport) and to the tourist office to buy scallop shells, staffs, hats and other important objects.
As we have only 8km on day one (admittedly climbing 2,000 feet!) we have the time to explore St J P de P and its ancient houses of pink and grey schist. I am looking forward to viewing the two Gates – Port de Saint Jacques at the French side and the Port d'Espagne as we leave the town on our way up the mountain. The walk along river Nive is recommended. We can pop into the lovely Gothic church as we leave and light a candle for Haiti. For me it will be a time to consider the first query
Are you convinced of the reality of God and do you respond to His Spirit at work within you?
We might even espy the local rugby player Imanol Harinordoquy (not be spelt or even spoken when drunk) the towering back row forward for France.
Then off we go into the wide open spaces of the Pyrenees. John Brierley says that we should be able to get glimpses of the Griffon Vultures (wingspan 2.5m, I am glad I weigh a tidy 85kg) and other birds of prey, the Falcon, the Sparrow Hawk and the Kite. We should come across the wild ponies known as the Chamois and the Manech goats, famous for their cheese. Being May we should see wild flowers including orchids, violas, narcissus and the pale blue irises that will keep us company the whole stretch of the Camino.
By early afternoon we should have reached just over 2,000 feet and have sight of the Auberge d’Orisson which is run by Jean Jacques Etchandy. We are booked in at euro 30 per night which covers Dinner Bed and Breakfast (in stark contrast to some of the prices I encountered in St J P de P!!). There is an outside terrace and hopefully there will be no cloud – or at least we area above the cloud. Have a look at the lovely photos on the website
Sterner stuff lies ahead with the 17km walk to Roncesvalles (21km adjust for height) – but that is literally for another day.
Finally thanks to my friends in De La sale Churchtown for their support and to Michael and Vincent – every penny counts!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Did you know?

Some things you may or may not know about the Camino

The scallop shell is the emblem of the walk and it is common for pilgrims to attach the shell to their rucksack. For a number of years after I returned from the Camino, I persisted in wearing the shell when going on treks and walks. It proved a conversation opener and quite often I would come across another who had walked the Camino and so we swapped stories. The scallop shell traces its roots right back to the death of St James. His body was placed in an unmanned boat which made its way providentially to Santiago. When it arrived it was unblemished and covered in shells. In olden times (and perhaps in modern times too) the shell was used to collect drinking water from the numerous fountains on the route or used as a makeshift plate at mealtime.

The shell is variously deemed to symbolize the various routes which lead to Santiago, or the provenance of the pilgrims who come from many countries. It is also taken to represent the setting sun at Finisterre, just beyond Santiago, which was regarded as the most westerly point of mainland Europe (that honour acutally goes to a place in Portugal). The way markers along the journey invariably bear the sign of the scallop.

The Spanish word for pilgrim is ‘Peregrino’ and the word was first used in relation to people who made their way to Santiago de Compostela. Travelers to other major Christian centers were called Romeros in the case of those travelling to Rome and Palmeros (from the word palm) for those travelling to Jerusalem.

Goethe suggests that the Camino gave rise to the first concept of Europe. ’Europe was built on the pilgrimage to Compostela’ he claimed. In a very divided and insular middle age, the Camino attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims every year. Some commentators gave out about the numbers on the roads – it was like Grafton St on Christmas Eve.

The Camino traces its origins back to 813 when a priest in remote Galicia believed he saw a star shine over what today is Santiago de Compostela. The local bishop ordered excavations and claimed to find the body of the apostle James who had been killed by Herod Agrippa in 42 AD. The tomb became a place of worship and a unifying sign for the dispersed Spanish forces who were resisting the Muslim expansion into the very north of Spain. The Spaniards gained an important victory in 844 at the battle of Clavijo when against greater numbers the Spaniards gained an important and decisive victory. Just as the Spaniards were failing, a mysterious figure on horseback entered the fray. It was believed to be none other than Saint James who was given the title ‘Matamoros’ or ‘slayer of Muslims’.

The very first tourist guide in the world was the Codex Calixtinus – ‘A guide for the medieval pilgrim’ which was written in 1139 by Aymeric Picaud a French clergyman. The Codex comprises five books which go into great detail explaining the route, the terrain, the towns, the local people and customs, the dangers, food and countryside.

The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the Camino grow in popularity. The Benedictines from the great monastery of Cluny lent a hand as did the ‘Catholic Kings’ of Spain who saw the political as well as the spiritual value in the Camino.

The Camino had another side – the thieves and robbers, tricksters and prostitutes who tried to make a living from the pilgrims. Some of the pilgrims themselves became the equivalent of hippies leading lazy lives of wandering and vagabondage.

The Camino declined over the next centuries and found its nadir in 1867 when less than 40 pilgrims arrived on the feast of St. James.

In 1982 Pope John Paul II gave the Camino a shot in the arm when he became the first Pope ever to visit the site. Still in 1985 only 3,000 pilgrims applied for the Credencial, in 1993 the number grew to 100,000, in 1999 the number was 154,000 and in 2010 another Holy Year (when the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday) the figure was well in excess of 200,000.

‘Time for bed’ said Zebedee in the Magic Roundabout. How right. Goodnight!