Monthly Archives: March 2011

I’m Off Then (to Toronto, England and … oh yeah … Sevilla)


[Walking stick]

After I decided to walk the Vía de la Plata back in January, I spent some time on the Internet reading about cities along the route and dreaming.

Most of the websites I found were aimed at tourists, and included sections like Getting There and Away. The first time I saw those words, my instinctive response was confusion.

Obviously, you get there on foot and leave walking.

A split second later my brain kicked in and reminded me that most travellers take planes, trains and buses.

I’ve been one of those travellers. I backpacked around Europe, volunteered in Thailand, worked in England and travelled in Mexico, Southeast Asia, and a bit of China. And then I walked the Camino from Le Puy to Santiago, and decided walking was by far my favourite way to travel.

So I’m off again in two days. I’ll be doing some non-walking travel for the first week: flying to Toronto to visit friends, then to England to see another friend … and finally to Sevilla, where I’ll start walking the Vía de la Plata.

I’ve spent the last few months accumulating information and other things I’ll need for the trip, walking around the neighbourhood with my backpack, and buying a variety of airplane tickets. And I still can’t believe I’m really going.

It seems too good to be true.

* * *

As far as this blog goes, I have at least one post ready for you next week.

After that, I’ll try to keep you posted intermittently (I’m aiming for at least once a week) about my Vía de la Plata walk.

If you want to follow along, you could sign up to receive posts by feed reader or e-mail (just use the box on the right side of this post; Google and I both promise not to use your information for nefarious purposes), or “like” the Pilgrim Roads Facebook page to receive updates in your Facebook feed.

Or of course you could just check back here occasionally.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:50 pm
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Vía de la Plata Albergues Quick Guide


Note: I updated this on June 22, 2011, after my own Vía de la Plata walk.

When I walked the Camino Francés, I got a list of albergues at the pilgrim office in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. It included basic information on the albergue facilities, and amenities in the town.

I had a guidebook as well, of course, but it was nice to have something to glance at quickly to figure out where I might stay that evening.

I couldn’t find anything like that on the Vía de la Plata, so I created one myself … and thought I would share it with you.

It’s based on information from Mundicamino, the Eroski Consumer site, the Camino Guide, and my own experiences. I also got some distances from the Godesalco Camino Planner. When two sites contradicted each other (and another didn’t weigh in), I put in a question mark, two numbers with a slash in between, or in the case of distance, a range.

It’s four pages, and includes the Vía de la Plata from Sevilla to Astorga, and the Camino Sanabrés from Graja de Moruela (soon after Zamora) to Santiago de Compostela.

Disclaimer

I’m sure this is nowhere near one hundred percent accurate, and it really shouldn’t be used without a guidebook—it doesn’t give any route instructions. Also, some of the albergueslisted may be closed—at least for part of the year.

I’d appreciate any updates you want to send me, but since I’m now back from the Vía de la Plata, it’s unlikely to stay completely up-to-date.

A Few Explanations

I suspect that often when there’s a question mark under “Heating,” the albergue in question has a very basic form of heating.

Under “Price,” “WB” means with breakfast and “HB” means half-board, (bed, breakfast and dinner).

“Hours” sometimes seems to represent the hours you can check in, and sometimes just the times when the albergue is open. I’m not sure of the difference myself.

“Reservations” means that reservations are accepted. It often means the accommodation isn’t solely for pilgrims.

Places with a restaurant or bar might not offer evening meals (since not all bars serve meals).

Stores may only have very sporadic opening hours—some are only available a few days a week—and bakeries may be located in grocery stores.

Internet isn’t widely available in albergues, but it’s often provided in libraries or other public buildings for very specific hours.

The Downloads (PDFs)

Vía de la Plata Albergues Quick Guide – Letter size

Vía de la Plata Albergues Quick Guide – A4 size


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:19 pm
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Ich Bin Aufgeregt


[Rama V palace ruins, Thailad]

Heading into the unknown.

I met this woman once, when we were both university students. I don’t remember her name or what she looked like or why we met. I just remember her story.

She wanted to travel to Australia. It was her greatest desire, the thing she’d always dreamed of doing. And one Christmas, her parents said they would buy her a plane ticket there whenever she wanted.

No worries, right?

But if that had been all there was to the story, it wouldn’t have stuck with me. The thing was, that Christmas had been more than a year ago. The student kept coming up with reasons not to go. When I talked to her, she wasn’t sure she’d ever make it to Australia.

She really wanted to go, but she was scared.

That encounter made me think a lot about fear and travel. I figure a lot of us get scared—or at least nervous—at some point, but the timing of that point can vary widely, and have a huge impact on whether or not we actually go.

I’m lucky. When I’m planning a trip, it’s the excitement that wins out. Otherwise, like that student, I’d never buy a plane ticket.

The serious fear hits about two weeks before I leave—when I’m too committed to back out. Like, say, right now, when my thoughts begin to cycle through an endless litany of potential problems.

I haven’t trained enough and will never survive that 30-kilometre section on day three. My boots are all wrong and my pack is all wrong and my knife won’t sharpen and my second pair of brand new hiking socks has vanished without a trace. And if the weather changes (snow in Southern Spain may not be likely in April, but surely it’s possible) I won’t have enough warm clothing and will freeze. Probably to death.

And then I’m going to miss my connecting flight on the way home—I knew I shouldn’t have cut it so close—because either my first plane will be late or for some unfathomable reason I’ll be hassled going through Customs. Of course, that will only be an issue if I make it to Europe in the first place. I can come up with any number of disasters that would prevent my arrival.

And … well, that’s about it for now, but I’m sure I can come up with more in the next week or so.

My saving grace is the excitement from the planning stages. It’s still there, beneath the fear.

I keep thinking about a conversation I had two and a half years ago, the day before I walked into Santiago.

“Is there a word in German that describes being both excited and scared at the same time?” I asked Sascha, a pilgrim from Switzerland, as we walked through a eucalyptus forest.

He couldn’t come up with one off-hand, but promised to think about it.

“I bet there’s something,” I said. German, I am convinced, has a word for everything. If one doesn’t exist, the Germans just mash two or more words together to create something new.

After a little more walking, Sascha came through for me. “Aufgeregt,” he said, and he patiently taught me to pronounce it.

Ich bin aufgeregt.”

The nervous excitement I felt when I walked out of Le Puy-en-Velay on my first pilgrimage was different from that of walking into Santiago, but the two had a lot in common. They were both related to the ending of one life—even if only temporarily—and the beginning of something new.

So now, as I pack and repack my backpack, as I put my affairs in order before setting out, as I go on long walks and think about my upcoming journey, of course I’m feeling the same way again: scared and excited, excited and scared.

I don’t know what happened to that student who dreamed of Australia. I hope she, too, came to feel aufgeregt about the journey, and that the excitement won out over the fear.


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A Pilgrim in Japan: Wayne Emde on the Shikoku 88 Temple Pilgrimage


[Henro sign on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage]

Henro (pilgrim) sign on the 88 Temple Pilgrimage.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Wayne Emde. He’d found my blog through The Camino Documentary, he said, and he was one of the pilgrims director Lydia Smith had mentioned in my interview with her.

Wayne didn’t know I was Canadian, but he said that he and his friend Jack, an Anglican priest who’s also in the documentary, have done Camino presentations a few hours away from where I’m living.

[Wayne Emde]

Wayne Emde, on his way to Temple 13.
Photo by Jason Emde.

When I wrote back, I asked where he was. It turned out he lives only an hour away from me.

And we have more in common than geography. We studied history at the same university, and have both worked as journalists. He used to teach photography and I studied photography near to his hometown.

So of course we had to meet. Wayne and Jack came out to Kamloops, and we spent nearly three hours in a café, talking about the Camino Francés, the Vía de la Plata, and, particularly, the Shikoku pilgrimage in Japan, which Wayne walked in 2008 with his eldest son, Jason.

On Pilgrimage in Japan

[On the 88 Temple pilgrimage]

On the 88 Temple pilgrimage.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

Wayne didn’t know much about Buddhism and had never heard of the Shikoku pilgrimage when he flew to Japan for Jason’s wedding.

But when Jason told him about the pilgrimage and invited him along, Wayne felt something in the journey calling to him.

The two of them spent seven weeks walking 1200 kilometres around the perimeter of the island of Shikoku. They visited each of the eighty-eight temples sacred to Kobo Daishi (“Great Teacher”), the man who brought Shingon Buddhism from China to Japan in 806.

The temples are strung out along the route, some in clusters and some on their own. Sometimes the pilgrims visited five or six in a single day; at other times they had to walk eighty or so kilometres between temples—several days’ worth of travel, since they averaged twenty-four kilometres per day.

[Buddha]

A Buddha along the way.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

In the mornings they walked together and talked—about everything from Bob Dylan and books to their worries and dreams to their family and its history.

They walked separately in the afternoons.

In the evenings they usually camped, but every three or four days they would stay in a hotel or minshuku (bed and breakfast) or occasionally in a temple, so they could have showers and do laundry.

There weren’t formal campsites, Wayne said. He and Jason would usually just stop wherever they happened to be when the day ended.

Sometimes it was in a city park, a beach, a shrine, or a mountainside. … It was really amazing that at the end of the day, someplace to pitch our tents would reveal itself to us.

They carried about thirty-five pounds each in their backpacks. And the walking could be difficult—the terrain was a lot steeper than was usual on the Camino Francés. Henro (pilgrims) mainly walk on highways, Wayne said.

But when the path led inland to some of the mountain top temples, it was usually a well-trod trail. Mountains were very, very steep, and many of the paths had stairs cut into the side of the slope. Some days we climbed 900 metres to the temples, and a couple of days we did this twice.

[Lanterns]

Lanterns and cherry trees along the pilgrimage route.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

A Solitary Pilgrimage

The 88 Temple pilgrimage was much quieter than the Camino Francés, which Wayne walked the following year.

“The Camino was a much more social thing,” he said.

Most Japanese henro do the pilgrimage in bus tours. Wayne figures fewer than 1000 people per year walk, and he and Jason rarely met other walking pilgrims.

The language barrier wasn’t a problem for Wayne because Jason spoke Japanese, but they didn’t meet a lot of English-speakers. There were three other western henro walking the route, and a few people in temples spoke English.

The first question they would ask was how old he was, Wayne said. And then they wanted to know where he was from.

Walking with Kobo Daishi

[Kobo Daishi]

Kobo Daishi.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

Pilgrims on the 88 Temple pilgrimage are said to be following in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi.

The historical Kobo Daishi probably didn’t have much to do with most of the temples on the route—in much the same way that the historical Saint James likely never set foot in Spain.

But the myths and miracle stories that grew up around Kobo Daishi link him to each of the temples on the pilgrimage.

There’s a belief that Kobo Daishi travels with every pilgrim as a protector and guide, Wayne said. And a gift to one of his pilgrims is a gift to the great teacher.

Local people along the route gave Wayne and Jason gifts almost every day. If they stopped at a 7-11 to buy something, the sales clerk would give them an extra item free. An old woman once gave them money to buy a drink, and someone even gave them a garage to sleep in.

One day they were walking through a valley when a pick-up truck pulled up beside them. A hand emerged, offering two boiled eggs to the tired pilgrims.

And there was more, Wayne said.

People [would] go out of their way to show us a place to camp, and then come back half an hour later with food.

Temple Rituals

No suffering, No cause of suffering,
No cessation of suffering, and No path leading to the cessation of suffering.
No wisdom and no attainment,
Because there is nothing to attain.
—The Heart Sutra

Wayne still has the accoutrements of a Japanese pilgrim. Henro dress the part, with a conical hat, a white tunic and—when they arrive at temples—a stole. They carry a bell, a rosary and a white satchel, along with the candles, incense and osamefuda (paper with the henro‘s name, address, age, and a prayer) they need for the temple visits.

And then there’s the Shikoku version of a pilgrim’s credential. It’s a substantial book, with thick pages, each with hand-drawn calligraphy.

[At a temple]

At one of the temples.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

Pilgrims may choose to perform none, part, or all of the temple rituals, and Wayne and Jason chose to participate.

They would do the same thing at each of the eighty-eight temples.

Each bowed at the gate, rang a large bell, washed his hands, lit three sticks of incense and a candle, put his osamefuda in a box, put a coin in the offering box, rang a gong, bowed, said the heart sutra, recited the Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo (“Homage to the great teacher who brings light to all the people”) three times and bowed.

[Calligraphy]

Signing a pilgrim book.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

Then they would go to the temple’s Daishi Hall and do the exact same thing again, before getting their books signed and stamped. The entire ritual would take about twenty minutes.

“It makes you slow down and pause,” Wayne said.

“I’m convinced that there’s meaning in rituals.”

After the rituals, the pilgrims would have a cold drink, walk around and take some pictures, and bow at the main gate.

Then, apart from the few times they stayed overnight at temples, they would keep on walking.

 
Endings and Beginnings

[Henro]

A henro.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

The 88 Temple pilgrimage is a circle: Temple 88 is near Temple 1. Pilgrims can start at any point—but they are supposed to finish at the temple where they started.

Wayne and Jason started at Temple 1. They’d meant to end there, too, but ended up having to head home after Temple 88, leaving their pilgrimage incomplete.

They returned in spring 2010 to finish the journey.

“Going back to Shikoku last spring was not only necessary, but very satisfying,” Wayne said.

He and Jason walked from Temple 88 to Temple 1 over the course of two days, also stopping at several other temples they’d visited the first time.

Temple 1 was very quiet, unlike our first visit, and we spent a great deal of time looking closely at the details of the temple that we had missed. After, we returned to Koyasan, the headquarters of the Shingon sect and spent two more days there, revisiting the resting place of Kobo Daishi and thanking him for bringing us safely through, dedicating wooden plaques to my wife, my mother-in-law and Jason’s wife’s grandfather, who passed away the day I arrived in Japan, and getting the final stamps on my scroll.

As Wayne said a year after completing the pilgrimage, “journeys don’t end when you leave the path.” The pilgrimage continues to be part of Wayne’s life as he still talks a lot with Jason about their shared journey, and gives occasional presentations about the route.

[Jason and Maho]

Jason and his wife Maho, who joined the Wayne and Jason for a week of walking.
Photo by Wayne Emde.

* * *

Wayne wrote a great article, “Nothing to be Achieved,” about his experience on the route, which accompanied by more of his wonderful photos.

To learn more about the 88 Temple pilgrimage, Wayne recommends the Pilgrimage to the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku website.

Shikoku Japan 88 Route Guide is an English guidebook that can be purchased at Temple 1.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:27 pm
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Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part III)


[Le Puy cathedral]

The Muslims were forced to leave Spain, but their legacy lingered in Europe in many ways including Mudejar architecture (shown here in the form of the Le Puy cathedral).

When we left the medieval Iberian Peninsula last week in Part II (if you’ve missed the whole series, you might want to start with Part I), things were looking bad for Alfonso VII of Castilla.

On one side, Castilla was under attack by a Christian army from León, which had been joined by Almohad Muslims fighting under one of Alfonso’s own noblemen. Another Christian army from Navarra pressed on Castilla’s other border.

Christians in the rest of Europe were scandalized by this not-atypical Iberian situation. They thought the Christian rulers of Spain should work together to fight the Muslims instead of quarrelling amongst themselves.

The pope excommunicated the rulers involved, emphasized Spain’s crusading zone status, and sent an envoy to bring the kings together.

The Reconquista

After years of diplomatic effort, the Spanish kings came together and launched a joint attack on the Almohads. In 1212, troops from Castilla, Aragón and Navarra fought the Almohads in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. (Originally there had been French troops involved, but most of them abandoned the effort, likely due to the heat.)

The Almohads blocked the narrow canyon they thought the Christians would have had to pass through, but a local shepherd showed the Christian troops a way around. They won what was to prove a decisive victory.

And now the Almohads had more than just the Christian kings to worry about. At the same time as their control in Spain was crumbling, they faced a variety of problems in North Africa.

Three Christian kings, Jaume I of Aragón, Fernando III of Castilla and Sancho II of Portugal, took advantage of the Almohads’ troubles. Over the forty years following Las Navas de Tolosa, most of al-Andalus came under the control of one or another of these Christian kings. Only one small Muslim kingdom, a tributary of Castilla based in Granada, remained.

In some cases Christian troops slaughtered the Muslim inhabitants after they took over a town (just as Muslim troops had sometimes slaughtered Christians during their own conquest), but this doesn’t seem to have been policy—it was because army leaders lost control of their troops. More often, Muslims were taken as slaves by the Christians, or vice versa in the case of Muslim victories.

Some of the Muslims were used as slave labour on the Santiago cathedral, just as Christian slaves helped build the Kutubiyya mosque in Marrakesh.

Of the free population of Muslims, some chose or were forced to leave the peninsula. Others, called Mudejars, stayed on in the newly-enlarged Christian kingdoms in much the same way the Mozarab Christians had lived under Muslim rule.

Laws suggest that the Christian authorities tried to protect the Muslim populations, but there seem to have been some serious tensions. Mudejars—like the Mozarabs before them—were not equal under the law, and they were increasingly forced to behave in Christian ways, though they don’t seem to have been forcibly converted. Sometimes, as in the case of Sevilla, they were expelled from a city, but were soon allowed to return.

The Muslims who could afford to generally immigrated to Granada or North Africa, fracturing communities.

Of those left, some rebelled during the second half of the thirteenth century. After that more Muslims were expelled, and kings used the rebellions as an excuse to go back on the agreements they’d made when Muslim cities had surrendered.

Most of the evidence we have comes from formal documents, so it’s hard to know what was really going on compared to what law-makers hoped was going on. Basically, as historian Richard Fletcher says, it was a mixture of tolerance and persecution, but the exact proportions are hard to identify.

Conquest or Reconquest?

1492 marks an important turning point in Spanish history, and not only because it was the year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

The remnants of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula ended in the first days of the year, when los reyes católicos, the Catholic Monarchs Fernando and Isabel, accepted Granada’s surrender.

This moment is usually seen as the end of the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of Spain.

But historians have argued a lot over whether it can be properly classified as a reconquest, or if it was more of a glorified conquest.

It’s a difficult argument. Some say the Christian kingdoms believed themselves to be fighting a holy war against the Muslims right from the early days of the Muslim conquest, and therefore, for them at least, it really was a reconquest.

It’s certainly true that from the twelfth century onward, once Crusade ideology took hold, the Christians tended to see it as a holy war, and themselves as heirs of the vanquished Christian Visigoths. The Christian conquerors of al-Andalus really did believe it was a reconquest.

On the other hand, “reconquest” doesn’t seem to have been uppermost in the minds of Christian rulers throughout much of the period of Muslim rule, when they were at least as busy fighting each other as anyone else. They didn’t spend the entire nearly-800-year period between the Muslim conquest and the fall of Granada plotting to overthrow the Muslims—they seized any opportunity to gain land, whether from their Christian neighbours or the Muslims to the south.

From a twenty-first-century perspective, disputes over who has a historical or moral right to a land are obviously tricky and I don’t see any reason to wade into that. But I can’t just refer to the Reconquista without discussing the term a little more. “Reconquest” implies that the Christian conquest was somehow more valid than the Arab conquest, when of course it’s a lot more complicated than that.

After all, like the Muslims, the Romans who brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula were initially invaders (who, ironically enough, met with the fiercest resistance in the areas that later became Spain’s Christian kingdoms). And Muslims had ruled some part of the peninsula for close to eight centuries when the final act of the Reconquista took place. That’s a lot of generations. (To put it into some sort of perspective, three of my own grandparents were immigrants who came to Canada within the last century, and I feel very Canadian.)

Also, a number of the Muslims who were eventually expelled from Spain would have been descended, at least in part, from muwallads—families with a Hispano-Roman background who had converted to Islam. They were the “original” inhabitants, at least if you only go back as far as the Muslim invasion (which was unambiguously a conquest) in 711.

I suppose it’s a case of the winners writing the history books. To the Christians, it was a reconquest. To the Muslims, it would’ve looked an awful lot like a run-of-the-mill conquest.

The Aftermath of the Reconquista: Muslims and Jews in Spain

Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic Monarchs, expelled all Jews from Spain a few weeks after they took over Granada. In practical terms, this meant Jews had to either submit to baptism or leave their homes—and they did both.

And then the Catholic monarchs didn’t live up to the promises they made when the accepted Granada’s surrender, and some Muslim groups rebelled.

The rebels were given the choice that had been given to the Jews: convert or leave Spain. But to leave they had to pay a substantial sum and agree to untenable terms, such as leaving their children behind.

Soon the choice was extended to the other Muslims in much of the rest of Spain. A lot of Muslims became reluctant converts to Christianity.

Fernando refused to go along with this policy in Aragón, which he ruled independently. His grandson and successor Carlos V also swore not to force conversions or expel the Muslims in Aragón, but in 1525, he went back on his word.

As of that year, Spain was officially one hundred percent Catholic.

But of course many of the forced converts—Jewish and Muslim—practiced their faiths in secret.

The popularity of pork in Spain is, at least in part, a legacy of this period. Both Judaism and Islam forbade eating pigs. So publicly eating pork became, to some extent, proof of Christianity.

The converts had good reason for such public demonstrations. Convivencia, as much as it ever existed, was over. Converts could be hauled up before the Inquisition if they were suspected of practicing non-Christian beliefs.

And then in the early seventeenth century, King Felipe banished all Muslim converts after a series of rebellions.

Inquisition records show that some stayed on in hiding. But for the most part, the 900-year presence of Moors on the Iberian Peninsula ended in 1614.

Epilogue: The Impact of al-Andalus on the West

Between about 750 and 900, scholars in the Arab world translated writings from the Greeks and Persians. And they didn’t just translate—they added and refined the classical works, based on both their own studies and knowledge they’d gained from China and India.

Science as such didn’t really exist in medieval Europe until its scholars took steps to acquire knowledge from the Muslim world.

The abacus, relatively simple technology, was revolutionary in medieval Europe, making mathematical calculations much faster, with effects on music, architecture and government. The astrolabe, which among other things made voyages like Columbus’s possible, had a bigger impact still.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some Spanish Christians and Jews did quite well for themselves in other parts of Europe, as they spread Andalusi learning. And during the same period, an unorganized translation movement started up in Christian Spain. In some cases, translation was a two-part process: a Mozarab (Christian from al-Andalus) would translate from Arabic to the spoken Romance language, and a Christian from Northern Spain would then write his own translation in Latin.

These translations had a huge impact on the science and philosophy of Christian Europe.

Jewish and Muslim writers like Maimonides and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) from al-Andalus strongly influenced European philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, as did Andalusi translations of Greek philosophers—particularly Aristotle.

Isaac Newton’s work was based on mathematics that came to Europe through Spain. European medical advances in the seventeenth century were built on Arabic studies that were discovered through al-Andalus. A number of English words that come from Arabic (algebra, algorithm, chemistry, and many more) reflect this influence.

Basically, many of the ideas that have become integral to our Western identity are built on the foundation of learning that came to Europe from and through al-Andalus and other parts of the Muslim world.

That seems to me to be worth remembering, in these days when the loudest voices shout only of our differences.

* * *

Here ends my series on the Moors in Spain. Once again, if you’re interested in an overview of the period, I highly recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain.


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The Camino de Levante: An Interview with Andy Delmege


[Camino de Levante]

Walking from Rielves to Torrijos on the Camino de Levante.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

The Camino de Levante is a quiet pilgrimage route that runs from Valencia, on the east coast of Spain, through Toledo to Zamora, where it joins up with the Vía de la Plata.

Andy Delmege, an Anglican priest from England, walked a large portion of the Camino de Levante in autumn 2009. He went from Valencia to Toledo on foot, and then took the train to Zamora. From there, he walked the Camino Sanabrés variant of the Vía de la Plata to Santiago.

He kindly agreed to answer my questions about the route and his experiences while walking.

Anna-Marie: What drew you to the Camino de Levante for your first walking pilgrimage? (I gather it was your first?)

Andy: It was my first in Spain. I had done a few week-long group pilgrimages to Walsingham twenty years ago.

I wanted a quiet route where I could encounter Spain and I wanted to visit the sites associated with the Carmelite Mystics. Talking it over with one or two people who know the Caminos well and researching on the Pilgrim Forum and the CSJ site decided me that the Levante fitted the bill.

On your blog, you described the first few days as “hellishly difficult.” Why was that?

[Camino de Levante]

The Camino de Levante near Mora, on the way out of La Mancha.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

I was ill. I had a stomach bug and could not eat. Also the enormity of the task I had set myself as well as being alone (there were no other pilgrims and I was walking solo) hit me. If I could have gone home without anyone noticing, I would have done. There were a few very tough few days. I got some medicine and appetite returned and began to make some impact on the mileage, realizing that I could do this.

One important thing was that I promised myself before I started that I would only go home if instructed to by a doctor; this helped me keep with the Camino when things were at their hardest.

In your article The Walking Becomes the Praying, you write that there were three parts to your pilgrimage: the “empty flatness” of the stretch from Valencia to Toledo, walking and driving with friends in the Toledo area, and then a “more relaxed walk” with more pilgrims from Zamora to Santiago. What was it like transitioning between the different parts of your walk?

The first part (which begins with urban Valencia, industrial farming and then some remote hill walking before the flatness of La Mancha) I walked entirely alone. There were no other pilgrims. This was hard but also good.

Some friends from home were coming to Toledo on holiday at the same time as I arrived and I decided I wanted company and to spend time with them. We did a little walking, and then visited Avila and Segovia by car. There was no problem transitioning to this—I was looking forward to the company of friends.

I then rejoined the Camino, deciding to go take the train to Zamora as this meant I could finish the Camino at a more relaxed pace and in order to meet pilgrims walking up the Vía de la Plata. I was anxious about this but was fine once I started to bump into other pilgrims. I formed close relationships with two people in particular.

I noticed you walked with a Spanish guidebook, and I’d imagine there weren’t a lot of English-speakers around on the first stretch. How much Spanish does a pilgrim on the Camino de Levante need to be able to speak and read?

I had done a year of classes and had basic conversational Spanish. I think to be able to do this route you need to be able to ask directions, sort out accommodation and the like. I only met one person who spoke English in the first three weeks.

What was the accommodation like along the way?

There is less pilgrim infrastructure than on the busier routes. There are albergues, but not every day. Some of these are excellent, for example the ones in Algemesi and Las Pedroneras. Others are basic Red Cross shelters. Sometimes it was impossible to find who had the key; other times they turned out to be homeless people’s hostels. It would have been possible to sleep in Sports Centres, but I decided (particularly as I was completely solo) that I would stay in Hostals. I never had a problem finding accommodation.

[Camino de Levante]

Walking the Camino de Levante.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

The route sounds like it can be difficult to follow in places. Did you have any serious problems?

I gather that the way marking is less good than other Caminos (certainly once I got to Zamora and joined the Vía de la Plata, marking seemed superb). I got lost a few times, but generally just the sort of thing that adds an hour or so onto the day. The strip maps in the Spanish Guide were generally good. I found with them, the arrows and a compass I did OK. Finding my way out of towns was quite often difficult.

There were a few times you fell asleep while walking. I didn’t realize that was possible. What was it like?

Towards the end of the very long forty kilometre stage between Almansa and Higueruela there was a small straight road with no traffic. I was exhausted and just plodding until I reached the end. Several times I came to, realizing that I had been asleep. There wasn’t much I could do about this. I didn’t want to stop and sleep because I wasn’t sure I’d get up again if I stopped.

I suppose it did me no harm!

You talk in your blog about the kindness of the Spanish people. What are some of your favourite examples?

Walking in afternoon heat, the manager of a farm employing people with learning disabilities told me to wait and then reappeared with a bottle of ice cold water. Some farmers above me on a hill called me over and presented me with a water melon. Several times, stopping in a bar for a cafe y refresco, the owners refused payment because I was a pilgrim. A nun giving me two kilos of home made biscuits.

You’ve written a little about the importance of rest days. What was your favourite place for a rest day?

[Chinchilla de Monte-Aragón on the Camino de Levante]

Chinchilla de Monte-Aragón.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

I have several. Chinchilla is a wonderful historic hilltop town close to Albacete. I had walked a couple of very long stages to get there and a rest was essential. The parish Church is superb with a beautiful statue of la Virgen de las Nieves and a very robust Santiago Peregrino looking down from the roof.

Much later on, I spent a rest day at the private albergue ‘Casa Anita’ at Santa Croya de Tera, a few days beyond Zamora. This was a wonderfully nourishing place. Anita and Domingo were wonderful hosts, feeding us, drying soaked kit and dispensing vast quantities of wine. The Church at Santa Marta de Croya, just across the river, has the earliest statue of Santiago Peregrino and was a place of prayer.

I spent a couple of days at Oseira Monastery shortly before Santiago. This small retreat gave me the space to pray through the Camino before my arrival.

You say: “solo pilgrimage, although hard at times, can also become self-indulgent.” What do you mean by that?

When I am walking by myself my routine, pace, daily mileage, and the like are all about me. I walk and live in ways that entirely suit me. When I walk with others I have to keep other people’s needs in mind too.

You say, fairly early on: “I have learned the hard way not to push to much. The two things I am praying for myself are linked to this and to the pilgrim-pace: to learn to be much more relaxed and accepting, and to learn what it is possible for me to do wisely in a day and to accept this. Reliance on God and others in other words.” Was that something that developed as you kept walking?

It did develop while I was walking. It was something that I had been thinking and praying about before I walked which affects all of my life, not just the days out walking. The space and prayer of the Camino, along with the practical lessons you can learn on it helped a lot with this (although it is something I am still working on).

Can you tell me a bit about how, in your words, “the walking became the praying?”

[Note: This is an excerpt from Andy’s article The Walking Becomes the Praying, first published in the Fairacres Chronicle, Vol. 43 No. 1, Summer 2010. You can read the entire article on Andy’s blog, Pilgrimspace.]

[Cross on the Camino Sanabrés]

On the Camino Sanabrés.
Photo by Andy Delmege.

What I gradually discovered was that the walking became the praying. Alan Ecclestone describes the pilgrimages of Charles Peguy to Chartres: A pilgrimage gets to the holy place at last but what gives it its part in prayer is the slamming down of one’s feet to complete the journey while praying the while for all its features[ii]. In putting one foot in front of another, in the tiredness, in the blisters, in the being at one with myself, the landscape and God, in the mind quietening, in all this, walking, pilgrimage itself, became prayer.

The simple goodness of walking and praying the Camino was a falling more deeply into God. The walking became a deeper loving. The incarnatedness of pilgrim prayer, its coming out of kilometre after kilometre, mile after mile of effort, is tested because the Camino is also a School of Charity. I have already written of how generous the people living along the Way were. One important thing for me was to learn to receive it. It can be more testing to learn to live with other pilgrims. Busy albergues can be challenge. Everyone is crowded into a simple dormitory with some showers, facilities for hand washing clothes, and maybe a kitchen. Everyone is tired. Most people want to get an early night. Some people snore. Some people get up to prepare for walking at four in the morning. Dealing with this is an exercise in the practical love that comes out of praying. It is also part of learning basic pilgrim attitudes. These seem to me to revolve around gratitude; to be grateful for the love and care expressed in so many ways, while accepting the difficulties and discomforts with grace.

Another key aspect of praying and prayerful attitudes that came out of the pilgrimage was trust. Going off to another country to undertake a challenge that was greater than anything I had done before was a risk. I had to learn to trust myself and my abilities, to trust others (and also to discern when it was right not to trust others), and to trust God. This could be seen, for example, in finding accommodation each night. At home know that I will always be sheltered and comfortable. On the Camino I did not know where I would spend the next night. As I walked, I relaxed and the anxiety about whether I would get a bed slipped away. This is an attitude I must work to keep now.

You wrote in your blog: “I do not know what I feel about finishing. I have both loved and hated the Pilgrimage; it has been one of the best and one of the most difficult things I have done. My friend John sent me a text a couple of days ago saying that the benefits will emerge over the next few decades.” How do you feel about it now, more than a year later? What benefits have continued to emerge.

When I came back, people said that I had grown. I think it has made me more confident and stronger (if I can do that, I can probably do anything …). The things that we touched on above about faith, trust and pace are also important and continue to emerge. I learned, and continue to learn, important lessons about my need to rely on God and others rather than myself; on the being realistic about possibility and its limits; and about what my limits are.

Footnote

[1] Alan Ecclestone, A Staircase for Silence, DLT, 1977, p13.

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To read more about Andy’s journey and his thoughts on pilgrimage, visit his blog, Pilgrimspace. (Here are the stages he walked.)

If you’re interested in the Camino de Levante, the Confraternity of Saint James has some good information.


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