Tag Archives: Chemin du Puy

Walking with a Donkey: An Interview with Roland Garin


[Roland Garin and Praline]

Roland Garin and Praline. Photo courtesy Roland Garin.

I photographed a donkey in Santiago’s pilgrim office when I was there at the end of May. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and Sarah De Martín (thanks, Sarah!), I discovered that the donkey was named Praline. She walked some 1,900 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago—from her home in France to Finisterre—with Roland Garin.

Roland was kind enough to answer my questions about walking with Praline. Thanks also to Aude Verbeke, a friend from my first Camino, for editing my translation from the French. (Ici est la version française.)

Anna-Marie: Was this your first time walking the Camino?

Roland: I walked previously on the Camino de Santiago from Lyon to Le Puy to train myself. The first time was with two donkeys. Praline was accompanied by her friend Amandin. The second time with Praline alone, and then we did the GR-70. It’s also called “The Stevenson” in memory of Robert Louis Stevenson, the Scottish writer, the author of the adventure novel Treasure Island.

Where did you begin your walk?

We left from Saint-Pierre-la-Palud, a village of 2,500. It’s 25 kilometres from Lyon, in a region that we call here “les monts du Lyonnais.” We took the following route: Saint Pierre to Le Puy to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela to Muxia to Fisterra. It was around 1,900 kilometres in 77 days of walking.

Why did you decide to walk with Praline?

Why with Praline? That’s a good question! Some people go alone, with a friend, with their wife…. Me, I like donkeys. (There are four at my house.) Praline is my walking partner and since we’ve been walking together we’ve made a good couple. Between us there is a complicity and an affection that only donkey owners can understand.

[Roland Garin and Praline]

Roland Garin and Praline. Photo courtesy Roland Garin.

What was the best part of walking with a donkey?

As I told you already, when there’s complicity between the man and the animal, it’s a true pleasure. Praline regulates the walk: it’s not the man who guides the donkey! The man walks in the footsteps of the donkey. I must confess that I’m lucky to have an exceptional animal. I talk to her all day and even if some people are skeptical about this, I know she listens and understands every word … to the right … to the left … straight ahead. Sometimes she follows the marks on the way before I have the time to tell her! I am very lucky.

The worst part?

There’s no worst part with a donkey! It’s a question of education … the donkey is a very intelligent animal. Some say that it’s one of the most intelligent species of animal in the world. Unlike a horse, you don’t train a donkey: you educate him.

All is complicity, sweetness and patience … you don’t impose your will on a donkey! Some say that the donkey is stubborn. That’s not true; he thinks … he analyzes the road, the danger, the sounds. When a donkey doesn’t want to advance, it’s up to the man to understand why. And when the man becomes as intelligent as the donkey, all goes well!

Where did Praline sleep?

At night I slept in a tent and Praline slept beside it. Donkeys sleep very little and they use the night to eat. Praline felt secure to know that I was next to her. Sometimes I slept in gîtes d’étapes … she was very unhappy and that caused problems because she didn’t stop braying all night. The other pilgrims didn’t always appreciate that!

Did she need special food while walking?

Above all, don’t supplement a donkey’s diet. The donkey is a rustic animal; he is happy with grass and hay. And fresh water … and, as a reward for working all day, a fruit or a crust of stale bread. If you really want to make him happy, a handful of crushed barley…. But he himself needs to carry it … so….

Did you have any difficulties walking through cities?

Walking in a city isn’t always easy. The man with a steering wheel in his hands thinks he’s master of the world, so he often becomes the worst of the boors and cretins. I’ve never had a problem going through big cities (Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago). Praline is used to cars and they don’t bother her.

I was especially afraid of being stopped by the Guardia Civil, because some guides specified that donkeys and horses were forbidden to pass through cities. But I never had any problems. On the contrary, representatives of the police force made me feel very welcome. I even took some photos with them. The biggest difficulty was crossing certain metal bridges. Praline didn’t want to! So we had to avoid them … and all went well.

The most dangerous thing wasn’t the cities, it was when we had to walk along national roads with heavy traffic. The trucks were fast and made a lot of noise, so any animal could have been scared…. I had to stay close to Praline to give her confidence. The worst is when people honk their horns … but I can’t blame them: it comes from a good sentiment. They want to say hello to us.

How far did you walk each day?

That depended on the road, on the place: we walked better in the forests than in the cities. It also depended on the altitude of the stage. As I told you already, it’s not the master who commands; it’s the donkey who controls the speed on the path. It depends on whether the road is rugged or easy. We did some 20-kilometre stages, but also some stages of almost 40 kilometres. But our average walking was 25 kilometres per day.

Do you have a favourite story about Praline on the Camino?

[Praline]

Praline joins the pilgrim throngs outside the pilgrims' office in Santiago de Compostela.

There are hundreds of stories about Praline. In fact, she’s started to write her memoirs…. The book should be 600 pages! We work every day to write this work. Praline dictates her impressions to me and I transcribe them on the keyboard. It’s not fast, because she is very, very demanding and often the work from Monday goes in the garbage on Tuesday. But we have done the Camino together … so we also write together.

The most fantastic story is that not a single day went by in Spain without someone wanting to buy Praline from me. Someone even tried to steal her! Each time someone asked me “Se vende? se vende?” I answered no, obviously. But the people insisted, so I said: “Okay, 30,000 euros … 50,000 euros with the equipment.” The exorbitant price discouraged the buyers. But I confess I would have been very annoyed if someone had accepted, because I wouldn’t be separated from my Praline for all the gold in the world.

Where is Praline now? Does she live with you?

Praline is in her meadow, next to the house in the village of Saint-Pierre-la-Palud. She is with Cadine, Florentine and Kakao. She rests, waiting to go out on another journey … maybe at the end of the month of September we’ll go on a fifteen-day hike in the centre of France. Sometimes on Sundays, we go on walks through villages, and meet people who are interested in the Camino de Santiago. We speak of the association “Le Chemin Pour Tous” (The Camino for All) which takes some people with disabilities to Santiago every year.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

Other things that I want to talk about…. I’m going to write about them mainly so that others may benefit from my experience on the Camino. I want to tell them about the beauty, the hazards, the fantastic events but also, because nothing should be concealed, about the hardships of the road.

It’s the road of stars … but you know, both roses and brambles have thorns.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 12:33 pm
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Music and Life, the Road and Photography: Oliver Schroer and Peter Coffman on the Camino


[Camino cover image]

The Pyrenees from the Route Napoleón.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

  this album is the record of an intersection,
            the story of a line…

                 …un Carrefour entre la musique et la vie,
                 le chemin et la photographie…

          es la combinación de música e imagines que
      nacieron de un paisaje y tiempo especiales…

…music born of a particular landscape and time.

—From the liner notes of the album Camino

The story begins, fittingly, with a pilgrim musician in a French church.

Architectural historian Peter Coffman was on vacation in Moissac with his wife, Diane, when he walked into a church, and found a man playing a flute wandering the aisles. The man, it turned out, was a musician walking an ancient route to Santiago de Compostela, stopping at churches to play and sing along the way.

That brief encounter stayed in Peter’s mind, and after he and Diane returned home to Toronto, Canada, he mentioned it to his longtime friend, fiddler and composer Oliver Schroer.

I said, “Isn’t that a great idea, doing a musical pilgrimage, where you stop in these places which are so acoustically amazing, and you make music?” And I said, “We should do this sometime.”

And Oliver said, “Yeah, let’s do this sometime.”

“So naturally,” Peter says, “nothing happened for several years.”

Five years later, in 2003, the two friends were living on opposite sides of the country, but they met up at Oliver’s family home for his father’s wake.

As they sat on the couch talking, the idea of a pilgrimage—something they hadn’t discussed in years—resurfaced.

But now, Peter says, the timing was right.

We decided at that moment, “Let’s do it next year. Let’s book off May and June. And we’ll promise to each other now that we won’t make other commitments.”

And that’s what they did.

Full Backpacks

[Backpacks on the Camino]

At a rest stop in O Cebreiro.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

Oliver and Peter didn’t see each other again until May 2004, when four of them met up in the small French town of Entraygues-sur-Truyere to begin walking: Peter, his wife Diane, Oliver and his wife Elena. They didn’t have time to walk the entire Chemin du Puy and Camino Francés, but they planned to walk a significant portion of each: more than a thousand kilometers altogether, from Entraygues-sur-Truyere to Pamplona, and then from León to Santiago.

The contents of the two men’s backpacks differed from the more usual pilgrim gear.

Oliver described his extra burden in the liner notes of the album that was to emerge from the journey:

                 in my backpack,

          I carried my violin like a wooden chalice,
like my own precious relic,

  carefully packed in its reliquary of socks and underwear and
          waiting to work a miracle.

                 my pack also contained a portable recording studio.

But Peter’s pack was heaviest. When the four pilgrims met up in France, he says, Oliver wanted to see what he was carrying.

“That’s not a backpack,” Peter remembers Oliver saying, after he’d looked inside. “That’s a camera bag with a little bit of clothing in it.”

[Peter Coffman with his backpack]

Peter (and his pack).
Photo by Diane Laundy.

The pack held Peter’s Nikon F3 (a brass-bodied camera), three heavy lenses, a bag full of film, and a tripod. Socks and underwear were crammed into a few small compartments. As near as Peter can remember, the whole thing weighed 13.5 kilograms (30 lbs).

Peter had thought long and hard over his decision to bring the camera gear.

Lugging it around wasn’t, as he points out, the most practical thing to do. And besides, he had burned out in the past working as a professional photographer. Since then, he’d done a bit of architectural photography for his job, but no more than that.

In the end, though, he decided to bring the equipment, and to shoot black-and-white film.

I did it black-and-white because in some way that seemed to suit this sort of romantic notion I had of the pilgrimage being an opportunity to shed all extraneous things, and just focus on essentials.

Before doing the Camino, he’d noticed there weren’t any books that fully documented the route photographically.

“And of course,” he says, “once I started walking along carrying this backpack with camera gear, I realized why.”

Art on the Camino

[Eglise de Sensacq]

Eglise de Sensacq.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

While they were walking, neither Oliver nor Peter knew they were creating music and photography they would end up sharing with others.

In the on-line journal Oliver kept for his family, friends and fans, he wrote that “the main plan is really to walk a huge amount and to concentrate on that. I may do some playing or some recording of things along the way, but the focus is most definitely the walk.”

Peter says he felt the same way about his photography.

The trip itself is challenging enough, both physically and psychologically in some ways, that I found it had to be my main focus. I couldn’t put anything other than the actual experience of walking … at the centre of things.

He brought his camera gear hoping to get some good shots, but because he was shooting film rather than digital, he didn’t know how the photos had turned out until he got home.

I didn’t know what I was capturing. I didn’t know whether or not I could do anything with it afterwards. I just thought, I’m going to go out, I’m going to shoot whatever I can—as much as I have energy for and so on—and I’m just going to gather raw material. And I’ll worry about what, if anything, all this stuff amounts to later.

Asked if he ever considered sending the camera gear home, Peter responds immediately in the negative. He didn’t enjoy carrying the gear, but he was having too much fun using it to send it home, he says.

Photographing the Camino brought back his love of photography, “this joy of going out and experiencing the world and responding to it by making these images of it.

It’s something I had always loved, and kind of lost touched with. But I was reconnecting with that, and it was great.

As Peter rediscovered photography, Oliver was fiddling in churches and cathedrals.

When the pilgrims walked into a building, Peter says, the first factor that would determine if Oliver would play was whether or not he had the energy. If he did, he’d walk around clapping his hands and making noises to test the acoustics.

And if both the energy and the acoustics were there, he’d take his fiddle out of its backpack cocoon—removing everything else in the process (“I was prone to strewing underwear or socks in the general area if I was not careful,” Oliver remarked in his journal)—and play.

Oliver described the experience in the liner notes:

in some churches I played for many people, in others for a single listener.

          j’ai joué quelques unes de mes vieilles
                    pièces fractales et spirituelles…

improvisé mucho.
          a través de semanas andando,

                    new pieces came

                              – one hill, one valley at a time.

Peter is a longtime fan of Oliver’s fiddling and would have loved to hear it anywhere, but the old buildings added another dimension to the music.

They were unlike anything Oliver was acoustically accustomed to, Peter says.

[As Oliver played in churches,] he started to understand his own music as something, in a sense, that exists in three dimensions—something that has to travel through space as well as extending through time. I could see him playing and listening to himself at the same time, and thinking, okay, what happens if I do this? What happens if I change my timing here?

Conques

[Fiddling in Conques Cathedral]

Oliver playing in the Cathedrale Ste-Foy de Conques.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

The four pilgrims reached the medieval valley town of Conques a few days into the journey.

Oliver, Peter says, had not had a good day. He hadn’t broken in his walking boots ahead of time, and was suffering because of it. The steep, rocky descent into the town was particularly tough on his feet.

But then they reached Conques, and he—like so many pilgrims—was entranced.

Peter had been there already. “But when you emerge in that town, it’s so staggeringly beautiful,” he says.

“It’s an amazing feeling.”

They settled in, and soon headed for the cathedral, where Peter so much wanted to hear Oliver play.

But there was a musical event on, involving the cathedral organist and some school children. The pilgrims waited around for a while, but the event dragged on, and there was no chance for Oliver to play.

“We began to think, is this actually going to work?” Peter says.

But he knew the cathedral doors were often open well into the evening. Much later, the group return to the cathedral, and found it empty. So Oliver gave a private concert to his three companions—his first time playing on the trip.

It was an evening to remember, as Peter describes it in the liner notes:

may 6, 2004.    a lanky figure in muddy boots enters through the west door of conques. out of his backpack he pulls a violin, gently disentangling it from the socks, underwear, and yards of sleeping bag that have protected it from the wear and tear of the road. it is hopelessly small in his large hands, in this huge building.

    l’homme commence à jouer.
    les notes et l’espace s’embrasent
    comme s’ils avaient attend cet instant depuis toujours.

“I was not just playing my violin in this church; I was playing the church itself with my violin,” Oliver wrote.

It felt like the largest instrument I had ever played. Playing a note was like sounding a gong. The sound bloomed out of the first attack, and then subsided only slowly.

In the morning, Oliver had a chance to improvise with the cathedral organist—another amazing experience.

“We were in Conques less than 24 hours,” Peter says, “but it was a very, very rich part of the pilgrimage.”

The Journey

[Peter Coffman and Oliver Schroer]

Peter and Oliver (with cow) in France.
Photo by Diane Laundy.

And so as pilgrims do, they walked, and walked some more.

Peter, asked if there are any stories he wants to tell, says, “For me to pick any particular story seems almost arbitrary in a sense. Because there are just so many. Where would I begin?”

Oliver’s journal relates some of these stories: the first day, when they started out walking nine kilometers in the wrong direction; the time the shops were all closed and they were out of food, but a local man befriended them and offered them a feast; the day Oliver lugged a bag full of cooked pasta—soon dubbed Fred’s brain—around in his backpack; an impromptu concert for a large group in a church in the woods; the evening Oliver and Peter scared local cult members away from the town hall where they were spending the night; an improvised, very moving ceremony at the Cruz de Ferro; the accidental eating of pigs’ ears; the joy of being able to dash over mountains once they’d were finally in good walking shape (“Mountains. HA! I laugh out loud at those puny hills!”); and tales of all the pilgrims and others they met along the way.

Oliver didn’t downplay the physical effort, either.

“I thought that somebody could make a tourist attraction called CAMINO!” he wrote from France.

It would be a theme ride in the tradition of Disney. On the ride you would be on a treadmill, with a 360° movie of beautiful landscape playing all around you. Fans would blow the most amazing medley of smells in your direction, while somebody repeatedly hit your feet with a 2×4. You would be under heat lamps the whole time, but every once in a while, someone would throw a bucket of cold water on you. CAMINO! EXPERIENCE THE WONDER! FEEL THE PAIN!

Peter said the other day, “Actually, the Camino is really easy, apart from the walking and carrying your pack!” That about sums it up.

When Oliver fiddled in churches, he didn’t always know if he’d be allowed to stay—he might be kicked out after half a minute, or have a chance to play for over an hour.

He couldn’t take the time to warm up, since he might only have time for a single song. So he would launch straight into the music he wanted to play.

“And I’d have to just put heart and soul into it,” he said in Silence at the Heart of Things, a documentary about his life.

The frustrating times when Oliver got kicked out of churches brought home to him how much his music meant to him.

“At home I can play any time,” he wrote. “But when I can’t [play] it bottles up inside me and I become very sad … it is a deep hunger that needs to be fed.”

Santiago de Compostela

[In front of the Santiago Cathedral]

Peter, Diane, Oliver and Elena in front of the Santiago Cathedral.
Photo by Peter Coffman.

After seven weeks’ walking, the pilgrims arrived in Santiago de Compostela, where Oliver was asked to play his violin at the pilgrims’ mass.

At first, he just wanted to say no. Peter never did figure out exactly why.

I think he was perhaps afraid of the responsibility of being an integral part of this event at which he’d expected just to be a spectator, in a sense. Although having said that, it was never like him to shy away from the stage, or the spotlight. I sensed that for some reason it was an emotionally complicated thing for him. He was very resistant to it.

But the sacristan at the Santiago cathedral had given Oliver permission to play at the cathedral whenever he wanted, so fiddling at the mass seemed like the right thing to do, Peter says.

He just realized that it wasn’t about what he wanted. It was about other things that needed to take priority.

And so Oliver played at the mass, and “of course it sounded fantastic and was such a great thing.”

Peter wrote in the liner notes about the pilgrims’ mass at the cathedral, and the point when he heard the words “cuatro de Canadá.” Four from Canada.

there was a time in our lives before the camino, and there is a time after it.

                              those three words mark the transition.

                at the climax of the mass a giant censer roars past us,

                                              a massive arc, leaving a sweet trail of smoke.

             it is joyful, celebratory, and incredibly exciting.

The botafumeiro had a big impact on Oliver, too, which he described in his journal.

The effect of this HUGE object hurtling directly overhead was astounding. At the apex of its swing, it almost touched the ceiling of this very large cathedral on either side. When it came overhead, it barely missed us. It was dramatically cathartic, releasing all of this kinetic energy along with the incense. It was like a joyful leap into the air, the end of the journey.

Camino: The Album

[Camino: the album]

The cover of Camino. Peter Coffman won the 2007 Independent Music Award (Album Photography) for his Camino photos.

Peter started developing his film immediately after returning to Canada, and began scanning and printing the photographs soon after—”just because it was exciting to see this stuff,” he says.

At the same time, Oliver was going through his recordings. As the two sent photos and music flying back and forth across the Internet, Peter says, they realized they had a potential album on their hands.

[Oliver] had all this music that sounded great. I had all these images that in certain ways, in their sensibility, seemed to fit the music—partly because they were black and white. There was this sparseness to the images that seemed to work with the sparseness of the music. That’s when we began to realize, we’ve got some interesting stuff here. People might like this stuff.

Two years after walking, Oliver released the album Camino. On it, his playing mixes with the sound of bells, of children playing, of pilgrim footsteps. The cover and liner notes are full of Peter’s photos, and writings by both men about their Camino experience.

In the documentary, Oliver described Camino as “an album of duets between violins and buildings.”

And the liner notes are another duet, this one between images and words.

Epilogue

[Oliver]

'On June 5, 2008,' Peter writes, 'Oliver played what he knew would be his final concert to an absolutely packed house at Trinity-St. Paul's Church in Toronto. It was a sweltering, intense, beautiful, and unforgettable night.'
Photo by Peter Coffman.

Oliver Schroer was diagnosed with leukemia in 2007, about two and a half years after walking the Camino. He passed away in July 2008.

A month before his death, he threw a concert, Oliver’s Last Concert on his Tour of this Planet. At one point during that evening, he spoke about the Camino, and played one of the pieces he composed along the way. It’s obvious, watching the footage, that the walk was important to him.

Peter was at the concert, of course, and recorded parts of it with his camera.

He’s kept up a connection to the Camino since the walk, through an exhibition and talks about his own photography, and by attending Camino-related events.

The Camino never really ended for him, he says, while he was working on his photographs and listening to Oliver’s music.

In a way, it kept us on the road; it kept the road with us. And that’s been the case ever since.

Every year, Peter says, he meets people “who connect to this [Camino] story in one way or another.

It’s one of those things that, for me anyway, once you’ve done it, once you’ve got it … you carry with you everywhere.

* * *

To hear some of Oliver’s music on-line, try a YouTube search. It’s bound to leave you wanting a copy of Camino, which you can purchase through Borealis Records (where you can hear parts of every Camino track) or Amazon.ca.

For more about Oliver Schroer, his music, and his experiences on the Camino visit his website, read his Camino journal, and/or check out my previous post on Camino (which has an excerpt from the documentary Silence at the Heart of Things embedded into it).

To learn more about Peter Coffman and his photography, visit his website. He has three wonderful galleries: the Camino de Santiago, Oliver Schroer, and historical architecture. (Use the bar at the bottom to slide sideways through the galleries.)


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:29 am
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Stained Glass on the Chemin du Puy: A Photo Essay


[Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel]

Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel, Le Puy-en-Velay.

I don’t normally spend a lot of time in churches—or any other buildings dedicated to religion—but when I walked the Chemin du Puy, I stopped at just about every church and cathedral that was open along the way.

In some cases, they were true places of refuge: they let me escape the heat—and later the cold—of the walk. When I walked into my first city and was overwhelmed by the traffic and general busy-ness, I fled to the cathedral with its shafts of stained glass-tinted light.

The churches and cathedrals I stopped at were places of beauty, somewhere to sit and think, and maybe even pray.

I liked the oldness of them, and the simplicity. And I loved the windows with their stained glass.

These photographs—arranged in geographical order—are my celebration of those buildings and their wonderful windows.

[Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel]

Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel, Le Puy-en-Velay

[A church in Saugues]

St. Peter at a church in Saugues.

[Windows in Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole]

Modern stained glass in Saint-Alban-sur-Limagnole: 1) Mary; 2) A detail of the same window;
3) Joseph and Jesus.

[Church in Saint-Côme-d'Olt]

Crucifix in the church in Saint-Côme-d'Olt.

[In Saint-Côme-d'Olt]

The same church in Saint-Côme-d'Olt.

[Stained glass abstract]

Also at the church in Saint-Côme-d'Olt.

[Church of Sainte-Radegonde]

The Church of Sainte-Radegonde in Saint-Félix.

[Saint-Jean-Mirabel]

The church in Saint-Jean-Mirabel.

[Abbatiale Saint-Sauveur]

The Abbatiale Saint-Sauveur in Figreac—where I fled to escape the city.

[Abbatiale Saint-Sauveur]

The Abbatiale Saint-Sauveur in Figeac again.

[Cahors Cathedral]

The Cahors Cathedral.

[Organ pipes]

Organ pipes at the church in Lauzerte.

[Stained glass in Lectoure]

A church in Lectoure.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 8:54 am
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This Week in Pilgrimage: The Camino Aragonés in Danger?


[Pomps]

Photo of the Week
In Pomps, on the Chemin du Puy.
Want to see your photo here? Submit it now.

It seems I’m really committed to walking the Vía de la Plata this spring. I have finally have tickets! They’re from Toronto to London, which might seem odd, given that I live in British Columbia (three time zones away from Toronto) and am going to Sevilla. But I’m visiting friends near Toronto and Oxford on the way, so it actually makes sense. I just need to book a few more flights.

Anyway, here’s the news I’ve found this week.

The usual disclaimer: I’ve done the best I can to ensure accuracy, but a lot of this information comes from Spanish sites and my Spanish isn’t perfect.

An Aragonese Court Ruling Could Lead to the Flooding of a Portion of the Camino Aragonés

The Tribunal Superior de Justicia de Aragón (Aragón High Court of Justice) recently ruled that the “regrowth” of the Yesa reservoir is compatible with the protection of the Camino Aragonés, which passes through the area. It sounds like the development of the reservoir will mean modifying the current Camino route.

I would like to look into this issue more in the future when I have time to struggle through the Spanish, but here’s what I know. I’m being as accurate as I can manage, but can’t make guarantees.

According to the cleverly named YESA NO site (scroll down for English), in addition to displacing local residents and causing social disintegration, the growth of the reservoir will threaten a number of archaeological and architectural sites along the Camino. I can’t tell if they’ll definitely be flooded, but the site seems to say so.

Then again, the court ruling suggests a judge thinks otherwise. If anyone knows more about this, please do comment.

Camino Bits and Pieces

  • The Mundicamino website now has a section on the Via Francigena pilgrimage to Rome, which is under construction. They’re asking for information and photos. The Spanish pages currently have the most information, and English pages just seem to be the Spanish pages run through an on-line translator.
  • The new Libro de Piedra (Book of Stone) website gives visitors a virtual tour of the cathedral, its museum, and a few surrounding squares, with some information in Spanish. I thought it would be completely gimmicky, but it’s actually kind of fun. A little slow, though—at least with my computer.
  • French statistics show that numbers of pilgrims/walkers on the Chemin du Puy are increasing. Numbers of pilgrims staying at the gîte communal in Arzacq-Arraziguet have risen from 2,147 in 2000 to 5,135 in 2010. According to the same statistics, 1.5 percent of pilgrims staying in that gîte walked for reasons of faith; 50 percent for the physical challenge; 30 percent to face a challenge with others (my translation may be a bit off on this one), and the remainder to live a new life, find companionship, change their outlook on life, or to meditate. It seems they’re asking different questions in France than in Spain. There’s definitely no “live a new life” box at Roncesvalles or at the Cathedral in Santiago.
  • The Camino de Levante will soon be way marked as the GR-239 (an official European long-distance path) in Castilla y León. The route is already marked with yellow arrows, but local Friends of the Camino associations believe the GR designation will help get support and protection for the route at various levels of government.
  • Burgos just celebrated its patron saint, San Lesmes Abad, a Frenchman who devoted much of his life to caring for pilgrims at the Monasterio de San Juan, where he was abbot. The celebration, which involves a religious ceremony, partying, concerts and other events, is always held on the Sunday closest to January 30.
  • Several towns near Mérida on the Camino Mozárabe (from Granada) now have special signs for pilgrims. The signs give information on population, monuments, important phone numbers, and more. Streets along the route also now have ceramic tiles with arrows pointing the way to Santiago, and the towns have pilgrim information centres, usually located in the local town hall.
  • Ángel Luis Barreda, the director of the Centro de Estudios del Camino (Centre for Camino Studies), and a Camino expert, talked about the Camino in a recent interview. He says now, like the Middle Ages, is a golden age for the Camino, with vast numbers of pilgrims. “The Camino belongs to everyone and no one,” he says (in my translation). “It is a space of liberty, and that is precisely its great advantage and its large problem.”
  • Two sites on the Vía de la Plata—the “Country House” at Mérida and a Roman bridge over the Aljucén River—received funding for archaeological work through the project Alba Plata II. Some fragments of Roman milestones have been found in the area.

Pilgrim Roads

I just had a great conversation with Canadian photographer Peter Coffman, who walked substantial parts of the Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés with some serious camera equipment. He travelled with the late fiddler Oliver Schroer, who fiddled in churches and cathedrals along the way.

I’ll post the interview next week, but if you’d like to learn a little more now, I’ve already raved about the album that resulted from Oliver’s fiddling and Peter’s photos.

And … Cows on the Camino

Just for fun, because it brought back memories, I’ll leave you with a video of cows on the Camino.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 6:14 pm
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A Slow Camino: Interview with Robert Townshend


[Stone wall]

The Causses in spring: a great place for a slow walk.
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

I recently came across Robert Townshend’s SlowCamino blog, which he describes as “an account of one pilgrim’s sluggish progress toward Compostela.”

Rob, an Australian, walked from Le Puy-en-Velay to Pamplona in April and May 2009, and his blog documents the journey in retrospect.

Rob describes himself as “a dawdler, a daydreamer, a mucker-about. An impurist.” His blog is a mix of travelogue, practical advice, history, and observations on slow Camino travel—which, in his case, involved walking the Chemin du Puy in about sixty days without, he claims, losing any weight.

As I started reading SlowCamino, I thought I might like to interview Rob. When I read the following, I was sure of it.

I distinguished myself in the company by having travelled half the distance of the other pilgrims at our large table. They must have been impressed, since they all wore surprised expressions when told I’d come only from Estaing. I was then treated with a kind of embarrassed benevolence, especially when I declared my intention of stopping at Senergues the next day, only twelve kilometres distant.

I must admit to a tinge of competitiveness the next morning. A young lady was dawdling in the foyer, in an obvious attempt to be the last to leave.

That’s my gig, honeybunch!

When I e-mailed Rob, I discovered he’s about to embark on the next leg of his slow journey: Pamplona to Santiago on the Camino Francés, and Santiago to Tui on the Camino Portugués.

But he answered my questions quite speedily.

[Bread and cheese]

Rob writes: 'My lunch! One of the great edible joys of southern France is brebis, sheep's milk cheese. I love it in all its forms, Roquefort, Basque, Corsican or other—unpasteurised for preference.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

Anna-Marie: What made you decide to do a very slow Camino? What are the advantages of travelling so slowly?

Rob: I didn’t decide to do a slow Camino. I’m constitutionally slow, and merely build upon this god-given quality by heavy eating, aimless chatter, drinking lakes of tea, watching Fox etc. The advantage of travelling slowly is that you meet more people, and none of them feel badly about a person who is so easily overtaken. In particular, English males are delighted to get the best of an Australian in a physical pursuit—it happens so rarely!

You said on the forum: “Please be advised that serious dawdling requires a massive lack of focus and determination.” How did you maintain that lack of focus and determination?

Well, Anna-Marie, tonight’s preparation for the Frances and Portugues consisted of eating beef casserole, sunk into a lounge while watching the original 1974 Death Wish on an enormous TV screen. The combination of stewed steak and Charles Bronson has made me little more than an amoeba with hair.

This is ideal mental preparation for dawdling.

How many rest days did you take? What were your criteria for a good rest day location?

I’m guessing I took five or six rest days, usually in towns with a good food supply. In nice rural gîtes, like Montredon and that of our friends at Gîte Dubarry, one can be underfoot on a rest day. In towns, one can be out of people’s way.

[Snow on the Camino]

Even slow pilgrims have to trudge through snow. Writing about Aumont-Aubrac, Rob says: 'Wind, rain, snow, sleet, ice, mud... Did I leave anything out? Here’s the view from our last shared accommodation.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

Do you think a slow Camino is particularly difficult for men? What advice would you give men who wanted to cultivate, as you say, an Omega male attitude?

I find pilgrims of both sexes to be sprinters, men for obvious male reasons, women because they’re all a bit hyperactive. (Did I just break a Canadian law?)

Men who wish to cultivate an Omega male attitude should watch a lot of Humphrey Bogart movies … but model themselves on the Peter Lorre characters, not the Bogies. Just lying around watching old movies is pretty Omega.

As much as you can call any day on the Camino “typical,” how would you describe a typical slow Camino day?

You meet heaps of people. Really.

You write in your blog about walking twenty-seven kilometres in one day to keep up with friends, but many of the people you met ended up ahead of you. Were you ever tempted to permanently abandon your slow philosophy to keep up?

[Pilgrims]

Rob says: 'Here we are before the descent to Cajarc. The lady on the left was born in Clochemerle, which I had always believed to be a fictional town, subject of Gabriel Chevalier’s wonderful novel of small town politics centred on the erection of a public urinal. It seems that Clochemerle is real ... and the urinal is still there! More lessons of the Camino.'
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

It happened that my three friends that day were all doctors and had achieved much in their lives. I find achievement very fatiguing.

Maybe one’s Camino reflects one’s career and outlook, regardless of usual disclaimers about leaving accustomed life and attitudes behind. I was so lucky to link up with those three special people … but, no, I wasn’t tempted to abandon my dawdling. It’s what I do.

The big problem with dawdling is not losing friends, but having to make new friends daily. My chemin from Le Puy was a bloody conveyor-belt of acquaintances. Those who go slow will know.

What do you mean when you describe yourself as an impurist?

I’m a very conservative type in most things, so I believe in codes. I just don’t believe in manufacturing codes to make life more bothersome than it need be. The Camino should be fun, unless someone is paying you to do it in a certain way or to take on certain responsibilities.

At times I felt that there was some kind of Camino Calvinism in operation, directed at people who were taking it easy, using luggage services, taking easy routes. Also, though many of these purists are charming people, in conversation they can be a touch single-minded. They need to lay off, lighten up.

[Pamplona]

Pamplona, where Rob ended his last Camino ... and will begin his next Camino later this week. Stay tuned for his next blog installment.
Photo courtesy Robert Townshend.

You’re heading back to Pamplona to continue your trip to Santiago at the end of this month. Are you going to continue your blog?

I blog when I get back home. Nothing must interfere with the dawdling when it is being dawdled.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention? Do you have any other advice for aspiring slow pilgrims?

The great golfer Ben Hogan refused to help younger players because he felt he was self-made and shouldn’t have to create competition for himself. I feel the same way. It will be a bitter day for me when someone completes the Chemin du Puy in over sixty days.

I know it will happen eventually, but why should I help someone steal my crown?


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:41 am
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The Chemin du Puy with No French: Agnes Chun


Agnes

Agnes Chun, relaxing in a gîte d'étape after a long day's walk.

A lot of pilgrims on the Camino Francés speak very little Spanish, but it’s harder to get by on the Chemin du Puy with only a few words of French. It’s even more difficult when your first language isn’t English.

But my Korean pilgrim friend Hyun-Jung (Agnes) Chun managed it, when she walked from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in autumn 2008.

Earlier this month, Agnes kindly agreed to answer my questions about her journey on the Chemin du Puy.

Anna-Marie: Was it very difficult walking in France without speaking French?

Agnes: As you know, I only know few French words. I can’t even make any French sentences. However it worked to survive there.

We can live there carrying just a 10kg rucksack, and language is exactly like belongings. The key is in our sincere heart to communicate. Of course if I could speak French, I’d have had richer experiences definitely. But the conclusion is never changed. It’s difficult but it’s not difficult to walk in France.

How did you communicate with hospitalier(e)s, shopkeepers, and other people you really needed to communicate with?

I listed just a few words to say what I needed. Sometimes I drew a picture or used my body when I had no idea of the French words. But I was not nervous about communicating with them because I met people who could translate for me whenever I need them.

How did you ask for directions?

In France, the way marking is very clear. Just followed red and white lines. But I lost the direction just one time in Pomps. I could not find any way marks or pilgrims. I was almost in a panic. It was an even worse situation when there was no one who could speak English. I met several old men who worked in the wheat field but they barely understood me.

Finally I showed them the shell on my backpack and shouted “Compostelle! Compostelle!” And then they pointed their fingers in the right direction.

Did you reserve your bed in gîtes d’etapes in advance? How?

Mostly I reserved beds in advance. I took my cell phone for reserving accommodation. Speaking on the phone was more difficult than “face to face,” but they could understand. For example, I just said like this: “Une pèlerine, demain, réservation!” It’s really ridiculous, but I didn’t have any other choices.

Sometimes I asked other pilgrims who could speak French to help, but otherwise I always said the above. But one of my friends told me the tourist office could make a reservation for pilgrims.

Did you meet many people you could speak English or Korean with?

Well… I’ve never met a Korean speaker in France. Koreans usually walk only the Camino Francés from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. (But I met only five Koreans even in Spain!) It’s not difficult to find English speakers in France. Most pilgrims could speak English, especially the Germans, the Belgians and the Dutch. But I was sorry that I could not chat with locals.

Was it lonely often being surrounded by French speakers?

After dinner the “French Talking” started in the gîtes every night. For the first few days I tried to stay at the “French Talking table” but it was very stressful. For me, “English talking” is also very difficult… (English is a foreign language to me.) Oh God, French talking? Haha. Loneliness was the second matter.

A funny situation occurred in Spain. I had very close German friends in Spain. One night, there were eight Germans and the only Korean: me. We started to talk in English at first, but the main language changed to German. After an hour, I was a stranger again.

Would you recommend the Le Puy route to others who can’t speak French?

Sure. You should not miss a big and powerful present due to a very small obstacle. Don’t be a fool.

What was the most difficult thing about walking the Le Puy route?

It was a physical matter. Before walking the Camino, I’d walked less than five minutes a day during last seven years. I exercised for one month before leaving Korea, but it’s not enough to walk around 20 km per day.

I felt it would be impossible to finish this walking during the first few days. Stomachache, heartache, blisters, ankle pain and back pains… But I realized that it wasn’t only my own problem but it was the same for all others. I asked my friend who started from his door in Munich, Germany where the most difficult part of the whole way to walk was. His answer was “from Le Puy to Conques.” But don’t panic, it gets easier to walk. I am not sure if it’s for geographical reasons or because my body adapted.

[Cows in the Aubrac]

Cows in the Aubrac, along the Chemin du Puy.

What was the best part?

I think every moment, every single place and even my tears on the road were magnificent presents for my life. However, if I had just a couple of days to walk on the Le Puy route, I’d like to choose the Aubrac region. As I mentioned above, it’s a really hard course but it deserves to be walked again.

But I don’t want to meet the giant cows. I’m scared of them.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

I met a French guy in Nogaro. He could not speak English but he was try to tell me something. In my understanding, he criticized my poor French. He said I would never understand their lives, their history or themselves because I could not speak French. He spoke in a very bad manner so my friends yelled at him in French, but I couldn’t help agreeing with him partly. If I spoke French better, I could communicate with French speakers, especially locals, and then get a broad and wide knowledge and experience. It’s irrefutable truth.

However, language is just a means and the open heart can get over all the language issues. My experience prove this….

* * *

You can read more about Agnes’s experiences in her blog. She hasn’t gotten around to translating it in to English yet, so you’ll need to either be able to read Korean or use an internet translator.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 1:11 pm
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