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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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Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part II)


[The Alhambra]

The Alhambra in Granada.
Photo courtesy Juan Carlos Guijarro Moreno through this Creative Commons license. Esta obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons.

When we left the medieval Iberian Peninsula last week in Part I of this three-part series, it was around the year 1000 and al-Mansur, who for all practical purposes ruled al-Andalus, had been raiding the northern Christian kingdoms.

Today, we begin after al-Mansur’s death in 1002. Al-Mansur’s son succeeded him in ruling through the puppet caliph Hisham II. But the son soon died, and Al-Andalus passed into yet another period of civil war and rebellions, at least in part because al-Mansur had upset the previous balance of power and brought in soldiers who weren’t part of Andalusi society.

Out of the chaos that ensued came smaller regional states ruled by emirs whom historians have dubbed the taifa or party kings. (The “party” part means “factions” rather than “fiesta,” but a number of the important taifa rulers actually did party in the wine, women and poetry sense of the word.)

In some places, the new rulers had been Berber generals. In others, they were already lord of the area. Some were regional administrators—often slaves or freedmen—who seized power during the decades of civil war.

The taifa states fought amongst themselves, and the larger took over the smaller. By the 1050s, there were six primary states—Sevilla, Granada, Badajóz, Toledo, Valencia and Zaragoza—and some remaining smaller states.

As would happen later among the city-states of Italy, the taifa states’ jostling for position didn’t only involve warfare. They also tried to outdo each other culturally, building mosques and palaces and competing to attract the best poets and scholars.

Abd al-Rahman III and some of the other Umayyad rulers had also patronized the arts and sciences. However, the taifa period was probably the most culturally and intellectually fertile in Andalusi history, as Muslim and Jewish poets and scholars created important works of poetry, philosophy and science.

Three Faiths in al-Andalus

We don’t know a lot about everyday relations between Muslims and Mozarabs (Christians living under Muslim rule) in the cities during this period—or really, any other period.

Sometimes the Mozarabs lived in their own areas of the city, and sometimes not. What does seem certain is that people of the two faiths frequently came into contact with each other. They traded together, and a man of one religion might work for someone of the other. Apparently, some richer Muslims were also in the habit of stopping by Christian monasteries for a drink of the wine that was forbidden them under Islam.

We know even less about the countryside. Meager evidence suggests that some—possibly very large—areas were inhabited by Christians who never converted and may have resented Muslim rule.

Jewish communities were usually found in cities. In general, they seem to have been large and well-off, and during the eleventh century several of their members rose to prominent positions in state governance.

Samuel ibn Naghrila is probably the best-known of these. He helped Badis, the ruler of Granada, attain that lofty position, and in practice was the first minister, commanding troops and running the city until he died in 1056. He was also a respected rabbi and poet.

His son, who succeeded him to the post, was killed in a pogrom against the Jewish community in Granada. This outburst of violence was a tragic but isolated incident. Like the Mozarabs, Jews had limited rights but weren’t usually subjected to violence—although some criticized rulers like Badis for putting Jews in a position of authority over Muslims, which violated Islamic law. But for the most part, Jewish culture flourished during the eleventh century.

Al-Andalus and the Christian Kingdoms

During the tenth century, al-Andalus had been much stronger than the Christian kingdoms to the north.

That balance of power reversed during the Andalusi civil war and the rise of the taifa states. Christian armies now raided al-Andalus. Over the course of the century, the raids turned into tribute-gathering missions as the taifa rulers paid the northern kings parias—basically protection money.

As in the Umayyad period, alliances weren’t necessarily along religious lines. A Christian king might ally with another Christian ruler against one of the taifa kingdoms—or he might just as easily ally with a taifa ruler against one of the other Christian kings.

Individual adventurers, such as the Christian soldier, diplomat and courtier Rodrigo Díaz (El Cid) and the Muslim poet and courtier Ibn Ammar, acquired their own taifa states.

The Christian kingdoms took over some previously Muslim areas, and competed with each other for the taifa tributes. The more successful they were, the richer they grew.

And the richer they grew, the more they attracted the attention of the rest of Europe, particularly neighbouring France.

The Almoravids

And then Alfonso VI of León captured Toledo, the former Visigothic capital and an important city in its own right.

The taifa kings panicked. Mu’tamid, the ruler of Sevilla, led them in asking for help from the Almoravids, a fundamentalist Islamic sect that had recently risen to power in North Africa. According to the story, Mu’tamid said he “would rather be a camel-driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castilla.” (For Muslims, pigs are unclean.)

The ascetic Almoravid leaders despised the taifa rulers for the poetry and decadence of their courts, the “impurity” of their religion, and their tendency to ally with the northern kings. But they despised the northern kings even more because they were Christians daring to exact tribute from Muslims.

In 1086, led by Yusuf ibn Tashfin, they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and defeated Alfonso.

Then Yusuf turned on the taifa rulers because they didn’t support him sufficiently in additional campaigns against the Christian kingdoms. He exiled several of them to North Africa, and took over himself.

Al-Andalus was united again, but this time as a colony under governors that the Almoravid emir sent from Marrakesh.

Fundamentalists in the North and the South

Within al-Andalus, Muslim-Christian relations deteriorated under the fundamentalist Almoravids.

Relations between al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms also went downhill. The northern Christians, already upset about the loss of important revenue from tributes since the Almoravids took over, became even more anti-Muslim after the Almoravids exiled a number of Christians to Morocco in retaliation for a Christian raid.

The Christian kingdoms were always anti-Islamic—at least in their rhetoric (as, of course, Muslim rhetoric was anti-Christian)—and to some extent the Reconquista may have developed soon after the Muslim conquest of Spain (it’s a subject that historians debate a lot). But at the same time, the Christians adapted to the Muslim presence over the centuries of Andalusi strength.

Anti-Islamic attitudes intensified during the first half of the twelfth century. To some extent this was likely a result of Almoravid anti-Christian policies. But historian Richard Fletcher argues that the serious French influence on the Spanish Christians may have propelled them even more strongly toward intolerance.

During the second half of the eleventh century, they Spanish kingdoms developed close links to Spain. Their families intermarried with French nobility, and some of them developed close ties with the monastic order of Cluny. And of course, in the same century the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela ceased to be primarily a local affair, and drew large numbers of French pilgrims.

For French aristocratic warriors, inspired by the Chanson de Roland (a seriously romanticized account of an earlier fight against the Moors), going to Spain to fight Muslims meant following a path already blazed by the revered Charlemagne.

The idea of a holy war had been part of Christianity for a long time, but the idea that individuals gained merit by fighting “infidels” developed in the eleventh century. In 1123, the Iberian Peninsula became an official crusade zone.

Not coincidentally, the twelfth century seems to be when Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-Slayer) makes his first appearance—at least in the written sources that have come down to us.

One example is the “Diploma of Ramiro I,” a forged document from about the middle of the century. It claims to have been written after a battle at Clavijo in 844, where St. James himself appeared to lead Christian troops to a resounding victory over Moorish armies. In gratitude, the document continues, Ramiro I decreed that all of Christian Spain must make an annual donation to the cathedral, which should also receive a share of any booty taken from the Moors.

Being a forgery, the document isn’t helpful in learning about the ninth century, but as Fletcher points out, it does tell us what at least some influential Christians in the twelfth century believed, or at least wanted others to believe: that St. James championed the Christian struggle against the Muslims.

But at the same time, it’s important to remember that Muslim and Christian attitudes toward each other didn’t change all at once. At least one rebel Muslim noble worked with the Christians to oppose the Almoravids, and a Catalan baron named Reverter, after being captured by the Almoravids, became a mercenary who worked for them. Of his two sons who appear in the historical record, one continued his father’s work for the Muslims, and the other went back to Spain to fight under his father’s former master.

The Almohads

Al-Andalus did not fare well under Almoravid rule. While Almoravid leaders were devout, the regular soldiers weren’t. Not only did they fail to take back much of the land the taifa kingdoms had lost to the Christians, but they indulged in forbidden luxuries, looted, persecuted Christian and Jewish minorities, and fought amongst themselves.

Al-Andalus fell apart again after the death of Yusuf’s son and successor in 1145, with more rebellions and civil war, and a second batch of taifa states. The Christian kings took advantage of the chaos to advance into Muslim territory.

In the meantime, a new sect, the Almohads, was challenging Almoravid rule back in North Africa.

And Ibn Qasi, the leader of a new Sufi sect in al-Andalus, invited the Almohads to help him take Sevilla. The Almohads came, but soon the two groups had a falling-out. The Almohads had Ibn Qasi assassinated, and remained in Spain.

By the final quarter of the twelfth century, the Almohads ruled all of Muslim Spain, and pushed back the Christian kings, who were too busy quarrelling amongst themselves to mount a common defence.

Alliances at this time still weren’t primarily dependant on religion. Take King Alfonso VII of Castilla, for example. At one point, one of his borders was under attack by the neighbouring kingdom of León (whose king was a close relative of Alfonso’s), who had invited the Almohads to join them. The Muslim troops were commanded by Pedro Fernández, an important Castilian nobleman who had argued with King Alfonso the year before, and left Castilla to work for the Almohads.

At the same time, Christian troops from Navarra were attacking Castilla’s other border, after the Almohads had encouraged border disputes between the two kingdoms.

It was, when it comes down to it, not an atypical Iberian situation. The Christian and Muslim participants may well have hated each other’s beliefs, but at a practical level, local rivalries came first.

* * *

Thanks for indulging me in my Spanish history fixation. I said last week that this would be the final installment, but I seem to require a Part III. (If I leave out all detail, it gets rather boring—at least to me.)

Much of this information comes from Richard Fletcher’s wonderful Moorish Spain, and some of the information on Santiago Matamoros is from St. James’s Catapult, by the same author. Thomas F. Glick’s Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages is another fascinating read.

I’ve also started to read Reconquest and Crusade in Medieval Spain by Joseph F. O’Callaghan, who isn’t as cautious as Fletcher is about assigning religious motives to pre-twelfth-century warfare on the Iberian Peninsula.

Do keep in mind that a lot of the interpretations—especially when it comes to the interplay between religions—are hotly debated among historians.

Next week: the final installment (really) of this three-part series will address the impact of al-Andalus on Christian Europe and of course the Reconquista.


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Speaking Spanish—Or Not—on the Camino Francés


[Fishing Sign]

My friend and I were really curious about this sign that we found along the river after Villafranca del Bierzo. All I could make out was something about freedom without death. I asked a Spanish friend about it later. It turned out to be about releasing fish after catching them.

It’s much easier to survive on the Camino Francés (the main Camino de Santiago route across Spain) if you don’t speak Spanish than it is to walk the Chemin du Puy without speaking French. However, as when travelling in any country, speaking the local language enriches the experience, and makes the trip easier.

If nothing else, it’s worth memorizing “hola” (hi—pronounced oh-la) and “buen camino” (good road—pronounced bwen camino, a common pilgrim greeting) for basic Camino manners.

Talking to Locals

Local people, including shopkeepers and bar owners (bars in Spain are basically a cross between a café and a pub) don’t usually speak English.

In some stores, the shopkeepers serve you. If you don’t know the word for what you want, you should be able to point. In bars and restaurants, it would help if you had someone to translate, since the pilgrims’ menus are only sometimes translated into English and other common Camino languages.

If you get lost, the more you can understand Spanish the easier it is to get back on track. “Pardón, ¿dondé está el camino?” is another helpful phrase. Excuse me. Where is the Camino? If you can’t remember that, I would imagine saying “Camino?” and looking confused (while, of course, looking very pilgrimly with your travel clothes and backpack) will convince people to point you in the right direction.

But while it’s perfectly possible to survive without Spanish, I had a few great discussions with locals I met on the road, sometimes while asking for directions, that I’d never have been able to have without speaking some Spanish.

At Pilgrim Refuges

Some of the hospitaleros and hospitaleras are local Spaniards, but even if they don’t speak English, they’re used to dealing with people who can’t speak Spanish.

In my experience, a lot of the volunteer hospitaleros and hospitaleras spoke at least some English.

Talking to Pilgrims

English is often the common language between pilgrims from different countries on the Camino. I met two Belgians—one from the Flemish part, and one from the French part—who had to communicate in English. And even if someone doesn’t speak English, they can often find someone else to translate.

So if you’re an English-speaker, you might not be able to talk to everyone, but it’s relatively easy to find someone who can talk to you.

Of course, the Camino Francés is very international, so the more languages you speak, the better. I once had a conversation in (fairly bad) Spanish with an Italian woman, because while neither of us was fluent, it was the only language we had in common.

Spanish Spanish and Latin American Spanish

I learned to speak Spanish in Mexico, and my university Spanish professor was from Colombia. I found it harder to understand Spanish in Spain, with its lispy s’s, but after a while I got more or less used to it.

Grammar and vocabulary also differ a bit from one Spanish-speaking country to another. (Learn more here.)

Other Languages Spoken Along the Camino

Spanish-speakers often refer to the language we call Spanish as castellano, or Castilian. That’s because it’s not the only language spoken in Spain.

The first few days of the Camino out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port are in Basque country, where the Basque language is spoken. Santiago is in the region of Galicia, where the inhabitants speak Galician, or Galego, which is related to Portuguese. That’s why in both these regions you’ll often see two different names for the same place: one is in Castilian Spanish, and the other is in the local language.

People in these regions also speak Castilian Spanish, so if you do speak Spanish, it’s still easy to communicate.

Learning Spanish

There are a lot of ways to learn some basic Spanish before your trip. Check your local community college listings for classes, or your library or the Internet for courses.

I really like the Pimsleur program for second-language learning. I’ve found it really engrains basic conversational grammar in my head. It has thirty-minute programs that I used to listen to every night while doing dishes, back when I was learning German. Usually I listened to each lesson twice, or sometimes even three times, before moving onto the next. The down side is it’s quite expensive (unless you luck out on eBay), but packages with the first eight lessons are often available at public libraries.


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The Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés: Similarities and Differences


Along the Chemin du Puy

The Chemin du Puy, starting in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, is the most popular of the Camino de Santiago routes across France. It joins up with the Camino Francés, the most popular route in Spain, at Saint-Jean-Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees.

I walked the whole route from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela in 2008. I really enjoyed both routes, though in some ways they were quite different.

This isn’t intended as a judgment of either route. It’s just meant to give you an idea of the differences between the two so you can decide which to take, or, if you’ve already walked one, you can decide if the other is something you might like to do.

It’s all based on my experiences, and of course yours might be quite different.

The Cost

France was definitely more expensive than Spain. In France (remember this was in 2008), dorm accommodation (in gîtes d’étape) generally cost between 7 and 15 Euros. In Spain, the refugios were usually 3 to 7 Euros.

Dorm Accommodation

The gîtes in France might have been more expensive, but they were also generally nicer than the refugios in Spain. Dorm rooms were usually smaller in the gîtes, there were sometimes single beds instead of bunk beds, and the bunk beds were never shoved together so people had to sleep right next to strangers, as in some cases in Spain.

Also, the gîtes rarely had a time when walkers had to leave (and it was around 10:30 a.m. in the one I can think of that did), while many refugios expected pilgrims to be out by 8 a.m.

Eating and Supplies

[Santiago Cake]

A Delicious Galician Treat: Santiago Cake

In both places, many shops closed for siestas or long lunches. I am convinced there is no single time in Spain when every single shop is open, but I actually found France more difficult in terms of getting supplies. Some shops and bakeries were closed on Sundays, and others on Mondays, or even Thursdays. On the days they were open, they might open for a few hours in the morning, and then close until 5 in the evening. Sometimes they were open Sunday mornings, but closed in the afternoons.

I didn’t actually eat out in France, but I did sometimes get demi-pension at private gîtes, which included a bed in the dorm room, a four-course dinner and a breakfast (usually bread, butter and an assortment of jams and hot drinks). This usually cost 25 to 30 Euros and was always excellent.

In Spain, I sometimes had dinner at a bar (which is like a combination café/pub). The menu de peregrino (pilgrim’s menu) also usually included four courses, but the food wasn’t usually as good as that in France.

In both places, many of the gîtes/refugios had kitchens where walkers could prepare their own meals. In Galicia, however—though this might have changed—many of them didn’t have pots and pans.

Other Walkers/Pilgrims

On the Chemin du Puy, when I was there in September, the vast majority of the walkers were French retirees who were walking for about two weeks (many planned to do the entire route over the course of three years). Many of them saw themselves more as walkers than pilgrims, and only a small number planned eventually to walk to Santiago.

There were also a number of Canadians of all ages from Quebec, and the occasional German, Swiss, Belgian or Dutch walker, many of whom had walked from their own countries.

On the Camino Francés, more people saw themselves as pilgrims, and many were walking the entire route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela. The route was much more international, with pilgrims from all over Europe, Asia, and North America, and a few from other parts of the world.

Local Welcome

In general, I found locals quite friendly on both routes. They were always helpful when I had to ask for directions in my mangled French or Spanish, or bought supplies.

Along the Chemin du Puy, there were a number of yards with signs where people left out drinks—and in one case tomatoes—available to pilgrims by donation. Especially closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, there were also a lot of pilgrim decorations in private yards to encourage us on.

My only bad experiences on the Camino Francés were in Castilla y León. Three times—once alone, and twice when I was walking with a female friend—I had men expose themselves to me. I never felt like I was in any danger, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant. My friend and I also had a guy call us bad names as we waited to cross the highway into León.

Language

On both routes, it was helpful to know some of the local language, since many of the locals don’t speak English.

On the Chemin du Puy, I found French was also necessary for talking with the majority of the other pilgrims. On the Camino Francés, on the other hand, a lot of the pilgrims spoke reasonable English or were travelling with someone who could translate.

The Routes

[The Camino in October]

Along the Camino Francés

Both routes were a mix of big cities and villages; hiking paths, country roads, and highways; forests, farms and urban centres.

The Le Puy route was a tougher walk. The first two-thirds or so had a lot of steep ascents and descents, since most of the route was high up, but the towns were generally in valleys. The views were spectacular. Around Moissac it got quite flat, but the views weren’t as incredible. At the right time of year, the vast fields of sunflowers would be pretty amazing, though. Closer to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, in the Pyrenees foothills, the terrain got more difficult (though not nearly as hard as closer to Le Puy) and the views quite wonderful.

I could be wrong about this, but I suspect the Chemin du Puy had more parts where I had to walk right on a highway. I think the Camino Francés involved more highway walking overall, though—it’s just that much of it was on a special senda del peregrino, which was basically a paved sidewalk next to the highway.

The Camino Francés had some difficult ascents and descents that were worthy of the Chemin du Puy, but not nearly as many. There were a number of absolutely beautiful parts, particularly at the beginning and end of the route. The big cities were generally larger and more industrial than the big cities on the Chemin du Puy.

To compare the elevation profiles of the routes (which give you an overview of the ascents and descents), visit the Camino Planner.

Garbage and Graffiti

There was almost no garbage or graffiti along the Chemin du Puy, apart from the occasional toilet paper patch.

Garbage was—and I suspect still is—a real problem on the Camino Francés route. It also seemed that every region I walked through wanted to separate from Spain, and the vast amounts of graffiti on parts of the route reflected that.

Waymarking

[Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés]

Yellow Arrows on the Camino Francés

The Chemin du Puy is waymarked as any other GR (long-distance route in France) with red and white marks on trees, fences, signs, and just about anywhere else. In some regions, there are signs giving the distance to nearby towns, or to Santiago. It’s marked so you can walk it in both directions. (Embarrassingly, this was actually a problem for me one day when I somehow got turned around and walked a few kilometres in the wrong direction.)

The Camino Francés is waymarked in one direction with yellow arrows, scallop shells, and other pilgrim signs.

On both routes, I found the waymarking quite good, though on each there were a few spots where it was relatively easy to get lost.

Churches and Cathedrals

Many of the churches along the Chemin du Puy were open for pilgrims to pray, escape from rain and heat, light a candle, and/or pray. There was never an entrance fee to the cathedrals.

On the Camino Francés, churches were often locked, and there was usually an entrance fee to see parts, or even all, of cathedrals. Instead of real candles and a donation box (as in France), there was usually a machine where, if you put a coin in a slot, a bulb lit up on a candle.

The Routes’ Ends

There’s something incredible about arriving in Santiago de Compostela—a pilgrimage destination for so many centuries. For me, anyway, arriving in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ending a journey there couldn’t match entering the plaza in front of the Santiago Cathedral.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:52 am
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The Call of the Pilgrimage Road


Jour après jour, le chemin nous appelle,
C’est la voix de Compostelle.
—From the French pilgrimage song Ultreïa

My rough translation:
Day after day, the road calls us,
It’s the voice of [Santiago de] Compostela.

 

 

Two years ago today, I was walking across France, with a week or so to go before I reached the Spanish border. I was less than halfway through my more than 1,500-kilometre journey from Le Puy-en-Velay, France to Santiago de Compostela.

At the time I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. After all, it’s hard to find the time (and money) to spend two and a half months walking.

Now I want to go back. Maybe not on the same routes, although I wouldn’t mind doing either the Chemin du Puy or the Camino Francés again. I miss walking for hours every day, passing through tiny villages and big cities, my walking stick beating out the rhythm of my travels. I miss meeting new friends, and running into old ones unexpectedly. Sometimes, I almost miss the dorm rooms full of snoring.

I’m hoping to get back to Spain, and maybe France, next year. In the meantime, I’ll go through my photos again—I’d love to make them into cards—and do some writing about the Camino.

I’ll also work on this blog. With two new posts weekly, it will cover my own experiences and thoughts of the Camino, and what I can learn of other pilgrim routes—particularly in Europe, but also in other parts of the world.


Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 5:23 pm
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