Camino de Santiago: Letting go and seeking simplicity.

Two Gifts of the Camino de Santiago: Letting go and seeking simplicity.

One of the many huge vistas on the Ruta de La Lana, Gudalajarra.

One of the many huge vistas on the Ruta de La Lana, Guadalajara.

 

Gifts of the Camino de Santiago: Letting go and seeking simplicity.

Two great benefits of walking the Camino de Santiago are the experience of letting go of obsessions, addictions, anxieties, beliefs, resentments and all those niggling insecurities which inhabit our minds; and also the experience of how wonderful it is to find that living very simply can be a joy.

 

Simple lodging, no heating or hot water, but very welcome on a very wet day. Quintanarraya, Ruta de La Lana

Simple lodging, no heating or hot water, but  welcome on a very wet day.
Quintanarraya, Ruta de La Lana

 

This year, 2015, I have started two Caminos and in neither did I make it as far as I had intended.  It was not my arthritic ankle which stopped me but my moderately benign heart arrhythmia quite common in men of my age.  Often my average speed drops to 1 km per hour because I need to stop and wait for my heart to calm down.

A challenging descent to Antequera, CAmino Mozarabe from Malaga.

A challenging descent to Antequera, Camino Mozarabe from Malaga.

On returning from a 10 day walk from Seville to Zafra, on the Via de La Plata, my doctor said that the only solution is to exert myself much less.  Caminos do not seem too much exertion to me, but my heart obviously feels it is.  So I have been faced with accepting that my lifestyle must adjust to this reality.

The Camino is our teacher.

What I have learned is that fundamental, paradigm shifts in perspective come more frequently with age.  My experiences of five years walking Caminos is that personal change is not to be avoided but embraced and welcomed.  So I am sure that whether I walk more slowly and much shorter distances, or not walk Caminos at all,  the pilgrimage will continue.  Some day I will no longer be able to walk it: I will let it go.

New directions.

New directions.

Learning from Simplicity.

I am sure that the necessary simplicity of life on the Camino has helped me to learn to “let go.”   Pilgrims let go of keeping up appearances, they ditch the surplus attire or accessories they set out with, they let go of privacy and luxury and all will say how good it is to live more simply, at least for a while. Very few complain of these privations and I often hear people say that on the Camino they feel a lightening of the burdens they have been carrying in life.

Albergue municipal, Murias de Rechevaldo, simple and welcoming, run by Pedro.

Albergue municipal, Murias de Rechevaldo, simple and welcoming, run by Pedro.

On the Camino pilgrims largely make do with only what is necessary.  This simplicity can be, in itself, a revelation.  So much of what we have and what we want is unnecessary. Moreover, a long pilgrimage on foot exposes many hidden, inner treasures; usually when bits of the ego get worn away like the soles of our shoes.  Walking, contemplation, prayer, space and silence strip us bare and we find we are just fine, naked.  At least, so it seems to me.  This is the secret of wealth, openly declared by the world’s great spiritual traditions: walk in the direction of material wealth and you have a serious risk of living in financial insecurity no matter how much you acquire. Go trustingly in the opposite direction and you will be filled with gratitude for all you have.

The Canal de Castilla, near Fromista.

The Canal de Castilla, near Fromista.

 

But I will miss the Camino if I find I can’t walk it.

 

 

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Via de La Plata – a domestic safari between Almaden de la Plata and Real de la Jara.

Via de La Plata – a safari between Almaden de la Plata and Real de la Jara.

Horses are plentiful in Seville.

Horses are plentiful in Seville.

The walk from Almaden de La Plata to Real de La Jara is about 16 km.  Many pilgrims find this too short for a day on the Camino and continue to Monesterio which is a further 20km. When I first passed here in 2010, I continued walking and suffered the worst blisters on any of my caminos.  So this time I decided to take the day very slowly and stop and have conversations en route – with the animals.

The storks in Almaden were  courting each other noisily on the Church tower in Almaden de la Plata

The storks in Almaden were courting each other noisily on the Church tower in Almaden de la Plata

The week before this Camino I had been at a fiesta in Ciudad Rodrigo, a Carnival with the day punctuated by the running of bulls and bullfights in the evening.  With bullfighting I am faced with armies of contradictions and paradoxes, fifty shades of grey perhaps – in a very different context.  I am not “either/or” when it comes to bullfighting: it is not, for me black or white.  I loved bullfights as a child and for decades it has been the door which opens for me the reality of living with opposites, with questions without answers and faces me with my own inner contradictions.  Death is out in the open. I have slaughtered animals myself when I kept goats, holding them in my arms as their life drained away with their blood.  Who knows what happens at that moment when the life within leaves only corpse?  Meat-eating man is a killer of animals.  When bullfighting ceases, as it surely will soon, let us build abattoirs constructed of glass in public places so we can keep before our eyes our complicity in killing other mammals.

The killing of a bull. Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca, Spain.

The killing of a bull. Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca, Spain.

If the distance between these two little villages in Seville is short, so too is the distance short between life and death: and maybe the distance man imagines as separating himself from other animals is nothing at all. This is certainly how I felt as I passed through this final stretch of the Sierra de Norte in the Province of Seville.

A very wooly sheep guarding the Camino.

A very woolly sheep guarding the Camino.

The sheep, in the morning sun, blocked my path.  They were waiting for one, just one, to move and I wove past a few before a large ewe reluctantly levered itself onto its legs, followed by most of the others.  Some defiantly stayed put.

Goats are a different kettle of fish.

Goats are a different kettle of fish.

The goats were nearly all standing up as I approached a generous herd.  They were probably awaiting their milking.  I could smell my memories of the goats I had kept.  I feel a deep affinity with these intelligent and playful animals but these, not being used to me, refused to dance even when I asked them to.

Bemused.

Bemused.

My goats all had names: Rosie, Paloma, Chocolatina, Brandy and Pico are some I recall.  I loved them but wasn’t much of a goat herd often leaving them to kind and more competent neighbours when I went off on my travels.  When I started walking my first Camino I had had to sell them.  Animals need constant attention and my vagabond heart is not suited to animal farming.

Pigs at a watering hole.

Pigs at a watering hole.

One hillside was home to a huge herd of black pigs enjoying a bath.  These animals are large and curious.  They came right up to me so I expect that other pilgrims feed them. They looked well fed.  The famous hams of Spain, the “pata negra”, the Iberica bellota, fattened on the acorns from the sparsely wooded landscapes (dehesas) come from these herds.

http://youtu.be/k0fPQJIj7dE

When the raw ham is served with a few drops of local olive oil and crusty andalucian bread in homes, markets, bars and restaurants, it seems to come from some anonymous source. In nature, however, at close quarters each animal seems to have its own identity, even in a herd.

A beauty.

A beauty.

Over the next few days I met other pilgrims enchanted by this part of the Camino.  Perhaps we were privileged with the brightness of springtime and the lack of flies and intense heat. What is certain is that if we stop eating meat these animals will disappear.  Apart from the horses……and donkeys…

A donkey - just outside Real de la Jara.

A donkey – just outside Real de la Jara.

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Via de La Plata – Seville into Sierra Norte de Sevilla.

Via de La Plata – Seville into Sierra Norte de Sevilla.

Returning to my first Camino

Paradise, between  Castelblanco and Almaden.

Paradise, between Castelblanco and Almaden.

Paradise re-visited.

For all the Caminos I have walked since my first, The Via de La Plata in 2010, I have held, deep within me, a special love for this Camino. Five years on and no longer a novice, I realise just how much I had been subconsciously drinking in the great beauty of the early stages through Andalucia and into Extremadura.  Everything about walking had been new to me – the yellow arrows, the distances, the albergues, the timing of the day.  I had arrived in the albergue, my second night on the Camino at 9pm and gleefully elected a top bunk, like a little boy excited by the height: only I was an older man who needed to get up in the night.  Then I was also surprised that everyone left so early – 10am seemed fine to me. Learning the ropes was more on my mind than the beauty around me yet I had retained an affection for the Sierra Norte related, I am sure, to its air, its space and the warmth of its embrace.

Leaving Guillena for Castelblanco.

Leaving Guillena for Castelblanco.

This time however, at the end of February 2015, nothing could detract from my awareness of the wealth of nature’s hold on this Camino in spite of its being a highway for 2000 years and a home to cattle, goats, pigs, sheep and horses which roam freely along many stretches. I had plenty to distract me: my desire for contemplative walking was in the firing line from my physical weaknesses, especially my heart arrhythmia which would instantly lower my energy, stopping me from walking or slowing me to a crawl.  More than my arthritic ankle, the heart’s irregularities affect my spirit: I become full of self-doubt, indecisive, confused and clumsy. It is a sudden plunge into melancholy.

A 1 kilo orange found at the side of the Camino.

A 1 kilo orange found at the side of the Camino.

Melancholy has its own ok-ness and this is confirmed by little discoveries which prevent total despair and appear as graces, as if to say, “It may feel like death, but you are part of this Life which vibrantly surrounds you right now.”  And, indeed, while taking a pee I look down and see that I am nearly splashing a gigantic orange buried in the grass, the biggest I have ever seen in my life.

At another moment I close a gate and turn back to the path to notice that I am hearing many birds singing in their different registers, a song to accompany the scene, the garden of Eden, with palm bushes waving and a fine oak half-concealing a yellow arrow pointing the Way, all bathed in sunlight and blue.

More Paradise

More Paradise

The new albergues.

The Via de La Plata has seen the opening of new Albergues all along the route, making it possible to walk shorter stages in most parts.  It seemed to me that the hospitaleros of the private albergues have grouped together to promote their accomodation, often recommending a stay in the next one.

Pilar, who runs the Albergue Luz del Camino in Guillena.

Pilar, who runs the Albergue Luz del Camino in Guillena.

 

Guillena is the first stop on this Camino and now boasts two good albergues.  I chose the nearest which is right on the path through the town and met Pilar whom I found cheerful, warm and helpful, the owner of the Albergue Luz del Camino.  Here I learned that, in the next town, Castilblanco de los Arroyos, the albergue was shut for the month.  Pilar recommended “The Pension behind the Church”.  When I did arrive in Castilblanco I couldn’t find it but was soon told it was “La casa del madre d’Agustin” which everyone knew.  This was a blissful stop with individual rooms.  The village seemed to me to have a cheery welcoming feel, helped by being invited by a stranger to drinks and another who stopped in his car and gave me a lift to the supermarket when he saw me hobbling.

The Pension in Castelblanco, Agustin's mother's house.

The Pension in Castelblanco, Agustin’s mother’s house.

After these two villages, the camino has new albergues in Almaden de la Plata, Real de la Jara and Monesterio.  There were very few pilgrims at the end of February and often I had an albergue to myself.

Antonio's Albergue at the entrance to Almaden de La Plata.  I elected for the municipal one which is a little bit off the Camino, but excellent.

Antonio’s Albergue at the entrance to Almaden de La Plata. I elected for the municipal one which is a little bit off the Camino, but excellent.

  The sierra del Norte de Sevilla

The walk between Castiloblanco de los Arroyos and Almaden de la Plata is long and challenging.  Neither in 2010 nor this year did I manage it all in one day, deciding to sleep out in this beautiful regional park.  The Camino is marked by triangular, polished granite slabs dotted along its course through a well kept dehesa, a sparse woodland of encina and cork trees.

The Way is marked in the Sierra Norte de Seville with triangular granite slabs.

The Way is marked in the Sierra Norte de Seville with triangular granite slabs.

As night fell I selected a spot by a river where I could sleep, washed myself in the stream and settled into my sleeping bag as the sun slipped away.  I woke up twelve hours later wondering where the night had gone although I did recall turning over a couple of times, the first with a bright half-moon, real silver on the Via de La Plata and then, later, as the pre-dawn chill reached deep into my bedding, I remember looking up at the Milky Way and wondering where the moon had gone.  I suppose it had moved off during the night allowing the stars to light up the heavens with silver less intense.

Getting ready for bed.

Getting ready for bed.

 

I was frozen while packing up my sleeping bag the next morning.  This, however, is the only way in which I could manage the 30km over this unpopulated stretch. I find that the early morning start is a great reward, well worth the chill on emerging from the cosiness of my feathered bivvy. The temperature recovered quickly with the rising sun as silent landscapes came alive while shadows slowly shortened.

A still cold morning on the way to Almaden de La Plata.

A still cold morning on the way to Almaden de La Plata.

Before reaching Almaden the Camino climbs steeply up onto a ridge known as “Calvary”.  For those who walk it all in one go, this final hurdle must be a real trial.  Well-rested, I found it steep but fairly short. At the top there is a wonderful view back over the path through this gorgeous Natural Park.

Full of awe, I looked back over the Camino which cuts right through this magnificent Sierra Norte of Seville.

Full of awe, I looked back over the Camino which cuts right through this magnificent Sierra Norte of Seville.

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Camino Mozarabe from Malaga: The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola on the Camino.

Camino Mozarabe from Malaga: The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola on the Camino.

Blessed sacrament side chapel, Church of San Sebastian, Antewuera, Malaga.

Blessed sacrament side chapel, Church of San Sebastian, Antequera, Malaga.

My little house was full of cement dust while a fantastic pair of local builders insulated the roof and tidied up the walls.  I was sleeping comfortably on the floor at night, so I thought I may as well go walking.  The whole of Northern Spain was deep in snow, so I headed south to Malaga where there is now a well-signed Camino to Santiago with a good infrastructure and a downloadable guide in English. [ guia-eng pdf 5mb].

The Exercises which went into my rucksack.

The Exercises which went into my rucksack.

I filled my rucksack and looked for a small book. What I took was a copy of The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola.  In my 9 days of walking, I followed the first week of these Exercises in which I was well aided in the meditation on Hell by the mediaeval imagery in the Church in Antequera.

Ignatius suggests we use all five senses to imagine the torments of Hell.  Note the Popes and the Kings.

Ignatius suggests we use all five senses to imagine the torments of Hell. Note the Popes and the Kings.

 

 Using the Spiritual Exercises on the Camino.

There were no other pilgrims on this Camino, so it was good for solitude.

There were no other pilgrims on this Camino, so it was good for solitude.

Usually people follow the Exercises in a retreat centre but I have used them on three of my Caminos.  The structure of the Exercises is based on four groups of meditations each of which, in the full exercises, is more or less a week long, about 30 days in all.  I have not done the whole whack on any one Camino.  The second week is on the life of Jesus so when I have walked with a Gospel, I have been in second week mode.  The third week is on the Passion of Jesus which has fallen neatly into my lenten walks.  The Ruta de la Lana (2013) was about Joy, Resurrection and Love so week 4.

The first week of the Spiritual Exercises.

What is Man compared with all of this?

What is Man compared with all of this?

This time I felt called to revisit the First week.  I had done a full 30-day retreat at the age of 18 which was a bit like watching an adult movie as a child when all the kissing and love scenes bored me totally: all I wanted was to get on with the real action.  Eight years ago I came across the notes I had made on this retreat in 1967 and together with a growing desire to live more contemplatively, I spent several months on a bit of land I have here in Spain, following the Exercises right through again.  Many things changed in my life after that.  The first week is really about making a commitment to change our lives.

The deep desire to be fully alive.

For me, when I notice the first blossoms, it is a sign that I, too, am awakening again.

For me, when I notice the first blossoms, it is a sign that I, too, am awakening again.

I have found this winter hard.  Physically, with arthritic pains and a heart which reflects my inner conflicts with arrhythmias and because, last year I had struggled with decisions and indecisiveness and difficulty with prayer.  For anyone who wants to rebalance their life, put the everyday concerns into perspective and rekindle the desire for life lived to its fullest in health and love, then the Exercises of Ignatius, in the first week shift us into gear. After this short part of a Camino – 9 days – I returned home much better physically and the results of the week began to enter into me profoundly.

The language of the Exercises is, today, a great turn-off for any normal person.  The time in which they were written was when Europe was going through what the Arab world is enduring today – and Ignatius was a fundamentalist fanatic.  The work of the Exercises is not, however, done by Ignatius nor even by ourselves.  If we translate them well and enter into their heart, we focus on the important in life and learn how to pray in a way which transforms us.  In the end, God leads us, gently and surely towards Himself, his presence within us and in all things.

God in all things.

A very steep descent into Antequera left me more crippled then usual for two days

A very steep descent into Antequera left me more crippled than usual for two days

The Exercises are not about living in a world apart from the normal everyday world we strive to make good, successful and happy for ourselves.  For Ignatius, God is in everything and maybe the first Exercise many of us need to do is shed whatever notions of God we already have and let Him/Her show us a glimpse of who He/She/It is.  My own experience of God comes from real events in my life and sometimes from prayer which is all about being constantly awake, alert to recognise His presence and work when we can – and in all things.  The Exercises are a wooing.

Which Camino for the Exercises?

Mountain tops, traditional places for meeting God.

Mountain tops, traditional places for meeting God.

At first I chose my Caminos for solitude: Levante, Ruta de La Lana, La Costa in winter.  I now don’t think it matters, having walked the Francés last year where I found the interaction with other pilgrims wonderful, adding another dimension to my prayer on the Camino.  There is a place for solitude ( seeThe Solace of fierce landscapes” Belden Lane) and I probably needed a good dose of it.  One of the greatest gifts of the spiritual life is the loss of fear and being physically alone in remote places, especially at night is often a good measure of this loss of fear.

First encounter with the Spiritual Exercises?

I realise that some readers will be quite unfamiliar with the Exercises and this post is not designed to explain them.  It will make more sense to those who are already familiar with them.  You will find lots of information on them via Google.  In Europe, St Bueno’s Retreat Centre, offers guided retreats to all-comers and also links to other centres.

One step at a time.

One step at a time.

I don’t know about having a guide for the Exercises on the Camino.  I wonder how it might work.  Normally you would only need to meet up together for 30 minutes to an hour each day, maybe a bit more at the beginning.  But you would have to walk the same distances each day.  It could even be done, I suppose in groups.  Even on the busy caminos it is possible to take several hours walking alone, especially very early and in the afternoon.

Also I imagine that speedy walking wouldn’t help that much, nor camino tourism.  It would be important to remain focussed contemplatively but it is possible to do this and still be part of the camino community.

If any reader fancies trying out The Exercises on the Camino I am willing to accompany you (or several). I’m not fussy about which Camino or when, for the most part.  The offer is free and we don’t have to stay in the same hotel or albergue: I simply won’t be in the Parador with you.  You can get in contact with me at [email protected].

[While I am a Catholic this offer is for everyone with or without a faith.]

I think these may be alders.  I loved their greying hair  winter texture

I think these may be alders. I loved their greying hair winter texture

 

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The Joy of Fanaticism. Camino Portuguese by the coast.(8)

Beached and Blue

Beached and Blue

The joy of fanaticism. Camino Portuguese by the Coast (8)

I can be enthusiastic about many aspects of life but I would not have said I have been fanatical since my youth when Celtic won the European Cup in 1967 a few hundred kilometres south, in Lisbon.  Fanatics generally seem to be young.  The day I arrived in Vigo, however, opened the door to a new understanding of the joy of fanaticism.

I arrived in Baiona mid-morning needing to go to the loo. I found a cafe where I stripped off all my soaking, saturated, gore tex waterproof  “protection”, visited the loo and had a coffee.  Nigran was in sight and there I hoped to stay the night, maybe even in a dry hostal. My notes suggested that the parish offered shelter to pilgrims.  The rain had stopped and I set off imagining my arriving at this refuge by lunch-time with a full afternoon to recover from the horrors of the previous day.  It would mean another day covering only a few kilometres – about 15 0r 16, I calculated – but given my poor physical state I felt that another early finish was wise.

A newly fallen tree across the camino, Baiona.

A newly fallen tree across the camino, Baiona.

 Going the extra mile.

In Nigran I discovered that the albergue I had planned to stay in was a couple of kilometres back along the path I had just walked.  Rarely do I back-track.  I was now in a holiday zone and undoubtedly there would be accommodation en route soon.  So I continued walking into the rain which scheduled a soaking about once an hour with short bursts of sunshine dusting out the wetness before the next deluge.

Almost a reflextion in the water as the wind died down.

Almost a reflextion in the water as the wind died down.

A few more kilometres of coast began to appeal to me, so I headed onwards.  I was very, very weary but have learned that going just beyond my comfort limits is like stretching, an effort with plentiful rewards.

Heron type of bird

Heron type of bird

As my weariness grew, so did the list of difficulties which ate away at my energy.  I lost my way, following what I thought was the camino through a residential area which led only to a barricade firmly blocking my route to the camino which I could see a few metres beyond it. I had to return a good kilometre before rejoining the Camino.  Then the path descended on to the shore which tortured my arthritic ankle with the wrong-sized pebbles – similar to the world’s most impossible-to-walk-on beach in Fécamp in Normandy.

wrong-shaped pebble beach.

wrong-shaped -ebble beach.

Every shop, cafe and B&B was closed.  Someone recommended a hotel and I took a detour to find the lights on and a number to ring if I wanted a room. I rang.  Maybe the person in charge was watching me from inside, but the phonne was answered and, after a pause, hung up.  After that, ringing again, it was not answered.  I can understand that a hotel did not want a dripping wet tramp for the night, so once again I re-traced my steps.

Evening was beginning to set in and my philosophy of going beyond my limit was, itself being put to the test.  I was one of the walking dead, exhausted, limping badly and aching. Each time I put weight on my ankle I received a shock of pain.  The outskirts of Vigo offered little promise of a quiet place to sleep outside and the skies still delivered huge quantities of rain regularly, driven by an irregular Atlantic gale.

Ria de Vigo lit up as the skies cleared.

Ria de Vigo lit up as the skies cleared.

Far from the Comfort Zone.

This was day number 8 of wet, of physical pain and of solitude.  I had few conversations en route and they were all very short.  I reflected that my behaviour verged on the fanatical.  As the long shadows of the evening fade into darkness, light breaks through: I suddenly find my heart opening up.  I am desperate for a place to call a halt to my day’s walking but something has been sown within me – a joy and recognition that goodness is all around.  Out of nowhere, I mutter the Iona morning prayer:

affirmATION-IONA

A pilgrimage offers a chance to be immersed in prayer and sometimes prayer arrives like a February downpour.  Night is on its way and I have nowhere to stay.  I even consider taking a bus into Vigo.  Yet none of this matters anymore, there is a much bigger reality, and I am drowned in wonder at “God’s goodness at the heart of humanity” without a shred of evidence nearby.

Illa de Toralla

Isla de Toralla

Everything seems clear: I am fanatical.  In this moment I was swept up in the wonder of Life itself: in our Unity, in gritty sands each grain in a universe, like us, within and of, blown by winds and worn by time, I am, I love, I want…………….yes I wanted a place to sleep.  What joy!

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The Camino de Santiago: the fruit of witnessing human goodness in a troubled world.

Paris, Charlie Hebdo terrorism protest.

Paris, Charlie Hebdo terrorism protest.

 The Camino de Santiago: the fruit of witnessing human goodness in a troubled world.

Sunflowers: caught in their dying and in their bearing fruit.

Sunflowers: caught in their dying and in their bearing fruit.

It is two months since I completed the Camino Francés, weary but deeply at peace.  My heart,  which had spent the summer tormenting me with tachycardia and dizziness, was again beating at a steady rhythm.  The concerns which I had carried with me up to Roncevalles as autumn began had fallen away as I harvested a Camino replete with many fruits.  Looking back on the uncomplicated days of simply walking and simple living,  I recoil defensively at the world I find myself living in, today, the day after another dramatic terrorist attack which, understandably, has fuelled with indignation and sorrow nearly every one of us.

Fruits on the Camino.

Rioja grapes.

Rioja grapes, fuit of the vine, a source of joy: a symbol of blood.

Walking for five weeks on the Camino de Santiago without the internet or television I could catch only the barest snippets of news.  This space and silence on the Camino allows life’s flavours to be tasted unmasked. Not all the fruits of the Camino are sweet: but they are raw and real and untreated.  I returned over Christmas time to a home with a television where nothing on the screen appeared to be real.  So in response to yesterday’s killings of the staff of Carlie Hebdo in Paris, and the policemen, I offer the fruits of my Camino and, maybe, you will see in these the Love and Hope and Goodness of humanity, “planted more deeply than all that is wrong”, as the Iona Community’s prayer of affirmation says.

The Membrillo

Looks like an apple but it will bruise you first if it drops on your head.

Looks like an apple but it will bruise you first if it drops on your head.

I saw some pilgrims trying to eat these on my way into Burgos. In English this is a quince and the fruits are large and hard and best eaten cooked.  They can leave a bitter aftertaste, so most often sugar is added, as with the solid brown blocks of membrillo which the Spanish use as a jam or eat with the white soft (and fairly tasteless) cheese of Burgos.

Near Dubrovnik there is a tradition of planting a membrillo tree when a baby is born as a symbol of life, love and fertility.  The fruit is rich in minerals and fibre which shows how good nourishment can come from the hard and the bitter.  It is not an easy fruit to stick a label on, like “Muslim”, or “papist” or “Jew” or even “Chorizo”, a name which is pinned on politicians and bankers alike in today’s Spain. It reminds me a bit of my post on overcoming prejudice on the camino.

The Madroño

The Madroño or  strawberry tree.

The Madroño or strawberry tree.

Some fruit is hard to stop eating once started.  In my list are plumbs, raspberries, sweet oranges and cherries but certainly not the madroño.  Its Latin name is arbutus unedo where the “unedo” is thought to signify “one only”.  For  most people one is quite sufficient although I’ve seen them sold in markets by the kilo, probably because they can make strong alcohol, often fermenting without either yeast or sugar added.

On the Camino de Invierno, however, where there are a few days of 30km or so without bars or shops, I was grateful to find the madroño abundant along many remote mountain paths and I didn’t limit myself just to one.  This may have contributed to my heart’s return to a healthier pace since recent studies suggest the madroño can help with cardiovascular illnesses.

Wild boars get tipsy eating this fruit when it begins to ferment on the ground.

Wild boars get tipsy eating this fruit when it begins to ferment on the ground.

 Raspberries

There are times in the Camino of the Soul when the spiritual highs of times earlier in the journey are as abundant as stars on an overcast night and so it was on this last camino for me. Yet there were some very special moments, always associated with the joy of meeting a stranger who was not a stranger at all, someone whom I had not met before but whom I have known all along.  This recognition happens when we encounter the goodness and Love in another person and have the grace to touch the Absolute and Eternal in his/her heart.

Pedro, hospitalero in Murias de Rechivaldo.

Pedro, hospitalero in Murias de Rechivaldo.

One such moment happened for me in the first village after Astorga is Murias de Rechivaldo which has three albergues.  The old village school has become a “municipal” albergue run by Pedro.  I was deeply touched by this man’s serenity and faith and his albergue is simple and spotless. He had also put some fruit out for pilgrims.

Friut left out by Pedro for passing pilgrims.

Pears left out by Pedro for passing pilgrims.

Pedro and I talked about love in a natural way which, in my experience, is unusual between males. Pedro spoke with tenderness and quietly, peacefully about matters of the heart: he prays throughout the day.  Heavy stuff, you may think but I was filled with a deep joy which stayed with me for many days.  Moments like this should have angels singinging the “Gloria”, but I had raspberries which is even better.

Provided by providence, Large, sensual raspberries at Pedro's albergue in Murias de Rechivaldo.

Provided by providence, Large, sensual raspberries at Pedro’s albergue in Murias de Rechivaldo.

Pale Green Apples

In the later part of my Camino when I had branched off on to the Camino de Invierno on which there are few places to pick up provisions on many long stretches.  In the mountains there were madroños but it was in the villages which have lost their bars and shops, along with many inhabitants, that the real sustenance was to be found.

This tree was in a garden. Many, however, had dropped apples by the roadside.

This tree was in a garden. Many, however, had dropped apples by the roadside.

Trees with pale green and yellow white apples were plentiful in Galicia where I gathered the windfalls from the roadside.  Even perfect examples did not look very attractive but they were invariably delicious and satisfying especially those that had fallen from old, neglected trees.  What sort of world do we live in where the cities sell fruit in supermarkets and the apples are all the same size and shiny; shiny red, shiny green and shiny pink ladies?  One of the greatest mistakes of my elders was to present some form of shiny perfection as the goal of life, especially the Christian life when the real task is for each of us to taste the perfection we carry within us, within our imperfect skins.   Bruised fruit is often sweeter.

Brambles

One of the mysteries of the Camino Francés in autumn is that ripe brambles can always be found even though they must be the most common fruit harvested by the hundreds of pilgrims who pass by each day.  Moreover, the season seems to stretch out like the camino itself.  Each day I thought that this was surely the last bramble harvesting day of the year only to catch sight of some glinting black berries on a bush where all others had withered into horrible little blobs of dried black-pudding.  An English country sage once explained to me that this was because the devil had passed by and pissed on them overnight.

Even in November these berries awaited harvest in Galicia.

Even in November these berries awaited harvest in Galicia.

Chestnuts galore

The Camino de Invierno winds up through mountainsides of chestnut trees.  As I walk in sandals this is a hazzard, with spikes suddenly attacking an exposed flank of foot where the finer, cactus-like needles stick, penetrating further into flesh with every step.

The castaña has fine needles to protect it.

The castaña has fine needles to protect it.

Castañas carpet the camino and so do almonds, often in the same spot.  Both are edible raw, as are some bellota, the acorn from the encina, a Spanish oak which is sprinkled lavishly on many landscapes.  Most bellota are bitter but can be dried and ground into flour to make a bread which preserves well.

Fruit: energy concentrated to transform.

From the Camino the world seems benign and bountiful.  Nature appears to be productive and safe even in accident and death.  Life is in abundance alongside decay and rotting: wheat and tares together. And winter itself bears fruit.

Oranges, a winter fruit.

Oranges, a winter fruit.

Human goodness is abundant, too.  Pedro apart, I have written of fruit not people.  I could have mentioned other individuals I met on the Camino like Frank, or Sam, or John, or Tom and Larissa, or Colleen, or Etelvino and many more who, like the fruit, gave me energy, encouraged me to keep going and shared of themselves,  vulnerable like fallen, bruised fruit, as we really are.  Slowly we are thus transformed.

A younger blogger posted on the Theology of Coffee a few days ago in the blog God in all Things.  Her piece has stuck with me as peace can.  Maybe it urged me to suggest this Theology of Fruit,  in a troubled world, as always, forgetful of the harvests of silence.

 

 

 

 

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Camino de Invierno – San Pedro de Líncora

Camino de Invierno – San Pedro de Líncora: Guillermo, 87 years old.

Church of San Pedro, Líncora

Church of San Pedro, Líncora

Pure joy

On a wet day after a very long walk with a descent of 400m and an immediate ascent of 300m,  I might not have expected to be as light-hearted as I was as I climbed up the vineyard-draped, seemingly vertical, banks of the Rio Minho. This was my sixth day on the challenging Camino de Invierno.  In fact, I felt spritely because half-way up the hill I had stopped for a real meal, in a family-run Mesón which had a welcoming fire burning in an old cast-iron stove.  I had been fed with pulpo and cocido followed by a solid nut tart, all home-made.  Others were drinking the wine produced in the cellar bellow the restaurant from the grapes which surrounded it and some regular visitors had travelled far to be there.

Mesón o Adega de Viega, Belesar

Mesón o Adega de Viega, Belesar

That was joy, but the pure joy was awaiting me further up the hill, nearer to the town of Chantada to which I was headed for the night.  As I reached the plain, some 150 m up from the mesón, I saw a man with an umbrella hooked on to the back of his jersey, dragging the neckline half-way down his back,  As I neared him, he greeted me with an almost toothless smile and with eyes which embraced me warmly.  We stood chatting about the Camino, his life as a farmer, his cows – he was on his way to bring them home – his travels and his childhood and I was enchanted.  Then, as if to make complete the spell of pure joy, he sang me a song about the Camino to Santiago.

After that he insisted I go and visit the Scotsman who lived opposite the Church of San Pedro.  It was, in fact, a Dutchman, André who is renovating his house and planning a refugio.

 

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Church of San Pedro, Líncora: 42.597261, -7.741327
: 42.589346, -7.726672
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Church of San Pedro, Líncora
Church of San Pedro, Líncora, near Chantada.  Guillermo lives here.
Chantada, Spain
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Mesón e Adega do Viega:  open weekends and feast days or on request.  tel: 982171732

http://mesoneadegadoveiga.wix.com/mesoneadegadoveiga
Belesar, Lugo, Spain
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