Sunday, 29 September 2013

Under leaden skies

As you go further on the Camino the process changes . The physical effort seems less significant . You feel that you are being called to a deeper and deeper intensity . The process is about reflecting on why you are walking the way . Today I walked with Simon from Melbourne and we covered 35km without noticing .
We set out from Itero with rain threatening. Since the section to Fromista is along a canal, and therefore very flat , we made excellent progress. I had a certain discomfort around my knee. It was only when we reached Fromista that I discovered that the guidebook in my pocket had rubbed away the skin above my knee!
In Fromista we met Pauleen and David over a coffee and then explored the Church of St Martin. Beyond the town the path followed the road all the way to Carrion.
As the kilometres pass the challenge is to remember that the Camino is about personal renewal achieved in the company of others . As Santiago approaches the objective focuses even more clearly . This is not a long distance marathon. It is an invitation to change especially in relation to others . The Camino is a school about relationships . The challenge is to live it out both on the Camino and, especially, when you return home . The leaden skies and the monochrome horizon help to focus on the process.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Living the dream

One of the reasons for walking30km was that I wanted to stay in Hontanas I had been told that it was a particularly beautiful spot but was not prepared for its extraordinary quality . After 10 km across the meseta I first saw a shepherd and then the tower of a church appeared . It was like stepping back 300 years . Halfway down the only street was the Auberge, the girls were very welcoming since I spoke to them in Spanish . Over the washing I convinced two ladies from US to come back and do the french section next year . I asked whether the church would be opened and was directed to a house in the village . The owner introduced me to his wife who suggested that I say mass at 6.She prepared the church and rang the bell. It was lovely to celebrate in Spanish in such a special place . After mass I took some photos from above the village . As David and Pauleen were having a pre dinner drink Rick arrived . I first met him in Emaus two nights ago . He is from Atlanta and excellent company . We had a lovely evening.
This morning the girl in the bar greeted me as the Englishman who speaks Spanish . For the first half hour I had the meseta to myself . It was wonderful to absorb the silence . The waning moon was accompanied by a solitary start . At Castrojeriz I found David and Pauleen having a coffee . We walked together as the conditions deteriorated . Eventually we were walking in the heaviest rain so far . I had a particular reason for stopping at Itero de la Vega. It was here on a scorching July day in 1995 that my dear friends Moira and Bill Reid had set off with Pepe Redondo to walk some of the Camino . It is not often in our lives that we can fulfil our dreams . This dream has exceeded expectations . Rick appeared and we enjoyed a hearty lunch together.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Into the heart of the meseta

There is something about a day off. In some ways I feel guilty that I am not walking in others, I make the most of the opportunity .Yesterday after visiting the Monastery of the Huelgas I had the most delicious lunch in a restaurant that I had last visited 8 years ago. Pauleen and David shared the lunch with me,a reminder that the pilgrimage is more than just walking! At the hostel I discovered that there are only two other people for the night . I concelebrated with Padre Augustin for the second evening . He gave me a very warm embrace as we parted . At supper Marieno asked what time we wanted breakfast . I asked for 7.00 and she said 7.15. I slept well and was pleased to hear the Taize chants at 6.45. I wandered through just after 7 and everything was ready . I left at 7.25.After 4 days with Amede it was strange to be walking on my own.
Burgos was just coming to life.Children were heading for school . On leaving Burgos there was quite a tedious walk around a reservoir . In the cool breeze I reflected that we are now well into autumn. I enjoyed the walk and met David and Pauleen when I had my tortilla stop after 4 hours . We walked together as the path climbed steepl onto the mesesta. At one point a shepherd was leading his flock. After 6 hours I rounded a corner and there was Hontonas right in the heart of the meseta.30km after the day off.


The Burgos haircut

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Peregrinos a Santiago

Polvo,barro,sol y lluvia
es el Camino de Santiago
Millares de peregrinos
y mas de un millar de anos.
Peregrino quien te llama?
Que fuerza occulta te atrae?
Ni el Campo de Las Estrellas
ni los grandes cathedrales.
No es la bravadura navarra
ni el vino Riojana
ni los mariscos Gallegos
ni los campos castellanos.
Peregrino quien te llamas?
Que fuerza oculta te atrae?
Ni las gentes del Camino
ni las costumbres rurales.
No es la historia y la cultura
ni es el gallo de la Calzada
ni el palacio de Gaudi
ni el castillo Pontferrada

Todo lo veo al pasar
y es un gozo verlo todo
mas la voz que a mi me llama
la siento mucho mas hondo.
La fuerza que a mi me empuja
la fuerza que a mi me atrae
no se explicarlo ni yo.
Solo El de arriba lo sabe! 

The 40th day

Even after 6 weeks the Camino throws up surprises!On Monday at Villafranca de Montes de Oca Amede and I went off to look round the village even though we had been told that the church was closed . I suggested to Amede that we check out what time the bar did breakfast . When we arrived there was a large group having a drink . I suggested to Amede that we have a beer so as not to appear antisocial . When we emerged from the bar they had all gone! We sat on the edge of the busy road . A man came out of the bar and asked if he could join us . He said that he doesn't normally drink but his son had just phoned to say that his father in law had died . He was visibly upset and I spent the next 15 minutes listening to his story and trying to console him . As we returned to the hostel I said to Amede . That was the reason why we went to the bar.
The evening at Atapuerca was very relaxed . We had arranged to meet Pauleen and David at 6th . As we set off I noticed that the church was open . There were two women sitting by the door and their eyes lit up when I said that I am a priest . Very quickly they had me saying mass . The night in the hostel was one of the quietest .On Wednesday we had a gentle walk into Burgos,my 40th day of walking . In the outskirts we called into a shopping centre both looking for belts . I asked someone where the Emaus alberge was and we were soon ensconced.
So what about the 40th day? Well the experience so far has exceeded expectations . As a priest there is no question of doing the Camino for yourself . The range and quality of encounters has been overwhelming . Amede thinks that I talk to everyone . In many ways that is a complement . I have found the last weeks a renewal of priesthood in its truest sense engagement with people . If you engage with people there is a real encounter which is transformative for both . That has happened so many times . I continue to feel unbelievably blessed . As I have commented previously it is very humbling . Today I am resting in Burgos,tomorrow the meseta.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Lunar landscape

In Aire sur l'Adour Andre had told us to seek out villages . I had been booked into a convent at Santo Domingo but I said to Amede that we should go on to Granon.On the way out of Santo Domingo Amede said that he hadn't sung Ultreia since France . The two of us walked out of Santo Domingo singing lustily.Granon was literally a village with one long street . From the house of smiles we could walk down the street to the only bar. When I went in the owner wanted to know where I was from but you have no accent he said. He then said that there had been two priests in the night before.
The house of smiles was very alternative with graffiti on all of the walls . Amede and I were sharing with an English man who had been at Ampleforth . There was a couple from the South West in the next room . I wandered over to the adjoining hostel and found everyone sleeping on mattresses on the floor . Back at the bar Michael was talking with David and Pauleen from near Ripon . Amede brought over Isabela and Remi.At one point we sang Ultreia and I noticed that Ernesto the owner of the Auberge joined in with gusto.
In Granon there was a sense of community which has been rare during the Spanish section of the Camino. Amede and I headed back for the communal meal which was a little chaotic perhaps in keeping with the ambience of the house of smiles!

Sunday, 22 September 2013




With Amedie and Matthieu
Cloisters Estella

At the house of smiles

During the afternoon Mattieu invited me to supper saying that since it was his last night he wanted me to share it! I went off to visit the monastery of Santa Maria de la Real.This also serves as the Pantheon for the Kings of Navarre. On my return I delighted the lady who was running the Auberge by translating a Spanish poem about the Camino for her. (We had passed the original on the wall of a factory on the outskirts of the town). My reward was a very warm hug!  When she was booking accommodation for me I heard her say that I spoke excellent Spanish and was a priest.  (I have copied the original in a subsequent post: "Peregrino a Santiago".)
Whilst the supper was far from gourmet, it was great  fun. Both Mattieu and Amede speak some English so we meandered through both languages as they both reflected on their experience of the Camino so far. Carlos passed by but didn't want to join us. Back at the Auberge Mattieu said that he would be around to see us off.
There are two major hazards in an Auberge- snorers and street noise!  Last night we had both in abundance. I was up before 6 and went for a coffee at 6.30. At 6.55 Amede came down and said that he had not slept. I said that there was no problem and that I was happy to wait. I took my leave of Mattieu and we set off. There were far fewer vines than yesterday and but lovely views of the Sierra de la Demanda. Over breakfast Amede said that hew so pleased to see me yesterday. Mattieu had just told him that he was going home and he didn't know what to do. I reflected that it is strange that a 21 year old from Brittany should be so happy to walk with me. We spoke a mixture of French and English. At Santo Domingo I suggested that we visit the church before we had a break. I am pleased that we did since we met some English people who had arrived only to find that the lunch break had started!
 I had forgotten just how beautiful the church is. Amede was captivated and took lots of photos. We found a spot for beer and tortilla.I had booked at a convent but they wanted 30€. I suggested to Amede that we walked to Granon. We had no booking but there was an Auberge called the House of Smiles. Sure enough we got a lovely room with only three beds. I suggested to Amede that we have a beer. Paul turned up. In a village it is more intimate. I wandered to the bar and the barman wanted to know how I spoke such Spanish. Over a beer Amede asked if he could walk with me to Burgos. I am having a day off at Burgos he will see how he feels. It is nice to know that we will walk together for the next three days.
Here in the Rioja there are way markers and it is now only 555km to Santiago

Saturday, 21 September 2013

The way of the way

Yesterday in Viana two Australians from Perth asked me to take their photo. On the way into Logrono there is a little house where the lady has sold drinks and stamped creenciales  for years. The lady died a couple of years ago but her daughter, who is 80 herself, still keeps up the tradition. I arrived at the same time as the two ladies and they used me as an interpreter. They wanted to know how I had such good Spanish. When I told them about my 11 years in El Salvador one of them could not believe it  saying that her son is on a gap year trip to Central America and is currently surfing in El Salvador!  That is what happens on the way!
Marcos the Swiss chocolate maker was staying in the same Auberge. It was very clean and a single dormitory with 32 beds. Whilst being quite functional the spirit of the Camino showed . I was doing my washing but discovered that there was no outside drying facilities . A lady whom I had not met previously offered to put my washing into the drier with that of her group.
Whilst resting on my bunk I overheard the lady at the desk telling some other pilgrims  that Logrono is in fiesta. I set off around 5 in the vain hope that I might find Carlos. I had asked about eating and the girl told me that the best thing in Logrono were the tapas. She indicated the best streets. I asked her whether they were tapas or pinchos. If they are on bread she said that they are tapas, if not pinchos!
I was not prepared for what greeted me in the street. They were packed with youngsters who had clearly been enjoying the fiesta. One girl was vomiting violently, two boys were urinating in the street. The cathedral was firmly closed. I headed up a street and passed one of those which is good for tapas. It was packed. I came out at a plaza and was getting some cash from an ATM when I heard a familiar voice it was Geoff one of the two men from Belfast that I had first met in Estella. He said that Rick was sitting on the edge of the road. I wandered over relieved to see a familiar face. I bought them a beer and a Rioja with olives for myself. We had a lovely conversation. Geoff' s wife had received the MBE at the same ceremony as Pete Pos!  They asked me what I was doing for supper and I said that I was heading for tapas. They said that they would be pleased to join me. Before we set off a convoy of cleaning wagons passed by. In the street for the tapas the crowds had gone but their debris was everywhere. We didn't fancy the first place but the offerings in the second looked attractive. Geoff and Rick were amused when I asked to taste the wine!  I had just gone in to order a second lot of tapas when the whole convoy of cleaners appeared in the street. When they had passed by the street was immaculate. Geoff had noticed that another shop had now opened so we went there for our final choice. We parted company and I looked into the cathedral, listened to some panpipes and then headed back to the Auberge.
It was a noisy night with plenty of evidence of the fiesta. I was ready for off at 7.00am. The streets were still full of young revellers. I felt a little vulnerable. One or two of them wished me Buen Camino. I became aware that one young man was following me. At first I wondered if I was being set up for a mugging!  After a few minutes he asked me where I was from and then explained that he had done the Camino last year. I asked him about the fiesta. It is usually the wine harvest he said but the bad weather this year has delayed the harvest by two weeks. Before he left he told me that his name is Ygnace. He also showed me the route out of town.
Eventually I was on a long road heading westwards . There were a whole series of road junctions and, at almost every one, the vehicles stopped to let me cross . Many flashed their lights as a gesture of support . It was a fascinating insight into the pride of the Spanish in the Camino.
 At Navarette I met Carlos taking photos in the Church. He was a little disgruntled that I hadn't found him in Logrono. I said that I hoped that we would have better luck in Najera.
Throughout the walk we were passing through grapes. When I arrived at Najera I went into a bar to find out where the Auberge is. The girl showed me up the stairs and wanted to know why it was that I could speak Spanish so well.
After the shower I went out for some lunch. I had just arranged a place when I saw two grinning faces. It was Amede and and Matthieu the two French graduates that I had first met at Aroue. I think that they were as pleased to see me as I was to see them. Amede gave me a huge hug. Apparently Matthieu has been really suffering with his feet and is leaving the Camino tomorrow. Amede asked if we could walk together. Later as I was finishing my lunch they came and had a beer. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

Pure Spain

It was strange to have a free afternoon,especially as there wasn't much to explore. As I was writing my blog a couple from the USA came into the dormitory. Later they were joined by two French ladies who were part of a bigger group. I was talking to one of them and they are going all the way to Santiago.
I had arranged to meet Jan for supper at 7. Charles was staying in the same lodgings. At 6.30 he and I set off. It was a dry but cold evening and we both agreed that it was too cold to have supper in the square. We found a hotel which had a 12€ menu. I established that it was open at 7 and that there was no need to book. We went back to the square, ordered a glass of wine and waited for the others to arrive. Charles told me that he had been scheduled to do the walk in the spring but got injured. It was a happy accident as his elder brother was dying of cancer. We would have missed the conversations which I had before he died. Jan turned up with the Danish lady and then the Swiss man who turned out to be a chocolate maker! We had a good supper although my plate of chickpeas raised some ribald comments.

The pilgrim' s day now takes a clear pattern. Usually you are up before 7.00am and walking at first light . I have a routine of prayer which I say aloud if there is no one nearby. I usually fall into a reflection, this morning it was on Psalm 50. The particular lines which affected me this morning were:
"O wash me more and more from my guilt
and cleanse me from my sin"
 I am certain that the pilgrimage is a way of spiritual cleansing and renewal. During the 5-7 hours of walking there is ample opportunity to reflect on whatever comes up. Often it is a memory of a person or an event and it is easy to offer it to God in a spirit of repentance.
Today there were two lovely Spanish moments. The first began most inauspiciously. When I arrived yesterday I booked breakfast even though it was not until 7.30. I mentioned this to Charles last night and he said that he would do the same. I bumped into him just after 7.00am and he asked about breakfast. I said that it didn't start until 7.30. We went and sat outside. Jan and Gony passed by. Gony came over to get my blog address. By 7.30 there was no sign of anyone. I told Charles that I would get my sack and head off. When I returned with my sack there was a light on in the room. I tried the door and it was locked. Then the shutter opened. I rang the bell and, after a few minutes, a large and dishevelled lady appeared and told me to wait!  Eventually, when she let me in, I could observe that the table was not set. With little ceremony she put a cup of coffee in front of me. I couldn't help noticing that her generous figure was having difficulty in staying in her blouse!  The coffee was disgusting!  Despite this, I asked for a second cup since taking on liquid at the start of the day is important. She gave me this with good grace and then a man appeared and put two cakes in front of me. She said that toast was on the way. When she asked me if I wanted a third coffee she asked if I was American. No English I said. But you speak Spanish without a foreign accent. When I told her that I am a priest and that I had worked in El Salvador she was most interested. The man appeared with a bottle of whisky and poured a generous measure into his coffee. He insisted in pouring a ( thankfully) smaller amount into mine. They were most impressed with my sandals. When the girl who I had met yesterday arrived she greeted me with: 'hola guapo' which is what youngsters use as a chat up line!  In the end it was a lovely encounter even if the breakfast was awful.
The second moment was almost as funny. In Torres del Rio there is a church which is in the same style as Eunate. Sure enough when you entered the village the similarity was evident. The church was closed but there was a notice on the door with a phone number. Instead I headed for the nearest bar hoping for better information. In the courtyard were three locals who all greeted me warmly. I asked the barman about the church and he said that the lady in the courtyard was the custodian! She seemed quite happy to oblige me.  As we walked down the street I told her that I am a priest.  She opened the door and I said that I would leave my things outside, No, bring them in, she said. I saw that there was an admission charge. "I can't charge you, she said, as you are a priest!". The chapel is clearly by the same architect as Eunate. There is also an exquisite 13th century crucifix. I knelt before it and said some prayers. I had heard that the chapel has a wonderful acoustic. I stood and sung the Taize chant O Lord hear my prayers, when I call answer me,  O Lord hear my prayer come and listen to me. The other visitors didn't mind. On the Camino you lose your inhibitions as well as your illusions. I went to take a photo outside and then got the lady to stamp my creencial.
Outside Viana I bumped into Gony who was sitting on a bench rolling a cigarette. I explained that I had got his name wrong on the first day he appears in the blog. He is staying the night in Viana and it could well be that I don't see him again. It has been one of the memorable encounters. I was in Logrono by 2.30

Ambushed ( postscript)

I don't know if the final section of yesterday's post came through. Here it is in case. It was only 11.30 when I arrived at Los Arcos. I was tempted to carry on, but decided to enjoy the short day. Gingerly I rang the bell to the Albergue-I heard a voice shouting I'm coming. What do you want said the lady who opened the door.  She was a little curt but checked my reservation and let me in. She showed me round and then disappeared. While I was doing my laundry she carried on a conversation from the first floor where she was still clearing up.
Later I headed to the square in the face of on- coming pilgrims. I met both Carlos and the two men from Belfast. They told me that Gony had already passed by. Jan appeared and commented on the conversation last night. If all people from Israel were like Gony then there would be no conflict. I thought that it was a generous and gracious comment. 

Thursday, 19 September 2013


I was soon joined in the dormitory by two men from Belfast, then Carlos appeared, finally the Austrian who had been in the previous Albergue also turned up. I said to Carlos that I planned to go to the monastery at Irache. He said that he would come as well. I checked with the wonderful receptionist and she said that there was a bus. She also booked the next three days for me. Carlos and I set off at 3.30, as we were too early for the bus Carlos suggested we have a beer. There was a very basic bar across the street. Before you knew what was happening I was talking with the barman about Pope Francis!  Back at the bus stop I asked Carlos if he was retired. He said that the company he worked for had gone bust a year ago and he had lost his job. He confessed that it had been very hard but his wife and children had supported him.
I forgot to mention that when we left the hostel Gony  was lying on the bench. He greeted us warmly and said that he would see us at supper.
There was an amusing moment on the bus as the driver went passed Irache. He simply pulled the bus into the side of the road and let us off. Sadly the monastery has not had a community since 1985 and the buildings are becoming derelict. The church was lovely with fantastic Romanesque carvings. We took lots of photos and when we were outside I suggested to Carlos that we visit one of the features of the Camino. At Irache the owners of the Bodegas have set up a fountain of wine for the pilgrims!  We both had a drink and then took photos. Since the next bus was not for an hour I suggested to Carlos that we walk back into town. In fact it was a mere 20 minutes stroll. Carlos was keen to visit the cloisters that I had visited this morning. I said that I would accompany him. When we got to St Peter' s church we found that it was closed. Carlos went to enquire and found that it opens at 6.30. I said that we should have a drink. We found another bar and I ordered a beer for Carlos and a glass of one of my favourite Navarrese wines as well as a ham and cheese roll. Later I had a second wine. When I paid the bill it was euro 5.50. In a London wine bar a wine of the same quality would cost at least £7.
After the bar Carlos wanted to take more photos. I stayed in the square watching children play around the fountain. I am glad that I waited to see the cloisters again because the sun was playing on them creating a wonderful light. I took some amazing photos. On the way back to the hostel Carlos said that Spanish people think of the English as rather remote. You have certainly disproved that he said. There was time for a break before supper.
When we went downstairs Jan and the others were enjoying a bottle of wine. At supper Carlos commented that he was the only Spaniard. I sat next to him with Gony in front of me and a lady from Washington State opposite Carlos. Beyond me were Jan and his friends and beyond Carlos a french party. Early in the meal Gony said that it was the first day of Succoth and so we toasted him. He spoke movingly about his family . He has two younger sisters. He also spoke about his time in the army. The lady from Washington is old enough to be his mother and I could tell that she warmed to him. I had to attend to Carlos but became aware of something extraordinary. The lady beyond Gony had clearly been drinking and launched into him quite aggressively about the Arab Israel conflict. I couldn't follow the whole discussion since I was trying to help Carlos and Aileen. What I did note was that Gony began with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in the first century. What was even more remarkable was his demeanour in replying to his interlocutor. His calmness and gentleness belied his age. It was remarkable. Later in the meal he told me that he did not believe in God but he did believe in spirituality. I commented that the fact that he was doing the Camino showed that he believed in something. He gave me a wry smile.
At the end of the meal Aileen asked me for a blessing. Back in the dormitory the two men from Belfast wanted to know what time I would be up. I said that it was impossible to walk before 7.15 and so I would be up at 6.30. They were very happy with that.
At breakfast Carlos and I were the first to arrive. The girl was slightly surprised when we said that we would sit together. Carlos explained that he was the only Spaniard and that he and I could talk. The girl commented that the French speak no Spanish and most English speakers are the same.
The walk today was very short. I stopped for coffee and then found myself singing the first verse of one of the songs of the St Louis Jesuits:You shall cross the barren desert and you shall not die of thirst. You shall wander far in safety and you shall not lose your way. You shall speak my word in foreign lands and they shall understand. You shall see the face of God and live.
It was overwhelming to reflect how much of that has happened these last five weeks!
  There was a lovely moment not long before I reached my destination at Los Arcos. I saw a walker coming towards me!  I thought I am now going to let this pass by. As she reached me I not only greeted her but asked her whether she was on the way back. She spoke impeccable Spanish and told me that she was now in the fourth month of her journey. She had set off from France journeyed via the Camino Primitivo (del Norte) and was now on her way home. I said that I had come from Le Puy. "Precioso" was her reaction. " The Camino del Norte is the same-few people, small Albergues, and you get to know everyone". I could tell by the way she wished me Buen Camino that she was thrilled that someone had bothered to stop and speak with her.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Good Samaritan

When I returned from lunch Carlos from Madrid had arrived into our cubicle. He was amazed that I spoke to him in Spanish and his two younger companions came to see who this Spanish speaking Englishman was! After they had gone I was organising myself when the receptionist came with an obviously distressed young man. He flopped into a chair and I allowed him to recover a bit. I then introduced myself. I am Gony he said from Tel Aviv. He has been on the Camino for six days but had found today really hard and nearly fainted on the route. I sat with him for a while and suggested that he rested. I was talking to Carlos a little later on and Gony said that he was in the wrong gite. He asked me whether I thought that they would give him his money back. I said that I thought that they would. Within a few minutes he returned. The other gite was full and the girl had warned him that his was the last bed here. He went off for a shower. Carlos said that he had seen Gony on the way and he was clearly struggling. While Gony was still away the girl returned and asked me: donde esta el chico?  I said that he was in the shower. She said she was going to move him and promptly went off with Gony's sack. I thought that is the last thing he needs.
I went off to write my blog and then Paul, Jan and I wandered into town. Puente La Reina has two churches. The first is dedicated to the crucified Christ and has a magnificent medieval crucifix. The second is much grander and too Baroque for my taste but has some lovely statues. We were then helped by a drunken Spanish man to find the supermarket. Paul was cooking his supper and we all needed supplies. We were then looking for a place for a drink. A French couple hailed me. I had seen them this morning and showed them how to find Eunate. They were thrilled to have seen it and thanked me profusely. They had also been at the mass at Navarrenx and were still talking about it. They return to Normandy tomorrow. I told them that I hope to get to Santiago on 18th October. They say that they will think of me on that day.
At the hostel Charles from New Brunswick offered us a glass of wine. He told me that he was surprised at how many people are on the Camino. He commented that a friend of his had done the route from Le Puy and found the French section much more reflective and holy. I went to sort out the laundry and when I returned Charles was sitting on his own and Gony was at another table still looking very tired. I went and sat with him. Apparently the friends that he was meeting were people he had met on the route. I assured him that this is what happens. You meet people for and then you meet others. Paul appeared after his sausage and black pudding dinner and he and Gony got into conversation. Charles then came and joined us followed by Jan. It came to the time for dinner and I could easily have joined an English speaking table but I had suggested to Carlos that we dine together. At the door to the dining room it turned out that Carlos had no ticket. I said that I would save him a place. At this point Gony turned up and asked if he could sit with me. I asked the waiter if he could set a third place. It was a comical gathering since Carlos speaks no English and Gony no Spanish. Giving translations to both of them we had a far reaching conversation which lasted until 9.00pm. Gony was fascinated when I suggested that the journeys of Abraham and the Exodus are the paradigms for the Camino. He also commented that, unlike Catholicism, Judaism is not hierarchical. He said that Judaism thrives on interpretation and that the Jewish philosophy is to make people think. Towards the end of the evening Carlos said that his wife will not believe it when he says that he had supper with a Spanish speaking English priest and a highly intelligent 23 year old Jew.
Back in the cubicle the french couple had arrived and were thrilled when I engaged them in conversation in French. It was a noisy night but you still get enough sleep. The only problem is that everyone wants to be up early. It doesn't get light now until after 7.00am and so there is no need to be up until 6.30. This morning there was chaos from 5.45. I found Paul in the kitchen complaining about the noise but happy because he had clean clothes and milk for his muesli. I set off about 7.20. Here in Spain there is a procession in the morning and then people spread out. Once we climbed up from the valley you could see the path snaking away for 2 or 3 kilometres.
As I crossed the bridge I noticed something walking quite carefully. It was Gony. I said that I was sure that we would meet again. Once he is fit he will walk much quicker than I. I then reflected on the encounter with him. I have very trenchant views about Israel and its appalling treatment of the Palestinians. Gony should not be the sort of person that I engage in open conversation. But he needed help and that is what we must do. In retrospect it was a Good Samaritan experience. This led on to another reflection about priesthood. We have clericalised ministry. Jesus was an itinerant preacher not just for two months but for three years. In all of those three years he never put on liturgical finery. ( Indeed the laws of Judaism excluded Him from leading liturgy) The Sunday before I left England a wise lady in Painswick had a group of us round for coffee. She said: you will minister to many people on your pilgrimage. How right she was!  The ministering is about attending to people attentively and respectfully
As the morning progressed we passed through more and more vineyards. For the next few days we are in the heart of the Rioja. Estella has two lovely churches and a XII th century cloister. I took lots of pictures.
Alan Crickmore continues to write thoughtful comments, yesterday I had comments from fellow Lancastrian Peter Walsh, from Helen Lovatt and two from Raphael. Thanks. 

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

An invitation

When I was planning this pilgrimage I knew that it was important to choose a special day to start. Since Le Puy en Velay is a Marian shrine 15th August was an obvious day. I remember the man who stamped my creencial in the cathedral saying that it was an appropriate day. Now that it is realistic to think about arriving I need to think about the appropriate day. Since the week beginning the 13th October is the obvious time there were 3 choices. 13th October is the Feast of St Edward the Confessor who has links with Ampleforth and is the patron of the schools where I have worked for the last six years. This time last year I was preparing for the wonderful mass in Tewkesbury Abbey with the special aspect of celebrating on the medieval high altar. 15th October is the feast of St Theresa of Avila and the mystical tradition is a theme of this pilgrimage. 18th October is the feast of St Luke. This is the evangelist who gave us the Emmaus story., the Parables and the three great canticles- the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis. The birth of Jesus is witnessed by humble Shepherds just as the legend of Santiago began with a shepherd. But, above all, Luke reveals Jesus as a pilgrim. He becomes the paradigm of how we should live. Then it was obvious. 18th October is the day to arrive at Santiago. It is a Friday so if you can get a flight with Ryanair and come and greet a tearful pilgrim as he kneels before the Portico de la Gloria. I know that there will be tears-whether of sadness or joy it does not matter. Tears are cathartic. So if you can, come and join me before I set off on 21st for Finisterre



Entering Pamplona

ON top of the Pyrenees

Lost in their own country

When I had finished my blog I found that two groups had formed on the patio. The older Americans were talking loudly and guzzling beer while a younger group were drinking wine as if prohibition were returning tomorrow!  As I observed them two Spanish couples arrived and looked terribly lost. After a while I lay on my bed and rested before supper. I had arranged to have supper with Paul. It was funny as he had joined the younger drinking group and was quite high when we headed off. The Canadian couple from yesterday were in the restaurant. I had some lovely Hake and a good chat with Paul.
When I returned to my special bed one of the Spanish ladies was sitting on her bunks. She was clearly thrilled when I addressed her in Spanish!  Eventually her three companions joined her. They are from Irun and are spending a week on the Camino. They couldn't believe that I was a priest. One of them said that he had been really frustrated this afternoon as he wanted to talk about the experience and everyone was speaking English. I said that I found it embarrassing that Spanish people should feel outsiders in their own country. We had a lovely conversation.
Despite some amazingly loud snorers I slept well. I did not get up until 7.00am as this was a short day. It dawned overcast but not as cold as yesterday. At one point I stopped to take off my fleece and my Spanish friends passed me with warm greetings. The main part of the route today is up a hill appropriately called the hill of pardon. On the pilgrimage you spend a lot of time for giving others and allowing yourself to be forgiven.
There is a special place in this part of Spain which I first discovered with my dear friends Andre and Barbara Phanjoo. It is the Ermita de Santa Maria de Eunate. It is one of the most numinous places that I know. I would say that it is in the middle of nowhere but in the centre of everything. It is one thing to arrive at Eunate in a car but to know that you have walked over 850kms to get here is something special!  Seeing the chapel across the cornfields brought tears to my eyes. I prayed for deceased friends. Over the last two days I have been praying a lot for a girl called Holly Grogan who, at the age of 15, ended her life in terrible circumstances 4 years ago. I prayed for her her parents and her brother.
I left my rucksack outside the chapel and went in. It was overwhelming. So often on this pilgrimage I am overawed by the privilege. Kathleen Raines line: "how can a house so small contain a company so great", came to mind. On pilgrimage you feel an amazing connectedness to so many people. Just as I was finishing my prayers the music was one of my favourite Taize chants: "the Kingdom of God is justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit". I can vouch for the fact that there is much joy in the Holy Spirit on the pilgrimage. Paul was outside having a cigarette!  He is a glorious combination of the uninhibited nature of youth.
As we walked into Puente La Reina I stopped to let a man passed. He is David from Switzerland who has spent 30 days walking from Arles. We had a lovely conversation and arranged to meet tomorrow. Today's gite is something else. It is the basement of a three star hotel. Even though it is bunk accommodation the bunks are divided into groups of 4, I took the dinner, bed and breakfast option and still only paid 27euros. Paul, Jan (from Denmark) and I wallowed in the showers. I told Paul that I was going to pay for the washing machine. I offered him the chance to put some stuff in!  I thought that he was going to strip naked as he was so happy to take advantage, Jan had a few things to dry and I suggested that he leave them with ours. What is the pilgrimage I said if you cannot share.
I then headed up to the hotel restaurant for the 10 euros buffet lunch, I commented to the girl in charge that the music was Mexican rancheros, Halfway through the lunch something amazing happened. The song was Las Manjanitas. This is the traditional song sung on a person's birthday. Every year in El Salvador there would be a chorus outside my bedroom complete with musicians singing this song for me. I was transported back to those wonderful and big hearted people of Chalatenango. Priesthood is not about status it is about walking with people especially people who are suffering. I have been amazingly privileged to have walked with so many people in their suffering. It is overwhelming to contemplate how much they have blessed me, I was reminded of the words of Oscar Romero: with these people it is not difficult to be a pastor, 

Monday, 16 September 2013

New paths

There were to be more discouragements! Before we reached Larrosana I had suggested to Hubert that we have a good lunch. When we arrived nothing was open. I said that I would meet him later and went off in search of my lodgings. Of course they were closed!  I dropped my rucksack in the porch and wandered over to a nearby shop. I asked the proprietor where I could get lunch. He said it was possible at the bar. I noticed that he had a good selection of food and he said that he could microwave anything for me. I chose meatballs, a tomato, and some fruit. He brought olive oil for the tomato. I also bought a deliciously fresh loaf of bread and tucked in. Before I had finished Paul from London turned up. I asked him about the night at Roncesvalles. He said that the food was dreadful, the dormitory noisy. But he added: there was a moment which reminded me why I am doing the Camino. He related how, tired, he was sitting in the Abbey church and a choir was singing. It was wonderful he said.
Eventually I wandered back to my lodgings which were still closed. A man from Brasilia called Alberto turned up and we chatted for a while. Finally the owner of the Gite came along. He asked me if I was part of the party of three. I said that I was on my own. He immediately showed me to a room with two single beds . When I went back down a lady had arrived who spoke little Spanish. I helped her with the man who told her that it was 20 euros in a room for 4! When I asked him the cost of my room it was an eye watering 40euros. Nowhere in France had I come across such blatant exploitation of the pilgrims. In the shower I wondered if he had made a mistake. Remembering my experience in France I went to check. He said that there was no mistake he assumed that I wanted my own room!
Having organised myself I went to find Hubert. Again he had had problems with his lodgings. He had ended up in the communal gite. We had a drink and arranged to meet at 7.00am. I am worried about Hubert. Firstly he doesn't speak a word of Spanish. Secondly he looks very tired. Pierre had commented on this last week.
I returned to my room to read the Psalms. I had decided to have supper in the Gite. Around 6,30 I went down to the kitchen. I was getting things ready when a Canadian came in to chat. I discovered that he is 83 years old. His wife Elizabeth came in and she said that she felt that they had been ripped off. What can you do she said when it is late and you are tired. You are the first good thing that has happened to us since we arrived in the village she said. Later they asked me what I did. When I said that I was a priest the husband said I thought so!
After supper I read the Journey of the Magi and Choruses from the Rock. I chuckled when Eliot has the Magi complaining about the high prices. I slept well and set out just before 7.Both yesterday and today I have noticed that it is getting very cold in the mornings. Hubert and I had a coffee and set off. He seemed to set a slow pace from the outset reinforcing my fear that he is very tired. As we entered a wood the sky was gloriously coloured. Later on I could see a lovely Romanesque church on a hill to the right. We came to a village and a similar church was firmly locked. A little way down there was a sign to the Ermita de San Esteban abierto. Having plenty of time I decided to follow the detour. When I arrived the church was locked but there was a notice saying where you could get the key. Initially I found myself in a lovely Auberge and then I went to the door of a small convent. The nun was thrilled to see me and wondered if I would like to say mass. I said that I would do so if there were any people. Sadly she said that they had all gone. I went into the chapel and read the gospel of the day- the curing of the centurions servant. She said that it was a pity that I couldn't stay the night. I reflected that it would not have cost 40euros. I also realised that it would be good to seek out places like this.
Shortly after I left Pamplona came into view. Spanish cities are like oases in the desert. You can often see right across the.This was certainly the case and I could see where I would be tomorrow. I reflected that part of my downbeat mood was the consequence of the departure of Raphael, Isabel and Pierre. I realised that I have to look forwards and not back.
Because of my detour I caught up with Hubert as we entered the outskirts of Pamplona. I suggested that we have a coffee when we were joined by a very chatty Spaniard. He insisted on directing us and giving a commentary as we went along. Finally at the Magdalene bridge he insisted that he took my photo. Now the guidebook warns against petty thieves in Pamplona and I had visions of him disappearing with my tablet. In fact he was totally genuine and we had fun taking the photo. I noticed that Hubert couldn't be bothered and headed off!  My new found friend took me to the final traffic lights, shook my hand, and then disappeared. As I rounded the corner for the Cathedral I bumped into Paul who had arrived over an hour ago. He said that the cathedral is wonderful and that there was another church worth seeing. I said that I would see him this evening and headed up the street.
The cathedral-after I had paid the pilgrim rate of 3eur-was a haven of peace and tranquillity. A magnificent red window was casting wonderful colour. I enjoyed the quiet and the peace. I also visited St Sernin' s church and then examined some lunch menus. I asked when they started lunch and told 1.15, since it was still not 12 I decided to carry on. Around 1 there was a nice place to eat and I enjoyed roast chicken and a glass of Navarre wine. Just after I set off again I passed a smartly dressed priest, the third that I have passed today. In each case they neither made eye contact or greeted me!
The final stage of the route passed the university and a number of the students spoke. By now I was leaving the city and could see the Pyrenees behind. I was soon at Cizur Menor with its two Romanesque churches. The first person that I met was Alberto the Brazilian from yesterday. After he had gone I had found a camera case. I had put it into my pocket in the hope that I would see him again. He was so pleased when I produced it. He showed me that there was a memory stick inside. When the lady had booked on Saturday I heard her say that my name was Pedro Gerardo!  When I arrived I gave my name. The owner said that I was in Room 2 and that there was no-one sleeping above me. When I got to the room there were 5 sets of bunks and 1 bed. The bed had my name on it. Paul is in the next room and we have arranged to meet for supper. The only problem is that the place is full of noisy Americans

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Cultural differences and niggles

I suppose that it was inevitable that today would be anti climatic!  The fellowship that had sustained me for nearly two weeks was definitely over, the Pyrenees which had been so much of a focus for over a week were crossed, and there was a new reality to adjust to. Change is a natural part of life, how we adapt to it is the challenge.
The first indicator came yesterday evening when I asked the lady at the lodgings about supper. The restaurants open at 8.30 she said ! I was amazed that here in a high Pyrenean valley, and on the Camino normal Spanish eating times apply. With a couple of exceptions in France the evening meal was over by 8.30 and the dormitories quiet by 10. I was reminded that Andre at Aire Sur L ' Adour had said that the Spanish Camino is hard walking during the day and fiesta at night!
Last week Raphael had amused us by saying that the Camino is typified by three things- the sunrises, the afternoon shower and the evening sharing. Many of the owners of gites have turned the evening meal into a real ritual with quality sharing and fellowship. It will be a real impoverishment if that is not the case here in Spain.
I had arranged to meet Hubert at 6. I first explained to him about the eating times and said that I would ask about tapas in the bar . I had also brought the names and numbers of the gites that I had booked for Monday and Tuesday. He asked me to phone them on his mobile- he doesn't speak a word of Spanish! I said that I would ask the barman to do it as it would be cheaper. I had forgotten that tapas are called pinchos in the Basque Country. Anyway we soon had Ham, Cheese and bread. I arranged to meet Hubert outside the church at 7.30 and headed back to my lodgings. I had a comfortable and undisturbed night and got up just after 6.On the back of the door in my room it said that breakfast was between 7 and 9. At 6.50 I headed downstairs quickly followed by a clearly unhappy Spanish lady. She confronted me saying that breakfast was not until 8!   Clearly put out she said I suppose that you want some coffee, ushered me into a room where a table was set, and disappeared. It is a response which I have often experienced with latins and one that we Anglosaxons can learn from. When a person is put out they make it quite clear, vent their anger, and then it is over!  So it was this morning. After a few minutes the lady appeared with a large bowl of melon followed by toast, jam and butter and then a jug of coffee. She then disappeared and switched off the lights in the hall. I wondered how I could pay her. I needn't have bothered!  As soon as I entered the hall she reappeared. I paid her and, despite her earlier annoyance she told me not to hurry-tranquil she said. She was amazed when she saw my sandals. You will get wet feet .
I wandered down the deserted street and found Hubert finishing packing his rucksack. As we set off ,the first of those who had stayed at Roncesvalles were coming down the street many of them with lamps on their heads. Hubert had been watching TV and said that the rain was over for the day. He also said that if he had understood Spanish TV then Nelson Mandela was dead. On the Camino I have no interest in the news but this is different. We are talking about one of the giants of our age. Serenity and Graciousness are two words that I would use to describe Mandela and they are virtues that you pray for on the Camino.
I must now tell you about my daily penance. It comes from walking poles!  They are wonderful and the estimates that I have is that they reduce by 20-30% the stress on hips and knees. Unfortunately they have one irritating flaw, their tips!  When I was buying mine I asked for rubber tips to put over the metal. You won't use them said the shop assistant. How wrong he was!  Much of the Camino is over roads and, today, over paths which have been paved in places. When you walk with someone for any length of time, the constant clip of their poles is a real penance. Another source of both danger and irritation today were the cyclists. The authorities in Santiago accept three forms of transport, foot, on a horse or donkey, and cyclists. Today the cyclists have been plentiful. I don't understand whether mountain bikes don't have bells. If they do nobody uses them!  Some cyclists are most courteous slowing down when they see you, others shout, but there are those who try to pass you at maximum speed. At one point a cyclist gave me a real shock. In the afternoon I bumped into Paul from London and he had the same complaint. Just before I reached the village where I was staying I met a French couple who I had met at St Jean. It is the Padre they said what a wonderful time we shared with you at St Jean. It was a nice way to end the day. 

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Two little stars

There were two newcomers in the dormitory-Paul from London and a lady from Vancouver.As agreed Hubert and I were up at 5.30.  Danielle (the lady who runs the Gite) was in her office. She sat with us during breakfast. She said that it would be hotter in Spain. Hubert had arranged with her to give us a baguette for our lunch. When we were ready to go she hugged us both, and, wandering down the deserted street I saw that she was standing at the door. I gave a wave and we were gone. As we crossed the River Nive the clock in the tower said 6.10.
Once we were out of the street lighting it was totally dark. Herbert had a miner's lamp to light our way. I looked up into the sky and it was full of stars. It is Saint Jacques calling us said Hubert. The fact that the stars were visible was a good sign. A number of people had crossed the mountains yesterday and said that it was very misty. As the light increased I commented to Hubert that there were only two stars still visible. You and I he said, two tiny stars! An Owl was calling and I was reminded of the night at Conques when I had felt so disheartened.
It was clear that the weather was putting on a special show for this one of the most significant moments in the pilgrimage. What clouds there were sat in the valleys. Around 7.30 the sun rose over the mountains. I was speechless at the sheer majesty of God's creation. On a pilgrimage there may be discomforts but the are compensated for with overwhelming blessings. Hubert said it reminded him of Mount Tabor and the Transfiguration.
We had a break after 2 hours. We had hardly started again when we passed the final Albergue. There were two people on the road in front of us. One of them had a New Zealand flag on their rucksack. I asked them if they were from New Zealand. They answered yes. They were called Paul and Josephine. Within minutes Paul engaged me in a searching conversation as he is thinking of training to be an Anglican priest. I noticed that Josephine and Hubert were singing!  A little later I drew their attention to an eagle. After about 20 minutes Paul from London turned up. I engaged him in conversation and the New Zealand Paul dropped back. We possibly won't meet again. That is so typical of the Camino. By now we were catching up with those who had left from the Gites beyond St Jean. We passed a flock of vultures and Hubert told me that he had told a woman that vultures find women sweeter than men. Two thirds of the way up a young man had a van selling all sorts of goodies. I bought coffee and boiled eggs for lunch.
The glorious mountain scenery and the exceptional day spurred us on. I said to Hubert that we were blessed with the weather. After a leisurely lunch we reached the col at 12. The books warn against the direct descent to Roncesvalles but I found it no more difficult than the descent to Conques if a little longer. Roncesvalles means Valley of the thorns and is where Charlamagne's,  army was routed giving rise to the Song of Roland. In fact the upper valley is a beech forest which will be a riot of colour in a couple of weeks time. It was much hotter when I reached the Abbey. Unfortunately there were weddings taking place and so I only had a fleeting view of the Abbey. I had my creencial stamped and went to wait for Hubert. Surprisingly he didn't want his stamped. We had been warned against staying in the Abbey and so had 2km to our lodgings. When I arrived at mine the owner said I wasn't booked. In fact she had murdered my name but had my mobile number.
For the first time in two weeks I have a room to myself, a real bed and towels. Communal living is an essential part of the pilgrimage but it is nice to have space something. I asked her about wifi and she said that there is a bar down the road. She kindly phoned and booked my accommodation for Monday and Tuesday.
I wandered down to a typical Spanish bar, asked about wifi, ordered a glass of Crianza and settled down to write. Nobody bothered me. It is funny to be in Spain. 

Friday, 13 September 2013

Reflections and plans

Having left Pierre and Isabel at the station I went off to a park to do some writing. At 9 I went to Carrefour to buy some toothpaste. At the post office I collected my package and despatched my Le Puy guide back to England. I settled into the tourist office to write my blog. About 11.15 I went in search of a coffee and met Hubert. We enjoyed the coffee, looked for a suitable restaurant and then he suggested that I drop my things at the Gite. He is full of surprises. He had arranged an aperitif with the owner! We shared a lovely half hour. These sorts of meetings are an essential part of the pilgrimage, he said. We had a delicious lunch and a thoughtful conversation.
As I come to the end of the French section of my pilgrimage three words come to mind- graciousness, generosity, and hospitality. A pilgrimage is a time of personal renewal but it is also an opportunity to allow others to minister to you. That has been true in abundance this last month.
I will be sad to leave France!  I have visited some incredibly beautiful places, met some remarkable people, and coped with the language. If the Spanish section is as blessed this will be a remarkable experience.
Before I set off in August I seriously considered abandoning the idea. Now it is possible to consider the arrival at Santiago. I have noted Friday 18th October the feast of St Luke as my favoured date. 35 days for the Spanish section will give me time to reflect.
First things first. Tomorrow at 6.00am Hubert and I set off to cross the Pyrenees. 

The second Sabbath.

The Gite at Ostabat is a health and safety nightmare!  It is made completely of wood with only one staircase. Nevertheless it was comfortable and clean. Raphael and I went to the only bar where we were soon joined by Achmed and the two frenchmen. About 5.30 I went to the church but the sacristy was firmly closed. I returned to the Gite since the owner had said that he would be back at 6 to stamp out creencial and take the fee. As we sat waiting a large raptor swooped across the field in front of us . The owner-a tranquil man in his 50s-came with two bottles for an aperitif. He returned later with a rather impressive stamp . Isabel commented that the creencial is precious. Each stamp tells its own story.
About 30 of us descended on the only eating place in the town. The owner was a caricature of a frenchman with his berret and his moustache . I reflected on two facts-Raphael and I were the only two non French, and I knew more than half of those present It was a delicious meal-home made vegetable soup, pork with green beans and pasta, dressed lettuce and Brebis cheese. (The latter served entire for us to carve off what we wanted).Achmed was determined that we sing Ultreia which we did at the end of the meal. As I took leave of the others one French lady whom I hadn't seen before said:we have heard about you! The proprietor asked me to pray for him.
Since there was no breakfast we drank a coffee and Raphael and I set off together at 6.45.It was the fourth time that we had done so in 13 days. Pierre and Isabel were not far away and we met again at a bakery. Unlike previous days Raphael preferred to walk with me. I sensed that he was making the most of his last day. He spoke a lot about himself and his family. We passed a village where there was a sign for a café. It was actually a farm and there was fresh cheese, yoghurt, and coffee. No prices and two dogs to welcome us. Around 11 I said to Raphael that I was going to have some bread and cheese.  He stopped and ate as well.
 Entering St Jean Pied du Port was a real culture shock. It was full of tourists and new pilgrims who were conspicuous with their new gear. We stopped for a beer and, almost immediately an English group from Preston came by. They were fascinated by our walk.  One lady asked me whether Raphael was a seminarian. He laughed when I told him this.
During a wander through town we met Patrice. I went into a bookshop opposite our gite to buy a guide for Spain, booked lodgings for Saturday and Sunday, and suggested to Raphael that we take Pierre and Isabel out for a drink. On the way back we met the two frenchmen. The food at supper was excellent but there was no sharing. This is a place where commercialism predominates. Around 8.45 I sought out Raphael. He gave me some spare medication, took my e-mail address, and we said goodbye. He leaves at 5.00am. I had a restless night, heard Raphael leave and settled down to a day of rest. I walked with Pierre and Isabel to the station. After 28 days of walking, on my 30th day I settled down to reflect. 

Into the mountains

It was a strange experience to be at the Gite by 1pm. I made coffee for us all and then settled down to write. Later in the afternoon we were joined by two impressive frenchmen. They were both recently graduated and wanted to do the Chemin before they started work!  I showed Isabel how my shorts had worn and she spent the next hour working on them! After a second coffee I saw one of the couples from last night wandering up to the church. I went to greet them and explained that, sadly the church was locked. They said that there were instructions at their gite how to locate the key!  I went with them and-sure enough-there were clear instructions. I found the key on a post in the cemetery. The only problem now was that we had no wine! There was also a discussion about timing-they said that they had to be at the Gite by 5.30 and I knew that we were going out at 6.30. I wandered back to our gite to find that the owner was there collecting the fees. I asked her about the church but she said that she didn't have any information. Pierre volunteered to find some wine. I mentioned to the two frenchmen that we were going to have mass. When I got back to the church Pierre soon appeared with a tumbler full of wine. Raphael and the two frenchmen came along. I found the lectionary and went out to find a reader. Pierre obviously thought that he should do it but I asked one of the French men . I deliberately chose the meeting under the oak at Mamre.(The subject of the Rublev Trinity)
We had a pleasant mass and, when the others had gone, I examined the Romanesque carving of St James the Moorslayer. Raphael had seen the carving and, later commented that it was a strange way to portray a Saint! When I returned to the Gite there was a curious character who had walked from Nantes. He was in his late 60s and claimed that he was walking 40km per day. Around 6 I saw Isabel and Achmed heading for the church. They were both quite disappointed when I said that with had already celebrated. The arrangements for dinner were quite unusual. We were to be collected by taxi, taken to the Auberge and then brought back after dinner. And all for 15euro. On the way there Isabel commented that it was very quick by car. The driver immediately commented that it would be much slower walking home!
Dinner was soup, charcuterie, a delicious meat course and Brebis cheese. This morning I was up at 6 and Raphael and I were on the road by 6.45. At first we walked together. As it grew lighter Raphael headed off and I settled into my routine of morning prayer. Reaching a ridge I was rewarded with a stunning view of the mountains. A little later, as the sun rose, the colours were spectacular. ( I thought that I had captured this on camera, but no) I recited the Psalm 'I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall come my help" For about 10 minutes it felt as if I had the whole of creation to myself. As I descended down a lane I recited the pilgrimage Psalms- those recited on the road to Jerusalem. After the recent rains something is obvious, namely the onset of Autumn. Today the smells and the shadows are those of autumn. Despite the sunshine I noted that, even after 11 the dew was still on the ground. The path led inexorably into mountain valleys. A couple of days ago Pierre had commented tthat it is incredible how things can change in a few kms. Physical geography, cultivation, and the style of houses. Now we are unquestionably in the Basque country. Navarrenx is, of course, a Basque version of Navarre. After Around 4 hours of walking I came to the spot where the routes from Paris, Vezalay and Le Puy converge. The next convergence will be at Puente La Reina beyd Pamplona. I arrived at the Gite around 1.15 to find the others sitting outside. It is very simple and comfortable. We have an attic to the four of us . By 2.00pm I had showered and done the washing. I suggested to Raphael that, at 4, we go out to the village to have a beer

cont' d

A delightful sacristan helped prepare everything but we couldn't find the lectionary. As I was going onto the altar she asked whether I wanted a microphone- I said that I thought that wouldn't be necessary. After the liturgical greeting I introduced myself. I stressed that like them I was first and foremost a pilgrim. I also warned them that I speak French very badly! I am glad that I did because I know that I murdered the text. The church had a wonderful resonance and, of course my voice boomed around it!  I signalled to Hubert to read and was amused that, in an instant Pierre had rushed to the lectern. The gospel was about the man with the withered hand and the antagonism of the Pharisees to Jesus. We all have some deformity, and we all have resistances to the Gospel. I made no attempt to preach!
At the end the pilgrims were very grateful. One person said: there is something about your voice!  How many times have I heard that. We were then taken over to a room where we were served copious quantities of sweet Jurancon wine. The local priest came in and went round greeting us all. On the wall there is a world map and pilgrims are invited to mark their home country. I told one of the ladies of my connection with El Salvador and she agreed that I should put a pin in from there. Before I left they were very keen that I put a message in their book. It was a very happy encounter.
It was about 7.20 when Pierre, Isabel and I returned to the Gite. In the patio an impressive salad had been laid out with significant symbols of the Chemin. As the 13 guests assembled I noticed that 9 of them had been at the mass. L'Alchemiste (Gaetane) seemed to spend his time observing the gathering. As well as Manuel there was a woman in her 30s who seemed to be part of the team. At 8.00pm Manuel rang the bell. L'Alchemiste greeted us,explained the menu and then said that Manuel would explain the salad. With a drum and a song he did a parable of the Camino.
Even though the sky had clouded over we sat in the patio. I was next to Raphael, opposite Pierre who had Manuel next to him and beyond Manuel there was a remarkable man called Pablo who was originally from Romania. Manuel was full of fascinating information. I asked him about the hospitality at the Church. He said that is controversial. Apparently the main expense ( the purchase of the wine) is met by the town council many of the council think that the pilgrims drink too much wine!  I commented that it was 3 bottles tonight. That is nothing he said. I also commented that the Abbey at Conques has been the most expensive place to stay. More out of sadness than anger he said that the Church has much to learn about the pilgrimage! Here at the Gite they have no price-you give what you think it is worth. Manuel said that often poor or homeless people are often sent to them from the church. He also had the good news that I can include the wonderful church at Eunate in my itinerary.
We had a joyous time with much sharing and camaraderie. Around 9.45 Manuel said that it was time for the washing up. We can fit 10 in the kitchen. I had proffered my creencial to Manuel but he said that L'Alchemiste would take care of that . As I headed upstairs he said that it would be waiting for me in the morning. I asked him to include a message. Since the next day would be a short walk (17km), and rain was forecast I suggested a 7.00am rise. This provoked an amusing incident. Raphael has been complaining about the snorers. This morning Pierre, Isabel and I were all awake at 6. I resisted the temptation to get up early and the three of us listened to Raphael snoring loudly. Later in the day we teased him mercilessly. At 6.50 I slipped to the toilet and then downstairs in my underpants to retrieve my clothes. Patrice was already up . We exchanged a greeting and I settled down to breakfast. ( In the gites you spend a lot of time in your underpants. In some ways it is a reminder that the pilgrimage is about being stripped of many illusions. My creencial was in the middle of the table and Manuel had included the directions to Eunate. By the stamp there was this message: ' Comme moi tu es SACRE,Laissons le faire et ensemble:oeuvrons.
Eventually Raphael and I went out into the pouring rain to do our shopping-bread, tomatoes, some fruit and some biscuits. Returning to the Gite I went around saying my farewells. Neither Manuel nor the Alchemiste were around. The girl gave me a very warm embrace and said that it had been a blessing to share with them. Just out of the village there was a note saying that in wet weather the GR 65 was not good. Raphael and the two other pilgrims ignored this but I set off down the D115. Since I was alone I said Ps94 aloud followed by the Angelus. I then sang the Come Holy Ghost. It gave me a chance to reflect on the conviviality of the previous evening. Walking in the rain gives a clear sense of focus with few distractions. Eventually I came to a crossroads where I saw the familiar waymarkers. There was also a kiosk selling Pate at special pilgrim prices. I bought two. I later passed a private house where a table had been set up for pilgrims-another sign of the generosity of the local people. Around 11.30, with a little less than an hour to go I settled into a shelter to have my lunch. I had nearly finished when Raphael appeared. He was quite surprised to see me I waited with him as he had his lunch. A familiar voice could be heard and Pierre appeared . At the Gite Raphael asked if I wanted the uupper or lower bunk . I said the lower.

Between the church of St Francis Xavier and the Alchemist

Walking with Hubert is great fun!  He is such a wise man and he has a lovely sense of humour. He asked me how you would say' bon maison' in English. I said' nice house'.I also added that you could say-nice day, nice person or nice thing. Quick as a flash he said:" but not (n) ice berg". Later on he asked me if I realised that snow was forecast for the Pyrenees this weekend! . I hope that you have brought your skis.
We lunched together at the corner of a field. After lunch our paths parted. Hubert walks very slowly after lunch. I soaked up the glorious views, overtook Pierre and Isabel and was in Navarrenx by 2.10. After the experience of Nogaro I sought out the tourist office. Two women were talking on the stairs when I entered but they took no notice of me. When they had finished talking one of them disappeared into her office and the other left. Realising that they were not going to be much help I went to a tobacconist who told me exactly where the Gite is. As I wandered a little further I found Raphael sitting behind a half litre of beer. He told me that the Gite did not open until 3 and so I joined him . eventually Pierre arrived with Isabel a little behind. Pierre refused a beer and headed off for the Gite. Hubert then arrived and joined us for a beer.
Ever since Moissac there have been quite distinctive and enigmatic messages along the way. They are all in beautiful script on a small blackboard and signed: L'Alchemiste' When we were booking our gite in Navarrenx the Gite Communal was full,.Pierre had booked us into a Gite called L' Alchemiste. As Raphael and I arrived outside the lovely house in the middle of the village I recognised the same signs!  We were greeted by Manuel a young Parisian who could be either the assistant or the disciple of the Alchemiste. Out on the patio we were served drinks while the Alchemiste gathered Lavender and Mint in the garden. He was a striking looking man probably in his late 40s with flecked grey hair, a beard, and thoughtful eyes. He greeted us but then went about his business. I couldn't help but notice his enormous bare feet.
After an appropriate time over our drinks Manuel explained the house rules and also said that there is an accueil pelerin in the Church at 6.00pm. He indicated to me that I might offer to say mass!Since there was excellent wifi Raphael and I lounged on our beds whilst Pierre and Isabel showered. Later on-having put my tablet on charge I washed, changed and prepared for the evening. ( One joy here is that Manuel told us to put any washing in a basket at the bottom of the stairs and they would do it for us. )
Achmed ( the young frenchman from Geneva turned up as did Patrice from Rodez. Another couple who had been with us last night also appeared. As I headed downstairs I looked at the door of the Alchemiste room. He has a PhD in Psychology and has studied at Harvard. When I arrived at the Parish Church I discovered that it is dedicated to St Francis Xavier. ( He comes from just over the border).St Francis Xavier is a special Saint for me. He was the patron of my wonderful school Xaverian College in Manchester. In 1983 when I was considering the date for my ordination I consciously chose 3rd December, his feast day. Anyway the church was deserted so I settled down to look at the french text of the Mass. Eventually a lady of a certain age arrived, put on some lights and sat down to pray. I went over to her and introduced myself. 'I will go and see if I can get the keys, she said. About 5 minutes later she came back:"It's Monday she said and there is no- one around. By 5 to 6 there were about 6 pilgrims in the Church, Hubert was among them. I went and joined them. The lady who was leading the welcome when two other ladies came in. They talked in a huddle for a while and then the lady announced: Le Pere Gérard va celebre le Messe. 

Monday, 9 September 2013

Forbidden fruits

There has been a break in wifi and so I am skipping a couple of days which I will return to later. I am now in Navarrenx which is a tiny village tucked below the Pyrenees. In three days time I will be in St Jean Pied du Port and the french section of the pilgrimage will be over.
Yesterday in pouring rain we reached Arthez de Bearne. We stayed in the Gite communal. There was no food but we ordered pizzas. Over the table we shared with a young frenchman who had set off from Geneva. There was also a french couple who were heading for St Jacques. We agreed a 6.15 rise. Raphael bought coffee from the machine and, on a misty morning the 3 musketeers set off again. I reflected that it was exactly 8 days since we had first set off together from Saint Antoine. There was a magical moment. We emerged from the mist and were treated to the most spectacular sunrise with reds, oranges and blues. At one point a Pyrenean peak showed its face and then two or three more. And then we dropped back into the mist. I reflected on the wonderful sentence from the Cloud: 'Strike the dark cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love and on no account think of giving up' How true for the pilgrimage.
I was to learn today that Hubert is a natural hunter gatherer. He cut down some delicious figs.As I was eating mine he turned to Raphael and said. Look Gerard is eating the forbidden fruit.
Raphael soon went on ahead. It is great walking with Hubert as he is very patient about my french. He shared two deeply personal aspects of his pilgrimage. It is a pilgrimage of gratitude for all the blessings of my life especially my grandchildren. He then said that at the ocean he would collect two shells. I will ask my wife to put one of them in my coffin when I die. He thenquickly added but not for a long time.
The second magical moment occurred just after 10. We had been climbing steadily through a wood. We hardly noticed that the mist had lifted. We emerged from the woods and turned a corner round a field of maize and, there they were, the majestic Pyrenees. It has been a long 25 days on the road and it will be 3 more before we reach St Jean but it was a wonderful reward.

Photos - Abbey of the Sauvelarde de Bearne, Hubert, and I

Saturday, 7 September 2013

sociability and solitude

Yesterday I had a text from a friend who remarked that he thought that the Chemin would have been more solitary. I believe that each person on the Chemin is there for their own reasons but the Chemin also puts people together for a reason. The present phase has seen me with Pierre, Isabel and Raphael for nearly a week. The meeting is spontaneous and temporary. I believe that the paradym for this is the remarkable story at the end of Luke' s gospel when he recounts the encounter on the road to Emmaus. The story asks us to consider who we meet on our journey of life and how we meet them. Perhaps the second question is the more important.
On the Chemin the sociability is limited. During the hours of walking it is rare that you are talking continuously. In the dormitories there is converse but also respect for the space of others. Interestingly the main moment of sociability is over the meal and in the better gites this is a profound moment of sharing. My experience is that the sharing is also helpful and appropriately challenging. A couple of nights ago in Eauze I told Pierre that I didn't plan to stay in Nogaro. He warned against the rural gites-there is little chance to share he said. I don't totally agree but I did book for the night. Pierre also warned that it might not be easy to find accommodation in Aire on Friday. I promptly booked the Gite and an hour later Raphael found it was full. As a result of listening to Pierre I had the least congenital night so far in a Gite with one toilet for 30 people. I was reminded of the first section of the Journey of the Magi where they also reflect on the difficulty of the journey. Today the experience has been totally different . Given that the weather has mercifully become cooler the walk to Aire sur l' Adour was gentle. The Gite only has space for seven and the reception from Andre was stunning .

Thursday, 5 September 2013


Dolmen of Joncas
Supper with Caroline, Anavery and Ti
Cloisters Moissac

A jolly day

The ancient bridge 1000 km from Santiago
The medieval walled village

As I wandered towards the 'naked man' chapel I wondered what I should do if I met him! The story is so resonant of the occasion in the Gospel when Jesus met a possessed man who lives among the graves. One thing is sure Jesus never treated any person as an object of curiosity and He faced up to every situation. Sure enough when I came to the chapel it was at the end of a vineyard and there were graves! Most of you will be glad to hear that there was no sign of the man!
I sauntered along to Montreal du Gers, found that the Germans had taken over the church, quickly said my prayers and retired to a bar for a coke. I was leaving the town when I heard someone call my name. It was Isabel, I went and greeted her and then headed off. We later met again and the three of us completed the day together. The previous night Elena had booked me into the Gite Communal in Eauze. I had visions of something basic. I headed for the tourist office and was directed to a lovely building just over the road. You are in Gite 5 I was told. I had hardly crossed the threshold when Raphael appeared out of the bedroom. The Gite was for 4 and Pierre and Isabel were the other two.That evening the four of us shared a lovely meal in the central square of Eauze . It was a night to rival the evening at Cahors.
We had a jolly evening and today have walked 20km to Nogaro

Compostela ( cont'd)

Happy pilgrim's dinner
Pierre and I
The morning was stunning and I reflected on the conversation of the previous evening when we had talked about the meaning of the Chemin. I thought of the mysterious story at the start of Matthew' s gospel. The three wise men fit into his ideas that Jesus completes the Jewish expectations as announced in the Old Testament. Eliot develops this theme in his poem 'The Journey of the Magi'. He wrestles with the paradoxes of the journey.  It ceases to be just one journey and I feel that this journey is an archetype of human journeying. The men are seekers after truth, and so is the pilgrimage . This led me on to think about truth. In the gospel it is not an intellectual concept but an option for life, John uses it twice. Firstly when Jesus declares that He is the truth and then in the amazing conversation between Him and Pilate:' I came into the world for this to bear witness to the truth and anyone who is on the side of truth is with me' Being on the side of truth is our goal. A better Old Testament word is integrity which conveys being true to yourself and being the person that God wants you to be . I found much to reflect on that I would return to many times in the coming days.
I turned off the road to visit the medieval walled village of Larresingle and spooked a deer which had been grazing less than 5 metres from me. This led me to recite the opening verses of one of my favourite Psalms:Like the deer that yearns for running streams so my soul thirsts for you my God. My soul is thirsting for God the God of my life. When can I enter and see the face of God. It struck me as strange to find an Old Testament writer wanting to see the face of God. In the Old Testament seeing the face of God meant instant death. Moses had to shield his face on the mountain and still the reflected glory of God shone on his face.  ( What a wonderful idea for us 'reflecting the glory of God'
God was kinder the Elijah and covered his face for him. In the New Testament seeing the face of God is the way to life:' we shall become like Him, because we shall see Him as He really is' this is how the author of the Letter of John puts it.
I returned to the story of the Magi. They were led by heavenly signs. Many people think that the etymology of Compostela is' the field of stars' Our pilgrimage is directed for us . On Sunday at Moissac when I was doing my stretches in the garden I noticed that the stars were particularly clear.
I was amused that when I returned to the path the Germans were just crossing the road heading for the bridge which marks 1000 km from Santiago. They all have sticks with metal points and there was a clicking sound as they moved. At the bridge incongruously they were singing: 'Sur le Pont d'Avignon' They ignored me completely and left me to have a break. 

Wednesday, 4 September 2013


I arrived at Condom just after 12 . I managed to walk straight past the Casa del Pelerin! In the town I visited the lovely Cathedral which was refreshingly cool after the intense heat . I waited for the tourist office to open and then was directed to the Gite. Elena was most welcoming and showed me to the men's dormitory which had four beds with sheets. After a shower I made use of the wifi, had a rest, borrowed a shopping bag and headed off to buy food for tomorrow. I bumped into Elena in the street and told her that I had borrowed the bag.I managed to miss the fruit shop and found it on my return to the centre of town. I drew out some cash, bought the fruit and was heading to buy bread when a familiar voice hailed me. It was Pierre and Isabel. They asked me to join them for a drink. I said that I would return as soon as I had the bread. We sat and chatted. When I returned to the Gite Elena was busy preparing supper. Sadly, when the four German ladies had arrived they spoke to her in English.  (Earlier she had spoken with me in French which helps me improve. ) For the rest of the evening we spoke in English.
Elena has a Scottish mother from Kirkcaldy and an Italian father. Her parents met at university. She is from Eauze ( my destination tomorrow) She completed the French section last year and opened her Gite in April. It is wonderful but a huge undertaking. She said that it is important that some of the gites are run by young people. I mentioned Gisele and Jean Pierre. She had stayed at the Ferme de Bouysse and agreed that they are special. When she arrived there they were away. They had gone to Santiago on the bus so that they could understand their guests better!
Later I said that Elena would be disappointed with the Spanish Camino. She wanted to know why. I said that I have been overwhelmed both by the beauty of France and the generosity of the people that I have met. She said that the Spanish think that the Camino only starts at the Pyrenees and the focus is on getting to Santiago. I said that was terribly mistaken. I will reflect on this later. At the end of dinner she carefully signed our credentials and put a personal message in each.
She then gave some practical advice for tomorrow. Firstly she told us not to miss the village of Larresingle even though it is 500m off the route. It is a completely walled medieval village. Beyond the village she pointed out that the Bridge of Artigues, as well as being an ancient pilgrim bridge, also marks 1000 km from Santiago.
The next bit of information amused me. A short way after the bridge you will come to the Eglise de Routges. The only problem she said is that there is a madman there who is often completely naked and chases women. Looking at the four Germans she said that they would be fine because they were together.
When I got up around 6 I discovered that all was ready for breakfast and all that had to be done was to put on the coffee. Even though it was before the agreed time I could hear the Germans getting ready and put the coffee on. I had settled down to coffee when Elena appeared. She was not too pleased that I had started!
When I was ready to leave she opened the front door and asked me to pose for a photo. She then apologised for being abrupt and then embraced me warmly and wished me a Bonne Chemin. It was a glorious dawn with vapour trails coming up from Toulouse. It was then that I began to reflect on the field of stars, the journey of the Magi, and the Camino.
(Sadly the tourist office in Eauze where I am writing is just about to close, so wait to see where this is going! )

Tuesday, 3 September 2013


Yesterday over coffee I had an interesting conversation with Raphael. I commented that, in English his name means: who is like God. He said that it is dangerous to compare a human to God. I said that I didn't totally agree with him. In my opinion we meet God through others. Later I reflected on the question in the Letter of John: how can you say that you love the God that you cannot see when you fail to love the brother that you can see. Raphael also asked me if I believe that St James is really buried at Santiago. I said that personally no! But it doesn't matter. The Chemin has been made holy by the countless pilgrims who have walked the Way for more than a 1000 years. I also told him about the way in which the hands of pilgrims have worn away the stone on pillars in churches along the way. That is a vivid symbol of pilgrimage:having the hard parts of ourselves softened.
I was going to go on to explain the word ' ultreia'.As it happens if you follow the comment on my previous post you can see a full explanation and an English translation of the song!
Having borrowed Matthew Wauchope's computer to post the previous blogs I went to gather in my laundry. Matthew said that hot weather is forecast for the next few days. Matthew, Liz and I had a drink on the terrace and then set off for dinner. It was a spectacular evening and the rolling landscape of the Gers was breathtaking. The restaurant looked out over Lectoure and we had it to ourselves. Matthew suggested that we all eat the same. We had Langoustines followed by Foie Gras ( The way of the pilgrim is hard!) In each case the sauces were out of this world. The very jolly owner produced an enormous bottle of Armagnac.  ( This is the heart of Armagnac country) Like the Spanish the French are very generous with the measures and the owner made a couple of return visits with the bottle.
Matthew had kindly offered to drop me off this morning. I was on the road by 7.20. It was a cloudless morning threatening serious heat . fortunately the going is much easier here. As the journey develops I find that I become even more reflective. I am now very close to Les Landes and the countryside is much flatter.
I am now in Condom which calls itself the pearl of Gascony. Curiously after the title of my previous post there is a sculpture of the Three Musketeers outside the Cathedral. My lodgings are on the edge of this delightful town and the owner has offered to do my laundryffor me.