Monday, 26 April 2010

Holy Smoke - the Movie

One of the things I've wanted to try is recording the Botafumeiro from the Tribune. This is a wide gallery which runs the around the entire Cathedral high above the ground. In the old days pilgrims slept there. Nowadays the Cathedral choir sings up there from a position above the West door. Access to the organ and also the organ console is via the Tribune.

In this film the senior Tiraboleiro (the eight men who operate the Botafumeiro) is wearing the ceremonial robes of the Pertiguero. In some English speaking churches this role is known as the Beadle or Verger. In Santiago Cathedral he walks with a silver staff or mace which he taps on the ground to herald the entrance of the Archbishop. Until recently he also wore a wig. I suspect he is relieved to have dispensed with this tradition. More on him anon!

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Whatever happened to Johnnie?

I went off to Santiago to work in the office and collect stories to tell. I was grumpy when I left. My broadband at home had failed and couldn’t be fixed until Monday 26th April. Ah well. I would blog from Santiago, I thought. Little did I know my time on the internet there would be occupied with other things.

In the first week fewer pilgrims arrived than I expected and I noticed posts in internet forums saying that albergues on the routes were surprisingly empty. It appears that this is a lull after the busiest Holy Week in the Pilgrims’ Office in memory. During Semana Santa they saw 2000 pilgrims per day and the waiting time was several hours. More on the lessons learned later. But even in this last 10 days numbers are double that of the same period last year.
I was joined in Santiago by one of the priests from the church in London where I play the organ. Michael has been hearing about the pilgrimage for many years and always wanted to see the great Cathedral and of course the Botafumeiro. My welcome to him at Santiago airport was slightly marred by the worrying announcement that flights were being cancelled across Europe because of a volcano. I was unconcerned, “cloud of ash? Flights will be back on in a few days”, I thought. The next day the full extent of the air chaos emerged. I still thought that by the following Monday, when we were scheduled to fly back to London, all would be well. I went to work in the office and Michael made his way around Santiago seeing the sights.

The pilgrims who arrived in the office still had that serene aura which pilgrimage brings but gradually at the desk they would receive their Compostela and ask if there was any news of flights. Some had heard their flights were cancelled and asked about cheap hostals for a few nights. Within a couple of days the full horror of flight cancellations set in. Over the weekend I realised that our flight was unlikely to leave on Monday. I spoke to a colleague in London. “There is a bus from Santiago to London leaving on Monday,” he said, “ but it takes 42 hours, I think” he added glumly. Reluctantly I asked him to check availability, thinking that the bus would have to do if all else failed. There were no available seats until the following Friday. I almost ran to an internet café. It was full of pilgrims phoning home and using the internet. One was cursing continually. Another cried quietly. “I have no money” she said. Luckily I got on to the Veuling site and they accepted a booking and payment for a flight to London from La Coruña airport. One hour away by bus. Surely I thought flights will be back to normal by next Thursday?

For the next few days Santiago continued with the business of receiving tour groups and pilgrims. The Cathedral was packed. One day the Botafumeiro flew at four masses then at a fifth hurriedly arranged for a group of visitors from the Orthodox tradition.

Pilgrims coming to the office were a mixture of the totally laid back about getting home to the extremely anxious. Everyone was very helpful. There was sadness when Pablo from Brasil cried when he realised he would get no Compostela. He had caught a bus in Sarria to try and catch a flight home. A single tear trickled down his cheek. He was smiling the next afternoon when he explained that he had tried all morning to find another way home. His boss and family understood the situation. His airline had given him a new flight in 10 days time. He was off to walk from Sarria. “And perhaps Finisterre” he added with a laugh. For a couple from Poland it was more worrying. They were on a strict budget. They had children at home waiting for them. If they didn’t get back to work, they didn’t get paid. A bed in an albergue was found for them.
The Tourist Office could not have been more helpful. But like everyone else they would have to wait and see.

I had half decided that if my enforced stay in Santiago continued for much longer I would simply stay for a month particularly since I am due to return there on 10th May. “Could I attend important meetings in London by telephone?” I wondered. But what about Michael? He occupied his time reading, strolling around Santiago and reflecting in the sunshine in the Almeda Park. But I also found him gazing at his diary from time to time. He had commitments back home. People suggested a ferry from Santander? Or Bilbao? Or even Calais. But Michael speaks no Spanish. The bus became an option again. Then he was offered a lift to the ferry by a friend…but it became clear there were no tickets for many days. Ouch.

The anxiety of this news was lessened by the pleasure I got from welcoming Rebekah Scott to Santiago at the end of an epic pilgrimage. It was one of these camino moments. There was a queue in the office. As a pilgrim left my desk I looked up and saw my friend Rebekah whose turn it was next. The final stamp and Compostela were followed by drinks in a restaurant garden and a wonderful dinner of a veritable banquet of seafood.

Rebekah was leaving by train the following morning and for us a plan emerged. We reserved tickets for the bus for Friday on the basis it would be cancelled if the flight left. We waited to see if the flight from La Coruña would leave on the Thursday.

It did. The passengers were mostly Spanish people. There was loud cheering when the flight touched down in London. We were home.
I have the warmest memories of fellowship during our time there. Pilgrims remained calm and Santiago rose to the occasion. Everyone was helpful. We took Michael into the Cathedral to meet Don Jenaro. He ended up on the altar saying Mass on the Archbishop’s right hand. Did he see the Botafumeiro? Oh yes. And he filled it with incense before it flew. He was well pleased …but I suspect a little reluctant to return to the pilgrims’ destination. As for me…I can’t wait. More from the Santiago Diary when broadband is restored!

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Whatever happened to Paco?

Thinking about this week’s blog I was astonished to realise that this is the 100th post since I began telling stories in February 2009. Thank you to everyone who comes to visit.

Despite all of the ups and downs of life I’m fortunate to have been able to keep walking. It was a huge pleasure to share with you my pilgrimage on the Camino Inglés in the Spring of 2009. I’m very fond of that little route where pilgrims from northern Europe arrived by boat. Simply pick a set of steps at the harbor in Ferrol and begin. Then my summer project was a revision of the CSJ guide to the route from Madrid to Sahagún. This is a glorious camino although temperatures at that time soared into the 40’s. I was glad to have the messages of support which people left on this site. This week the finished Guide has been sent off to be posted on the CSJ website. This will mean guides to 8 routes are now available to download for a donation. The latest guide, just like the others, will be kept up to date through the information sent in by pilgrims who walk the routes. Thanks to all those who read the drafts and suggested useful additions.

The year closed of course with the Camino Hogmanay and for many years to come I will look at the little film of that journey with huge pleasure.
These caminos were the inspiration for many stories both real and fictional about life in Spain and the people I have encountered along the way. On 28 May I told the story of Paco who had descended into alcoholism and lost everything. He bummed his way around the camino routes sleeping in albergues and stealing from pilgrims. He hated pilgrims but one night he decided it was time to climb out of the gutter and make the change to become a pilgrim himself. It was at the point of his resolution he was asked to leave the albergue because he didn’t have the correct stamps on his credencial. In the weeks that followed that posting I was touched to get some emails asking “whatever happened to Paco?”
I’ve been thinking about him this week. I’ve also been thinking about Mari in the Pilgrims Office who got married in a gorgeous little church outside of Santiago. She is now managing a larger staff in the office as they all try to cope with the increased numbers of pilgrims in this Holy Year.
Remember Susana the secretary of the Archicofradía? When I asked her what her three wishes might be, her face took on the farthest away look I’ve ever seen as she answered, “amor”. I visited her recently in Santiago. She had news. The dental braces she had been wearing for years had been removed. She looked like a different lassie. Her face beamed with the news that she was going to get married. Don Jerano the Canon of the Cathedral in charge of the Pilgrims Office officiated at the wedding yesterday. Congratulations!
And what of the fortunes of the diminutive bar owners in Seville? I told that true story as the second post on this blog. I called into their bar just after midnight on New Year’s Eve. They were at first suspicious then astonished when I explained that although they were strangers, the custom in Scotland was to give the first person encountered after 12 o’clock a piece of coal, a cake and a bottle whisky. I handed them over wishing that they always have enough heat, food and drink – and good luck for the year to come. When I returned later that year I was given a royal welcome. They had won the lottery.
I’ve caught up with them since then. With their new wealth they decided to renovate their little bar in one of the busiest streets in Seville. They leased another bar along the road whilst the work was underway. The new place was successful and when they reopened the old place they decided to keep both. “Maybe we’ll add a third” they boasted when I had a drink with them in the very busy new bar. I was back there for a long weekend some months later. The original bar was closed with a To Let sign in the window. In the busy new bar the lady of the house was working non stop. Where was her husband? I enquired. She sighed and explained that the work and worry of two businesses had become too much. Then came the recession. He had a serious mental breakdown and was in hospital. There’s a lesson there for all of us.
Back home I continued to meet for drinks, laughs and lots of one-up-man-ship with five friends in the neighbourhood where we all live in South London. One evening the founder member Sean announced that following some chest pain and a referral to hospital he had to undergo minor heart surgery to fix a blockage. Although Martin the Plumber offered to carry out the procedure himself the boys set to the more beneficial task of devising a daily fitness routine for Sean. In short he started walking every day and found he loved it. I’m glad to report that the surgery went well. Two weeks ago he had a checkup and was discharged from the care of the hospital. He’s still walking.
In this last year La Terazza has hosted two large dinners for the Confraternity of St James including a Galician style Burns’ Supper. I’ve also had the pleasure of lunching there with a number of pilgrims returning home through London from their Caminos. Amongst others I’ve been inspired by tales of the Le Puy route related by an Australian friend, the Via de la Plata by an American daughter and father and the Camino Levante from Valencia walked by Andy, my friend from Birmingham.

Yesterday Andy assembled a luncheon party in La Terraza. He and his wife Bharti and daughter Meenakshi traveled down from Birmingham. We were joined by Taffy and Barbara who walked to the restaurant from their home nearby and their daughter Margaret and grandchildren Michael and Rachel who live in South Wales. This was truly a gathering of pilgrims as it turned out Barbara had walked the Camino Frances in the 1980’s long before it was popular. Then she and daughter Margaret walked from Glasgow to Iona the Scottish centre of pilgrimage where St Columba first arrived. Clearly walking is in the blood because 4 years ago Margaret and daughter Rachel, then aged 11, walked the length of the United Kingdom in one continuous journey from John O’Groats on the northern tip to Land’s End the southermost point.
The conversation was engrossing and at points deeply moving. We had all walked different routes, at different times, for very different reasons. Yet the bond was tangible and so were the common experiences – the help from local people, the longest day, the shortest day, the most memorable moment. The fact that these journeys impact so much we still talk about them all the time!
Apart from fellowship the common purpose of the meal was to present La Terraza with its very own sello designed by Bharti. Don Antonio was touched by the presentation and duly stamped the Inaugural Pilgrim Passport. Now even more pilgrims have reason to visit La Terraza for their first or last stamp and their first or last bowl of Caldo Gallego.
But I can hear you ask, whatever happened to Paco? I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for that story. I have to pack. I’ll be in Santiago tomorrow and will write to you all from there.

Here’s to the next 100 posts!

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Three Easter Eggs

As the six weeks of Lent flew quickly to Holy Week I've become aware of a yearning to be walking and to be with other pilgrims. I suppose it is a feeling akin to going on retreat. The Camino can be magnetic and I’ve been reading accounts of pilgrims on the trail right now with a certain feeling of jealousy. Whilst musing over which route I’d like to walk I’ve also been making my way through the Holy Week services to Easter. They are really an assault on the senses. The combination of words, music, and symbols create a journey from the depths of pathos to the elation of Easter. Could such a powerful story be told in any other way? That question got me thinking about similar thoughts on my first Camino. They came to me gradually as I walked through Spain and felt the freedom of the Camino, the satisfaction of arrival and the fulfilment of a hot bowl of soup in the companionship of other pilgrims. “How could you explain this?” was my question. I realised my own words were inadequate. They still are. So to go some way to explain what I feel this Easter I’ve painted three little Easter eggs for you. Here they are:

The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Wendell Berry

On Sunrise - Robert Louis Stevenson from Prince Otto

Soon she struggled to a certain hill-top, and saw far before her the silent inflooding of the day. Out of the east it welled and whitened; the darkness trembled into light; and the stars were extinguished like the street lights of a human city. The whiteness brightened into silver, the silver warmed into gold, the gold kindled into pure and living fire; and the face of the east was burned with elemental scarlet. The day drew its first long breath, steady and chill; and for miles around the woods sighed and shivered. From 'Soliloquies of a Hermit' by Theodore Frances Powys.

In the old days I thought something wonderful would happen to me - now I believe that the most wonderful thing is that nothing wonderful happens. We are just as we are - nothing else - are we not wonderful enough? By only hearing the wind howl in the chimney, I am filled with all the harmony of music. By eating bread I am fed with the whole goodness and fullness of the earth. And when the silent mood comes, the calmness of immense seas and eternal spaces fills me...I know now that the things of greatest value can be had for the asking - that the centre of life is always near.Happy Easter 2010