Camino Francés vs Camino del Norte, which is better? My opinion

As soon as people find out I have done the full Camino Francés AND the Camino del Norte they always ask the obvious question: which is better? Well, here are my thoughts.

Like everything else in life, it is all about your personal tastes, the purpose of your Camino, etc.

The French way has more varied terrain, switching every few days. You get the Pyrenees on day one, then the rolling hills of Navarra, blending into the vineyards of La Rioja, eventually you get to the agricultural hills of Burgos, before hitting the plains of the plateau of Palencia and Leon before arriving at the hills of El Bierzo and the ancient Celtic hills of Galicia. The North or Coastal route on the other hand is amazing beach after amazing beach, and amazing forest after amazing forest, oh, and the only flat bits are the beaches, the rest of the time you are going up or down, which makes this route much tougher physically, but extremely rewarding as you are never more than a day or two away from the sea.

Also since this was the predominant trail in the late Middle Ages, the French way has a lot of history and a powerful spiritual charge, every chapel, every church, and cathedral just has this literally awesome, moving presence. By contrast, the Northern trail was abandoned in favor of the Francés as the Moors were driven out of the peninsula so, in fact, you are walking a much newer trail without so much of the spiritual aspect.

Food is probably better on the North route, as you partake from the bounty of the lush, green countryside and the ocean. This does not mean that the French way is bad, it just does not pass-through San Sebastian, arguably the best food per square foot in the world!!

North Coast of Spain is very green. Why? Because it rains a lot! So, if you commit to the North way, make sure you are prepared mentally and physically to deal with rain, sometimes for days… The French way on the other hand tends to be much drier.

Finally, depending on when you are doing it, the French way can become a bit crowded, while the North route has consistently less traffic.

If you are more into exploring cities and towns, both ways offer great stops, San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander on the North, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos or León on the French way.

So, in the end it boils down to what you want from your Camino. If you are looking for tradition and spirituality, go with the French way, if you prefer breathtaking views and more of a physical challenge, go North.

Have you done both Caminos? Leave your thoughts in the comments!!

Summer reading recap

Confession time: I have a problem that started around high school, I cannot stop reading. I read anywhere, anytime. I have books and magazines strategically placed around the house: the dining room table, the bathroom, bedside table, etc.

My summer reading was -as usual- an eclectic mix of books, here are some reviews:

Ramón del Valle Inclán Luces de Bohemia. I am a bit ashamed to disclose that I have a PhD in Spanish Literature and I had never read this (to my defense, my specialty was 18th C. literature, and my sub-specialties were Colonial Satire and Medieval Spanish Satire). I was surprised how fresh this book felt. Although it was written in the 1920s it might just as well have been written today. It is a satirical but profound glimpse of Spain at that time. It also introduces the concept of “esperpento” which offers a distorted and grotesque view of the world which paradoxically acts as a corrective lens to better appreciate the situation.

A critical factor of the Camino de Santiago is weight. The library of the albergue in Roncesvalles (the first stop of the Camino Francés) is full of Bibles that pilgrims with the intention of reading have “donated” because of its excessive weight and bulk. This year I carried Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows which is a beautiful study of Japanese aesthetics and culture, a gorgeous essay on the philosophy of traditional Japanese interior design.

Back in Madrid I read Henri Brunel’s The Most Beautiful Zen Stories – The original is in French, and I do not think there is an English translation. The book, as the title explains has short and sweet stories, but always with a bit of a sting – a question, maybe, unanswerable, at the end.

My beach reading was a gift from my dear friend Paco Navarro: Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (Alles umsonst in the original German). A story about a family during the last days of WWII in Germany. A great read about family dynamics, history, the human condition, and war.

Back in my mom’s country house I dug into another war, this time the Spanish Civil War, from the hand of dear friend Monica Moreno, who writes about love and family during that fratricidal war in Otoño y nueces. Her first adult novel after a handful of YA books, is well documented and intimate. Get it on Amazon here!

Back in Florida I explored Velazquez’s masterpiece painting Las Meninas through Néstor Luján’s Los espejos paralelos, which brings the painting to life through each of the characters, including the dog! Luján takes us to the dark hallways of Madrid’s old Alcazar palace, life in the court of Philip IV, and Madrid. A delightful read –specially if you are a fan of Velazquez and Las Meninas!

My last book before Fall was Richard Rohr’s The Divine dance which reflects on the deep spirituality of the Trinity and how love flows through the universe and us!

So there are a few reading recommendations in case you needed any, you are welcome.

Summer Adventures, Camino de Santiago (#2)

My last Camino de Santiago had to be cut just short of finishing because of time constraints. After a fallow Covid year, I was rearing to get back on the Camino, the Camino del Norte, following the North Shore of Spain until it turns Southwest towards Santiago de Compostela. That turn inland is just where I finished in 2019.

I picked up just where I left off, on the ria (fjord) that separates Asturias from Galicia on the latter side, Ribadeo. A cute town with a nice marina and old buildings ranging from Medieval to Modernist – these were financed by “indianos” folks that made it big after emigrating to America, mostly Cuba, and returning full of cash. Since I could not find the right transportation to get there, I ended up driving myself. I shared the ride on BlablaCar to help me with the cost of my gas guzzler old Land Rover Discovery.

The first day was, like the next four, rainy, but I was so happy to be walking again. It meant wearing a poncho that keeps the rain out but somehow also gets you all wet inside. I have not figured out if the moisture is sweat from wearing a plastic sheet over you, or water that gets in. But I refuse to spend over 200 € for a real rain jacket. I try to keep my Camino as close to the Medieval pilgrims who would have done it, at least as close as I can get in the XXI C.

Breakfast at the albergue was a rare treat: tortilla, good coffee and fresh squeezed OJ. My guide recommended pushing 34km to Mondoñedo for the quality of the Albergue and the town. Although it was a bit of a challenge for my first day, it was worth it. I only met four other pilgrims along the way. Before Mondoñedo is Lourenzá which is a nice village which has an amazing monastery! The albergue in Mondoñedo, as the guide promised, was awesome and I even had space to do some post hike yoga! When I sat down at the cathedral for mass, seeing as I was a pilgrim, I was asked by the sacristan if I wanted to read the first reading and the Psalm. What an honor! Of course I accepted although I was wearing my long sleeve T-shirt, shorts, and after hike flipflops! (I always wear long sleeve T-shirts to protect me from the sun and to keep me warm, as the case might be)

One of the reasons I walk the Camino is to honor and remember my dad, who always talked of doing it. So I always make sure that I am walking on June 20, his birthday. On that day, he walks especially close to me.

Day two is still raining and starts with a brutal two-hour climb -fortunately on good ground. Eventually it stops raining and I walk through ancient, magical forests for hours, without seeing a single pilgrim all day (except a German couple at the only café on the Camino). Vilalba, my destination, is quiet as it is Sunday evening when I arrive. I go to the evening mass and dine at the only place open in town.

Day three is, as I said before, rainy. But a pilgrim churns on regardless. I finally meet a genuinely nice pilgrim from Gerona, and we chat for a while.

One of the rewards of the Camino is seeing interesting architecture, mostly churches, but also occasionally homes or other buildings. During this stage, I walk to a gorgeous early Gothic church in the middle of a forest, by a river, San Esteve (see photos). Albergue Witericus at the end of the day is an old, restored farmhouse in the middle of a forest. I spend the rest of the rainy evening there, chatting with the wonderful innkeepers, reading, and writing my diary, dining the vegetable soup from their garden and an omelet from their chicken’s eggs!

Day four starts dry but soon changes to pouring rain. The Camino crosses the cute village of Miraz with its manorial tower, and 18th C. church and then climbs into the hills. This day also hits the highest point of the Camino del Norte in Galicia, a mere 700 mts (2.300ft). I finally meet the fellow that keeps overtaking me as he is doing the Camino running!! He is a lovely chap and stops to walk with me for a while. I end my day at Sobrado with its amazing Cistercian monastery which still operates with fourteen monks -one of them a brit! I obviously stay for very mystical Vespers with them, before dinner at a local restaurant.

Day five is finally sunny. Cold but sunny, so there is an extra spring in my step. At Arzúa I connect with the Camino Francés, which carries a stream of people. Fortunately, after clearing the village there is no one for the rest of the day. My final albergue is a lovely, restored old house and there is only me and a fellow from Honduras. The only attraction in the village is a bar decorated fully with empty beer bottles! I am the only customer there and spend over an hour chatting with the owner about politics, and the meaning of life, extremely rewarding.

My last day is sad as this Camino has been noticeably short for me, but I get to celebrate it with an amazing breakfast on the trail. I enjoy walking alone, meditating, breathing the fresh air. As we approach Santiago, the concentration of pilgrims increases, but that is part of the Camino. My last coffee stop is the same as when I finished the Camino Francés in 2018, the cortado is just as delicious as I remembered.

Tired of albergues and ready to fulfil one of my Camino dreams, I book my overnight in Santiago at the Parador. This luxury hotel is housed in the original, medieval “Hospital de peregrinos” which yes, was a hospital, but also served as a hostel for those who could not afford where to stay in Santiago. In fact it is technically the oldest hotel in the world. I celebrate my arrival in Santiago with a long, long bath. And only after did I venture for a meal, a walk and eventually mass in the recently restored cathedral that houses the remains of St. James.

In conclusion, I wish my walk would have been longer, but again, family obligations kept me from extending my walk to Finisterre. Otherwise, I love the spiritual journey of self-discovery that is the Camino, walking in nature for days on end, meeting interesting people with their stories, seeing amazing architecture that spans almost a thousand years, and eating great food. But do not get me wrong, the Camino is not a walk in the park, it requires you to walk for miles on end every day. My average this outing was 31.6 km per day (that’s close to 20 miles a day). You start the day with boundless energy, but the last couple of hours of an eight-hour day, day after day are a difficult slog that tests your mental and physical endurance.

On yoga and enlightenment

Like most people, I had heard a lot about yoga, my dear friend Paco used to practice in the 90s! So, on a whim I signed up for a class at my gym. That was in Chapel Hill about seven years ago, and I loved it! Since then, I have tried to have a weekly practice, usually at my gym, first in Chapel Hill, then in Naples and eventually Madrid. During the Camino de Santiago, if there was a patch of grass after a day of walking, I would do some rough poses (a flow would be an overstatement). A tiny village I stopped at even had a little, hippie yoga studio, Project Brigid, and they had a marvelous class under the trees, by a gurgling stream, bliss.

During the lock down I used the Down Dog app, which is rather good, even in the free section, but like everything digital and remote, it does not come close to an in-person class.

Back in Florida, my gym is not doing group classes, so, missing yoga terribly I did some research and found a studio down the road: Anuttara Yoga.

This place is amazing, they have a huge patio and garden where they have classes. Classes have an attendance limit, we are all separated and apparently, they have invested in some state-of-the-art ventilation system. This is difficult to know because the room is hot, ridiculously hot.

Granted these are my first classes in a real yoga studio, as opposed to a gym, but I love the vibe. Obviously, unlike your local gym, a yoga studio is on a whole different level. While I am not a granola eating vegan flower child, I have nothing but respect for those who are, and I do love the philosophy, and the aesthetic.

Classes are an hour and half! In the aforementioned heated room. Did I say room? I meant oven. Although I have been practicing for seven years, I still consider myself a beginner. That, and I am as stiff as a brick, so I really struggle with my flexibility. My particular class is 45 minutes of Hatha yoga –traditional, engaging poses, breathing, etc. and 45 minutes Raja yoga. Contrary to Hatha, Raja is dis-engagement, holding your poses for longer periods, on the ground as opposed to standing up, it is almost meditative, if the feeling of almost ripping your muscles allows you to concentrate on your breathing, that is. The first couple of classes were tough, but with practice, I am focusing on my breathing and making the experience almost meditative.

For me, yoga is another step towards enlightenment, another part of the puzzle to improve, to be a more forgiving, more patient, wiser person. Technically yoga is the intersection of body, mind, and soul. I am working on it…

A good cup of coffee

Of course I have mentioned coffee many times before in this blog, but I have never dedicated a post to it. About bloody time, some of you might say.

As my friend Theo would say I am a bit of a late bloomer, at least on the coffee front, maybe because I did not hit my teenage years in Madrid but in London in the 80’s where a good cup of coffee was as unheard of as a sunny day. Ditto for university in Boston later that same decade. Although I do remember some memorable coffees in the Italian North End where a few cafés knew how to pull a solid espresso!

When I finally got back to Spain in the early 90’s, still young -mind you- then the coffee consumption crept in unannounced. You see, in Spain at mid morning everybody takes a coffee break, who was I not to enjoy a cup? Thus an addiction began.

I do not drink a lot of coffee, preferring to focus on quality over quantity. Normally it is just one a day, mid morning. While travelling, it will be at least a couple, one with breakfast and one mid morning. If I have lunch out, I might have an espresso to finish.

During my PhD, I would meet with my awesome Thesis Advisor a couple of times a week to go over my progress at UNC’s now defunct The Daily Grind, where they knew our orders by heart. Those coffees remain in my memory as some of the most enriching ever.

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

– T.S. Eliot

Relative to the rest of Europe, Spain does not have the best coffee. You see after our Civil War (1936 to 39) we had a rough famine through the 40’s while the rest of Europe was in WWII. We were lucky to be included in the Marshall Plan that helped us out. We had a scarcity of coffee so it was over roasted to increase flavor. Folks also drank chicory instead of coffee since this grows naturally in Spain and was widely available and much cheaper. Sometimes they mixed coffee and chicory (in proportions depending on what you could afford). A final trick was to add caramel to the coffee, again to push the flavor. All this means is that we got used to bad coffee, torrefacto. Nowadays this is not so much the case except if you go to a remote village where they still like it “old” style.

Another great coffee moment is Sunday after church, where I do not have any time limit on my coffee. In Florida I would go to Bad Ass Coffee next to St. Ann’s, although eventually I moved to The Brick for the more comfy sofas to read on. Here in Madrid I go to the wonderful Pancomido Café where the girls know me enough to prepare my coffee when they see me walking in!

More important than the coffee itself might be the coffee time: a time of reflection, or reading, or of company, and conversation. The ceremony of coffee whether at home, or at a coffee shop is also equally important; taking the time to enjoy a coffee alone or with a friend.

 

Mind, body, and soul, meditation, exercise, and yoga and more (not in any order)

Read good books, life is too short to read trash!!

Read good books, life is too short to read trash!!

Going to church, any church will boost your soul

Going to church, any church will boost your soul

A walk in the mountains

A walk in the mountains

Last outdoor meditation of the day

Last outdoor meditation of the day

A simple cell in a monastery helps you focus

A simple cell in a monastery helps you focus

The Camino will change your life. Source: Club Renfe magazine

The Camino will change your life. Source: Club Renfe magazine

High fiving all around

High fiving all around

Practicing Yoga on the Camino, wonderful session!

Practicing Yoga on the Camino, wonderful session!

Richard Rohr's wonderful lessons

Richard Rohr’s wonderful lessons

For a few years, since 2010 to be precise, I have been actively seeking inner peace, not just talking about it with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other, looking at the stars. It is only with breakage that one slowly lets go of the ego and matures through Kierkegaard’s three stages that we have seen before (the aesthetic, the ethic and the spiritual). I believe that all of philosophy and religion is based on understanding the existence of the ego and separating from it. We see it in the Stoics, in Jesus, Buddha, good literature, etc. etc.

With my divorce and the life changes brought about by that trauma, I started seeking solace and understanding. My knee-jerk, basically subconscious, reaction was going to church on Sunday– and have not missed a Sunday since (maybe a couple but only for reasons of force majeure). Other organic resolutions were to crank my exercise, to work with a therapist, starting with the amazing Dr. Nemser and others since, and volunteering. I started reading Scripture every night, and speaking of reading, I started seeking more profound books. Then I got hooked on Richard Rohr’s daily meditation. Then I started yoga. With time I started meditating, then came walking the pilgrimage to Santiago (I can’t wait for my fourth this Summer) eventually, back in Spain, my retreats to El Paular Monastery and starting a gratitude diary. Has it worked? All I can say is that I am happy to be on this path.

All these actions have gradually made me know myself better, which is to say my mental construct of myself: my ego. Understanding this is the first step in breaking away from that tyrant. You see, we are born ego-less, just living the moment, enjoying life. This is what Paul Tillich calls the Ground of Being, where we will return -hopefully- just before dying (if this is of interest, I recommend Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying). Then as we grow up we develop a strong sense of self, necessary to establish oneself as an independent being. This is one of the reasons I love teaching adolescents when this ego creation is on full blast. Once we establish ourselves we don’t really need the ego any more, but we stick with it, most of us until we die. Only through trauma, breakage, do we realize that the ego is not necessary, in which case we start to let go of it. That is where I find myself.

The church part is easy, you just go. While I do not necessarily enjoy all the dogma, I do enjoy the chance to reflect, the ceremony, the sermon if it is good and eventually the community. In fact, my church in Boston, Our Lady of Victories and here in Madrid, San Fermín de los Navarros both asked me to participate more actively by reading or being an altar helper. This tiny contribution to the community goes a long way in making one feel helpful.

I started seriously meditating in 2016. It is painful to quiet the mind –the ego- by making it sit still for twenty minutes, but eventually you manage. The trick is to be very still and focus on your breathing: feeling it, visualizing it, maybe quietly reciting a mantra to help you focus on the breathing. I use the Insight Timer app and it really helps and motivates.

The gratitude diary works like this:

  • Monday: write three good things that happened over the weekend.
  • Tuesday: Write about a good moment in your life.
  • Wednesday: Set a task and accomplish it!
  • Thursday: Write a letter (in your diary, or you can send it) to someone you are grateful for.
  • Friday: Write three good things that happened during the week.
  • Saturday and Sunday are off.

About the life changing experience that is the Camino de Santiago I have already waxed poetic many other times on this blog, so scroll down to read it!!

The Yoga bit is really enriching. As opposed to the US where Yoga is basically a workout, my teacher in Madrid, embraces it as it should be: a way of life, a philosophy. So there are lots of breathing exercises and meditation, and in between some movement ashanas. When a class is not available I use the Down Dog app on my phone

Last weekend I again managed to escape to El Paular Monastery to spend four days with the Benedictine monks. This is as simple a life as you will ever live. Praying five times a day, walking in the mountains, eating in silence, working in the monastery, meditating. If you get a chance to do a retreat, do not hesitate, the silence is worth it!!

In conclusion, yes, I am in the search for spirituality. Many folks say we they are in spiritual journeys, the truth is more that they are spiritual beings in human journeys.

 

 

Camino de Santiago #3 Camino del Norte

People start the Camino de Santiago for all sorts of reasons: adventure, self-improvement, fitness, spending time with their partners or friends, personal growth, finding oneself, etc. Upon finishing my third Camino, I have found that my main reason is a spiritual one – which by the way was the original purpose of the pilgrimage.

This year I did the Camino del Norte which  “officially” starts on the Spanish border with France at Irún. I crossed the Bidasoa river that separates the two countries, had a coffee in France, got my first stamp on my Credencial (the pilgrim’s “passport” that gets stamped along the way) and so got my official start in France, how is that for one-upmanship? or just for snobbery! This Camino then goes all along the North shore of Spain until turning in at Ribadeo to finish at Santiago.

Technically this is the second oldest Camino. When European Christians first started going to visit the tomb of the Apostol James in Santiago they either took a boat to one of the nearby ports in Galicia or to Oviedo and then cut inland to Santiago – that is the Camino Primitivo. Then came the coastal route, and when the Moors had been pushed South enough, pilgrims started going along the interior of the country on much easier terrain than the constant hills of the coast, this would become the Camino Francés, the most popular and most long-lasting Camino.

Now, before I continue let me point out that specially the Camino del Norte is a bit of a scam. You see, the Camino really was abandoned in the XX Century. In 1978 there were only three recorded pilgrims arriving in Santiago. Then in the ’90s it came back into fashion with younger people going on this route of self discovery. With increased popularity regional governments needed to re-mark and really re-establish the Camino. For the northern route this was difficult since the medieval paths that would unite villages along the valleys were now taken over by roads, so especially the Basque and Cantabria governments reinvented the Camino as a hiking route over hills and mountains where medieval pilgrims would never have set foot as they would have been eaten by wolves, bears and/or assaulted by bandits!

My Camino was glorious. The first day it crests a long mountain with amazing views of the sea and of the valley inland, finishing in San Sebastian, one of Spain’s prettiest towns and with the best food in the world. The second day it rained, and on a difficult descent, with wet socks I hurt both of my big toenails. This would be a bit of an issue for the rest of the Camino, but you do need some suffering in order to fully enjoy the Camino!

The Camino del Norte is known for it’s beauty. You walk between gorgeous beaches to verdant valleys day in and day out, through postcard perfect villages and some of the prettiest cities in Spain: San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón… The down side, if it can be called that, is that there is little variety as compared to the Camino Francés which changes topography constantly from the wooded hills of Navarra to the dry tableau of Palencia. The Camino del Norte also lacks the spiritual “weight” of the Francés with it’s open churches, pilgrim’s masses, etc.

I can’t wait to finish the few days left of this Camino and get started on the Primitivo…

Prepping for El Camino

Despite the fact that this is going to be my third Camino, it is still as exciting as the first, I guess it must be the expectation of adventure. So here are some thoughts and advice on preparing for the Camino:

Knowing that the pilgrimage to Santiago has been around for centuries (there was a pagan trek to Finisterre (the end of the world in Latin) before Christianity modified it to their needs) means that it can be done – and should be done with minimum amount of technology, help, etc. For me the Camino is a return to basics, so I do not book hotels, I do not use a phone app, nor use high tech clothes (other than shoes). This allows for a freer mind.

Because of this minimalist approach I do not have to worry about packing: just 3 pairs each of socks, underwear, shorts, T-shirts, a poncho, a sweatshirt, flip flops, Marseille soap for body and laundry, dopp kit, swiss army knife, water bottle, hat, walking stick, sunglasses, little else actually.

A more pressing issue for me is what to read on the Camino. There are at least a couple of schools of thought: one is to read something that has nothing to do with your journey. The second is to read something germane with your trip. I am in the second camp. My first outing I read a book on the parable of Abraham and Isaac and the Book of Job. On my second outing I re-read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, that fellow pilgrim James gave me on the first outing! This year I had a few options: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which I finally have in French, Kathleen Dowling Singh The Grace in Dying, and finally the chosen option The Way of Ignatius, A Prayer Journey Through Lent, by Gemma Simmonds who was my sister’s teacher in school! Granted, Lent is over, but one should always be ready for a “prayer journey”.

As important as the kit is the actual physical preparation. This year I also had to break in new shoes, so I killed two proverbial birds with one proverbial stone: breaking in new shoes and training. The trick is to slowly add miles and weight to your pack in training with the goal of breaking in the shoes and your back!! This year I did a few solo outings and one with a couple of friends – and their dog – in nearby El Pardo natural park.

This week I bought my train ticket to Irún and a pair of socks (to replace a lost pair), but these are no ordinary socks, 60% Merino wool, no seams, and cushion. The original ones were Darn Tough socks from Vermont, this pair is Icebreaker from New Zealand.

The final details involve getting stuff done before leaving for a month, and getting the last items purchased and prepared. Follow my Instagram (Tonxob) or Facebook (tonxo balson) for daily photo uploads of the trip, starting June 3…

Camino de Santiago #3 The North Route

Repeat pilgrims of the Camino number their Caminos by sorties, not by completed Caminos. That means that I have done two Caminos although I have only completed one, since I did it in two parts. So for veteran pilgrims, I am no preparing to embark on my third Camino!

Also I must apologize for my recent silence, I have been immersed in a project you will soon learn about. But now back to the Camino…

Being a freelancer nowadays means that I can take the whole month of June for my walkabout. After much consideration: De la plata (from Seville), Portugués (yeap, from Lisbon), Aragonés (from the Pyrenees), I settled on the Norte: all along the breathtaking North Shore of Spain, starting in Hendaye in France.

Over the last three years people have asked me why I do the Camino. The answer is multi faceted, but the main one is being far from the madding crowd (thanks Mr. Hardy), alone, in silence, in a state of almost constant meditation, meeting people from all over the world and sharing the walk and meals (and yes, the bathrooms and bunk beds) with them, getting to know this wonderful country more and more intimately, taking part in something much bigger and far older! than oneself. Finally it is the physical bit, the sport, the personal challenge of walking every day for days. As I have said before in this blog, the Camino is what the world should be like. So much so, I think I might be addicted to the Camino!! I will keep you posted on my adventures.

Source: Club Renfe magazine

Source: Club Renfe magazine

A (much needed) silence and meditation retreat.

The last few months have been a bit challenging, so when the opportunity came to spend a few days in the Monasterio de El Paular in a retreat of silence and meditation, I jumped.

I have written before about El Paular, it’s magic and the wonderful monks since I have visited every summer for a few years,  But I had never spent more than a couple of hours there. Since I returned to Spain in the Fall, I called the monk in charge of retreats, the Guest Master, but could never find the right timing. Finally I chose a weekend with no other people staying over, and headed for the mountains…

Although the monastery is less than two hours away from Madrid, it feels a world away, as one has to go up the Guadarrama mountains (that would be where Hemingway based his For Whom the Bell Tolls) and down the other side. When I went, the mountains were all snowed, fortunately the road was clear, so I did enjoy a good drive up and down.

Once you enter the Monastery you notice your blood pressure drops and your serenity reaches levels you did not know were possible. You get a simple cell with a bed, a desk, a proper bathroom and amazing views of the mountains. I was free until vísperas (vespers) at 8pm so I went for a walk. My first steps of that walk where a rush, a tsunami of peace. In fact, it took a while to accept the silence as a companion.

As I mentioned in my posts about the Camino de Santiago, Medieval folk had a real spiritual affinity for choosing where to put churches, chapels or monasteries. This one is flanked by a gorgeous river and many streams which were running full during my visit. It is also at the base of the mountain, making it a very secure location. According to Feng Shui, if you were to draw a dragon using the available landscape, the best – and safest – place to build would be where the dragon’s genitals would be, that is where El Paular sits.

As advised by the Guest Master, I arrived early for Vísperas prayer. All 5 (6 when there is mass) daily prayers take place in a very cozy square chapel off of the cloister. The prayer breaks down into singing and speaking and into Latin and Spanish, but that really does not matter, as what matters is the repetition of the prayers that make the event magical.

Dinner comes right after vespers and happens in silence. A monk serves you and you eat while another monk reads a religious text. After special meals, the Abbot rings a little bell and you are allowed to speak, but not to get up from the table!

The final prayer, Completas (Compline) is a at ten, and you must keep silence until after Maitines (Maitins) at 6:30am the next day. You pray Laudes at 8am and have breakfast right after. Then the monks might have communal work. When I was there we had to clean up the monk’s tombs in the cloister and plant pansies that would withstand the cold. It was nippy out in the cloister, but the sun was shining and soon warmed us up. The work was rewarding as Abbot Miguel regaled us with stories of the dead monks and other folks buried there: an American fellow who was very fond of the monastery, or a child who drowned nearby, all very touching. After our work we snuck into to kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and madeleines made by the monks. I still had time for a walk in the forest before Sexta (Sext) and lunch.

And so the hours and the days pass: meditating, walking, eating in silence and praying. The weekend I was there the monks were celebrating Saint Scholastica, the sister of the founder of the Benedictine order. I had never heard of her, but her motto is very moving, something like whoever loves more has more power (más puede quien más ama) which became one of the cornerstones of my meditation while at the monastery. Once it got dark I would walk around and around the magnificent cloister which is surrounded by massive Vicente Carducho paintings (I think I will devote a blog post just for that bit…).

It is difficult to explain the monastic experience. The concept of time is totally different from that in the outside world, actually, outside might be the key word there as in the monastery it is all about inside you, your inner beauty, your inner holiness, your inner time, your inner everything!

On my last day I had a nice chat in the library with one of the senior monks. His advice to me? Empty yourself, a process the ancient Greeks called kenosis and something I have been working on since it was also recommended by Richard Rohr in his daily meditations.

Leaving the monks and the monastery was very sad, entering back into the crazy world we have created was tough, but I know I will be back to spend some of that special time with the monks at El Paular.