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.

Summer excursion

The other day my dear friend and fine art restorer extraordinaire took me on a whirlwind excursion to see some of his recent work. We took the opportunity to enjoy a nice lunch and ended by visiting our friends at the Paular monastery and to check up on them with the whole pandemic to-do.

Our day started with our traditional morning coffee at our local village café/bar/restaurant/social center: Marcelino. From there we drove over the Guadarrama mountains (yes, the ones where Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls is based) to the lovely village of Rascafría. We had a leisurely lunch at a cool garden restaurant “La Pradera” (the natural translation “prairie” has taken the American meaning and spirit, being much larger than a Spanish “pradera” which is more of a field, but enough etymologies, and translation theory!)

After lunch we drove to the small village of Canencia. The root Can from the Latin “canis” for dog (oh no, back to etymologies) is because this village is where the kings’ dogs where bred during the Middle Ages. Jaime restored the gorgeous Gothic pulpit at the church last year. A stone’s throw away from the village is a very elegant Medieval stone bridge.

A short drive away is the town of Lozoya. A manorial village as testified by the many coat of arms decorating entrances. The main door of the church is in a beautiful Plateresco style, which is unique to Spain because it keeps the Gothic style but incorporates Renaissance elements. Jaime is scheduled to restore the pulpit there, a delicate Renaissance piece.

A tiny hamlet nearby is Pinilla del Valle, again with a lovely old church and town square. Jaime is working to secure the restoration of the portico of the church, damaged through the centuries.

We ended our excursion visiting our dear friends the monks at the Paular monastery. They are all fine, including the oldest ones. We snuck in for a quick visit. You see, Jaime restored that monastery from scratch years ago, so he knows it well and I have gone on two retreats there -as you might know from previous posts, so I also know it a bit.

After that visit, it was time to head home over the mountains.

El Paular Monastery

(There is a previous post on El Paular. This one is a bit more detailed and touches on different themes, most importantly, spirituality.)

Every trip to El Paular monastery is gift, a spiritual gift.

A few years ago, Jaime, my oldest childhood friend, took me to see what had been his first professional restoration job in the late 80s: the Monasterio de El Paular, nestled in the Guadarrama Mountains. Although many years had passed, he was still friends with the Abbot and with a few of the monks there. The drive was breathtaking; over the Navacerrada pass and down Cotos, not far from where Hemingway had based his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Brother Eulogio is getting old and frail, but his faith, his spirituality is still resolute. After working at the Vespa scooter factory in Madrid, he decided to become a monk at El Paular. He has been there for fifty odd years, since his 20s. We did not know what to expect, he had been in hospital for a stint.

The monastery has a long history dating back to medieval times. Apparently there was a hermit living there before the monastery was built by the Carthusian order in the 1300s. The placement could not be any more beautiful, between a crystalline stream and the mountains, with a huge vegetable garden and orchard. The energy flow, the calm and beauty would not have passed unaccounted for anyone, regardless of the era.

By my calculations, following the geographical clues, the Arcipreste de Hita’s Serranas section of the Libro de Buen Amor should pass by the Monastery, since he mentions Somosierra and Lozoya on his way to Segovia. There could not have been much of a place to pass other than the Monastery.

The first time I went to El Paular, the Abbot treated us to lunch with the brothers in the modern but humble, functional, refectory. The gorgeous original is only used for Christmas dinner, when they have many guests. It was then that I met brother Eulogio for the first time. I remember vividly his first question: “Do you have faith?” To which I mumbled/chuckled something to the effect of “I’m working on it”. Then he went off on a tirade on the state of modern faith, his thin, strong frame acting as an exclamation mark for his statements.

In 1779 Enlightenment writer Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos stayed at the Monastery for a retreat/convalescence writing what scholars consider the seed of Spanish Romantic poetry, the Epístola del Paular, which you can find at the end of the post…

After lunch Eulogio took Jaime and I for a walk on the huge fruit and vegetable garden. It is so big that they have hired a company to run and sell their produce, but only after the monks take what they need. During the walk, Eulogio referred repeatedly to feelings I had that needed answers to, he hit the spot on the need and importance of a “higher presence” in our lives – subtly connecting this need to the beauty around us. Eulogio looks like a closet Franciscan. From that visit, and that conversation I have always wanted to return to El Paular to continue my conversations with Eulogio. So every time Jaime mentions a visit, I jump at the opportunity.

The Church in Spain had so much power that for centuries it rivaled the government in its sway of the citizens. So in the 1800s Prime Minister Mendizabal took over and sold many, if not most of the Church’s properties, El Paular was abandoned, the massive Vicente Carducho paintings lining the cloister walls were grabbed by museums and collectors looking out for Mendizábal’s garage sales.

For years Eulogio’s job at the Monastery had been to handle the weddings that took place in the church. Only a couple of hours North of Madrid, it is an idyllic setting for a romantic wedding. However, Eulogio does not fit into the “cute” monk idea popularized by Hollywood. He would question the couples on their love, their reasons for marriage, their commitment.

During the Civil War, 1936 to 1939 the abandoned monastery served as a makeshift military barracks for troops. The graffiti left there was not painted over during the restoration process as it gives further historical context to the Monastery.

Last year we also made the drive to visit Eulogio, but we did not stay for lunch, as we wanted to ride and hike to explore the mountains surrounding the Monastery.

After the Civil War, General Franco, seeking to restore the Monastery, brought in some Benedictine monks who continue to this day. In the late 70s the government built a luxury hotel next door to the Monastery, profiting from the ideal location, the tourist influx, and the weddings that were held in the beautiful church of the Monastery. After changing hands a number of times between luxury hotel operators, it now rests abandoned.

My thirst for Eulogio’s spiritual wisdom comes from my realization in 2010 of the powerful inter-connectedness of the universe, of which we are as much a part of as a blade of grass, as a distant star. But to get to that point one must let go of the ego, of that which we think we are, and simply be. Easier said than done. Richard Rohr explains it in the context of the ancient Greek word of self-emptying: “kenosis, an emptying out of the contents of awareness so that one becomes oneself an empty vessel, a broken vessel, a void that lies open before God and finds itself filled with God’s own life. This gift of God is revealed to be the ground and root of our very existence. It is our own true self.”

This, of course, is not a new concept, it is embraced by Buddhism and Hinduism, and by early Christianity. 18th Century philosopher Kierkegaard wrote about the Three Stages of Life: the Aesthetic when our lives are dominated by the ego necessary to gain independence from our parents and establish ourselves in the world, everything is superficial. The Ethical where we concern ourselves with what is right and what is wrong, and finally – if we are lucky – and only through a process of “breaking” does one reach the Religious Stage where one realizes that our lives are a part of a much bigger, interconnected picture. Unfortunately for many people, they do not overcome the Aesthetic stage, refusing to release the ego and embrace the universe, the oneness.

This summer, Jaime and I made our pilgrimage to El Paular only a few days after I had finished my own Pilgrimage of The Camino de Santiago (see earlier posts) so I was primed and ready for conversing with Eulogio. He did not disappoint. As soon as we arrived, the Abbot invited us to stay for lunch in the garden. We had plenty of time to walk around the monastery and the garden and talk. And talk we did, about the importance of prayer, of meditation, of being in the presence of God, of a higher power, an energy.

After mid-day prayers at the chapel we headed for the garden where a wonderful meal awaited. I sat next to Eulogio and enjoyed his wisdom, wisecracks and complaints about the food!

El Paular does host visitors that want to spend time with the monks in retreat, so I am considering spending some time with them next time I am in Spain.

 

Epístola de Jovino a Anfriso escrita desde El Paular  (Epístola desde El Paular)

(Jovellanos)

Desde el oculto y venerable asilo,

do la virtud austera y penitente

vive ignorada, y del liviano mundo

huida, en santa soledad se esconde,

Jovino triste al venturoso Anfriso

salud en versos flébiles envía.

Salud le envía a Anfriso, al que inspirado

de las mantuanas Musas, tal vez suele

al grave son de su celeste canto

precipitar del viejo Manzanares

el curso perezoso, tal süave

suele ablandar con amorosa lira

la altiva condición de sus zagalas.

¡Pluguiera a Dios, oh Anfriso, que el cuitado

a quien no dio la suerte tal ventura

pudiese huir del mundo y sus peligros!

¡Pluguiera a Dios, pues ya con su barquilla

logró arribar a puerto tan seguro,

que esconderla supiera en este abrigo,

a tanta luz y ejemplos enseñado!

Huyera así la furia tempestuosa

de los contrarios vientos, los escollos

y las fieras borrascas, tantas veces

entre sustos y lágrimas corridas.

Así también del mundanal tumulto

lejos, y en estos montes guarecido,

alguna vez gozara del reposo,

que hoy desterrado de su pecho vive.

Mas, ¡ay de aquél que hasta en el santo asilo

de la virtud arrastra la cadena,

la pesada cadena, con que el mundo

oprime a sus esclavos! ¡Ay del triste

en cuyo oído suena con espanto,

por esta oculta soledad rompiendo,

de su señor el imperioso grito!

Busco en estas moradas silenciosas

el reposo y la paz que aquí se esconden,

y sólo encuentro la inquietud funesta

que mis sentidos y razón conturba.

Busco paz y reposo, pero en vano

los busco, oh caro Anfriso, que estos dones,

herencia santa que al partir del mundo

dejó Bruno en sus hijos vinculada,

nunca en profano corazón entraron,

ni a los parciales del placer se dieron.

Conozco bien que fuera de este asilo

sólo me guarda el mundo sinrazones,

vanos deseos, duros desengaños,

susto y dolor; empero todavía

a entrar en él no puedo resolverme.

No puedo resolverme, y despechado,

sigo el impulso del fatal destino,

que a muy más dura esclavitud me guía.

Sigo su fiero impulso, y llevo siempre

por todas partes los pesados grillos,

que de la ansiada libertad me privan.

De afán y angustia el pecho traspasado,

pido a la muda soledad consuelo

y con dolientes quejas la importuno.

Salgo al ameno valle, subo al monte,

sigo del claro río las corrientes,

busco la fresca y deleitosa sombra,

corro por todas partes, y no encuentro

en parte alguna la quietud perdida.

¡Ay, Anfriso, qué escenas a mis ojos,

cansados de llorar, presenta el cielo!

Rodeado de frondosos y altos montes

se extiende un valle, que de mil delicias

con sabia mano ornó Naturaleza.

Pártele en dos mitades, despeñado

de las vecinas rocas, el Lozoya,

por su pesca famoso y dulces aguas.

Del claro río sobre el verde margen

crecen frondosos álamos, que al cielo

ya erguidos , alzan las plateadas copas,

o ya sobre las aguas encorvados,

en mil figuras miran con asombro

su forma en los cristales retratada.

De la siniestra orilla un bosque ombrío

hasta la falda del vecino monte

se extiende, tan ameno y delicioso,

que le hubiera juzgado el gentilismo

morada de algún dios, o a los misterios

de las silvanas dríadas guardado.

Aquí encamino mis inciertos pasos,

y en su recinto ombrío y silencioso,

mansión la más conforme para un triste,

entro a pensar en mi cruel destino.

La grata soledad, la dulce sombra,

el aire blando y el silencio mudo

mi desventura y mi dolor adulan .

No alcanza aquí del padre de las luces

el rayo acechador, ni su reflejo

viene a cubrir de confusión el rostro

de un infeliz en su dolor sumido.

El canto de las aves no interrumpe

aquí tampoco la quietud de un triste,

pues sólo de la viuda tortolilla

se oye tal vez el lastimero arrullo,

tal vez el melancólico trinado

de la angustiada y dulce Filomena.

Con blando impulso el céfiro süave,

las copas de los árboles moviendo,

recrea el alma con el manso ruido;

mientras al dulce soplo desprendidas

las agostadas hojas, revolando,

bajan en lentos círculos al suelo;

cúbrenle en torno, y la frondosa pompa

que al árbol adornara en primavera,

yace marchita, y muestra los rigores

del abrasado estío y seco otoño.

¡Así también de juventud lozana

pasan, oh Anfriso, las livianas dichas!

Un soplo de inconstancia, de fastidio

o de capricho femenil las tala

y lleva por el aire, cual las hojas

de los frondosos árboles caídas.

Ciegos empero y tras su vana sombra

de contino exhalados, en pos de ellas

corremos hasta hallar el precipicio,

do nuestro error y su ilusión nos guían.

Volamos en pos de ellas, como suele

volar a la dulzura del reclamo

incauto el pajarillo. Entre las hojas

el preparado visco le detiene;

lucha cautivo por huir, y en vano,

porque un traidor, que en asechanza atisba,

con mano infiel la libertad le roba

y a muerte le condena, o cárcel dura.

¡Ah, dichoso el mortal de cuyos ojos

un pronto desengaño corrió el velo

de la ciega ilusión! ¡Una y mil veces

dichoso el solitario penitente,

que, triunfando del mundo y de sí mismo,

vive en la soledad libre y contento!

Unido a Dios por medio de la santa

contemplación, le goza ya en la tierra,

y retirado en su tranquilo albergue,

observa reflexivo los milagros

de la naturaleza, sin que nunca

turben el susto ni el dolor su pecho.

Regálanle las aves con su canto

mientras la aurora sale refulgente

a cubrir de alegría y luz el mundo.

Nácele siempre el sol claro y brillante,

y nunca a él levanta conturbados

sus ojos, ora en el oriente raye,

ora del cielo a la mitad subiendo

en pompa guíe el reluciente carro,

ora con tibia luz, más perezoso,

su faz esconda en los vecinos montes.

Cuando en las claras noches cuidadoso

vuelve desde los santos ejercicios,

la plateada luna en lo más alto

del cielo mueve la luciente rueda

con augusto silencio; y recreando

con blando resplandor su humilde vista,

eleva su razón, y la dispone

a contemplar la alteza y la inefable

gloria del Padre y Criador del mundo.

Libre de los cuidados enojosos,

que en los palacios y dorados techos

nos turban de contino, y entregado

a la inefable y justa Providencia,

si al breve sueño alguna pausa pide

de sus santas tareas, obediente

viene a cerrar sus párpados el sueño

con mano amiga, y de su lado ahuyenta

el susto y las fantasmas de la noche.

¡Oh suerte venturosa, a los amigos

de la virtud guardada! ¡Oh dicha, nunca

de los tristes mundanos conocida!

¡O monte impenetrable! ¡Oh bosque ombrío!

¡Oh valle deleitoso! ¡Oh solitaria

taciturna mansión! ¡Oh quién, del alto

y proceloso mar del mundo huyendo

a vuestra eterna calma, aquí seguro

vivir pudiera siempre, y escondido!

Tales cosas revuelvo en mi memoria,

en esta triste soledad sumido.

Llega en tanto la noche y con su manto

cobija el ancho mundo. Vuelvo entonces

a los medrosos claustros. De una escasa

luz el distante y pálido reflejo

guía por ellos mis inciertos pasos;

y en medio del horror y del silencio,

¡oh fuerza del ejemplo portentosa!,

mi corazón palpita, en mi cabeza

se erizan los cabellos, se estremecen

mis carnes y discurre por mis nervios

un súbito rigor que los embarga.

Parece que oigo que del centro oscuro

sale una voz tremenda, que rompiendo

el eterno silencio, así me dice:

“Huye de aquí, profano, tú que llevas

de ideas mundanales lleno el pecho,

huye de esta morada, do se albergan

con la virtud humilde y silenciosa

sus escogidos; huye y no profanes

con tu planta sacrílega este asilo.”

De aviso tal al golpe confundido,

con paso vacilante voy cruzando

los pavorosos tránsitos, y llego

por fin a mi morada, donde ni hallo

el ansiado reposo, ni recobran

la suspirada calma mis sentidos.

Lleno de congojosos pensamientos

paso la triste y perezosa noche

en molesta vigilia , sin que llegue

a mis ojos el sueño, ni interrumpan

sus regalados bálsamos mi pena.

Vuelve por fin con la risueña aurora

la luz aborrecida, y en pos de ella

el claro día a publicar mi llanto

y dar nueva materia al dolor mío.