Bridges across the Camino and across the world

Bridges. We cross them routinely, often barely noticing they are there. Yet without them, we would have to take long and circuitous detours or make dangerous crossings. So I like to pause sometimes and reflect on the bridge builders, whether physical or metaphorical, and nod my thanks to them for making my journey easier and safer.

Many kinds of bridges

In my working life, I would, at least once a year, board a plane and fly across the globe to talk face-to-face with my counterparts in other countries. And each time I was asked, why not just do a video conference with them? Why do I have to meet them face-to-face? My answer had variations on a theme. And that theme was about building firm relationships between the people of that country and our own. It was only partly about the exchange of formal information, but it was far more about building trust. And that trust was built by sharing a meal, having a joke, by spending informal time with them. And in that process, walking a little in their shoes, and they in mine.

In many ways, the aircraft formed a bridge between our cultures, just as surely as if I had walked across a physical bridge from one side of a river to the other, as pilgrims have done on the Camino for a thousand years. As you enter Santiago de Compostela, you will see inscribed in brass letters the phrase “Europe was built on the pilgrim road to Santiago.” Similarly, I have written elsewhere about the painter Van Gogh and the way he built his own bridge to the print-makers of Japan – notably Hiroshige. The influence of those Japanese prints transformed how painters like Van Gogh saw the world, by literally gaining a new perspective.

Van Gogh’s bridges

I built my own bridge to Van Gogh’s work by seeing the bridges that inspired him in Arles (also a starting point for one of the Camino routes) – the railway bridge near the Yellow House, and the Langlois Bridge across the canal, as well as the Edo Bridge in Tokyo, through seeing the replica in the Edo-Tokyo Museum which inspired Hiroshige, and then Van Gogh.

pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Why are bridges special?

Bridges are special places, whether a few flat stones used to cross a stream, perhaps placed in Neolithic times, or stone spans built by Roman engineers 2000 years ago, or by later medieval builders, and modern freeway spans and great suspension bridges. They are special because they help us cross over. They help us cross safely from here to there over an abyss or a raging torrent, across an absence of firm ground.

Bridges are a place between places, and once you step onto a bridge, you too, are, for that moment, in between. Once you step onto that bridge, you have left your safe homeland, and you are already on that journey to the next place, to another culture, or another town or village. Bridges enable you to do this despite the storm or the deep water, or the treacherous ford.

Where walls enclose “us” from “them”, bridges make more people into “us”. The idea of Europe was made possible because a very significant number of people had for a thousand years crossed national borders and walked as global citizens, until there was enough inter-mixing of cultures to enable Europeans to imagine an “us” that stretched beyond mere national boundaries. Recently those ideas have come to be challenged, with some talking of building walls, and others retreating behind a moat. So it was significant that Pope Francis re-emphasised that it is better to build bridges than walls. What he was saying is that it is better for people to be connected and to build understanding with each other, than to retreat into a narrow, nationalistic view of society. And the evidence of this lies on the pilgrim road to Santiago. So important were bridges to the Romans and early Christians that the Pope even holds a special title: ‘The Great Bridge Builder’ – Pontifex Maximus – or Pontiff for short.

Bridges on the Camino Frances

For medieval pilgrims en route to Santiago in Spain, the journey was long and difficult – even more so than it is today. There were regular toll collectors, who often charged extortionate rates – even though they were only supposed to charge merchants. There were many rivers to cross, either by treacherous fords, by ferries, or on half-maintained Roman bridges. And at times there were bands of thieves lying in wait at the crossing points for unwary and road-weary travellers.

Puenta la Reina

Puenta la Reina

The town is named after the so-called ‘Queen’s Bridge’ – Puenta la Reina. It was originally commissioned by Queen Dona Mayor, wife of Sancho III in the late C11th, as pilgrims had long complained that the river crossing was dangerous at the best of times, and impassable at worst.

 

Puenta la Reina

Here at the confluence of the French Way and the Arragonne Way, Pilgrims had also suffered from bands of robbers. When it was built, the bridge had three defensive towers, one of which featured the Renaissance image of the Virgin of Puy, or Txori (meaning ‘bird’ in the Basque language), which is kept in the parish church of St. Peter.

According to the Navarra tourist guide page, there is a story:

“…that a bird used to visit the image every day, removing the cobwebs with its wings and washing the Virgin’s face with its beak after collecting water from the river Arga.”

This is one of the best maintained of the finest medieval bridges in Spain. And it remains in use to this day – though just for pedestrian traffic. One of the remaining defensive towers can be seen at the town end of the bridge.

Roman bridge

Roman bridge

Not far out of Puenta la Reina there is a small Roman bridge, still in use today, albeit that it is in poor condition and is approached down a steep and rocky path suitable only for foot traffic.

Burgos

Burgos

At the entrance to the city of Burgos, lies the Puenta de Santa Maria which dates back to the C14th. You can still see the impressive Arco de Santa Maria or St Mary’s Arch – a defensive structure forming one of the original gates of the city, and part of the original city wall. This city marks the start of Stage VI of the Codex Calixtinus – the medieval codex on which the UNESCO world heritage route of the Camino Frances was based.

Bridge of Arre de Trinidad

Bridge of Arre de Trinidad

The medieval bridge over the Rio Ulzama (a tributary of the River Arga) leads to possibly the oldest continuously operating albergue – part of the medieval monastery and hospice of the Basilica de la Sanctisima Trinidad de Arre. The hamlet has been a strategic crossing point for the river since Roman times and the place is rich in history.

Puenta de Orbigo

Puente de Orbigo

Puenta de Orbigo is one of the longest medieval bridges in Spain, built in the C13th and crossing the floodplain of the Rio Orbigo. The bridge is built on the foundations of an earlier Roman bridge. The town on the far side is called Hospital de Orbigo. – the latter named after the Knights Hospitaller of St John who built a pilgrim’s hospital there. The long causeway leading onto the bridge is known as the Paso Honroso or ‘path of honour’ named for a jousting tournament that took place there in 1434. The story behind it is in the classic Romance chivalry tradition:

“In the Holy Year of 1434 a knight from Leon, Don Suero de Quiñones, scorned by a beautiful woman, threw down the gauntlet to any knight who dared to pass as he undertook to defend the bridge against all comers. Knights came from all over Europe to take up the challenge. Don Suero successfully defended the bridge for a month until the required 300 lances had been broken, and his honour restored. Whereupon he proceeded to Santiago to give thanks for his freedom from the bonds of love.” – Brierley’s Guide

This story may have been part of the inspiration behind Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Nonetheless, this bridge and its Roman predecessor formed part of the cattle route to the coast, facilitating trade and commerce along the route.

Santo Domingo – the Bridge Builder

Santo Domingo de la Calzada, (1020-1109  – Saint Dominic of the Roads – is said to have built one of the first stone bridges across the River Oja around 1044. He was known more as a civil engineer than as the monk to which he aspired, but his efforts in clearing forests and draining swamps as well as constructing bridges and roads on behalf of the pilgrims earned him his place in the pantheon. He, together with his contemporaries, St Gregorio Ostiense and San Juan de Ortega formed one of the first teams of engineers of roads and bridges. The story goes that they met together in Logroño around 1040 and decided to devote themselves to improving the path through La Rioja and Navarra for the pilgrims travelling to Santiago between La Calzada and Logroño.

By clearing the undergrowth there were fewer hiding places for thieves, the road would enable them to cross the swamp more easily, and the bridge across the River Oja completed the work. While there are historical records for the existence of Santo Domingo and San Juan de Ortega, there is little evidence that St Gregorio Ostiense actually existed – he appears to have been a convenient, if somewhat legendary, figure, to make the team a holy trinity.

Whatever the truth, there is little doubt that the efforts to upgrade the infrastructure in the C11th meant a safer passage for the pilgrims at a time when Sancho III was seeking to push the Moors further south and ultimately out of the Kingdom of Spain.

Sarria bridge

And with safer passage came pilgrims in their thousands, many settling along the road and establishing French towns (known as villafranca). And to service the growing number of pilgrims, larger churches and cathedrals were built – with particularly notable constructions of Burgos and Leon cathedrals – both masterful examples of French Gothic style. And in the process, they brought an exchange of ideas that transcended national boundaries, just as Van Gogh brought a Japanese aesthetic to Europe through a painting of a bridge, and in turn my own pilgrimage to Van Gogh’s places and to Santiago built a bridge between our modern world reaching back into the distant past.

 

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Packing for the Camino – Revisited

I had several comments on my previous Camino packing video, asking for a review once I had completed the Camino as to what worked and what didn’t work – and what would I take with me next time. So I have made a new video with this review in mind. My original pack was way too heavy – starting out at around 10kg. My new packing regime in light of my experience on the Camino has brought that weight down to just 6.35kg, which is far more manageable.

I’ll include my packing list below. But in the meantime, here is the video.

Lighten the clothes

I found that I had packed too many clothes last time, and didn’t account for the clothes I was wearing – I think it’s important to be able to go one full day without a clothes wash, as sometimes the weather won’t allow it to dry, or in some cases there aren’t the washing facilities to enable a full clothes wash.

Lighten the tech

I carried way too much tech on the Camino – the iPad, the travel hard drive and the camera all needed charging along with my phone. In the end, I found it was sufficient just to use the phone – oh and my camera. Next time I will leave the iPad and the travel hard drive at home, for a saving of 1.5kg. There are some who want to leave the phone behind too, but I like to have it for emergencies, and to book accommodation ahead where necessary. It is also a good way to stay in touch with family back home, who would worry about us on the road. The key thing is not be enslaved to the technology, but rather to have it available for use when needed. You can have peace of mind through having contact with others, as long as you are not glued to the screen when there are fellow pilgrims to meet and relate to.

Lighten the medical pack

I over-packed on blister care. You only need enough to last for a couple of days on the Camino as most larger towns have Farmacias (pharmacies or chemist shops), and many of the smaller places have automatic vending machines for blister care products, such as tape, band-aids, antiseptics, ibuprofen and paracetamol.

Lighten the ablutions

I found a solid bar shampoo – which washed my hair, my body and my clothes. Similarly, a pack of solid toothpaste tablets was much lighter than a tube of toothpaste – and lasted the whole Camino. You can be minimalist and still be hygienic 🙂

Little things that help

Safety pins – for hanging washing. The clothes won’t blow off the line, and if they’re still damp in the morning you can pin them to your pack to dry while you walk. And safety pins are lighter and less bulky than clothes pegs.

Fly-net – It was hard enough walking up the hills without choking on a fly determined to get some of your moisture. A fly-net over your hat can make walking much more comfortable!

Reflective tape – wrap it around your poles and on your pack to make yourself more visible to traffic in the dark – especially those early mornings. Several pilgrims have been killed because traffic did not see them.

elastic bands – keep your charging cables tidy, use them to keep bags rolled and clothes rolled within them. There are many uses for elastic bands!

spare zip-loc bags – to keep things waterproof (especially your credential and passport).

Camino pack

Camino pack

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Packing List

Your mileage may differ, but here is what I have settled on for my (revised) packing list. I’m happy for you to leave you constructive comments on anything I might have missed, or anything that you think was particularly worthwhile.

Backpack – Osprey 40-50 ltr, plus rain cover (medium)

Bum-bag – Active Leisure with two bottle pouches

Sleeping

  • padded sleeping bag liner (500g)
  • silk sleeping bag liner
  • blow up travel pillow (optional)

Clothes

  • one pair long trekking pants (and one to wear)
  • two merino base layers – long sleeve (and one to wear)
  • two pairs of hiking socks (and one to wear)
  • two pairs of sock liners (and one to wear)
  • one fleecy top long sleeve
  • one Goretex rain jacket
  • one pair waterproof overtrousers (optional)
  • one rain poncho (optional)
  • two pairs of mesh boxer shorts/underwear (and one to wear)
  • one sun hat
  • one merino beanie hat
  • one pair of gloves/cyclist fingerless gloves – for use with poles and/or for cold weather
  • one pair of ‘crocs’ sandals for evening wear
  • one pair of boots or trail runners – two sizes larger than your normal shoes

Trekking poles

  • one pair of poles – with rubber tips (NB: they are very cheap in most major towns along the Camino)

Water

  • your choice of water bottle, bladder or bottled water (the fountains are safe to drink from unless marked ‘agua non-potable’.)

Ablutions

  • one micro-fibre towel
  • one cake of solid shampoo
  • one bottle of toothpaste tablets
  • lightweight hair brush

Medicinals

  • tape and/or band-aids for blister care
  • antiseptic buds
  • sewing kit – needle and thread (for draining blisters)
  • ibuprofen (one card) painkillers
  • Imodium (one card) for upset stomach
  • vaseline
  • nail clippers
  • tweezers (in case of splinters or bee stings)
  • pocket pack of tissues
  • small sunblock lotion
  • hand sanitizer/wipes

Lavatory

  • one lightweight trowel (to bury one’s business)
  • some toilet tissue (in case of being caught short, or where toilet paper may be absent)
  • plastic bag – to dispose of used toilet tissue if used between formal toilets (don’t just leave it to blow around – bury it or carry it)

Tech (a personal choice)

  • phone with charging cable and plug (with Trek-Rite and Wise Pilgrim apps) and local SIM card or good roaming plan.
  • camera with charger and spare battery and SD cards
  • plug adapter
  • earphones
  • Headlamp (recommend 200 lumens)

Documents

  • Pilgrim credential
  • national passport
  • list of albergues with contact details and route/elevation chart (available at SJPdP)
  • visa card/wallet with some cash (ATMS not always available)

Utensils

  • lightweight knife and spork
  • corkscrew
  • 12 safety pins

Miscellaneous

  • Rock from home (for Cruz de Ferro)
  • notebook and pen (to exchange emails, make notes, record ideas etc)

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And that’s about it! Buen Camino 🙂

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If you’d like to read more about our Camino Frances in 2016, visit the index page here for all my Camino posts
or click on the link above 🙂

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12 Lessons I’ve learned on the Camino

It is now about 6 months since my wife and I completed our Camino Frances (time flies!), so it seems about time I took stock of some of the lessons I’ve learned and that I’ve gleaned from talking with other pilgrims. I have found most if not all of these to be things I’ve incorporated into my daily life.

Zero km marker
It’s important to know the ‘why’. This is one of the key lessons. Why do the Camino? I think this is the single most important factor in whether or not people complete their Camino. If you have that sorted, you will have what it takes to carry you through the hard bits – the difficult climb over the Pyrenees, or the long slog up to O Cebreiro, or to keep going when it’s raining and muddy underfoot and you are uncomfortable. It is all part of the journey. We met a few people who wound up not completing their Camino this time as they were not solid in why they were doing it, and so were unable to find the resolve within themselves to continue. It is unfortunate, and at least in one case, we were suffering our own doubts after crossing the Pyrenees and felt unable to provide the necessary encouragement for them to continue. In my case, at least part of the ‘why’ was to give thanks for a good life, and to take time out to consider my new life in retirement from the formal workforce – it is a big life change. Everyone’s reasons are different, but the key thing is the desire to see it through when the going gets tough. Anyone can walk for a day or two, but fatigue is cumulative and a walk that seems straightforward can prove challenging after 40 days. So the lessons around understanding why we want to do something will live with me for a long time to come, and it applies to everything we set our minds to do. This is not an original idea, it comes from a guy called Simon Sinek who summarises his key idea – ‘start with why’ – in this video.

We have too much ’stuff’. It seems pretty common that when people return from the Camino they begin decluttering. Ourselves included. Perhaps it comes from spending 6 weeks with nothing more than 2 changes of clothes, a backpack and a phone. And many people leave the phone behind. But the common thread is that you realise you just don’t need much stuff to get through life. There is a great wisdom about buying things – if you need it, buy the one best item you can afford. It will do the job well, last for years, and you will not be wasting energy and resources.

It’s about the relationships. In our daily lives, we dance around each other and there is a lot of ‘face’ maintaining activity as we get to know people. On the Camino we already have something in common – and we are reduced to our most basic appearance. We are removed from others’ expectations of who we are. In addition, we are removed from our expectations of others’ expectations of who we are. And this allows other aspects of our personality to come out. So it is easy to get real with people quickly. There is no time for long introductions, and our occupation or status is irrelevant – indeed those topics never arose. A casual conversation over coffee in Logroño quickly turned to why we were walking the Camino, where we were from, and who we are as people with questions of the meaning of life, observations of society and so on. The Camino has no time for bullshit. Several people we met briefly on the Camino remain in contact and are now firm friends. Although we each walk our own Camino, we have many fellow-travellers.

Dinner at Zariquiegui

The value of slow travel. We are walking across a country. What a privilege to be able to do that in our fast-paced world! I had read classic novels in which protagonists described a town as ’two days away’. I now know what that looks like. Every town is on a hill, so you start the day by descending, then crossing a valley, perhaps a hill or two, then you climb towards your destination. You look back and see the distant hills and think ‘I was there this morning – that’s what a day’s walk looks like’. And it is a great feeling. With life at walking pace, you see more, you hear more, you smell more and you touch more and above all you perceive more. And in the process you become more mindful of your surroundings. It is travel with all your senses. And you notice things – not just the sunrise over the mountains, but why that village is located there, and that piece of carved lintel that now forms part of a dry-stone wall.

dawn pilgrim

Forgiveness. There are several symbolic places at which there is a tradition of forgiveness – the Alto del Pardon (Mountain of forgiveness); the Cruz de Ferro – where you place a stone brought from home to represent your psychological baggage to be left behind at the cross, and so on. But what does this mean? I think it’s about having an opportunity to step outside our daily lives, and to learn to forgive yourself for all those failings you beat yourself up over. And it’s about tolerance and forgiveness of others. They have their journey to make, and like us they are only human with all the failings that that entails. The Camino is an opportunity to look into ourselves and find forgiveness for our own shortcomings, to take responsibility and to lighten up on ourselves and others.   

Alto del Perdon

Finding yourself. Some people talk about ‘finding’ themselves on the Camino. I wonder if it is more about ‘becoming’ yourself. I am yet to be convinced that there is somehow a core person wrapped up in onion layers waiting to be unwrapped and discovered, because that would imply that we are unchanging and unable to grow – a noun, rather than a verb. For me, identity is not an extractive industry buried under piles of tailings. Rather I see identity as a process of becoming. It is an additive process, built on the foundation of all the choices we have made through life to the present. Just as each step on the Camino takes us further along the path, or perhaps diverts us for a time, we are always actively engaged in becoming who we are. By virtue of engaging in such a journey, you are extending yourself, putting yourself out there – and in the process discovering more of the reserves you have within. In that sense, the Camino is truly a metaphor for life.

Cardeñuela

Real pilgrims don’t… judge other pilgrims. I heard several people say things like you’re not a ‘real’ pilgrim if you don’t carry your pack, or you take a bus across the Meseta, or talk or sing or whatever. I even saw a sign that said ‘pilgrims walk in silence’. I thought about adding a line to say ‘pilgrims don’t deface walls with judgemental sayings…’  Honestly, everyone walks their own Camino in their own way, and it is not up to others to judge. The author of the C11th Codex Calixtinus even talks about crossing the Meseta ‘of course by horse’. So I don’t think even they would have judged anyone for taking alternative transport at times. The only official requirement is to walk the last 100kms or bike the last 200kms. With or without a pack, it doesn’t matter.   

We are part of a long history. To undertake the Camino we are following in the footsteps of a thousand years of pilgrims to Santiago. But we are also walking in Napoleon’s footsteps as he crossed the Pyrenees. And we are following Charlemagne’s footsteps as he sought to drive out the Moors. Here we walk through legends of El Cid and of Roland. But then you look down and realise you are walking on a Roman road – built 2000 years ago. we cross Roman and medieval bridges. But that is a drop in the ocean of time as we walk the flint hills used by neolithic farmers and paleolithic hunters and neanderthals and before them Homo Antecessor before even modern humans walked this land. It is land continuously occupied by hominids ancient and modern for 1.2 million years, even before Homo Sapiens existed. All these have walked beneath the river of stars. By walking the Camino we are writing ourselves into that history, taking our place in the story of Europe, and continuing the grand tradition. It is a personal story that we, in turn, will tell our children, our families and our friends. We too are pilgrims, and we walk our story.

Stone tools

People look out for each other. The Camino seems to attract a generally more altruistic kind of person, and we saw this demonstrated time and again. People would provide emotional support or would help out in practical ways – sharing food, or stomach settlers or advice on blister care, or where to find the best tortilla in Spain (thanks, Kristine). Several times we were brought to tears by the kindness of strangers – a blessing from a nun or seeing someone stay with an exhausted pilgrim left behind by their travelling companions. We saw countless small acts of kindness and compassion. After a lengthy career dealing with the very worst of human nature, the Camino restored my faith in humanity.

Learn to let go – sometimes things don’t go to plan, but there is usually a way to sort things out. There is a saying that ‘the Camino provides’. And that is true as long as you are open to what it provides. So one of the things we learned was to accept what happens and either put up with it or take action to resolve the situation.

Care of the self. Body lessons are vital. It is important to learn to listen to your own body and take note of potential problems. If you have a hot spot on your foot, treat it immediately – before it becomes a blister. If you are feeling exhausted or emotionally drained, give yourself a rest day. If necessary, take a bus or a cab to the next town, or have your pack carried forward by one of the backpack courier services, such as Xacotrans. People are generous on the Camino and always willing to help others in need. But to be able to help others, you also need to look after yourself. It is like the safety briefing on the plane – in the event of loss of oxygen, fit your mask to yourself before helping others – otherwise, you risk neither coming through. And the Camino repays this care with interest! We both lost weight – around 5kg each. But the big changes were internal. My cholesterol numbers were a bit high before I started the walk – the bad cholesterol was high and the good cholesterol was low. There are limited menu choices on the Camino so I ate the steak and chips and ice cream and drank the wine and had the cakes along the way. On my return, the numbers had completely reversed – so much so that my cholesterol was back well into the normal range. Walking is a very natural thing to do, but it was only when walking in a sustained way – more than an hour a day, did it become truly enjoyable, as though this is what the body is designed to do. By the end of the walk, we decided that we finally knew how to do the Camino, if only we could start over with the level of fitness and endurance we had at the end! And yes, on our return to Australia, my wife and I have both maintained a walking habit – which will prepare us well for our next Camino, and for our future travels.

tree tunnel

Learn to ask for help. This is something I’m not good at. We each walk our own Camino, but sometimes our own resources are not enough, and while I give help readily, I still find it difficult to ask for help – something I’m still working on.

There is no doubt that there are many other lessons to be found here, and as I reflect I will include them in future posts. And finally, a big thank you and hugs to all my Camino companions and friends – you have taught me so much and given so generously of your friendship. Buen Camino!
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If you’d like to read more about our Camino Frances in 2016, visit the index page here for all my Camino posts
or click on the link above 🙂

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Why not have these posts delivered to your in-box? Just enter your email address and click the ‘subscribe’ button in the left margin, and don’t forget to respond to the confirmation email in your in-box 🙂