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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People of the Camino

At a small Fiesta in Puenta de Orbigo on the Camino de Santiago, we saw this young woman playing the bagpipes. Her face was a study in concentration as her fingers moved skillfully over the chanter. Life did not appear to be easy in these towns.

Hospital de Orbigo

It is said that the weight of your pack is the sum of your fears. Sometimes the way people carry their pack expresses much about the kind of life they’ve had – and the inventive ways to deal with carrying a pack if your back is no longer as strong as it once was. I wondered how the trolley handled some of the rockier or muddier paths. But, by suspending it from his waist, this walker is able to keep his hands free to assist with the effort of walking itself.

pack on trolley

Beside the road the chestnut gatherers laboured to reap the harvest while dodging the falling chestnuts, ignoring the steady stream of pilgrims passing through.

Chestnut gatherer

Marcelino the hermit and self-styled ‘trainee pilgrim’ (peregrino pasante) ran a donativo stall. He was dressed in traditional medieval pilgrim robes and shared his wisdom and provisions with any pilgrims who stopped to chat.

 

Ermita del peregrino pasante

In Burgos, we encountered these hard-working cafe staff setting out tables and chairs ready for the evening trade. The cafes are an essential supply line for the pilgrims and for the locals who exchange stories and observations on the passing parade of tourists and peregrinos.

Cafe workers

We were serenaded by this accordion player in Logroño, who moved from table to table sharing his cheer and Spanish ballads. He was a delight and reminded me of my early faltering start on my road to being a professional musician. I began by busking – and in the process learned a lot about the art of entertaining, irrespective of any skills on the instrument itself. I have seen many performers play skilful music, but in such a deadpan way that they fail to engage the audience. This guy lit up the square with his joyful music and singing.

street performer, Logroño

 

In Madrid there was a festival of Santa Maria, patron saint of Madrid. The statue of the Virgin was paraded around the town accompanied by a huge procession of people from various community and local groups. I was captivated by the characterful faces in the procession.

 

This woman was carrying her young son, and she gave me a huge smile as she saw me lift the camera towards her.

Smiling Woman with child

Some took their Dowager role very seriously

Dowager

While others perhaps mourned for loved ones lost

Matriarch

A father’s love

Man and child

For some, there is always a better way

Gossip

Or contained their thoughts

containing her thoughts

There is a real strength in these people – and a sense of community – of people bound together despite day-to-day trials. And a genuine warmth, yet a distance from strangers. It was a privilege to walk among them.

Holy procession

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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