Final preparation for the Camino

The sky purpled darkly as we set off up the hill, packs loaded as though for the journey — plus a bit. The hard part now, is not the packs, but the mind. We have trained physically, walking and increasing distance steadily, the next part was to get used to the packs, then walking with fully loaded packs.

But now, as we prepare to package the packs for the flight, the heavy part is the mind. The long-range weather forecasts are not good, and already the forthcoming French rail strike has changed our mode of travel from train to bus. And to cap it all off, much of Spain and the Pyrenees is still under snow.

But to paraphrase the novel Dune, fear is the mind killer. There is a Camino saying that the weight of your pack is the sum of your fears. It is easy to overthink and try to prepare for every eventuality. This only results in an overloaded pack. It is time to get back to basics — It is time to travel mindfully.

Our basic physical needs are simple: 2 changes of tops, 1 fleecy, 1 pair of trekking pants (the other is to wear), a lightweight Goretex jacket for the wind and rain, and rain pants in case it gets really stormy. 3 pairs of undies (one to wear), 3 pairs of socks (1 to wear) and the same with sock liners. A lightweight sleeping bag a few toiletries and your choice of tech – I recommend at least a phone – for emergencies or to make a booking ahead or to communicate with family. It can double as your camera too.

It is better to pack a bit light and then add along the way if you really need something. For most normal medical requirements there are chemists/farmacia in most towns, and the larger centres will be able to supply any gear shortfalls – including backpacks, poles, fleecies etc. Even the hamlets often have vending machines with blister care and pain relief products, so for these kinds of things, just carry enough for a day or two, and buy more as and when you need them.

But the main thing to pack is your mindful appreciation for those who have gone before and for those who walk with us on our journey, both inner and outer. I call this packing a lighter mind – leave anxieties, judgemental attitudes and enmities behind, and find the world as you encounter it.

Everyone walks their own Camino, and remember, real pilgrims don’t judge other pilgrims. The only requirement of a real pilgrim is to be registered and to walk the last 100kms. The rest is entirely up to you -Buen Camino! 🙂

Pack a light heart – and travel positively

How do we stay positive when we travel? We’ve all been there. The flight gets cancelled, the accommodation is unavailable, the unexpected happens. We experience frustration – often magnified when we travel, perhaps compounded by language difficulties and cultural differences. What happens next is up to us.

Tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful

There is a saying I heard from fellow pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, along the lines of: “Tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful.” And I think that’s worth exploring a little further. For me, it relates to the idea of expectations. We anticipate our holiday, We see photos on Pinterest or Instagram of our desired destination, and we read the Trip Adviser reviews, that give our dream destination five stars. By the time we board our plane, train or bus, we have already travelled to our destination in our minds, we have pictured the perfect weather, the fantastic view from the hotel, and of course, we are in the pleasant company of young happy fellow tourists.

wine with baguette

With such expectations, we are rarely reaching into the unknown, and we pay good money to have a good time – hard earned by an exchange of time and effort out of our finite lives. So we feel entitled to have a good time, and we’ll stamp our feet if we don’t!

But the reality of our holiday might look a bit different. That beachfront hotel that looked idyllic until the tide came into the room (yes it happened). The quaint French hotel is being renovated around you (also happened), and the room looks out over the gas works (actually just a brick wall). Our fellow tourists raise a chorus of complaints as they realise that the place is just a bit more squalid than the brochures led us to believe.

Albergeue sign

With such thwarted expectations, our holiday seems doomed to failure. For this reason, the philosopher Alain de Botton advises that we might be better off if we were pessimists. That way, we won’t expect too much, and we’ll feel relieved that the experience was perhaps not so bad as it might have been. He argues that we should heed the call of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, who suggests that we must keep in mind at all times the worst case scenario. Seneca warned that all versions of our experience are possible, and therefore we should not be surprised when our worst fears are fulfilled, as he says: “Do you think there is anything that will not happen, when you know that it is possible to happen, when you see that it has already happened?”

toxic air headline

But what if there was a more positive way to approach travel? The pilgrims I met on the Camino were not pessimists. Neither were they overly optimistic, but they were positive. What is it that was different among the pilgrims, as opposed to other travellers? Let’s return for a moment to the pilgrim saying – tourists demand, pilgrims are grateful. They trudge for days or weeks through mud and rough tracks, yet are still able to stand in awe of a medieval cathedral or a simple sunrise. What did I learn from being a pilgrim?

pilgrim sunrise

Firstly, while each is on a personal journey, they look out for others. It is not about ‘me’, it is about the journey we are all on. Secondly, although each has done their research, and seen the photos, and read the accounts of others’ journeys, it is without too many expectations. This is about mindfulness, experiencing that moment across each moment of each day. And remember, each day is its own journey. Pilgrims recognise that if their phone charger breaks, or the plumbing gives hot water from the cold tap and vice versa, all these are first-world problems. Pilgrims feel privileged to be on the journey. Being mindful means that you take things as you find them. Each day is different, and each day we are alive beats the alternative. It is about experiencing the strange, whether it is unfamiliar foods, or the struggle to communicate in a foreign language, or the daily battle with blisters or the weather. Each day brings a new joy, a new taste, a new connection with someone. Above all, a new focus for our attention.

Pack a light heart and the rest will follow

Another pilgrim saying is: “the weight of your pack is the sum of your fears”. I reckon that’s pretty well spot on. We try to anticipate everything that could go wrong, and pack accordingly. Often I went on business trips carrying a travel iron – just in case – but the reality is that hotels have irons, or you can use clothes that don’t require ironing, or you can improvise (hint: hang them in the bathroom while you shower, and roll rather than fold your clothes). The iron was a symbol of my fear.

These days, I try to sort those fears into first world problems and real problems. And I have halved the weight. I can travel for several days with just a carry-on bag. I plan clothing for layers, carry enough underwear for 3-4 days, a notebook, pen and minimal tech and travel docs. If I’m hosteling then a small travel towel goes in, and for weather, it’s a jacket and/or hat. Research the destination, and go. I’ve rarely missed something I’ve forgotten, and if I do, I try not to beat myself up over it – I can always buy another toothbrush!

St Martin in the Fields

You can be part of a virtuous circle.

It can seem natural to join in when someone complains, and in the process, it feels like you are being part of the tribe. You get validation, perhaps sympathy – especially if your story of woe can top that of the previous speaker. But consider for a moment, whether you want to remember that experience with such negativity, or perhaps there is a more positive way to see things – a different part of the experience on which to focus our attention.

Perhaps others try to put you down or better your epic survival story about the local sanitation, with a story with their own? The best response is to thank them and smile – often other people’s put-downs or one-downmanship are a sign of their own childish fear and insecurity and have nothing to do with your experience. They will quickly forget you, and you don’t need to carry their burden as your own. It is, after all, their monkey and theirs alone.

And if it’s a local having a bad day – perhaps they’ve seen one too many complaining tourist – and at the end of the day, I do get to go home, while the locals deal with x every day. I always try to remember that there is a lot to be grateful for – such as the privilege we have to travel, the privilege we have that we can choose to go home if we want to, or to find another place. Or even just hold that thought, and pause before stoking the fire of negativity. We don’t always have to be happy, but we can be positive. If we travel gratefully, like the pilgrims, and with a light heart, our own journey will be lighter – and our packs too!

Big Ben

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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