History Friday – The Pilgrim Road

We took a road trip, my daughter and I, in the summer of 1990. We lived then on the northern outskirts of Zaragoza, in an urbanization by the main road towards Logrono, so one summer day we packed the tent and our sleeping bags, and a little gas camp stove in the trunk of the Very Elderly Volvo, and went north, along the long, red-clay valley of the Ebro, where is grown the finest red wine in Spain, north and away from the ancient city of the Pilar, where the Virgin Mary appeared to St. James in the forum that the Romans built, and the shops along the ancient cardo –now called the Calle Alfonso – sell dark chocolate-dipped dried fruits, and the wind blows the trees into gnarled shapes bending to the south.

We were bound for greener country, on a pilgrimage into the West, following the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela, the field of stars. We did not follow the road from it’s many-braided beginnings, but turned off the autopista a little short of Logrono, at a dusty crossroads for a little town called Navarrete, and the slightly larger town a little way farther on: Santo Domingo. The road between – and for nearly all the rest of the way was a narrow, two-lane country road, paralleled by the footpath of the real pilgrim road. On my map atlas, the pilgrim road appeared as very minor routes, looping across northern Spain, occasionally crossing one of the great major roads, but for the most part avoiding them and the major cities as well. It was marked, though, all the way along, with road signs – a stylized scallop shell, usually – and the scattering of young hikers who had fastened three shells to their rucks and a water-gourd to their walking staffs. These three things, the shells, the water gourd and the walking staff, denoted a proper pilgrim, walking all the way, and entitled to stay at the various convent hostels and guesthouses.
“We’re heretical Protestants,” I told my daughter. “We’re allowed to drive.” We counted the foot travelers every day, as we overtook them, twelve or fifteen, as many as eighteen, on one day.

The first picture in my album of that journey is of the sanctuary of Santo Dominga del Calzada, with a great golden dome over the baptismal font. Not shown in the picture is the little enclosure high in the sanctuary wall which houses a pair of white chickens, to commemorate Santo Domingo’s great miracle; something to do with a young boy murdered by a wicked innkeeper, and the boys’ parents pleading for justice to the local magistrate who was at dinner, eating of a dish of chicken, and said something about the chicken in his dish standing up and crowing again… which miraculously, they did. What was done every year with the current pair of resident chickens was not made clear in the Blue Guide, or the literature available in the church itself, which was cool and dim, and mainly deserted at midday.

The next picture is one of our campsite in Burgos, the city of El Cid. We camped at the edge of a grove of trees, part of the overflow campground, really just an open meadow by the river. In other pictures there is a view of it, just bare dust and short-cropped grass, dotted with industrial tall plastic trash bins, and my daughter and a girl her age walking across it towards the washhouse, carrying a blue plastic bucket between them. Our campsite consisted of the rear of the very elderly Volvo, the trunk open – I think to facilitate packing – and the red nylon two person tent borrowed from Pastor Jack’s family for this jaunt, with the heavy striped woolen blanket I bought in Japan, which eventually gravitated to the trunk of the Volvo as a picnic blanket, spread out in front if it. A folding wooden camp table, and a folding chair, bought at Alcampo, Spain’s answer to Wal-Mart, and a small portable charcoal grill occupy the space between the tent and the car. The gas camp stove sits on the table, and there is a blue and white striped towel on the back of the chair, and in the distance, afternoon sun slants between the trees at the river’s edge.

The girl in the picture, carrying the plastic bucket with my daughter was camping with her mother and stepfather, in a small RV a short distance away. Although she was the daughter of an American soldier, her mother and stepfather were German, she and my daughter played together quite happily, unencumbered by the lack of a common language, bouncing back and forth between our tent and their RV for urgent German to English and English to German translations. One evening after dinner, we sat under the rollout awning by their RV, eating fresh fruit chilled by a little ice in the fruit bowl, and talking about current events; the buildup to the first Gulf War was in full swing. The mother said to me,
“Americans just don’t understand about what war really means.” And I smiled politely and replied, “I’ve got a great-uncle dead in France in the first war, and an uncle there, from the second. I think we’ve kind of gotten the point, actually.” She blushed pink and changed the subject entirely.

A handful of pictures of the cathedral in Burgos follow, a tracery of elaborate grey stone lace against a blue, blue sky. I did not take a picture of one of the most charming structures in Burgos, and I can’t think why: a street of tiny, seeming half-scale houses, charming 19th century townhouses with lavish and equally tiny cottage gardens about a yard square in front of every house. I did take a picture of some row houses by the convent favored by royalty with spare daughters, whose abbess was second only to Queens; tiny, plaster or stone-façade buildings with sagging tile roofs… and square in front of the most ancient of them, a very modern brushed aluminum and glass telephone booth.

We passed through Carrion de Los Condes, which was a small, and unattractive little town in itself, but I took a picture of the golden wheatfields of Leon, a quilt stitched with lines of dark green trees. The Counts of Carrion had married the daughters of El Cid, but mistreated them piteously, for which El Cid had punished them. Two pictures of the amazing stained glass in the great church of Leon follow in the album. That church, otherwise was a musty ecclesiastical warehouse, all broken up into chapels full of – to my Protestant eyes – the most astonishingly unattractive religious tat. It was devotion and skill which turned sand, wood, stone and ground pigments – all substances of little value – into works of glorious art, marvelous wood and stone carvings, great soaring arches and windows that strained the sunlight into jeweled light. I never realized how stern my inner Protestant really was, until I looked at the jeweled archbishopric adornments; rings and crosiers and things, and elaborate reliquaries of gold and silver, housing a few grubby splinters of bone and a couple of crumbling teeth, and fought down the urge to begin gibbering incoherently about idolatry and Mariolatry, simony, the Scarlet Woman of Rome, and the Whore of Babylon.

I did not take any snaps of where we camped midway between Leon and Astorga, at Hospital del Orbigo, the scene of a famous passage of arms, according to my guidebook, in the meadow by the long and narrow, crooked stone bridge, which I negotiated with the wheelbase of the VEV just barely fitting between the waist-high stone walls, praying all the while that I would not have to back up if I met someone coming the other way. I also didn’t take any pictures in Astorga of the fabulously ornate Archbishops’ Palace, a confection of gothic spires and art deco ornament, like Walt Disney’s wet dream, but actually committed by Antonio Gaudi. I did buy a loaf of the local bread. Astorga was famed for it’s generous, igloo-shaped loaves, crusty on the outside, substantial on the inside, which remained soft and sweet-tasting for many days longer than the usual Spanish bread, which ordinarily went stale and dry by the next day.

Ponferrada – a great iron bridge, from the 19th century, clearly after that that we were in the green and hilly country of Galicia and Asturias, the only part of Spain – like Asterix and Obelix’s Gaulish village – to hold out against the invaders. Not the Romans, but the Moors, to whom the misty green north of Spain must have been as alien as another planet to a people accustomed to the desert, and the arid reaches farther south. Here, the hills were green and lush with tree and fronds of bracken in the shade under them, and green pastures were rimmed by thin slabs of stone set on end, and inhabited buy gentle, caramel-colored cows the size of mastodons. Moisture hung on the air, and in the mornings, the blanket in front of the tent would be silvered over with dew. The town of Lugo boasts the only complete circuit of walls save that of Avila, with a railed footpath along the top of the old walls, sometimes overhung by the branches of great trees growing in the back gardens of the houses on the inside of the walls. How safe people must have felt, sheltering behind those stone walls!

The picture in my album from the end of the pilgrim road was taken in the great square in front of the church, and shows my daughter arm in arm with a amiable young man wearing a black, vaguely medieval doublet and cloak, and a gallant feathered cap: at the age of ten, she is nearly up to his shoulder as they smile, squinting slightly in the morning sun. In his other hand, the young man holds a cassette tape in a yellow cover. He is a member of the university glee club, practicing his languages, posing agreeably for pictures with tourists and pilgrims, and selling tapes of his glee-club singing medieval Spanish student songs.

I bought the tape and have it still: the cassette cover features a picture of entire group massed on the great flight of stairs going up to the front of the great gray church of St. James, Apostle, Pilgrim and Moor-Slayer, below the shell motif and the cross-handled dagger that is the saint’s other emblem. And I look at the church, and think that it is somehow familiar. It is a place I have seen many times before, but oddly different, grander, but with the same bones … and enlightenment crackles like a small electrical shock. This is what they were remembering, those brave and enterprising missionary friars who journeyed forth from Spain to the New World, bearing the light of the true faith. They built in adobe and wood, and stone when they could get it, remembering the towers of Leon and Burgos and Santiago in the wilds of California and the southwest and Texas, teaching unskilled helpers, and no doubt consulting the 17th century equivalent of Popular Mechanics. I had known those simple, homemade frontier copies all my life; Mission San Fernando, and San Gabriel, San Diego de Alcala, Santa Inez and Santa Barbara, knowing them on their own humble and practical terms, but know I knew what the inspiration for them had been and in that moment, the circle was complete.

Oh, that’s what they were thinking, at the end of the Pilgrim Road, yet the beginning of another.

(The pictures exist in their original film-and-print versions, and I scanned them once into a file and a CD backup which I promptly lost in the crash of the last computer but two. On my list of things to do … er… re-do.)

2 thoughts on “History Friday – The Pilgrim Road”

  1. It’s a fantastic trip,Lex – even if you drive and take your time. There are people who have done it the old way, by walking, or sometimes on horseback who have really gotten quite a lot out of it.
    Supposedly, if you are walking, and have taken on the shells, the water gourd and the staff, you can stay for free at the many church hostels along the road.

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