Paris to Santiago de Compostela
Part 2: Spain
Sunday September 17. We changed busses and drivers, exchanging a very pleasant French driver, Claude, for a surly Spaniard who became even more so when he was stopped by the French police for not having proper papers and finally left us stranded in A Coruna because the Spanish drivers decided to strike over fuel prices.. He was fined about $60. We went into the Pyrenees and into Spain through the pass at Roncesvalles , where El Cid was killed. It is also the point where the four ancient pilgrim routes through France come together and there is an ancient Romanesque church (where we had Mass) and monastery and pilgrim hostel. There were many walking pilgrims resting, some showing their blistered feet. From that point on, where we followed the old pilgrim route, we saw clusters of pilgrims. We had not realized how many still walk the route. If health and time permits, that's the way to go.
Though Pamplona is directly south of Roncesvalles, there were no available hotel rooms and we went two hours east to Jaca, arriving after 7. The 11th century cathedral and its museum closed at eight, so I hurried down, arriving about 7:40. The museum had frescos taken from various churches, all set in wooden frames that mimicked the arched spaces of the originals. The church itself, early Romanesque, had its apse overlaid with 16th century ornateness and the altar had some saint in a great silver and glass casket. Dinner was at eight thirty -we had a difficult time persuading places to let us eat, as the Spanish don't eat before ten.
Monday September 18. Back to Pamplona from Jaca to beyond Leon, grey-brown, arid, austere, hot, uninhabited plains. One begins to understand the Spanish preoccupation with death and asceticism. Very strange, especially as from here on, every church had great golden Spanish Baroque retables inserted in the Romanesque or Gothic churches - complete change from France, and in spirit, different from the Baroque exuberance of southern Germany and Austria Though the wealth of the New World went to the nobility and the church the populace did not revolt, perhaps because it came so close upon the expulsion of the Moors, which was led by those same forces.
We had Mass in Estella, at the church of St. Michael. In the carvings around the portal, there was a scene of the nativity with St. Joseph at the bedside - the first we had ever seen. Later, in Burgos, we saw a retable with a scene of St. Joseph with his hands actually under the coverlet helping to deliver Jesus. When I asked, the answer was that Mary had no midwives so he must have helped. It is strange to me that his role is never talked about, especially now when men are supposed to at least be around at births. The church was late Renaissance, with a golden 16th century altar piece, and on the side wall, a painted wood carving of a physician holding a urine flask, diagnosing the illness of a pilgrim .
In writing this, I realize we did basically nothing but go to churches, but we did see something of the towns and people as we passed through. As the countryside changed in France, so did the characteristics of the people -in the southwest of France and northern Spain they are Basque - and in Spain, the towns we visited were historically separate provinces or administrative units and the people are physically different from town to town. The Spanish language was so different from the accent that we hear that it was essentially impossible to understand. People were cordial, especially to those of the group who wore the scallop shell of St. James, but Spain is not France or Italy.
Dropped in Logrono, we discovered that the Cathedral and Museums were closed for renovations. We sat in the Cathedral square, and had some drinks and were eyed by gypsies, who finally wandered off after Fr. Alexis spoke in Spanish warning us of their presence. Unfortunately, when it was time to rejoin the bus, two of the group were lost. After a while, the police were called and they quickly found them just by looking for two women looking lost. On to Burgos for two nights.
Tuesday September 19. A short walk to the Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece. We had Mass in a side chapel, the Holy Christ of Burgos. Over the altar is a 14th century crucifix of articulated wood, covered with calf skin, and with multiple wounds, including (we were told by the guide) a sac in the right chest that could be filled with fluid and mechanically squeezed so the statue could bleed afresh. Instead of a loin cloth, He wore a skirt that came to mid calf whose color and design is changed with the liturgical season - a Byzantine leftover. The central part of the nave a walled enclosure for the canons and main altar, with great ironwork fencing to allow the services to be seen. In the crossing of the nave and transept is the tomb of El Cid. Unfortunately to dome overhead, said to be spectacular, was under restoration and not visible. Around the ambulatory are multiple great chapels from the 17th and 18th centuries, some quite beautiful. In the former cloister is a museum, with ornate chalices, robes, paintings and relics. All quite stunning. Though what one sees on the interior are mostly the later embellishments, even the original Gothic structure is more fanciful than in northern churches. One is struck both by that and the accretions that came to Catholicism from the 15th to 19th centuries.
We were to have been picked up by the bus driver for a tour of the city, but he never showed, so mom and I went to each of the six churches on our map, one of which was a museum with a 10th century Visigothic cross of silver. Very plain with a central large round crystal and Alpha and Omega hanging from chains on the cross arms. Another piece I would happily have stolen. We saw the Roman wall and an archway of Moorish design, then back to the hotel for a longed for nap. It was great!
Wednesday September 20. To Leon with its beautiful cathedral and church and museum of St. Isidore. Not wanting to wait for the unreliable bus, we walked through gardens and the old part of the city to the museum of St. Isidore, arriving at almost the same time as the group, and in time for a tour, in Spanish, that was fortunately interpreted by Fr. Alexis. We first saw some beautiful Incunabula and Choir books, and then some reliquaries. These were of silver, elaborately decorated, and in the gabled box shape we had seen before. They dated from the 10th and 11th centuries and were lined with precious silk weavings, one at least was in Arabic and saying "Allah is Good". Fr. Alexis said that they were interested only in the design and that the material was of a fineness that could not be produced in the West at that time. There was also a chalice, made from a Roman goblet of semi-precious stone, and covered with gold filigree and bowl. Another example of the reverence for a lost glory.
Then the third and most glorious of the truly great experiences of the trip (the first, St. Mary Magdalen in Vezelay, the second Ste. Foy relic); the Pantheon of the church of St. Isidore. This was the entrance porch of the church, and from the beginning, a cemetery for the Kings of Leon, so that one passed through death before entering the new life of the redemption. A similar idea is in Florence at the church of Santa Maria Novella, where the original entrance (now closed off) was through a cemetery, and the Baptistery of Florence which was built over a cemetery. There are 40 kings and queens of Leon buried in this porch, which is covered with an arched ceiling and three aisles. In the ceiling are late 10th and early 11th century paintings which are still bright, and have not been restored, and which tell the story of the eternal Mass according to the Mozarabic rite which was suppressed in the 11th century. They represent the life of Christ from the Incoroparatio (Annunciation) (Mary's gown is swirling in the breath of the Holy Spirit in a manner that we had seen in the inner tympanum of St. Mary Magdalen), through birth, circumcision, life, passion death, resurrection, glorification, and ruler of the world. The paintings are powerful, and represent a spirituality that we no longer feel because their sense is that we are part of God, not that God is part of us. It is definitely worth another visit, and I do not understand why it is not better known.
Since everything closed down for the afternoon, we had a chance for another nap, and then in the evening went to the Cathedral, a glorious Gothic structure. It is noted for its azure windows, which are only beginning to be restored as those at Chartres, and the western rose window is an absolute rainbow of color. We went first to the museum in the former cloister. Looking back from the south side of the cloister, the pinnacles of the south transept were just like the fanciful pinnacles in Breugel's "Garden of Good and Evil" and I wondered if they might have been his inspiration. We went first to a room with sample of brocades from the 5th to 18th centuries, as well as some vestments. The skill and time involved in their manufacture is incredible.. In another area, was a collection of Madonnas and one saw the changing perception of her role. In the earliest, she is sitting, displaying the Christ child as a small King, later she stands, and in the 14th century, He is a child playing with her hair or being protected. I realize d that only since the apparitions of the 19th century has Mary been shown alone.
We had Mass at 7 PM in one of the chapels around the apse, and when we came out, there was an organ concert and the sun pouring through the incandescent west window.
Thursday September 21. Because there were no rooms available in Santiago de Compostela, we went west to A Coruna, the westernmost point of Spain, and in the middle ages, the end of the earth. It is the port from which the Armada left on its disastrous voyage, destroyed by a hurricane in the English Channel. We learned the next day that the problem was that we were preceded by one day by a 7,000 strong Legion of Mary (or similar group) that took up all available space.
On the way, we went up a mountain - by now we were in the hills again- to the village of El Cebreiro, and ancient Celtic settlement, with thatched roofed houses that were 1200 (yes 1200) years old. The pilgrim hostel, still in use, was first built in the 9th century, and the low stone church, Santa Maria, where we had Mass, in the 10th. It was a Benedictine monastery, and is famous for a miracle -I'm not sure just when- when a peasant came up through a snow storm for Mass and Communion and the priest, not quite a believer, said why come on such a journey for just some bread and wine, and at the consecration, the bread and wine turned physically into the body and blood of Christ. The sacristan said that the name of the priest is unknown, but that of the peasant is. They are both buried beneath an altar which also has, in a glass case, the chalice and paten in which the miracle occurred as well as the cruets from which the wine and water were poured. Also famous is the 14th century Madonna and child, which still had her silken cloak, worn for a procession. In all 14th century Madonnas, her head is erect, but this is bent forward - something which happened when the miracle occurred. Outside, locals sold nuts and berries from the local harvest.
A brief stopover in Lugo, again to visit the church which was open because they have perpetual adoration at what had been the main altar, again the golden altar piece rising to the ceiling and very ornate. There were quite lovely choir stalls and near the main entrance a great chariot with figuresof thelast supper, used in the Corpus Christi procession, which must be a really big feast in this part of the world.
On the way to A Coruna , we learned that the Spanish bus drivers were on strike because of the gas prices, and that our driver would take us to the hotel, but not on the planned tour of the city. Fortunately the hotel was next to a mall and there was a chance for shopping. We had dinner at a tapas bar - fun, but if you are not careful, you can run up a bill.
Friday September 22. Yannis arranged for us to get to Santiago on the train. Another early rising, and we walked to the station. A pleasant ride. We were met by a guide and two small busses and warned not to say anything about the inconvenience. We went on a walking tour of the old city, including the market, which was full of fresh fish, meat and vegetables. When mom and I went back at two in the afternoon, it was all over. We then entered the Cathedral through the pilgrims door in the north transept and were able to go down to the crypt to see the reliquary of the bones of St. James; another elaborate silver , gable roofed, box. We then went to the old entrance, which has been preserved because a later facade was built in front of it. Truly astounding, it still has strong traces of the original paint. The main altar is in exuberant Spanish style and the rederos has, on the top, St. James on the white charger as the Moor slayer, in the middle, a smaller statue of him as a pilgrim, with his staff and water bottle, and , over the tabernacle, a large golden statue of him as St. James the apostle, all set in an ornate golden Baroque altar piece. The effect made me think of the Trinity, and of the statues of the life of Buddha that I had seen in Sri Lanka and which were the occasion of a mystical experience for Thomas Merton (but not for me).
For the concelebrated Mass, we sat on the steps of the north transept. A nun with a glorious voice led the congregation in singing, which was in Latin for the responses. There were sermons in Spanish, German, and Italian, for the various groups, thus a chance to enjoy the church. They had large TV screens in the side aisles so everyone could see what was going on.
After communion, the great 5 foot censer was brought up and each of the priests put incense in. It was then attached to a heavy rope hanging from the ceiling 170 feet up and eight men began to swing it back and forth. They increased its swing until it almost hit the ceiling - a truly exciting event. The story is that it was originally done to overpower the stench of the pilgrims. In any event, it was a great show!
After some shopping and walking around town, we returned to the train and at our hotel, met for a final talk and blessing from Fr. Alexis. Up at 3:30, a bus took us to the airport for another pleasant and uneventful flight home. Our bus met us in NY and we were home by 8:30 PM.
A truly gratifying trip that has left us both with a pleasant glow.
Part 1: France
Mount Saviour Page