Revisiting the Camino – take two

This post is for Camino geeks. I’m revisiting in late May and early June, almost one year on. By car, but with short walks wherever possible.

There are good memories which stand the test of time, even improve on reacquaintance – and others which fall short, or simply disappoint.

Bilbao, YES. Off route I know, but the end of my stage one, June last year. The Guggenheim, and especially Richard Serra’s sinuous and space-defying structures.

Likewise the drive up into the mountains from Bilbao, in brilliant sunshine, unbroken forest as far as the eye could see. Beyond Vitoria, green hills with crags lining their summits, and I remembered the way they led me, guided me, when I walked that stretch from Punta la Reina to Logrono.

NO to Roncesvalles, though we did take a short circular walk up through the woods, then back down through meadows to join the Burguete path – meadows with rich odours of cow dung and deep shades of green beneath an equally deep shade of blue – that’s how I remember Navarre from almost a year go.

YES to all the following.

Larrasoena, the village, where I stayed my third night, and the bridge that takes you over the river and back to the Camino from the village – 6.30 on a misty morning last June. All alone, and I couldn’t quite believe where I was! Memories of Zabaldika nearby, and climbing the belfry to ring the bell out over the valley.

Pamplona, sitting and watching the peregrinos wander through, most of them without the heavy boots, the day’s walk over. They have still 4 1/2 weeks to go…

Zariquiegui, and the walk up to the Alto de Perdon. The path of the winds gentler than last time round, and more peregrinos. I had it to myself last June. We talked to several on the way up – we listened. New Zealanders. Then as now, there are stories to tell. This time as last time – where are the Brits?  Are we content, too content, with our own patch?

Puente la Reina, sitting out in Calle Mayor and having lunch, the bridge and the river moving slow and green beneath. Chatting to someone who walked to Santiago four years ago – and is now walking the other way.

NO (sadly) to Estella. Estella was my favourite place, almost, last time, but now the shops were closed, it being Sunday, and the streets were dirty, rubbish uncleared, and the churches closed last June were closed now, and the wonders therein will have to wait for a third visit (I fear unlikely). But the way the Camino drops down past old houses into the town – that still has magic. And I made good friends in Estella.

Yes, big YES, to Logrono, and its wonderful evocative churches, the Ebro as a boundary, my furthest west point last June, and starting point last October, and coffee in plaza in the shadow of the cathedral, cold bright sunshine, multi-coloured cyclists about to take off en masse. The pinchons, and a wonderful hotel, the Calle Mayor, which wasn’t a memory as such because I stayed in an albergue last time….

I restarted 1st October last year, in Logrono.

Navarrete, YES, the square and cafe by the church emptier than last October, all the noise outside an albergue one street below, and the wind was chilly but the sky was blue and the dark shadowy church was full of atmosphere, the gilded retablo overpowering at the east end, likewise the emotions brought out by the background music – combining Taize, Pachelbel, the Handel Sarabande made famous by the Barry Linden film score, and Dylan’s Blowing in the Wind in orchestral form. I sat with head bowed and tears in my eyes, re-experiencing some of the more powerful personal moments from last year.

Santa Domingo de la Calzado – YES, almost. Santo Domingo doesn’t allow you to sit and drink coffee and experience it at its heart – the street cafes are on the modern street just south of the old main street, the Camino route, and the Parador is while wonderful inside a dead space if you’re looking to get a sense of the Camino. The cathedral evokes mixed emotions – beautifully restored and lit, evocative paintings and sculpture, especially the outside choir stall walls, and a c1500 retablo tucked away in a side chapel, where it’s hard to see it properly.

The museum is full of medieval, early as the 14th century, icon-like Madonnas on the one hand, and crucifixions and saints full of that that exaggerated piety which rings false to the modern eye, on the other. Likewise a cartoon image of Santo Domingo, dire – the old saint will be rotating in his grave.  You have to squeeze back against a glass case with a reconstructions of earlier versions of the cathedral to see a marvellous 13th century painting of the Garden of Eden – creation, temptation and expulsion.

From there by way of an industry park – what would Santo Domingo have thought to see what’s been created on the site of his original village – to San Millan de Cogolla.The monks there turned him down back in the 13th century. Their reputation  and the grandeur of their Romanesque monastery must have been marvellous in the eyes of the young Domingo. Had they accepted him – he would never have been a saint, and there would be no Santo Domingo town.

Back on – or just off – the Camino

I’m back revisiting favourite corners of the Camino, and also taking in places and landscapes which tantalised me last year by being just off route. Above all the monastery of San Millan de la Cogalla, where I’m writing this post.

We’re not staying in albergues, but in hotels – and some are almost smart. Do I miss the dormitories? And the snoring? Maybe not! Though I do have ambitions to walk the Camino Portugues later this year.

The monastery has claims to be the birthplace of the Spanish language, where what became Castilian was first written down by an early 12th century monk as marginal notes to a Latin codex. I knew when I first read about San Millan, in Navarrete last year, that I had to visit.

I loved and love the history of the Camino – the vast church interiors, ancient houses with coats of arms, streets winding through towns and villages as they’ve done for a thousand years, the Templar and Cluny connections, tales of battles against the Moors, my hero Sant Iago, the porch of the ruined church outside Navarrete now gracing the entrance to the cemetery on the other side of town, churches where pilgrims who might not make it to Santiago could nonetheless receive absolution  – all the powerful spiritual connections.

I’d attend pilgrim masses when I could, and light candles.

Down the road from San Millan is Berceo, the birthplace of the first recognised Spanish language poet, Gonzalo de Berceo. Another reason for visiting.

From my hotel window in San Millan woodlands stretch up both sides of the valley into the heart of the Sierra de la Demande. And a cuckoo is calling, as it has been on and off through the day.

San Millan himself was a 6th century hermit, and around him gathered other hermits, and in the 10th century a Benedictine monastery was founded on the site. There are monks here to this day, though I’ve yet to catch sight of any! There are depictions of San Millan is sculpture and paintings in Benedictine attire (hardly a military uniform!) and brandishing a strange red zigzag sword, taking on the Moors as did Santiago Matamoros. Like Santiago he was a patron saint, of Castile and Aragon, but Santiago’s status has fared better down the years.

We walked up the valley this afternoon and climbed the hillside to one of the many hillside caves. The views up to the still snow-touched peaks were wonderful, likewise the woodlands which extend everywhere. We took out all our woodlands back home in the UK for firewood and building ships and to create pasture – not so here!

If you want to be a hermit, I can’t imagine anywhere better.