Kommedie on the Kammino

Day 58 of Walking Out of the World. As pilgrims entered Spain, Roncesvalles was the place where they were offered three days of hospitality in order to rest from the first stages of their journey, before they continued towards Pamplona. Today the virtual pilgrimage continues in that tradition, and after a virtual three day break at Roncesvalles, sets out for Larrasoaña.

(Previous post: Day 57c The Vipers of the Pyrenees: Part 3.)

The hospice at Ibañeta, rendered unusable by the violent weather of the pass was moved to Roncesvalles in 1132 by the bishop of Pamplona… The monks would wash the feet, cut the hair and trim the beards of pilgrims, and any pilgrim who was so unfortunate as to die in Roncesvalles would be buried in Sancti Spiritus” the fabled chapel of Charlemagne, which was the monastery ossuary.

David Gitlitz and Linda Davidson, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: the complete cultural handbook. (New York, 2000)

“Did the triumph of conquering the mountains carry Sutton on a wave of joy through the days ahead…? Did his delight in Our Lady of Roncevaux outweigh the heavy sadness of seeing other pilgrims carried dead and dying off the mountains, to be laid to rest in the abbey precincts, safe for themselves but lost to their families who would never know where they lay?

There were many returning pilgrims here too, who spoke of the dangers ahead: two further mountain ranges, and seemingly endless plains where by midsummer the streams would be running dry. They told him that after all these weeks he was not much more than halfway to Compostela.”

Katherine Lack, The Cockleshell Pilgrim (2003)

Leaving Roncesvalles on the Camino Francés

Camino Francés first way marker

I re-read the passages concerning the Worcester Pilgrim in the chapters relating to Roncesvalles, hoping to catch a glimpse of his 1423 presence somewhere in or around the abbey, but there was no sign of his ghost. Was he now ahead of me or behind me?

There is a deceptively easy start to the Camino Francés at Roncesvalles. A long avenue of trees with a wide pedestrian path beside the tarmac road runs downhill away from the abbey, giving pilgrims a spring in their step as they begin their journey on foot from here to Compostela. Some are setting out from here on their first day’s walk and some have travelled hundreds or even thousands of kilometres, like me from Worcester and others from three points of the compass, from Germany in the north, from Austria or further east, and Rome to the south east. They converged at Ostabat then crossed to Roncesvalles.

I decided not walk far on this first day in Spain, this first leg of the Camino Francés, but only the twenty-five kilometres, mostly downhill to Larrasoaña. Not because I was tired after the Pyrenees mountain crossing; in fact I was feeling refreshed after the stop-over at Roncesvalles, a historic place of hospitality where pilgrims would unusually be allowed to spend three full days. I wanted to walk slowly and breathe in the air of Spain, enjoy a leisurely menú peregrino at lunch time, and stop to enjoy speaking Spanish in whatever bar or panadería or tienda de alimentación that I came across in the villages of Burgete, Espinal, and town of Zubiri, punctuating the route through the forests and streams of Navarre, on the way to Larrasoaña.

“Todo se mueve, fluye, discurre, corre o gira;
Cambian la mar y el monte y el ojo que los mira.”

Antonio Machado, “A orillas del Duero”, quoted in Chapter 3 of Antonio Regalado and Beth Ann Lahoski, Un Paso en el Tiempo (2005) in relation to this section of the Way of Saint James at Roncesvalles, which reminds us so much of the meeting of past and present in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims who have gone before.

At Burgete I stopped in a bar for coffee and conversed with the bartender, just to enjoy being able to speak the language fluently, after so many weeks struggling in France where my limited language skills were quite isolating. (You may ask how I lived in a French religious community without improving much! The answer is simple: as the only native Anglophone speaker, I was required to help everyone improve their English skills, and in the group preparing for the ill-fated Toledo foundation, we only spoke Spanish.) I told the bartender I had walked from Worcester, expecting him to be impressed, but he wasn’t. He had talked to passing pilgrims over the years, and some had walked from the land of the midnight sun in Sweden, or from the Baltic or the Black Sea! What he did like was my bourdón, which he called a bordón in Spanish, and I asked the spelling. So from now on, in this pilgrimage, the Spanish spelling will be used.

Das kommediekamminotourist

While still in my first hour on the Camino Frances in Spain, I met a kommediekamminotourist, a term which I have probably just invented and which will soon be explained. There is a place between Burgete and Espinal where the Camino fords a small river. I sat down in the quiet spot and I took off my boots and bathed my feet in the river, before changing from my thick ‘Smart Wool’ socks to lighter cotton ones, better suited to the heat of Spain. Even here in the mountain climate south of the Pyrenees, it was noticeably warmer.

A tall bearded man in his late thirties arrived, loping along with an overpacked rucsack with some clothes protruding untidily from its pockets. He was wearing casual shoes – almost slippers really – entirely unsuitable for walking down his garden path, let alone walking to Compostela. He sat down and said he was hot. I found this unsurprising as he was walking with an overloaded rucsack on a hot day.

“Where are you coming from?” he asked.

“Worcester,” I replied. “But today I came from Roncesvalles.”

“I too am coming from there!” he exclaimed. I feigned surprise: everyone would have started from there at this time of day. “But I am coming mostly from Germany by train.”

“Are there many people coming mostly from Germany by train?” I asked.

He then supplied me with a fascinating insight into a new social sub-group of the Camino tribes, the kommediekamminotourists.

“Yes, many people are mostly coming from Germany,” he said, pulling out a paperback from a side pocket of the bloated rucsack, and at the same time accidentally dislodging a creased white t-shirt which fell half in the water at the edge of the river. He wrung the wet half out and poked the t-shirt back in the rucsack. “It is mostly because of this book by the famous German, Hape Kerkeling.”

“Excellent,” I replied. “Is he mostly famous for being a Catholic spiritual writer?”

“No, not mostly at all.”

“Ah. So maybe mostly a famous Lutheran theologian?”

“No,” exclaimed my overpacked, poorly shod German interlocutor. “He is mostly a famous German kommedian. He wrote all about his adventure on the Kammino in this book, which is so funny! And he met lots of girls! So now mostly a lot of guys are reading the book and coming from Germany for a kool time on the Kammino.”

“A kool time on the Kammino?” I whistled softly, marvelling at the pure sociology of it all. “So, you are mostly a kommediekamminotourist?” I asked.

The term kommediekamminotourist clearly struck him as the kommedie highlight of his day, and he went onto paroxysms of laughter, clearly identifying fully with the term. “Yes! Kommediekamminotourist! Ja! And you?”

“I am mostly a pilgrim. I have walked from Worcester, which is in the west of England.”

“What? Why?” he asked, incredulously. “Walking from England?”

“Mostly, yes, apart from a boat,” I said. “Because some pilgrims do.”

I spent three minutes explaining to the kommediekamminotourist the history of the Camino, going back to the New Testament, the apocryphal history of the travels of Saint James, Santiago, the Way of Saint James, Jacobsweg and the development of the pilgrim routes across Europe. His eyes glazed over: he was not remotely interested in any of this stuff. It mostly wasn’t funny, nor kool and I hadn’t mentioned girls.

“And the beer here is mostly cheap!” he said, triumphantly. “Cerveza!

“Have you learned much Spanish before coming here?” I asked.

Chicas!” he said, to show off his full range.

“Marvellous,” I said, and stood up to leave, shouldering my rucsack. “I pray you mostly have a kool time on the kammino.

The kommediekamminotourist jumped up quickly. “I come with you,” he announced.

“No,” I replied firmly, walking quickly through the river ford and accellerating away on the opposite bank, with my lighter load and good walking boots. I called over my shoulder: “Today is a mostly a solitary walk day. Get used to the silence and start mostly listening to it. Buen Camino.”

Later, finishing my menú peregrino outside a restaurant in Zubiri, after an hour’s lunch stop, I saw him again. I was slowly finishing my coffee with a Soberano brandy and reading a copy of El País to catch up with news in Spain. He was disconsolately dragging his rucsack along the pavement.

“Is there a hotel here?” he asked me.

“If you mean a pilgrim refugio, yes there is,” I replied. “In fact there also used to be a leprosarium in mediaeval times, but that was mostly for the seriously ill, not those merely afflicted with kommedie.”

He bought a tankard of beer and I pointed out where to find the refuge, then I paid for my meal and left the village quickly, taking the road for Larrasoaña and the pilgrim hostel where I intended to stay the night. I would need to keep a decent pace ahead of the kommediekamminotourist for the rest of the seven hundred kilometres to Compostela.

Pilgrim refugios can be found in nearly every town and village all the way to Compostela. The main hazard used to be the occasional outbreak of bedbugs, until Hape Kerkeling, famous mostly in Germany, wrote his unhelpful guide book.