Day 62a of Walking Out of the World
(Previous post: Days 60/61 – including rest day – Pamplona to Puente la Reina.)
After my official ‘rest day’ when I was given dispensation to stay an extra night at the refugio in Puente la Reina in order to spend time contemplating the 14th century Crucifix in the Iglesia del Crucifijo, I set off at a fairly brisk pace over the wonderful mediaeval bridge over the river Arga. I recalled that it was built for pilgrims in the 11th century, and in the spirit of Catholic pilgrimage, the historical computational wheels whirred into action inside my head as I walked up the steep incline to the apex of the bridge.
The various strands of my own spiritual journey interpreted the age of this bridge in a way that gave it added meaning. This was built at the same time that Saint Bruno founded the Carthusian Order in the Grande Chartreuse in the Alps. The same time that the anonymous Syrian artist in Umbria painted the Crucifix which Saint Francis would later discover in the church of San Damiano in Assisi. It was built at the same time as the mountaintop Abbaye Saint-Martin du Canigou, where I lived for a while, as recounted in earlier stages of this Walking Out of the World pilgrimage. Such are the ways in which our story as Catholics connects with the wider European cultural history. It always amazes me (yes, truly amazes me) that people walk the Way of Saint James and find it inspiring, without having any connection with Catholic tradition. (“I don’t believe in organised religion…”) Good for them! They will get from the experience of the Camino all that they hope for, and let’s wish them well. Personally, I could never imagine walking this pilgrimage outside of Catholic tradition: it is in the very stones and every step of the way.
A short distance from Puente la Reina, alongside the river Arga, the Camino climbs to the right, very steeply up a rugged hillside towards the motorway. I remembered there was a noisy section of Camino following a route parallel to the motorway, so I decided to be creative and find an alternative path, and skip the bit by the autovia, hoping rejoin the Camino before the village of Cirauqui.
So I stayed at river level, following the meanders of the Arga until I strayed several kilometres too far south. I just went with my intuition and the directions provided by the morning sun, and made my way through fields and farm tracks, and came to an old hermitage and with a picnic bench, where I stopped to drink some water. On the ground under the bench was a plastic toy donkey.
I thought of Daly the pilgrim donkey, back in France, and I tied the plastic donkey to my pilgrim rucsack as an extra holy emblem. Years later, living a solitary life in Spain with four donkeys, I look back at that moment by the hermitage, and I wonder… Was God telling me something about the future? Does God provide messages through plastic waste in the environment? Pilgrimage is filled with mysteries. Plastic donkeys are only awarded to pilgrims with special needs. So just don’t expect them. OK?
The main mystery for now – as I set off again with my new plastic donkey mascot attached to my rucsack – was how to regain the Camino. There was a very good reason for painting yellow arrows all the way from Roncesvalles to Compostela: it was in order that pilgrims didn’t go wandering off following meandering rivers and end up contemplating plastic donkeys at hermitage picnic tables in the middle of nowhere in the hot sun!
I came to a crossroads of dusty farm cart tracks and found a yellow Camino arrow, so I turned left and was safely back on the Camino Francés.
The Yellow Arrows of the Camino
It was Father Elías Valiña Sampedro who first began marking the Camino with yellow arrows. If you have read Laurie Dennett’s classic Camino revival text, A Hug for the Apostle, Padre Elías was mentioned as the charismatic parish priest of O Cebreiro. That’s the hilltop village that you enter when you climb the steep path into Galicia; or “El Cebrero” as it was called in Spanish in Franco’s days when Galician was still a banned language and Don Elías began his study of the Camino de Santiago. (I will have more to say about walking the Camino in Franco’s time, later in this series, and Don Elías would have been the priest whose Mass we assisted in “El Cebrero” in 1965; but more about that much later.)
For now, let’s stay with the yellow arrows…
We take them for granted. The Camino Francés on the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela is so well marked that you cannot go wrong, even without a guidebook or a map. Every junction, each slight deviation on the path, and every wall between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic ocean at Finisterre is emblazoned with a bright yellow arrow pointing the way forward. It was not a committee that decided to mark it like this, nor a tourism board, nor even a happy band of enthusiasts. But just one man. Father Elías Valiña Sampedro, with a Citroen 2CV full of yellow pots of paint and paintbrushes, and his carefully studied maps of the route from the Pyrenees to Compostela.
Don Elías had done his groundwork. It all began with archaeology. His parish church at O Cebreiro included some early medieval foundations showing a pilgrim hospital had been built on the site before the 11th century. Gradually he began to study the ancient pilgrim traditions. At that time in the late 1950s and early 1960s there was the occasional pilgrim – maybe once a year, or once every two years! – and when Don Elías began to talk about the Camino de Santiago the children in the small local school learned a new word, “peregrino”, pilgrim, for they had never heard it before Don Elías explained the history of their poor little village.*
I shall continue the story of Don Elías tomorrow. Now I am climbing the hill into the village of Cirauqui.
On this morning, the bustling little village shop in Cirauqui presented a vision of the regenerated pilgrim route that Father Elías envisioned – way back in the 1960s – when he looked at his poor village in Galicia and studied how it was once part of a busy thriving pilgrim route in the eleventh century. This was a regenerated Camino village with busy shops and bars welcoming the mid-morning pilgrim rush hour in the first wave from Puente la Reina. A party of Spanish pilgrims was just leaving and a group of jolly Italians were queuing at the coffee machine in the little grocery store, while an old man in a wide Basque beret walked slowly past with a walking stick: a villager who would probably have never seen a pilgrim pass through Cirauqui when he was a young man in his twenties.
Sometimes, as we pilgrims progress through the landscape, focused on the Romanesque and Gothic history of the Way of Saint James, we can easily forget to ask about the modern history. What was this place like fifty years ago? When I walked the last part of the Camino in Galicia in 1965, with a school group of teenagers and our youth leaders, I saw the poverty of those Camino villages. Today, the village of Cirauqui is alive with the laughter of Italians and “Buongiorno!” is the standard greeting of the day. I walk out of the village with the Italians and for the first time since leaving Worcester, I am walking in a group of pilgrims (something that the Worcester Pilgrim, Robert Sutton would have done most of the way, for safety on the road) and – as much as I am accustomed to solitude – nothing quite beats the exhilaration of fast-walking with an energetic bunch of lively loud Italians!
Their goal for the day was Villamayor de Monjardin, well beyond Estella where I had planned to stop. So I ended up as part of the Italian group for the next few days, and today Estella would simply be a lunch stop. All the talk was of the free wine fountain at Irache and my suggestion of stopping to see the polychrome wooden equestrian statue of Saint George in the church in Estella was met with complete disbelief: “What you wanna see that for? Is a lovely sunny day for walking! And we must get to the wine fountain before the free wine runs out!”
We passed a graffito scrawled in crayon on a wall: “Where are your dreams? Live them before you die.” The equestrian Saint George could wait for another time. In any case, I had already met my equine friend for today…
“Why you have plastic donkey on your rucsack?” asks Giacomo.
“A souvenir from a hermitage,” I explained.
“Ah, OK,” he nodded, as if the explanation made perfect sense.
NOTE: This day will continue separately as Day 62b of Walking Out of the World (Estella to Monjardín de Villamayor).
Meanwhile I have the first of two Holy Week articles today on the American website WherePeteris.com and the following link will take you there. These two articles starting today have a Holy Week focus and are about the San Damiano cross in Assisi, and the spirituality of the Syrian hermits who evangelized Umbria from the 5th century.
* Regalado, A., and Lahoski, B.A., Un Paso en el Tiempo: Historias y Hospitalidad a la vera del Camino del Apóstol, (Silex Ediciones, 2005) I have mentioned this book earlier in the pilgrimage, in relation to Roncesvalles, and shall be basing my continuing story of Don Elías Valiña on this source and Laurie Dennet’s book (mentioned above.)
Photo credits: Don Elías Valiña and his 2CV at O Cebreiro, from the El Correo Gallego 17/12/2020; San Damiano cross photo by Gerhard Ruf OFM (when the cross was taken down in 1999 for cleaning), copyright use with permission www.assisi.de.