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Posts tagged ‘church’

Savouring the last leg to Santiago

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I ate Pimientos de Padrón in Padrón.

Of course.

And I enjoyed the little peppers as much as I loved the town of Padrón which is saturated in the legends of St James. It’s here he supposedly preached in Spain for the first time, in a quiet spot high up on the hill overlooking the town. I walked up to the simple statue and cross that marks the spot on the rock far away from the bustle of the town below. And I felt a peace there that’s been missing on most of this camino.

I felt it less in the Igrexa de Santiago church which houses another of the great legends, the original stone mooring post to which the boat carrying St James was tied at the quayside on the river. And, at the other end of the Saint’s story there’s a roadside monument showing the arrival of the his sarcophagus as it passed through.

In the morning, after breakfast in a pilgrim cafe by the ancient stone bridge, four of us set off to walk together on the last leg of our journey. There were roads and traffic and noise, but there were trees and bridges and peaceful places too. We weren’t in a rush for the walking to end and met friends who also stopped countless times before they took the last steps into Santiago.

And when I turned a corner on the medieval streets and the familiar sharp spires of the cathedral rose into view I felt the smile spreading over me. It felt like coming home.

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The long shadows of Skye’s stones

The mossy carpets of ruined homes, turf-topped walls and ragged church gables tell the story of Tusdale, the Skye village that died with the Clearances two hundred years ago. It’s far off the tourist trail, quiet and alone with its memories, and I sense a poignant, unfinished business in the lands of the evicted.

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Visiting Elmelunde

There’s a kirk on the island of Møn in the south east of Denmark that’s special – and not just because it’s where my camino friend Nikolaj was christened.

The tall white church in Elmelunde is famous for its outstanding frescos which were painted in the fifteenth century and then hidden below layers of whitewash for centuries. The gentle drawings were restored in the 1960s and they appeal to me because they seem so honest and simple, and use natural colours to depict everyday rural activities like harvesting, ploughing and hunting. Flowers and plants delicately separate the scenes and there is religious symbolism too, with illustrations of stories from the Bible.

While I knew, of course, that the main area of worship in a church is the nave, I’d forgotten the Christian metaphor of comparing the church itself to a ship. And at P1000146Elmelunde I also discovered the Danish tradition of hanging ships in a religious building, a custom which originated with pagan beliefs that offering a miniature version would offer safe voyage for the full sized vessel and its crew.

I thought of the Viking longboats which sailed with such acquisitive intent to Shetland and other parts of Scotland and the fear these blessed ships once engendered in my ancestors. It’s just a few days, after all, since I was hearing about the Danish “visitors” from a very different perspective.

I loved the sense of simplicity at Elmelunde. I can admire the glorious rich gold altarpieces of French and Spanish cathedrals and the creativity of the spectacular Sistine Chapel ceiling, but these whitewashed P1000151walls topped with quiet frescos naturally drew my gaze heavenwards and I felt surprisingly at home here.

“Takk” , Nikolaj, for taking me. I too have a home church that’s very special and understand how much it means to share it.

A solitary voice and tears at the Pilgrim Mass

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Without breaking our stride we walked straight up the steps, out of the sunshine and into the Cathedral.

It was noisy and busy which made it difficult to concentrate on the enormity of the moment. I had been 31 days on the road, walking towards this place.

I unhooked my pack, sank into a pew, undid my boots and waited…

For what, I wasn’t sure. I was grateful to be here of course; for the strength and fitness that made it possible to walk 500 miles; for the friends made along the way; for the story and tradition of the road we had walked and for the special gift of Robbie’s company over the last week.

We wanted to share the experience with his brother so we called him in New Zealand.  Robbie went to find water and still I sat there, gazing at the extravagant gold altarpiece built to glorify St James. Waiting.

It was only 10.45am but already people were filling the 1000 or so seats. Friends and familiar faces from along the way arrived, wandering dazed down the aisles, and we greeted one another and hugged. It was emotional. Visitors, pilgrims, nuns and locals packed into every space and still more arrived and crammed in around the walls. The chatter and sense of expectation grew louder. Then we were hushed.

And the nun sang.

IMG_0766The pure sound of a solitary voice echoed round the ancient walls. We listened, captivated,  then tried to copy her as she taught us to sing alleluia to the beautiful cadences.  The magnificent organ heralded the arrival of the priests. And the mass began.

At the end the huge incense burner, the Botafumeiro was lowered to the fanfare of the organ then the tiraboleiros – the red coated attendants – took up their positions on the ropes and began to pull downwards. The choir sang. I hadn’t dared hope we would arrive on a day when the Botafumeiro was swung. Scores of people rushed up the aisle to watch and photograph it as it picked up speed and rocketed over our heads, drifting streams of smoke as it flew.

P1000638And then it was over. We laced up our boots and loaded on our packs.

We still had to find beds for the night.

Sharing the last steps

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With just 20km to go I was finding it hard to distill how I was feeling about the whole experience of walking the Camino.

The physical challenge had been relatively easy and the camaraderie and communication with people from varied backgrounds all over the globe had been the best fun I’d had in years. I’d made firm friends and laughed with them in the evenings, improved my fitness, compared feet and blisters, become more tolerant and had time to reflect on what to do, where to go, next.

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And yet … old habits and attitudes die hard. I’d given myself a deadline to reach Santiago in time for the Pilgrim Mass at noon the next day so that I could share the experience with Robbie. And that meant getting up at 5am and finding our way in the darkness through the eucalyptus woods.

We got lost and I got anxious. Maybe I hadn’t learned anything after all!

Finally, after so many days on the road, we caught a glimpse of the spires of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

I felt nervous rather than exhilarated: unsure and unprepared. Our feet were sore and for the first time my back was aching. Walking through the suburbs was P1000621relentless and we were pushed along by a growing stream of day pilgrims, tourists, schoolchildren all focused on the 12 o’clock mass. Everyone seemed to be walking urgently.

The scallop shells led the way, the narrow streets were drawing us through, the excitement was palpable. We kept turning to one another and smiling. And then a square opened before us and magnificently, gloriously the cathedral steps beckoned.

We had arrived.