Thursday, October 29, 2009

Hi, I'm a foot!

The graffiti artist captures how we all feel in his drawing on the tunnel leading the Camino under the highway and into Samos. To wit, after 400-odd miles this month already, what better sums up our operative existence than a foot with a head, and nothing else. But note, it’s a smiling, happy foot.
Today I walked four miles longer than necessary to avoid the highway route and instead take the “alternative” Camino that leads to the Samos Monastery and then on to Sarria. The 5th Century Benedictine monastery burned in 1965, but has been rebuilt and still has its cloistered monks. Unfortunately, it was closed at 11:30 this morning, although the sign on the stout, locked oaken door said it was open from 10:30 to 12:30. But the monastery is more attractive from the outside, where the old walls still exist for the most part, than in the reconstructed interior (visited previously) which is notable chiefly for some of the worst murals ever painted.
The real point of the roundabout route, however, was to walk on the remote, ancient paths along the rio Ouribio, much diminished at this time of year but still contributing its share of burbling small rapids and waterfalls. The paths themselves are worn several feet deep into the ground, and bordered by either old chestnut trees or stone walls that look centuries old. It was an altogether humbling walk, thinking of the centuries of pilgrims and farmers and just plain walkers (and probably more than a brigand or two) who have gone the same way before.
There is, of course, the predictable unproductive debate as to which route is the “real” (that is, the medieval) Camino. Usually I’m willing to side with the highway route, as the most efficient way to get from Point A to Point B for pilgrims as well as today’s travelers. But I have trouble with the notion that medieval pilgrims skipped a huge, safe-haven monastery just to follow the most uninteresting straight line path. So on this one, I’m siding with my route.
Sarria is an uninspiring mid-sized city where I’m spending the night in a noxious chain business hotel (room smells like an ashtray, air-conditioning turned off by management although it’s almost 80, and they charge for using “their” internet). It marks the official beginning of the 100-kilometer count-down to Santiago de Compestela. That’s the minimum distance necessary for a pilgrim to earn a partial forgiveness of sins (except in years when St. James’ birthday falls on Sunday, such as 2010, when the slate is wiped clean). For those of us who have walked all the way from the French border, 100-kilometers seems like an absurdly short “pilgrimage.”