Saturday, October 3, 2009

My Camino or Yours?

Trying to overlay a medieval pilgrimage route on a 21st Century landscape is a dicey business. It’s made harder when everyone wants part of the action. Today’s Camino is not so much the rediscovery as the re-invention of the medieval original. After the expulsion of the Moors from Spain in 1492, the need for a large presence of Christian boots on the ground was gone (the pilgrims themselves may not have been a strong barrier against a feared reconquest by the retreating but recalcitrant Moors, but the supporting population of pilgrim protectors and caretakers was). The southward shift in the center of the Spanish state as expansion into the New World from Atlantic ports became more important than fending off French encroachments in the north also reduced everyone’s interest in supporting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims marching toward Santiago every year. And, of course, the Reformation greatly reduced the potential pilgrim armies, and gave the Church other issues to focus upon.
The result was that when two prominent academic authors tried to rewalk the Camino in 1974, they found large stretches where there was neither a trace nor even a memory of the old route. But new prosperity in Western Europe encouraged long walking vacations, and celebrity authors like Paul Coelho and Shirley Maclaine (who made a “conscious decision not to wear a bra” on her New Age journey to Santiago) resulted in a renewed surge of would-be pilgrims and the need for a new Camino. Or more precisely, a new Camino that could pose as the medieval route. In some places, it was easy enough to find, or claim to have found the medieval route. Monasteries, Romanesque churches, and medieval puentes provide persuasive markers (although sometimes a bridge is only a bridge and not a pilgrim crossing point, and some monasteries and churches were situated where they were for other reasons). The problem was complicated by the fact that as the Camino again became an economic force in northern Spain, every community and every operator of a small hotel or bar wanted the Camino, or at least a Camino bypass, to go by its door.
As a consequence of all this, and of the replacement of old land uses with new urban roads and buildings, is that following the Camino can be a challenging enterprise. Today we walked the 14 or so miles into Pamplona. Starting in the far suburbs, where the old Camino followed the River Arga (to a greater or lesser extent), there were several medieval bridges to provide at least a satisfactory simulacrum of the old Camino route, as well as historical tales. For example, tradition is that a cow that walked under the Puente de la Rabia, pictured above, would be cured of rabies. The fact that bridges provided chokepoints for throwing the fear of tolls or worse into the hearts of medieval pilgrims also provides a gratifying frisson for the modern peregrino’s journey (the seventeenth century Italian pilgrim Dominic Laffi reported “The bridge is guarded by soldiers, better described as thieves or murderers. As it is a deserted spot they will strip passers-by of their belongings. . . . Anyone who refuses gets brutally treated”).
But when one approaches Pamplona, today a bustling city of several hundred thousand people with the consequent array of divided highways, cloverleafs, and big-box retailers, it becomes harder to follow “the” Camino, let alone conjure up medieval images. Where exactly would a medieval pilgrim have placed his staff in the second picture above?
UNESCO and various friend-of-the-Camino groups have tried to solve the problem by placing markers and yellow arrows to guide the modern pilgrim. The problem is that there is no effective mechanism to police the placement of markers or arrows. If the owner of a small hotel wants the Camino to pass by her door, a competing series of markers may divert part of the pilgrim stream. On a larger scale, if a community thinks that pilgrims would invigorate its economy, a little concrete for markers, a can or two of yellow paint, and voilà, we have our camino.
In an ultimate sense, it’s hard to miss finding the historic center of Pamplona (itself the subject of a certain re-imagining). But just how to thread our way under the superhighways and between the shopping centers and apartment buildings was the challenge today. At least there were no brigands.