Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Santiago de Compostela

What to say? That’s me, standing on the scallop shell in the center of the plaza in front of the Santiago Cathedral, a whisker shy of 500 miles from the French border outside Roncevalles, where we stayed on October 1 and started serious walking the next day. While the Camino has extinguished the sins of pride and compulsiveness in me, as well as working other wondrous changes in my personality that will soon be apparent to all, I can’t resist adding that I walked every inch. And we beat Martin Sheen and his film crew here by a day or so. (You remember Martin and his Camino movie, which we first encountered when starting our walk in Rouncevalles, but who has been a day or so off our schedule ever since).
Sheen will be filming here November 5. Popular thinking is that he will surely attend the noon pilgrim’s mass, and that for him the church fathers will surely swing the Botafumeiro (“smoke belcher”), the largest incensario in the Catholic world. (Otherwise, the Botafumeiro is broken out and swung only on holy days and, reportedly, when someone pays 250 euros – and if there is more than one person who offers to pay, persons two, three and etc. are not told someone else has already paid; each is allowed to contribute his or her 250 euros.)
But I will be in Paris on November 5. So I am now zero for two in my attempts to see the spectacle of the Botafumeiro swinging majestically – and, yes, dangerously, for once the chain broke and it fell onto the pilgrims below – across the cathedral.
Not reason enough to walk the Camino again, just for another chance, but who knows?

Monday, November 2, 2009

Magic Mushrooms

November is wild mushroom month in northern Spain. Our guide in Leon was also a bigwig in the local mycological society, and proudly told us he had designed the large poster plastered widely around town advertising special wild mushroom feasts at participating restaurantes, complete with photographs of more types of wild mushroom than I had known existed. (Too bad we’re not still in Leon, since the mushroom feasts were scheduled for November 2 to November 7.)
Ever since, I’ve been taking pictures of the more exotic mushrooms seen along our way, none of which I’ve ever seen in the United States (but then again, I haven’t walked several hundred miles along country paths and lanes in the United States recently). In general, our guide told us, the more colorful the mushroom, the more likely it is to be poisonous. By that standard, the mushrooms I photographed today must be lethal. I should have put something in to show the scale, but the larger was about eight inches across. Truly formidable mushrooms.
Apart from magic mushrooms, it was a good walking day. Much, much better weather than Sunday, and sunny most of the day. The second picture was taken as we climbed a hill out of Arzúa, just as the sun began to melt the morning clouds.
Our destination for the day, barely more than 12 miles away (virtually a holiday stroll) was Arca, also known as Pedrouzo on different maps. Both were once adjoining Spanish hamlets that grew together into a small Spanish town. Apparently the residents have been spatting ever since as to which hamlet’s name should have pride of place. But since there were no hotels in either hamlet/town, we stayed 10 miles off the Camino in a 17th Century manor estate, renovated now with every modern convenience except heat in the bedrooms. Actually, there are hot-water radiators, but they initially weren’t turned on, and after a few hours of heat, the boiler blew up and ended all heat for the night. Luckily, the boiler explosion had no effect on the kitchen, which was excellent..

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Lesser Joys of the Camino

Today began with the discovery at 3 am that I was covered with bites, presumably from the bedding in the Hotel Casa Benilde in Palas de Rei. Loyal readers will remember this happened before. The pattern seems to be being booked into a tiny single room at a price significantly reduced from a double. Most hotels just don’t have these 8 x 9 rooms, and put a single into a regular-size room, with or without a modest discount for booking a single. But, runs my inductive surmise, when a hotel does have a limited number of much smaller and substantially cheaper single rooms, they are radically more likely to be booked by on-the-cheap pilgrims moving up from albergues for one night with a private bath and a good clean-up in a hotel – and what pilgrims are more in need of that than those who have encountered the frequent bedbug problems in their latest albergue(s)? And who’s most likely to bring a few (or many) critters with them?
Regardless of whether my theory holds, there I was, covered with red, itching welts. I packed as hastily as one can (1) in an 8 x 9 room where you don’t want to put anything on the bed, and (2) where the hallway makes a poor staging area because the light turns off automatically 20 seconds after you push the switch 20 feet away. Went downstairs, where the fellow on duty said, in response to my pointing to a few visible welts, “No bugs. Window open.” The defense seemed to be that a squadron of mosquitoes had somehow escaped the October frosts and flown in my window to strafe my stomach while I was sleeping on it.
Sensing that this was going to be an unproductive dialog even if I woke up a translator, I simply set off for today’s destination in Arzúa, 20 miles away, along the N-547 since it was too dark for the Camino, which wove back and forth along the same route. I discovered several things hiking through the Spanish night. First, and most interesting, the plaza in Melide, my halfway point, had substantially more life at 6 a.m. than I’ve seen anywhere else in Spain at 9 p.m. Indeed, the throngs were thicker than Reykjavik in June at the same hour, supposedly the all-night partying capital of the world. And substantially more sober and better behaved. Not just groups of guys, but lots of couples. (Melide is the octopus capital of Spain for reasons I don’t understand – being 100 miles inland – and I’d wanted hugely to have octopus Galician style at a pulpería for lunch, the only real casualty of my pre-dawn travels.)
Second, the barking of large, deep-throated dogs is substantially more threatening in the dark than when you can see they’re safely behind high fences. Finally, there is a lot more traffic than you’d expect on a secondary Spanish road at 4 a.m., and it all seems to go 80+ miles an hour, rain or no rain (I guess hydroplaning hasn’t reached Spain).
I’m now settled in double room in a hotel for low-rent Spanish road warriors on the N-547, half a mile plus off the Camino, having refined my room selection model somewhat. Having washed everything that could conceivably have come in contact with the Casa Benilde and taking three showers using up all the soap and shampoo in the tray – a determined effort to leave the bedbugs in Spain – I feel much better after sloshing into town (it’s been raining seriously through all this) for an excellent lunch of caldo gallego and hake Galician style.
Alas, no pictures today. I reflexively took a dozen or so shots of the most spectacular red welts on the front side of my torso, but I wouldn’t inflict those on anyone right now.