Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Camino with Dog


In the middle ages, the Camino de Santiago was the most important of the three main pilgrimages of the Christian world. People made the pilgrimage from France, England, Holland, Germany, Poland, and other countries. Making a pilgrimage was one of the most important things you could do to save your immortal soul in medieval times, and I’ve read that half the population of Europe could be found on the Camino at any given time.

Known in English as the Way of Saint James, the Camino is made up of many tributaries that lead in to the main path. Throughout Europe, people walked out their front doors and started walking.  They made their way to the nearest of the main points from where an official path would lead to other paths that eventually led to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in the northern Spanish province of Galicia, where it is said the bones of Saint James are buried. Wherever they started, people walking from the north would have to pass through France (where it is known as the Chemin Saint Jacques) to reach Spain. In France, the main starting points were Arles, Le Pug, Paris, V├ęzelay, Cluny, and, closer to the Spanish border, Roncesvalles, and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Along the way they would stop at churches where their pilgrimage would be authenticated, and they would be put up in monasteries or local hostels.

Walking the Camino has made a comeback in modern times. In 1985, about 800 people walked enough sections of the Camino to be counted. In 2018 over 300,000 were counted. In 1994 Shirley Maclaine walked and then wrote a book about it. Some people walk it as a pilgrimage, a spiritual quest, others as a way to clear one’s head from the noise of modern life, or a hike, a personal challenge, or an adventure. Some do it because it has been there for over a thousand years and it is a way to join into an historic, collective action. The Camino was made an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.

The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino. During medieval times the scallop shell was proof of completion of the Camino. Now it is worn by those making the pilgrimage as they walk the path. It also appears on signposts and pavement tiles marking the way.

There are also paths from the south that lead through Spain. There are paths from Madrid and Barcelona, and others that are less known and that begin in Catalonia. One of those other ones passes through Figueres.

I walk my dog on the Camino de Santiago, known in Catalan as the Cami de Sant Jaume. With Santiago somewhere behind me, I take the path in the other direction, from Figueres through farmland to the nearby village of Vilabertran.  

The 11th century Romanesque church and cloister of Santa Maria was once an important religious center and a stopover for pilgrims.  They would have come down through the Coll de Panissars, on what was once the Via Augusta going from Rome to Cadis, near the present day Le Perthus.  Or they would have come by boat to Port de la Selva, visited the important monastery at San Pere de Roda, and arrived at Vilabertran from the east.  The church still holds services and is also home to the annual summer Schubertiada festival.

Cupcake and I walk the path, sometimes with other friends and their dogs, but these days mostly on our own. It’s a special quiet time that allows Cupcake to be offleash and to sniff the world to his heart's delight, and for both of us to enjoy a respite from the city. Just after a rain or in the evening when the aroma of the countryside envelopes you, it is heavenly. On cloudy days when the sky is constantly changing, it is almost a religious experience.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

A Breath of Fresh Air


Our Covid confinement started mid-March and I bought and began to use my first facemask on the 30th. Since then I have acquired a collection of washable, reuseable facemasks which is just as well since we were soon required to wear one everywhere but at home.

I took two of the collection with me last week on a visit to Toulouse where they only recently made the wearing of facemasks mandatory in all public places. Toulouse was the center of the French Resistance in the unoccupied part of France during WW II. During the lockdown and ever since, I’ve been reading books about WW II secret agents, double agents, and the French Resistance so I was curious to visit the city that kept coming up in my reading. In addition, it has the Canal du Midi and the Garonne River running through it, plus the area is the home of cassoulet – France’s very complicated-to-make homage to the bean.

Toulouse -- the pink city -- was just as pink and beautiful as they said it would be. If the weather hadn’t been so miserable, I might have seen more of it and taken that long walk along the canal that had been part of my reason to go. Not that I didn’t spend hours walking in the rain. I did.
And I managed a short walk along the canal.


I also managed to wade my way through the rain to see the Museum of the Resistance and Occupation where there was a temporary exhibit of photos by Germaine Chaumel -- wonderful photos taken during the war but not so much of the war, but of people.  You can find some information about her on this French website, if you can't read the text, you can admire the many photos.  Germaine Chaumel 

In the permanent collection I found a couple of photos of people I had read about and, very moving for me, an old wireless transmitter. You can’t read about World War II, double agents, secret agents, and the Resistance without reading about those wireless transmitters. The agents who used them often did only that – send and receive messages for several other agents. Theirs was the most dangerous of all the dangerous work that agents did, because they were the easiest for the Germans to find using their trannsmission detection devices. The transmitter was in its original, beat up leather case, a case about the size of our carry-on luggage. The agents parachuted into France with those. A very heavy carry on to drop down with.

Walking back from the museum (still in the rain) I took a path through the Jardin des Plantes, a park and botanical garden that I had skirted on the way there, afraid to vary from the GPS instructions. The verdant park was a peaceful haven and relief from the maze of streets of the day before. I spent the previous day blundering through those narrow ancient streets in the old town. (I used a map and was constantly lost. At one point, while consulting my map, a man in the doorway of a a shop asked me what I was looking for. “She’s looking for me,” said his pal. “Mais, oui,” I said.) So that next day I enjoyed a heavenly stroll through the garden and the woods. Upon entering and seeing that there was no one within sight, I took off my facemask, and, first time in months, took my first breath of fresh, fragrant air.