Day 10 – Molinaseca to Cacabelos (22.3 km)
On the way to Ponferrada the following morning in the dark I missed the footpath that would have taken me more directly to the Knights Templar castle situated in the center of the old town. Instead, I had to walk along the main road and through the boring suburban outskirts. The Knights’ stronghold is built on a rocky ridge, of which the steep faces extend upwards into the castle’s double defensive walls with their proud watchtowers that protect the main building within. Following the contours of the summit, the complex is shaped like an elongated triangle and the entrance is at the sharp point. A narrow and deep rock chasm, spanned by a footbridge, leads to the entrance. In medieval times this must have been a drawbridge. The solid entrance door to the castle is impressive but disappointingly it only opened for visitors at midday – too long a wait for a pilgrim who wants to get to Santiago! I just peeped through the rather large keyhole; saw a very limited portion of the spacious courtyard with a section of the main building at the opposite end. The whole complex demonstrated power, technical abilities and sophistication of the Knights Templar. When leaving, I also had a limited view to parts of the newer town in the valley below. The sheer drop of the cliff to this area was awesome.
I returned to Plaza Encina and once more had an impressive sight of the castle on the outcrop. The stark rock formation looked similar to the base of a crown with the defensive walls and towers protruding like jewels skywards. I admired the site and thought of the similarly impressive strongholds still found in the Middle East – remnants of the Knights’ crusading days in the 13th century.
The first pilgrims walked the Camino from the 9th century onwards, and their stream increased to such an extent that over time hostels, hospitals and other facilities had to be built. There were no neat and orderly structures such as this castle in Ponferrada, and on the route to Santiago life was certainly not as it is today. Initially, facilities for pilgrims were non-existent. They had to rely on the generosity of others and the rule in general was probably ‘everyone for himself – and may the strongest survive!’ I imagine that, to be a pilgrim under these circumstances, one had to be really dedicated – or desperate. It meant walking for hundreds of kilometres and from central Europe it would have been well over 1500 km each way, making it 3000 km on a return trip. And all this to obtain forgiveness of sins and to prepare for one’s way into heaven.
Religious orders and the church in those days and for centuries to follow often spread panic and uncertainty amongst the general public, instilling fear and horror by proclaiming everlasting punishment in hell for those who were not obedient and devoted to the Christian faith. For compliant and submissive behaviour they were promised glory in heaven. The church also condoned practices such as torture, witch hunting, burning at the stake, and so on. This created further fear and insecurity and compelled its flock to save their souls by all means possible – including walking the Compostela road, no matter the distance, what dangers to encounter and the hardships their family members had to endure when left behind without a breadwinner.
I had imagined that most pilgrims who could afford the many months-long journey were predominantly from the middle class, probably tradesmen, merchants and obviously those engaged in religious matters. I was wrong, historic accounts tell of the masses of poor, unemployed and homeless pilgrims on the roads. Also many nobles, who must have been equally concerned about their salvation, were part of the masses. Surely they were protected by their entourage. Then there were also those ‘clever’ nobles who kept their pilgrimage comfortable and sent their servants onto the road to seek absolution in Santiago on their behalf!
Protecting pilgrims from vagabonds and vandals and keeping order in those early days was managed by religious institutions. At a later stage, in the 12th and 13th centuries, the Knights Templar and other military orders that settled along the Camino performed similar duties. They expanded the available infrastructure and in time the path to Santiago was better defined, rivers were bridged and hostels, hospitals, castles, hamlets and other facilities were established.
The Knights Templar was a secular order of dedicated nobles and their followers. They played a major military and political role at the time of the crusades against Muslim expansion in Jerusalem and the Levant. They ultimately were perceived to be fabulously rich and, after their crusading ventures to the Middle East, they spread their influence, wealth and property holdings throughout most parts of Europe. They were devoted Christians and followed a strict code of conduct, although it is said their rituals were interwoven with strange mysticism.
Because of their alleged riches and their secretiveness the French king, Philip IV, and Pope Clement V decided to act against the Knights Templar at the beginning of the 14th century and they eventually confiscated their castles and belongings.
Talking about wellbeing of one’s soul and manipulation by the Catholic Church brings me to the religious movement of the Cathars – Katharos in Greek meaning ‘pure’. Their history can shine more light onto religious events and circumstances between the 12th to 14th centuries ‒ the time when the Camino was probably in its heydays. The Cathars were a staunchly religious sect that believed in Jesus Christ and his gospel as related by the apostles. However, they also had knowledge of and probably access to some Gnostic writings, which portray a different picture of the events leading to the establishment of Christianity, often contrasting to what was prescribed by the Catholic Church. These differences had great relevance for the Cathars who did not agree with numerous practices of the Catholic Church or with its interpretation of the Bible.
The Cathars, for instance, did not believe in baptism, claiming that water was material and corruptible and could not sanctify the soul. They regarded any confession made to a priest as useless, as sins should and could not be forgiven so easily, and certainly not by mortal priests. They also disagreed with the adoration and veneration of the crucified Christ and the many relics that were idolised. They were opposed to the sacrament of the Eucharist (the Last Supper) as this was a gesture without relevance. They were convinced that the church had betrayed the true essence of the Christian faith and that the original purity of the message of Christ had been manipulated.
The Cathars also maintained that the Roman Catholic Church was morally, spiritually and politically corrupt. They had a very different understanding of how religion and church practice should be structured and did not believe that the Pope was the representative of God. They condemned the abuse of power the church claimed and demonstrated, which competed with kings and emperors in ecclesiastical as well as secular matters in those days. They also criticised the way the church, through fear and anxiety, controlled its followers with their doomsday and afterlife in hell predictions. Most of all the Cathars could not agree with the way wealth was accumulated and displayed.
In contrast to the Catholic way of life, the Cathar leaders, the Perfecti, lived a simple life and were dedicated to their flock. Not only did they surrender their worldly possessions to the community and live like true monks, they were also devoted to charity work, purity, prayer, preaching and tending to the sick. The Perfecti taught their followers to live a simple but pure life, a life of respect, gratitude, honesty and adherence to the Ten Commandments.
The Cathars also believed that the world was so evil that it could not have been created by a loving God. They alleged that it was created by an evil spirit that had been expelled from the perfection of heaven. Alternatively, they maintained that certain angelic souls embraced materialistic values and were reincarnated to earth where they adopted lifestyles of greed, deception and brutality, as demonstrated by many, even in ecclesiastic orders.
They furthermore believed in two external powers: these were Rex Mundi on one hand, ‘the devil and king of the underworld’ who created material desires, and the good and loving God who created order and peace and was the guardian of our spirit and of our souls in heaven. The aim of the Cathars was to reunite with the good and loving God, and to ultimately leave behind this material world; in their view the power-seeking Catholic Orders were corrupted by the pursuit of earthly power and success – they were no doubt greatly influenced by Rex Mundi.
According to their conviction, we are on this earth to transform our worldly existence into a realm of love, a state which we would approach as our souls became more pure. They believed in reincarnation to achieve this, accepting that many lifetimes were necessary to reach this goal.
The Cathars’ organisation grew into a popular mass movement which spread to many parts of Europe. Their strongholds in the south of France were Pau, Toulouse, Carcassonne and Montpellier, to name but a few. Here the resident nobles also feared the ever-increasing power of the Catholic Church and this led them to support and protect the Cathars in their fortified cities.
The Papacy perceived the movement as a threat to its religious supremacy and in 1176 the Cathars’ doctrine was declared heretical. The St Dominican Order was established in Languedoc to counter Cathar influences, but they had little success and in 1204 the Pope excommunicated Cathar sympathizing nobles, one of them being Raymond VI of Toulouse, who was not willing to support the Catholic Church any longer.
Pope Innocent III called on the French King Phillip II to lead a crusade against Cathar strongholds; Phillip declined. Pope Innocent then devised an idea which could have only been inspired by Rex Mundi and which demonstrates the secular powers he claimed for himself. He declared a crusade against the Cathars and their sympathisers and offered the land of the ‘heretics’ and their supporters to whoever would fight and overthrow them – an offer that many nobles from the north of France could not resist. And so the crusades against the Cathars and their allies in Languedoc, which at the time was a separately governed region before it became part of France at a later stage, started in 1209 and lasted for some twenty years.
Before the suppression of the Cathars the areas of Languedoc, Roussillon and Midi Pyrenees were prosperous agricultural districts with the highest population density in Europe. The region was governed by the County of Toulouse and other nobles, and cooperation amongst them was amicable: hardly any skirmishes are recorded for this period, which was unusual for that epoch.
The brutal, cruel and destabilizing crusades changed all this. Cistercian monk Arnaud Amalric was the legate and inquisitor sent by Pope Innocent III to attempt the re-conversion of the Cathars. He took his assignment very seriously and was zealous in his pursuit of the victims. He authorized torture, maiming and killing with great vigour until he died in 1225. The first city to be ransacked by the crusading armies was Beziers, in 1209. Catholics were asked to leave the city and the Cathars to surrender; however, both refused. The city was then stormed, the entire population of about 20 000 was massacred and the city burnt to the ground.
A Cistercian writer and community leader at the time recorded that, when Legate Arnaud was asked how he could distinguish between Cathars and orthodox Christians, his reply was “Kill them all, for the Lord knoweth them that are His!” This shows the Catholic sentiments at the time.
Dominance during the ensuing wars changed repeatedly. Initially the crusaders had the upper hand, but then the noble Cathar sympathisers prevailed. In 1223 King Phillip II of France died and his son and successor, King Louis VIII decided to join the Crusade. He won many skirmishes against Cathar sympathisers and the Cathar friends were hard pressed.
His reign only lasted for three years and when King Louis IX succeeded, he was still a child. His mother, the Queen Regent Blanche, who reigned on his behalf, also supported the French nobles and the crusade, and when with her help Toulouse fell in 1228, she offered Count Raymond of Toulouse, the son of Raymond VI who had always resisted the French forces, a treaty. She would allow him to remain ruler of Toulouse providing he denounced the Cathars and married his daughter off to King Louis’ brother. In this manner, through inheritance, Toulouse would eventually become French territory.
Raymond finally agreed and signed the treaty in 1229 – after which he was whipped and imprisoned. With the most powerful protector of the Cathars isolated, resistance diminished and the Crusade neared its end.
The last stronghold of the Cathars was Montsegur, a castle not far from Carcassonne, where their accumulated belongings were kept. The castle was perched high up on a steep, rocky mountain and in 1244, after a siege that lasted nine months, it was finally conquered by the crusaders. About 200 Perfecti were captured and burnt to death in an enormous bonfire in the valley below. There is a legend that some Perfecti escaped and returned later to retrieve the Cathar treasures hidden in the countryside – treasure that has never been found. Today this once proud castle is in ruins.
As a result of the Crusades the French Crown and its nobles annexed the separate and free southern regions of Languedoc, also known as Ossitania where the Ossitan language was spoken at the time. After the annexation to northern France, the French language, as it is still spoken today, prevailed. The Catalan dialect, as it is spoken in the adjacent Catalan Province in Spain, is similar to Ossitan, which, way back, was also called Lenga d’óc. Both languages experience a revival these days and so does the Languedoc spirit.
Pope Gregory IX wanted to eliminate the last remaining Cathars who had escaped capture, reconversion or death during the Crusades. He instructed the Order of the Dominicans in 1229 to establish an Inquisition, which only ended in 1310 – an astonishing 101 years after the outbreak of the crusade. It was the first Inquisition ever organised by the Catholic Church on this large scale.
The next major Inquisition took place in the 15th century and forced Jews and Muslims in Spain to convert to Christianity, maintain Catholic orthodoxy or leave the Iberian Peninsula. The harsh and inhumane proceedings of the inquisition with its cruel and unpredictable culture of denunciation promoted by the authorities to prevent persecution and torture of those involved, were diligently recorded in volumes which are still accessible today. It is fear under these circumstances that converts us to be cruel to our neighbours; similar behaviour was displayed under the Nazi period in Germany. Many other cultures in history and even many people today are tortured, but none suffered more cruelty than those manipulated during religious inquisitions with their related fanatic rhetoric. Actually, religious torture and manipulation is still widespread, even in these days, and I for one am frightened of this and any form of radicalism.
In later years the Cathars, frequently as a result of the Crusades and the Inquisition, reconverted to the Roman Catholic Church. They were often instructed, as a sign of penance, to embark on the pilgrimage to Santiago, and the Compostela letter became the proof for the authorities back home that they had completed the task.
Enough of history; let me return to Ponferrada with its Knights Templar castle. Close to Plaza Encima I visited the fairly large Basilica de la Encina with its impressive gold-encrusted altar wall that reached up to the ceiling and provided proof of the wealth and splendour of the Roman Catholic Church. The main attraction for me was the soft piped music inside the church. I lit four candles and settled down to write the diary for an hour or more before I continued over Plaza Mayor and down the narrow streets of the old town, through the arch of La Torre del Reloj and over the río Sil by the pon (bridge) ferrada (ferro = iron) – an iron bridge, originally dating from the 11th Century.
I left the old city and searched for a pharmacy in the newer suburbs. The night in Molinaseca had not been restful; my body was still itching and I had to face the fact that washing my clothes had not cleared me of insects. In fact, the next morning I discovered more bumps and bruises and during the day some grew to the size of a large coin. My face looked quite distorted by now, and my neck, arms, hips, legs and even my feet were itching. Something drastic had to be done; I now needed serious help and went to an ambulato (day hospital). The wait took almost two hours and when I tried to speak to someone about this, the language barrier became obvious and my attempts to gain information failed. Nevertheless, at 12 o’clock it was finally my turn to see the doctor. The prognosis was that the bed bugs had caused an extremely vicious allergic reaction. I obtained antihistamine tablets from a pharmacy and homeopathic pills to make myself less attractive to my present or any future bugs. By this time it was long past midday and I took a taxi to the edge of the industrial area, which saved me three and a half kilometres of walking. From there I had a hot but pleasant and lonely journey of a good fourteen kilometres to Cacabelos.
On arrival at the albergue at around 16:30 and knowing that bedbugs were still with me, I again washed my clothes. This time I put everything into the washing machine except my swimming trunks and a shirt which covered me in the meantime. I knew that if this time I could not get rid of my stowaways I would be in serious trouble and probably would have to abandon my pilgrimage. It was not only the itching and unsightliness; energy needed for the serious climbs that lay ahead were sapped.
I was also conscious of the fact that I could inadvertently pass the bugs onto others, – what to do? I felt quite ostracized and did not want other pilgrims to see my predicament, but it was impossible to hide my condition, so I had to make myself scarce. I could not take off my shirt in the bathroom and reveal the ghastly evidence. If this persisted, I would have to consider sleeping in a pensione or hotel – which is not what I wanted. The albergues add to the spirit of the Camino, making one feel that one belongs to a very special community.
For days I had been planning to meet Uta on the 26th of September in Santiago, which was the day of her scheduled arrival from Cape Town and before her departure for Finisterre – eighty kilometres west of Santiago. At the outset we had planned to meet on the 30th of September, after her return from Finisterre. As it transpired, I had walked much faster than I had thought possible when we planned the trip. My average stretch was about twenty five kilometres a day, a similar distance to that managed by most pilgrims, so I would be in Santiago on the same day or a day prior to her arrival from Cape Town; my plan was now to accompany her to Finisterre. Although one might want to walk alone, I did miss my wife during afternoons and evenings when exploring villages or towns. I was also missing our habitual search for a pleasant restaurant, rather than being content with the first place available. Alone I just kept it simple.
Grapes were ripe and on my way to Cacabelos many families were out harvesting. All family members were participating, including grannies and teenagers, boys and girls. When I asked for permission to taste, they replied with ‘si – si’ and when I showed them the beautifully shaped dark red bunch that I had cut from the bush, they laughed and everyone was happy. I later picked two more bunches, this time, I must confess, without permission. The grapes were perfectly ripe and juicy and I just ripped them off the stalks with my teeth in a rather cannibalistic way.
As evening approached, I saw two pilgrims with three donkeys. Luggage was strapped onto one donkey, leaving the other two for riding: it looked wonderful, no carrying of backpacks. However, walking in a larger and mixed family like this also has its complications: the donkeys wanted to graze and the pilgrims wanted to continue the trip – the donkeys won.
The sun was setting in Cacabelos and with my washing still spinning in the tumble dryer, I was totally underdressed for the rising chill. The albergue was a bit out of town, so I had to find something to eat and get back pronto!