Summer Camino – day 1

Day 1   –   Frómista  to  Carrión   (20.1 km)

It was still dark on getting up in the morning but by the time I commenced my first day’s walk, the sky was light enough for me to orientate myself and find the first way markers – the yellow arrow that all of us search for and follow all the way to Santiago. I was on my way to Carrión de los Condes, my first destination on foot and the Monastery of Santa Clara being my first overnight stay. The Monastery was built as far back as the 12th century and the albergue with its three bedrooms occupies only a minor part of the elaborate complex. Our dormitory was cramped full with five double bunks, leaving hardly any space for backpacks. The single window opening of about 70 x 70 cm had no glass panes to keep the cold out and I would not like to sleep here in winter! The opening was secured with thick and solid iron bars.

On arrival at Santa Clara I took a shower, washed my shirt, socks and underpants and lay down for a while. Eager to explore the town and purchase provisions for the weekend, I was soon on my feet again – only to discover that shops usually opened not before 17.00. This experience changed my rhythm and in subsequent siestas I stretched out for well over an hour – more in keeping with the local rhythm.

Today’s walk had been great. I hiked for about eight and a half kilometres along a small river, branched off about half-way along this route to visit an old and cosy church in Villovieco, had café latte in a bar and bought some cheese and a bread roll in the village.

I met a “stamper” – an elderly local fellow – at a medieval stone bridge spanning the river. He spoke fluent Spanish and I answered in my best German/English and we understood each other perfectly. Maybe I should introduce myself here and explain my comment about the dual languages. I was born in Danzig – the historic city at the Baltic Sea, which is now part of Poland and is called Gdansk. 1n 1945, just before the Russians bombed Danzig, our family fled westwards and I grew up in a small town in the northern region of what was then known as West Germany. For most of my life I have now lived in South Africa. The reason for this is very simple and straightforward, I met a beautiful girl from Africa. She was teaching at a school in Hamburg where I was working in a shipyard. On the side-line, when Uta was introduced to her class, her pupils were disappointed that she was not black and did not wear a grass skirt. We now live in Cape Town and our three married children have scattered.

The ‘stamper’ at the bridge explained that I was one of very few pilgrims walking the real Camino path along this stream: most preferred to hike along the tar road, running parallel to my path in the distance. He offered a sweet from a basket, stamped my pilgrim’s pass and I was on my way again.

All in all I must have seen about 40 pilgrims spread out on our ‘day’s stretch’ – all walking in the same direction, covering a distance of about 20 to 25 km at roughly the same speed.

Let me explain the routine of stamping: before leaving home, one obtains a pilgrim’s pass as well as a letter of referral – bidding assistance for this poor pilgrim to find a bed and receive help in case of want. In my case this was from the South African Confraternity of St James in Cape Town. In medieval days the letter of referral was handwritten in Latin, probably compiled by a local church representative, and no doubt it was finished off with an official-looking stamp. I am sure that it was important for our forerunners and they had good use for it.

These days the pilgrims’ pass still identifies us as bona fide pilgrims and provides ample space for rubber stamp imprints which can be obtained from albergues, hostels, churches, municipalities, and so on. All differ from one another and often depict innovative and ancient religious motives and patterns. Part of modern pilgrim’s routine consists of gathering as many stamps as possible along the way and present these to the authorities on arrival in Santiago. In my case, by the end of the summer walk I had managed to collect 56 stamps. Nowadays the credentials are less useful than they used to be.

Later on along my way I saw a pilgrim from Italy at the roadside nursing his feet. He had walked from St Jean Pied de Port, a distance of round about 400 km by now, and attended to his raw feet and sore tendons. Next I met a German who had also commenced his journey in St Jean. He had blisters and raw wounds, but still carried on in spite of the pain and suffering. He stated that feet, knees and calves can give complications at any time on the way – what a prospect!

Shortly before Villasirga and in order to reach Carrión, I had to leave the shaded path alongside the river. An old church with a patio, open on two sides and with a roof supported by plain arches, was perfect for a midday nap. I slept on the stone bench built along the church wall until a party of chatty French women and one male arrived and had their lunch at the opposite end of the porch. Not speaking French, it appeared to my untrained ear that their animated conversations were continually interwoven with wee – wee’s (French oui – oui, meaning in English “yes, yes”). When they eventually left, it was also the cue for me to be on my way.

This early on in my journey I was obviously not yet in the right frame of mind to explore history: I walked right past the Santa Maria la Blanca church complex with the tombs of nobles and royalty dating back to the times of the Knights Templar. The only connection I had with this holy place was with a nun. She offered me water from a close-by well, elaborately decorated with blue tiles in the Portuguese style. I filled my water bottle with her assistance but showed no inclination to climb to the historic complex on the hill.

For six kilometres onwards I had to walk on the verge of a minor tar road before reaching Carrión de los Condes, my first destination after a day’s walk of just over twenty kilometres.

Today, as it was a public holiday, shops remained closed. Fortunately a place with public telephones opened at 17:00 so that I could phone Uta, who by now had probably been waiting frantically to hear of my whereabouts. I gave her the bad news that both cell phone and camera stopped functioning when my water bottle had leaked and communication would from now on be more problematic.

After admiring Carrión I relaxed on a small restaurant terrace. Spanish conversation filled the air and I realized that Spaniards closely rival the Italians when it comes to noisy chatting with animated gestures – it must be the Mediterranean influence. I ordered beer for my wait until the kitchen opened at 19:00.

Carrión was an important city in its heyday and there are still palaces and monasteries on the outskirts of which a few are in ruins. The city centre, however, is lined with comparatively recent buildings. Only the layout with its winding streets and a church here and there remind us of the old town.

As early as the 13th century the Jewish community in this town was even larger than the Christian population, and Alfonso the Wise, the King of Castile, who appreciated the Jew’s contributions to the economy of his realm, protected their way of life. However, at the end of the 13th and the beginning of the 14th centuries they were vigorously persecuted. This was not only in Carrión, it was a rebellion that erupted in many parts of Europe. In those days it was not proper for Christians to lend money with interest charged to fellow Christians.

Kings and the nobility in need of funds were however able to borrow from Jews and when unable or unwilling to repay their obligations, they fabricated accusations against their creditors, accusing them of poisoning water wells, causing children and animals to die, creating pestilence, and so forth.

Here are some facts of persecutions in Europe at the time:

In 1290             Jews were exiled from England

(About 16,000 left the country)

In 1298             Jews were persecuted in Austria,

Bavaria and Franconia.

140 Jewish communities were

destroyed and more than 100,000 Jews

were killed over a period of six months.

Around 1306 about 100,000 Jews were exiled fromFrance.

They left with only the clothes

on their backs and food for a day.

These are a few examples of the ongoing persecution of the Jewish people, others are not difficult to find. Most cities in those days participated in the mayhem.

After dinner I strolled past an ancient stone frieze from the 12th century. The figure of Christ dominated the centre with his apostles seated on both sides and other sacred figures below. A frieze like this is often found above entrances to cathedrals and is called a Tympanum. The theme it displays is commonly known as ‘Christ in Majesty’.  While I admired this most beautiful remnant of the Church of Santiago in Carrión, a Spaniard joined me. He spoke an adequate English and told me that his father was a sculptor and he himself was active in the arts; he was a painter and did some woodcarving. He had great appreciation of the stonemasons that created this frieze, and in his opinion it was the most beautiful masonry work he had ever seen.  He furthermore explained that the church of Santiago was destroyed in the Napoleonic wars in the 19th century and that it was very fortunate that this frieze had survived.

The Monasterio de Santa Clara, to which I returned for the first night of my Camino, was still occupied and run by an order of nuns called Madres Carissa. I could not have slept in a more befitting place, probably more so before historic or romantic rather than religious reasons.

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