03 July 2011

The Way....Camino de Santiago Compostela

  If you enjoy a leisurely hike or a long trek through the countryside, up and down valleys, and over not very steep mountains, then you should continue reading this article. I have dedicated this blog to the audience who enjoys an adventurous trekking through the countryside. After having read my previous blogs, you must get a sense, I really enjoy hiking and yes I do. There is feeling of gratification that I get being out in the open air, close to nature, and the need to stay fit. Hiking in the countryside for me is a very healthy experience; extremely liberating, good for the body and soul, and meditational.

I decided to visit Spain and trek one of the routes on the Camino de Santiago, “The Way of St. James” as some call this walk as, I chose the Camino Frances in Northern Spain. If you have never traveled in this area, my advice is to do it and go trekking!

As a child, relatives shared their experience after making this pilgrimage and remembering how fascinating it sounded. The Camino de Santiago, one of Spain’s most celebrated medieval trails have been in existence for thousands of years. For centuries and centuries, since the very beginning of Christendom, many pilgrims have followed Santiago’s (St. James's) footsteps across Spain and they continue to arrive in Santiago de Compostela. It never dawned on me that one day, I would be hiking this historic trail.

Cathedral in Astorga.
St. James is the patron saint of Spain. Thus, traditionally believed to be the first of the 12 apostles who went to this most north-western part of Spain, called by the Romans "Finis Terrae", "end of the world", to preach and convert people to Christianity. Santiago was taken prisoner after returning to Palestine by Herodes Agrippa and tortured to death.
Read more at Santiago de Compostela: History and Legends http:

After a bit of research, and purchasing “Walking the Camino de Santiago” by Bethan Davies and Ben Cole, I found out there are twelve routes to Santiago de Compostela. The routes are; Camino Frances, Via de la Plata del Norte, Portugués de Finisterre, Camino Primitivo Tunnel Route, Ingles, Aragones, Le Puy Route de Madrid. Camino Frances is the one I chose being the main route of the Camino de Santiago stretching nearly 800 kilometers (500 miles) from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz in France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.

I came across a few words in Spanish, which may come in handy while traveling as a pilgrim through whichever route you decide to trek.
Spanish lesson 101
Peregrino a pilgrim who walks the Camino de Santiago alone or with others
Albergue or refugio a pilgrim hostel
Hospitalero the person who runs the albergue
Casa rural a charming private rustic country home with rooms for lodging.
Credencial pilgrim passport issued at the beginning of journey. At the end of your trek in Santiago de Compostela you will receive a stamped certificate with your name though you must show your stamped peregrino credencial passport and have walked over 60 miles.
Sello, present your passport to the hospitalero, they will stamp it when lodging for the night.
"Buen camino", a phrase you will hear many times when passing people along the route.

I landed in Barcelona wasting a day as one of my luggage pieces had remained in Madrid, so an overnight stay in Barcelona was inevitable. The following morning my luggage had arrived at the airport, making a late afternoon arrival in Astorga. This is where, my journey would begin the following day.

Finding a place to lodge in Astorga would have been difficult, but as luck would have it, I managed to find or better yet the manager from the hostel Misioneras Apostolicas found me as, I was looking for a place to lodge. The stay in the Misioneras Apostolicas de La Caridad was clean, with private rooms and shared bathrooms. It was nine or ten in the evening as I settled in the hostel and now time to have a late dinner and began my search by walking around town in search of a restaurant. Late evenings in Astorga are quiet many stores and restaurants close early and much is not open past ten, but as luck would have it, I came across a restaurant. My hostel innkeepers had mentioned their doors would close around eleven so, I was reluctant to hang around chatting with the locals. A note of interest, many of the hostels on the camino close their doors by nine or eleven nightly.

After a good night sleep the following morning, my historic walk from Astorga to Santiago de Compostela began. I trekked the countryside, through large cities and hamlets. Tours are not for me, too costly, and very strict about their schedule. While trekking in this area of Spain, I found it to be safe. I walked at my own pace most of the time, peacefully became familiar with the countryside and the culture. For a woman my age, past sixty, and healthy, I advocate doing it - moreover, this is an affordable way to travel. You can trek the Camino de Santiago on a tight budget and stay at the many refugios/hostels the entire route as they charge 2 to 15 euros otherwise, there are many other accommodations to suit any budget. I chose not to stay in hostels. Make certain to present your Pilgrim Passport and have it stamped by the Hospitalero. Whatever way is decided if you love nature and enjoy hiking then this journey is for you. Some Spanish is helpful though.

Astorga is at 870m or 2,854ft, approximately 256.5km from Santiago de Compostela, and in the Province of Leon. The area has beautiful hiking trails, misty mountain passes, located in the land of the Maragatos, Spain’s ancient muleteers, who passed through Galicia. Sandwiched between these passes is the fertile El Bierzo valley, home to delicious wine, and the Templar castle at Ponferrada.

From Astorga, I hiked 12 miles to Rabanal del Camino which sits 3,773 feet high before tackling the mountains, staying at family run inn the El Tesin an albergue with a restaurant. On the second day, I hiked over 16 miles up to and through several hamlets the highest being the Cruz de Ferro at 4,938 ft. high. Cruz de Ferro is an iron cross piled high with stones, presenting an important camino ritual; many peregrinos bring a stone from home or find one along the trail and place it on the pile. Across Europe, Celts traditionally laid stones at peaks and passes like this one to calm the mountains gods and ask for safe passage through the mountains. Romans in the area continued the tradition, calling the stones murias after Mercury, their god of travellers. After leaving Cruz de Ferro trekking was the downward incline all the way into Molinaseca. But first a stop to see the tiny and remote hamlet of Manjarin and home to Tomas a very spiritual hospitalero.

Remote hamlet of Manjarin.
I arrived in Molinaseca in the afternoon to rest up for the night and found it to be a refreshing small town with the prettiest entrance of most of towns  I had passed along the way. Hiking down from the mountain pass, crossing the wide Rio Maruelo into an ancient arched stone bridge, the Puente de Peregrinos, the town was alive with activity. The bridges in Molinaseca helped in creating a control point along the Roman gold road. The wide Rio Maruelo flows alongside the town and in late afternoon’s families line the river walkway for a stroll, while, others swim in the river. The many outdoor cafes are filled with peregrinos eating a late afternoon snack. My stay was at the beautiful Casa Rural del Reloj, At one time the property belonged to the aristocratic Balboa family. The large common room floor is cobblestoned, at the center stands a very large double fireplace, wine is free for the taking, a delicious breakfast buffet in the morning, it is a very hospitable place to stay. The rooms are very spacious with very traditional furniture, off the main traffic area, making the Casa Rural a quiet and enjoyable place to stay. 

Most houses in Molinaseca use local slate, have thick walls to block the wind and steeply angled roofs to deflect snow. Many of the roofs are thatched with local broom and wooden beams.
Scallop shell and staff for sale
along the camino.
The picturesque town of
Villafranca del Bierzo.
My journey as a peregrino lasted 12 days, traveling over 160 miles (260 K) and hiking 12 to 21 miles (10 to 30K a day) a day, through 86 villages, most often over rocky terrain. My backpack weighed 15lbs, however the first few days it seemed to weigh 100lbs, my shoulders were sore by the end of the day, but as the days progressed, they adjusted to the weight. Most important when packing is to pack light. Your pack should not weigh more than 15 pounds. All that walking with a heavy pack makes your day a miserable one.

Early mornings are nippy so dressing in layers because after two hours of hiking, one begins to warm up. A hiking stave or two comes in handy throughout the daily trekking on the dirt rocky roads, as well as hiking up and down the hilly and mountainous countryside. It is great tool to use for balancing. several times a found myself unbalanced because of the backpack weight, the staves came in handy. While being on the trail, you will hear the clink, clink, clinking of peregrino staves hitting rocks while they hurriedly walk along the trails to their destination to either eat or rest their sore feet. Some towns have a Red Cross clinic for the injured peregrino who may have large blisters on their feet, dehydration or sprains. Wear good thick hiking boots and wool socks meant for hiking with the good liners. I added moleskin, an anti-chafe cream for my feet, and toe cushion inserts to my first-aid kit. Adding this saved, my feet from getting horrible blisters.

A hamlet on the way to Palas de Rei.
I found the food very good in every restaurant along the trail. A bottle of delicious red wine or a bottle of water (your choice) came with every three-course meal and after a full day of hiking, my reward was a big meal, and definitely wine. A big bowl of caldo gallego a country cabbage soup may be the starter, possibly chorizo, or Spanish ham with cheese. The main course normally consisted of chicken or beef served with bread.

There also are local taxis to take your luggage to the town, you will be lodging in, leaving you only the worry of getting through a 25-kilometre or less hike and relieving you from having to carry your pack but to just take the day's essentials as you comfortably walk up and down hills. I chose to carry my own pack for my own benefit and feel a sense of accomplishment that such a challenging journey brings.

An albergue in Rabanal del Camino
The Camino de Santiago is clearly marked by bright yellow arrows or the sign of the pilgrimage, a scallop shell carved into a stone. While walking along the camino, I began to think about those who have made this pilgrimage to SDC for centuries past and in doing so I was following ancient footsteps and found it to be truly moving and something to reflect on. The blog below I found to be interesting reading on the subject of the "scallop shell."

A palloza a distinctive form of rural achitecture
in the hamlet of O Cebriero. 
Another interesting and different hamlet perched on a high ridge, was the quaint hobbit hamlet of O'Cebreiro in Galicia - a hilly area with stunning pastoral views, although damp and chilly. O'Cebreiro is a time warp to an uncomplicated, almost prehistoric past, when people lived very close to nature in stone igloos with thatched roofsThe hamlet's round thatched-roofed pallozas are a distinctive form of rural architecture once found across Celtic lands from Africa to Scotland.
A mountain view from O Cebreiro.

One of the daily goals for most peregrinos is arriving in the town, they will be lodging before 1:00 pm.  Many begin their trek as early as five in morning, by following this routine, one is certain to find a room without difficulty since hostels fill up quickly as well as other budget accommodations; otherwise, a late start may mean frantically searching for a place to lodge late in the day. Some chose to make arrangements prior to their journey, I opted not making reservations preceding the trip choosing to take my chances. I always found a place to stay with only two two close calls.

Do not pass through Melide without visiting the pulperia. Pulperia Ezequiel is located on Melide's main street. People sit at long wooden benches and sample the house specialty: pulpo (octopus). Peregrinos line up to fill up on the delicious pulpo sprinkled with Spanish paprika and drizzled with olive oil. It is very tasty served with fresh bread to mop up the olive oil and juices. Stopping here prepares a peregrino for the next traverse of climbing up-and-down many small valleys in this part of Galicia.

Deciding to make the hiking distance shorter on my final day of the journey since; Santiago de Compostela was just 66 km away, I decided to hike 20 miles on day 10 to Arzúa. The town of Arzúa is a bit hazy in memory, I chose to stay in a beautifully restored casa rural owned by a teacher and his wife. I visited the tourist office in Arzúa they suggesting Casa Rei one of many casa rurales in the area. The home over 300 years old has been in the family many, many years and the couple have made the house into a beautiful bed and breakfast in a delightful calm setting.
On day eleven, it was a 24 mile hike to Villamaior from Arzúa the valleys are gentler and a lovely walk although very hot. On day 12 it would be only 3 miles to SDC and a treat to only walk for such a short distance.

Arriving in Santiago de Compostela was an awesome experience, knowing that my journey on the Camino Frances had finally ended as, I crossed the main wooden bridge into the city. I felt really honored and great to have been able to trek the countryside in this part of Spain.  

Down in the crypt lies
 the casket of St. James.
Santiago de Compostela is a part of the province of Galicia as well as the cultural and administrative center in this region. The city is renowned for being the final destination of Camino de Santiago or the Way of Saint James, the celebrated medieval route of pilgrims. The city was named after the Apostle Saint James ("Santiago,") who was and still buried in the Santiago Cathedral. Considered by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and a popular destination from people all over the world, primarily because of its fantastic monuments. Browse through this website for further information about Santiago de Compostela and the popular traditions throughout the year.

I checked into the hotel, freshened up, then strolled around the city to find the Oficina del Peregrino where the compostela is received (a certificate) the final proof that, I have completed the pilgrimage. Every peregrino must show their passport and answer a few questions. I became a fully qualified peregrino after standing in line for 45 minutes then, I was off to see the star of the city the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Everyday at noon a pilgrim’s mass is held and the ceremony may culminate with the swinging of the botafumeiro (smoke belcher), a massive silver incense burner said to be the largest in the Catholic world. It takes eight men in a team called tiraboleiros to tie the knots and get the massive silver apparatus swinging across the cathedral an overwhelming exhibition. The botafumeiro dates back to 1851, after the original was stolen by Napoleon’s troops when the cathedral was looted.
The construction of the cathedral began in 1075 and completed in 1211, the first church built by Alfonso 111 the Greater in 899, was destroyed by Amanzor’s Moorish army in 997. It’s said the bones of St, James and two of his disciples remain in a casket in the crypt. The cathedral is so massive and beautiful but enough said, my photos tell the rest.
I enjoyed a wonderful journey in Spain, along the historic Camino Frances and hope, you can do the same one day.                                       
                                                 Continue to Explore - Dream – Discover.

Cathedral de Santiago

Eight tirabolieros swing the botafumeiro.

San Marcos, Monte de Gozo.


Here, I am in Ponferrada in front of
the Castillo de los Templarios.

07 November 2010

Panama's "El Nazareno/El Cristo Negro de Portobelo" a Traditional Ritual

The Festival of the “El Nazareno de Portobelo”, “El Cristo Negro”, or the Black Christ tradition dates back to the 16 century. Celebrated on October 21 each year in the small town of Portobelo in the Province of Colon, Panama. Many of it's residents are Black Panamanians take note this is by no means a blacks only celebration it attracts more than 50,000 each year.
The origins of “El Cristo Negro” as the story by locals tell of three legends.
The box and the storm: A ship bound for Cartagena de Indias, was trying to sail from Portobelo during a violent storm, forcing the ship to return to port. In the fifth attempt to leave the crew was about to sink, so they decided to lighten the load throwing away a huge and heavy box they had housed in their warehouse. Some fishermen found the box and when they opened it they saw the image of El Nazarene, taking it to the village, and placing the statue in the church.
The case and epidemic: A fisherman found a box floating in the sea during an epidemic of cholera, which decimated the population heavily. The Cristo Negro then was placed inside the church then almost immediately, the epidemic ended and the patients recovered quickly.
The religious roots that have this devotion in this popular area could be subject to a socio-religious culture and faith of the Panamanian people.
Today this festival takes place in the parish church of La Iglesia San Felipe one of oldest buildings in the town finished in 1814. It also houses the image of El Nazareno de Portobelo, a handsome statue of the Cristo Negro bearing the cross, made of wood from southern Spain more that 300 years ago.
Many walk more than 53 miles from Panama City; thousands walk the last 22 miles from the town of Sabanitas, as I did with friends to experience this tradition. Many crawled the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno. I am here to let you know I did not crawl or wear a purple robe.
Many wear purple robes that are discarded as they enter the church. The robes announce that the wearer is responding to a divine command, doing penance for wrongdoing, or simply making an expression of faith. They have become the focus of controversy on the part of the Catholic Church and human rights organizations that consider the severe penances or “offerings” that are offered to “The Santo” to be extremely painful and reprehensible in as much as they are self-inflicted. There are also images of the ardent penitents who have a companion drip burning wax over there backs from candles offered to the Black Christ, as a sign of devotion. The crawling pilgrim follows a small effigy of the Black Christ laid down in front of him/her by his companion who encourages the penitents to continue until reaching the church.
As I walked to Portobelo for this event, I noticed Red Cross clinics alongside the road and other first aid groups as well stands offering water and sandwiches to all pilgrims.
As one approaches the town of Portobelo it is crowded with families from all over Panama but few tourists were in attendance. The Policia Nacional are there peeking inside purses, backpacks, and frisking men. The women are frisked in a small private makeshift room although senior females are not, they are signaled to continue ahead.
The town is alive with salsa and reggae music playing everywhere; beer and water are sold on the doorsteps of private homes. The atmosphere is alive with the color purple speckling the crowd, many booths sell small statues of the Cristo Negro, purple rosaries and other religious relics. On a small street outdoor barbers line the sidewalk shaving mens hair off for this event while some women choose to have a pedicure. All in preparation for the church service.
Mass begins at 6 p.m. each October 21. (Be there before 4 p.m. if you hope to get inside the church to find a seat.) Most of the penitents sit near the back of the church. Towards the end of mass, there are several very load drum beats and the penitents start dancing, to the drumbeat rhythm and sing. Some men are shirtless, both men and women wave their arms either swaying back and forth on their knees or standing during the chant. At exactly 8 p.m., 80 able-bodied men carry a platform with the statue of the Cristo Negro from the church to begin a four-hour parade around the community the atmosphere is somber.
The bearers take three steps forward, two back, in a similar manner to that of Spanish religious processions. However, unlike those of Spain, this procession has a special Latin American twist: a quick step to lively music. The bearers have freshly shaven heads and have bare feet. It is a distinct honor to bear the Black Christ and to have been chosen, an honor paid for by sore shoulders and aching muscles the next day.
At exactly midnight, the statue once again is returned to the church until the following year.
The statue of El Cristo Negro wears different robes for two ceremonial occasions each year: red for October 21 and purple for Holy Week, La Semana Santa. Each robe is decorated with lace, gold braid, sequins, and ‘jewels’. Groups of women carefully sew the robes in the economically poor community, using money donated for the purpose.
A museum behind the church holds 63 of the robes donated by Panamanians for the festival, some of which are more than 100 years old. World-famous former boxer, Panama’s own Roberto Duran, donated one of the richest.
The Black Christ wears undergarments of snow-white linen, trimmed with delicate hand-made lace, beneath the outer robe. Worshippers pin gold trinkets and jewelry to the robe on October 21 in the hopes of gaining special privileges. It is truly a most interesting event you may not want to miss while either living in or visiting Panama in October.
Founded in 1597 by Spanish explorer Francisco Velarde y Mercado, Portobelo is a small bay town with a population just over 3000. From the 16th to 18th century, it was an important silver exporting port in New Granada on the Spanish Main and one of the ports on the route of the Spanish treasure fleets. The town was also victim to one of Captain Henry Morgan’s notorious adventures. The forts of Santiago and San Geronimo are each a 5-minute walk from the pier, their historic ruins still stand today, but unfortunately over the years they are slowly deteriorating due to neglect. Located closely to the forts is the "Customs House", built in 1630, also the remains of the church of La Merced still stands today, and the church of San Felipe, the last building built by the Spaniards.
Read more about Portobelo in Colon on my blog dated May 28, 2010.
We stayed at the Llorona Lodge in Sta. Rita, 45-minutes before arriving to Portobelo. Llorona Lodge is a bird haven and has 500 hectares of pure pristine land with many trails for hiking as I did on my first visit. Roberto Caballero is the manager and does superbly catering to your needs. The cook fixed up a delicious pasta lunch for our trek to Portobelo.
There are so many more places in Panama I want visit and get to know. It is so amazing however small Panama is it is rich culturally with a large diverse population in each of it's Provinces and has seven different indigenous groups with their own special culture. Now that's a big WOW!
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