Post Camino side trip: Chanting monks

Benedictine monks chanting vespers

When on Camino, I begin each day with Gregorian chant–specifically, the chant of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos.  Since their monastery is only about an hour from Burgos I decided to travel to Santo Domingo to listen to them in person.

It was a l-o-n-g train ride from Santiago to Burgos followed by a not-so-long drive to Santo Domingo. Arriving midday, I hid from the Spanish heat during siesta emerging late in the afternoon to tour the monastery’s impressive cloister. 

Later, I scored a pew in the front by being one of the very early arrivals in church. It was a good thing, too, because the place was packed out. Shortly before 7:00, an old monk in a hooded black robe (looking a little bit like the grim reaper) entered, and dragging one foot he came forward to light the candles on the chancel. Three more monks came in, each clearly suffering the infirmities of age, and found their places. One was bent at the waist forming a near perfect right angle with his body.

At 7:00, the rest of the monks entered, and bowing two at a time at the altar took their places in the stalls. In all, eighteen monks, nine on each side began to chant vespers accompanied by yet another monk who softly played an organ. Their seriously old head monk sat apart and chanted a bit but mostly left the singing to his juniors, most of whom looked rather senior.

To hear these men in person was a special treat and worth the hours it took to get there. For nearly an hour I was mesmerized by what to me was a musical performance, and to them, nightly prayers.

That they do this every single day is hard to grasp. I appreciate the comfort of routine, but several times a day–for a lifetime–is beyond comprehension.

After vespers I had a leisurely meal at my hotel, then returned to the church for compline, an abbreviated version of vespers. Since it began at 9:30, the tour buses had gone and the pews were mostly empty.

Traveling to hear these monks was yet another pilgrimage for me. Now when I put my earphones in I will have a new appeciation for the Gregorian chant I so enjoyed in person.

Postscript: These men in black were just as good as that other man in black. Gospel takes many forms. Cells do, too.

Day 13. Santiago

Lavacolla to Santiago
Distance:  11 kilometers
Steps:  14,281
Stairs equivalent: 15 floors
Agony level: 1

The magic of arriving on the plaza in front of the cathedral never gets old.

The Credencial or Pilgrim’s passport. Necessary for admittance into the albergues.

The bagpiper was playing in the portico as I passed through. One left turn and there I was, on the plaza, one of just a handful of early arriving pilgrims in a sea of clustered tourists. I eased my backpack to the ground and stood there thinking about the last two weeks. After a bit my eyes started to well up so I closed them. When I opened them I was surprised to see several tourists with their cameras trained at me. I can just imagine the stories they will tell in China or Japan when they go home. What better way to bore your friends and family.

Compostela. Evidence of having completed the camino.

There was no queue at the Pilgrims Office and I was able to collect my compostela in about two minutes. When I noted that my name was wrong, the lady behind the desk said the names are in Latin now. Interesting. It’s the first time I’ve been an Elizabeth.

The pilgrims mass at noon has changed a bit, but since it is in Spanish and is a catholic thing I can’t quite say what was different. I’d say it was better, partly because there was a new cast of characters from the previous two years. The singing nun had a better voice and the priests (once again dressed to the nines in that catholic way) seemed genuine, even friendly to the 1200-1500 people squeezed cheek by jowl.

The Whoosh-Whoosh just starting to swing.

The botafumeiro was readied and I had a wonderful view of the incensor and the rope pullers from my seat on the base of a massive column.

I’ll be having dinner with some of my Camino buddies before heading to Burgos in the morning. A bit south of Burgos is a monastery that houses some monks with amazing voices. I plan to spend a couple of days there soaking up the chant, walking the cloisters and just hanging out.

Best. Camino. Ever.

Day 12.  2013 Reprise–sort of. 

June 15, 2015
Ribadiso to Lavacolla
Distance: 32 kilometers
Steps: 41,571
Stairs equivalent: 39 floors
Agony level: 2+

Early morning on the penultimate day.

Two years ago I did a face plant just one day away from Santiago. It was a battered and bruised pilgrim that walked through the portico, past the Galician bagpiper, and onto the cathedral square the next day.

This is where things went wrong two years ago.

Today, as I retraced that route I found myself getting a little nervous for no good reason. When the scene of the crime came into view I paused to take a photo, then crossed the street and went inside. I’m not sure what I was expecting but nothing had changed. I have relived that day two or three hundred times, and each time my adrenaline spikes with an irrational fear.

Tonight, I’m staying at the hotel where I had cried for hours in 2013. No tears today, just a very long, hot shower and a little privacy, two things that I have missed since beginning the Camino.

With only ten kilometers to go I’m looking forward to a pleasant walk into Santiago by myself.

Day 11. Getting close

June 14, 2015
Ferreira to Ribadiso
Distance: 33 kilometers
Steps: 43,771
Stairs equivalent: 46 floors
Agony level: 2+

Detail of 12th century ironwork on a church.

I was walking down a hill today as an old man in a coat and tie was coaxing his ancient tractor up the slope. I smiled and waved. He blew me a kiss. Spanish men.

I am no longer on the Camino Primitivo–it merged with the Camino Frances some 15 kilometers back. There are people everywhere and the albergues have all been “completo” and I had to walk farther than planned to find a bed. So here I am in a top bunk next to the bathroom. I think I’ll book a private room for tomorrow night.

The various characters in my Primitivo wave have scattered to the wind. Many will stop briefly in Santiago tomorrow before heading to Finesterra, some had to go home early and others have taken a different route. I had to start anew on the social front, something that isn’t easy for me. My Picnic Poles have been replaced by the Personality Poles, two friendly young women who are all smiles and laughter. This afternoon I walked with a Frenchman who couldn’t speak English or Spanish. I felt a little rude leaving him, but without a common language I had no words to politely extract myself.

Some of you will get this.

It was market day in Melide. Anyone care to try making a silk purse?

Time to go book a private room for tomorrow.

Note: I think the annoying bubble gum Spaniard is ahead of me thanks to a ruse the Personality Poles and I cooked up. The Spaniard appeared at a cafe this morning while I was having a break with the Poles. I casually mentioned that I was walking much farther than I really intended. Fingers crossed that the Spaniard and I don’t cross paths again.

Day 10. Spanish men

June 13, 2015
Lugo to Ferreira
Distance: 30 kilometers
Steps: 39,722
Stairs equivalent:  34 floors
Agony level: 2

Tonight, I am in an ancient building that has been converted into a really nice albergue. There are 14 beds in my room. Eleven are occupied by Spanish men. Of those men, ten are delightful.

But first let me tell you about last night. There was a really big Spanish pilgrim in the bunk above me and it caused me genuine concern when I looked at the four spot welds that separated me from certain death by squashing. The best thing I could do was suggest to the man that he might be more comfortable on the lower bunk and that maybe we should swap. My offer pleased him to no end. As he climbed down the skinny ladder the whole bunkbed started to go end over apple cart but ‘Ol Fatty was surprisingly nimble as he leapt from the ladder to the floor. The bunkbed tottered a bit then righted itself. Fingers crossed I don’t see that man again.

Then there’s a guy whose name I don’t know and refuse to ask. Try as I might to get away from him, this big-bellied guy is like a piece of over-chewed bubble gum on the sole of my shoe, I just can’t get rid of him. He turns up in every albergue I stay at. He always has a bunk next to me. He rattles on in slurred, unintelligible Spanish. He offers me cigarettes. And his attention is a constant source of amusemrnt for my camino buddies.

I arrived at this lovely albergue mid-afternoon today and got a really nice lower bunk. Two hours later Bubble Gum arrives and what does he do but take the bunk at the foot of mine. I’ll let you know tomorrow if he tries to kiss my feet. I’ll also let you know if he has a fat lip.

I’m so pleased that most of the Spanish men on the camino are gentlemen–except when they talk football.

Day 9. Camino Magic 

June 12, 2015
Castroverde to Lugo
Distance:  23 kilometers
Steps: 33,431
Stairs equivalent: 17
Agony level:  2 (bad leg not factored in)

The hills of yesterday took their toll today. The lower part of my left calf had me struggling, and for a short while I thought about going home. There are no short cuts on the Camino, it’s one painful step after another.

I limped into Lugo in full view of about twenty pilgrims who were waiting for the albergue to open, but no one noticed. They were all talking about Margaret, an Australian woman, who had done a face plant and was on her way to the hospital.

Margaret showed up an hour later full of enthusiasm for the Spanish medical system and sporting nine stitches over her right eye. She said she walked into the ER and was treated immediately. Her cost? 8€ for the taxi rides. Margaret’s excellent treatment is an example of Camino Magic (face plant aside).

After lunch a few of us sought out a Chinese shop (think dollar store) so I could replace an electrical adapter I’d left in an albergue a few days ago. Turns out a couple of other pilgrims had the same idea and I now have three adapters. That’s an example of Camino Magic.

That banana the barmaid gave me to get up the mountain? Another example of Camino Magic.  Here’s one last example of Camino Magic:  in the middle of my limping and whining today I came around a corner and found a brand new canteen–smack in the middle of nowhere!  The machines were stocked with all manner of food and drink, and there was a microwave and sink with running water. Today’s stage had no cafes or places to stop, and this canteen was midway along the hike. I have never seen anything like it.

Note:  Camino Magic doesn’t seem to follow me to bed. At the moment my friends are struggling to contain their laughter. Several large Spanish men came into our bunkroom a few minutes ago and have taken up beds around and above me. I politely suggested to one fat man that he might be more comfortable bandaging his blisters while sitting on the sofa (instead of on my bunk). The others have strewn their stuff everywhere around me. Meanwhile, Margaret keeps pretending she’s laughing at some funny thing in the book she’s reading. OMG.

Day 8. Primitivo Pilgrims

June 11, 2015
Padrón to Castroverde
Distance:  34 kilometers
Steps:  45,507
Stairs equivalent:  143 floors
Agony level:  4
With the exception of two hills, today was an agony level 3 hike. The hills were back-to-back gravel-kissers that had me stopping often to catch my breath.

I was rather proud of myself for finding all of the yellow arrows today. Sometimes it’s like an Easter egg hunt out there. Several people weren’t so lucky and walked an extra four kilometers, having missed a critical arrow.

  Jéan Christmas made us a wonderful dinner of pork chops with a mushroom sauce. He lamented the quality of the available cream and how dare these Spanish try to pass their bread off as baguettes.

In addition to Jéan Christmas and the mostly normal pilgrims there are a couple other Camino characters that need mentioning.

First are the “Picnic Poles”, a middle-aged couple who generally stick to themselves. She gets up before 5:00 each day to wash and blow dry her hair before going out to get sweaty. Then she goes through the whole routine again after hiking. Whenever anyone runs into them, they are having a picnic along the trail, something they do several times a day.

Then the are the Lithuanians, a young couple that can often be found occupying one twin bed. It’s a bit awkward but we try to ignore it. He is about 6’0″, she is about 6’3″. I’ve never seen a woman that tall or that beautiful!

Young Dottie, another Pole now living in London, is walking to get over the loss of the love of her life. It’s been three years since he left and she’s still hanging on.

Lastly, there is Perro, the Camino dog. He’s been walking with one or the other of us since day two and we can’t shake him. He’s a friendly, well-behaved dog, unlike the hundreds of farm dogs that bark so loudly when pilgrims pass by. It’s anybody’s guess about what will happen to Perro when we reach Santiago.