Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Redondela-Pontevedra-Santiago de Compostela

Trip dist: 89 km. Trip time: 7 hrs 52 mins. Tot dist: 728 kms.

The Way of Santiago.


Boy, what a ride this was. Lots of really bad traffic, with cars with a rather deliberate zeal to invade the emergency lane (where I was biking) at top speeds, or honk at you as they pass you only inches away, this especially disturbing coming from large trucks. I even had a near miss with a rather, shall we say, to put it kindly, "distracted" lady (though I'm sure she was not distracted, because her actions seemed deliberate, in spite of the recklessness), who cut me off to make a right turn resulting in a near miss and some screeching brakes slammed hard on my part so spectacular that a car passing us nearby honked at the lady in disgust. Not fun at all. For someone with a newly-minted (counterfeit!) and officially stamped (genuine!) Pilgrim Card, I was getting no respect at all....

Anyway, this was not really the worrying part. Since Lisbon, it turns out, I had been unknowingly following the Portuguese Way to Santiago, which passes exactly through the majority of the places I passed: Sintra, Coimbra, Aveiro, Porto, Viana do Castelo, except that instead of being seduced by the sweet Siren's song of the Atlantic on credit, like I was, more pious souls than mine head for the sober monastery of Alcobaça instead. Additionally, the Road to Santiago, in any of its forms (The French Road, from Roncesvalles, the Primitive Road, through Lugo, the Portuguese Road, from Lisbon, the English Road, from the north in A Coruña) is a UNESCO World Heritage Treasure, and given that I was now entangled in this whole Pilgrim business, well, might as well catch it and follow it for the remaining part of the journey and see the pretty sights advertised in the brochures and maps from the refuge common room. The problem was, that in spite of encountering at least 20 pilgrims the previous night at the refuge, who were purportedly heading in the same direction I was, and leaving a couple of hours before me, I wasn't seeing any while biking. Zippo, none at all. And after being on the road for a few hours, you'd think that by now I would've passed some, no?

Well, I had to stop and ask around, because so far I had figured the road to Santiago simply followed the highways I had been on, for I had there seen the indications, but in truth, the way to Santiago is much more beautiful and interesting: it goes cross country passing through little babbling brooks on old medieval bridges, weaving in and out of typical Galician villages, and leading the pilgrim to churches, monasteries, old hospitals, monuments, wayside crosses and other similar reverent markings, designed for the pilgrim to stop, give thanks for the journey, and in essence, contemplate the whole spiritual meaning of the Way.

About halfway through the day I finally found a side road with the characteristic yellow seashell symbol of the Way intersecting my highway, and took it, but soon enough found myself in the middle of some village a ways away from the paved roads and clearly heading far away from and perpendicular to where I was meant to go (the Road to Santiago is more or less parallel to the highway, I had been told). Though I had seen the the indications at the beginning, they had soon vanished, and the only thing left were arrows, some painted in yellow on lamposts, walls, and the like, and others in white on the paved side-roads, but as some of the white ones had numbers and pointed to little circles on the ground, which I (I believe correctly) deduced belonged to land surveyor's markings, the yellow ones (which as it turns out were the real indicators of the Road to Santiago) might as well have been pointing to telephone poles that needed fixing, so in no time I found myself getting off the bike looking ahead onto a lonely road flanking a microscopic village leading far into the (wrong, as it turns out) distance in one direction and curving to who knows where in the other.

I was thus so situated, when all of the sudden a little vivacious old woman, clad all in black but walking a springly and vigorous walk for someone her age and with a cane, appeared suddenly like a sprite out of the hazy distance. As she neared, quite a bit shorter than I am (and I am quite short!), but cheery and radiating a zest for life, I couldn't help smiling sheepishly as I asked for directions. "The Way to Santiago!" she said, in Galician, which sounds like a mix of Portuguese and Spanish, and which after my 3 weeks of communicating with the patient Portuguese in my horrid Portuñol, which is not far too different from what I was now hearing, I could understand perfectly, "Why," she chuckled, "it is not this way."

"Er, yes," I said. "That far I was more or less able to figure out...." I blushed.

"Come," said the little old woman. "Walk with me." So I did, though not quite sure where she was leading me, or how long this would take, for we were heading in the direction I came, and that (where I didn't really want to go back again) I would doubtless be able to accomplish much faster on my was nearing 5 o'clock already, with over 35 kms to go...

"Do you know where you are?" she said, and grinned as she continued walking brightly with not a single care in the world.

Now, I never know how to answer questions like that. They can be rather deep sometimes. How many people really do know where they are at any given time in their life? And this could evolve quickly into a long conversation, rife with complications due to the twisting turns of the Galician language which, though I could more or less handle, was not really my improvised Portuñol, so instead of attempting a guess or explanation so as to not appear like a fool (doubtless, after all, that was most likely the impression I had been giving already for a long time, what with being so far away from the highway and in my fluorescent yellow jacket like a bullseye in sober, gray-claden...whereverIwas, with 60something kilometers alone on a bike behind me, without a job or home or country in a foreign land, etc. etc. etc, and so on and so forth), a situation with no longer any remedy, I decided to go for the simple: "No."

Here her smile turned to one of glee, as if she were proud of sharing this piece of invaluable information: "You are in Extramundi."

Indeed. I had seen the signs with the name of the village only 200 meters before. However, hearing it from the lips of this sprightly little old woman whose eyes twinkled mischievously like she knew something I didn't, who appeared ghostly out of nowhere in the middle of my lost way to become my fortuitious Cicero, I couldn´t help but think: "How appropriate." I was quiet, for I felt then a bit like Dante finding Virgil.

And among these musings and fragments of gay every-day conversations, little by little the little old woman all in black led me back to the highway, the correct highway, from where I had started, only one or two kilometers from where I had lost my way.

"And the way to Santiago?" I asked once more before she left me.

"Follow the highway," she said, portentiously.

"But the highway is easy, I want to go through the real road, the road of the Pilgrims."

"What?", laughed the woman, "you want to go weaving in and out between the villages?"

"Yes! Most ferviently!" said I.

"Ha ha ha. Are you sure?"

I stared at her, dumbstruck (for what had I been trying to tell her for the past 20 minutes?). A pregnant pause ensued.

"Well, follow the highway, then," she finally said, "In Iria Flavia, you'll see a Church. Ask again when you get there, it is too complicated for me to explain to you from here."

And with this, she bid me adieu, and dissappeared round a bend in the road, leaving me, with directions and knowing where I was going, but just as lost and confused as I had been before.

Anyway, it was not long before I reached Iria Flavia, and right by the churchyard, I found the characteristic indications of the Road just like the little old woman had said (by now, too, I had figured out that the yellow arrows were also indicators of the Way). I quickly took to the side-roads, and was immediately blown away by the beauty of what I had been missing (you can take a look at some of the videos here). The ride was a bit technical (I was quite glad I have a mountain bike), what with the dirt and gravel roads rife with rocks and roots and broken land, a bit reminiscent of the rides to the river Serio (do you remember, Father?) of my Italian childhood summers. Still, absolutely worth it, even in spite of the reduction in speed by a factor of 3 as compared to riding on paved roads with impolite traffic.

I arrived in Santiago late in the day, for reasons obvious, and found that as I neared the city my eyes started watering profusely. What kind of eye irritant was this? I could detect a faint smell of glue, or fields, perhaps...chemical fertilizer? Asbestos? It could not be the cold wind of the high speeds on the descents, for I felt it even while standing still, so I endeavored to find out, but no one could give me a reason, for no one felt it. Perhaps, the residents have gotten used to it. Still, it was a rather surprising discovery.

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