Review: Three Zen Sutras

Review: Three Zen Sutras

Three Zen Sutras: The Heart, The Diamond, and The Platform Sutras by Red Pine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a lamp, a cataract, a shooting star
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.

This is a fascinating group of texts. The first in the book is the very brief Heart Sutra. It is short enough to be memorized and recited, like the Lord’s Prayer; and true to its name, it contains the “heart” of much Buddhist teaching, specifically with the famous lines “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” The sutra is, in essence, a giant negation of conventional reality—all that can be perceived and conceived. The reality of the senses is superficial, transitory, and illusory; and recognizing the emptiness of this reality is fundamental to achieving enlightenment.

The Diamond Sutra is somewhat longer, though still short enough to be easily read in one sitting. Exactly when it was written down is unclear, though it has the distinction of being the printed book with the earliest known date.

This manuscript (now in the British Library) was printed on May 11, 868, about 600 years before Gutenberg’s bible, at the expense of one Wang Jie. Indeed, this good man even specified that it was “made for free universal distribution,” thus putting it into the public domain. The frontispiece—a line drawing of the Buddha surrounded by his disciples—is a lovely work of art in itself. Even the story of the book’s discovery is interesting. The manuscript, along with many others, had been preserved in a section of the Mogao Caves which had been sealed off since the 11th century—perhaps to protect them from plunderers—only to be opened in the early 1900s.

The text consists of a conversation between the Buddha and his disciple, Subhuti. The upshot of this conversation is very much the same as the message of the Heart Sutra: that everything is fundamentally unreal. Thus, beings are beingless, and the dharma is without dharma. (The word “dharma” can apparently mean a great many things, from “the nature of reality,” to “the right way of acting,” to “phenomena.”) Even the Buddha’s own teachings are unreal. But, paradoxically, though all beings are beingless, for this very reason they should be referred to as “beings.” Apparently, this is an attempt to maintain the practical use of language without attributing reality to what our words refer to. In other words, we must use words to communicate, but we should not mistake our statements about the phenomenal world as having any absolute validity.

The Diamond Sutra is praised and referred to in the last text in this volume, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Written around 1,000 years ago (it doesn’t seem clear when), it is attributed to the sixth Chan patriarch, Huineng, who preached to and instructed his disciples from a raised platform (thus the name). Unlike the other two works, then, which may have been written in India, this one is certainly Chinese in origin. The book is divided into ten sections and, rather like the Bible, is rather miscellaneous in content, containing stories, poems, parables, preaching, and philosophical discussion.

Despite this variety, I thought that the basic message of the sutra was fairly clear. It expounds a form of Buddhism based on introspection. Well, perhaps “introspection” is the wrong word, since it is a basic tenet of this doctrine that everyone’s fundamental nature is the same, and it is only delusions and confusions that make us lose sight of this. As a kind of substrate of the mind, below our attachments to the external world, we all share the same Buddha-nature. Indeed, in this sutra, Buddha is not so much a man as a state of being, and anyone who attains it is fully the equal of Siddhartha Gautama.

The story of Huineng’s ascension to the patriarchate is deservedly famous. The fifth patriarch decided to have a kind of poetry competition, to see which of his disciples could create the most instructive verse. Shenxiu, the leading disciple, came up with this: “The body is the bodhi tree. / The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand. / At all times we must strive to polish it / and must not let dust collect.” Yet the illiterate “barbarian” from the south, Huineng, upon hearing this verse, came up with a response: “Bodhi originally has no tree. / The mirror has no stand. / The Buddha-nature is always clear and pure. / Where is there room for dust?” (Once again, note the emphasis on negation, the message that reality is insubstantial.) This was enough to secure him the position.

As you can see, it is a curious feature of Buddhism that it requires the paradoxical use of language to express its tenets. For example, as the sutras repeat, enlightenment consists of seeing the world as “empty” of form—that is, of seeing past the superficial differences that separate one thing from another, one person from another. It means seeing beyond dualities such as bad and good, beautiful and ugly, as these are only expressions of our own egotistical desires, and the enlightened one is theoretically free from any selfish desire. It is, in short, a kind of ego-death, the conquering of all attachment to external goods, in which only the purest form of consciousness remains, seeing the world exactly as it is.

Indeed, there is an interesting metaphysical view inherent in these statements, though as far as I know it is not made explicit. It is that the apparent reality of people and things is due to our inability to come to grips with the passage of time. Everything that exists once did not exist previously and will someday cease to exist. Furthermore, all of the matter and energy in the universe swirls in an enormous cycle, generating and destroying all phenomena. In this sense, a mountain, say, is “unreal” since it is only a mountain at this moment, and its existence depends on a host of other factors. Its existence is conditioned and impermanent, and thus superficial.

There is also, arguably, a philosophy of the mind inherent in this doctrine. It is that our conceptualization of reality ultimately warps it to such an extent that we merely delude ourselves. In this sense, Buddhism has something in common with Kant’s system (which Schopenhauer would be the first to point out, of course). Thus, when we call a big pile of rocks a “mountain” we are often attributing certain other qualities to it: natural, big, beautiful, and so on. But what is considered “natural,” or “big,” or “beautiful” are highly subjective qualities, which say more about our own perception than the thing being perceived.

In sum, then, conventional reality is “empty” for two reasons. First, because our minds attribute permanence and self-subsistence to things which are, in actuality, impermanent and conditioned. Second, because our desires and opinions do not allow us to perceive things as they really are.

For this reason, language is a source of delusion, since words create a sense of fixity in the mind—a word picks out an object and treats it as if it were stable. Further, the definitions of words often rely on contrasts (hot and cold, old and young), which are expressions of our subjectivity. However, the Buddhist preacher is forced, by the nature of communication, to say that enlightenment is better than delusion, that meditation is good while attachment is bad, that trying to achieve enlightenment through meditation is correct while doing so by reciting sacred texts is wrong. In short, the doctrine can only be expressed using the very dualities that it purports to move beyond. As a result, the sutras are full of seemingly nonsensical statements, such as that an enlightened one both feels and doesn’t feel pain.

The logically-minded reader thus may be repelled by much of this. After all, the content of a self-contraditory statement is precisely zero. And one could easily make the opposite of the above arguments. For example, just because something is conditioned or impermanent doesn’t make it unreal—indeed, that is arguably the very definition of what is real. The fact that our perception of the world is warped by our subjectivity does not make it unreal—indeed, arguably our subjective reality is the only one we can be sure of. And anybody who has read a scientific text knows that language can be a very useful tool for understanding the world.

But this is all probably beside the point. To begin with, I think a Buddhist would likely object to my attempt to formulate this doctrine as a metaphysical system. To the contrary, such a system would be antithetical to the entire spirit of the enterprise, which is precisely the attempt to move beyond intellectual attempts to understand and rationalize reality. Rather, I think these paradoxes and negations should be read as attempts to inculcate an attitude, or to induce a mental state.

If I have any criticism of this doctrine, it is that it seems—to put it bluntly—rather defeatist. All human striving is vain; all attempts at satisfying our desires are vain; every effort to understand reality is vain. A Buddhist may disagree with this assessment—and, in truth, my understanding of these sutras is undoubtedly superficial—but seeing the world as unreal and freeing myself of all desire seem rather like death than something to pursue. That being said, like most people, I certainly err in the opposite direction: getting too swept up in trivialities, getting upset over things beyond my control, seeing my world from the narrow perspective of my short-term desires. As a corrective to this unhappy state of affairs, I think there is a great deal of value in this school of Buddhism. I look forward to continually failing to apply it to my life.

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Review: The Story of Civilization

Review: The Story of Civilization

The Complete Story of Civilization by Will Durant

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have finally done it. Eight years, eleven volumes, nearly 15,000 pages and millions of words. It is certainly the longest thing I have ever read as well as the most educational. I have already left a review of every individual volume. Some are stronger than others—I would rank Volume 1, on Asia, as the worst, and possibly Volume 4, on the Middle Ages, as the best—but in general the quality is consistent and the books have the same strengths and weaknesses.

(Though half of the books are credited to both Will and Ariel Durant, I think it is clear that Will did most of the actual writing, so I will be referring to him. However, I do not mean to diminish the great contributions of Ariel to this project.)

First, I want to emphasize that these books are not a history in the conventional sense, as an attempt to understand the past on its own terms and explain why it developed in the way it did. Judged as such, the books are certainly a failure. And, in any case, Durant did not do any primary research for this work and makes no pretentions to original findings. Yet whatever might be his professions to the contrary, Durant is really writing as a popularizer—specifically, as a popularizer of European capital-C Culture. Enough political, economic, and military history is given to serve the reader as a basic background. But the central figures of the book are artists, writers, poets, musicians, scientists, historians, philosophers, as well as the rulers who directly or indirectly promoted these creators of Culture.

Judged as a popularizer of these figures—from Plato to Voltaire, from Homer to Lord Byron, from Palestrina to Beethoven, from Giotto to Goya, from Pythagoras to Newton—Durant is remarkably successful. And this is due as much to his strong mind as to his fluent prose. His books, though long, are well-organized and well-written. His prose is urbane without ever being taxing to read, and each page has at least one unexpected detail, one memorable anecdote, or one amusing aside. He is, in a word, companionable. While he often veers into abstruse territory his writing is never dense, yet neither does he give the impression—as so many current popularizers do—of writing in a dumbed-down style.

And, somehow, Durant’s writing is also extremely easy to remember. I have gone over sections long after reading them to find that I had retained a great deal of the information. Thus, reading this books gives one the pleasant sensation of downloading information directly into one’s brain.

Durant is also versatile. The number of topics covered in these books is innumerable—architecture, fashion, music, war, the list goes on—but Durant always succeeds in making the subject interesting and transparent. And he is reliably amusing when writing of the eccentricities and personalities of the legions who march through these pages. This, indeed, is what makes the books so readable: it is not a series of processes, epochs, or events, but of individuals actively shaping their own lives. (This is also, of course, what makes the books questionable history, as the wider social, cultural, and economic forces at play are given little consideration.)

Durant begins the series by examining what he regards as the elements of “Civilization.” His list is not surprising (or entirely convincing): writing, morals, government, religion, laws, etc. Yet for most of the series, his main theme—if he can be said to have one—is the conflict of religion and reason. As the thinkers of the series gradually lose their respect for organized religion, Durant continually wonders whether society can function if the populace loses their belief in hell, since the basis of morals will be removed. To me this seems somewhat insulting and, in any case, rather uninteresting. As a general rule, the most secular countries enjoy relatively low levels of crime, so the idea seems to be obviously untrue.

There are some other peculiarities of Durant’s writing. He often discusses “sexual morality,” and takes care to note how frequently this or that person committed adultery. True, the many tales of unfaithfulness to add the only dash of scandal in these otherwise staid pages. Even so, I found Durant’s tendency to judge his subjects based on their love lives to be rather distasteful—and ironic, considering that Durant’s own marriage would certainly not be considered “moral” nowadays. (He married Ariel when she was 15 and he was 28. She had been his student.)

The series has other shortcomings, of course. The most glaring is that it is Eurocentric; and, besides, it is a classic example of a “great man” history (the vast majority of the protagonists are men).

Even so, I do think that, read in the right spirit, The Story of Civilization is a tremendous resource for those, like me, who were not taught any of these things—the history of art, literature, philosophy, among much else—in school. It is a kind of remedial education, and a very good one.

Durant is not the same sort of writer as Gibbon, Burkhardt, or Thucydides—a scholar who shines new, unexpected light on the past. He is, strangely, far more akin to Rick Steves. This may sound slightly insulting, and the writer certainly provides more breadth and depth that the tour guide. But the two of them have the same mission: to allow people (mainly Americans) to appreciate the wealth of Western culture. Indeed, The Story of Civilization was extremely useful to me as I traveled around Europe, just as it helped in my journeys through literature and philosophy. Durant will not make you an expert but he will at least point you in the right direction.

In this way, these books were created in the same spirit as art museums or public classical music radio: to bring Culture to the people. The idea does seem somewhat antiquated now. Collectively, we have lost faith in Culture. And I can see why. Highly cultivated men have committed atrocities, while the most ignorant have led saintly lives. And, in any case, our definition of what counts as Culture has widened so much—has been so thoroughly democratized—that it hardly specifies anything now.

Even so, it is worth remembering that everything we enjoy today is the product of a long and rich tradition. And even if it seems stuffy or snobby to say so, I think it is still very much worth it to acquaint oneself with this heritage. Not to become “better” people, but to fill our lives with beauty.

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From Gold to Glory: A Slice of the Camino

From Gold to Glory: A Slice of the Camino

It was the summer of 2020.

Spain’s response to the pandemic was much like other European nations. However, there was one notable difference: for almost three months, the vast majority of the population were only allowed outside to go to the supermarket. Businesses were closed all over the world, of course; and people were urged and even compelled to stay indoors. However, most countries to my knowledge made an exception for outdoor exercise. Not Spain. We could not take a walk, ride a bike, or go on a jog.

As a result, by the time we were allowed out for a breath of fresh air, I was intensely nature-deprived. Indeed, during the lockdown I began obsessively buying plants from the supermarket. I even bought a zoom lens for my camera to take close-up pictures of the neighborhood trees. Now, I normally like the outdoors, but it is surprising to me how debilitating it felt to be totally cut off from trees, grass, and sun. Admittedly, it is impossible to determine how much of my anxiety during this period was due to nature-deprivation, and how much due to every other disruption (social, professional, personal) that took place. Suffice to say that I felt withered.

Under normal circumstances I get my fill of forest from the Rockefeller State Park Preserve, behind my house in New York. However, the restrictions on travel that year made it impossible for me to go home. So I decided to travel to the lushest part of the country: Galicia. This region is famous, among other things, for being the end-point of the Camino de Santiago—the network of walking and biking trails that start from all over Europe and converge in Santiago de Compostela. I had walked parts of this trail on two separate occasions, but much of it remained unexplored. After a bit of preparation, I had my pilgrim’s passport and a plan. But it was not exactly simple.

Day 1: Arrival in Las Médulas

Las Médulas is the name of a former Roman gold mine. It is a tremendously important archaeological site and has been declared UNESCO World Heritage. It is also, as it happens, on one of the branches of the Camino—though not on a much-traveled one.

Determined to visit, I decided that I would start my Camino there. But there was a problem: getting to Las Médulas from Madrid on public transportation is not easy. After a week of investigating, I figured out a viable route. First, I had to catch a fast train from Madrid to the city of León, which left at 5:30 in the morning. (The seating system put the few passengers on the train all close together, in flagrant contradiction of social distancing.) Once in León, I had to walk quickly to the city’s bus station to catch the morning bus to Ponferrada, a nearby city. Then, in Ponferrada, I had to immediately get on a local bus (more of a van) to a small village called Carucedo. Finally, I walked about an hour from the bus stop to Las Médulas. I note all this for anyone tempted to follow in my footsteps.

I arrived at my hotel in time for Spanish lunch, having had almost nothing to eat all day. Luckily, there was a table available at the hotel restaurant. I ordered the local specialty: botillo del bierzo. This is a very heavy dish, consisting of pig intestines stuffed with spiced pork, with a side of potatoes and cabbage. The Mediterranean diet, indeed. After so little sleep, and such a hearty meal, a nap was irresistible. I lost consciousness as soon as my body touched the bed. It was only thanks to multiple alarms that I awoke in time for my evening tour of the Roman mines.

Unless you were told, you would probably never suspect that the landscape of Las Médulas was man-made. A collection of orange cliffs jut out from the forested valley, with no obvious sign of human manipulation. However, these jagged ridges were not worn away through natural processes, but with a Roman mining technique known as ruina montium (destroying the mountain). The first step was to dig a network of tunnels into the mountain (by hand of course). Then, enormous quantities of water were transported via aqueduct up to the top, and poured into these tunnels, eventually causing a kind of avalanche. This way, the Romans accessed the large stores of gold in the mountain’s interior. According to our guide, the workers responsible for this were not exactly enslaved, but were indentured servants. In any case, it was brutal and dangerous work, and our guide informed us that many miners ended their own lives.

This story of Las Médulas—a story of environmental destruction and worker exploitation—is, thus, not exactly the most charming story of antiquity. It is a strange irony, then, that this rapacious extraction produced such a picturesque landscape. The faces of the cliffs are so orange that they seem still to be imbued with gold. The surrounding forest is full of chestnuts, heather, holly, and rock rose. After spending the whole morning in a rush of anxiety and impatience, the valley was almost supernaturally calm.

Day 2: Las Médulas to Ponferrada

I awoke early and set out before the sun. I was nervous. Las Médulas is on a leg of the Camino that is seldom traveled under the best of circumstances. During a pandemic it was deserted. The EU’s borders were (mostly) closed to travelers, and in any case most Spaniards still thought it unwise to sleep in bunk beds with strangers. Thus, the albergues (pilgrim’s hostels) along this route were closed, so I had to spend one day going the opposite direction on this route, in order to link up with the more famous French Way where things would be open.

The region is strewn with dilapidated houses.

Normally, when you walk the camino, a series of yellow arrows and concrete markers guide you along the way. But now, I would have to find the arrows and try to intuit where the pilgrim was supposed to be coming from. This seemed rather difficult. I soon found, however, that the route was nearly as easy to follow backwards as forwards, and I relaxed into the rhythm of the road. I was not yet in Galicia, but in a part of Castilla y León called El Bierzo. The landscape was hilly, with a light covering of trees, and the ground dry and rocky. In the morning hours it was cool enough for a jacket. The route took me through several small villages, each full of houses that featured a distinctive kind of wooden balcony that I found quite beautiful.

As I went along, I listened to an audiobook by Jonathan Haidt about how to be happy. I suppose I was in an introspective mood. Yet all of Haidt’s advice seemed trite compared with the simple experience of walking and observing. If you can take an interest in your surroundings, then there is little else you will need to be content. And I was fully absorbed. So much time staring at the ceiling of my apartment had made virtually anything wild and green fascinating. The countryside here had a sort of rugged beauty, which culminated in the Castillo de Cornatel. This is a fortress that sits on a hilltop, believed to have been originally built in Roman times to defend their goldmines. In any case, the castle is now little more than an eloquent ruin. I peeked inside and carried on my way.

Descending the hill, I found myself in wine country. Virtually every region of Spain has its own variety of the drink. The grape from here is called mencía. As I walked, I was passed on a road by an elderly man driving a tractor; his wife sat in the trailer, alongside several buckets of grapes. What a life. Now I was getting near Ponferrada. In the distance I could see the strange geometric form of the Torre de la Rosaleda, the tallest building in the city. My legs and back were aching now. Six hours of walking had gone by and I still had an hour to go. The path took me alongside the Sil River, across it, and then finally to the municipal albergue.

Once there, I was amused by the reception. The institution had developed a kind of sanitation ritual for all incoming guests. My whole body was sprayed with a disinfectant; my backpack had to be kept in a trash bag; and even the soles of my shoes were chemically cleaned. Meanwhile, guests were not required to wear masks indoors, though of course the virus is primarily transmitted through the air. Even at the time, it seemed rather silly.

I ate two hearty meals and passed the time by reading Monkey—a delightful abridgement of the Chinese classic, A Journey to the West. (The story concerns a Buddhist pilgrim, so it seemed rather appropriate.) Unfortunately, I was much too footsore to do any sightseeing, and so passed up the chance to visit the city’s impressive Templar Castle or the Fábrica de la luz, a museum of industry in a former power plant. I suppose I will just have to go back.

The Templar Castle of Ponferrada.

Day 3: Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo

I awoke early, before my alarm, at half past five. Outside it was calm and black. The route took me along the river Sil to the outskirts of the city. On the way, I passed the Fábrica de la luz and once again regretted not having been able to visit. It was not long before the western clouds were tinged with gold, and the gray dusk began to dissipate. Behind me, in the morning mist, a rainbow hovered over Ponferrada.

The first half of the walk was not especially interesting. I slowly made my way through suburb after suburb. The residents were just beginning to stir—walking their dogs, making their way to the local café, doing yard-work. Finally, the suburbs gave way to a beautiful stretch of wine country. The sun was shining strongly now, and the vines were an ocean of bright green. I did my best to walk slowly, to take in the scenery. Agricultural country has a particular charm—at once natural and cultivated. I felt a pang of envy for whoever was living in the fine white house among this little paradise.

At about two in the afternoon I arrived in Villafranca del Bierzo. It is a surprisingly beautiful place. Though scarcely three thousand people call it home, it is full of impressive structures: a romanesque church, a large monastery, and even a castle. Being a Camino town has its advantages, I suppose. Better still, the town was full of excellent bars and restaurants. After seeing so many grapes, I could not resist a sampling of the local wine, which I found to be excellent (though I am hardly a connoisseur). By nine I was in my bunk bed. The only other residents of the albergue were two quiet Spanish men. We all said goodnight and turned off the lights. 

Day 4: Villafranca del Bierzo to O Cebreiro

I awoke full of excitement. According to (a great resource for anyone considering the trail), the next stretch of the camino was both among the most beautiful and the most arduous. The trail would take me up into the mountain range that separates northern Castilla y León from Galicia. For those completing the entire Camino, the entry into Galicia is a special occasion, since that means they are in the final stretch. For me it was special, too, since I just generally love Galicia.

The beginning of the trail was disappointing. Far from beautiful, the trail ran along a highway and there was little in the way of scenery. I had (happily) finished the book on happiness and began an audiobook by David Attenborough about life on earth. His resonant voice soothed me as I made my way under overpasses and through small villages. In one village, there was a woman with a clipboard waiting for pilgrims passing through. She told me that in the villages I had to wear a mask (I already was, though it was a cloth mask that looked rather like a diaper) and that I had to register in a government website before entering the province of Galicia (I already had). She also told me that the village of Ponfría—which was on the route—was under lockdown because of a local outbreak.

Armed with this information, I kept on going. The sun climbed in the sky and it got hot enough for me to stop and change into shorts. Finally the landscape began to bloom as I left the highway and made my way into the woods. Cows abounded, often sunning themselves on the grass. And every village had its colony of stray cats. About three-quarters of the way there, I was accosted (in English) by a shirtless man asking me for some change. I didn’t have any and told him so. But I was taken aback at the request, as we were really not near any village.

The next thing I knew, I had hit the mountain. The trail led up and up, through a dense forest of oak and birch. It was hard going and after a few minutes I paused to catch my breath. When I did, I looked back to see the shirtless man not far behind, and I got the strange notion that he was after me. This caused me to pick up my pace, and I started rushing up the mountain almost at a run. Besides being irrational, this was a shame since, in retrospect, this was one of the most beautiful stretches of the walk. I climbed and climbed until, near the top, I was surprised by a man on horseback, who was making his way down the steep, rocky path with a great deal of care.

Then the trees cleared and I found myself on the top of a series of rolling hills. Nearby was an elaborate sign that announced my official entry into Galicia. The trail led up and down over the gentle ridges until I reached one of the infinite small Galician settlements which dot the region. This one had an attractive restaurant and I immediately decided I would stay for lunch. I ordered caldo gallego—the regional soup—and chicken. Several tables were already occupied by other pilgrims. As I ate, the shirtless vagabond arrived, and seated himself at a table with a woman, who seemed to know him. They commenced to talk in German. She bought him a beer and let him finish her meal. A group of cows walked by on the street and, of course, some cats were sunbathing.

My entry into Galicia. Note the pandemic beard.

Walking on a full stomach (and several glasses of wine) was not pleasant. Thankfully, my destination was very close. O Cebreiro an attractive little town (population: 121) situated on a hillside. There are wonderful views from every corner of the town and a few well-equipped shops for pilgrims, who constitute the economic basis of the village. Though tiny, there is some sightseeing in O Cebreiro. There are four examples of pre-roman buildings which can be visited, presumably reconstructions of the sorts of buildings in the ancient “castros” (Celtic settlements). There is also the church of Santa María, an ancient building with a legend attached to it.

As it happens, the legend was told to me by a Polish woman staying in my albergue. It goes: There was once a very devout man who never missed mass. One day the weather was terrible, a storm was blowing, but he still came to worship. The priest was surprised and amused by his devotion and joked that mass wasn’t worth all this trouble. Then God, to humiliate the priest, turned the holy wafer into real, bleeding flesh. Catholic legends are always a bit macabre. Anyway, this Polish woman was among the minority of truly faithful pilgrims. She said that she had sold everything in her country to walk the camino and devote herself to God. I declined her offer to accompany her to mass.

A traditional Galician dwelling.

Day 5: O Cebreiro to Triacastela

The sunrise was particularly beautiful that morning.

I awoke late the next day, at 6:30. But that was alright, since I only had 22 km to trek that day, a relatively light day on the Camino. The path took me further up the mountain, until a sign informed me that I was 1300 meters above sea level. There, a statue of a windswept pilgrim presides over the road, providing a kind of solidarity to the passing traveler.

Then I began to descend into the heartland of Galicia. The landscape became ever greener as I went along. The countryside was at its most bucolic, with winding dirt roads cutting across fields ringed with forest. Cows were ever-present, as were there droppings. David Attenborough continued to amaze me with his stories of the natural world. I also listened to some broadcasts of Alistair Cooke’s Letters From America—the British journalist’s reflections on American life. In my diary, I remarked of Cooke: “He is like a village priest, weaving together history, folk wisdom, penny philosophy, and current events.” For the record, I have never met a village priest.

The tree is apparently 850 years old.

Finally, I arrived in Triacastela. On the way in I passed the famous Castaño de Ramil, a famous chestnut tree that is a major landmark on the Camino. Apparently it is about 850 years old; it certainly looks like it, at least. The town of Triacastela is small and lovely. It is situated in a valley, surrounded by the woods on all sides. I checked into an albergue owned by a very pleasant man from Ibiza, and immediately went to the restaurant he recommended for a hearty meal. My hunger slaked, I spent the rest of the day just lazing about. But I was extremely happy. In my diary I wrote:

“I feel as though today I found what I was looking for. Galicia always does it. The landscape could easily be upstate New York. The weather is almost perfect—sunny, but not hot. I love the vibrant lushness and the bucolic charm. As I write, I can see cows grazing and hear their bells tinkling. A mother and daughter are nearby, playing on some swings.”

What I was searching for was, apparently, nature and peace. And, truth be told, I can remember few times when I was so absolutely content. This did not make me, however, any more willing to socialize with my fellow pilgrims. Many people love the chance to make friends on the Camino. Not me. When I walk, I want to be alone, and I make sure not to invite any unwanted conversation. I suppose this makes me antisocial and unpleasant. But there are not that many opportunities in life to be really alone.

At least the beard made me look more like a pilgrim.

Day 6: Triacastela to Sarria

This day I had a decision to make. The Camino here forks into two roads: one leads to Sarria via Samos, and the other gets there via San Xil. The path through Samos is attractive because it passes by the Abadía de Samos, an impressive historic monastery. This seemed like obviously the better option until I found out that the monastery did not open until noon; and if I wanted to get to Sarria at a reasonable time (in time for lunch, and before the heat of the day) I would pass through Samos in the early morning. Perhaps I should have done what many other pilgrims did, and go straight past Triacastela to see the monastery in the evening. Having missed my chance, I decided to take the San Xil route, since it is supposed to be the more picturesque.

It certainly was. The morning mist rolled up through the valley, obscuring the landscape in a white fog until the sun was finally warm enough to break it up, revealing the ever-green Galicia underneath. Vines clung to trees and moss to rocks. Birds called in the canopy overhead. I shared the road with cows and watchful dogs. Sometimes the path took me up on a hill, offering me a view of the sweet, almost innocent landscape all around me. It is the sort of place that makes city-dwellers want to move to a farm and start milking cows. 

I arrived at Sarria feeling a little sad. This was my last day on the journey. Though I was enjoying it immensely, the news was increasingly alarming: levels of COVID were spiking once again. It was possible that the different regions would once again go into lockdown (and they would, though about a month later)—which was not good for me, as my identity card was expired and awaiting renewal. Getting back to Madrid felt urgent. So I tried to savor my last day in Galicia.

Compared to the little towns I had been staying in, Sarria, with a population of 13,000, felt like an actual city. It is not a place devoted exclusively to pilgrim tourism. There are high schools and pet shops and locals eating in the restaurants. After lunch, I tried to do a little sightseeing by walking around the Fortaleza, a ruined fortress, but my sore feet made me give it up. So I went to bed early, with a full belly and an empty mind.

Day 7: Sarria to Madrid

Accustomed to my Camino schedule, I woke up in the early morning, even though my train back to Madrid left at noon. With nothing to do, I decided I would hike part of the next section of the trail. So, with my backpack on my aching shoulders, I headed off into the early-morning fog.

I crossed a stone bridge and then found myself in the countryside once more. Further on, the trail crossed a local railroad without any gates or lights to warn of an oncoming train. A little dangerous. It was remarkably misty that morning. The landscape was entirely invisible. The sun was just a vague yellow blotch in the sky, as in a painting by Turner. I could hardly even see ten feet in front of me (that’s about three meters). Out of the sea of fog a flying magpie appeared and disappeared. Somewhere nearby a dog started barking at me. Spiderwebs were covered in water droplets. And then, seemingly all at once, the fog cleared away and I was once again in the beautiful green of Galicia.

After passing through some small villages the trail took me alongside another highway. A truck passed by, carrying live pigs—spreading a stench so bad that I was only too glad to wear my cloth-diaper mask. Finally I decided that I could not afford to go any further and so turned back toward Sarria. All the savoring in the world could not make time stand still. I said a long and sad goodbye to the Galician countryside. I arrived back in Sarria in time to eat lunch before my train ride.

And then it was time to go. This was the seventh or eighth time I had been on this train back to Madrid from the north, and each time it has been a mournful experience. In the five hours of the journey, the landscape dries out; the trees disappear; and the green of Galicia is transformed into the straw color of the interior. But this time was different. More than any vacation I have ever taken, I had achieved a state of blissful peace during my walk. It was a very good Camino.

Snapshots of Galicia

Snapshots of Galicia

As I have written time and again, Galicia is my favorite place in Spain, a region I return to again and again. Part of it is homesickness. Galicia is the only region in the country which bears a passing resemblance to the Hudson Valley—green, hilly, forested. But part of it is due to Galicia’s unique delights: its simple and hearty food, its distinct local architecture and customs, its calm and quiet. And, best of all, a trip to Galicia is very easy on the wallet.

A Coruña

It was the summer of that fateful year, 2020. My brother had just left to return to America. Soon, the school year would begin, and I would go back to in-person teaching—though I could hardly imagine what it would be like after the trauma of the (still ongoing) pandemic. Wanting a last gasp of peace before what I assumed would be chaos, I took a train to my favorite city in Spain, A Coruña.

I had no ambition to do anything but relax. I walked for miles—through the dense streets of the old city, under the distinctive galerías (glass balconies), along the promenade (paseo maritímo) and past the aquarium. One evening, I sat amid the jagged rocks below the Tower of Hercules, a Roman lighthouse, and read a book as the waves crashed below me. Another evening I made my way to Monte de San Pedro and watched the sunset from the old naval guns overlooking the sea. For dinner, I had takeout Chinese food. It was absolutely splendid.

And I packed my running shoes. After the isolation and confinement of the lockdown, I craved the outdoors, and spent as much of my time under the sky as possible. I ran in the late afternoon, with the sun beginning to set. A cool breeze blew in from the ocean, seeming to propel me faster than I had ever gone before. The combination of wind and waves flowing all around me gave me the odd sensation of flying. This, of course, was followed by duck curry and spring rolls.

The only thing vaguely touristy that I did was to visit the Museum of Science and Technology. Considering the museum’s low entry fee and relative obscurity, it is an impressive institution. The halls were filled with beautiful examples of extinct apparatuses—calculating machines, steam locomotives, telegraphs, type-writers… By far the biggest installation is a cockpit of a Boeing 747, which you can walk inside. It must have been no easy task to transport. My only criticism of the museum is that they put the informational texts in three languages (English, Castillian, and Galego)—yet the texts are not repeated in those languages, but continue through them. That means to read the information completely you must be trilingual. 

A Walk in the Woods

The coast of Galicia—like that around A Coruña—is gorgeous. But I had just finished a camino through the wooded interior of the countryside, and I was still craving the forest. So, one day, I decided to take a day trip to a more rural area.

Yet I had little idea where to go or how to get there. In search of a solution, I looked up the stops on the train that runs from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela, and then I examined these stops on Google Maps to see if they looked like decent hiking spots. I eventually settled on a little stop called Cerceda-Meirama, which is remote from any major population center. The fast train had me there in no time.

I emerged onto an empty platform and immediately found myself in the countryside. Having absolutely no idea in what direction to go, I decided to try to walk a lap around a nearby lake. As often happens in Galicia, I passed by a few scattered houses and then was in the woods—or, at least, a grove of trees. (Unfortunately, the countryside of Galicia has been heavily logged and many areas are covered with young saplings, often eucalyptuses, deliberately planted to be farmed later.)

The narrow path took me alongside the Meirama Lake. This is not a natural lake, but was created to cover an industrial eyesore. For decades, not a lake but a lignite mine occupied this area, which only closed as recently as 2017. (Lignite is a type of coal.) Indeed, though at the time I assumed the surrounding trees were planted by loggers, they were actually put into place by the mining company as part of an environmental rehabilitation project that had previously denuded the area. An ominous concrete cylinder still sits, overlooking the lake, next to a featureless gray building.

I cannot honestly say that the path was particularly beautiful. Even so, in my nature-deprived state, I was enraptured by the intermittent calls of birds and even stopped to examine insects crawling along the dirt road. I walked along quite contently, making a circuit around the lake and trying to be mindful of my return time. (The fast train does not pass through this station so often, so I had until about four in the evening or I would be stranded for the night.) Eventually I decided that I had time to spare, and took a detour.

Things went bad very quickly. The path I took trailed off into the forest, and soon I was scrambling through brush. Twice I almost walked straight into a spiderweb with a large awaiting inhabitant. Somehow, to right myself, I had to walk up to an overpass and then along a small highway, before finding a path leading me in the correct direction. Even then, I was not (pardon the pun) out of the woods. The hour of my departure was nearing, and I was still quite lost, just hoping that the path I was on would lead me back to the train station.

Once again, however, the path led to a dead end in the forest. Luckily, by now I was at least close to civilization. Through the brush I could see what was obviously a field of crops. Desperate by now, I went for it—pushing through the thick vegetation and praying that there would be no shotgun-wielding farmer or attack dog waiting for me. Thankfully, not a soul was in sight, and I was able to make my way through the rows of wheat to the nearby road. I only had twenty minutes now before my train arrived. No choice but to run.

Tired and sore, wearing hiking boots, I jogged the remaining distance to the station (scaring off what I believe were two partridges in the process). I made it, sweaty and panting, with just a minute to spare. Sometimes relaxing is hard work.


The next day I decided to visit Pontevedra. I had been there once before, but it was under unfortunate circumstances. That time, I had parked the rental car in an underground parking lot (the center of the town is a pedestrian zone), and had scratched it badly against a concrete pillar. This put me in such a fretful state that I could not even focus on the city.

But this time was different. I arrived on the early train from A Coruña, ready to do some sightseeing.

The name Pontevedra comes from Latin, and means “old bridge.” And there is, indeed, a rather old bridge in the city, the Burgo Bridge, built in the 12th century. It spans the River Lérez—the dominant water feature of Pontevedra, which sits nestled in a bend of this river, near the coast. Pontevedra is not an especially large city, but it is an especially well-planned one. It was a pioneer in instituting a car-free zone in the center, and is known for the high quality of life enjoyed by its denizens.

As in any good old Spanish city, there are lots of ornate churches to see. Chief among these is probably the Church of the Pilgrim Virgin. By European standards, it is not an especially old construction, dating back to about the signing of the American Constitution. It was made in order to venerate a rather odd statue of the Virgin Mary dressed as a pilgrim. This image was declared the patron saint of the Portuguese Way, a branch of the Camino de Santiago that passes up through Portugal and then Pontevedra on its way to Santiago de Compostela. Even if you are not a pilgrim, however, you must admit that it is a rather nice church.

The car-free center of Pontevedra is well-preserved and charming. There are tiny side-streets and grand plazas, historic convents and ornate façades, and of course lots of restaurants and cafés. As I strolled around, I came across a life-sized statue of Ramón del Valle-Inclan, an iconic Spanish writer who was born just outside the city. He is outfitted in his usual way: neat suit, thick-rimmed glasses, and a long flowing beard. A literary innovator and iconoclast, he now holds an honored place among the Spanish literary patheon, and is one of the many writers often assigned to suffering high school students.

One of the most interesting sites in the city are the ruins of the church of San Domingos. This is (or was) a lovely gothic structure that now stands without a roof or half of its walls. I have seen ruined churches before, but those have been ruined by some disaster, like an earthquake or a fire. In this case, the culprits are time and neglect. In 1836, during a liberal spasm in Spanish history, a huge amount of land was confiscated from the Catholic church through a law called, in Spanish, the desamortización. This Dominican convent was one of them. The monks had to find a new home and the building was used, in turn, as a women’s prison, hospice, and an infant school. But it fell into decay very quickly under civil ownership and now stands like a ghost in the old city.

I have said before, and will again, that it is often worthwhile to visit relatively obscure museums in Europe, as they can have collections that rival the most prestigious institutions in the United States. This is certainly true of Pontevedra’s Provincial Museum. Even the structure itself is impressive, comprising a complex of buildings which includes modern glass constructions and former mansions. Its collection is vast and varied, including archaeological remains, ornate silverware, religious sculptures, traditional costumes and oil paintings (including those by Goya and Sorolla). Best of all, it is free to visit.

After spending a few hours in the museum, I made my way to the nearest Pulpería I could find. As its name would suggest, this is a kind of restaurant that specializes in octopus. I gorged myself on tentacles and pimientos de padrón (small green peppers), and chased it down with a pitcher of the local wine—typically young and fruity. For some reason, it is customary to drink the wine out of a little ceramic bowl, which reminds me very much of the vessels used to drink saki (called sakazuki).

The meal ended, I contemplated trying to do more visiting. But, somehow, I had lost the motivation. Instead, my legs took me on a meandering walk out of the city and, following the river, towards the ocean. I walked until the city receded into the less dense outskirts, and kept going until I came across a small beach at the mouth of the river. A small boat—more of a dingy—had been hauled up on the sand, looking somehow pathetic next to the water. Smokestacks split the sky on the opposite bank. A helicopter came into view, flying low over the river. Though I was surrounded on all sides by evidence of human life, I was the only person in view, and I had the illogical feeling that I had reached the edge of the world.

This romantic feeling was dispelled when I checked the time and realized that, once again, I had to hurry in order to make my train back to A Coruña. I arrived that night, and celebrated with a final dinner at the takeout Chinese restaurant. It had been an excellent stay in Galicia.

Santiago de Compostela

One year later. It was the All Saints’ Day holiday, in late October, 2021. I had no plan whatsoever, except to relax and to look for some foliage. (Madrid is quite bereft of colorful leaves in autumn, as a result of, well, not having many trees.) I bought a cheap train ticket to Santiago de Compostela, the regional capital, and booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find. My hosts were not thrilled when I arrived at nearly midnight. But at least I was back in Galicia.

My first day was uneventful. It was the day before Halloween, overcast and foggy. I decided that I wanted to take a hike. Santiago de Compostela has some attractive city parks—the two principal ones being the Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval and the Parque da Alameda—but these are rather small. Seeking wider fields to wander, I walked to the edge of town, to the Parque Forestal de Monte Pedroso. This is a large park—well, more of a young forest than a park. The land had obviously been clear cut not too long ago. Virtually all of the trees were young saplings, planted in neat rows on the hilly landscape, doubtless to be themselves harvested at some future date. (Galicia, though beautiful, has mutilated many of its own landscapes.)

Paths led in and out of clearings in the forest, climbing and falling through the misty trees. The fog was so thick that I would have been completely disoriented if not for the AllTrails app on my phone. It was perfect for Halloween, but not ideal for pretty foliage or beautiful views. At the very least, the hike allowed me to work up an appetite for my visit to El Mesón Do Pulpo, one of Galicia’s many fine pulperías, or octopus restaurants.

I must have been in a very suggestible mood, for I allowed the waiter to talk me into buying a plate of octopus followed by a whole steak, washed down with a pitcher of the fruity local wine. It was an excessive amount of food—and absolutely delicious. You can imagine that the rest of that day was not particularly productive. The only thing I managed to do was to have another excessive meal, this time dinner at a Korean restaurant called NuMaru. I am glad I did, since it was perhaps the best Korean food I ever tasted, better than any restaurant I have visited in Madrid (which one would think is more cosmopolitan and diverse than the provincial Santiago). Clearly, then, my first full day in Galicia was a success.

As an afterthought, I wanted to mention the strange architectural installment (sculpture?) I found on the edge of town, on my way to the forest. The thing consists of a kind of arched hallway, constructed of massive pieces of granite. This monstrous monument was built in honor of the Sociedade Xeral de Autores e Editores, which translates to the General Society of Authors and Editors, a private organization that aims to protect intellectual property of those who write and publish music, books, and plays. This sounds noble enough, but it sometimes boils down to publishing companies trying to wring money out of musicians and acting companies—most of which never gets to the artists or writers themselves. Once, the organization charged €96 to a high school theater company who wanted to do a play by Federico García Lorca, who died in 1936. This happened in 2010.

In any case, my next day in Galicia was far, far more eventful. 

A Whirlwind Tour

I awoke early, having set an alarm. The previous day, my Airbnb host invited me on an outing to see his native village. “It is one of the most beautiful villages in Galicia,” he said. The other guest at the Airbnb was going, too. Not having any real plans, I accepted.

The next day, after breakfast, I was ready to go.

“Alright, I’m ready,” the host said.

“And the other guest?”

“Something came up.”

Unphased, I followed my good host and got into the passenger seat of his car. It soon emerged that my host was not simply a man fond of his pueblo. He was a professional researcher and extremely knowledgeable about his native region. As he drove, he rattled off a constant string of information about the area, and I soon realized that, rather than a simple trip to a town, he had an entire itinerary planned out.

Our first stop was the church of Santa Maria de Adina. The church itself is large and attractive but otherwise not remarkable. But buried in the surrounding graveyard is Camilo José Cela, a writer who was born in this town and who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989. I have not read any of his work (it does not seem to be especially popular now), but I was glad to pay my respects to a writer.

Nearby was the town of Padrón, our next stop. This town will be familiar to lovers of Spanish food, for being the home of the famous pimientos de Padrón—delicious small green peppers that are fried in olive oil and served with rock salt. But my host wanted to show me the Parroquial Church. Again, like many local Spanish churches, it was large and attractive but not memorably so. What sets the church apart is the “pedrón.” This is a sort of large stone that is given pride of place in the church. According to legend, the ship that divinely transported Saint James’ body from Jerusalem to Spain was finally moored to this stone.

The truth is actually more interesting than the legend, as the letters clearly visible on the stone were actually inscribed by the Romans to honor the god Neptune. It reads: “To Neptune: the Orieses (?) put up this stone at their expense.” It seems odd that a pagan monument would hold pride of place in a church. But many pagan rites and rituals were taken over by the Christians. (Christmas is December 25, not because we know when Jesus was born, but because it allowed the holiday to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.) According to this website, the stone was used even before the Romans as a place to tie up their ships.

The tour continued. My host then took me to a very small village called Bustelo, in order to show me a fine example of a Galician cruceiro. This is a distinctly Galician artifact, consisting of a large stone cross standing atop a pillar, often with a small carving of Jesus or the Virgin as adornment. According to my guide, since only the properly baptized were allowed to be buried in the church graveyard, babies who died at or near birth were often prohibited from this sacred ground. Despondent mothers thus would bury their babies at the base of this cruceiro, being another kind of religious burying ground. (If you’re curious, this website contains an image and the location of every cruceiro in Galicia. They are quite beautiful, in my opinion.)

Our next stop was another distinctive monument of Galicia: the hórreo (yes, it sounds like the American cookie). This is small building that was used to store food, primarily grain, before refrigerators became common. They are elevated to keep out vermin, and normally have slits in the walls to keep the food dry. Nowadays they sit unused, a charming and constant reminder that one is in Galicia. My guide had an encyclopedic knowledge of hórreos as well as cruceiros, and he took me to see one of the largest ever built, called the hórreo do traba. It is huge: five or six times the length of a normal hórreo. I have no idea why it was built so large.

Next we visited the lovely seaside town of Noia where, mercifully, we had some coffee. But our break was brief: I was whisked off to the church of Santa María a Nova, which now houses a museum of antique gravestones. These are notable for their decoration (though they are often faded by time and weather), which normally feature the deceased person’s profession. I must admit, however, that I did not understand much of what I saw.

No matter, we had pressing business, and within moments I was back in the car on my way to the next destination. This was probably my favorite thing I saw that day, but I admit I was on guard when my host pulled over by the side of a road and told me to start walking into the forest. My misgiving aside, it was a thoroughly lovely example of a lush Galician forest, with moss-covered trees all around, and the Traba river gurgling nearby. Soon we had arrived at our destination, the abandoned village of Xei. Though the ruins appear absolutely ancient, this village was not abandoned so long ago (less than a century, I think). According to this website, the town was depopulated because its economy relied on the water-powered mills, which became obsolete with the adoption of electricity. In any case, I think ruins often have a strange and otherworldly beauty, and these skeletal structures, green with encroaching forest, were wonderfully evocative.

Our next stop was brief, to the nearby Dolmen of Argalo. A dolmen is a kind of megalithic tomb, consisting of a single chamber in a stone structure. In this case, very large slabs of granite were stuck into the ground to form the walls, and dirt was piled up all around it to make a kind of mound. Human remains do not preserve well in the acidic soil, so no bones were found inside. However, archaeologists did uncover stone tools and fragments of ceramics. As my guide remarked, we will never know what the people who built these believed.

Are you tired already? I was, but that did not stop us from visiting yet another stop. I shouldn’t complain, since this was also a wonderfully beautiful spot. We parked the car near a large old monastery building, the Mosteiro de San Xusto de Toxosoutos, which seemed unused. But this attractive old building was not our objective. Nearby, a path led into the forest, along the San Xusto river, and soon we were surrounded yet again by beautiful Galician forest. Better yet, at this juncture the river formed a series of ever-more attractive waterfalls (fervenza in Galician). Also of interest were the large mill-stones which now sit, unused, alongside the river, a reminder of the ancient importance of water-power.

In addition to its many charms, Galicia is rich in prehistoric sites. Not far from the waterfalls, for example, was yet another dolmen, the Dolmen de Axeitos. This one is larger and more impressive than the Dolmen of Argalo, with a massive granite slab somehow elevated in place as a roof over the wall stones. Whoever made this benefited from not a little teamwork, coordination, and technological sophistication, since moving stones of that size is no easy feat.

It was getting late now, and darkness was setting in. But my guide still wanted to show me one more thing. Aside from dolmens, Galicia has many sites known as “castros,” which are the remains of ancient (presumably Celtic) settlements. One of these sites is the Castro de Neixón, which occupies a peninsula on the coast. (Peninsulas were advantageous locations, both ideal for fishing and sea transport, and easy to defend from the land.) To be honest, this site was disappointing compared to the spectacular Castro de Baroña, which I had previously seen. But the interpretation center nearby also houses a fine museum—which, unfortunately, I was too tired to really take in.

We arrived back in Santiago de Compostela at around eight at night. I immediately went to the nearest restaurant I could find, which happened to be a Chinese place. I was ravenous—we had eaten just a little sandwich for lunch—and the order actually discouraged me from ordering the amount of food I wanted to. He was amazed when I ate every last bite. I really am grateful to the host for having shown me such a wealth of interesting things. But it was a long, long day.

A Pilgrims’ Mass

I had just one more morning in Santiago de Compostela, and I knew how I was going to spend it. The previous night, I learned that the other Airbnb guest (the one who had abandoned the odyssey of Galician sightseeing) was a veteran of the Camino de Santiago. He informed me that was planning on attending the so-called Pilgrims’ Mass the following day.

Now, I had already attended this mass several times (once while suffering a severe stomach cramp), and had always been disappointed that the famed Botafumeiro was not used. This is the enormous incensor that, on special days, is swung from wildly through the cathedral on a pulley. Constantly missing this event was perhaps my greatest disappointment in Spanish travel. But according to my fellow guest, today there was a good chance that I would finally witness the spectacle.

The cathedral was packed. There were lines to get in at every entrance. I arrived nearly an hour early and still had to stand, as the pews were completely occupied. It was obvious at a glance that most of the audience was not there to save their souls. Foreign languages abounded, and cameras were held at the ready. I was certainly no different; but even within this great crowd I tried to temper my expectations. I had been in a similar crowd when the Botafumeiro failed to materialize.

But today was different. A hush came over the crowd as the robed priests appeared. Then, somewhere behind me, voices began to echo in the stone chamber. It was a choir, and a very good one. The singers were moving through the space, from the front to the back, but with so many people I could hardly catch a glimpse of them. It hardly matters, as their voices were rendered omnipresent by the reverberations, washing over me like a wave. It was genuinely spiritual music, soothing and even spine-tingling in its ethereal beauty.

The choir ceased, and the priest approached the pulpit. Everyone turned around to face the main altar. Sunlight was pouring in through the high windows, a single bright beam illuminating the white robe of the priest. For the second time in my life, I briefly considered converting to Catholicism. (The first time was in Mont Saint-Michel, and also involved sunlight and choirs.) I was so transported by the atmosphere that I could hardly register anything he was saying. In any case, his prayers were brief. Soon an organ had begun to play, now filling the cathedral with piercing reedy notes, while several robed men got into position around a multi-corded rope.

My body filled with electricity as I realized that, yes, this time I was finally going to see it. The rope was pulled taught and the men began to tug, gently at first, and then more firmly. With every tug, the enormous incensor began to swing higher and higher, from right to left, until it completed an arc that almost touched the ceiling. Smoke poured out of the flying metal casket, and soon the entire cathedral smelled of frankincense and myrrh.

This performance lasted for about five minutes. Then, the Botafumeiro gradually slowed down enough for the brave priests to catch it. This was our cue to leave, and the audience filed out in a respectful silence. I must admit, as absolutely cool as the Botafumeiro was, it did leave me feeling a little sorry for the priests. It is not a sight calculated to inspire religious devotion, merely to please tourists like myself. There is nothing theologically significant about a flying ball of smoke. Even so, I was very happy to have seen it. Though it had been more than a year since my last walk on the Camino, it felt like the end of a long pilgrimage.