Once again, the December puente was coming around: a long weekend, the first one of the school year. I was exhausted from the last few months of Global Classrooms. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and cheap—somewhere that was not much of a tourist destination and did not have much to see. Thus, after some false starts, I settled on Ourense, one of the most overlooked cities in Galicia.
Galicia has become my favorite corner of Spain. The people are friendly, the landscape is beautiful, the tourists are scanty, the food is delicious, and the cost is low. My plan was, in essence, to go to Ourense with my girlfriend and—apart from stuffing my face with the harty local cuisine—to do as little as possible. In one major respect my plan failed. After eating dozens of unwashed grapes (long story), I got food poisoning during our excursion to Santiago de Compostela, which made eating difficult.
I also failed in my attempt to pick a city without anything to see. Spain is so dense with history that it pervades even its remotest corners. You can’t walk a mile without tripping over a ruin. And, of course, Ourense is not remote; it is the third-largest city in the region, larger than Santiago de Compostela; and its history stretches back to Roman times. This was a fortunate mistake for someone with a travel blog.
As I soon discovered upon leaving our Airbnb, Ourense has maintained an impressive medieval center. The streets are narrow and meandering; and the buildings are appropriately grey and granite, with arcades running underneath. We soon passed by the Igrexa de la Santísima Trindade, or the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is an impressive, almost castle-like gothic church with an enclosed courtyard. In minutes we were in the Plaza Mayor, which had been decorated for Christmas with a giant tree-shaped light.
Right next to the plaza is the city’s cathedral, its most important historic site. From the outside it has none of the towering grandeur of the cathedral in Santiago. Indeed, the cathedral presents a heavy, fortified look, like the above-mentioned church. The inside is far more attractive. Apart from the impressive gothic nave and the beautiful central lantern, letting in light from eight sides, the cathedral is full of splendid decoration. The main altar, which sides under the octagonal lantern, is an explosion of flamboyant gothic, somewhat reminiscent of the enormous altar in Seville. In the center is a panel depicting St. Martin of Tours, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.
By far the most arresting chapel is the Capilla del Santo Cristo. One moves from the stark simplicity of gothic to the extravagant flourish of the Baroque. As befitting that era’s horror of empty space, every inch of the chapel is covered in decoration—shadowy paintings surrounded by delicately carved and gilded wood. In the center a realistic Christ with long flowing hair hangs from the cross. The chapel also contains the Renaissance choir stalls which once stood in the main nave. The final effect is one of extravagance. I am not sure that it is beautiful, but it is certainly impressive.
Yet the most famous work of art in the cathedral is the Pórtico del Paraíso. This is an elaborately carved tripartite doorway, which once served as the main entrance to the cathedral (but has since been engulfed by the growing cathedral). It was designed by students of the legendary Master Matteo, who is responsible for the more famous Pórtico da Gloria in Santiago. According to the audio guide the two cities, Ourense and Santiago, had something of a rivalry; and this doorway was an attempt to keep up with the neighboring city. Having seen both doorways, I can confidently say that Matteo’s is the superior. Even so, the Pórtico del Paraíso is an extremely fine piece of sculpture, which has been well preserved (or restored). The pigments of the paint still shine invitingly, filling the entire ensemble with a joyful glow.
I should not neglect to mention the cathedral museum, which is included in the ticket. There relics, treasures, paintings, altars, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts on display, as well as a few Roman ruins unearthed during excavations and repairs.
Two large churches stand quite near the cathedral. One is the Igrexa de Santa Eufemia, a monumental Baroque church with a concave façade. The other is the Igrexa de Santa María Nai, another fine Baroque church which now stands, it is believed, on the foundation of the original cathedral. However, I mention these churches, not for their beauty, but because I always find it amusing that large churches are placed so close to each other, within a five minute walk of the city’s cathedral. Being a church artisan was a good career in those days; the demand was endless.
After ascending a staircase up to the hill overlooking the cathedral, I came to my favorite part of the city: the Cemetery of San Francisco. This cemetery goes back to the gothic period, and maintains many beautiful tombs and mausoleums. As usual, I felt a deep sense of calm as I walked through the cemetery, a repose from the temporary and trivial concerns that usual occupy my attention. (Rebe, on the other hand, found it creepy.) The hill also provided an excellent view of the city, the cathedral, and the countryside beyond.
The cemetery used to be attached to an eponymous monastery, which has long since been confiscated and shut down. (For two centuries it was used as a nursery.) However, some artwork from the monastery is on display in a free gallery. And right next-door is the old cloister, the Claustro de San Francisco—now detached and homeless. This is without a doubt one of the great sights in Ourense: the cloister is decorated in the finest gothic fashion, a delicate and harmonious space that transmits the meditative peace of monastic life.
Now it was time to cross the river Miño, which runs through the center of the city. The most convenient walking bridge is the iconic Ponte Vella, or old bridge. The origins of this bridge go back to Roman times, though little remains but some foundation stones from that epoch. The current form of the bridge is medieval. It is an elegant construction, resting on a series of arches that stretches 208 meters (almost 700 feet) from end to end, and rises 33 meters (100 feet) over the water. The bridge has proven so important in the history of Ourense that it is featured on the city’s coat of arms.
Yet this is not the only attractive bridge in Ourense. Also lovely is the Ponte do Milenio, a strikingly modern construction distinguished by the floating metal outline of a ship, which hangs suspended from the two slanted support beams. This is actually a walkway, on which you can dip down below the main section of the bridge to get closer to the water, or ascend to the top for a view of the river valley. Normally I am not very keen on modern design; but I was very much taken by this bridge, which combines functionality with an unconventional use, while maintaining an attractive overall form.
I have come all this way but I have yet to mention the greatest attraction in Ourense: the thermal baths. Ourense is highly geothermically active; thus the city is filled with steaming pools of water, many of which are free to visit. I admit that I am unclear on the science of this heating; though since Ourense is not volcanically active, I suppose that the water gets heated by the decay of radioactive elements deep underground. The water, however, is perfectly safe; and it reaches the surface at pleasant temperatures—warm, but not dangerous. This, by the way, is why the bath-loving Romans came to Ourense.
Most of the baths are situated outside of the city center, alongside the river Miño. However, one important bath sits right in the heart of Ourense: As Burgas. This bath has been used since Roman times, and it was believed to have both religious and curative properties. The baths were maintained into the Christian epoch, in part because it provided a welcome comfort to weary pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Also, according to what I can find, the heat was harnessed by artisans and bakers (though I can’t imagine how).
However, I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of taking a bath right in the center of the city, with pedestrians passing by on every side. So, we headed toward the river to visit the baths of A Chavasqueira. The walk there led us across the Ponte Vella to a path alongside the Miño. The place seems designed as a peaceful escape. There are no crowds and no cars, just the quiet murmuring of the river. Still, I felt apprehensive. I had never been to a thermal bath, and I did not much like the idea of sharing a hot tub with strangers. But, I have a blog to write, and this means I have to experience the typical attractions.
A Chavasqueira, like the other thermal baths, is public and completely free. The baths consisted of four medium sized, shallow pools, rimmed with stone; and each bath is a different temperature. When we arrived, at mid-day, they were moderately full. Now, when it comes to public nudity, Spain is relatively conservative as far as European countries go; you will never encounter naked sunbathers on a stroll around Madrid’s Retiro Park, for example, as you might while exploring Berlin’s Tiergarten. However, they are still less conservative than prudish Americans. It is acceptable for women to be topless; and most people change with a towel rather than retreating to the public bathrooms, as I did. My natural timidity immediately flared up: I felt uncomfortable.
Still, I had come this far, and could not turn back now. Before going into the baths, it is customary to rinse off with the nearby shower. Seldom do I feel more pathetic and exposed than when I am being doused with cold water out in the open. This done, I lowered myself into the least populated pool. The water was quite warm but not scalding. Nearby an older bald man with a potbelly was determinately soaking, his face a serene grimace. I waited to be suffused with the blissful calm of hot mineral water, but felt… quite normal. In fact, I felt a strange combination of anxiety and boredom. The heat made my heart beat more quickly, and I felt my veins flood with adrenaline. What was I doing here? I could be taking a nice hot shower in the comfort and privacy of my own home.
Meanwhile, Rebe was splashing around quite contentedly, seeming to be properly relaxed. I tried to relax, to wait, to adjust. But I felt silly. What was I supposed to be doing, just sitting in water? After ten minutes I gave up, got out, and changed back into my clothes. Rebe wanted to stay longer, so I took a walk further down the Miño. Now, this was relaxing: solitude, cool air, movement, and nature. After thirty minutes I felt properly calmed after enduring the trauma of the hot springs.
After this all-to-typical failure to enjoy myself, I tried the hot springs again on the following day, and had a moderately better experience. Still, I admit that I do not see the appeal and do not find it especially relaxing. Clearly, I am not made for spa life.
But do not let my experience dissuade you. The vast majority of human beings seem to love thermal baths. And, in any case, Ourense is a charming city. Despite my food poisoning, I even managed to stuff myself with delicious Galician food. That is a successful vacation.
It was 2018, and my Easter break was fast approaching. Leaving the country during Holy Week is always expensive; and, besides, I had already booked two pricey trips—to Prague and to Paris—so I didn’t want to spend more than the bare minimum. Luckily, Spain has one travel option that requires almost no planning and little expenditure: the Camino de Santiago.
Two years had already gone by since my first and last camino, five days from Lugo to Santiago de Compostela. This time I wanted to start up where I had left off, in Santiago itself, in order to walk to the coast. The Romans may have made this pilgrimage before Christ or Christianity; they named the long granite cape that extends into the Atlantic “Finis Terrae,” or the End of the World, because they believed that this was the westernmost extension of the land. Unfortunately they were wrong in two respects: first, they underestimated the world by several continents; and second, Finisterre (as it is now known) is not even the westernmost point of the Iberian peninsula.
The cape has nevertheless continued to attract travelers. After pilgrims began to flock to Santiago during the Middle Ages, many of them decided, after reaching their goal, to keep going to the coast. This may be why the scallop shell became the symbol of the camino: many people wanted a souvenir from the end of the earth. This was my goal, too: to start in Santiago and keep going until the land ran out. I would walk 88 km (or 55 miles) in four days, giving me enough time to be back in Madrid for my birthday.
The best part of this plan was that almost no preparation was necessary. I did not need to book accomodations or even to buy gear, since I already had it. But I did need to obtain a pilgrim’s passport, or I wouldn’t be allowed to use the camino hostels (called “albergues”). This was easy enough. In the Plaza de Santiago in Madrid, at the Parish Church of Santiago and San Juan Bautista, they hand out passports for free (though a donation is recommended). If you go this route, be aware that the hours of availability are a little strange: 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, and then 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. The other option is to go to the Association of the Friends of the Camino, but they are only open Tuesday through Thursday.
My passport in hand, my flight to Santiago booked, I was ready for my walk to the end of the world.
The plane descended through the thick fog until the ground suddenly appeared out the window, moments before landing. With a jolt we had reached the earth. I was sleep-deprived and panicky. Even in the best of times flying makes me nervous; but lack of sleep throws my chemical balance off, and I am consequently much more prone to worry. I thus spent the flight alternating between fear and delirium. Though I had woken up at 4:45 that morning to catch the horridly early (but cheap) flight, I could not sleep a wink on the plane. I was wretched.
It was a wretched day in Galicia, too, and I was happy to be there. A short bus ride brought me to the center of the city, where I had breakfast with some friends who were also doing the camino (but a different route). After some aimless wandering, I made my way to the albergue. I had reserved a room in the Seminario Menor. This is a massive building on a hill across from the cathedral, not to be confused with the Seminario Mayor, which is right next to the cathedral. If the building had indeed been a seminary, it had been a major one: the albergue was large enough to house hundreds of pilgrims, and also had room for a primary school.
Though I had vague ideas of seeing more of Santiago, the bed proved irresistible. I collapsed into a feverish nap. By the time I awoke, hours later, I found that the city was suffering under the wrath of a terrible rainstorm. The water came down in sheets, turning the streets into streams and the sidewalks into puddles of mud. I was glad to be indoors. But if I ran into weather like this on my camino, I would be in for a bad time. The only rain equipment I had brought was a poncho. My shoes were not waterproof, nor was my backpack. The thought of simply going back to Madrid flitted through my head. A tempting idea.
But I had something to accomplish on this camino. My renewal deadline was coming up: I had to decide whether I was going to stay in Spain another year, or finally go back to New York to recommence by suspended adulthood. There were weighty factors on both sides. On the New York side I had my family and friends, and the prospect of a career as a public school teacher—quite a good profession in Westchester. Meanwhile, I was in a long-term relationship with a Spaniard, and had gotten accepted into a masters program for the coming year. I felt torn. The prospect of being away from home yet another year frightened me, especially since I had lately been prone to fits of homesickness. On the other hand, the thought of leaving Spain struck me as tragic: the end of an adventure, the end of a relationship, the beginning of a more conventional life. This seemed like the perfect problem to mull over on a pilgrimage.
When the rain died down, I went out to have dinner and buy some final supplies. That night I went to sleep early. I would need the rest.
Day 1: Santiago to Negreira
I set out as the sun was just beginning to rise. Though I am no enthusiast of the morning, it is advisable to begin walking the camino early: you avoid the hottest part of the day, and reduce the chance that the albergues will fill up. The route out of the city took my past the cathedral for one final look, and soon I was again in the Galician countryside.
The day was overcast and a little cold. As usual, I found the mossy green of the landscape to be enchanting. I love Madrid, but its sandy soil can leave me longing for the verdant foliage of wetter climates. Coming to Galicia satisfies this yearning. After an hour of walking I looked over my shoulder to see the two spires of the cathedral in the far distance. I was on my way. I passed suburban homes and granite farms. Horses nibbled idly in a grassy field. The sky alternated between shades of grey occasionally broken by blue. Rain fell periodically, mostly in a drizzle. Two hours into the walk a magnificent rainbow appeared up ahead. It looked like it came to an end right in front of me: a good omen.
Before both of my caminos, I had imagined that I would do a lot of thinking as I walked. But this was far from true. Instead, I found myself in a kind of dreamy stupor, merely observing the slowly shifting landscape and the villages that I passed through—a rhythmic repetition of trees, clouds, hills, farms, fences, and fields. Scarcely an articulate thought broke my awareness. At times I feared that I was not properly savoring the moment, and so I attempted a walking meditation, focusing all my attention on my breath. This did little to change my state of mind, however, and soon I began listening to an audiobook (a history of 18th century Europe).
The camino has a tendency to lull one into a blissful calm. No thinking is required; every turn is marked with a big yellow arrow, and all one has to do is put one foot in front of the other. It did not take a philosophical mind to compare this with my present life conundrum. While I followed this path which so many had walked before, I was trying to make a decision which many had made before: to stay abroad or to go home. Yet a wrong turn on the camino can be easily detected and corrected; but an unwise choice cannot be so easily mended, as time marches steadily forward.
The decisions we make in life are often compared to turns in a road. Yet life, unlike the camino, has no obvious right or wrong turns. Indeed, the whole concept of right and wrong breaks down when it comes to major decisions. Two turns in a road can be easily compared, since one leads to the desired destination and the other does not (or at the very least one is faster). But in life, the question is often not how to get to the final destination, but which destination to choose. Different answers cannot easily be compared.
What is better, to be a doctor or a painter? This depends on your own values, of course. But what are your values? Though we often think of ourselves as defined by what we deem important, it can be difficult to know what is truly important to us. We cannot simply introspect and encounter our values, since our priorities are revealed in actions over the long term. One may, for example, think that one has a passion for playing the piano; but after a year of practicing and giving recitals, this passion may fade into boredom. In any case, even if we could easily find out what is deeply important to us now, this would not necessarily solve the problem, since values change over time.
Most perplexingly, our values change in response to the decisions we make. So when we make a major decision, we are in the paradoxical position of choosing ourselves. Rather than choose something based on our values, we are choosing our values themselves. But then what can we base our decisions on? In other words, we are trying to choose something in the present which will satisfy us in the future—without knowing exactly what we are choosing will be like, or how the choice will change our own preferences. This seems like an intractable problem. If only life had big yellow arrows directing us in the right direction.
As you can tell, I do not like making major life decisions. No approach seems intellectually satisfactory. No criteria or value suffices. As a result, no matter how much I weigh the pros and cons, I always end up feeling as though I were following a kind of gut instinct. An existentialist would say that this proves that I am free; but personally I do not feel free when I am forced to choose something based on non-rational factors, merely following impulse and whim.
I am writing this now, but I did not think any of this as I trekked the first twenty kilometers of the journey. I merely walked and occasionally worried. The day passed uneventfully. I crossed the Ponte Maceira in Ames, a beautiful medieval stone bridge. The weather was mostly overcast, threatening rain and occasionally delivering. About four hours into the walk it started to rain seriously. I tried to put up with it, but eventually I gave up, rummaged through my backpack for my poncho, and then put it on. The thing wouldn’t fit over my coat, so I had to take off my coat and tie it to my backpack while I wore the blue plastic covering. And, of course, fifteen minutes after going through the trouble, the rain stopped and the skies cleared. This was the last time I used the poncho.
I arrived at Negreira at around one in the afternoon, cold to the bone. After dropping off my bag I went into a restaurant with a menu del día. This is one of the great parts of the camino. Most stopping points have restaurants offering cheap set meals—normally under ten euros—to pilgrims, most of them consisting of plentiful, hardy food. This was no different. I ordered wine, and they gave me a whole bottle, of which I drank more than I should have. It cost me 7.50€. Then I limped and stumbled back to the hostel for a nap.
The host met me at the front desk. He was an older man, with a paunch and a mustache, who was remarkably talkative. I’ll call him Maligno. Normally I do not like to chit chat while I travel, but I was feeling a little lonely just then, so I was glad for the conversation. His mouth rattled on like a freight train, his gravelly voice following the dramatic, sing-song accent common to the region. I got him on the subject of Galicia, on which he was loquacious. He started googling some of the sights to show me: attractive coastal towns, old Celtic ruins, and even a Roman gold mine.
Somehow the subject got changed to people who speak ugly languages. This quickly led him to tell the old joke about how Spanish is for talking to God, Italian for talking to women, and German for talking to horses. He then went on:
“Once I saw this girl, beautiful, just beautiful, I mean everything was perfect. And then she opened her mouth, and it was like—eck! Just the foulest, ugliest language you ever heard. What a shame, I thought. What a shame.”
With this, I excused myself and went to my bunk bed, where I promptly passed out. When I awoke, I decided to do something productive, and I made a pro and con chart of staying in Spain. It didn’t solve anything, of course, but it did occupy some time. After that I wrote a very bad poem, had a light dinner, and went to sleep.
Day 2: Negreira to Olveiroa
This was to be my hardest day—the longest that I had ever walked in my life: 33.6 km, or 21 miles. I had to get going early.
I began before sunrise. The mist was still heavy upon the land. The moon shone out from behind the clouds, and a light breeze blew through the trees. It was almost completely quiet. I felt a keen anxiety grip me as I began walking into the countryside. It was so dark that I was afraid I would get lost. But soon I found the familiar yellow arrows, pointing the way.
The sun gradually rose and I found myself, once again, in the mossy green countryside of Galicia. The walk that day was especially beautiful, mostly avoiding major roads. As the sun rose I could once again see the farmhouses and the fallow fields. A cow peeked its nose from out a barn window, while two dogs snuggled in the road. Once again I saw a rainbow, and once again it seemed to land right in front of me. I felt that I was on the right track.
It was a much sunnier day than the last, and the heat did not make the long walk any easier. I stopped several times—beside a wooden fence, by a stone church, near a running brook—to rest and eat a little. I had bought pretzels in Santiago, an uncommon snack in Spain, and savored a few handfuls on the way. At one point I stopped at a roadside cafe for a chocolate pastry and a coffee. The exhaustion crept up on me slowly; my feet began to hurt, my legs to tire. But the human body is made to walk. It is one of the hidden benefits of bipedalism: aside from freeing up our hands to carry things, walking on two legs allowed us to be more energy efficient. At least that is the theory.
When it was well past lunch time, the path led into an open field and up a large hill. A plaque informed me that this moderate eminence was the highest point in the county. And in ancient times this had been the site of a fortified settlement (though I could find no traces of it). But the view was valuable enough. The beautiful Galician countryside rolled out in front of me, almost painfully pretty in the sun, with its fields of farmland dotted with patches of pine trees. The grass shone intoxicatingly green in the sunshine, filling me with energy that carried me the remaining distance.
By the time I arrived it was four in the afternoon. Olveiroa is hardly big enough to even be called a village; it mainly exists as a stopping point on the camino. The biggest building in the place is the albergue, where everyone seemed to be concentrated. When I arrived it was absolutely packed, which made me nervous about finding a spot. But it turns out that the vast majority of the people eating in the restaurant where on a kind of bus tour, where they hike different segments of the camino each day and then get bused to back to a hotel. It struck me as a strange concept. In any case, I ordered a gigantic plate of food and ate it with ravenous delight.
The rest of the day was spent in my bunk. My feet were blistered and my knees ached. I limped outside around sundown to see the sky, but quickly gave up and hobbled back to my mattress to read. Very few people were staying at the albergue. Among them was a young German couple, probably around my age. They spent the whole time hugging and whispering to each other. I found it very annoying. Whispering, to me, is far more unpleasant to listen to than speaking, since a whisper conserves only the harsh consonant sounds—the hissing and popping.
Maybe I was feeling cranky, since the more I observed the cuddling couple the more irritated I became. At one point I felt inspired by my distaste of the amorous Germans to write a poem in my journal, which I include here:
Why do humans form pairs, Like socks or testicles? We arrange ourselves with mates Kiss, embrace, quarrel, separate. The world deems successful The couples that last until death. A strange prejudice! Separation is separation, In the grave or in the courts; And an amicable divorce may be A better way to say goodbye Than a heart attack. Monogamy has the worst track record Of any human institution, Except for all the other ones. We relieve ourselves with: Fantasies, flings, fights, Affairs, breakups, divorce... Or just the iron patience Of the ignored wife or the henpecked husband Waiting, waiting, waiting, For the end.
And with this bit of free-verse bile, I went to bed.
Day 3: Olveiroa to Cee
The next morning I fell out of bed, and quickly found myself ascending the steep hills nearby. Again, I got going before before dawn. The landscape was shrouded in morning mist. As I walked up the path I began to feel extremely isolated. Panicky thoughts began to pass through my brain. If a pilgrim-hating murderer was hiding behind one of these rocks, they could kill me and get away with it. My eyes began darting left and right, my body tense.
But the beauty of the surroundings, revealed by dawn, eventually calmed my nerves. It was marvelous. The fog opened up below me to reveal a river flowing through the valley. The rising sun cracked through the grey sky, splitting the horizon with yellow light; and in so doing revealed the silhouettes of wind turbines, so common here, immobile on the hilltops. At the time I was reading Don Quixote, and I imagined the old knight making a charge for one of these modern monsters. These power-generating machines are one of our century’s great inventions; their sleek forms make no attempt to counterfeit nature, and yet they blend in so harmoniously with the landscape.
Eventually I reached a fork in the road, where the camino diverges. You see, there are two options for the pilgrimage to Finisterre: the first goes direct, while the second takes a detour to Muxía, another beautiful coastal town somewhat to the north. The second path is considerably more taxing, since there are three days in a row of 30+ km. I chose the first, since I did not have an extra day to spend; but, of course, every road not taken leaves a little residue of regret. Further on, while crossing another field, I caught my first glance of the sea. It was a dreary grey day, and so all the greens and blues looked muted under the brooding sky. But I could smell the ocean, that salty, fresh savor in the air.
I reached Cee by one in the afternoon, a modest coastal town of about 8,000 inhabitants. I found a mostly-empty albergue, dropped off my bags, and then set out to have some lunch. The sight of the ocean put me in the mood for seafood, so I decided to find some of the justly famous pulpo gallego, or Galician octopus. This is one of the finest dishes in Spain. The octopus is extremely tender, without a trace of rubberiness; and the combination of sea salt, olive oil, and the spicy local paprika make it addictively savory.
After a short walk around town I retired to the albergue. The host was another talkative Galician fellow. He was a youngish man, in his mid thirties I guess, and had the air of a tired hippie. He told me that he had gotten addicted to the camino at a young age, when his mother took him for a week on the trail. Eventually he opened up his own albergue, and met his future wife a few years later—a Russian woman who was passing through. She came in the door a few moments later, with their two little lap dogs in tow. It seemed like a happy family. I had a beer while flipping through some of the extensive National Geographic guide books that were shelved in the salon.
The only other pilgrims in the albergue were two Frenchmen. I guessed they were father and son, since the younger one looked like he was in his teens. Neither of them spoke much English, though it was not for lack of trying on the teenager’s part. He struggled through a ten minute conversation with me, using plentiful hand gestures to make up for the gaps in his vocabulary. From this mime show I gathered that he had been on the camino for quite three months, having started in Seville. I admit that I find it difficult to imagine spending such a long time on the road, simply walking. Surely one would see many beautiful things. But I am afraid my brain would atrophy from the lack of variety. It had only been three days and I was already looking forward to returning to Madrid.
Day 4: Cee to Finisterre
My final day. I woke up a bit later, knowing that it was going to be a short walk. The path took me through stone alley up into the surrounding hills. The sky was overcast yet again, though the bits of clover covering the ground still glowed with a powerful green. My route followed the coastline towards the peninsula, which jutted out into the sea like a moored ship. As I looked down from the pine-shaded hilltop to the granite shore below, I wished, yet again, that I could properly savor the moment, that I could nestle inside the feeling of being alone in nature and just stay there, hold onto it, and take some piece of the feeling with me. But again the sights came and went, and I was left none the better.
Eventually I walked down the hills onto a long beach. A man was playing with his dog on the sand, some hundred meters away. I snapped a photo. Minutes later, as I sat on a bench re-tying my shoes, he approached me, and asked me if I could email the photo to him. Sadly, I have forgotten to do it—until writing this post. We shall see if he replies.
From there I made my way to the town of Fisterra (the Galician name for Finisterre). Like so many places in Galicia, it is dominated by the camino. Half the people walking through the town sported the typical gear of the modern pilgrim: waterproof coat, nylon backpack, collapsible walking stick. Advertisements for albergues were everywhere. Many of the faces I recognized from the past three days; a few recognized me, and we exchanged a wave. I was tempted to stop, but I wanted to see the end of the road first.
The path to the end of the peninsula brought me once again above the Galician shore. Halfway to the end I passed a statue of a windblow pilgrim, dressed in the traditional medieval costume; and I could not help comparing the modern pilgrims (myself included), with their bright neon clothes, unfavorably to this more simply apparelled traveler. After what seemed like an interminably long time, the end came into view.
I admit that I was a little deflated, if only because there were so many people about. I wanted to feel alone on the edge of the world; but instead I felt like I was at a moderately popular tourist attraction—which, of course, I was. There was a stone cross on a boulder, where many were gathered. More gratifying, for me, was to see the final trail marker: 0.00 km. Seeing the constant and yet slow diminution of the remaining distance is one of the more satisfying and yet maddening aspects of the camino; so I felt a great surge of relief at finally seeing a zero. I was officially finished.
Further on, I came to the lighthouse. Next to it was one of those signs that shows the direction and distance to several major cities. One of the signs, pointing directly across the sea, was for New York: 5,235 km away. My home was right beyond the horizon. Or was it still my home? Did I belong on this side of the Atlantic, or that one? I still had not made a decision for next year. The camino had not resolved my dilemma.
I passed the lighthouse and went down to the rocky tip of the peninsula, where it descends into the sea. The base of a red metal tower had been covered in stickers and paraphernalia—pilgrims wishing to leave their mark. Nearby was a metal statue of a single boot, a trademark camino marker. It seemed to be the perfect memorial for the trail—an anonymous testament to the blisters and bliss of untold walkers. I sat next to it and stared into the ocean, turning over my problem in my head. And I decided, then, that unless something unexpected happened, I would go back to New York to pick up my interrupted life.
And in that moment I felt sad to have to leave such a beautiful place that had given me so much; and I felt relieved at having chosen a path. But mostly, I just felt exhausted and hungry. Little did I know that, just two weeks later, my brother would decide to move to Spain, which would change my calculations completely. And so I now find myself, a year later, writing this long tale of failed self-discovery and unsuccessful soul-searching from Madrid.
I picked myself up and dragged myself back into town, where I found a nice albergue and paid extra to have my own room. The rest of the day was spent in walking idly around the port, eating delicious chipirones (squid sauteed with garlic), and writing in my diary. “Will I ever see this shore again?” I asked myself. “It’s very possible I won’t.” (I would.) My brain was eerily silent. The usual little voices which pop in and out of our heads, telling us things to fret about, were almost entirely gone. I felt empty and free.
The next day I walked to the bus station with a Russian man who was staying in my albergue, and who told me that he had begun his camino by taking ayahuasca in Portugal. The bus left me in Santiago de Compostela, and then a train brought me to Madrid. In five days I had been to the edge of the world and back, and was none the wiser for it.
During my first stay in Galicia, on the Camino de Santiago, I was constantly impressed by the beauty of the landscape and the charm of the culture. Granted, in Galicia you will find little of the world advertised by Spanish postcards. Here there are no Moorish palaces or olive trees, but granite huts and rolling grass hills. Instead of scorching the earth, the sun hides behind clouds. Here the people play the bagpipes rather than flamenco.
Yet if I were forced to choose any part of Spain as my favorite—no easy task—I would decide on Galicia. For me the region has a strange romantic charm that never fails to get under my skin. The deep green of the landscape, the mild weather and overcast skies, the grey granite rock that so abounds—all this gives Galicia a lush, rugged, and ancient aspect that I find deeply appealing.
And this is not to mention the Galician culture. Despite their reputation for being a reserved people, every Galician I have met has invariably been warm and welcoming. I am even fond of the accent, which is distinguished by its throaty pitch and sing-song tone. As in all the north of Spain, the food in Galicia is rich, hearty, and delicious—with high-quality beef and seafood—and, here more than elsewhere, very affordable too. Indeed, in general Galicia is an extremely economical place in which to travel and live, which is no small thing.
Though the interior of Galicia is charming in the extreme—a seemingly endless bucolic pasture, filled with fields and farmers—the province cannot be properly appreciated without a visit to its coast. The granite geology of the region has resulted in one of the most dramatically beautiful coastlines in a country known for its beaches. So, without further ado, here are Galicia’s two biggest coastal cities: A Coruña and Vigo.
It is not clear where the name of A Coruña came from. It is not even clear what to call the city: officially it is A Coruña, but many Spaniards call it La Coruña. (“A” is the Gallego word for “La,” or “the.”) In Roman times the city was known as Brigantium, named after the Brigantes, one of the Celtic tribes that once populated this region.
Indeed, you may be surprised to know that, back in the foggy mists of time, the Celtic peoples dominated this grassy region. It is due to this fact that bagpipes are part of traditional Galician culture; and this is just one example of a surviving remnant of that ancient race. Galicia even officially joined the Celtic league—along with Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man—in 1986, only to be kicked out a year later because the Celtic language has gone extinct here.
Nevertheless, Galicia does have its own language, Gallego, which is one of the four official languages of Spain. A Romance language closely related to Portuguese, the language is widely spoken and used in daily life in Galicia, though admittedly not as much as Castilian. During the nationalizing currents of the Enlightenment the language almost went extinct, but underwent a revival, or Rexurdimento, in the nineteenth century. Not coincidently, this was also the age of Catalan’s Renaixença, as people responded to the Romantic emphasis on local, rural cultures.
I got off the night bus from Madrid in A Coruña at around seven in the morning, cramped, cold, and exhausted. It was Holy Week and at least it wasn’t rainy. After nursing a coffee and dropping off my things at the Airbnb, I walked towards the peninsula that forms the city’s old center.
Though there are no spectacular buildings to be found, I found the center of A Coruña an enchanting place to stroll about. Narrow streets open up into ocean views; seagulls constantly float past on the seaside breeze.
Most distinctive are the glass balconies, called galerías, that hang over the streets. These can be seen all around A Coruña’s central square, the Plaza de María Pita, where the stately city hall presides. Incidentally, this square is named after a local heroine, who helped to defend the city from an English attack in 1589. This brave action was rewarded with a military pension by Philip II; and her Gallego battle cry—Quen teña honra, que me siga, “Those who would have honor, follow me”—is still well-known.
The glass balconies are even more apparent on the seaside avenue, Avenida Marina, one of the most picturesque parts of the city. From there I walked to the Paseo Maritimo, one of the longest maritime promenades in Europe. Handholding couples, sweating joggers, and spandex-clad cyclist went by, while old men waited next to fishing lines for an aquatic nibble. Across the water I could see the green hills on the other side of the bay. I especially appreciated the elegant forms of the rust-colored streetlamps that adorned the street.
Walking on this way, I eventually reached the park at the end of the peninsula. Here is where A Coruña becomes truly grand. The grassy hills slope down into a craggy mound of rock, lapped by the ocean tides. Statues and megaliths dot the grass, in a playful imitation of Stonehenge amid the English countryside. A curious structure is the Casa das Palabras (House of Words), a kind of enclosed courtyard of obvious Moorish inspiration. An informational plaque declares that it was the burial ground of Muslim soldiers who died in the Spanish Civil War, whose bodies have since been relocated. According to the website, the current function of the building is to serve as a meeting point between different cultures, though it doesn’t look like it gets much use.
The star attraction, of course, is the Torre de Hércules, or the Tower of Hercules. A legend tells that the Greek hero battled a monster on this spot for three days until finally slaying the beast; then he buried the monster’s head underground, and ordered a city to be built. The coat of arms shows the severed head of the vanquished foe, upon which the Tower of Hercules shines proudly.
The tower not for defense, but is a lighthouse, probably the oldest continually functioning lighthouse in the world—a fact that earned it the status of UNESCO World Heritage in 2009. Built in the 2nd century by the Romans, it is the only Roman lighthouse to survive the centuries. Yet the graceful form that greets the eye nowadays—sprouting 55 meters, or 180 ft, into the air, making it the second-tallest lighthouse in Spain—owes far more to the Enlightenment-era reconstruction, completed in 1791 by Eustaquio Giannini. Inside the structure the Roman masonry survives, though it does not look like much to the untrained eye. In any case, the fact that the Romans would need a lighthouse on the remote northwestern edge of the Iberian peninsula speaks for itself.
The lighthouse is best appreciated from across the park’s little bay. From there you can see the dramatic rise of the rocks out of the water, like the back of some scaled beast, ascending into a gently sloping grassy hill, the cool green speckled with yellow flowers—all culminating in the tan tower standing high above the waves. After I walked over to inspect the tower, I sat myself on some of the rocks overlooking the sea in order to read a little. I was in the middle of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. In one part Spengler says that Western man’s deepest urge is to be alone with infinity; and as I sat above the crashing waves, looking out at the ocean beyond, I felt the strange peace of being a silent witness to something far bigger than myself.
The other major sight in A Coruña is the Monte de San Pedro, which is quite a walk from the city center. On the way there, I passed A Coruña’s massive beach, which sits on the northern side of the peninsula. Though technically divided into two beaches, the Orzán and Riazor, it forms one continuous spread of sand. The view from the far end, facing the peninsula, is astonishing in the vast sweep of shore curving into the distance. You may also pause to observe the hulking form of A Coruña’s football stadium.
The most stylish way to go up the hill is via the glass elevator on the northern side. The elevator ascends diagonally up the hillside, going slowly enough to give the visitor a chance to peer out of the glass ball at the ocean scenery. But I was in the mood to walk, so I took the long way around, trekking all the way around the hill before going up from the southern end.
The Monte de San Pedro sits strategically over the bay, giving a wide visibility in many directions. This is why it was made a naval fortress during the twentieth century, though it never saw any actual fighting due to Spain’s neutrality in the World Wars. Now the big bunkers and guns form part of a park, their gargantuan barrels slowly rusting away—which is the best thing a gun can do, really. The main attraction, however, is simply the view. From the western side one can see the Galician coastline, with a group of four flat, rocky islands off the shore. From the east all of A Coruña is visible, with the Tower of Hercules standing proudly from across the bay.
These are just some of my fondest memories of A Coruña. The city is easily among the finest costal cities in the north of Spain, one to which I would gladly return.
Well over a year ago, after completing my short camino, I spent some time exploring the city of Santiago de Compostela. Procrastination prevented me from doing a timely blog post. So with the benefit of hindsight but penalty of forgetting, I will complete this long overdue write-up.
Santiago de Compostela is a remote and storied city. Situated in the province of Galicia, in the north-west of the Iberian Peninsula, far from Spain’s capital and remote from the rest of Europe, it has never been the crucible of a religion nor the seat of an empire. Probably we would never have mentioned it had it not been for one shepherd who, one day, over a thousand years ago, reported seeing a light over a field. Those who followed this light found a tomb; and inside, the body of St. James the Greater.
As I discussed in my post about the Camino de Santiago, this story is an apocryphal legend. What is certain is that the Christians in the north of Spain were in trouble. During the last one hundred years, Muslims had poured into the Iberian Peninsula, conquering everything with effortless ease. These Muslims relied on irrigation for their agriculture—the combination of the crops and the technologies they brought with them forever transformed Iberian farming—so they had trouble colonizing mountainous regions. So it was these northern, rainy, and mountainous areas to which many of the Christians retreated, huddling in modern-day Galicia and Asturias.
Outmanned, disorganized, technologically and culturally outmatched, these Christians had little hope of defeating the Muslims southward. But the “discovery” of St. James’s body helped to change this situation. Suddenly, an obscure, rural, and remote area of a Christian outpost became one of the most important holy sites in Christendom, comparable with Rome or Jerusalem. Eventually, the Christians of northern Spain expanded their territory, extending their dominion along the northern coast all the way to the Pyrenees. Once linked up with France, pilgrims began to pour into the country, seeking penance and repentance through the journey.
The cultural effects of this pilgrimage could hardly be overstated. By this time, Europe had emerged from the confusion which followed Rome’s collapse, and daring new architectural styles were being developed: the Romanesque, Gothic, and later Renaissance and Baroque. The Camino de Santiago became the artery through which these styles flowed into Spain; and as a result, some of the most splendid cathedrals in the country can be found along the route: the gothic cathedrals in León and Burgos, for example, and the magnificent Romanesque cathedral of Santiago itself. And it is this cathedral that any visitor to the city must turn to first.
The Cathedral of Santiago is the end-point of the entire camino, the iconic goal of the arduous pilgrimage. And the building is worth the walk.
According to legend, the cathedral was built over the tomb of St. James. This church quickly became a potent symbol of Christianity, prompting the Moors in 997 to invade, burn down the early church, and take the bells and the gates with them back to their capital in Córdoba, where this bounty was placed—appropriately enough—in the Great Mosque. When King Ferdinand III of Castile conquered Córdoba over two hundreds years later, he had the same bells and gates transported to the Cathedral of Toledo, where they remain to this day.
The front entrance of the cathedral stands proudly above the Plaza de Obradoiro (gallego for “workshop”), a monumental square that, on any given day, is full of exhausted pilgrims and energetic street vendors. This square, and the two baroque spires of the cathedral’s façade, owe their current form to Fernando de Casas Novoa, who undertook the work in the early 18th century. Though a relatively obscure architect, Novoa achieved a stupendous result. The façade sweeps upward like an orchestral crescendo, its symmetrical ornamentation perfectly balanced between a strong upward vertical push and swelling curves, embellished at every point by intricate friezes.
This would be enough to make any cathedral notable; but the Santiago Cathedral has three more impressive façades: on the northern, southern, and eastern ends. And each of these façades overlooks plazas of almost equal grandeur. Counterbalancing the two spires at the western entrance is the clock tower, another elegant Baroque skyscraper. The pilgrim can thus walk 360 degrees around the building without ceasing to find something to attract his eye.
And yet the most beautiful portal of the cathedral is not visible from the outside at all. It is the Pórtico de la Gloria—which, because of the subsequently built baroque exterior, now stands on the inside of the western entrance. Designed by Master Mateo in the late 12th century, this portal is now considered to be one of the masterpieces of Romanesque sculpture. Tragically—for me—this site was closed when I arrived in Santiago, so I did not have the privilege of beholding it. But I did get a chance to see some sculptures from this portico in the Prado, where they were transported during repair-work in Santiago—and even this small sample was extraordinary.
Like so many secular pilgrims, I decided to go to a “pilgrim’s mass” in the cathedral, to take part in the religious tradition. These are held throughout the day, in multiple languages, and are abbreviated compared with the usual mass. I was hoping to see the famous botafumeiro, but it made no appearance. This is a giant censer—or incense burner—that is swung from the ceiling during masses on religious holidays. If you haven’t seen a video, I recommend it; the censer swings wildly, spilling forth perfumed smoke into the cavernous church. A team of eight men is needed to get it going; and it costs the cathedral nearly $500 every time this ceremony is performed. Swinging a giant metal object full of burning coals would seem to come with certain risks; and indeed the censer has flown off its rope many times—though I believe no one has ever been seriously hurt.
After the mass was finished, I got in line to ascend to the main altar. This is a magnificent mass of gold and smiling angels, whose lithe bodies lift the shimmering metal towards heaven. In the center of this arrangement, seated under Jesus, is a statue St. James himself; and it is considered good luck to lay one’s hand on his back. (I am not sure if this statue is a reliquary or just an icon.) This deed having been performed, I leapt down to explore the rest of the cathedral. Signs are posted on every wall, with a schedule for mass in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese…. to be held in one of the cathedral’s many attractive chapels. The cathedral’s ceiling has the characteristic rounded barrel vault of Romanesque structures; and surface after surface is adorned with the signature scallop shell of the camino.
Once you exit the cathedral, and finish your long circuit around the outside, you will end up once again in the Plaza de Obradoiro. Here there is yet another notable landmark: the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos. As you face the cathedral’s western entrance, this venerable building stands to your left. It was originally a hostel, commissioned by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Ferdinand, for weary pilgrims finishing their journey. A lovely platersque façade adorns the main doors of this building; but beyond this I could not venture, for nowadays the hostel is a Parador de Turísimo: an old building refurbished into a fancy hotel for wealthy guests. The old hostel does honor its roots by offering a free meal to pilgrims—the first ten who walk in the doors, that is. I didn’t try my luck.
Facing the northern façade of the cathedral is yet another landmark: the Monasterio de San Martín Pinario. This is the second largest monastery in the country, after El Escorial. The side facing the cathedral is fronted with a lovely garden, but the visitor cannot enter here; rather you must go around the corner, at the church entrance, where a sweeping staircase takes you underneath an imposing sculptural display of saints. Inside, you will find a golden altar in a high-walled church. Unlike in so many churches—since this one is no longer in use—you are allowed to walk wherever you please, onto or behind the main altar, or up into the choir, which gives you a priest’s-eye view of the church.
Like the Monasterio de Santo Tomás in Ávila, this monastery also previously served as a center of scientific research: inside there was a collection of bird specimens, a surprisingly accurate anatomical model, and a collection of old chemical containers on display. This monastery was confiscated by the central government at around the same time as the Monasterio de Piedra in Zaragoza, in 1835, during the Carlist War. Thankfully, unlike the Monasterio de Piedra it was not burned, and was finally given over to be used as a seminary, a use which it retains to this day.
The “casco viejo” (historical center) of Santiago is itself a monument. As in Toledo, Córdoba, or Cáceres, the narrow, twisting, tightly packed medieval streets have been preserved. Small squares centered around statuesque fountains, churches with their stone crucifixes sticking from the street—this was the old city, which, like everything else in Galicia, was made almost exclusively from the deep grey granite so abundant in the region. The constant presence of this somber silvery stone, juxtaposed with the cool green of the countryside, is one of the most characteristic features of this part of Spain.
One of the finest parks in the city is the Parque de Alameda, which provides some excellent relief from the occasionally claustrophobic center. This park is most notable for its lookout point, which provides the best view of the Santiago Cathedral in the city (see the headline image above). Unfortunately for me, this view was partially obscured by the scaffolding erected around one of the towers, as part of the cathedral’s extensive maintenance work. Santiago’s other notable park is the Parque de Santo Domingo de Bonival, a Romantic garden filled with stone fragments and ruins, in the grounds of a former convent. The park still preserves a cemetery—in which, quite unlike American cemeteries, the bodies are interred in shelves built into long walls.
The convent to which this cemetery belonged was possessed by the Spanish government during the same wave of confiscations that took the Monasterio de San Martín Pinario. The beautiful church still stands, and is now used for events—I briefly peeked inside, but they were performing renovations. The convent itself has also been repurposed. Nowadays it is home to the Museo de Pobo Galego. “Pobo Galego” is gallego (the language of Galicia) for el Pueblo Gallego, or the Galician People, and is without doubt one of the best museums in the city.
Compared to both the Basques and the Catalans, the Galicians have been relatively free from separatist and nationalist movements. Yet as a region, Galicia is arguably as distinct from the rest of Spain as those better-known examples. Gallego is one of Spain’s four official languages—along with Spanish, Basque, and Catalan—and is widely spoken in the region. Written down, gallego looks extremely similar to Portuguese, but I do not believe the two languages are mutually intelligible. For what it’s worth, the traveler George Henry Borrow—who was a genius in languages and could speak over twenty—reported being dumbfounded by the language, despite being fluent in Portuguese and Spanish.
Appropriately enough, gallego is abundant in the Museum of the Galician People. This museum is dedicated to preserving some of the distinct cultural traditions of the region—many of which are sinking into obscurity, due to technological innovation and the spread of mainstream Spanish culture. The museum is full of models and replicas: of buildings, costumes, fishing nets, musical instruments, farming implements, and even traditional fishing vessels, all accompanied with extensive information. To someone with an anthropological background, like me, it was enchanting. The highlight of the museum was, however, not an exhibit at all, but the picturesque double-helix staircase that was part of the erstwhile monastery.
My last stop was the Museo de las Peregrinaciones, or the Pilgrimage Museum. This turned out to be far more interesting than I expected. Not only was there a good historical overview of the Camino de Santiago—complete with examples of guidebooks from many centuries and countries, including a huge hand-drawn guidebook in Japanese—but there was also information about pilgrimage as a human phenomenon.
Europe, of course, is not the only place that has turned the simple act of moving into a religious rite. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam; and today the journey to Mecca is undertaken by millions every year. Aside from the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage routes of Kumano Kodo, in Japan, is the only UNESCO-recognized walking path—and journeys on foot have as long and venerable a history in Japan as anywhere.
And this is not to mention the examples from literature. The Odyssey is the West’s foundational and proverbial example of a transformative journey; and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales takes place on a pilgrimage. In Japan, Matsuo Basho’s famous collection of Haiku’s, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, was written during his wanderings on foot. But naming individual works cannot do justice to the idea of pilgrimage, since nearly every iconic story involves a journey of some kind.
Why is it that humans, from around the world and across history, have discovered a spiritual significance in travel? The new sites and sounds, foreign cities and strange customs, hold an obvious appeal. The privations induced by travel reduce life to its most basic elements, perhaps reminding pilgrims of what is important and what is frivolous. The act of the journey easily lends itself as a metaphor for the transformation of the traveler, whose outlook is shifted as much as his body. The withdrawal from one’s usual surroundings gives the pilgrim time to think and reflect during the long hours on the road. And the act of throwing one’s fortune to the winds—away from the safety of one’s home, navigating unfamiliar obstacles—has obvious religious implications.
Pilgrimage represents travel at its best—the seeking of wisdom, simplicity, and community, the sense of adventure, the willingness to adapt, the striving for understanding—and Santiago de Compostela is, as I discovered, an ideal place for pilgrims of all nations.
It is absurd to think that we can enter Heaven without first entering our own souls
Last week I spend five days walking on the Camino de Santiago. I know, probably that doesn’t sound terribly impressive to anyone who walked all the way from France, but I still had a great time. Every morning we set out before sunrise, when the lush landscape of Galicia was still shrouded in mist and twilight. We walked on and on, guided by the conch shell signs that point the way. We reached our destination just as the heat of the day began to take hold. My back sore, my feet blistered, I dropped my backpack in the hostel and stretched out in my bunkbed. Besides walking, sleeping, and eating, the only thing I did was to read this book: St. Teresa’s book on prayer.
It seemed like an appropriate choice. Both Santiago (St. James) and St. Teresa are patron saints of Spain; and yet they represent two very different periods in Spain’s history. The cult of Santiago dates from the time of the Moors, when Christians needed a figure to rally around during the Reconquista. St. Teresa, on the other hand, lived during the Counter-Reformation. As the Catholic world was coming apart, Catholic officials were understandably skittish at even a hint of heterodoxy. Thus St. Teresa’s mysticism was first viewed with suspicion, and she was even picked up by the Inquisition. But after some investigation, it was decided that St. Teresa posed no threat to orthodoxy; to the contrary, she helped to reinvigorate the faith.
This context is necessary to understand this book, or at least half of it. This is because, although ostensibly guide for prayer, it is also a handbook for avoiding the suspicions of unorthodoxy. It is full of advice for those having mystical experiences on which visions to discount, because they are products of Satan or the imagination, and which visions to accept. Teresa also explains when you should yield to one’s prioress or confessor, and when you should stand your ground. St. Teresa was obviously acutely aware of the paranoid climate, and thus this book is as full of pragmatic counsel as religious guidance. St. Teresa even explains in the beginning that the only reason she wrote the book was because she was commanded to.
As James Michener pointed out, the most striking thing about St. Teresa is this seamless mixture of pragmatism and mysticism. For somebody who reported feeling her soul leave her body, she comes across as remarkably down to earth. Several times, she quotes or references a Biblical passage and then adds parenthetically “Well, at least I think that’s what it says,” as if she couldn’t be bothered to go look it up. She also frequently comments on how inadequate she feels to the task at hand; and a few times she says that she’s unsure whether she is repeating herself, because she wrote the last bit a while ago and she doesn’t have time to reread it. The final effect is really charming, as if she just sat down and dashed off the whole thing between breakfast and lunch.
These interior matters are so obscure to the mind that anyone with as little learning as I will be sure to have to say many superfluous and even irrelevant things in order to say a single one that is to the point. The reader must have patience with me, as I have with myself when writing about things of which I know nothing; for really I sometimes take up my paper, like a perfect fool, with no idea of what to say or of how to begin.
Ironically, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the religious content was what least impressed me. The book is divided into seven mansions within the crystalline castle that represents the soul. Each progressive mansion is one step closer to God. Despite this organization, however, I found the chapters quiet repetitive; the divisions from one stage to another didn’t strike me as very clear. The general tendency is for the mystical experiences to keep growing in intensity, which culminates in the experience of a burning mixture of pleasure and pain that seems to come from nowhere. This is the inspiration for Bernini’s famous, and famously erotic, portrayal of the Saint.
What most bothered me was that the mystical and orthodox strains in Teresa’s thought did not go easily together. Perhaps this is only my taste. One thing I enjoy about mystic writings is their grand conception of the cosmos, the notion that everything apparently opposite and contradictory is one. Thus mystic writers, in my experience, tend not to be especially preoccupied with moral injunctions, since they regard good and evil as a kind of illusion.
But in Teresa, the emphasis on wickedness, on personal shortcomings, on temptation, and in general the whole moral framework of Catholicism made her system as much about avoiding sinfulness and unorthodoxy as achieving a mystical experience. For example, I’ve heard mystics say that each person is a part of God, but Teresa councils that we should contemplate God to realize our own foulness and lowliness. This is just a matter of taste, but I don’t find that appealing.
On the fifth day after we began, at about noon, I found myself standing in front of the two towers of Santiago Cathedral. Later that day, I finished the final pages of this book. I had taken a pilgrimage of the body and soul, and hopefully I’m better for it. In any case, I enjoyed myself and learned something.