Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Letter from Toledo

Dear Friends
Today I had a coffee in a small, nondescript bar halfway up the hill to the magnificent city of Toledo. I sat in the same seat where 10 years ago I watched the twin towers fall on 11 September, 2001. On that day only the family who ran the bar sat with me in stunned silence as the horror of the terrorist attack unfolded. As the clouds of dust billowed from the falling buildings the voice of the grandfather broke the silence. “This will lead to war” he muttered. Alas his prediction came true.
Back then I made the short train trip to Toledo from Madrid where I was having a brief break. For a long time I had wanted to visit the city and in particular see the cathedral with its famous sacristy overflowing with paintings by El Greco and Velazquez. This time I entered the city as a pilgrim. Footsore, tired and hungry. Our arrival in Toledo means we have walked almost 500 kms. Time to take stock, do a washing and rest. There are some long stages ahead.
Since I last wrote to you the Camino seems to have completely taken over our lives. The other day I stopped in a village square in the mid afternoon and slipped off my boots sighing with the relief that a “boots off” break brings. I was rubbing my feet when a local man plopped himself down on the seat beside me. He looked at me with the typical cocktail of  respect and “you must be mad” amusement when I told him I was walking to Compostela. “Where have you walked from today” he enquired. No matter how hard I tried I couldn´t remember. “Errrr, errrr,” I hesitated as I pulled my credencial from my pocket. Only when I saw the sello could I name the place I had left only 6 or so hours before. It was an easier matter to tell him where I was going that day. The pilgrimage seems to do that to us. We don´t remember where we have been as if the information is irrelevant to our purpose. Rather we become fixed on where we are going. If only I could apply that lesson to my life in general. The past is gone. Concentrate on what is to come.
On Camino though we are focussed on the more immediate future of the few metres in front of us as we walk along the Way. It is through walking at my own pace I can see and think about the things which otherwise I  would miss. This less walked route is full of wildlife unused to passing pilgrims. Rabbits and hares burst out on the path. Lizards skitter into the long grass. Butterflies dance around the still blooming spring flowers which colour the borders of the paths in reds, purples, blues and white. A field of white poppies follows red. Ants march in perfectly formed lines creating ant-highways full of industry and purpose. The other day I watched a single ant slowly push an improbably huge load. All the time crickets rub their legs together in the long grass and pollen collecting bees buzz. A couple of pilgrims on a tandem whizzed past. Only walkers can experience all of this. I don´t want to overstate the effect but for me this is like brain washing in the best sense. I can´t get enough of it.
Life on pilgrimage is one of routine. Get up, wash, pack the rucksack, breakfast, find the first of the arrows of the day and follow them through many experiences until the next bed, food and sleep are in sight. It is a time set apart. In some small ways very like the lives of some religious people who live a life of prayer in communities closed off from the everyday world. We met some of them when we decided to stay at the Convent of the Trinitarian nuns in Toboso. Their Order is over 1000 years old and their daily routine of silence and prayer has been well established over that time. We arrived at the convent having phoned in advance to book as advised in the guidebook. “The charge is 20 euros each,” said the nun who answered the phone. When I hesitated since this was 3 times what had been charged in a previous convent she went on, ”well we have to clean and maintain the convent.” I enquired if dinner was included. With a sigh she said that something could be arranged. The accommodation was very adequate and the sister who received guests explained the rules – particularly the curfew. Being in at 9pm was fine staying out until 10pm, “no esta bien”. We were there by 9pm and as instructed pressed the bell. A voice from behind a screen greeted us with “Ave Maria”. We were told to wait. Another door opened  and we were beckoned into a simple room divided by a grill. There was a table set for food and one of the bars had been removed. A simple dinner of vegetables, boiled potatoes and fruit was passed through the gap. Through another door appeared a nun in her 70´s with milky white skin and a pure white habit. “I am the Mother Superior,” she said, “I hope you understand Spanish”. For the next 45 minutes or so she engaged us in conversation, about the pilgrimage and pilgrims´ motives for doing it and she answered our questions about the Order. She herself was born in Toboso. She entered the convent at the age of 17 and had been Superior for 32 years. She spoke about their vocation to pray for the world and for that part of their Order where members provide social and health care for the poor. It was a memorable conversation carried out through the bars. We said goodnight and each went our respective pilgrim ways.  
La Mancha remains exotic and several times ruined castles atop green hills have been distant landmarks which we have walked towards. Don Quijote continues to appear regularly.
In the days since I last wrote Spain has seen unprecedented bad weather. Two days ago it was raining in all of Spain. Hailstones dented cars in Seville and rivers burst their banks. Ón camino I´ve seen rain in the last week or so which was exactly like the monsoons I witnessed in India. For the most part the weather remains hot and clammy a precurser to wild thunder with both forked and sheet lightening before the heavens open. A few days ago we saw the storm clouds gathering. As we passed a tractor a couple of farm workers were crowding into the cabin. “Do you know a tormentera is coming?” they asked. “Oh yes” we replied. They beat a hasty retreat and we quickened our pace. Thankfully only being caught on the periphery of the deluge. We looked back to see the castle we passed being soaked. We are becoming aficionados of weather forecasts as we try to time leaving and arriving to avoid the worst of the storms and the highly focussed cloud bursts (chubascos). We´ve largely been lucky so far and thankfully the temperature has now dropped and the forecast is better for the days to come.
We continue to have encounters and adventures. In San Clemente we were looking round a huge church which appeared to have a a new, modern organ. The priest appeared and engaged us in conversation. I suspect he hadn´t spoken to strangers for a while because he showed us round the 12th century church showing us early photographs of original artefacts long since destroyed. “They say some of these were destroyed in the civil war” he said with a smile, “but I suspect the priest sold them”. He was equally frank in his views on the economy of Spain and the increased social problems. He excused himself to go off and see some gentlemen of the road who had sought his help. “Nowadays” he said, “we have to distinguish between transient travelers and pilgrims.”  Medieval accounts of the pilgrimage to Santiago show it has always been thus.
That evening Mass in the church was attended by 200 people, Afterwards he called me over. “Would you like to try the organ?” he asked and introudced me to the wee nun who had played during the mass. She was so short her feet couldn´t reach the pedals. They were very proud of the new instrument purchsed with money from a donation and even more proud when as I played the Big Man´s voice soared to the vaulted ceiling. A magical moment. But no less such than a couple of days later when we stopped in a small village for breakfast. We had set out early and wolfed down the toast and milky coffee. We asked the woman behind the bar how to find the route out of the village. “Oh you just turn right and go down to the main road and turn left.” We set off and couldn´t find any yellow arrows. However she had been so sure of her directions we continued. Next we heard the horn of a car sound behind us. It was the woman. She jumped out, “I was wrong” she said, “follow me.” Off she went driving slowly  and several steeets later we found the arrow. We couldn´t thank her enough for her help and she couldn´t stop apologising.
The last time I was here in Toledo the town was subdued in the aftermath of September 11. But it was still full of tourists, I waited in the queue, paid my money and shuffled round the cathedral with several hundred other visitors. The sacristy was breathtaking despite the crowds. I decided that this trip I´d go to Mass in the cathedral rather than sightsee. Last night we went along for the 6.30 mass. Whilst waiting I explained to an attendant that we were pilgrims and asked if we could get the stamp of the cathedral. Having consulted on his walkie talkie he told us to wait by a locked gate. Another attendant opened it and said just go into the sacristy and wait for the nun to come with the sello. The cathedral was closed. The sacristy was silent and empty. The lights were ablaze and we saw it in all of its glory. We didn´t mind at all waiting for the nun.
We now make our pilgrim way to Avila. I have no idea what will happen next. In fact I have stopped thinking about that. I know my mind will continue to be occupied with thoughts inpsired by the sights and sounds of the camino, the people we will meet and those unexpected moments like when the afternoon sun is beating down and a breeze ruffles the hair of the crops lining the path cooling the sweat on my back. Momentary and exquisite. We are blessed.

Take care everyone. Thanks for your messages. I´ll write again when I can.




  1. Almost three weeks ago now, we saw those same dark and beautiful skies from Alcalá la Real. You bring back the walk again. Thank you.

    You also prompted memories when we were sitting at a bar in Santo Domingo de la Calzada one morning, watching the towers fall down. For us the world changed forever, but over the ages, I suppose it is just one more swing of the pendulum.

  2. The towers were collapsing while I was on a plane, bound for Washington DC from Portland, Oregon. We were ordered to turn around and by the time we landed in Portland, both towers had collapsed. Powerful memories no matter where each of us experienced it.

    Wonderful post and fantastic photos!

    Peace to you.