Tribute to a Pilgrim

Spain's flag
Europe » Spain » Principality of Asturias » Oviedo
December 28th 2008
Published: December 28th 2008
Edit Blog Post

In loving memory of my father, Alan Joyce, a linguist, historian, and fearless world traveler. The following are exerpts from emails he wrote and photos he took during his fifth and final Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain last spring.

How to spend Good Friday in Oviedo

‏22 March 2008

Dear Friends and Family,

I promised I'd write something about what these flinty Northerners do for Holy Week. They'd make good New Englanders, actually -- restrained and polite, but with very good hearts.

I started the second half of yesterday with a siesta, then went for some good exercise climbing part way up Mt. Naranco to visit two awkward, poorly designed, endearingly ugly little buildings put up by King Ramiro I some time in the mid 9th century. Saw lots of Spanish tourists up there enjoying the relatively fine afternoon and local farmers feeding their chickens or their burros. Coming down one of the steeper paths, I greeted a man and his wife -- he being somewhat younger than me but a bit heavier and definitely out of shape -- telling him "Animo!" And a bit farther on, telling a pair of British tourists that they weren't lost and would find the monuments straight ahead up the path they were following. Those will probably the last and only words of English I'll get to use until I meet Arwen in Madrid next month.

And then I strolled down the hill into town, made it over to the Albergue to get a stamp in my credencial, and walked back up to the Cathedral to get a seat up front for the Solemne Via Crucis event. That turned out to be a sort of Stations of the Cross service. At 8 on the dot, the Archbishop and the Cathedral Chapter came out and began. Oddly, the Cathedral here doesn't have Stations of the Cross along the walls of the nave like our churches do. What happened instead was His Excellency (H.E.) taking a crucifix from the high altar, and walking from point to point counterclockwise around the nave, stopping while a man at the podium read stuff about each Station. About five minutes for each one, followed by a prayer. Again, oddly, the Spanish recognize 14 stations, while I thought there were only 12.

Eventually, H.E. made it back up to the Altar and gave a short homily. It's wonderful hearing him speak. He has the purest Castilian accent you can imagine. He speaks gently and modestly with no big rhetorical flourishes, and every word comes out as clear as a silver bell. And the homily was short and to the point as well. All about "The Face of Christ", and how we should hold the image in our hearts. And then he stopped.

At this point, two members of the Chapter came out bearing tall silver maces, looking like beadles, and another man holding a gonfalon. This is a sort of processional flag. There's a tall, polished wooden pole with a crossbar at the top. Hanging from the crossbar is the flag with lots of gold fringe and braid, and an embroidered representation of the arms of the city -- two figures with major gold wings and white robes, holding up the Cross of King Alfonso II, which has been the emblem of the Principality of the Asturias for 12 centuries. Also known as the Cross of the Angels. With this little ceremony, I thought the service was over and that H.E. would make a solemn processional departure, but that wasn't what happened.

The Gonfalonier raised the flag and looped it back over the crossbar, revealing a wooden frame something less than a meter long and perhaps three quarters of that size wide. The frame holds a rectangle of 1st Century linen. Sitting up front, I could see the two stains made by the pleural edema fluid that was left in the lung that the Roman soldier didn't pierce with his spear point. And I could see two holes where Joseph of Arimithea pinned the cloth, so to speak, to thorns in the crown so that it would hold together across the face of Jesus. H.E. held it high so the everybody in the nave could see it, then slowly did the same for the people in each transept.

And when he first held it up, and for as long as he held it up, that church filled to the Fire Marshal's limit, every seat taken and standing room only in back, fell absolutely silent. It was so quiet, I could hear somebody having trouble breathing. Actually, that was me.

I've been hoping for several years to see the Sudarium, but I had no idea what an emotional moment it would be, or that it would still affect me that way when I saw it. Even now.

And then it was over. The Gonfalonier and the two men with the maces reattached the frame to the Gonfalon crossbar, covered it up, and took it all back down to the Camara Santa until next year. H.E. talked for a few more minutes about the Sudarium with reference to its mention in the 4th Gospel -- a cloth rolled up and set aside in the tomb; different from the Shroud that had fallen on the ground, but equally important. And the still mostly silent crowd departed.

Today the weather was too bad to want to make a day trip out to Aviles or to Valdedios, but this evening I'll go for the Vigil Mass. They don't seem to do much with instrumental music here -- an electric organ in the Chapter's chapel, and that's about it. But maybe this evening they'll have a choir like in olden times. And tomorrow I'll try seeing the Easter Mass in old King Alfonso II's personal church, St. Julian in the Fields.
And then Monday I'll start out walking westward, rain or shine.

Love to all,

Some Oviedo Street Scenes

‏22 March 2008

Dear Friends and Family,

The rain stopped around 6 this evening, and one could actually see some patches of blue overhead for a while. So I pulled out Eric Walker's guide to the Camino Primitivo and went to see if his guide has held up well since he walked this path in 2004 (in his mid 70's!). I found that I didn't really need it here -- in the city there are bronze scallop shells bolted to the paving flags in the sidewalk, supported by yellow arrows as needed. And just before a foot bridge over some railroad tracks, there's a shell pyramid (which I'll photograph tomorrow) with the handwritten Asturian dialect words "Camin Primitivu". Local nationalism is alive and well.

Yesterday, while walking around the Cathedral, I heard somebody playing the gaita, so I pulled out some small change. And indeed, around the corner there was a somewhat scruffy, black-bearded young man playing away all alone very nicely, filling the alley with an old country song (this country, that is) that you might hear Milladoiro or Susana Seivane playing. I dropped the coins in his music case, and he gave me a courtly bow of thanks. Welcome to the Asturias, telling me. I bowed back.

A butcher shop on one of the side streets near my hotel was proudly offering Asturian products like blutwurst from Tineo, one of my destination towns out in the high country, and no kidding, tripe from Salas, another destination town. I wouldn't touch that stuff on a bet, but what was most interesting was the shop owners' obvious pride in these ancient peasant products.

Finally, a Holy Week parade! Didn't expect to see one. This area, for all its centrality to the Christian Kingdom and its longstanding Christian roots, hasn't been particularly Christian for at least a century. In 1934, Asturian coal miners were heavily affected by anarcho-syndicalism and staged a brief revolt, hoping to establish their own area -- you wouldn't call it a state, I guess -- but anyway something different from Spain as it was back then. The Army brought in Col. Franco to crush it, which he did in short order. Later, what was left of those rebels tried again in 1936 at the outbreak of the Civil War, besieging the city only to be defeated again by a detachment of Galician soldiers. Down the street from my hotel is a place called the Plaza de la Liberacion with a life-sized but heroic statue to Lt. Col. Tejeiro who saved the city. He was a little late: on one of the interior walls of the Cathedral, there is a list of some 250 names of clergy killed during these two events.

Anyway, as for the parade, it was as odd as everything else one sees hereabouts. It had the hooded marchers one sees elsewhere in Spain, and young men carrying statues of Christ through the street on beams. But to make it local, there were local musicians. A big group calling itself the Grupo de Gaiteros Vetusto (Ancient Group of Bagpipers), all in black and white Asturian costumes, marched slowly along and playing the same song over and over and over. The Parade Marshal was a man in the black hooded costume, ringing a cowbell when he thought it was time to go or stop. Behind the Grupo Vetusto was a smaller contingent of gaiteras -- girl pipers -- and then, no kidding, about a half dozen young women carrying and playing accordions. They all marched down past the central park up to the square in front of the Cathedral and stopped. I was inside the church by then, but they must have simply disbanded. Some of the spectators watching them came in, but none of the marchers did. So what was the point of the parade?

Time to go if I want to get something light to eat and then a seat for the Evening Vigil Mass. Here's hoping you all have a blessed Easter.

Love from the Road,

Rainy Easter Sunday in Oviedo

23 March 2008

Last night at 9, I went to the Vigil Mass at the Cathedral. It strikes me that even though this is a town with more than a thousand years of Christian history, the Cathedral really doesn't have a lot of resources. There was no orchestra for one of the main events of the liturgical year, but they did the best they could. The antiphons were sung by people with professional quality voices, while the choir (no robes, just street clothing) seemed to have been professionally trained as a group and led by a choirmaster who knew what he was doing. They were excellent.

The service had all the elements we are used to at OLGC. The arrival in the dark, a fire-lighting ceremony (they weren't very good at this), candles, an Easter proclamation, Bible readings, a baptism, and a High Mass. Some interesting differences, however. The Easter Proclamation was done by a young man (in the Spanish context, that means not yet completely bald) with a trained tenor voice as opposed to a falsetto screech like the man at OLGC. The baptism was for a single infant -- no adults. I guess they don't get converts here. And of course, the celebrant here was His Excellency (H.E.) the Archbishop.

Like at OLGC, it went on for several hours, but eventually it all ended. But before he left the altar, H.E. invited the congregation back to the Claustrum for churros and chocolate. Thinking why not, I went. The chocolate was good, especially for a cold rainy evening, and even if churros are never that good, they were okay dipped in the chocolate.

So while I was sipping away, H.E. changed back into his normal black cassock and red yarmulke, and came out to join the small crowd -- everybody in the congregation with the effrontery to join him, that is. I waited while he talked to some young men, one of whom kissed his ring. He saw me, saw immediately that I'm not Spanish, and beckoned me over. We shook hands and I bowed, touching his ring to my forehead (a lot more sanitary than kissing something somebody had kissed just a few minutes before). I thanked him for a magnificent celebration (it was that), and the first thing he said was "¿De donde vienes?" Note the use of the familiar "tu" form! -- we must be on pretty good terms these day. I told him the US, and he asked if we did Vigil Masses the way he does. I said yes, but not as well in my parish because the elements are the same but not the execution. And, I added, the one thing we don't do is churros and chocolate afterwards. He gave me a small smile, and patted me on the shoulder before moving on to work the rest of the crowd. I really like him -- maybe I'll be back again some day and we'll do this again. Anyway, it was sufficient unto the day, and I went back to the hotel to bed.

This morning, Easter Sunday, was exactly like the previous two days. Little teases of sunlight, followed by more clouds, more rain, and even some hail. Looking up out of my hotel window, I could see that Mt. Naranco was covered in white stuff, but it was hail, not snow. Weird weather, which I hope will go away tonight. But for lack of anything else to do on a rainy Sunday, I went to the noontime High Mass. It was fine -- no extraneous ceremony -- and in addition, the organist fired up the huge Baroque organ above the main entrance. Very impressive. Whenever he hit some low notes, the stained glass windowpanes vibrated. I can see why they don't use that organ very often. Oh, and for what may be the last time, H.E. gave me Communion himself -- it's all a matter of standing in the right queue.

Anyway, even though it's been a good few days, and no matter what weather we have blowing through tomorrow, I'm off to Grado, the first stage of the Primitivo. Wish me luck.

Love to all,

P.S. One other thing. I learned this morning, to my surprise, that by special Papal dispensation, people who make a pilgrimage to Oviedo in the Asturias or to the shrine at Covadonga this year and who fill certain requirements (the same ones at at the Cathedral in Santiago in Holy Years) obtain a plenary indulgence. One to a customer. So that would apply to me. However, since I probably still have several decades ahead of me to misbehave, an indulgence at this point won't do me much good, so I'm taking the second Papal option and dedicating it to my cousin Rita, who died earlier this year.

Still Alive and Walking

31 March 2008

Hi Margie,

Sorry not to have written till now. I'm in Fonsagrada, which is probably big enough to show up on Google Earth. In short, I've walked through Paradise (the High Asturias) and have come down into Galicia. But guess what! There aren't a lot of Cybers or Locutorio's de Internet in Paradise. Somebody tipped me to Fonsagrada's Casa de Cultura, which has some computers for public use. This is the first access I've had since leaving Oviedo.

Lots of firsts this time out. This is the first time I've been in this part of Spain. This is the first time I've walked with other pilgrims, other than family, that is. This is the first time I've eaten homemade fabada and lots of other strange things. It's all been good, but is it possible that I'm too old for this Camino? Well, drugs help. Celebrex is good for sore knees and toes, and Extra-Strength Tylenol is good for sore muscles. So I take some succession of these things when I finally trudge into my day's destination, and the following morning I get up, go into the bathroom to wash and shave for the day, and I see that big red S on my T-shirt and tell myself that if King Alfonso II, St. Francis of Assisi, and Eric Walker (in his mid 70's!!!) could do this, so can I. So far, that's worked.

I'm about at the halfway point. There are two more tough days ahead -- from here to Cadavo Baleira, and then from Cadavo to Lugo. After that, the terrain should level out, and the days should not be quite as hard. We'll see.

In Bodenaya, a place too small to show up on Google Earth, I found an Albergue Privado run by a young man from Madrid who had driven a taxi there for twelve years, got really tired of it, found a small piece of land in a tiny village, and got help to build an albergue. We had some fairly deep conversations about the Camino and how it changes your life. And then, four other pilgrims showed up. Sevillanos, they said, with boundless good humor and self-assurance that they could walk miracles. I walked with them one day only, but they really lifted my spirits. And then, as they walked on, I checked into the Albergue in Tineo (another town you could find on Google). Already there were a very young couple from Valladolid who had prepared for the Camino but never thought it would rain on them (more on that below). But they could walk like triathletes -- I left the Albergue well ahead of them, but they passed me on the road somewhere and I haven't seen them again.

Also, I met a Madrileño named Jaime, who was glad to have company the rest of the way. It was kind of funny. We walked an entire day from Tineo to Berducedo, observing the politeness of the language. The next morning, a propos of nothing, he turned to me and said "What's your name?" Meaning, we can drop all this politeness and go to the Tu forms (which I've never really used anywhere, but have gotten used to in a hurry).

Jaime is 33, and a demon walker. And he's carrying 15 kilos in his backpack. Every 10 km or so, he pulls out his cellphone and calls his girl friend in Madrid to tell her that he's okay and that he loves her. Nice to see. And he laughs when I make a joke, so that's good too. Our roads will separate in Lugo, a few days ahead, but perhaps we'll meet up again in Arzua.

So how am I? Well, things that I thought would hurt, don't. Things that I thought would be fine are telling me that all that time I spent in the gym went to training the wrong muscle groups. But I'm having minimal trouble with blisters, and the drugs take care of normal aches and pains.

Looking forward to seeing Arwen in Madrid, and then to coming home to a bed that isn't as hard as the floor.


Oh, BTW, it will be hit or miss if I can find another cyber between here and Santiago. But unless you hear otherwise from the Guardia Civil, you should assume I'm okay.

And one other thing, the weather has been mostly terrible, so I don't know how well my photos of these stunning landscapes will show up. And it has been more than just bad weather -- we're just now seeing the tail end of an enormous weather system blowing in off the Atlantic. From the day after I arrived in Oviedo, we had seven straight days of rain. The bad thing is not so much that it gets me wet, but rather that it turns so many of the trails into mud baths. I may not be in a fit state to meet Arwen and her friends in Madrid. But then, that's the way it is for peregrinos.


‏5 April 2008

Hi Margie,

Today I'm in Arzua. Seven years ago I passed through here coming down off the Northern Road, and thought it a strange little hill town. It still is, although it's flourished considerably since then. All along the French Road entrance to the village there are places claiming to be albergues of some sort or other, but the real Albergue de Peregrinos is almost hidden in a side street. Very nice though. It has European washing machines. I washed everything I wasn't wearing and hung it out in the sun and breeze to dry. For the first time since I left Oviedo last month, my clothes no longer smell like cow flop. Hope I can keep them that way.

Unfortunately, my friend Jaime and I had to separate today. He's on a time budget and has to get back to Madrid next week, so for him, the 14 km. from Melide to here was only half his walking day. But this Camino has pretty well beat the stuffings out of me, apart from the various little aches, pains, and conditions (you should see my sunburn!). I really couldn't go on at his pace, so we said goodbye. I think, however, that I can find him at the Santiago train station on Monday afternoon, which I'd really like to do because after we said goodbye, I realized that I never gave him my email address or took his. And that's important because I have pictures of him and he has some of me that we should exchange.

The hardest part, however, will be being alone again. Which is not to say I'm alone in the Albergue. It's been slowly filling up with Europeans: a party of elderly Brits, a couple of Spanish kids, a Polish guy, and a Dutchman. But I imagine I won't see any of them out on the Camino from here tomorrow morning. One of the surprises of the Albergue experience here has been the way so many of these people like to sleep in. When the weather is warm, as it was today, the cool hours of the morning are your best friend.

It would have been nice to have Arwen or Megan along on this Camino, but in a way, I'm glad that I never tried to persuade family members or friends from home to join me. The physical demands have been huge, and the discomforts surprising, especially that awful first week in the rain. You, in particular, would not have like the Ruta de los Hospitales that Jaime and I took up to the Pass at El Palo. This is the highest of the high roads on this Camino. The views were incredible, and I really liked seeing the wild horses in a couple of places up there, but the paths were narrow and in some places fairly hair-raising. Still, as Jaime said to persuade me to do it, we didn't waste half a beautiful day hanging out in a cafe in Pola de Allande, only to have to follow that up with a brutal climb to the pass in the rain the next day. Like all crazy ideas, it made a certain sense at first. But it's a true accomplishment to have gone over the high path. Even Eric Walker never did that.

Anyway, it's almost over now. I decided not to try to take a detour up to see the great 10th Century monastery at Sobrado dos Monxes again, so tomorrow I will take Meggie's route, going from here to Arca (roughly a half day's walk, I think) and then push on into Santiago on Monday. I made contact with Rebekah -- turns out that she's a lot closer to Sahagun than Leon, so on Wednesday I'll take either a bus or train there. She says they have a place for me to stay, and perhaps there's some work I can help them with until it's time to go back down to Madrid and meet Arwen.


Last day in Santiago

8 April 2008

Hi Margie,

We're currently in the second of four days of rain in Galicia. Not much fun to go out and take pictures and I didn't feel like shopping, so I'm just lazing about today, hoping that my right foot will heal up enough for me to be useful at Rebekah's and Paddy's place tomorrow and Thursday. I did go to the Pilgrim Mass this morning. Got seated just as the person making the announcements of what pilgrims had come in mentioned me -- "Uno de Oviedo veniendo de los Estados Unidos". Nice to be recognized.

It was a small scale Mass. The Chapter said it, not the Archbishop. The lads did fly the Botafumeiro, but somehow it seemed a little lackluster performance. A year or so ago, the Cathedral refurbished the tackle and the rope that holds it, but I understand that the Tirabolseiros don't like the new rope. It's more stretchy than the old one, and indeed, seems to bounce about somewhat more than I remember. So it may be more dangerous for them to use, and they do seem work it differently. Even so, when it's flying at full length almost up to the ceiling, it's still a magnificent sight.

The town itself seems somewhat more subdued in the constant rain. The guy in the blackface outfit who plays jazz guitar hasn't been out, nor the old character in medieval pilgrim garb with the little dog, nor any of the street musicians, nor the Living Statue guy. I will go out later this evening in the hope of hearing the Tuna sing. I always like them. And that will be the last of my Santiago activities for this trip. Tomorrow I leave to go visit Rebekah and Paddy in their private albergue near Sahagun.

And as always, with a certain amount of post-Camino depression at this point, I'll be very glad to come home.


After Dad finished this Camino he met me in Madrid for a weekend. I cherish the time we spent traveling together. The blog I posted about that trip can be found here .


29th December 2008

What a fascinating journey! I'm so impressed that your dad did this once and can't believe he did it five times! I know you cherish these emails chronicalling his pilgrimage. Thanks for sharing with the rest of us.

Tot: 2.843s; Tpl: 0.075s; cc: 9; qc: 57; dbt: 0.0608s; 2; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb