Thursday, 31 December 2009

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be...

Or is it?
It's the last day of the year and the last of a decade which for me has been full and satisfying. Amongst many other personal gifts, I have published Pilgrimage to Heresy in not one but two languages with Germany, Holland and even possibly Korea in the wings! As Peregrinos de la Herejía especially, Priscillian has gained a wide following and I am busy at work on Compostela, the next book in the Camino Chronicles.

And so like all of us, I am reflecting on the decade and what it has brought: for me - many good people into my life, work that I love doing (I am a psychotherapist and teacher of psychology), a home in which I have finally found the peace and beauty I have craved for many years, and the continued health to enjoy it. Material things, money? Enough to not have to worry most of the time; not enough to be completely free of anxiety about the future. But I am not complaining. My life is a good one: I am creative and fulfilled, and next year will bring me my first grandchild. If I could be happier it would be hubris to contemplate it.

Yesterday, after back treatment on Monday (not the same since the Camino in Portugal last year: not that it’ll stop me from walking again this year!) I decided to take it easy and finish the book I treated myself to for Christmas called The Story of Santiago de Compostela by Catherine Gasquoine Hartley. I didn’t realise it when I ordered in but it is a facsimile of the book written in 1910. Along with many cups of tea (and left over mince pies!), I read it in its entirety and transported myself back to the Galicia of 100 years ago. Not surprisingly, most of it I recognised as “my” Galicia, but there were some changes in names and details which made me think: “If these things have changed in 100 years, imagine the variation in 1000 years”. I realised how one person’s “facts” are another’s distant memory or not known at all.

The Alameda she describes as a grassy hill devoid of any buildings at all. And my favourite walk towards the "Seminario Belvis" is both recognisable and yet,not. As you may know, walk across the road from the Market and you will come to a valley area and from there the pathway climbs steeply up to the Seminario Menor, (now a semi-commercial enterprise). I have often wondered what may flow there, under the ground. In her chapter on the Colegiata de Santa Maria la Real de Sar (in which she gives some interesting theories about the “sloping columns”), Gasquioine Hartley writes the following:

“At the foot of the hill an old bridge crosses the narrow stream of the Sar. Here you will see the women washing their linen in the clear water; the clothes spread in the sun to form dry patches of bright colour upon the grass. Girls come to and fro with their pitchers to fill with water…It is the same scene, the same primitive work, that has lived on for centuries.”

Anyone familiar with Santiago and the cathedral might temporarily become a little lost when she mentions places such as the Coro, the Plaza de Alfonzo Doce, The “Royal Hospital”, and the Plaza de los Literarios (“re-named” from the Plaza de la Quintana, by which name we know it today). The Coro, which in Catherine's day would have blocked the complete view from the Portico, is gone, probably dismantled when the excavations took place in the 40's and 50's. Those of you who have visited the cathedral museum will have had the good fortune to have seen Master Matteo's beautiful stone Coro, though this, of course, is only a reconstruction of part of it. While you might recognise the Hospital Real as the Parador de los Reyes Catolicos (former pilgrims' hospital, now affordable only by rich Americans it would seem....!), you might wander for hours searching for the first only to return to the Obradoiro to ask directions. Were you to ask in 1910 you would be looked at askance: “¡Pues, tio, estas aqui!”. The plaza of your dreams was re-named after the west façade of the cathedral. Our author, of course, does not know when!

This struck me as I was reading: neither does she know of the First World War, nor the Spanish Civil War which split families and mobilised the International Brigades against Fascism. She knows nothing of Hitler, Pol Pot, Idi Amin; …George Bush (W). Neither does she know of penicillin, television, the Space Programme…the Internet. Certainly, while she writes eloquently and knowledgably about the Way of St. James and the Cathedral in “Compostela” (she only mentions Santiago de Compostela in terms of the cathedral), she could not envisage a time when, 100 years after she was writing, the Junta de Galicia was preparing for at least 350,000 pilgrims on a Camino which has become almost a household word.

Having walked the Camino Portuguese last year (see posts in July and August especially), I immediately recognised the view approaching the city when she writes:

“…its situation is entirely surrounded by hills, which are just near enough, but not too near, to form a charming background, is exceedingly impressive; a well chosen site has been made the most of by the happy skill of the men who have reared here the great mass of buildings, with the Apostol’s mighty cathedral in the centre, forming a charming skyline, and rendered doubly beautiful by the breaks in its outline, caused by the groups of towers and steeples that stand up so grandly from the old churches and convents. I have seen no city in Spain which is more impressive in the distance.”

Today, the cathedral is almost lost amongst the city, and the “churches and steeples” are dwarfed, but nevertheless the view she describes is the one I photographed from the bridge over the main highway south of the city (see above: "Spot the Cathedral!") last July 23rd, and just as impressive.

All in all, this is a book I recommend highly to anyone who wants to know more about the city of the past and can be ordered on Amazon…
oh, and speaking of the past: while you are there, you might want to check out Pilgrimage to Heresy where you can not only learn an alternative “history” of the origins of the Cult of St. James, but go on a Virtual Camino yourself!

We’ll talk some more in 2010. Coming up: further machinations of Diego Gelmirez, and an unholy theft...!

Happy New Year, Feliz Año Nuevo to all.

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