El Camino de Santiago


Just before we were about to leave for Portugal, our phone rang. It was the hotel in Lisbon apologizing profusely for a booking error that they had made. They were very sorry for the error but they had to move us to another hotel. They assured us that we would be happy there.

“Uh Hu” we said. “Ya, right”

“What the hell” was our general philosophy because after traveling to Europe all these years, we had grown accustomed to this sort of thing and were venturing into this with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity. They promised us our complete satisfaction and that a driver would be meeting us at the airport to take us to the Palacio Belmonte.

“Palacio?, Right”

Our cynicism was immediately put to rest when upon exiting through the gate in Lisbon, there was a young lady waiting for us with a sign that said ”Saxe”. As we were going through the city to our hotel, Sharon turned to me and said, “Now for the Palacio. Lets see what this is like.”

The black Mercedes sped through downtown Lisbon and began a long winding trip up one of its many hills to the old part of the city. The streets became narrower and narrower, and the car slowed down as it made the endless series of twists and turns through the ever-narrowing streets. Eventually, the streets became alleys as I noticed the side mirrors almost scraping the sides of the buildings as we sped to our destination.

At the top of the hill, the car stopped and she pointed to an old wooden gate in the center of a medieval crumbling wall. We got out and went through the gate into a cobblestone 15th century courtyard. Up to now it seemed interesting, but things were to get better.

The Palacio Belmonte was a 15th century palace, built for some ancient noble at the top of one of Lisbon’s many hills (there are 7 in all). Our room was in a tower and comprised of 4 different floors. We entered on one floor which had a very modern bathroom. At the end of the corridor, there was a winding staircase which took up one flight to a fairly large den. There were windows on three sides (this was after all a tower) overlooking the city and water below. In the center of the room was a table and chairs with a bottle of wine and two glasses. Nothing had changed in this room for 400 years except at some point, electricity was added. On two walls were some very old blue-tiled illustrations of ancient nobility in their fine clothes with prancing animals at their feet. The walls were ancient plaster and the floor was the original stone. Up the stairs was the bed room which was simple and had some small windows looking out onto the city. The final floor was a door leading out to a terrace which overlooked the town, the harbor and the outlet to the Atlantic.

“Cool”

The next day we began to explore the city and do the tourist thing. That night we returned to our room and began in on the bottle of wine which had been sitting in the room. Sharon wanted to check our email so after a couple of glasses we went down to the lobby to use their computer. When we got there, there was a lady sitting in front of the screen typing away feverishly at the keyboard. When we entered the room, she turned around and Sharon asked if she would be there a long time since she just wanted to check our email. She apologized for monopolizing the computer and insisted that Sharon do her thing, and she would then resume her writing afterwards. While Sharon went online, I sat down in a great big leather chair and she joined me. As she was asking the usual questions as to where I came from, etc., I looked at her and wanted to take her picture. I just did not know how to approach her about it but as I keep finding out, they always open the door for me.

She said she was from Guadalajara, Mexico and was a writer.

“ My husband and I have just returned from walking the El Camino de Santiago”

“Huh?”

“ You never heard of the El Camino de Santiago?” She asked

“Huh?

She went on to explain that el Camino de Santiago (The way of St. John) was a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of the apostle, Saint James the Great, are buried. It was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times and was considered one of three pilgrimages on which a plenary indulgence could be earned. It was a trek that lasted for 750 kilometers and took them the best part of three weeks to complete. Along the way they would stop at various religious sites and have this card that they carried stamped like a sort of passport. At the end of the journey, they would go to the town of Finistre which the ancients thought to be the end of the known world and cast their boots, and clothes into the sea. She described the scene in detail, a beach littered with boots, underwear, and other apparel.

It was actually quite fascinating to hear her talk about it for:
1.El Camino was something that I had never heard of before.

2. She was so pumped up about it, and being a writer, she described the event to me in a very personal and passionate way.
3. Whenever I am in Europe, I become interested in Catholic rituals.

She said that for her, it was a journey of personal growth and meditation, and not religion. She added that most of the people in her group were there for the same reason. She and her husband were in a small group of 10 travelers who marched along the side of the road with walking sticks as the traffic whizzed by talking, reflecting, and just chilling out as it were. At the end, she felt rejuvenated and refreshed as they then continued to tour Portugal for another week. In two days, they would be returning to Mexico. She then pulled out a small notepad and jotted down the names of some towns that we might be interested in seeing.

I love these encounters. For one thing, it reminds me how little I know about some things. It also confirms my belief that everyone is different and that all men/women have widely varying interests and passions. It opens my eyes and stirs my imagination. Not that I would ever want to do it, but that others are actually excited about doing it. As a photographer, the most interesting thing about what I see is how different we all are. I would have a great deal of difficulty finding any inspiration in a place where everybody looked, acted and thought the same.

“ Would you mind if I took your picture?” I asked.

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