This is part one in a two part series of articles.
A first-hand experience of the first Maltese volunteer hospitalero (volunteer helper) in the small village of Bercianos del Real Camino, halfway the 800 kilometer route of the Camino Francés.
In recent years – with the exception of 2020 – on an annual basis, more than 300,000 people from all over the world, including some Maltese, have received a Compostela, a certificate in Latin stating that they have walked at least 100 kilometers – many walk much more – on a pilgrimage known as the Camino that ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
A similar number would have trodden one of the 44 old Camino routes from different directions from Spain and elsewhere, but, for some reason, did not make it to the final destination.
The Camino this year celebrates the Ano Santo or the Xacobean Year, a very special event established in 1122 by Pope Calixto 11 and which occurs only when the feast of Santiago (Santiago) on July 25 takes place on a Sunday. Such an event only occurs 14 times in 100 years.
Among other highlights commemorating the event, the “holy door” at the rear of the cathedral is open, granting those who pass through it indulgence or absolution of their sins in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.
Walking to the Tomb of Santiago de Compostela has been a popular pilgrimage for hundreds of years. Along the route, there are dozens of albergues or hostels where tired pilgrims stop one night to regain their strength and continue their journey the next day. Most shelters are private; some are parish albergues or donativos, where food and accommodation are free but, if desired, a donation can be given. They are run by hospitaleros voluntarios (hosvols) or volunteers, who offer their services free of charge for two weeks once a year.
After hiking various Camino routes two years ago I chose a different path and give something back to this unique experience by applying to help as a hosvol. I was accepted as the first Maltese to do such voluntary work. Prerequisites include a previous pilgrim’s background, fluency in a few languages, interactive social skills, a willingness to work manually, and participation in a short orientation course where dos and don’ts are explained.
The Camino celebrates this year the Ano Santo or Xacobean year
So, on the first day of October 2019, I found myself at the albergue parroquial (parish hostel) in the small village of Bercianos del Real Camino, halfway along 800 kilometers of Camino Francés, the most frequented of all the routes .
The old but renovated building is also known as the casa rectoral because in the past it was used as housing for priests in the region. The current parish priest, Padre Jorge, is still nominally responsible for the albergue but, having to look after 10 parishes spread over an area as large as Gozo, he makes rare appearances on the premises.
Fortunately, I was in the company of two other experienced hosvols: Marc from France and Luis from Spain, who is also president of the national and international federations of hospitaleros voluntarios.
The tasks were diverse: the albergue opens at 1:30 p.m. with the registration of pilgrims who stream or flock. We looked at their Credencial – the pilgrims’ passport – to verify personal details, where they had started and the stamps from previous albergues where they had stayed. We then affix our stamp and date it. Leaving their boots downstairs, the pilgrims were assigned one of the 44 bunk beds on the first floor.
The main event of the day was the common meal, starting at 7 p.m., which the pilgrims were also invited to help prepare. Just before the meal, a bell rings and, if they wish, travelers can go to a small chapel where there is a short period of reflection as well as a rendering in different languages of the wise words of Francis of Assisi. : “where there is hatred, let me bring love …”
The lights went out at 10 p.m. and came back on at 6.30 a.m. Breakfast was at 7 a.m. and the pilgrims were to be out of the albergue an hour later.
The main door was then closed and the three of us had breakfast. Another main task followed: the complete cleaning of the premises: the ground floor consisting of the reception, lounges and dining rooms, the kitchen and the chapel; the stairs, bedrooms, toilets and showers on the first floor; and the large courtyard outside.
The clean-up, which took around three hours, was really thorough as health and safety inspectors were checked regularly, who also monitored our daily temperature mapping in the fridge, freezer and boiler. A shelter that does not meet standards can be closed in the blink of an eye.
The next job was to open the donation box and count the money, part of which was set aside to buy food, the rest passed to Padre Jorge for the upkeep of the shelter and his many community projects.
Twice a week we would go wholesale for groceries in Sahagun, the nearest town eight miles away, in Luis’ vehicle. If there was any free time we would take a tour of the village – the 200 locals, mostly farmers, are very friendly and love to talk. Each family has their own bodega (wine cellar) at home or dug underground in their fields.
Being the vendimia season, we were frequently invited for a glass of wine or orujo, a brandy with a high alcohol content obtained by the distillation of the remains of pressed grapes. The relaxed locals, living in the middle of nowhere, far from the hustle and bustle of chaotic and polluted modern life, have embraced, rain or shine, the no pasa nada mantra – it doesn’t matter, because things could be worse!
To be continued tomorrow
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