On the Road: Memories of a Pilgrim with no Direction 28

Getting the certificate took up the entire afternoon and the early part of the evening so we barely had time to do anything other than get ready for dinner, which even under the most distressing times was a challenge we felt we could take on with pride and professionalism.  We dined at a classic eatery in the old town known as Sixto (actually it was Sixto II, right down the road) and feasted on baked scallops, octopus, prawns, large quantities of beef and potatoes.  Our great meal was massive and delicious and a fitting way to end the trip, which came at the end of a long line of great meals, though I can’t quite say it varied significantly from the general eating practices of our expedition.    

                   The old town of Santiago has a lot of things to say for itself but one thing it lacks is a solid late night life.  In fact, from the point of view of some residents of Madrid who knew a thing or two about going out, it pretty much sucked.   There were a few spots here and there, but they were packed, packed with people, packed with smoke, packed with music, packed with a lot of reasons not to enter them…so we bagged that idea and searched elsewhere, trying not to venture too far.  We went into a place nearby the park which a couple suggested to us.  I remember it once used to be an Irish bar where a friend of mine worked but now was a nightclub for preppy young people, and boy did we look like freaks.  Well, actually, we looked no more like freaks than they did in their own strange preppy way, we were just outnumbered.  Hardly anyone took notice of us except for an occasional person stared at us warily with a look that said, “What the hell are you doing there?”

              The rest just about ignored us completely, which was all right with us on one hand but, to be honest with you, our big post-pilgrimage blowout was supposed to be something a little rowdier.  I was kind of hoping to be standing on some table with the big Huelva brothers, with a beer in my hand, sunglasses on and singing out loud “Louie, Louie”, but I have always had a tendency to construct fanciful visions of my future.  Right now, though, I would have settled for anything more fun than hanging out with a bunch of posh kids who didn’t seem to be enjoying themselves in the first place.   

                    No to be.  Even off the Camino, the Camino teaches you that things don’t have to be the way you would like them to be.  We stayed for a drink and walked back into the streets and instead of going in search of some other joint, we ended up back at the Plaza de Obradoiro where we took a look at the cathedral once again, but this time with far fewer people milling around and a ton of gorgeous lighting shining on the façade.  We sat down in the same spot we did when we arrived at midday and looked up again.  And we looked up again.  And we looked up again.  I even had my sole celebratory cigarette of the trip.  I was sure it would give me a tremendous headache the next day, but at that moment, it tasted great.  If you ever get to Santiago de Compostela, be it on foot or by airplane, I highly recommend take the time out of your schedule and take a seat on the stone ground of the immense square and just look at the beauty before you around midnight.  It is my favorite time to look at the cathedral.  It always has been…

Justo and his Cathedral

Have I got a place for you to see the next time you are in Madrid!  And you have to see it with your own eyes because  just reading about it or looking up images online won’t do.

You know there are people who build castles in the air, and then there are those who say they are going to build a cathedral and actually do it.  About 12 miles due east of the capital, there is a small town called Mejorada del Campo which might have forever remained as an overlooked dot on your Google maps had it not been for a kind of modern wonder taking place there.  A man for the past 50 years has been building his own cathedral.  I ain’t kidding. 

It is the brainchild of Justo Gallego who is 85 years old.  He was born in Mejorada and as a young man decided to become a monk, so he joined the Trappist order (those are the guys who make those great Belgian beers.  Smart lad).  Before becoming ordained he came down with tuberculosis and had to leave the monastery.  According to the story, he was crushed and promised God that if he recovered he would do something as a show of love and appreciation.  He got better and decided to build a church.  That’s what I call being thankful.

He had no training whatsoever in architecture, engineering, building or carpentry.  On paper, he couldn’t have been able to piece together a Lego home.  But five decades later he is still going at it and the results are awe-inspiring. It was almost as if God had said: If you build it, they will come.   

Despite brief moments of fame, like in 2005 when he was featured on an Aquarius commercial, Justo’s momumental endeavor is still relatively unknown.  He estimates some 2,000 people come every summer to visit and even help (in the winter it must be substantially less), but that is a trifle number all said and told because it comes to little more than twenty a day.   Of these, many if not most are foreigners, who seem to be the ones who truly appreciate the marvel of it all.  I don’t know a single madrileño who has seen it.   Not one.  Whenever I mention it to someone from here, they kind of look at me with a confused expression on their faces and say, “Oh, yeah, I think I know who you’re talking about.” 

Not so surprisingly, not everyone shares his fans’ enthusiasm.  The Catholic church doesn’t support his cause, but that doesn’t surprise me, and others consider him an egocentric madman, which I find a bit absurd for a person who gets up before dawn ever day and humbly continues  his job. 

I had heard about this place for a couple of years now but never got to seeing it; that is until yesterday when I went with my family.  I was floored by its magnitude.  It’s enormous and it’s just absolutely incredible.   I couldn’t even begin to express the emotions that run through you as you see firsthand as they take up this already bulging entry.  Justo was there, of course, the way he is most days, quietly going about his business with the two or three helpers.  He is a friendly and courteous man, and he invites you to walk around and enjoy his work.  You find yourself staring from all angles at it to take in every detail and make sense of it all.  Awesome. 

I liked it so much, I returned this morning to show some more Americans who just loved it.    Maybe I can turn this into a new business.  I’m joking of course, but I would like to help spread the word.  I spoke to a woman from Germany today who was a filmmaker.  She was preparing a film and was hoping to start a foundation to support Justo’s dream.  I’ll keep you abreast of that if it materializes, because though Justo has come a long when in fulfilling his dream, he’s still got a long way to go.  Years and years.

You don’t have to be religious to admire his work.  Take it to a broader scale.  Consider his courage, his perseverence, his faith, his desire to live out a personal dream, and his pursuit of freedom.  These are universal characteristics worthy of admiration.