Pilgrims and the Chapel of Bones

April 10, 2014

Words by // Photography by Nita Breibish

Even at this early hour the sun is sitting high enough in the sky to seemingly burn our shadows onto the ground. The heat is searing and dissolving our breakfast in buckets of sweat as we wave our final goodbyes to Carlos and Gabriela before making our way back to the twisting roads that will lead us toward Évora.

Our path is a narrow band of fading black that weaves it’s way through the gently rolling hills that call Serpa home. The featureless and withered ground holds what used to be grass – or perhaps wheat. It’s hard to say. The heatwave burns the colour from it all day, every day. In stark contrast neat rows of olive trees line our route for hundreds of kilometres, their presence occasionally interrupted by fields of sun-flowers or cork. It’s a beautiful sight and one that holds our attention along the way. There’s a peacefulness here that makes the hustle and bustle of our previous two months seem to slip away. In fact, it would be easy to forget that we are, even now, rushing toward Germany.

We pass along the bleached walls of Moura and continue northwest over the massive Alqueva Dam, Europe’s largest, as it forces water back into the man-made lake that shares it’s name. Here, we take a moment to marvel at its size; while they’ve fallen out of favour these structures still seem to impress upon us what is possible when we put our minds to it – for better or for worse. Still, the size of Alqueva is difficult to imagine without standing on it. The spillways long ramps are only outdone by the massive gates at their peak which hold the water from flooding everything to the south. A release here must be spectacular to see.

Back on the bikes, we make our way to a spot recommended by Carlos – Amieira Marina. Set at the end of a long and narrow road, the marina provides beautiful views of Alqueva Lake and a place in the shade to escape the sun. The moment stretches on; the heat’s in the forties and the thought of putting on our gear isn’t hugely appealing. Still, the day’s riding has had us smiling all the way.

Eventually we muster up the will to get suited and begin the sharp climb up the narrow path that leads us back toward Évora. In spots the air is filled with the smell of spice and the aromas fill our helmets in the most wonderful way. A beautiful aspect of travelling by motorcycle is our exposure to the elements and it’s impact on our senses. Often our heads are filled with the sounds of the world (and our engines), and our noses with the earthy smells of the lands we cross. Around pastures it can be awful – but then there are the times when we pass fields of peppermint and every foul odour seems worth it for this one moment. Here, heads filled with spice, it’s much the same.

The roads are quiet save for the odd truck. We begin to notice them more and more frequently along the lanes as the day stretches on; overfilled, with bark stacked three- to four-feet above the rim of the cage. We realize it’s cork which may also account for the aromas that fill the air. Portugal is the worlds largest producer of cork and here, the harvest is on.

The farmland continues to roll lazily by before leading us gently to the west of the city and depositing us at the Évora Hotel, our hotel for the night. Guests of the hotel are honored witnesses to our awkward and messy striptease that finishes with a sweat-drenched heap of riding gear blocking the entry-way. Adventure is a messy business!

Soon though we’re inside lapping up the air-conditioning and getting our core temperatures down to something closer to normal. We drink water all day on the bikes but it’s simply not enough to keep up with it’s loss. Once we’ve cooled, we unload the bikes and enjoy the hotels relaxed pace while plotting our path through Évora the following day.

We plan an early escape the next morning to beat the inevitable heat. Rather than ride into town and lug our gear around all day, we hop into one of the plentiful taxi’s and, after a short journey, arrive at the cathedral that marks nearly dead-centre of town. We’re greeted by high gothic archways which are now flanked by vendors setting up their tables for the day.

There’s some tour-bus activity but for now the crowds seem to be flowing up and down the nearby streets, slowly filtering their way towards us. We guess that we have about a twenty-minute lead before we become inundated in a seat of cameras, flags and tour guides loudly explaining the history of each place in their appointed language. While the surge of heads stalls, we make our way to the right of the cathedral, down a narrow pathway toward a quiet courtyard that leads us to Capela dos Ossos, or the Chapel of Bones.

It’s fitting that the walkway towards the chapel is quiet. There’s a peacefulness about this place that takes both Nita and I aback. The entryway hides any hint at the chapels grim brickwork; rather it’s bright white walls are adorned with richly colourful tiles and it’s ceiling are covered with intricate flourishes painted in gold creating a sense of almost extreme opulence.

Walk a little further and all of that changes. An ornate entryway into a dimly lit room greets it’s visitors with a rather foreboding welcome: Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos, (We Bones in Here Wait for Yours). Hmm. With a little reticence in our hearts, we head in and are witness to the remains of thousands, used to create one of the most unbelievable places either of us has seen.

Everywhere we look there are bones. Pillars of skulls, walls of femurs and archways of radii and ulna; we’re surrounded, at first, by death. It’s all very macabre. To our right hang two complete skeletons, one a man and the other a boy. It seems that no one actually knows why they’re hung on display though a popular folk tale has it that the man, a habitual adulterer, was cursed by his wife to hang with his heir here for eternity. A woman scorned indeed. The truth could be far less interesting but we’ll never know.

In actuality the chapels creation is much less macabre than we think. While we may believe it’s some secret temple to the dark arts, it’s actually a dedication to the transitory nature of life – a temple to offer it’s visitors a reminder that life is fleeting. In that context this place somehow feels far less sinister and far more introspective. Still, it’s quite difficult to entirely wrap our heads and hearts around this place, and when we do finally leave it’s dim walls it’s with a gentle sigh of relief. The late morning light, the open streets and the living are calling our names.

Outside, the teams of tourists from the busses have amassed in the square outside the cathedral and begun to form tight semi-circles around flag-carrying guides who are attempting to be heard over the din of the other groups. We make our way into the Catedral de Évora, past a beggar who’s strategically positioned himself at the entrance so that the massive abdominal tumour he’s holding is visible to all who enter. Somehow, no one seems to notice. It’s hard to say what’s more shocking, the tumour or peoples indifference.

We decide to visit the cathedral later in the hopes that the crowds will diminish and head down the street that the tours have just emerged from. Once we’ve cleared the square, the streets are quiet and only sparsely populated by other folks who’ve broken away from the tours in the hopes of some quiet discovery. Évora is a beautiful town. It’s frame is a wonderful mix of wide-open spaces and narrow side-streets filled with outdoor eateries, tiny shops and excellent coffee. It’s the heart of cork manufacturing in Portugal and entire streets are lined with shop-owners selling almost anything made from it.

Surprisingly, the temperature hasn’t rocketed into the forties and it’s decision to hover in the mid-thirties has made the days exploring truly enjoyable. Not too far from the central square we find Templo de Diana, a Roman ruin that was once home to legion commanders in 1 BC before becoming a site for the execution of heretics during the Inquisition. There’s a theme that runs through history in Évora.

Far from the memory of such things, the remaining pillars to the northwest end of the ruin offer up some beautiful views of Évora and a spot where we can quietly reflect on our day. We pass another lovely outdoor patio before making our way back to the cathedral where we share smiles with the man holding his tumour before making our way inside. The cool air is a relief and the interior is beautiful but the Chapel of Bones and the inquisition are still with us. History can be wonderful but sometimes the present is what’s truly needed. We finish our time in this amazing city with a pastry and coffee in the town square watching people go about their business. It’s perfect.

For the next two days we’ll be leaving Portugal and heading into Spain to visit Santiago de Compostela, the finishing point for the thousands of people who make the yearly pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.

We wake early in the morning and begin our route to Cáceres, a city who’s seen Roman, Barbarian, Visigoth and Arab rule – something that can still be seen in the city’s architecture. Unlike yesterdays short respite from the heat, the sun’s made a phenomenal comeback today and, even at this early hour, we can tell it’s going to be a hot one. Loaded up, we make our way north through Estremoz before heading east through Portugal into Spain.

It’s not a long day on the bikes but it is a beautiful one. The rolling hills rise gently to the sky where, at their peaks, the occasional winery is flanked in every direction by bright green vines set against the tan of spent soil. As the landscape calms into a gentle ocean of fields, wheat replaces the olive trees and sunflowers, and soon we reach the border with Spain, smiles permanently etched to our faces.

Stopping for lunch at a truck-stop we realize two things. One, the heat has reached an all new high and the act of slowing the bikes down produces and instant pool of water in the ditch between my forearm and bicep. Secondly, if you’re ever hungry, just grab a bite at a truck-stop! The food at this particular stop is exceptional and inexpensive with a roast dinner coming in at about the cost of a fancy cup of coffee back home. Since we received a note from the hotel letting us know that the restaurant is closed, we grab an early dinner here on a patio with the truckers and farmers – a few of whom share some kind words and hearty laughs with us before hitting the road once again.

Feeling thoroughly sated, it’s less than thirty minutes to the hotel. If we’re to be honest, the hotel is a bit of a strange place. It’s off-season so the prices are very low – as is the guest count. As far as we can tell, we’re the only guests at Hotel Fontecruz Cáceres and the enormity of the place only adds to the strangeness. Checking in, the only staff-member seems genuinely thankful for some company and takes her time showing us the mostly closed amenities but finishes strong with a pitch on their private wine label – which is on sale. Yes! Still, the building is nice and the room cool. It’s more than enough – it’s heaven.

After unpacking the bikes, we decide to take a peek at the pool and are immediately swarmed by beetles. The wooden deck has some kind of infestation and, as we head back to our room I’m reminded by that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy brushes the tarantulas from Satipo’s back; as Nita turns to enter the elevator her back is literally covered with beetles! A quick shake and the little critters scurry their way into various cracks and holes along the floor.

The next morning we pack as efficiently as possible, spending as little time outside in gear as we can. We’re motivated by the fact we’re heading north to where the temperatures are promising cooler winds and some relief from over a week in high heat. Salamanca is nestled into the heart of the Duero Valley and our home for the night is a hacienda and organic farm set along the banks of the Duero River.

Nita’s beyond excited about this place and, as we arrive, I can see why. Hacienda Zorita is, without a doubt, the most beautiful place either of us has ever stayed. Filled with history and painstakingly restored after a devastating fire in the late 1800’s, this place is phenomenal. The idea of a working farm, vineyard and hacienda inspired images much less regal than this, but this is a treat and one that shall never be forgotten. Since we’ll (have to!) be camping for much of the foreseeable future, this is a fantastic last splash.

Surrounded by lush greenery, manicured hedgerows, and the Duero, our room is tucked into an old monastery which now acts as a cask building with plenty of beams, a comfortable bed and the smell of old oak rising from the cellar through a wide-plank floor. The fading sun over the river douses the entire compound in a golden blanket that only seems to make us feel even more fortunate to lay our heads here. Legend has it Christopher Colombus once stayed here while raising funds for his expedition to find new routes to India. He lost his way and found America instead. We’re not sure if that’s a good omen or a bad one for us…

At $150 (waaaaaay off-season rate) we can’t afford a single night here in their cheapest room but we do it anyways. Sometimes, the wrong choice is the right one.

The next morning we take one last leisurely stroll around this amazing property. There’s a heavy dew on the ground and a low fog hanging over the river which somehow makes everything feel very Wuthering Heights. We’re heading to Allariz and the road takes us along highways that wind themselves around wide-open fields and a landscape that seems endlessly speckled with bridges. At one point we’re caught behind a truck carrying a long part of a bridge for construction and the next ninety minutes becomes an agonizing game of stop-and-go before he pulls of to the side of a road in a small town. Back on the gas we weave the last miles into town and find Hotel Vila de Allariz, a nice-looking budget hotel with a parking lot that’s surprisingly hard to find.

Once we check-in I pull into a parking spot when I hear a yelp from Nita; she’s clipped a large concrete flower pot with her pannier and tipped her bike. It’s not a big deal but she’s frustrated with dropping her bike and beating herself up for it. It’s indicative of a bigger problem that’s emerging; since Morocco we’ve both been feeling more and more out of touch with our riding and it’s hard to put our fingers on why. I’m sure the crashes in North Africa are still poking at our confidence somewhere in the back of our minds, but lately everything just feels a little off. We pick up her bike and wheel it into a parking spot before settling in for the night. The negative vibes stay with us for the evening before we both decide turning in early is the best thing we can do for one another.

We awake in much better moods and the prospect of a short days ride has us both looking forward to getting on the road. Also, there’s a chill in the air for the first time in weeks which is, in itself, reason to celebrate. Loaded up, our destination is Santiago de Compostela and the end point of the Camino de Santiago.

Over the past few days we’ve been seeing pilgrims moving slowly along the sections of Camino that run along the road, all carrying backpacks and walking sticks. It’s their uniform; a badge of honour. Yesterday we mostly saw groups of two to three people walking along in the footsteps of St. James but today the groups bind together much like cells under a microscope might. Some of them will walk over 500km to earn their Compestela, some further still.

Our belief that the camino is tucked far from civilization to endow the pilgrim with solitude is completely wrong – large parts of the most popular routes have travellers sharing busy highways with eighteen-wheelers, fast-moving cars and foot-crushing asphalt. Regardless, the accomplishment is impossible to diminish (though some try); hiking 50km is something we’d not take kindly too and the idea of walking a highway with little or no shoulder must certainly bring a persons faith to the forefront.

Just before Santiago de Compostela the pilgrims all but disappear from view. Perhaps it’s at this point, so close to their goal, that their path finally allows them some time to reflect free of the distraction caused by near-misses. As we arrive at Tryp Santiago, our home for the next few nights, we can barely see the spires of Catedral de Santiago de Compostela in the distance though, if I’m to be honest, we’re both a little pre-occupied with finding a decent way to park on the hill in front of our hotel! It’s much less an issue than it first appears to be and soon we’re enjoying a warm welcome from the staff in the form of a hello written in blue marker on the mirror of our room.

Since we’re in town a little early, we spend the afternoon walking about our neighbourhood. There are a few supplies we need to restock and a box of goodies that needs to find their way onto an plane back to Canada. Also, the smell of our feet has reached new levels of awfulness and a solution to the stink needs to be found. Badly. A couple of blocks into our search we find a shopping centre packed to the brim all kinds of supplies. It’s the first time we’ve been in a place like this since Africa and it’s magic! Any disdain we’ve carried for these places instantly disappears in a hungry plume of gratitude for instant availability.

In a sporting goods store Nita and I desperately try to communicate our need for foot-spray and all attempts at using language are obviously futile. Our move to charades is far more successful as Nita mimes sniffing a stinking shoe, puffing out her cheeks and wafting the air in front of her face. This is where we discover Sneaker Balls, an amazing invention that actually works – get off the bike, take off our boots, toss in the balls. No smell. Magic. We’re having our own personal revelations in Santiago!

Shipping the box home is easy enough – our basic Spanish and the posties basic English gets us through the ordeal in record time but also at a record cost! €100 gets our package home and our bank account a little slimmer.

The next morning we wake early for a day in town; the Catedral de Santiago and the ghost of St. James are calling our names. A short taxi ride drops us not far from the cathedral and the irony isn’t lost on us. We haven’t even walked the 2km from the hotel to the cathedral and it’s obvious we make terrible pilgrims. Our first impression of Santiago is that it’s a beautifully vibrant place – the streets are narrow and full of people making their way from store to store, slowly meandering along a path that leads to the cathedral. True or not, it feels as though all the roads here lead to that sacred finish line.

At first, we’re a little surprised by the amount of shops here. Every street seems to be absolutely chock-full of stores selling Camino memorabilia, Santiago keepsakes or St. James rosaries. The cafés are filled with folks of all ages enjoying the sun, some with walking sticks and backpacks, many others simply carrying warm smiles and a sense of contentment. There is something special about this place, perhaps indiscernible by a cynic, but the presence of a calm joy exists here.

We eventually find our way to the Catedral de Santiago and it’s beauty doesn’t disappoint. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen. It’s facade is impossibly detailed and an unadorned space seems as difficult to find as a crooked tassel in the home of a man with OCD. It’s actually awe-inspiring. The spires climb skyward and we’re both filled with the feeling that this cathedral, this place, is a just reward for walking hundreds of kilometres. The square is filled with people of all ages, most of them sporting the uniform of the modern-day pilgrim and while that particular thread may connect them the celebrations are all very different.

To our right a group of teenaged students have just completed their Camino and while the boys celebrate with cheers, the young women gather and begin dancing, Flamenco. Two groups, together but moving completely opposed; the sharp movements of the young men off-set by the fluid and fierce movements of the women. Behind us a man sits alone and quiet, wearing only an enigmatic smile leaving us uncertain of joy or sadness at the completion of his journey. Everything in me wants to ask what’s going through his mind but, of course, I don’t.

A group of cyclists have arrived to the far side of the court and talk brashly of their mileage and cruxes along the way while while their high-tech, neon-lycra gear suggests a few more cruxes may have done them well. Strangers who’ve never met embrace one another and congratulate the other on their achievement and others quietly say their goodbyes to a journey while slipping unnoticed from the square to one of it’s side streets.

We sit here for over and hour, taking in the pool of human experience and feel re-inspired by people. Eventually we make our way onto the steps of the cathedral itself and touch the stone that makes this beautiful moment possible. At the top of the steps we’re told we can’t go any further without paying by someone who’s actual authority is questionable. Many ignore her (or assume she’s crazy) and continue on their way, while we stand and watch people filter onto the deck. It’s an amazing moment, watching people realize a dream, conquer something that seems impossible or simply arrive at a place where they feel close enough to God that their faces are moved by the experience. Even for someone like me who doesn’t necessarily subscribe to religion (as Mr. Hanks put it “Faith is a gift I’ve yet to receive.”), it’s a powerful image.

There’s a seat at an outdoor café that has our name on it and we spend the last moments of our time in Santiago de Compostela watching endless waves of people make their way through the narrow streets. A talented guitarist strums away, entertaining the patio crowds then asking for money between songs. No one pays for the pleasure of his talent which strikes us as slightly unfair. After a few more songs I hand him €10 which he accepts with a smile and immediately proceeds to stop playing. Instead, he grabs his phone and disappears into the crowd, which gets a good laugh from Nita.

“Maybe everyone else knows something we don’t?”

Maybe they do…


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  1. Comment by Kathleen Kinasewich

    Kathleen Kinasewich April 10, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Wow, you two really know how to share your journey, thanks this was inspiring and more…

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish April 14, 2014 at 12:17 am

      Thanks Kathleen! Perhaps time for a visit?

    • Comment by kathleen Kinasewich

      kathleen Kinasewich April 14, 2014 at 8:37 am

      Yes, I think Portugal is on my list for sure

  2. Comment by Steven Peyton

    Steven Peyton April 10, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Another great post! My daughter is going to Spain in a few months — she will enjoy this post as well.

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish April 14, 2014 at 12:18 am

      Thanks Steven! I’m sure she’ll love it there – wish we could have spent more time exploring there…

  3. Comment by Stephen

    Stephen April 10, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Another lovely post and gorgeous photos. I thought things were going smoothly until Beetlemania hit. It seems like every little piece of the journey has its own challenge(s). The way you two roll with the punches is inspiring. I look forward to the next post. Keep the rubber side down.

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish April 14, 2014 at 12:20 am

      Stephen, there are challenges every day but that’s what makes it all so worth it… if everything was perfect we’d not give the great moments the attention they deserve :)

  4. Comment by Beela

    Beela April 10, 2014 at 10:11 pm

    You two are so talented in the way you share with words and images. I love the juxtaposition of the Chapel of Bones and the Pilgrims. I wonder who belonged to those bones? I assumed way back then the church would have buried the dead?

    You write “Everything in me wants to ask what’s going through his mind but, of course, I don’t.” The first thing I thought was…why not? A quiet, seemingly alone man with an enigmatic smile probably had an interesting story to tell.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish April 14, 2014 at 12:24 am

      Beela! Thank you again for the thoughtful comment and the kind words! I’ve read that often people would want to be buried at these chapels (there’s quite a few in Europe) and, when the land could no longer hold the dead, they’d opt to build the chapel using bones. Rather than deter the dying it seems to entice more to be a part of it all…

      As for asking the man in Santiago, there are looks on peoples faces that suggest asking questions will be alright… his face didn’t. You could just tell he was “In it.” Better to let a person to their thoughts than risk interrupting an important moment!

  5. Comment by ruff stuff

    ruff stuff April 24, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    Hello movie star. We are scheduled to see your friends, Dan and Joey,
    tomorrow. I’ll scratch my neck and open my eyes a million times for
    them. I’ll give them all the ruff stuff. love you. xoxoxoxo 655ruff

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish May 23, 2014 at 10:26 am

      Ruffstuff! So happy you got to meet and spend time with them – they’re pretty fantastic. As are you. Go until 900! xo

  6. Comment by Niki Krutak

    Niki Krutak May 5, 2014 at 5:55 am

    …a wise guy once told me: always watch out where the trucks stop for lunch. They are the ones who know where the food is good and cheap. Great to meet that thought again in your blog!

    • Comment by Issa Breibish

      Issa Breibish May 23, 2014 at 10:29 am

      Niki, all these miles just seem to reinforce that idea as “Truth.” :) They do seem to eat well on the road and we haven’t been led astray yet! Looking forward to some truck-stops on the road with you at some point…

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