Roads to Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Through Spain

A Just the Facts Travelogue of Spain

As we publish the annual summer issue of The Beacon, it is only appropriate this book review reflect the sunshine and the freedom of summer. There is one element of the summer season that seems to unite the world; travel. No matter the budget, we all find a way to travel during the summer. Whether we splurge on a cruise, travel abroad or travel around your hometown /home state in a “staycation,” we all use the freedom from school and work to escape from our normal surroundings and routines. To keep with the theme of travel, I want to discuss Cees Nooteboom’s travel novel, Roads to Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Through Spain. Although not a new text, Roads to Santiago, which was published in 1992, is a text I recently rediscovered after my original reading about 7 years ago.

This text is one that produces lukewarm feelings. Travel writings and travelogues can often invoke lukewarm feelings as a reader will not be interested in every piece of art, historical landmark, local cuisine and backroad pit-stop on the author’s journey. Not finding every section of a travelogue fascinating is perfectly fine; making those moments the reader views as riveting all the more exciting.

My initial problem with the Roads to Santiago is a reader only needs to peruse the back cover to know exactly what they are going to find tucked within the pages. The back dust jacket reads, “The consummate portrait of Spain for all readers, Roads to Santiago is an evocative travelogue through the architecture, art, and landscapes of Spain past and present.” This statement basically summarizes the entire text. There are no surprises lurking within waiting to delightfully overcome the reader. One of my personal favorite aspects of any text is these surprises, which prowl throughout the jungles of prose or poetry waiting to jump out at a reader. Whether these surprises are held within a character’s unsuspected actions or an unpredicted plot device, these surprises are what propel the text forward as well as propel the reader’s love of the text. Roads to Santiago lacks these moments. Although Roads to Santiago contains standout moments there are no moments the reader does not see coming. As the back cover promises, Nooteboom presents a travelogue of Spain’s past and present. While I did miss the unpredicted moments of adventure a travelogue could present, a text cannot be completely faulted for precisely delivering on its promise.

Nooteboom’s style of just the facts leaves little room for surprises and adventure. This does not mean Roads to Santiago does not have standout moments. As a lover of visiting historical and artistic museums, Nooteboom’s chapters devoted to Spain’s rich culture of artistic expression are my personal favorites. Nooteboom discusses the Spanish greats such as Velasquez and Zurbaran among others. His discussions of these pivotal artists are eloquent, placing the artists’ works in new light. For example, Nooteboom discusses the portrayal of Zurbaran’s painting Saint Serapius. Nooteboom analyzes the painting and concludes Saint Serapius is a puppet and his murderers are controlling his movements. Nooteboom continues to showcase the martyrdom of Saint Serapius by hiding his disembowelment. Nooteboom states, that viewing the torso “you are left with an abstraction – the word says it all – in which the eye can lose itself.” Nooteboom believes the loss of vision also showcases the loss (martyrdom) of the Saint Serapius.

Besides the chapters discussing Spanish art, another personal favorite is the anecdote of “The World’s Most Beautiful Chicken Coup.” Nooteboom relays the story where unrequited love meets miracle. Nooteboom begins, “many centuries ago” three German pilgrims (a father, a mother and a son) stopped at an inn for dinner. The servant girl fell madly in love with the son, however when he did not return her love, the servant girl reports the pilgrim to the magistrate for theft. The pilgrim is sentenced to be hung and his parents rush to the magistrate’s home to prove his innocence. The magistrate, who is enjoying his dinner states, “First: he is hanged already, and second: he is as innocent as this chicken on my plate is alive.” The cooked chicken springs from the magistrate’s plate, clucking. People flock to gallows to find the young pilgrim hanging but still as innocent and as alive as the chicken. Since the pilgrim’s miraculous recovery, live chickens have been kept in the ornate, “World’s Most Beautiful Chicken Coup.” This narrative is my favorite as it invokes some of the unpredicted elements I discussed at the beginning of the review. It also brings to life colloquial roadside travel, while capturing the essence of a nation as well as the genre of travelogue/travel writing.

Personally Roads to Santiago lacks the twists, the turns and the adventure I expect in a travelogue but as part of a travel series composed by Nooteboom, the book is a solid, just the facts text which helps to compose a strong and substantial body of work that most authors would envy.