Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Peaceable Kingdom, On Pilgrimage in Rioja, Spain

I recall one day of walking the Way of Saint James, the Camino. When I got to Nájera, just west of Logroño in the Rioja wine region of northern Spain, it was an overcast day and I was hungry. But first, before it closed at midday, I wanted to visit the place of legend and myth that put Nájera on the map, and probably made it one of the important stops on the pilgrimage, the cave where Mary and Jesus appeared with two birds in AD 1044.

I walked toward the  red sandstone cliff that guards one side of this riverside town, where I knew I would find the Monasterio de Santa María la Real embedded into the natural stone wall. I reviewed the details of the legend in my head as I walked, wanting to retrace events as they are described.

It goes like this. One day in AD 1044, the Navarrese King García III was out riding and hunting with his falcon. The falcon suddenly flew after a partridge and both birds disappeared into a thick growth of trees.

The king dismounted and went into the trees to see what had happened to them. He found himself standing in front of a hidden cave. More unusual, an ethereal light poured out. He entered the cave and followed the light. At its source, he saw the falcon and the partridge sitting peacefully on either side of Mary, with the baby Jesus seated on her lap. In front of the celestial pair were lilies and a bell. 

King García never forgot this stunning vision and in AD 1056 he founded the monastery of Santa María la Real around and incorporating the cave. Today when you visit, you can visit the cave by passing through the church to the back wall that is still the natural cave.

The original cave was most likely carved out of the soft stone around the 3rd century, both for living as well as for defense. It was then forgotten, overgrown by forest and hidden, until that fateful day with the clever falcon in the 11th century.

Having fed the mystical hunger, it was time to feed my growling stomach before continuing the pilgrimage. I discovered that Nájera is a very warm and welcoming town. I went into a café that called to me, either for its beautiful riverside setting, or for the welcoming patron and clientele, or, just maybe, for the array of tapas splayed on the long wooden counter.

There I discovered another miracle, of the culinary kind: a little open-faced sandwich where the bread had been brushed and toasted with olive oil and then layered with roasted red pepper, thin slices of cured ham, jamón Serrano, and topped with a little fried quail’s egg.  Doubtless this exquisite tapa was paying homage to its cousin the peace-making partridge in the holy cave. 

Content and sated, I continued on, but doing as I do, walking in my own way. First, there was a detour to San Millán de la Cogolla, just south, and one back to Logroño (by bus) to visit yet another pilgrim’s detour at the Cistercian convent of Santa María de Cañas, just north. I also contemplated how many fine holy sites and pilgrim detours there were here in Spain’s most famous wine region. I think the two have something to do with each other.

If the deeper stories and legends of the Camino interest you, please check out my new app—both on iTunes and Android—The Esoteric Camino France & Spain.

Wishing you un buen Camino, un bon Chemin, and a good Road.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

On the Chemin Looking for Wild Boar

One day in the middle of our two and a half week trek on the Chemin de St-Jacques, the Way of St. James through southwestern France this autumn, my friend, Sarah, and I really wanted to see our first wild boar, the famous black sanglier of the Pyrenees.   

That day, taking lunch in the middle of a corn field in the Béarn, we heard the distant snorting surely of the wild Pyreneen sanglier. We were certain that there were at least two or three of them in the middle of a corn field to our right. We quietly packed up our picnic and we walked stealthily toward the sound so as not to disturb them. We turned the bend and into a clearing. Many snorts greeted us. 

We discovered we were on the edge of a pig farm in the middle of the corn fields. 

Alas, the angels laughed hard (at our expense) that day.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Mary Magdalene's Feast Day from Llanes to Vézelay

Today honors the energy of the divine and feminine grace of Mary Magdalene. Having just come from making the pilgrimage to Vézelay in Burgundy, France, where her basilica honors the highest point of that ancient Gallo-Roman hilltop village, I am even more appreciative of her beauty.

This spring I hiked to Vézelay from Avallon on a day that was threatening heavy rain throughout. As much as I love to hike into wild and unknown territory, I resisted starting. I resisted and resisted and then I knew deep down that if I let the rain stop me, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I forged forward through my resistance. 

As soon as I set one foot before the other—finding my way down the steep fortified hillside of Avallon toward the Cousin river and into the Morvan forest—that magic took hold that every pilgrim knows: The road began to show me signs and my way was clear, one step at a time. Prior rains had washed out parts of the trail. I lost it. I found it. I lost it again, but always found it again. Song birds punctuated my triumphs, my mind taking their song as a victory dance. White Burgundian cows munching on lemon yellow mustard flowers sauntered over to greet me, making me pause to see where to pick up the trail across the field. Once, was that a snake that slithered loudly to the right, making me notice the trail marker I'd missed painted on a leaf-covered rock? Even the threatening weather ceased. Grace punctuated every turn, no matter how trying some turns were. The expected heavy rains did not arrive. The storm clouds literally parted and dramatic striated rays of sun shined through.

It took eight hours through the forest and the rising and falling vine and mustard covered hills of Burgundy to arrive in Vézelay. First, the hill appeared, the highest in the vicinity, and grew as I walked. Then, the towers of the basilica became apparent. Finally, the scorpion shape of the hill—as one book described it—upon which the church sat revealed the pathway from the scorpion's tail at the foot to its crowning head at the top. The pilgrim’s path to the basilica was like walking along a rising spine, some ancient kundalini that the stonemasons and monks must have known implicitly.

And when I finally entered into the nave of striated light-play from the high arches of bicolored stone, Vespers was about to begin. Sound and light in perfect harmony swirled up and down the basilica and entered into the crown of my head. 

An active monastic community of nuns and monks live in Vézelay and carry on the sacred traditions within this medieval Romanesque church dedicated to this Lady of Grace. Her crypt is beneath the nave, built of the stone carved out of the hill. The small chamber allows visitors to sit and meditate undisturbed. 

The strongest feeling, one that recurred each time I entered the basilica, was balance. It is a place of harmony and balance, between male and female, heaven and earth, god and mortal, sound and light.

Another church that I love, that is also dedicated to Mary Magdalene, is in the heart of the fishing town of Llanes, along the northern Spanish coast in Asturias. On a smaller but no less powerful scale, it also offers the experience of harmony and balance. 

Here, I love how this photo of its altar captured a fleeting streak of light.

To read more about Llanes and the surviving expressions of the ancient feminine divine that holds foot in northern Spain, as well as into southern France, the fabled territory where Mary Magdalene may have lived during her later years, please read my piece for Perceptive Travel, The Goddess Still Lives Here and also see my book, The Spiritual Traveler Spain.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Stepping away from routine and into magic

Complacency and routine seem to be the kiss of death to a fully present life. Pilgrimage has taught me this. Rather than focusing the life force on fear and the fruits of fear (having enough, having the things everyone thinks everyone needs to have, seeking comfort as the first order of life…) it has taught me to focus on what to do next to grow, what to look for, to savor beauty, and to expand.

I think such a routine-busting focus makes amazing things occur, so much so that the frightening things that forced a person into complacency and routine in the first place are no longer an issue; a person learns to be ever at the ready for the next step, the next unexpected adventure, the next cosmic gift that wants nothing better than to give itself to her or him.

A pilgrimage teaches this magic by example, by giving the walker-seeker a gift each day as soon as his or her focus shifts to the growth side of life.

Each step becomes a step into the unknown and into real magic.

My most recent encounter with this constant lesson was on a recent pilgrimage I made to Vezèlay, one of the four major pilgrim starting points in France along the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. I wanted to arrive at this sacred site on foot, from a point east. I wanted to feel what it was like to see the enchanted hilltop village with its basilica dedicated to Mary Magdalene appear on the horizon at the walking pace.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Black Truffles in the Périgord, France

The Dordogne (also called the Périgord) is famous for its black truffle, that delicious underground fungus that grows symbiotically with tree roots, such as oak, beech, and hazel. It is the ingredient that enchants savory dishes from omelets to roasted chickens to pea soup. Winter is its time and from November to February truffles begin to appear in the weekly town and village markets throughout the Dordogne.

When I first came to southwestern France, an elderly woman I sat next to in a café in Sarlat told me how in December she would gather black truffles in a forest near her farm and take them to market, hoping for a good month so that her family could afford the festive foods of Christmas. She then leaned in and whispered, “If you are saving your Euros for a truffle, save them for truffles in late January or February. That’s when the truffle season peaks.”

I heeded her advice. I also learned that January and February are the months when it is easiest to find the truffles, even if you don’t have a dog or a pig to help.
A friend from Sarlat who is a truffle expert with his own truffière—truffle trees—taught me. He explained that there are telltale signs. One is of little flies that aggregate about the ripe truffle. If you see a delirious buzz about the ground around one of the trees that are symbiotic with the black truffle, you are in the vicinity of a culinary gold mine.

But another sign, one that is sure even if the flies have not yet arrived, is a slight ground swell that wasn’t there before. This of course requires patience and close study. A true truffler will know every contour of his territory and notice subtle changes to it. It enters the realm of mindfulness meditations, which explains why the truffle hunters I’ve met are some of the most grounded and calm people I know.

When you’ve located a ground swell, you lean in and the next sign should be a pricking in the nostrils of that unmistakable and strangely earthy and otherworldly scent that arouses all manner of romantic images.

Once you have this expensive fungus, how do you handle it? I have only once purchased a truffle and the truffle hunter told me her two favorite applications: grated into scrambled eggs or sliced thinly and placed on top of foie gras toasts.

Fortunately, annually Sarlat holds a truffle festival in the middle of January and regional chefs prepare all manner of recipes with the black truffle, allowing people to sample its diversity without going broke. (It’s like a truffle tapas party where little plates and glasses of partnered wine can be purchased for a few Euros at a time.)

With all this serious research—including some excellent treks into the region’s wild forests—I can now say that my favorite recipe comes from that same lady in the café. This is the recipe her family enjoyed as appetizers in flush years for New Year’s Eve and it is the simplest and most sublime of recipes because nature has done all the work:

Canapés aux truffes:

A fresh baguette, sliced into disks
A black truffle, sliced thinly
Good quality sweet butter
Sea salt
Brut champagne

Butter the bread and layer on the truffle slices. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Enjoy with friends and a glass of dry champagne.

Bon Appetite!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Wild Mushroom Hunting in Southwestern France

A lot of my treks lately have been in and around Aquitaine in southwestern France. It’s an amazing region, from the wild areas of the Pyrenees to the wild Atlantic coastline, to the interior of limestone prehistoric caves and rock shelves, river valleys, medieval chapels and fortresses, and vineyards as far as the horizon.

It was an odd autumn here, as in so many other areas. Instead of a cooling and wet season, the days remained bone dry and warm.  Anticipation of the year’s wild hunt for porcini mushrooms, regionally known as cepes, was dashed. Many locals, mushroom experts for decades, told me that because there was no rain in September, there would be no cepes this year. Cepes crop up magically overnight when the rains come in September. I had asked if there was a chance that they’d appear in the forests if it rained in October or November. The answer was a somber no.

So imagine all our surprise when in mid-November, after some decent rains, older farmwomen began appearing in the weekly markets of the Dordogne with baskets laden with cepes. It created a buzz and people’s hearts lightened. The season was not lost and moreover, those delicious fungi were still willing to grow even though September had come and gone. We cheered for now egg omelets with cepes, mushroom tarts with cepes, and simply olive oil and garlic sautéed dishes with cepes were back on the menu.

I had the unexpected delight of going mushroom hunting twice with good friends. One day we went to the neighboring south central French region of Cantal, from where the famous Cantal cheese comes, and on another day we stayed more local in the forests of the Dordogne near Les Eyzies, the heart of prehistoric painted and engraved cave country.

The challenge of a later cepes crop was that by now the fall leaves had turned color, dried, and fallen off the trees onto the forest floor. To look for the telltale tan brown top hat of cepes meant a form of mental concentration and being present in the moment that modern humans are less practiced at compared to their prehistoric brethren. But being so near the latter’s homes in the rock shelves overhead inspired us. 

Both days, we found lots of mushrooms of all varieties. Many were poisonous and we had to be careful. But only cepes have the bulging stems that look like a person after Thanksgiving dinner. Those, we kept and took home and sautéed them in olive oil and garlic and tossed them with eggs and a hit of sea salt and sat to a meal with a crusty baguette, a green salad, and a medium bodied red Bergerac wine. It all tasted so much more vibrant for the day spent hunting and gathering out of doors. 

In moments like these, I feel more intensely that I am connecting to our ancestors who some 25,000 years ago lived in these forests, valleys, and rock faces and hunted and gathered for a living. It is moments like these that I also hope that I can take that level of concentration and mindfulness back into the modern world.