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.