Sunday, September 7, 2014

Camino Thirteen – A Day of Wonders

I wake immensely refreshed with both a thought and a feeling clamouring for attention.  The feeling was easy to locate, my skin.  During all the days on the Meseta, which runs between Burgos and León, the air was so dry it would cure parchment; it does bear repeating because my poor nose suffered too. I was desiccated inside and out.   All juices dried, my nose felt like a crisp, if I attempted to blow out the crisp my nose would bleed.  Such a nuisance!  Give me woman weather I thought, moist, soft as silk on the skin, humid – winter in tropical Townsville is just about perfection, England has its share of humidity too, in all seasons.  This morning my skin feels perfect again, and I can breathe well.  I look through the window – there has been rain in the night.  
The thought, an intuition really, was insistent: I must phone the Lovelies.  John had given me his mobile number just in case ... I found it and at 7 o’clock went down to reception to ask if I could call. Vanessa answered, her voice a sob of gratitude.  Zoé, she said, I have just ended my prayers to the Green Tara for help and you ring!  You are the answer to my prayer.  We are in Reliegos, it’s horrid, John spent the night vomiting, we’ve been refused a second day, the hospitalero told us to leave, the walk from Bercianos was dreadful and every hotel I phoned in León is full.  I have exhausted all possibilities. 
I ask her to wait two seconds, cover the phone and ask the receptionist if he has a double room.  No, we are fully booked, he says, but there is one suite, just one, for 100€ a night.  I relay this to Vanessa.  Get a taxi I say, just get here, the receptionist will give you 5 minutes to confirm your booking.  She has to ask John. Duh.  Sure enough as soon as I replace the phone it rings, someone wants the suite.  The good receptionist says he will return their call in 5 minutes, replaces the receiver and the phone rings again.  It is Vanessa.  They are on their way.  The receptionist returns the call of the unlucky caller.  León is full to capacity.
 Well pleased with the morning I head off to Q!H for their excellent breakfast – Alfonso’s breakfast, reputedly lavish, is really too costly.  By 8.30 I am at the Cathedral cloisters waiting to go in to the museum.  Weather is wet, windy and chilly.  A priest pushes open the huge door and goes through.  I blithely follow.  He walks along the cloisters and turns left.  So do I.  We come to a side chapel where another priest is offering Mass.  After Mass all leave but I hover unnoticed for half an hour in the quiet of the cloisters. I am cold, I brought so few clothes as June is supposed to be warm, but I rub my arms hopefully and take the time to examine the carvings and the decorative cloister ceiling.  When the door officially opens I appear from the inside to pay the entrance fee.  Led back the way I had been the ticket seller unlocks an ancient door, invites me inside, locks the door behind me and turns on the lights of each of the four floors.  She smiles, and locks me in as she leaves. 

Four floors of beauty and art; one thousand years of priceless treasures of inestimable value all created for the Divine and rescued  from time, terrorism, neglect, plunder – all so lovingly housed here.  My adored Virgins in Majesty, some so worm ridden, so small, so damaged, so hieratic, so calm – their smiles, winks, directness, gaze, sorrow make a seamless silent coloratura of emotion every woman knows. There is no photography permitted, and my camera fails me anyway, unable to focus in such poor light.  I don’t use flash but I do attempt a couple of photos as I am so moved by certain faces.  The anguish of St John as he supports Holy Mary over the pieta of her dead son is so shockingly human, so intense, my own mouth moves in pity; I stand in my own grief for her.  The Angel leading Tobias with his fish, his little dog running alongside is a panel of innocence and poignancy on a staircase wall, and almost missed.  The ethereal lightness of the faces of medieval Angels in carved wood and polychrome; St Lucy, St Catherine, St Anne teaching Mary as a child – all touch me, and all are displayed sensitively. 

 However, the disemboweling of St Erasmus under the leering faces of the watchers and of the holders of the turnspit I found almost too horrific to register until I realize I am also looking at Blessed Richard Whyting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, also hung, drawn, quartered and disemboweled alive at the age of 80 during the Reformation’ twelve hundred years later.  The Age of Cruelty, parallel to the Age of Beauty, seems a long long time in human centuries.

 A priest comes in from an internal door to let me out just as I reached the last stair down.  Outside in the grand square I am back in ordinary time.
 It is now late morning and I return to Alfonso.  Today I intend buying a lighter mochila.  As I enter the foyer the Lovelies are signing in.  Vanessa fairly flew to me and enveloped me in her arms to thank me.  John’s green and Queen Victoria face – not amused – told me all I needed not to know.  He headed upstairs, disinterested with the demi-miracle of his wife’s prayer and my phone call to extricate him from a situation Vanessa alone could not negotiate.  Gratitude, for John, was not the word of the moment.  I chuckle to myself, take the lift to my floor, get out from the fridge the cakes I’d bought yesterday and ran back down to give them to V.   
Then I’m off again.  First to buy a super light mochila from Roberto down in La Rua street.  He offers me a shocking pink Deuter complete with yellow lily, just for gals, or electric blue.  I cringe and tell him I cannot wear colours louder than the landscape.  He thoroughly approves and goes backstage to find me a cream and fawn Ferrino, Durance 32 Womens, of which I thoroughly approve.  He takes a long time to fit it well, tells me it is a well-respected Italian make of some provenance amongst mountaineers. I giggle, bathos, I think as I imagine me unable to even climb the Tor with a packed lunch.  It was a lovely encounter and I am happy with the result.  

I take it back to my room and scoot back out – to the Fair, via a brief visit to St Francis in the Park; a nodding acknowledgement of serpents to signify apothecaries; a smile for the bubble blower in the street; a life size street bronze of an old man on a park bench - an amalgam of charms that make up this marvellous city of León.

 I arrive just as the Roman Legions march in to disturb the local shepherds and goatherds with their shaggy goatskin bagpipes. This fair is a huge affair, running along all the side streets, filling all the squares with gaiety and colour and irresistible smells. 

I make my way to the Pulpo and Piglet marquee to watch entranced for more than half an hour as a master chef creates a splendid paella.

Each single ingredient is placed by hand, positioned on the bubbling rice and broth base in perfect patterns; giant prawns, langoustines, clams, mussels, tiny shellfish of different kinds, all added according to the timing necessary for cooking, one by one.  I am impressed.  He is impressed with my attention.  Finally it is covered and steamed and I wait.  Chef serves me a wondrous portion for my patience, with every tasty morsel I had been watching transform over the flames of his alchemy.  For you, Senora, he smiles, buen appetito.  I sit at a table and eat blissfully and messily and one of the family comes to wipe my hands with a substantial length of blue paper towel. 
Too late I find a street market that had been given over to antiques and brocante and was packing up, but not quickly enough to hide a treasure.  Oh! Oh! I fall in love with a small roundel of the Virgin and Child in a pastoral scene; exquisite and too well painted to be called kitsch.

I want! I want! my heart cries, and the vendor pounced! Alas, I didn’t have the amount of cash and he didn’t take cards.  I also have a backpack and a further 350 kms to walk – get real Zoé!  The imponderables were insurmountable.  I took a photo, with his permission, instead.  I shall regret not bringing her home with me as much as I regret not 
trying to struggle home with the majolica Madonna water stoop that claimed my heart in Positano some years ago.  Ah well. 
I walk down Avenida San Marcos to the old pilgrim hospital, now the most splendid of all paradors in Spain.  A suite for a week costs my annual income.  I wander everywhere, invisible – I have a knack for withdrawing energy, taught to me by an Inuit shaman from north of Nome whom I met while in Santa Fe way back in 1988.  He sat invisible on the fender of his car, watching me look everywhere for him – he was teaching me traditional ways of communication with the natural world around us, using the elements of which we are also made up – until he suddenly ‘reappeared’. I’ve never managed his degree of invisibility of course, but I can move unseen when I choose to.  

I chose to right now and wandered entranced far beyond the access granted to non-guests.  The twelfth century building is immensely beautiful, its art and statuary magnificent.  I rued the loss of it for pilgrims, but appreciate its protection as an invaluable piece of Spanish history and heritage. A wedding ... a perfect setting; I slipped out as silently as I had entered. 

Along San Marcos Street I had a sublime green apple and chestnut homemade ice cream.  Now I return to their café to indulge, without a nano-second of guilt shadowing my tea and petit four, and bring out my journal to write of the day and my thoughts. I take photos of this extravagantly beautiful shop whose cakes and window display and wall paintings nourish the heart and soul as well as the body and senses and get to wondering.  Ah, the senses.  That’s the conundrum ... sensual.  Too self-indulgent, too sensual, too glorious – too Catholic!  I found shops like this all over France and Italy, and now Spain.  Do we English create such pure indulgent fantasy and feasts for the senses?  

Grandeur, yes.  Gardens, yes.  But pure indulgence? 

What is the common denominator for France and Italy and Spain?  I challenge my brain.  Ping!  It’s obvious – no Puritanism, no guilt, no self-abnegation, no unhealthy boarding school sniggering at sexuality, devoid of sensuality – ha, the list is endless. Cromwell’s Puritans banned mince pies, and Christmas.  Can you imagine anything so punitive!  Charles ll re-instated them.  I so enjoy my little raves, love my journal, it lives with my credencial in my macabi pocket, more valuable than my passport. 

Still the day is not yet over. There is a cello concert by an American pilgrim at San Isidore in the evening.  I miss it; I am waiting at the wrong door.  Photographing a statue of a very raggedy and rusty peregrina in a hat and skirt, who looks like I might look by the time I reach Santiago, I catch sight of a poster for a Son et Lumière to be performed right here this evening at 9 o’clock.  The grand façade of San Isidore will be the ‘canvas’.  By chance I meet Vanessa who insists I follow her back to see a wondrous stone Madonna in her deep vaulted camaril of stars. 

I tell her of the Son et Lumière: what’s that? she asks and I don’t explain, just tell her to fetch John from his death bed – it is not to be missed.  It is stunning!  French illuminator Xavier de Richemont created breath-stopping beauty of the history of León and we were entranced, thrilled, moment by illuminated moment. 
Vanessa thanked me for the beginning and the end of a perfect day for her.  We went home to Alfonso – it has been a Day of Wonders.
To be continued ...

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