Sunday, 10 June 2007
'Stoned' in Aragon
Sorry it's been so long. I have been on another planet, almost... walking the Camino Aragones, from Jaca to Sanguesa, out on the upper right corner of Spain. It's the Pyrenees mountains, full of knock-you-out scenery reminiscent of Switzerland, but without the snow or yodeling or wristwatches.
I've been very ready for a long time for some solitude and scenery, and this hike's got both in spades. It was, bar none, the most beautiful hike I've done so far in all my days. We're talking high mountains here, paths following along a river valley and up into high heights (not always on purpose!), forests of oaks and pines dotted with abandoned hermitages and deserted villages; 11th century monasteries hidden away under the crags, (here's a pic!) profusions of blossoming flowers and fluttering butterflies, wide fields of golden wheat and green oats, and very few fellow pilgrims.
I thought I knew the camino routes pretty well, but I wasn't well informed on this one, going in. Pilgrim accounts I read online focused on personal interactions and hostel conditions, and didn't say much about the trails themselves, the terrain or weather or other vital info.
I wish I'd known. Maybe I'd have prepared myself better. For along with being the most lovely, this trail is also the most difficult I've encountered. I was only out there for a few days, and I feel like I've had the stuffing kicked out of me.
A few impressions stand out: Foremost is the views. There's something so soul-nourishing about wide-open spaces and long views of beautiful scenery. The towns are all perched up on steep hillsides, and the ones with pilgrim hostels are quite widely spaced..the average day is well over 25 km., and much of that is hills or mountains! Footing is often loose stones on a 15 percent grade, or deep ruts with their own little ecosystems living in them, or those Roman road pavers the size and shape of eclairs. From Jaca up the mountain to San Juan de la Pena, (where the stone is carved into amazing bible story scenes), all the way to Arres, the stones along the path were standouts.
Maybe it was my state of mind, or the vibe of places inhabited by humans for thousands of years, but SO many of these little (and not so little) rocks I wanted very much to put in my pockets and take home, they were so cool. They all were just lying out in the mountains, but wore the stamp of human hands: there were balls, orbs, perfectly round. Others looked shaped and formed into primitive tools, or architectural details, or painted with striking Moderne black-and-white designs, or incised with Sumerian glyphs, little human figures, swirly-wirlies, smiley faces, or geometric spaceship landing vectors. I saw candy-bar rocks, egg rocks, and perfect triangles, like wedges of cheese or pie. There were eclairs, hamburgers, sno-kones, and even a pork-hock rock... have you noticed that real meals were hard to come by on this trail?
And right around Puente de la Reina de Jaca the pilgrims got to noticing the profusion of rounded-off river rocks lying thick along both sides of the path. They got to stacking them up, one on the other, then more and more on more. And now there's a veritable forest of these "rock people" stretching out from the Way, along several patches of woods along the River Aragon. I saw them on Thursday, I think... The roaring river and woods, added to the rainfall that afternoon, made the scene seem quite weird and wonderful. I wish I'd taken a picture. But then again, I don't think a camera could capture it. You'll have to go and see for yourself!
Dozens of these little stone cairns are scattered along the Camino Aragones, like another kind of wildflower.
With all those stones around it's only natural the people would build their homes out of them. The villages along the Way in Aragon are stone walls, pavements, and slate roofs...even the livestock fences are made of rocks (with a few of the classic bedspring gates.) One of the coolest is Ruesta. The town is well up a long climb, hidden in a defile, with two ancient towers you can see for a very long time before you hit the city limits. The closer you get, the more clear it becomes: the place is a ghost town, utterly deserted, home only to swallows and bees. (I'll include a picture. It's hard to take bad pictures in Aragon!)
Ruesta's one of several towns in the area deserted in the late 50's, when a new dam project cut off their road access. The place has been slowly falling back to earth since, but stones well-joined take their time coming down, and some of these walls have been standing since the 14th century!
And as the Camino winds through, you find the sole survivors. Here's a new pilgrim refuge, and a tiny bar. It's a project of the UGT, one of Spain's leftist labor unions. They want to reinhabit the town, the young barman said, and someday create a cooperative workers' paradise here in the crags.
I told him about life in the Newspaper Guild and the union-busting going on in my beloved country. And when we went to leave, he gave me a shiny enamel lapel pin with the UGT's red raised-fist logo on it! Solidarity forever!
That night in a faraway hilltop town was another memorable experience. Undues de Lerda has a huge, lovely pilgrim hostel on the top two floors of the 16th century town hall. It's only 10 more kilometers to Sanguesa, a town with lots of restaurants, banks, etc., so everyone else walked on. Me and Willi, a German pilgrim, were the only customers that night in Undues. There is one bar, and it serves pilgrim meals if you request them early enough... an elderly lady does the cooking, so I said YES!
Willi and I sat at a table laid with real silverware and cloth napkins, and were served a fine salad and then a clay pot of stewed meat, wonderfully fragrant. I'd never seen this strange lumpy cut of meat before, so I asked what it was.
"Pig," the lady said simply. "Fresh. Raised it myself." It was very generous and very meaty and tender. I ate it right down to the flat disc of bone at the base. Curious still, I asked the barmaid what the cut was, as the old lady had gone home.
The barmaid stroked her cheeks. "It's pig face," she said. In other words, Hog Jowls!
I love this country. Now that I've done pig face, next post I can maybe go onto Baby Jesus Feet. But now I need a nap.