Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Old, older, and downright primitive

Me and my friend Miguel Angel went this weekend to Salamanca, I city I love and he had never seen. I love showing people I like around cities I love. The new person sees things I overlook. They marvel the same way I did not so long ago, at the food and buildings and sunlight and people. They just generally remind me of how cool it is to have places so marvellous in such easy reach.

Salamanca was its usual beautiful self. We hiked around the city´s Siamese-twin cathedrals: a smaller, medieval cathedral built in the 1100´s stands right up against what was supposed to be its replacement: a towering limestone Gothic pile from the glory days of the 1500´s. It took forever to finish the new place, and people just didn´t have the heart to tear down the old one, so they just knocked out some of the walls in between and kept them both. The "new" one is still used for worship. Both are popular for "showcase weddings" on weekends, and we witnessed at least five nuptials going on while we nosed around at the thousand-year-old murals and tombs of knights and abbesses. (One of the wedding couples chose a priest rather fond of the old fire-and-brimstone. His high-decibel exhortations followed us down the medieval cloister-walk and into chapels where  Comunards boiled up revolutions, centuries of university students defended their doctoral theses, (Salamanca is home to the second-oldest university in the world!), and Mass is still said a few times each year in the ancient and outlawed Mozarabic Rite.

The place is a huge museum of bygone glories. It is beautiful and full of people, but they weren´t there to worship God. They, like us, were tourists, having a look at the wonders wrought by mankind during the spectacular years of Spain´s greatest power. And there´s nothing wrong with that. (Just don´t go there if you want to meditate or pray. People who attempt such anachronistic behavior will be photographed without mercy by the tourist throng.)

We left the city at mid-morning and headed north to Zamora, a sort of miniature Salamanca on the Duero River. We didn´t go to see the town (even though it´s another big favorite of mine), but to visit San Pedro de la Nave, a "pre-Romanesque" church 10 km. out among the sagebrush badlands west of town.

The building is made of all kinds of rocks and stones stacked together into a small church of simple elegance. Windows are tiny slits. Outside, the stone walls are carved with dozens of crosses -- the graffitti of illiterate monastic vandals, probably carved there long before anyone thought to build a church or start teaching classes down in Salamanca. Decorations are simple stone carvings of grapes and wheels and faces. This church was built by Visigoths, a tribe of early Christians who took over Spain after the Romans pooped-out, and took up where the Romans left off when it came to winemaking and grape-growing. The grapes worked their way into the sculptors´ repertoire -- bunches of grapes, leaves and vines are standbys of Visigothic church art.  Spain was full of vineyards until the Moors invaded and overran most of the peninsula -- and the Arabs don´t drink alcohol. The vineyards vanished... almost. And so did grapevine carvings.

San Pedro de la Nave was built in the 7th century. It´s stood for 1,300 years. It, too, is a tourist attraction, but no one but hard-core architecture nerds like us makes the trip. The people of tiny El Campillo, still use the place for their parish worship. It gives me the wim-wams, being in a place so old.

But something older still stands in an empty lot adjacent to the church. A skinny tree trunk, four-stories tall, is erected there. All the branches are stripped off but a few at the very top. And up there among the bare limbs hangs a dummy, a crude human figure.  I thought I recognized what it was, from some long-ago sociology class. I asked Javi, the young man who showed us the church.

"That? Oh, that´s a custom of the pueblos around here. On May 1 there´s a fiesta, and we burn down the old tree. We set up a new one, put a new dummy in it, leave it up there til the next May." He was very matter-of-fact about it. He didn´t offer any further enlightenment.

Unless I am mistaken, the people of rural Zamora are celebrating a primitive holdover of a pre-historic "burning man" ritual, just as the crops are taking hold out in the fields each spring. It dates back to tree-worshiping Celts and Druids, who sacrificed actual people to ensure fertility in their crops and barns and homes. When that proved messy or wasteful or distasteful, substitution was made.  

It´s not hard to see how early Christians made the jump from sacrifices in the trees to a man nailed to a cross. More substitution. But to see the old, old San Pedro church there, alongside a ritual that reaches even more deep into the past... well. It took my breath away. So much history, ritual, culture, symbolism, and artwork, hundreds and hundreds of years´ worth, in one day´s drive.

Back into the car. We headed out on the two-lanes through Zamora, then Valladolid, then Palencia province, through dusty backwaters, past ruined castles and adobe ghost towns. We stopped in a place called Castroverde de los Campos, and had two rounds of small beer. Miguel Angel picked up the tab: three Euros. Miguel Angel lives in Paris, where he´s used to paying three times that price for the same stuff. He thought there was a mistake. Then he thought he´d died and gone to heaven.

So here I am, so heavenly minded I am no earthly good... Excitement round here is provided yet again by Murphy Cat, who ate some rat poison, fought for his life overnight, and is now clawing his way slowly back from the brink.  We also are undergoing repeat visits from Jackie, an enormous Leonnese Mastiff dog who lives at the pilgrim hostel in Terradillos and walks with the pilgs to Moratinos... and then hangs out here for hours before his people come to collect him. We call him Hoss. He´s a whole lotta dawg.

And if I may once more venture into church territory, I hope all you readers who donated to the Peaceable in the past few months will look at the picture here. The little image is made of pear-wood. It´s Santiago Peregrino, carved about a century ago by a Compostela pilgrim from southern France or northern Spain. It´s primitive, but I love it. We bought it from an Irish antiques dealer a month ago, to install in the parish church of Moratinos. Our church stands dead on the Camino de Santiago and hosts pilgrims every day, but has no Santiago figure in its collection! Your donations, combined with a few other donativos, helped to bring this little man to our church. Hopefully we´ll have him safely installed in time for the Moratinos fiesta in a couple of weeks.

Thank you, generous readers.


Laura said...

This was a great post..interesting, historic, exotic...adds to my excitement about being in Spain next month! (I hope the air traffic controllers work out their issues and don't plan an early September strike!)

Glad Murphy Cat is hanging in there.

Melissa West said...

Sounds like a fantastic trip. I'm hoping to walk the Via de la Plata next spring, so was particularly interested in your accounts of Salamance and San Pedro de la Nave. Did you know it has its own blog? Who knew?

Yay for Murphy Cat. They are tough little critters, aren't they?

Carla Ann said...

Enjoyed this post for the virtual word tour of the churches--beautiful!

...and thanks from someone who will most likely never see them in person...


Glad Murphy Cat deployed one of his nine lives and is back among us...

Pilgrim Nell said...

Thats a wonderful little carving of Santiago. Wouldn't he'd 'lift your heart' after a long days walking. But I wonder what his story is.. where has he been for a century and what would his maker think of him ending up in the place of honour in Moratinos?