Thursday, 31 December 2009

As one door does another

Day 2 - Villafranca del Bierzo to Herrerias 20.5kms

Today is a short day. This has been determined by the availability of accommodation and food. We will stay in Herrerias tonight and cross the mountain at O Cebreiro tomorrow.

We were in no great rush to leave and we looked out at the grey and bleak day. The drizzle was constant. The mist hung low on the surrounding hills but the air was filled with the warming smell of wood smoke as the village houses stoked their fires. At breakfast there had been an air of quiet excitement. It was Hogmanay. A family were heading to Santiago to see the Holy Door being opened. At the bar a TV crew in distinctive red anoraks downed small coffees and huge slices of cake. They were there for the local "apertura". As the Holy Door is broken open in Santiago in Villafranco del Bierzo their own door, the Puerta del Perdon is opened. This happens with great ceremony and the full liturgy led by the Bishop is printed in a commemorative booklet and captured on TV. The town is very proud of the tradition which was started for those pilgrims of old who because of illness could not reach Santiago. We would have liked to stay to walk through the Door of Forgiveness but we had to set out. In truth I feel ambivalent about these traditions. There are many of them all over the world from lillies being blessed in honour of St Anthony in the Gorbals of Glasgow to the statue of the Virgin of Fatima being processed around the streets of South London by the ex pat Portuguese community. When I was younger I felt they were no more that an ad hoc ecclesiastical tourist strategy. As I've grown older I understand more the need we have for tradition and the need of humans to find some way of bringing heaven closer to earth. Is that not what has taken pilgrims to Finisterre since time immemorial?

These thoughts didn't last long as we braced ourselves and followed the route which follows the river almost all day. It was in spate fed by the constant rain and the snow melting on the mountains. We stopped to look at waterfalls and when the rain abated we had that feeling of "this is the life". But one thing was missing - other pilgrims. In the distance we spotted a red poncho. After an hour or so we caught up with Ingrid from Stuttgart. A lassie in her 20's she was making a solo pilgrimage from Leon. Educated at Durham University she had been to Scotland. "Have you seen any other pilgrims?" She asked. We told her we'd seen a few yesterday including some young people with a support vehicle. "But the albergues have been empty" she said. We reflected on the mysteries of how pilgrims come and go. I remarked on the book by the German comedian which I had read in English. "It is funny" she said, "but he wasn't a proper pilgrim". "But he walked the required distance, made friends and embraced God." We said, "Isn't that pilgrimage?" We could tell she wasn't convinced. A little further on she bade us farewell to walk along the road rather than follow the arrows because it is quicker. As we shook hands she heard the Big Man cough in a spasm. Rifling through a pocket she produced two tea bags. "These are good for the cold" she said. Dead pan the Big Man asked, "Are these made in Germany", she replied in the affirmative. "Ah well, I'll only need one then I'll be cured" he said. She laughed heartily. She'd met Glaswegians before.

All the way to Herrerias the rain beat down relentlessly. We stopped in a bar to see New Year in New Zealand on the television. I thought of fellow pilgrim Margaret and had an idea. "El ano acabando", a woman said. "The year is coming to a head."

The battle through the rain prevented the usual nostalgia of hogmanay taking grip. In the last year a lot of hateful things have happened as well as good. But like the rain I can do nothing about them.

We reached our hostal and began to dry out. We had thought we would have to make an expedition for food. The woman explained that they were having a party after 11 to celebrate New Year. However to our delight she said she would have a meal ready for us at 8.00pm and with no prompting said she would also open the bar.

So dear friends. We've declared a new time zone here in Herrerias and at exactly 9pm, glass of the Gold Stuff in hand, we will toast all of you and welcome the Year of Santiago.

Meanwhile the giant solar panels on the hillside above the hotel Valcarce lie stretched out on the sodden grass. They know that if they wait long enough they will be sunbathing again.
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  1. Gosh, yes, I remember those solar panels. You can see them from far off. Thought you might be OK re. the whisky. Happy New Year!

  2. Hi, John, reading your blog, I kept singing "Go Johnnie go go", and if you don't know the words, you can hear Chuck Berry singing it here:

    Happy New Year! Laurie

  3. Yes, Johnnie, Margaret in New Zealand has just woken from her first night's sleep of the New Year. And though she dreams of being a pilgrim again, for now she needs to get out into the garden here at home! Happy New Year- and may the drizzle not be incessant as you climb O'Cebreiro!

  4. I see your Scotch, and raise you a Wild Turkey. Best of the new year to you and the Big Man, and may the German Tea Bag work its magic!

    Reb and Paddy

  5. Watched the opening of the Holy Door on CRTVG last night Johnnie. Is'nt modern technology wonderful!! Here I am, on the east coast of the southern tip of Africa, following a Scot trekking across the north of Spain in winter and watching the Puerta del Perdones being broken down in the cathedral at Santiago!
    Keep warm, stay safe, happy New Year.

  6. Someone posted a YouTube link for the opening of the door in Villafranca Johnnie: (You can watch it when you get home again!)

  7. Walking with you in spirit and loving it.
    Thank you :-)