Pilgrim and Tourist – in North West Spain…

Close now to places I walked through last year. A glimpse of riverside willows racing past the car’s window, then the Puente Santa Maria. A year gone in a flash, like the swallows skimming the road ahead. Too soon they’ll leave, towing the dreams of summer south.

Time speeding up even as it counts down. Summers’ shortening, gone like the bluebirds. Leaving us with our Celtic quandary – that of souls riven by a deep love of home and yet the need to wander. Though sometimes it feels like we’ve been cast out into the night and left to find our way home again, with only star fields to guide us or whispered prayers borne on the wind, flayed from the lips of poets with anguished hearts. Or perhaps the words of wild men in coarse clothing, fed on honey cake and desert silence, leaving a crumb here, there.

But as we drive into Pontearnelas, there’s a gap in the clouds and a trick of the light. Slanted sunbeams falling on three pilgrims tip-tapping their way across a cobblestone bridge, backpacks and scallop shells flapping, having ventured out from somewhere east of Eden, course set for Compostela (a field of stars) – to catch one falling perhaps.

And for a moment, everything slows, merges into one – as if this place passes through them, rather than they through it.

Is that the difference between tourist and pilgrim? Not skimming over the surface but immersed so deeply in a landscape that some of it lodges and never falls away? Is that how a name on a map becomes a place in the heart? Drawing one back.

As we pass, I hear John O’Donohue whisper, ‘Listen to the new silence brought with them.’ These hearts made restless – each step scattering songlines through the land of their sojourn.

If one spent a lifetime wandering these paths, treading softly on the dreams of pilgrims past, it wouldn’t be a waste.

My guide, Alfonso, returned to North-West Spain after some time in Belfast points right. ‘Look at that.’

Sudden shapes everywhere, as swallows and martins burst out, shot from God knows where flashing past on feeding runs before their long migration.

Just after Pontearnelas, the road winds uphill. A sign for Mouzos and the Chapel of San Pedro – where the village welcomes weary walkers.

A man slowly rises from the porch, leaning heavily on his stick. Don Jose blinks as I shake his hand. Another man joins him, his son Jaime, who built the chapel.

‘Before they had a scallop shell stamp,’ Alfonso explains, Don Jose would plant his now decommissioned stick in ink to stamp the pilgrims’ passports.

A Camellia tree shades the porch, symbolising the Divine, the promise of Spring, and Winter’s passing. Beside it on the wall, a plaque records the chapel’s opening in 1978, the year of the new constitution, of the coming again of a democratic Spring to Spain. Conditional on the flawed but necessary pacto del olvido, the pact of forgetting wrongs, but only those meted out to Franco’s victims. Their remembrance for decades, shrouded in silence until the millenia’s turn and the beginnings of the recovery of historical memory.

Jaime built the chapel as a tribute to his father’s generation, despite the village’s declining population as children sought new opportunities or sold their fields and moved away. The lot of rural communities everywhere, this loss of a special connection to the land.

‘Then, three years ago,’ Alfonso tells me, ‘Don Jose, Jaime and others lobbied for the Camino route to go through the village. The mayor later told me it was the only issue they ever sought a meeting on.’

And it brought new life. Few in Mouzos had travelled widely, but now the world walks by their front doors, along laneways, through farmyards and vineyards. Then in and out of the chapel of San Pedro, where greetings, drinks, and fruit are shared by ageing patriarchs, cheered by the flow of new pilgrim generations, with their stories of appreciation of the land’s beauty. They walk on to Santiago but never really arrive, then travel home but never really return. None of us do.

I sit awhile in the cool of the white-walled pine-clad little chapel dressed with white carnations on a simple altar.

I don’t want to go, but I have a late afternoon flight.

One more stop on the way with Manolo.

‘He has some wine to give me,’ Alfonso says.

I reach out to shake Manolo’s red-stained hand.

‘Take as much as you want. I have to make a fresh batch of Barrantes wine. It has a full taste. No chemicals or preservatives added.’

We sample it. He’s right. We sample again – just to make sure.

‘Smooth, full-bodied,’ I say.

‘Yes, but not as strong as Albariño. You should stop driving, put your feet up and enjoy a bottle.’

‘But if I do that, I may miss my flight.’

He smiles and says, ‘Then you must come back.’


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