May 11, 2007

Riding the Ruta de la Plata, part 3

Follow-up to Riding the Ruta de la Plata, part 2 from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Part 1: Santander landing, camping in the Picos de Europa
Part 2: Cares River, Desfiladero de los Boyes gorge, Peurto del Ponton pass

Our second day in Spain had been a journey through unsubtle patterns of texture and rhythm. Our passage through the gorge was a rapid sequence of hairpins, barreling along steep rocky mountain walls. Like giant pinball, we bounced from one side to the next and back, occasionaly catching up with our own echoes. Light and shadow, dry warmth and cool dampness, exchanged places in quick sucession. And then the ascent, in which two opposite but more linear vectors passed each other: on the one hand, light and perspective grew as we rose out of the mountain shadows and into the peaks; whilst conversely but in proportion the temperature dropped to an altitudinal chill. Once past the route's highest point (1,280 metres), the road widened and adopted a lazier wind down onto the plateau towards León (883 metres).

In the mountains there had been griffon vultures waiting ready to capitalise on erroneous motorcylists. On the road out of the Picos, all the way into León, a series of funeral cars performed that role. After passing the fourth hearse in an hour, I started to think darker thoughts: remote rural communities, land and blood won through centuries of struggle. Were we perhaps in the middle of some kind of murderous feud? The coincidence seemed uncanny.

That evening, events out on the streets of León further amplified this sense of menace and the supernatural. Another unsubtle pattern of texture and rhythm. It emanated from the great gates of the gothic cathedral. We had established base camp within a room of the Pension Berta (15 Euros for a twin room), looking out onto the Plaza Mayor in the epicentre of town.

View from the Pension Berta

View from the Pension Berta, with the following morning's market being assesmbled.

Down below in the street, hundreds of heavily disguised bodies bobbed from side to side synchronously, edging forwards like a slow moving river passing heavily through the gorge formed closely by the surrounding buildings. Loosely coordinated by some heavily veiled intention, they solemnly proceeded. An accompainiment of marshall drum beats and raucous un-earthly trumpets seemed to have no effect other than to reinforce a deeply buried fatalism. Time, life, death, sin, purgatory, penitence and glory would just carry on as determined by the natural and supernatural order of things.

Leon procession 1

A heavenly cacophony.

Until then I had not realised just what it means to have grown up in a Protestant culture. This Semana Santa (Easter) procession in Catholic León was almost impossible for me to decipher. The audience of onlooking Spaniards were thoroughly absorbed and even a little joyed by the spectacle. But in no way was this a show put on for an audience, or certainly not an earthly audience. It certainly wasn't a display for the sake of tourism or the culture industry. The participants had gone to immense effort, There were many of them, each wearing an immaculate instance of the several varieties of costume. They proceeded in groups all identically attired. One assumes that they might actually enjoy the event, although they were almost all masked so it was impossible to tell. Almost all, with the exception of a large group of women in black. That part of the procession I understood immediately. I guessed them to be widows, and respected their sorrow and grace enough to stop my incessant photography. But there must surely be an element of sacrifice? Certainly for the many people involved in carrying the enormous wooden platforms that display figures and scenes from the life of Christ.

Leon procession 4

As they carried this vast platform they were swaying in time to the music.

Was this penitence? I am an atheist, but within a Protestant culture. I struggled to comprehend. Is there nothing like this in England? Some point of reference? Well I did once live in Lewes, a town famous for its procession. But in Lewes they don't venerate popes, they burn them, in an entirely British way.

Leon procession 2

The figure of Christ is actually quite disturbing (to an atheistic Protestant).

Two things were entirely clear. Firstly, the masks made me deeply uneasy. Not because the dramatically pointed hats evoke images of racism in the American South, one can easily get around that association. Rather, it's the reduction of humanity to an anonymous mass. The elision of the individual. The mass even included masked children. That feels threatening. But worse still is one particular image: men in black masks (rounded, and a little flat on top) carrying a wooden platform in the manner of pall bearers carrying a coffin. The connection is irrational and no doubt a sign of my complete lack of understanding. As I stood there watching this sight, I struggled to rid myself of an image from 1980's Belfast: IRA men in black masks carrying a coffin.

Leon procession 3

Black masks and gloves.

A second part of the dislay made sense. In front of a platform carrying a figure of Christ walked two men dressed as Roman soldiers, complete with spears. I thought they looked rather friendly, jolly even. Good chaps. The sort that you would meet down the pub. At least one could see their faces and hence their humanity. How very odd to end up siding with the bad guys.

Leon Roman

The jolly centurion.

The procession circulated several times around its route, each time gaining in intensity and numbers. After what seemed like half an hour, it disappeared, perhaps returning back into the great gothic tomb of the cathedral, or perhaps just dissipating into the streets.

What we recognized as normality returned. The nice English speaking young lady at the Pension Berta gave us useful instructions as to where to find food. We of course forgot them almost as soon as we got outside. After some exploration, very good pizza were consumed, along with cerveza grande. And then on to the bars, many small fascinating places, usually displaying hams and other tapas ingredients. Here's an important tip for anyone visiting these parts. They drink beer in tiny measures, the size of whiskey glasses. There's no embarassment to be had in requesting a more substantial volume.

Martin in Leon bar

Martin admiring the display in a bar.

On to part 4.

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