Cordillera Cantabrica is Spain’s wild sierra after crusty Astorga township, a rampart to colder high climes where pilgrim of Santiago de Compostela reach the Beirzo border neighbouring Galicia. Here we meet the tall Cruz de Ferro (Iron Pole), always wrapped in rags, tied by young pilgrims like true primitives, arriving by foot or pedal. Men and women leave messages at its base in twenty languages on hairpins, ribbons, rocks and socks, hoping to reach charming Molinaseca.
This cordillera is higher than Roncesvalles where the path or camino crosses the Pyrenees. Pilgrims might be panting on the tops but these mountains provide water for Spain and Portugal, and grassy plains for shepherds, milkmen and scoundrels. It’s the wild Beirzo, content with splendid isolation, a gift to brother Galicians and Astorians. Wind, lightning, hail, snow, rain and sleet blow pilgrims from elbow paths into shoulder towns like ‘cowboy’ Acebo and ‘hippy’ Manjarin.
Manjarin is a primitive abode, with signs for Jerusalem, Trondheim, Machu Pichu, Santiago, many flags decorating the bleak. Plenty of laughter found in these ruins, aching muscles and bones too. There’s joking amidst mist and snow, young pilgrims keeping warm by teapots, fireplace and borrowed sanity, experiences treasured like a loved library book you can always return.
Manjarin’s Tomas and Jose – population two- ring bells in the mists, welcoming pilgrims like the mythic days of old, taking care of injuries, making memories to the strains of Gregorian chant, their twenty-five beds awaiting pilgrim slumber. Under their roof and attic, with Knights Templar in mind, they provide warm mushrooms and cous cous, cooking up a hug, and banking on snows that once swallowed the town not swallowing them again.
Further from Jerusalem is one-goat Acebo, built on the slopes, a gnat in billygoat’s coat. Its wood, string, stone and metal lodgings invoke a cowboy town under threat, its doors closed to sunshine, its mysterious corners on the edge of an abyss, its silence only shattered by a working Coke dispenser and pilgrim’s walking sticks. Matter-of-fact pilgrims drink coffee, bear bread and fruit, and watch doorstop pandemonium when dogs take exception to a cat’s promenade. Its albergue is saviour in foul weather, its attic beds notorious, its breakfast regrettable were it not for its orange juice.
Still, there is the Cordillera. Its winds sings for pilgrims, whistles and swings, yodels and croons morning and night. Your delirious soul with frozen breath prepares for departure, Acebo’s solitary square is buffeted by wolverine winds. My companions are jolly to the wind, patient in bearing, rubbing their cheeks before packing water bottles, and lifting themselves higher than Everest. Molinaseca ahead.
About the Author: Garry McDougall wrote the ‘Great North Walk’ in the 1988, followed by ‘NSW Heritage Walks’ in 1992. He completed ‘Forgetting and Remembering’, a comic and satirical murder mystery set in an outback town during the Australian Bicentenary. Blogs on Belonging, Pilgrimage and Forgetting and Remembering.
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