Estella to Monjardín de Villamayor

Day 62b of Walking Out of the World

Previous episode: Day 62a, Puente la Reina to Estella.

The Irache wine fountain

There is something quite charming about the sign beside the famous free wine tap on the wall beside Bodegas Irache. It invites the pilgrims to help themselves to free wine, but not to take advantage of this generosity and take more than they need. After about three mugs of wine, the pilgrims’ thoughts turn to a discussion of the true philosophical and moral meaning of how much they actually need.

Since our mainly Italian group had lunched well in Estella, with a menú peregrino that included a generous jug or two of vino tinto, and we arrived at the free wine fountain in the late afternoon, we decided that the question of how much wine we needed was quite different to how much wine we would have needed at nine o’clock in the morning (i.e. not much.) Since it was only a few more kilometeres to Monjardín de Villamayor, it was reasonable to interpret the quantity of wine needed as about one and a half bottles each, since we could quite easily stagger to the next village after drinking that much.

Next to Bodegas Irache is a significant 12th century church and the monastery of Irache. If you were to arrive here at nine o´clock in the morning and only drink one glass of free wine, the monastery is still visible. To be honest, I don’t remember seeing it at all on this occasion. I understand that in certain atmospheric conditions, it disappears completely. We staggered out of Irache and back into the open countryside of rolling hills, which for some reason we all found terribly amusing.

On the approach to Monjardín de Villamayor, there is a Gothic fountain with a cistern, and steps leading down into the water inside. It is probably Islamic in origin. Still filled with the Holy Spirit after the free wine in Irache, I decided that it was time to renew my baptismal vows and have a mysterious spiritual encounter in the waters of the cistern. I explained to my new Italian friends that I would catch up with them at the refugio in the village and I gave them my credencial to book me in and explain to the hospitaller that I would be following shortly after my bath in the old Arab spring. They continued down the Camino and I could see that there was a coach parking outside the village. I wondered for a moment if that had some connection with the pilgrim refuge, and I hope all the beds would not be taken by the time I got there.

Being in the middle of nowhere, and our group was the last group of pilgrims in sight, I stripped off inside the ancient well and walked down the steps into the cool waters completely naked. I bathed in the echoing dark space, and began to experiment with singing to play with the acoustics. As I emerged from the water and up the steps, in my birthday suit, singing a Taizé chant, I was looking down at the steps, taking care with my footing; not looking up at the double-arched entrance above.

Probably because I was still loudly singing “Adoramus te Christe” – using a false bass tone which was amplified by the acoustics – I hadn’t heard the arrival of the Japanese tourists from the coach, who were lined up and looking down from the top of the steps. They all had cameras and I presume that I appear for posterity – completely nude – in the photograph albums of Tokyo (where I suppose the tale is told about primitive pilgrim rituals in northern Spain, and they may even have remembered the song: “Adolamus te Chliste…”) They did not stay very long, just five minutes or so – and ticked this monument off their list before heading back to the bus – and I dried myself off and made my way to the village.

When I arrived at the refugio in Monjardín de Villamayor the Italians had indeed booked me in, but even better they had managed to persuade the village priest to say Mass in the village church and they were enthusiastically putting a multi-lingual liturgy together with some other Dutch and German pilgrims. What could I contribute, they asked. I suggested we could all sing “Adoramus te Christe…” and I sang it for them, but they were not impressed. I must admit, it didn’t sound at all as good as earlier.

“It sounds much better if you are naked in the bath and surrounded by Japanese tourists,” I explained. Giacomo nodded thoughfully, as if I had said something profound.

The Mass, followed by supper in the pilgrim refuge, and a long evening of Italian, Dutch and German banter, was one of the most delightful I have experienced on the Camino. Next morning we set off at first light, a long straggling group in the rolling countryside, walking a lot more slowly than yesterday, nursing hangovers.

Looking back on Monjardín de Villamayor from the Camino at dawn.

Continuing the story of the yellow arrows

The legendary energy of Father Elías Valiña Sampedro went into remarkable pastoral care for his poor parishioners, while at the same time he devoted his studies to the history of the Camino de Santiago, and he read everything he could find on the subject – travelling to local libraries and to far off academic and ecclesiastical institutions – until he became an expert on the subject. He began marking the the Camino in his local area with yellow arrows, first showing the way up to O Cebreiro, his parish church (El Cebrero in those days), and then travelling in his car further and further away, marking more arrows on his days off from parish work.

He began to recruit volunteer helpers from his family and friends, working at weekends and in the holidays, marking yellow arrows from Roncesvalles to Compostela, on routes that Father Elias had researched meticulously. It was a labour of love, a project done without the support of any organisation or cultural agency. By 1987 he was organising a congress on the Camino de Santiago and the revival of the pilgrim route was in full swing.

There is a legendary story of two suspicious guardia civil officers once stopping his car and inspecting the vehicle filled with pots of yellow paint and brushes. When they asked him what he was doing, he said, “I’m preparing for an invasion.”

I shall conclude the story of Father Elías Valiña Sampedro in tomorrow’s walk.

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