Villafranca Montes de Oca – Burgos, 7th – 9th April 2007
‘Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them, but they were kept from recognising him.’ – Luke 24:13-16
Anne and I left Villafranca de Montes de Oca in thick fog. The advantage of this was that it meant that we were unable to see the degree of the impending ascent. The disadvantage was that it made the path very boring indeed. We could see a few metres all around: (muddy) path ahead, and trees on either side. Things went on in this fashion all the way to San Juan de Ortega. San Juan himself was allegedly a disciple of our old friend Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and assisted him with the building of bridges in the area. The hamlet named after him seemed to consist entirely of a monastery, a church and a bar – where we caught up with Marg, Terry and Ursula. The church is large and impressive, and has painted dragons on the ceiling, and a wall painting depicting the story of Saint Jerome and the lion. I was very taken by the lion’s expression of desolation. Equally appealing was the real live dog outside, who begged chocolate. We hardened our hearts – chocolate isn’t good for dogs – and plodded on to Atapuerca.
The albergue at Atapuerca was unlike any we had yet visited; it seemed to be made out of several very large, clean, static caravans, and was decorated in bright colours. It was perhaps a bit soulless, but it had working showers. We took a nap. Anne was not happy; she was missing everything that would be happening on Easter Saturday at home. It didn’t seem to affect me in the same way; it just didn’t feel like Easter Saturday. I could live with that.
The day was redeemed when Terry, Marg and Ursula showed up for the second time. We had a pleasant drink with them at a scarily civilised bar named, in a punnish reference to the archaeological discoveries at Atapuerca and the fact that the Spanish for “to eat” is comer, “Como Sapiens”. After an evening stroll around the village Anne and I ate at the attached restaurant and enjoyed the luxury of crepes with mascarpone and real spinach, and fried eggs, and real pudding (a “tarantela”) as opposed to flan (crème caramel) out of a pot. We had been getting used to good, cheap wine, but were finding that on the whole cheap food was edible but dreadfully samey. Como Sapiens was by no means expensive, but it was definitely a step up from the endless pilgrim menus. We enjoyed it.
Easter morning was misty again, but as we reached the top of the hill beyond Atapuerca the cloud rolled away, and we saw a great wooden cross very black against the pale sunlit sky. Now it felt like Easter.
A quiet day’s walk through quiet villages, overtaking Marco every so often, and being overtaken back, and we reached Burgos. We got lost on the way into the city; we followed meticulously the instructions in the guidebook about turning right in front of a large building with a Telefónica sign on the top, but missed the arrows all the same. We got thoroughly hot and cross. Still, we found the way to the city centre more or less following our noses.
Once there, we searched for the Casa de Peregrinos Emaús, because it would be wonderfully appropriate to reach Emmaus on Easter Day. The guidebook having neglected to mention the fact that it was on the other side of the river, we had great difficulty finding it until an umbrella-bearing gentleman stopped to help us. He was obviously not entirely familiar with the area himself, but had no qualms with stopping passers-by to ask where it might be, and then leading us in the direction in which he had been pointed. It was a sunny day; it was at about this point that we started noticing how all our angels had been carrying umbrellas.
Emaús was everything that we had been hoping for. It was run by an extremely idiosyncratic nun by the name of Marie-Noëlle, and it had – unusually for an albergue – a prayer room. We loved it. The peaceful back garden, the quiet companionship with the other pilgrims, the shared meal in the evening – and then, last thing, the evening prayer service, with Taizé chants and the Ultreia! song. It made Easter right.
We sweet-talked Marie-Noëlle into letting us stay an extra night, and spent Easter Monday in Burgos. We accompanied her to mass at the nearby convent (‘You’re Catholic? No? Ah, it’s the same Christ’) and then went to see the cathedral. Despite the fact that much of the interior was swathed in tarpaulin, it was magnificent. Huge, Gothic, it defies description now. My mind skips to details, like the chapel of Santa Catalina, which was full of pictures of deceased bishops, or the exhibition of liturgical tat, or the horde of school children tramping noisily around the cloisters.
There was much about Burgos that was appealing. The statue of El Cid, cloak streaming behind him, stands a few hundred yards from the bridge lined with figures depicting his wife and other dignitaries. Mrs Cid is captured in the act of releasing a stone falcon into the air. The tacky gift shops were located close to the cathedral, and were well stocked with fabric badges for my blanket. The post office was on the other side of the river. My father had sent me a letter post restante, but it had not yet arrived. I arranged (I hoped) to send it on to León to be collected when we arrived there. Pa claimed to have done similar himself on various of his interminable train-spotting expeditions across the continent; he also claimed that many years ago he went into a shop in Burgos to buy food (probably, knowing my father, sardines) and found that several snails, on sale as a delicacy, were crawling out of their box and up the wall. We wondered whether the shop we visited was the same one.
Back at Emaús, Anne and I taught ourselves a psalm chant; the prayer room had inspired us. We found fairly soon that the natural break in my voice around the C above middle C was a great help in pitching, once we had remembered how intervals worked. I had copied nine chants into my diary, about four of which were interesting enough to sing with two of the parts missing. Marie-Noëlle asked us to sing for that evening’s prayer session, so we spent much of the afternoon practising. We also found a sight more revolting than Anne’s feet: Rae’s ears. Rae was another British pilgrim; she had somewhat extreme ear piercings, which had got infected. She could not, she said, remove the earrings without pliers, so in the interim she was dabbing at the site with Betadine. Most of the other pilgrims did their best not to look.
Marie-Noëlle press-ganged us all into helping with a somewhat daunting enterprise: the back door was shut off with a huge, heavy iron frame. This needed to be unscrewed and manhandled down a set of steps and into the garden shed. Between the half dozen of us we managed it without mishap. Dinner followed, then night prayer, then bed.
Before we left Emaús there was work to be done: sweeping and dusting. But before we left there was also ‘bread for the journey’ to be taken: slips of paper with a spiritual message. It was the little touches like that which made this refugio special: we felt that Marie-Noëlle cared about all the aspects of her pilgrims’ experience, physical, mental and spiritual.