Sanctuary

Sanctuary

We met at dawn on an industrial estate in the vast, dreary hinterland of my adopted province of Teruel, here in Aragón, North-Eastern Spain, with enough space to park trucks and horse trailers and organize ourselves into some kind of start point. The sky was leaden with late autumn menace and on the other side of the silent main road was a set of low, bleak-looking hills scattered with the usual pine, rosemary, juniper and scrub oak. I hoped it wasn’t going to be all like this, the sky matched my low mood of lost love. I’d fallen off a ladder the day before with a hearty jolt and as I heaved my saddle and bridle from the trailer, I jittered and ached all over.

I surveyed my compañeros de viaje, quite a crowd, fifteen or so, these adventures always attract a mix of eccentrics, Campesinos, country boys, townies with a thing for horses, new girlfriends they were trying to impress. There was the calm and avuncular headteacher Luís with his adopted daughter Maria who held hands quietly as they rode. There was the ‘cowboy’- so named because of his hat, who evidently lived on fags, booze and mania. He had a habit of riding ahead, turning his horse cinematically and waving his hat in the air. There were some fit, well-fed horses but some of the others didn’t bear looking at. Lameness was in the post for those long malnourished in filthy stables on dusty straw and wishful thinking. We noticed swollen fetlocks and sensed the coming of a long-suffering, girth galls, saddle sores, pain.

I wandered over to a crow-like older man in a flat cap. He was well-spoken, his face hag-ridden and grey. I asked him for a cigarette, mumbling something shameful about not really being a smoker. “Es un dia.” he rasped, “La vida es un dia.”; life, as he saw it, is just one day. He held out a hipflask of aguardiente, rough country hooch, “Es Bueno”, he said. It was good, shaving the sharper edges off the pain in my feet and nudging me with a little shock of the bravado I would need for the two days ahead.

We were to ride over the dark hills and pick our way slowly for eight hours straight up into the Maestrazgo, the high, cold-scoured reaches of Spain’s history. Our destination was the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de La Balma where we’d stay the night. We would pass over the traces of lost kingdoms to a long-forgotten shrine for yet another iteration of Spain’s virgin cult, where as recently as the 1970s troubled adolescent girls were brought to be cured of possession. Today the cave chapel where the effigy of the virgin holds court is thickly cluttered with votive offerings, military uniforms, intravenous drips and pleas in scribbled texts from Guatemala, Chile, and Valencia.  The sanctuary complex is now a hostel, built high up into the side of a cliff around the caves and chapel and overlooking the lively Rio Bergantes, a river meandering its unlikely way through the gorges and deep valleys, far below the wind-bleached uplands scattered with stones, cattle and sheep.

If it weren’t for the river, there would be even less of a presence here than the current mythical sparsity of population, ranked high on the scale for emptiness in Europe. Villages cling on, with pig farming and few jobs, the young drift away and the elderly take their ease in the village squares forlornly watching their communities dwindle. Depopulation is Spain’s challenge at hand. Why would you stay here, in the culo del mundo, the arse of the world?  The coffee shops, jobs and beautiful people of cities like Barcelona siren away those with promise and perspective. This is the land of El Cid, the Knights Templar, the Cathars, and the terrain of the bandolero. Far from everywhere, inhospitable and forbidding, searingly hot in summer and frighteningly cold in winter, too empty, too distant, to be of interest to anyone.

 Saddles set, girths tightened, stirrups adjusted for length, hooves checked and picked out. Our saddlebags bulged with snacks and drinks, coats, ropes and drugs for horses. We gave some thought to the order of our little procession. This mare hates a horse too close behind her, that gelding will bite his neighbour for sheer meanness of spirit. All hell can break loose at a moment’s notice, as it did, a horse rearing up to start away from its rider in a frenzy after an ears-back squabble. We gripped the reins of our horses and whispered calm in their ears.

 I was to ride Lilly, a white pony of mixed provenance with the sure-footed focus of a mountain goat. Patient with my slop in the saddle, she’s been a good friend, her pluck brought me out, and safely home. I could soar with tales of the enlightening spirit of horses, so trusting of our bidding, so attuned to our travails, those quick and quiet souls get to you after a while. As my horse-mentor Tamzin Jones would have it, horses, are therapy.

I hauled myself up with a groan, took up the reins and we crossed the road, quickly hitting a dirt track headed up a dry valley towards the glum hills. Lilly immediately threw a shoe, but with luck, we had a farrier in the group, his workshop close by, where a new shoe was trimmed and applied.  Not a good start, but we would simply have to hope for the best. Tamzin pulled the face I’d learned to interpret as:  ‘It’s a sign’ – a grave and pessimistic superstition. These trips are by any measure dangerous, a test of endurance and in many cases, certainly mine, more for rider than horse. A fall into a ravine, or just to the hard, rocky ground, sudden colic or lameness, a thrown shoe. Lots to go wrong far from help or mobile phone reception.

Newly shod and settling into the rhythm of steady ascent, all riders fell quiet, our focus turning to our horses as they slowly warmed to their task. Bend low to duck under a pine branch, turn your horse to avoid a sheen of slippery rocks. Some horses, like Lilly, would do this instinctively, some not. Up, ever upwards, horses starting to sweat, riders shifting for comfort in the saddle, legs and torso beginning to tense, twist and work. Horse-riding, for the inexperienced, is more physical than one might expect. A long trip like this is an unforgiving whole-body workout and the hours will pitilessly pick away at the weak knees and underdeveloped thighs of sedentary life.

For two hours we wove our way over the rocks, through the pines, holm oaks and low prickly herbs, steering well clear of the cobweb nests of the processionary pine caterpillar, whose hairs can blind or choke horse and rider alike. At length, we emerged onto a plateau where the forest thinned out and we stopped for the second breakfast of Spain, almuerzo. Sandwiches, hipflasks and the first outing of the bota, the goatskin flask said to mellow coarse country wine. We ate wild-boar chorizo, took swigs of wine and shots of aguardiente. Better now, our confidence had quietly blossomed and nerves were ebbing away. It seemed we were all of us, riders and steeds, up for it. The long Camino stretched away over the plateau and into the hours that lay ahead. Down in the now distant valley, the poplars in their vivid autumn colour shivered in the wind. Upon the top, we were buffeted by broad gusts of chill as the streaking clouds began to open up and let in the light, while higher still and further off was a band of clear blue sky we would gradually find our way into.

The light in Aragón has a peculiar, sharp luminescence conditioned in part, by the Cierzo, a cold, dry North-Westerly wind that brings pressure from the sea of Cantabria to the Mediterranean as it warms. The Cierzo loses its rain over Soria, Navarra and La Rioja and picks up speed down the valley of the Ebro to spill over the hills and strip the air of Aragón of its dust and moisture. The mountains in the sharp winter air are a vivid pink at dusk, a rainbow spectrum dazzles the horizon at sunset, and the density of stars at night sets the watcher spinning through space. There is, somehow, nowhere on Earth quite like this.

Over our heads spiralled hundreds of griffon vultures, taking advantage of the stiff wind to glide out in search of food, a stumbled sheep, a newborn calf stuck in its caul, the discarded corpse of a hunted fox. The coast with little effort on days like these, the frugal economy of their niche costing every wingbeat per beak-full of putrid carrion. This is why I live here, here in the arse of the world, out at the edge where the brutal wilds are battered by savage weather and still rich with overlapping life, where the beauty and emptiness of the forests and peaks somehow come to secretly haunt the soul.

Starting out again the uphill going demanded focus and attention, rocks here and there, a scree slope sliding away to a terrifying precipice. I was glad of Lilly’s care with her feet, she was concentrating, and asking the same of me. Yet as we rode the miles of those sparkling highlands I slipped into a frigid torpor, feeling more tired than seemed possible, I ached, the dry cold seemed extreme, searching and penetrating. I rummaged stiffly in a saddlebag for another jacket, while up ahead the ‘cowboy’ cantered up every rise in his short sleeves and waistcoat.

After a long period of near-silence, we descended into a darkening valley where I guessed the sun could only flit briefly across the narrow strip of visible sky even now, in the autumn. I shuddered at the thought of January in this great sump of cold, where the trees had long ago forgotten their leaves, a month ahead of anywhere we’d been so far. We stopped to rest, exhausted, at a hermitage in the valley bottom, a sullen plain of icy streams and spare tussocks of coarse grass that seemed to hiss at us as we passed, while the forest seethed with foreboding at the margins.  “Are we there yet?” I joked. 15 km remained. I suddenly found this almost impossible to contemplate. I realized I didn’t feel at all well.

The stretch beyond the hermitage is something I don’t recall very clearly. I dimly remember another long ascent into the bright shear of wintry light, some more drama as a rider came off hard into a stream. I was disconnected, spooling slowly inward, trying vainly to keep comfortable. Everything hurt, my heart throbbed, raced and fluttered, my skin stretched thinly over my jellied muscles while rivulets of cold sweat ran between my shoulder blades.  Lilly, tired now, stumbled against a tree, tearing my trousers and ripping off my saddlebag. I dismounted, retrieving it from the ground and, trembling, had to summon all my strength to get back into the saddle. My head pounded, I think I took yet another of the out-of-date painkillers I’d found in the cupboard, I don’t remember.  I later discovered that these tablets, routinely dished out in Spanish hospitals, can cause a rapid, catastrophic and life-threatening collapse of the white-blood-cell count in those, like me, of British or Irish descent. They didn’t know this, and neither did I.

We trailed those last and longest kilometres along the river, through a blazing stripe of dogwoods illuminated by the low sun.  At last, the horses were stabled and we waited for transport up to the sanctuary.  I was dazed, air-light, mute with bitter cold. Immense flocks of starlings murmurate overhead, fieldfares shot through the olive groves to roost while the sky spun and the river glistened with the dying of the day. A gruff shepherd and his shrill agricultural wife collected us in a battered Nissan Patrol to run us up the hill. My head lolled against the window as I gazed up at the stars; denser, sharper and more distant than I’d ever seen. At last, I saw the sanctuary twinkling on the cliff face as we approached where I felt the last of my strength weep away through the soles of my feet into the icy cobbles beneath. I was as weak and shaky as a kitten.

By convention, the thrill of arrival is the cue for some hard partying at these events. There would be food and drink and the exhilaration of the day’s adventure would be liberally toasted. I dragged my rucksack feebly towards the bar and asked for water, snatching rudely at the arm of the owner to ask for my room. Pressed to the radiator of the dormitory I tried helplessly to rouse the great tombstone that had become my core, while I began to shake with a building and violent fever.

Crawling to my single bed in the corner with its crisp sheets and stiff blankets I then passed alone and unwitnessed through strange anterooms of the beyond. I crossed the night like a sliver of moon skirting the frozen sky. My head roared with visions and strange, febrile panics, I sang to the golden poplars at the river, where a harsh jabbering voice berated me for handling everything badly. I was the child of the horse-goddess Epona, the fool acolyte of the Virgin of the cave, I was the cut straw that dies in the field. The wind moaned at the window while my teeth chattered in the dark. I soared through the scimitar-sharp air and reeled in the wind-gilded light, I wrote letters of love tainted with loss, wept with remorse, gave away my dogs and burned musical instruments. I walked with my young children along the Thames finding shells and syringes.  I may have asked what help might be given of the Virgin in her cave. La vida es un dia. Life is just one day. Eventually, perhaps by her grace, came the redemption of sleep, and release.

James Mcconachie
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James writes on language, both human and animal and Spain’s rich biodiversity. He lives in a remote farmhouse in Aragón he spent a decade rebuilding.

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