Pilgrim and tourist – in the northwest of Spain… – Slugger O’Toole

Close now to places I passed through last year. A glimpse of the riverside willows passing the car window, then the Puente Santa Maria. A year passed in a flash, like swallows grazing the road. Too soon they’ll be gone, towing summer’s dreams south.

Time speeds up even as it counts down. The shortening of summers, gone like the blue birds. Leaving us with our Celtic dilemma – that of souls torn apart by a deep love of home and yet the need to wander. Though at times we feel like we’ve been cast out into the night and left to find our way back, with only fields of stars to guide us or whispered prayers carried on the wind, scratched from the lips of poets in the anguished heart. Or perhaps the words of wild men in coarse clothing, fed on honey cake and the silence of the desert, leaving a crumb here and there.

But as we drive towards Pontearnelas there is a gap in the clouds and a turn of light. Angled rays of sunlight falling on three pilgrims weave their way across a cobbled bridge, backpacks and flapping scallops, having ventured somewhere east of Eden, the course is set for Compostela (a field of stars) – to catch one that may be falling.

And for a moment, everything slows down, merges into one – as if this place passes through them, rather than they or they through.

Is this the difference between tourist and pilgrim? Not skimming the surface but immersing yourself so deeply in a landscape that a part lodges and never falls? Is this how a name on a card becomes a place in the heart? Draw a backwards.

As we pass, I hear John O’Donohue whispering, “Listen to the new silence brought with them. These hearts made restless – every step scattering songs across the land of their sojourn.

If one spent one’s life wandering on these paths, treading gently on the dreams of pilgrims of the past, it wouldn’t be a waste.

My guide, Alfonso, returned to the northwest of Spain after some time in Belfast. ‘Look at this.’

Sudden shapes everywhere, as swallows and swallows spring up, drawn from who knows where parading on the feeding runs before their long migration.

Just after Pontearnelas, the road winds up. A sign for Mouzos and the chapel of San Pedro – where the village welcomes weary walkers.

A man slowly rises from the porch, leaning heavily on his cane. Don José blinks when I shake his hand. Another man joins him, his son Jaime, who built the chapel.

“Before they had a scallop stamp,” says Alfonso, Don José would stick his now disused stick in ink to stamp pilgrims’ passports.

A camellia shades the porch, symbolizing the Divine, the promise of spring and the passing of winter. Next to it, on the wall, a plaque recalls the opening of the chapel in 1978, the year of the new constitution, the return of a democratic spring in Spain. Conditional to defective but necessary pacto del olvido, the pact of oblivion wrongs, but only those inflicted on Franco’s victims. Their memory for decades, shrouded in silence until the turn of the millennium and the beginning of recovery of historical memory.

Jaime built the chapel as a tribute to his father’s generation, despite the village’s population declining as the children sought new opportunities or sold their fields and left. The fate of rural communities everywhere, this loss of a privileged link with the land.

“Then three years ago,” Alfonso tells me, “Don Jose, Jaime and others lobbied for the Camino route to run through the village. The mayor told me later that was the only issue they ever asked for a meeting on.

And it brought new life. Few people in Mouzos had been well travelled, but now the world passes by their front door, along lanes, through farmyards and vineyards. Then, enter and exit the Chapel of San Pedro, where greetings, drinks and fruit are shared by aging patriarchs, encouraged by the flow of new generations of pilgrims, with their stories of appreciation of the beauty of the land . They walk to Santiago but never really arrive, then go home but never really come back. None of us do.

I sit for a while in the coolness of the little white-walled chapel, clad in pine and adorned with white carnations on a simple altar.

I don’t want to go, but I have a late afternoon flight.

One more stop on the way with Manolo.

“He has wine to give me,” said Alfonso.

I reach out to shake Manolo’s red-stained hand.

‘Take as much as you want. I have to make a new batch of Barrantes wine. It has a full taste. No chemicals or preservatives added.

We taste it. He is right. We sample again – just to be sure.

“Sweet, full-bodied,” I say.

‘Yes, but not as strong as Albariño. You should stop driving, put your feet up and enjoy a bottle.

“But if I do that, I might miss my flight.”

He smiled and said, ‘Then you have to come back.’