Winter Camino – Day 9

Day 9  –  Santo Domingo  to  Belorado   (23.9 km)

Logroño, where we slept two nights previously, is the capital of the small province of La Rioja, and we crossed the eastern border of the province into Castile just before reaching the outskirts of the city. Today we left this province about ten kilometre past Santo Domingo, so the district of La Rioja at this point appears to be only sixtyfive kilometre wide.

In the past an important event had occurred close by. Legend tells us that in 844 a great battle was fought near Logroño where vastly outnumbered Christian forces defeated a Muslim army commanded by the Emir of Cordoba. In the battle the Apostle Saint James, whose stone sarcophagus, as we know, was discovered in Santiago de Compostela in 813, appeared as a vision. He was riding a white horse and with his presence led the Christian army to a great victory. This was the turning point in the struggle for domination between Christians and Muslims in these northern regions.

In time to come the vision and spirit of Saint James continued to inspire Christian forces and he became, and still is, the patron saint of Spain. Because of these Christian victories, the Moorish armies with their administrative strongholds were progressively pushed southwards. It took place over centuries, until the Catholic monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon conquered the Moors’ last remaining castle, the Alhambra in Granada, in 1492.

The Muslims were finally expelled a few years later after having dominated the Iberian Peninsula for around 800 years. This equals a time span from about the year 1200 to the present. After such a long period they left behind numerous legacies which we frequently witness on our walk and which are even more visible in Andalusia, in the southern part of Spain. Not only did we inherit architectural styles and detailing, they also left us with important scientific knowledge and wisdom and other practices which in many ways formed a strong foundation for the later development of Western Europe.

During the Islamic occupation of the Iberian Peninsula Muslims did not only rule with militarily force, they also brought about cultural changes by peaceful means. Uta and I had previously visited a museum in Toledo which demonstrates Jewish, Muslim and Christian co-operation in pursuing intellectual goals. This cultural exchange continued even after Toledo was liberated by Alfonso VI in 1085. Libraries containing many diverse subjects in ancient books and manuscripts from the East and the Greek Empire were preserved. Scholars from the three denominations studied and translated these in collaboration with one another and debated their interpretation. The advanced knowledge of nature and science from the Middle East was formidable.

Examples of transferred knowledge include the many words originating from the Arabic world which are interwoven into the English language. Those starting with ‘al’ are typical, such as algebra, Allah, alkali and alchemy, and they exist in Spanish as álgebra, Alá, álcali and alquimia, respectively. English words resembling those of Spanish/Arabic origin are alcohol and algorithm, almirante translates into admiral, atún to tuna, espinaca – spinach, jirafa / giraffe, limón / lemon, naranja / orange, sofá in Spanish is sofa, tarifa  is tariff, etc. Not only did the words have an Arabic origin, their underlying meaning was also part of the heritage from the Middle East.

We cannot ignore nor dismiss the connection to the Islamic world and Islamic influences are, as we can see, still with us. In the agricultural sector for instance, by introducing new crops to the west, such as sugar cane, rice, citrus fruits, apricots, cotton, artichokes, aubergines, saffron and others, European agriculture was changed in a dramatic way. Farming methods and irrigation techniques were transformed and outdated practices were modernized. As a result farming became more scientific and a new industry developed where previously crops had been limited to a few strands of wheat.

With the greater variety of food the eastern culture of eating became fashionable. Dining developed into a far more elegant ritual, rather than just eating without any refinement, as was the case with the Visigoths and the tribes in Germanic Europe. Muslims introduced us to eating a three-course meal in a relaxed and semi-formal way, which consisted, as it is still today, of soup, a main course and dessert.

Physicians from the Islamic world and from Jewish immigrants to Spain contributed significantly to the field of medicine, including the subjects of anatomy and physiology. An Arabic thirty-volume medical encyclopaedia was the most advanced and comprehensive at the time and included neurological analyses and procedures, some of which are still in use today. The Arabic influence on astronomy and related mathematical practices, the 60 second timing and 360 degree angular projection are some of the legacies we inherited.

Europe also benefitted as far as musical instruments are concerned: our guitar derives from the Arabic kaitaar and the violin is similar to their kamanjah. Their al-ud became our lute and the zither is similar to their quanun. The riq is widely used in Arabic music and provides underlying rhythms; it is what we call a tambourine. Even Flamenco dancing has similarities to the sensuous oriental belly dance and castanets owe their existence to the oriental kasatan.

Another interesting development was born out of stricter and more austere conduct rules after Islam’s expansion. The use of gold and silver was seen as ostentatious and related vessels and crockery became unfashionable. In its place ceramic lusterware gained popularity and the transparent and colourful surfaces that may be compared with the multi-layered appearance of sea shells with pearl-like finishes was introduced.

This new trend was taken over by Christian nobility of the Iberian Peninsula. New technologies in painting, glassware, textiles, tiling, calligraphy, metalwork and especially architectural design were adopted. What we call Mozarabian and Mudejar architecture, still seen in countless buildings, have the following origins: ‘Mozarabs’ refers to Visigoth Christians who first lived in Muslim-occupied territories, adopted various Arabic customs, but did not convert to Islam. Many of them made up the artisan force, erecting buildings designed in the Arabic style.

At a later stage, when Christians had liberated the northern regions of the Iberian Peninsula, the Islamic Al-Andalus regime in the south became less tolerant with their Christian subjects and the Christian kingdoms enticed the Visigothic Christian Mozarabs to emigrate northwards, bringing artistic and architectural innovations from the Muslim south with them.

The two churches I visited in Eunate and Torres del Rio are good examples of Mozarabic architecture and design details. Their octagonal shapes and the dome above are unlike the cross-formation of Christian churches and the ribbed arch motifs are a legacy of Arabic detailing.

As Christian forces reconquered regions in Spain, some Muslims remained behind and lived amongst the Christian population. They were forced to convert to Catholicism, but many secretly continued to practice Islam. They were known as the Mudéjar or Moriscos and from the 11th century onwards they had a strong influence on the design and decoration of Christian churches and other buildings.  This influence also spread into France and further afield.

Along the Via Podiensis, the historic Camino in southern France between Le Puy-en-Velay and St Jean Pied de Port, I came across a number of examples of Mozarabic and Mudéjar decorative detailing, including typical horseshoe-shaped arches and windows, friezes and capitals of columns embossed with chequered patterns and ornate carvings depicting floral and nature-based motifs, demonstrating that the Arabic influence had spread far beyond the Pyrenees. These motives have a pleasant and playful appearance, hardly stemming from aggressive minds or austere Christian principles.


Mozarabic and Mudéjar decorative detailing

Despite dominating a vast empire that stretched from the borders of China in the Far East, across the Middle East, along northern regions of Africa to Morocco, and finally into Spain, Islamic conduct and governing principles were for a long period generally tolerant and fair. Those conquered  were generally permitted to retain their religion and culture as long as they agreed to pay extra taxation as penance for avoiding conversion to Islam, and providing they did not rebel or cause disturbances. In this way a form of cooperation between conquerors and conquered was possible and brought benefits to both parties.

This sentiment of leniency stemmed from Muhammad, who recognized a common spiritual tradition in monotheistic faiths. Right from the outset, when formulating the new Islamic faith, he was aware and respectful of the Jewish and Christian monolithic God and acknowledged that all three religions have a common ancestry in the prophet Abraham. However, what Muslims believe is a variance to this commonality is that only they follow the true teachings of past prophets of which Jesus was the last prior to Muhammad. It is their understanding that the Quran reflects the true words from Allah as revealed to Muhammad and that this represents God’s final instructions to his people on how to live and obey him.

Islam regards some of the teachings of Jews and Christians as corrupt and lacking credibility. Christians, for instance, believe that past prophets received God’s message through the Spirit of God, granting them the mind to understand His word. I personally suggest that, if this is so, then our blueprint, giving us access to awareness, comes from the same source.

 The Christian doctrine also states that Jesus was raised from the dead and that this makes him God-like or ‘the son of God’ and the concept of the Trinity (Tri-unity) evolved. It encompasses, the Church maintains, three distinct personalities united in one – all sharing the same divine nature. They are the trinity of God the Father, his son Christ and the Holy Spirit which, they believe, are combined in the monotheistic God. This concept emerged in the 2nd century and, after much debate and controversy, it was officially adopted in the 4th century. From the outset the canon created controversy, especially from Christian churches in the Middle East including the Coptic Church. They remained loyal to the God of the Old Testament. Muslims also see the Trinity as the equivalent of worshipping multiple Gods and strongly reject this concept. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses question the trinity concept.

The following morning, after leaving Santo Domingo, there was thick snow everywhere and the landscape again resembled a fairyland. Some confusion, caused by barrier tapes left in place from previous road construction, had forced us pilgrims to walk an extra three kilometres through a wonderful, quiet and undulating countryside until we reached Grañón.

3 km detour through a wonderful countryside

This is one of the many attractive towns on the Camino with an interesting church dominating the village square. On the side of the church of San Juan Bautista I found the entrance to an albergue which looked inviting. I entered, and what a surprise: the albergue was built into the roof of the church above the right isle, and a blocked-up Gothic window frame, which must have previously been a connection to the nave, was still visible in the wall of the very cozy communal lounge. The friendly hospitaleros offered coffee and biscuits and he then took me into the octagonal church tower, where six bells were hanging in their open arches.

We admired the view, the white rooftops sloping in all directions and the snowed-in countryside beyond. However, after a while my host got restless and wanted to restrict my time in the belfry – almost chasing me out. But I could not take my eyes off the scene and was still dawdling while he had already reached the bottom of the steps. Suddenly the large bell, almost directly above me, rang out. I must have broken the speed record in descending the snow-covered and very steep steps and the hostelleria, seeing this, burst out laughing. It was a spectacle that made his day and I felt rather foolish.

Prior to the spectacle.

When we returned to the lounge Noelia had arrived and warmed herself near the log fire. We discussed the three kilometre detour  imposed on us, but agreed that the rolling landscape we had crossed, rather than the uninspiring path adjacent to the tar road, amply made up for the extra distance. We exchanged plans for the day and I was on my way again.

Past midday I reached Viloria de la Rioja, a small village with a Romanesque/Gothic/Baroque church, and the birthplace of Santo Domingo. I tried to fill my water bottle at the central fountain, however, the pipes were frozen solid and did not even offer a splutter. A rather distinguished-looking woman and her daughter came to my rescue and provided water from their kitchen tap. The good lady also mentioned that it would be worth my while visiting the church and pointed out the chaplain amongst a group of people walking down the main road. After my gesticulated request the chaplain was kind enough to return and unlock the church, ‒ just for me.

The interior was delightfully simple and a statue of the pilgrim St James stood in a prominent position next to the altar. The christening font, in which Santo Domingo had most likely been baptized, was located behind a gate, adjacent to the nave. I felt quite humbled in this little place that had produced such a strong and dedicated member of humanity. What also impressed me, and is still vivid in my memory, is the enormous key that unlocked the church door. The beard of the key had a very distinct but elaborately shaped figure-3 which was about 3 cm in height. Even the shaft and grip were impressive: it was hardly a key to hide in one’s pocket.

Further on the way, when walking through Vilamayor del Río, I noticed an extra-long trailer parked further down on the main road. It carried a load of three blades for use on windmill turbines, the ones that are so common and dominant on mountain ridges all over Spain and provide about twenty percent of electricity in this country. The Spaniards are certainly on the right track. The three blades were absolutely massive; my guess is that each was over thirty meters long and had a base diameter of about two meters. When we see them in action in the countryside they appear deceivingly small in comparison.

In contrast to these modern monsters I passed a lonely pilgrim with his three donkeys. He walked very slowly, or the donkeys walked very slowly and he had no option but to adapt to their pace. On reaching Leon, which was still many days away, he intended stabling his donkeys and carry on alone to Santiago and I wondered where the four would find accommodation on this and all following nights. I had bought some biscuits in Grañón and gave him the remaining ones. To my surprise he fed them all to the donkeys!

We finally reached Belorado, where the first two albergues were closed. Further on we found the ancient albergue Cuatro Cantones, managed by an elderly woman whose favourite place was next to a large wood-fired stove in the small kitchenette. The stove also fed the central heating system during daytime – for as long as she stoked the fire with logs. That obviously meant no fire and warmth at night or in the morning. In most other albergues the central heating system also switches on at around four in the afternoon and off by latest 10 pm. This provided just enough hot water for a shower and a shave and some warmth for the evening and when going to bed without shivering, but the rise in the morning was almost always freezingly cold and the water for splashing the face and brushing teeth unpleasant.

When Mother Nature called during the night I needed great mental persuasion to crawl out of the sleeping bag and hurry along the corridors in my pyjama pants.

Posted in Chapter, Winter Walk permalink

About Dieter Daehnke

Born in 1941 in Gdansk, Poland. In March 1945 the family fled the Russian army. Met my wife Uta in Hamburg and as she is South African, I followed her home. We live in Cape Town, have 3 children, and 2 wonderful grandchildren. I established an Engineering company and since its sale, I enjoy walking Caminos. I have recently completed my book 'Journey of a Stickman'.

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