Sunday, 17 May 2015

Cotelas to A Laxe - 49,5kms to go.


The little village that I am in Cotelas, is typical of the many that I have passed through. There are a smattering of modern houses and a double smattering of granite built family homes and their associated barns that have, or are about to fall down. It's hot here now, well over 35C and I'm going to explore. 

Opposite the bar is a granite house that has not fallen down. Lived in and well loved. But behind that is an old barn that has had an extension done on the traditional way. Several courses of red bricks built up and the old bendy beams and tiles put back on top. It now has an upper and lower byer. I climb the wonky granite steps and peer  into the gloom. There is a blue tub with fresh hay in it. Shafts of light pierce the dark and there is a smell that suggests something was here not too long ago.

Descending and growing wild is a beautiful strand of yellow flowers.

Up the lane is the  communal clothes washing area, now fetid and covered in green weed. Water still drips into it sourced from some underground stream, and if there were more visitors to this area it would be a focal point for the village. But there are washing lines strung across it so perhaps this is where the latest scandals are desemineted.

Poking my nose around a corner I come across another house with its doors and windows shuttered. I wonder  when they will be back.

I make my way further away from the village along a grassy lane that simply begs to be walked along, and come to a small holding. Now long removed from its original life the  buildings are still used to hold something as the doors are locked and I can't pierce the gloom to see what's inside. Old bits of furniture lie around. There are a couple of armchairs that look as if they would fetch money in the posher circles of London. And if you are looking for a use for that old spring bed bottom. Use it as gate. Now that's proper recycling.

Another path leads away into some woods. They are descending and I put money on what I'm going to find at the bottom. The long grass suggest I am the first to walk this path for some time. The tightly knit spindly trees allow a trickle of light through, but that's all. Just enough to heat up the leaf litter.

The path is about a metre wide and either side is a granite wall that must have taken some effort to construct. Yet it was never tall enough to keep livestock in its  place and I suspect these were boundary markers. This is my property so keep out.

I follow the path down. It exits into a long a abandoned field where the grass is thick, tall and tough. The heat from the sun is ferocious for someone who has been in the cold for many days. In the distance I can hear what I'm looking for and pushing aside muscular brambles, that would win the contest between us in a few weeks time, I come to the river. A large granite slab lays diagonally across the river causing a waterfall to form either side of it. 

I sit for an hour and watch the courting of  two turquoise Dragon Flies. Another, a brown one tries to get in on the act and is chased off. Yellow butterflies impervious to what is going on flit over the water. And all the time the birds sing.

After an hour I make my way back but the brambles, angry that I have defeated them, have one more trick for me. One lies waiting in the undergrowth. I catch my foot in it and my head goes slamming into the ground. I can feel the blood trickling down my forehead. Not satisfied with grounding me it lay a path of thorns for me to fall on. 

I make my way back to the bar and  madam, on seeing my somewhat bloody appearence gets out the first aid box and sets about cleaning me up. She asks me if the antiseptic hurts. I feign a cry, we both laugh and she brings me a beer, while I try to straighten my glasses and look forward to my octopus salad for dinner.

The dinner was excellent, a large quantity of octopus and salad followed by some cold cuts and a delicious ice cream. The cold cuts that I did not eat were made into a sandwich for me to take for the following day's trek. Being a Sunday the bar closed early, at 8pm, and the owners decamped for their home. I sat outside the bar to watch a dark veil  gradually wended its way up the forest as the sun dipped away for the night. There was no one else around save for the birds that had now come out to feed. Pied wagtails jumped and flutterd their wings in search for insects, a bullfinch tried to feed and defend its territory, and a skittish wren busied itself searching for insects in the spaces between the stone walls. I switched on my iPad and listened to the resounding tones of a male voice choir. It was just another Sunday on the Camino.

I passed this church on the way.

It was only a seven kilometre walk along the road to the Cistercian monestery of Oseira. On approach  I could hear the sonorous clanging of the bell. It was 9am. The cuts on my head were stinging from the salt that fell into them from the sweat on my scalp, and my shoulder was aching from yesterday's fall. I thought it would be a good idea to spend the day and night here. 

I made my way to the shop. I was a little early but a brother open the door and with a beaming smile, welcomed me in. He was a short, stout man with a kind but very, pale face. He peered out from steel rimmed glasses and his brown and white habit swayed as he walked. He was called Phillip Maria Loius.

 I asked if I could stay for the night. Of course I could. He looked at my forehead and asked what had happened, and showed concern when I told him. We discussed why I was doing the pilgrimage and then we shook hands. 'Bless you, Brother,' I said, and added, 'Actually, I think that should be the other way round.' We laughed, 'Bless you,' he said. I left and made my way to the aubergue that sat to the left of the main building.

The aubergue is situated in a huge rectangular granite building that has a massive granite barrel shaped ceiling and a blind arch on the far wall which I assume was where the altar was when this was a church. There  was no one in the alburgue which was dark, damp and somewhat  forbidding. Panels displaying religious iconography stared back at me. 

I looked behind them and discovered several bunks. I choose one, showered and made my way back to the shop to get the stamp for my pilgrim passport and pay my donation which also entitled my to a free tour, which I decided to take later in the day. 

I work on the principle that if you re not supposed to go somewhere someone will always pop up to tell you, and as i went through the door to the cloisters a young man appeared and told me it was not allowed. I told him I was looking for somewhere that was quiiet, and where I could relax for a few hours. He thought for a Second and told me it was allowed this once only and that I must not leave the  cloisters.  Fair exchange, I thought. For the next couple,of hours I sat on the fountain, for there are no seats, and enjoyed the warm sun on my back.

First let me start by saying that if this building was a vineyard it would be suffering from a case of Noble Rot. A fungus on grapes that effects the wine. Once, 150 monks worked and prayed here but the regime of five hours work five hours sleep and then prayer proved too much for many and today only 12 monks are in residence. You can become one but you just can't turn up and knock on the door, well, you can, but you will have to serve a two year induction course which essentially means following the strict rules as laid down by St Benidict. Only one in a hundred survives. But no one applies today.

During my tour, which I took twice as you always see more the second time around, I discovered that there are four cloisters, and rooms that face the sun that were given over to writing the scriptures. Other rooms were used for one of the major industries of the monestery, the production of medicines from herbs grown in the gardens. 

In the church is one of the oldest known sculptures of the Virgin breast feeding her child. A rare piece of iconography. 

There is a sacristy where the 15C pillars are in the shapes of palm trees, irregularly sculpted to give movement to the granite, of which virtually everything here has been chiseled, carved or hewn from. There are flowers on the pillars and each one is different. They represent letters, they are a code from which messages from the scriptures can be found. 

Many pilgrims come in this direction, see the  monastery from the outside and move on. But it is worth spending a little time to take the hourly tour that will get you behind the facades and into the heart and history of this magnificent group of buildings.

I spent the rest of my day relaxing in the warm sun, and in the evening I attended Vespers, a priveledge granted to pilgrims, of which there were only three of us.  At 7.30pm prompt we met in the shop. Brother Phillip gave us each a painting he had done on board. No bigger than the palm of my hand it was beautiful . We were taken up stairs and along corridors that previously we could only view on the tour, peering into the monk's cells as we went. 

Eventually we arrived at a very small chapel. In the centre was a granite altar and on the wal behind a lIfe like statue of Christ on the cross. We sat at the back and, at the ringing of more bells, the monks, dressed in white hooded long habits,  entered the room and filled the benches either side of the chapel. An organ played a note and the monks started to sing. Sometimes together, sometimes In responses to others, and occasionally solo. I could see that some were elderly and were granted the dispensation to sit while others stood. Many yawned. One had a sneezing fit, and a young man who was still in his probationary period wrapped his habit around him with a theatrical aweep whenever he sat down. These men were immensely devout and yet very human. 

I felt I had been granted a glimpse into a very private world. I would not forget it.

By 8.45pm I was in my own bed. I pinched another pillow and blanket from an empty bed, kept my fleece and socks on, and fell asleep, waking 10 hours later.

The following morning I made my way up the hill and out of the village. At a vantage point I stood on a granite rock and looked back down on the monastery. I doubt in 60 years time there would be any monks there. I turned my back and walked up the hill. I would never see the monastery of Oseira again, but I would never forget it.

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