I spent the early evening in Hontanas chatting with a young pilgrim, one of those Japanese with an unquenchable curiosity who knows that his life is mostly plotted out and opportunities for travel and leisure will be limited for decades. There was a touch of the condemned man at his last meal. He seemed to appreciate the company of an authentic Aussie dawdler: I certainly am in awe of the application and discipline shown by such Japanese, even in their leisure.
On waking next morning I had a view of the church tower through my skylight.
My Japanese dinner companion was no doubt long gone from his albergue, like all my past Camino companions. Would I like to encounter anyone like me on Camino? Then I could be stuck with someone like me. Dawdlers and dashers can meet and separate, to waft agreeably in each other’s memories. There’s certainly an element of escapism about it.
A late start, because I had no intention of walking more than the few kilometres to Castrojeriz. One big day is balanced by a short day or a rest day, a law of dawdling.
Though by no means difficult, the track is rougher than on most of the Camino Frances. The country looks harsh, though in years to come these hills will be greener, because of an enormous tree planting program across the region. The slopes are colouring already, most of the saplings look like they’ve survived a few seasons. What’s most encouraging is that the hills were all painstakingly contoured before the planting, so this is not just a green rigmarole performed because some euro-funding was looking for a home.
I came to the ruins of the monastery of San Antón. Like so many large institutions along the Camino, it existed mainly for pilgrims. It even had a specialty. The order of Saint Anthony, here and elsewhere, specialised in treating a common ailment caused by a grain fungus. Known as Saint Anthony’s fire, or ergotism, it was common in the middle ages when pilgrimage was at its peak, and when grain sorting, storage and transport were primitive by our standards. The disease could send you delirious, so you were better off in the hands of these specialists than in those of a local inquisitor or exorcist.
Somewhere in these ruins is the symbol Τ, the Tau, or Greek T. It’s also seen in Castrogeriz. The Tau is not a cross but a representation of the blood smear which preserved the first-born of the Hebrews. Somehow, the use of the symbol took hold here, and nearby Castrojeriz is known as the pueblo anti-gafe, the town resistant to bad fortune.
There it is up ahead.
At the top of the hill is the citadel, or the latest version of the citadel. This town, as its name implies, was a Roman castrum, and before that it was Celtiberian. After Rome it was Visigothic; the remains we see today survive from the ninth century, and were erected by the early Castilian counts to resist the Moors.
At the base of the hill is the elaborate and lovely Church of Nuestra Señora del Manzano. Begun in the early eleventh century, but altered and extended over time, it’s not in any one style. The mix succeeds.
Castrojeriz has a touch of apostasy to it. Or is it a submerged Hebrew influence, from the times when Jews prospered here, and helped the region to prosper? The Tau symbol, persisting as some kind of celestial lucky charm, is not its only semiotic mystery, just its most prominent. Even in the well known pilgrim bar in the higher town, the Tau is displayed and explained.
Also on the wall of the bar is a picture of the owner with spirituality tycoon Paul Coelho. I’m told by the odd bitchy pilgrim that Coelho did more writing than walking on the Camino, at least initially. Since I’m a great lover of ingenuity and enterprise, I shall say nothing about that. He seems like a good-humoured type from his photo. I once read one of Coelho’s books, O Monte Cinco. I won’t read any more.
In the same bar I got chatting with a sort-of Italian, one of those fleshy Teutons from Alto Adige. They don’t all have that bumptious manner and Sound of Music dress sense, but most do. You have to get to know them for a bit before the Italian emerges through the Wagnerian mist. Then they’re fine.
Turns out this guy was my second brush with fame-once-removed for that day. He was a friend and neighbour of one of the most extraordinary of all athletes, the mountaineer Reinhold Messner.
I said that the Tau wasn’t the only semiotic mystery of Castrojeriz. In the church of San Juan there are not just Tau symbols but a window rose with an inverted pentagram. You can see it bottom-right in the photo. Now what’s that all about?
And, yes, it was a Templar church!