Still winter, and still no sign of other pilgrims.
After the weeks of meseta, the land rolls up, there is comfortable perspective again.
A first view of the Teleno, highest mountain of the region. It was sacred to the original Asturians, and made sacred to Romans by a dedication to Mars, a war god like the original Asturian deity. Now some other religious lot are muscling in.
Though modern Asturias lies further to the north, Astorga, today’s destination, was the Roman capital, Asturica Augusta. An important defense, transport and communication node, it was also busy through proximity to the richest gold sources in the known world. One of those sources is the extraordinary Médulas region, an engineered landscape which has evolved into a special cultural/natural patrimony since its abandonment in the third century. I haven’t been out there, but can recommend a bit of internet viewing. It’s fascinating.
Pliny the Elder called Asturica Augusta an urbs magnifica, a magnificent city, and there are abundant Roman remains over a wide area. These medieval walls have Roman foundations, and any of the better finished stones are likely recycled from the earlier period.
Yet the reason why that scallop shell above deserves its prominence is that Astorga and its locale, the Maragatería, became something of a no-man’s-land between Moors and Christians. Then, after repopulation, good things happened: the Camino de Santiago became popular, and – don’t tell their Catholic Majesties! – Jews established their trades in the city. To this day, Astorga is the home of value-adding and special products. One sees Astorga chocolate all over the region, the cecina, a kind of beef jamón, attracts a premium. And the common mantecada, or breakfast sponge cake, is here elevated to a name-protected product within Europe. I’m told beef fat is a required ingredient to achieve the perfection of mantecadas de Astorga.
Astorga is presently no boom town, but it is still helped along by pilgrims and other tourists. Its cathedral, begun in the fifteenth century with lots of interesting baroque tossed into the mix, is pretty marvellous for such a stylistic fruit salad. I loved it.
The town’s major architectural attraction was finished as late as 1915. It is, of course, Gaudí’s Episcopal Palace, now a pilgrimage museum. Extravagant, harmonious, its traditional forms tucked in but not strangled by modernist lines…and all as kitschy as a pink lamington. It’s a bloody marvel, beyond mere “taste”.
But one should never discuss culture in Spain without discussing the ultimate: Friday evening in the town square of a regional centre. Note the delicious barroco town hall at the centre. If there’s a pattern for good living, this is it.