The approach to Santo Domingo de la Calzada looks so straightforward now.
It was not always so. A mere thousand years back, the track was terrible and there was no accommodation. A local boy called Domingo, who wanted badly to be a Benedictine but lacked qualifications, became a hermit instead. He was not, however, just sulking in the woods. He made himself so useful to his bishop that he was finally ordained a priest.
Domingo now decided to use his muscles and bush sense for pious purposes. He chopped, cleared, gravelled, paved and built to improve this part of the Camino, till his efforts caught the eye of the Castilian monarch. Always happy to keep the Rioja Castile-friendly, King Alfonso approved the building of a church, then some houses sprouted around it.
After his death, Domingo was buried in his own church, and miracles began to occur: blindness cured, demons expelled, that sort of thing.
Eventually, Domingo was made a saint, and his church evolved to a cathedral. Here it is.
My father was very close to my two nieces. When he died, I tried to explain his passing to the younger niece as a transition to a place called the Beer River. It’s a fizzy river, warm for swimming, cold for drinking. In the Beer River, there are prawns swarming, already cooked and peeled, but nonetheless alive. The prawns enjoy being eaten. My father, as he sips beer from the river, scoops up the odd prawn for a snack…
And one day we will all join him by the Beer River.
I think my story has been forgotten by my niece, but it’s now in my head forever. It is a ridiculous and amusing fib which satisfies me greatly.
And all the books and poems I like are amusing fibs which satisfy greatly. I may talk a little about why I like them, but it is mostly just blundering talk. Art and literature are like the Camino itself: I don’t really know how and why, and the effort of knowing and explaining dilutes the experience.
Why am I saying all this?
Because Santo Domingo de la Calzada is the setting for a tale that is repeated with variations by thousands, possibly millions of pilgrims, as well as by people in the Rioja and beyond. Nobody takes it seriously, yet, if ever there was an amusing fib which satisfies beyond understanding, it is the Tale of the Cock and Hen.
You haven’t heard it? Just do a search on the web and you’ll find dozens of versions. Or talk to any pilgrim.
A hen and rooster are often kept caged in the cathedral, but the place was closed when I passed.
The most famous pastry of the town is the ahorcadito, or hanged man, which is a reference to the legend. And, of course, they bake lots of these, called Milagros del Santo, or Miracles of the Saint:
The tale? You want my version?
I tend to rush stories, and nearly always cut them off before the end with: “You can guess the rest.” But here goes.
A German couple and their lusty young son were passing through Santo Domingo de la Calzada on pilgrimage. At the inn where they stayed, the son was approached amorously by one of the maids. He rejected her advances. If you are post-modern or whatever, you’ll deduce that the young man was gay or impotent. A hard-headed revisionist might claim that the maid was less than appealing, because that’s what sex-on-a-plate is like in real life. But I say the boy was a virtuous pilgrim, and there’s an end to it!
The spiteful maid concealed some of the inn’s silverware in the boy’s luggage. When the family was departing the next morning, she denounced him to the authorities, who searched his stuff and found the objects presumed stolen.
Rather than going through some dreary counselling or community service rigmarole, the authorities promptly hanged the youth and, as was the custom, left his body hanging on the gibbet.
The grieving parents could do nothing but piously continue their pilgrimage to Santiago.
Now, in the fourteenth century, Ryan Air services were limited to say the least. If you walked to Santiago, you walked back. So it was that the two Germans passed through Santo Domingo de la Calzada some months later. They were at first dismayed to see the body of their son still hanging on the gibbet. Dismay then became wonder when the body spoke to them, explaining that he was still alive, because Santo Domingo – or was it Saint James? – had been supporting his legs.
The parents rushed round to see the governor, who was dining on two birds at the time. They told him of the marvel they had witnessed and begged him to release their son. The governor paused his eating and said: “Your son is as alive as this hen and this rooster upon which I am dining. And I will only release your son when this hen and this rooster regrow their feathers and fly up from my plate.”
And you really can guess the rest!
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