Friday, February 1, 2008

snowy thoughts

It's snowing it's snowing it's snowing in Toronto. Will this never end?

What's it like in Roncesvalles tonight? Are there any brave and slightly mad pilgrims shivering in its great bunker of a refuge? Are the heights of the Camino sunk in snowdrifts?

A 13th century Latin poem about Roncesvalles paints a cozy picture. In the Spanish translation:
Sobre los rigores del tiempo invernal,
El hielo es perpetual, las nieves igual,
El cielo brumoso y el viento glacial,
Tan solo es tranquillo la casa hospital.

Roughly, "Under the rigours of the wintry weather, the ice is perpetual, the snows the same. The sky is cloudy and the wind glacial. The only peaceful place is the Hospital." (Roncesvalles was/is called a "hospital" in the old Latin sense of a place of hospitality.)

In the winter of 1570, Elizabeth of Valois passed through Roncesvalles on her way to marry Philip II of Spain. The royal carriage overturned in the mountain pass and men and horses died in the frigid cold. But even in the dead of winter, there were 400 pilgrims staying at the hospital. (Good old Liz gave 3 reales to every one of them.

At the other end of the Camino, up in the Montes de Leon, the pass of Irago was stocked with settlers "to the population of fifteen" by a decree of Fernando IV in 1302 so that there would be someone to clear the snow for the pilgrims. And according to tradition, the villagers of El Acebo were exempted from taxes in exchange for placing and maintaining 800 stakes in winter to mark the Camino.*

In 2002, I had the pleasure of crossing the Montes de Leon in the teeth of a howling blizzard. The Guardia Civil stopped me halfway and told me the highway was closed. I told them I was Canadian. They shrugged and drove away. The Spanish have great respect for the freedom of the individual - up to and including the freedom to freeze to death in the mountains. But I didn't freeze. I kept to the road, stopped for soup at Tomas the Templar's, and made it safely to El Acebo, where as far as I know they now pay taxes same as everywhere else.

*Poetry and fascinating facts courtesy of
Aventura y muerte en el Camino de Santiago, Braulio Valdivielso Ausin (yes that's his name), Editorial la Olmeda.
Top photo (mountains above Roncesvalles)
by Carlos Vinas-Valle:

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