Soaking in Spanish Spirituality

2023-10-07
/
/ New Delhi
Soaking in Spanish Spirituality

The roads were filled with enthusiastic crowds, with most of them, young or old, adults or children, men or women, dressed in Templar Knights’ costumes

Every summer, under the first full moon, the tiny but immensely significant Spanish town of Ponferrada in northwestern Spain travels back to the 12th century as thousands of Templar Knights converge to celebrate the Night of Templars.
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Everything worked on a cue. Like a well-directed and much-rehearsed play. And if it were a play, it would perhaps be the largest ever piece of theatre staged in the world, with thousands of actors – men and women, young and old, and even some animals. Everyone played their part to the perfection even as it seemed that dozens of seemingly unrelated activities occurred on a stage that stretched across an entire town and the performance continued through the night, every night for three days.

Besides the pilgrims, the town was also filled with a good number of visitors and families, including numerous gleeful children

Besides the pilgrims, the town was also filled with a good number of visitors and families, including numerous gleeful children

This is how I would describe my first participation in the Night of Templars, the biggest cultural festival in northwestern Spain, notably the province of Castilla y León. I was at Ponferrada, a small, but historically and spiritually significant town and an important staging station on the Pilgrim’s Road to Santiago de Compostela, one of the most important pilgrimages for Christians and which rivals Jerusalem and Vatican.

Though dating back to the Roman ages, Ponferrada became important in the 11th century as growing number of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela, the burial site of one of the 12 Apostles, passed through this town and which led to the emergence of the tiny hamlet that got its name due to the presence of an iron bridge.

The legend has it that on the night of the first full moon of the summer, Fray Guido de Garda, the Master of the Order of the Knights Templar, returned to Ponferrada to seal a pact of eternal friendship with it and to hand over to it the custody of the symbols found in the holy land in Jerusalem, viz the sacred Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail.

Since then, for about 900 years, the occasion has been celebrated with the same spirit, though it has now become more a cultural than spiritual experience, attracting thousands of tourists from all over the world, besides the pilgrims, who have continued to undertake the challenging pilgrimage.

The pilgrimage is a network of four routes, which add up to about 1500 km and criss-cross across large parts of Spain. Of the four, the most popular route today is Camino Frances or the French Way, that measures over 750 km. It gained popularity as it was much easier to traverse than the Northern Route that passed closer to the northern coast of Spain. In 1987, Camino Frances was inscribed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and was also named as the first European Culture Routes in 1987.

The route starts from Saint Jean Pied de Port, near Biarritz in the French Basque country, close to the border with Spain. A large chunk of the route in Spain passes through the province of Castilla y Leon, touching the key cities of Burgos as well as Leónbefore reaching Ponferrada, which itself is about 200 km before the destination, Santiago de Compostela.

León : Introduction to Camino Frances

The capital of Castilla y León province, León, is one of the key halts on the Camino Frances, and though the city was founded by the Romans in 68 BC, it became especially popular with the pilgrimage and it remains so even today.

The Leon cathedral is also called the ‘House of Lights’ due to its 130 large windows

Besides the pilgrimage and the Roman connection, a key part of León’s history is linked to the foundation of modern Spain as the capital of the Kingdom of León, which battled the Moors. Today, the city’s heritage is dominated by the pilgrimage as well as its role in the foundation of Spain.

And that was what I, along with other members of the press group, saw almost as soon as we reached the main rail station in León. Our first stop, less than 15 minutes’ drive, was the León Cathedral. Located in the heart of old León and built over Roman baths and a palace, the cathedral dominates the landscape of León, with its towering spires visible from all across the city.

The immensity of the monument becomes even more evident when you stand in front of the cathedral. Set on a large square, the Gothic architecture, whose construction began in 1205, is renowned for its unique construction as the roof of the main cathedral building is well over 31 m, with spires rising even higher. It was a magnificent sight to behold, but the real beauty of the medieval marvel became evident to me the moment I set foot inside the cathedral.

It is a dream come true for not just an architect, but could also inspire a sculptor or an artist. The first thing that catches the eye is the sheer height of the ceiling of the cathedral and the beautiful carvings and sculptures that seem to be present on every single sqcm of space available, not just on the ceiling, but also on the walls, depicting various tales from the Bible.

The other startling, and at least for me, more beautiful facet of the cathedral was the numerous stainglass windows, leading to a brightly-lit interior. It was at this point that I was told by our guide that the cathedral is also called the ‘House of Lights’ due to its 130 large windows, each with its own intricate design, perhaps recounting the life of Jesus or his Apostles.

I was specially struck by the way the Altar was designed. As it was directly under a series of windows, it was the most brightly lit spot in the entire cathedral and the multi-colour light rays filtering through the windows gave it a heavenly aura.

Parades at Ponferrada

After a quick tour of León, we drove for about 110 km towards our destination, Ponferrada, the centre of the celebrations of the Templar Nights and which was going to be our home for the next three nights. Having reached the town late in the evening, we just had time to go to our hotel to drop our bags.

The pilgrimage is a network of four routes, which add up to about 1500 km and criss-cross across large parts of Spain

After a quick dinner at Mesón Las Cuadras, we headed straight to the local tourism office to quickly change into the dress of the Templar Knights that our hosts, Turespana, had very thoughtfully not just ordered for us, but also customised so that it was a good fit for each of us.

We then walked to the castle which was where the key activity of the day was to take place. Just like the cathedral dominated León, at Ponferrada, it was the castle, rising high above the River Sil and dominating the city’s historic quarter. The castle, which was constructed in late 12th century, is a polygonal structure. Its entrance features a drawbridge over a moat and the main façade flanked by two large towers joined by a double semicircular arch.

The roads were filled with enthusiastic crowds, with most of them, young or old, adults or children, men or women, dressed just like us, in Templar Knights’ costumes. Most were just walking around while a few seemed to be rehearsing for activities like parades, a few others had formed music bands and some were actually dressed like soldiers of the medieval era. A few of them were completely outfitted, with protective helmets as well as iron meshes around their heads and necks, with spears, swords and shields, as if headed straight to the battlefield.

Marching to the beat of a military band, with drums and bagpipes, and many of them bearing the Templar flags,the modern-day Templars moved into the castle, where the real highlight of the first day of the celebrations was going to be held.

The streets were lively, with people chatting, laughing, eating or simply strolling

The streets were lively, with people chatting, laughing, eating or simply strolling

We were told that due to the constraints of space, the entrance was only by invitation. As soon we crossed the moat and entered the castle, it became clear what our guide was trying to explain to us. On the main ground inside, we saw several persons, dressed in Templar costumes assembled in a loose formation, while facing a long table that served as a makeshift podium or dias where a few people, obviously important, were seated.

The ‘Templar troops’ continued to march in and after the last of the ‘chosen lot’ had marched in, the ceremonies began. It was the symbolic bestowing of Knighthoods by an elderly priest. The Mayor of Ponferrada was presiding over the evening.

After the ceremonies, we, along with many others began to walk back to our hotel, though many did not seem to be in a rush to getting anywhere, simply relishing every bit of the festivities that are clearly long-awaited and much-cherished. The streets were lively, with people chatting, laughing, eating or simply strolling though it was well past 01:00 in the night. But as we had a fairly early start the next morning, we headed back to catch some sleep.

Pilgrimage to Villafranca del Bierzo

As we were retracing a pilgrimage, it was but natural that we began our Day 2 with the visit to a holy place, the monastery of Santa Maria de Carracedo, a 10th century abbey that was an important spiritual centre of the epoch.

Next, we headed to Villafranca del Bierzo, a small town, but a very crucial staging post on Camino Frances. The key attraction of Villafranca del Bierzo is the Church of Santiago, a 12th century Romanesque building that is the only place on Camino Frances besides the destination, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where pilgrims can receive the jubilee grace or ‘certification’ of having done the pilgrimage. Those who are unwell, disabled or physically unable to continue can enter through the ‘Puerta del Perdón’, the gate or door of Forgiveness at this church and receive the blessings and certification of their pilgrimage.

Adjacent to the church was a hostel meant for pilgrims to take a break or even spend the night. I was fortunate enough to see that the pilgrims were given a special ‘passport’, which was duly stamped whenever they checked into a hostel. “It basically serves as a way to ensure that the pilgrims complete the entire pilgrimage and don’t take short cuts. But, for us, too, it becomes part of invaluable memorabilia which we preserve carefully for the rest of our lives,’’ Moses, an Italian pilgrim, told me while he was getting his ‘passport’ stamped at Villafranca del Bierzo.

By the time we returned to Ponferrada that evening, it was time for the parade and we joined it almost instantaneously. Though the town, the place of the parade and the time were all exactly the same as on our Day 1, I noticed several differences. Besides the pilgrims, the town was now also filled with a good number of visitors and families, with numerous small children, who were cheerfully observing the activities going on in their surroundings, or walking around with their parents or friends. There were musicians, dressed in their medieval costumes, playing traditional instruments that seemed to be dating back to the bygone era.

The communal dinner is one of the highlights of the annual festivities in Ponferrada

The crowd near the Castle was also much more than the previous day since it was open to all.

On the lawns outside the castle, some falconers, with huge birds, were displaying their skills in falconry. The tempo of the evening began to rise as the sun set and the parade of Templar Knights moved through the town towards the castle.

Inside, the castle grounds presented a very different image today, as the entire space was filled with long tables, with chairs, and there were already many people, sporting their Templar robes and some dressed in costumes from the medieval ages, with several couples, Town Ladies with their Templar Knights, donning the clothes of the gentry of the epoch.

The communal dinner is one of the highlights of the annual festivities in Ponferrada and as the dinner was being served, small groups of musicians, with traditional dresses moved through the dinner area, performing, adding to the unique and lively atmosphere that pervaded there.

Medieval Market & more 

The next morning after visiting some neighbouring areas to relish the mysteries and wonders of Spanish nature and to sample some exquisite wines, we headed to the Medieval Market in Ponferrada, that seemed to complete the experience of the era that the town offers during the celebrations of Templar nights.

There were several stalls offering appetising food, from snacks and knick-knacks to hearty meals

The market has dozens of stalls, with a variety of goods, from spices to spears and from handicrafts to soldiers’ helmets. All around us, we could see several women and men, dressed up either as 11th century elites or merchants and soldiers. There were several stalls offering appetising food, from snacks and knick-knacks to hearty meals being barbecued just as they would have been done over 1,000 years ago.

After the market, we headed back to the castle to participate in the climax of this year’s celebrations. I was struck by how different the castle and its surroundings looked each evening, thanks to an entirely different ambience that prevailed. On the final day, an entire orchestra had been assembled just besides the castle, playing some of the masterpieces of European classical music. The parade too looked different this time, as besides the soldiers there were also many performers like fire eaters. A group of people were carrying a large paper dragon followed by the traditional Templar Knights.

An extensive display of fireworks with the castle as the backdrop, heralded the closing celebrations

The walls of the castle were decorated, in an impressive manner, with the use of multi-coloured lasers. After the musical performance, it was time for an extensive display of fireworks, using the castle as a backdrop, and the sky above the castle was lit up with all kinds of shapes and lights from the fireworks.

Relishing every moment of the crescendo of the celebrations, I just shut my eyes for a brief moment, in an attempt to store the moment and all its dimensions in my long-term memory. With my eyes closed, I felt that I had indeed been taken back right into a town of the Templar Knights, replete with the sounds of people talking, traditional music being played and the flavours of traditional cuisines present all around me.

Relishing every moment of the crescendo of the celebrations, I felt that I had indeed been taken back right into a town of the Templar Knights

In a way, the end was just as on the cue as the beginning of my experience in Ponferrada had been on the day of my arrival.

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