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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

A Weekend in the Life: A Wedding and a Pilgrimage

San Julián de los Caballeros, Toro, after the wedding
All photos in this post 2019 Jessica Knauss
unless otherwise specified 
Though I usually blog about the history I find on trips I've taken, sometimes you can have an extraordinary weekend staying close to home. Especially when you live in Spain. To start it off, on Saturday, my choir, the Coral Ciudad de Zamora, sang at a wedding in Toro. I haven't mentioned Toro on this blog before, but that's my bad. It's Zamora province's second capital and about as packed with thrilling history as Zamora. We carpooled to get there, and the lady I rode with, who sings tenor (although she would like to sing bass), parked next to the castle. This is not something you can do at all in the United States, but isn't worth batting an eye in Toro.

The wedding took place in the Church of San Julián de los Caballeros, a sixteenth-century Gothic structure on the site of a much more ancient sanctuary. Gothic letters on the facade proclaim, "Here the Christian faith was publicly practiced in the time of the 'saracens.'" Alfonso III gave the "repopulation" order for Toro in 910, so this is a reference to worship taking place here in the ninth century and earlier. Such antiquity shouldn't surprise in Toro, which was probably established before 220 BCE.

Gothic pulpit 
We had the chance to look around in the church, change into choir robes in the sacristy, and warm up before any guests arrived.

Hardly anybody came into the church before the ceremony started. A fellow soprano said they were waiting around outside to catch a glimpse of the bride. No way! Rather than follow the rules, the Spanish don't mind spoiling the surprise.

An alto's husband took this photo of us during warmups. 
The groom was handsome, the bride elegant. The choir didn’t make any obvious flubs, and word from the family is that our contribution was thoroughly appreciated. Although there didn't seem to be a videographer, as I've seen at most American weddings, two photographers pestered the bride and groom and ignored us completely. Choirs at weddings in Spain must be so normal as to not need a photographic reminder.

Main altar 
There was mass while the bride and groom were seated. They exchanged vows, rings, and arras, coins symbolic of dowry and bride price, though they said they were symbolic of the fortunes the bride and groom would enjoy together.

The groom's brother carried a cardboard sign nicely lettered with "Don't worry, ladies, I'm still single!" Well, that's a relief!

The groom’s new aunt read a text of blessing as a surprise, and a nervous friend sang a short song, sitting in the pews. It wasn't the performance of the year, as the choir commented afterward, but I was moved by her sentiment.

A meet-and-greet instead of a recessional 
Though we sang an upbeat song by Monsignor Marco Frisina as a recessional, the wedding party didn't leave the church at the end. All the invited friends and family went up to them near the altar to congratulate them. Outside, there were three baskets with different things to throw at the couple when they did come out: rice, rose petals, and confetti cannons.

This is the first wedding I've been to since I became widowed. I almost broke down in tears during the exchange of rings, thinking widow thoughts that would be a real downer to anyone who's been spared losing the love of their life. And then, looking at the happy couple being pelted with the modern remnants of fertility symbols, I couldn't help but feel optimistic. The day was emotionally exhausting because of these ups and downs. Grief always comes back around with the same intensity, but at least I find that now, nearly three years in, I recover from such triggers quickly, with a little rest.

Singing at a wedding on Saturday would've been enough to distinguish this weekend from any other in my life, but Zamora can be relentless. It provided another unique event to transport me to yet another world.

The highway is blocked to car traffic on the morning of Pentecost Monday every year. 
June in Spain is synonymous with weddings, but also with romerías. The translation is "pilgrimages," but yet again, something is lost in that transfer. A romería, unlike what we usually think of as a pilgrimage, is a local affair, something that can be undertaken in a single day by an entire community. It turns out looking like a mass migration to the countryside for the day. The most famous is the romería from Sevilla to El Rocío, but I've seen national news reports on many others all over the country. 

Guess what? Zamora's romería claims to be the oldest continually performed such ritual. The media claims this is the 729th year! In about the year 1290, it's said young King Sancho IV (Alfonso X's son) was out hunting in the area of present-day La Hiniesta when the Virgin Mary appeared to him in a broom shrub (hiniesta). He had the church that is now the center of town built to commemorate that auspicious moment. And people have been making the pilgrimage out here from Zamora on Pentecost ever since. 

Someone who goes on romería is a romero,
so sprigs of romero (rosemary) are required. 
Last year, the romería came up without enough warning for me to consider doing it. Besides, walking seven kilometers there and seven more back by myself in a crowd didn't appeal when I was finishing up my first school year and preparing for an epic journey with my wonderful mother.

This year June 10, a Monday, was a holiday in Zamora and nowhere else. Chatting with my roommate, Fernando, the romería to La Hiniesta came up casually with enough time beforehand for him to consider that since I love Zamora and haven't done it before, perhaps he could do me the extraordinary favor of guiding me through the experience.

The Cross of Don Sancho, one of the important stops along the way 
I needed a local guide because these things are hard to pin down, even if they've published schedules and itineraries. I wouldn't have known what time to be at the church from which the Patroness of Zamora, the Virgen de la Concha (Our Lady of the Shell), makes her grand exit. I also wouldn't have had the motivation to get up so early.

We showed up at San Antolín at 8:30 a.m. Only bakers and romeros (pilgrimage-goers) are up at that hour in Spain. Everyone else I'd talked to about it had said they were going to be away from Zamora on Monday, so I had the impression of a deserted city. That impression was the first thing corrected.

The Virgen de la Concha came out of San Antolín punctually to a march played by flute and tambor, a harsh type of oboe, and bagpipes. These musical groups spread out over the course of the route, but were most impressive when they were all together. The Virgen has been the Patroness of Zamora since 1100, but the current iconographically unique dressing image is from the eighteenth century. She stands proudly with a flag, and her Child stands next to her, united by a silver chain. The shell that gives her her name is also silver and tied around her waist over whatever elaborate robes she's dressed with. Because she's a dressing image, under the robes, she's a skeletal framework, making her relatively light, which must be a blessing on her romería day. Seven kilometers (4.35 miles) to La Hiniesta, a trip around the large church there, and seven kilometers back on the same day would test anyone's devotion.

As she made her way down the sloped street to exit what was once the Fair Gate in the city wall, people in balconies threw confetti. This wasn't just any confetti. It had been cut with care from multicolored paper after being printed with all the Virgen's honorifics: Crowned Queen of Zamora, Crowned Patron of Zamora, Virgin of the Pilgrim's Way!, Mother-of-Pearl Shell, and Crowned Shell were the ones Fernando caught for me.

The idea is not to simply leave the temple and arrive at La Hiniesta in a timely manner. Several diversions, planned and improvised, kept boredom at bay throughout the trip. Among the spontaneous events, some people waited by the side of the road for the procession to pass by, holding flowers. If they held the flowers up while the Virgen approached, the float stopped and allowed the people to make votive offerings of the flowers. One of the brotherhood members would take the flowers and arrange them on the float as he saw fit.

The first programmed stop was just outside the Fair Gate. The Virgen entered the Church of San Lázaro, prayers were said and reverences made, and she made a triumphal exit accompanied by music.

Fernando said when he used to do the romería as a kid, only "four cats" would show up. That's the Spanish way of exaggerating to say "nobody." Monday, the street near San Antolín was crammed with people, more people watched from their balconies, and more and more people joined the parade as it wended out of Zamora. It was truly a community affair. I saw people from my choir, a former student played in one of the bands, and Fernando was constantly running into people he knew.

By 9:30, we'd already arrived at the Cross of Don Sancho, a little wooded area where the procession stopped and prayers were said. 

Then a couple of the brotherhood members ceremoniously unchained Christ from his mother and cradled him reverently for the faithful to come and kiss his feet. Given that I'm not Catholic and Fernando is lapsed (apostate, he says), we only watched. At this point, though we didn't realize it, Christ was taken ahead by car.

We passed the sign that indicated we were leaving Zamora and broke out into open country. I admit to getting a thrill for doing that on foot. I've only ever seen those signs from cars before. Sadly, the landscape looks almost as dry as it did when I first arrived in 2017. Last year, it must've looked much greener after a lot of refreshing spring rain we didn't get this year.

We were able to keep up a brisk pace, and the day was clear but not hot. The highway was closed to automobile traffic, which made for a lot of peace of mind. Red poppies lined the highway.

The fork leading to the route back if you stay with the procession all day 
We came up on the refreshments stop less than fifteen minutes after leaving the Cross of Don Sancho. The free "lemonade" was an insipid red liquid I chose not to do more than taste because restrooms were clearly going to be scarce. Fernando had brought roasted peanuts, and we walked and shelled them, shooting the breeze under the protection of hats.

We entered industrial farmland, and considerate farmers had laid down carpets of rose petals and rosemary to attenuate the "fresh" smell of animals.

At 10:30, we came across an informal stop. "What are they giving out there?" asked Fernando. We looked closer, and it was the car with Christ. They'd stopped to allow for more foot kissing and claimed that donations were welcome. For the brotherhood, of course. I thought it was highly amusing.

Only a little farther on, large groups of people were sitting by the side of the road, eating sandwiches and other second-breakfast items they'd brought. They likely knew exactly how little room there was to do this kind of thing in La Hiniesta.

When we arrived ahead of the procession at the entrance to the village at about 11, we found a place set up with barriers where the action would clearly take place. I said I needed to get a look at the church before it was overrun with pilgrims. We hotfooted it to the center of town and made it just in time to see the Brotherhood of La Hiniesta leaving to meet the Virgen de la Concha at her arrival.

The church, one of the few pieces of Gothic architecture in Zamora province, is spectacular. The grand doorway has the ball decorations no one can tell by sight alone whether they are Romanesque or Isabelline Gothic. In this case, history shows us they are Isabelline. The interior is a single nave with impressive Baroque pieces and three fine Gothic statues. We read that there were Gothic paintings, but didn't find them. They may have been behind the main altar.

The main event is the facade. It's packed with masterful Gothic sculpture you simply don't expect in Zamora, highlighted by colorful paint.

Being Gothic, the scenes are all strictly religious, illustrating the life of Christ. But I could've stared at the sinuous, expressive forms for much longer than the three minutes we spared before running back to meet the procession. Looking at the photos, I dare say this Gothic style is influenced by the Romanesque symmetry all around the province.

Horses weren't allowed to participate in the ceremonies this year,
but they came to watch. 
Back at the entrance, we got a pretty good spot to watch the arrival of the Virgen. The brotherhood members intoned a song. A couple of children doing their first communion read poems including the phrase "I will never forget this day." The mayors of Zamora and La Hiniesta traded the canes that are the symbol of their responsibilities. They trade them back after the mass, before the procession heads back to Zamora.

What everyone wanted to see was this, the dance of the brotherhoods' flags.

Then we processed again, to the church!

Ringing the bells 
The Virgen made a circuit of the whole church, accompanied by the bands and the bellringers, before making a triumphal entry. Not nearly all the pilgrims would fit into the church for the solemn mass, and it seemed as though most didn't try.

Fernando said in the old days, plenty of the town's bars were open to provide restrooms and refreshments to the pilgrims. This time, only an outdoor events place was open--right on the side of the church. They were doing excellent business. Something must've happened over the years to make the local bars give up, because absolutely nothing was open. If not for the thousands of pilgrims, La Hiniesta would've been a ghost town.

One of my devious roommate's ideas for not having to walk back to Zamora was to limp, moaning, into the Red Cross tent, and keep up the act until they take you home in an ambulance. There was no way I was doing that, but the Red Cross had port-a-potties, for which I will be eternally grateful. At about 1 p.m., after an incredible morning, and having our photo taken by someone else Fernando knew, we were confronted with this:

Four kilometers back to Zamora, plus the kilometers from the city limit to our house. On foot. Although the day was fine for walking, the return was tiresome because the highway was now open to traffic and, importantly, it was getting close to time for the midday meal.

We started toward Zamora, and Fernando tried what had always worked before: hitchhiking. "Nobody really hitchhikes anymore, do they?" he said after seven or eight attempts, echoing something I'd said earlier. Then we saw someone carrying an oboe wave down what was obviously a prearranged ride.

"He has a ride," I said, and we ran up the road a way. After they'd turned around, Fernando's trusty thumb finally worked.

Riding with one of the musicians afforded us a conversation about how much the romería has changed and a comment about the way the mayors exchange canes. "Just think, the Mayor of La Hiniesta could make a decree during those few hours and Zamorans would have to live by it!"

And we made it home in time for the midday meal after a nice shower. It was hard to believe the rest of the world, and even the rest of Spain, had been going about normal business on this extraordinary day, the day of the romería to La Hiniesta.