Thursday, 25 September 2008

Reflecting on Rabanal

As the ground rose steadily towards Rabanal del Camino in the Montes de León our excitement rose with it. Rabanal is where the London-based Confraternity of St James runs a pilgrim hostel in partnership with the Benedictine monks next door. From the various articles we had read in the newsletter we imagined it as high and remote, a challenge to arrive at and somewhere we would stop to say hello even if, with cooler evenings and a strict admissions policy, it wasn't useful for us to stay there.

So it was a surprise to find Rabanal a relatively short and easy walk out of Astorga. Well-watered fields and allotments had lined the road before giving way to blackberries, broom and heather. A friendly little bar served us tasty gipsy toast - Spanish style, laced with alcohol - for second breakfast. And the crowds of freshly-minted pilgrims starting their walk in Astorga turned it into Regent's Park on a Sunday. More surprising still was the helicopter field on the edge of Rabanal. Not so cut off in an emergency, after all.

I guess Rabanal del Camino was one of the villages hereabouts that died out by the middle of the twentieth century, when people fled the hard winters and poverty for employment elsewhere in Spain or the Americas. But now it is mostly recovered and renovated: the streets are of cobbles rather than concrete and the slate houses honey-coloured and whole. It has a population of around fifty people that can swell by and extra two hundred and twenty or so pilgrims each night. There's no escape.

The deeply moving home-coming experience of stopping at the Confraternity hostel never materialised. Leaving aside the stern list of rules pinned to the door, the hostel was still closed to arriving pilgrims when we reached Rabanal and had already thrown everyone out and locked its doors by the time we ambled off the next morning.

In between we attended Vespers in the little village church, sung in Latin in the Gregorian tradition by the three resident monks. The reading was repeated by six or seven pilgrims in their various languages, which was impressive. Nearly everyone in the church had read that the sung Vespers experience was "special". Probably the monks are pleased to welcome so many souls each evening. It was indeed a lovely and intimate sound, and interesting to follow the Latin on paper. But as ever more latecomers rattled the door and rustled to make a space for themselves, those anticipated special Rabanal moments came dangerously close to extinction.

19th September 2008

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