Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Stunned into silence

The river Eume arises inside a colossal steep-sided gorge up in the mountains which is clothed with Atlantic forest - oak, aspen, birch, elm, hazel and the strawberry tree. The info says you might see eagle owls, otters, peregrine falcons, wild cats, and various rare ferns, slugs and so on.  Not long ago, the gorge area was designated as a special landscape and preserved - although the now-ubiquitous eucalyptus groves do sneak in.  There's an air of depopulation about the place - abandoned farmsteads, miles of empty roads, the settlements more scattered as you approach.  And despite enthusiastic signage it's not actually all that easy to get into the Fraga. As you drive through the varied woodland and along the steep winding lanes, you make false turns, have to reverse, try a different branch of this minute crossroad or that, and you cannot rely on the satnav which just gives up in the lee of the hills.
But, it's worth pressing on. It's a weird characteristic that although you are in a well-mapped area, with civilization all around (electricity, bus stops), you can still feel like an adventurer.  In this landscape you are very quickly up against a lot of unknowns - your whereabouts, the language, the attitude of the locals, twists and turns of direction….  
We followed signs for something called Kayak - a sporting centre on the water - but failed to reach it, spotting one lone green plastic boat far below us on the dark shoreline. A heron was standing guard. 

We turned back….
One of our forays into the lanes brought us down through the small farms and pleasant prosperity to what was obviously going to be a dead end. This was in a scruffy little farmstead with a couple of scary looking dogs roaming around, and a distinctly hostile air. We needed to turn and we also wanted to find out which road to take when we got back up to the top, and so we needed to talk to someone.  All we could see were the dogs.

One by one they emerged, the farmer and his family. 

Somehow, maybe out of anxiety, I expected such people to be clad in muddy brown, rough working clothes, with rough gnarled hands and missing teeth. (Oh, I am sorry, I am sorry).
But five of them came to greet us, men and women, young and old, all immaculately dressed in bright clothing, smart shoes, and beaming smiles.  Everything was ironed, ready for the boulevards. They spoke no English, certainly, and very little Spanish. For us, Galician was a step too far, even with Snelling and Lulu with us, both of whom have a tolerable grasp of Castilian. But the family consulted and conferred with each other, and we waved a map at them, and they showed us eventually what our route should be…. And so we went on our way.

Then suddenly at a crossroads we found the massive, almost unbelievable old monastery of  la Verxe Sta. Maria at Monfero, about half as big as St Paul's Cathedral in London, and at this time of year (September) completely empty apart from a young woman acting as concierge who explains to us in almost recognisable English the basic history of the place. (Her English is considerably better than our Galician).  It was founded in the 9th century, built again on a grander scale in the 12th, and then again in the 16th, 17th and 18th under the patronage of various lords and archbishops, secularised in the 19th, and then reduced to a part ruin.  It must have been part of the network of caminos leading to Santiago.  The tower, nave, transepts, dome and their immediate curtilage is more-or-less intact. The surrounding monastery with its several cloisters is a shell, leaving only empty corridors, massive scrolled granite mouldings and ovula windows as testimony to the power and grandeur of its creators. 

The wall you first see when you come onto the place is - in one word - staggering. It faces south, has four huge bulbous Corinthian columns flanked with pilasters, and behind them a complex chequer-board of granite and slate, pierced with one huge false-perspective window-mount faking some sort of balcony, and then lesser windows with huge headings and chamfers, some with holy statues, some merely arched and barred.   I learned later that this chequer-board facade is typical of the camino...

The eaves (not the right word, but I've forgotten what you call the front edge of a classical parapet) is broken in and out with a frieze panels and markings, and the whole thing is sufficiently neglected and sad-looking to summon up a thousand possible film-scripts right there as you stand and look at it - before you've even gone inside.
The nave - with its huge barrel vault roof leads to the crossing and the massive dome - and all the interior is decorated with panels and coffers, though the nave wall panels are plain.
There are a few rudimentary relics of religious activity - a few madonnas, candles, votive spaces, but it is really mostly a great stone ghost. We walked around, through the mossy cloisters, into chambers with stunning views from their now empty windows, marvelled at everything.   Then we thanked the young lady for letting us into the monastic areas, and then came away, stupefied. 
It would be hard to beat that, but we had two more stunners waiting for us.  
It was getting into early afternoon - so we wanted lunch and struggled with the map and satnav to work out which way to go. Then along the road at a place called Pila de Lena, we happened on a small café-bar and enquired if we could get a meal. Yes, said the mama and the papa and the older son and the boy and the girl, and they graciously allowed us to stay on the terrace (view, sun, shade, sky) instead of going into their restaurant/dining room, and brought us a succession of freshly prepared dishes - the tapas of chorizo, sauce, bread and potatoes, then a glowing golden tortilla de patates, and then two salads of onion, tomato and lettuce, and then a platter of fried calamares and chips - everything perfect, everything delicious - and the bill (including two bottles of water, fantastic bread, four glasses of wine for Snelling and coffee for all four of us) came to €33.50 - which is not much more than a fiver a head.  The loos (in a separate little building) were immaculately clean. The local road-gang and some other workers clearly eat there every day at their canteen. There are buzzards flying overhead and butterflies dancing along the verge. The mountainous hill just across the fields plays host to passing thunderstorms, so that we had the sun caressing us under the awning, while rain from the edge of the passing storm plopped onto the canvas above our heads. 
(Just think on, owners of The Thatched Inn, Hassocks, Sussex).
We rolled away - would have been rolling even on foot, so tightly packed with food were we - and made our way back north towards the river gorge. The landscape is utterly breathtaking.  Steep, rocky, with the tiny road making barely a scratch on the business of tree-growing in Mother Nature's head, we went for miles, zig-zagging eventually down towards the river.
Back and forth the road seduces you, down and down. The greenery is all around you. It's like going down into a fairy tale. You dread meeting another vehicle coming up - how could you possibly pass? who would give way?
Then at last, you see buildings far below you - it's a bridge and the remains of an early hydro-electric system (now superseded by a more efficient one half a mile downstream). On the bridge, a middle-aged man was making very odd attempts to climb the granite cliff-face - wearing office clothes, brown shoes.  He propelled himself up a few feet, then came back down, tried another patch.  He seemed too bulky to be a climber, but would not look at us, kept trying, said nothing. Quite separately, we thought he might be planning a murder.
We left him to his slightly sinister dreams, and explored the ruins of the plant - the ugly concrete bridge, completely utilitarian, the deco concrete stairs and steps, the abandoned pressure valves looking like Daleks, the empty turbine house with its barred windows and tiled walls, the terrifying remains of a wire-rope bridge stretching out across the canyon, maybe sixty, seventy feet over the water.  Waterfalls cascaded on all sides, trees were reclaiming the whole site. Tiny ferns and lizards with brilliant blue tails begged attention. The sun was hot and the air sticky.
Again, it was hard to pull ourselves away - the place is so compelling to the imagination. We could easily set a James Bond episode in any of these places.  Or start a romance.
Then we set off again - to the apartment. Snelling is leaving tomorrow, and we are all exhausted after what we've seen and eaten.  At this moment, still sunny and warm at 8pm, Lucie is on the beach reading, Snelling has Saturday's paper to go through, Andrew has his Kindle and I am writing this blog.  
What will tomorrow bring?

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