Christians and Moors, Romans, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths (and more) in Northern Spain

Dear Friends: As I begin writing this final post from Spain early one morning, church bells are ringing, signaling the start of the Fiesta de San Antonio – same patron saint as in Cañar. The name of this beautiful little town, Cangas de Onís, is puzzling. Even the woman at the tourist office has to Google it to tell us that its Latin origin is “mountains surrounding water” or maybe, she says, “water surrounded by mountains.” True in both cases. Oh, those pesky Romans – they were everywhere, spreading their language and religion, naming places and building bridges! They came to Spain about 200 BC and stayed for 700 years. Then the Moors arrived from northern Africa, conquered Spain, built their beautiful structures and lived peacefully with everyone – Jews, Christians, Gypsies, Goths, Visigoths and Ostrogoths (I’ve been Googling, can’t you tell? And excuse me for mixing up a bit of history.)

Here’s the view from our hotel, appropriately called Puente Romano (both the bridge and hotel). Look closely and you’ll see the cross hanging from the peak of the Gothic arch with and A for Alpha and O for Omega – the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. It’s meaning, as Michael-raised-Baptist explains is: When Jesus said, “I am the alpha and omega, he meant his God was the beginning and the end.

Later, I visit the small Roman Catholic chapel of Santa Cruz, built in 737 to honor the “cross that re-conquered Spain.” It was here in Cangas de Onís, apparently, where the Christians began the long series of wars and battles to kick out the muselmanes. That took another 700 years.

Typically, this chapel was built on top of a pre-Christian sacred site, a burial mound maybe 3000 years old, over a perfectly preserved burial stone, or dolmen, that one can see through a glass window in the floor.

The plaque also mentions that the chapel was destroyed in 1936 and rebuilt in 1943, an oblique reference to the Spanish Civil War. Being a tourist in Spain you would hardly know the war had happened – I happened to see a postcard in the museum at tourist office of this town after it was bombed. The war is never mentioned in official literature, and only by the dates can one read between the lines.

As I read the plaque, I was reminded how things have not really changed that much in 2000 years. Repeated conquests, wars, repression, inquisition, one group building on top of the sacred site of another. Later today we visit a monumental example. A few miles from Cangas, the Basilica de Santa Maria was built in 19th century adjacent to a holy cave. Reading THAT plaque I see a priest died in 1936  “a martyr”  another reference to the civil war when many priests were killed in the first few years. 

It was here, as we made the long walk up the zig-zag road to the Basilica that I saw my favorite “desire path” of the day. A perfect example where walkers have stepped over the wall and walked around the fence to take a shortcut between a zig and a zag. We took the shortcut down and had a picnic lunch 

The same day, we made the hair-raising drive (along with mini-buses and tour buses) on a near-one lane winding road high into the mountains to the Lagos de Covadango, where we saw almost as many cows as tourists. The different sounds of their bells made that trip worthwhile, though the site was just too overrun by tourists to feel special (the cows didn’t seem to mind, and they ruled the roads). 

I close this blog in Madrid, where it is 97F today, and 100F tomorrow. Time to leave for New York, where we’ll spend a few days before heading home to Portland. It’s been a good month, our best in Spain these last few years because of the weather. This time we got lucky – four weeks of glorious long days, endless servings of pulpo a la gallega (octopus served warm, often on top of sliced potatoes, with paprika, olive oil and coarse salt), many picnics with jamón y queso and these tasty flat peaches, mountains galore, small hotels, good beds, wonderful folks. We’re already planning our trip back next year.Meanwhile, I think the broken link for comments has been fixed – so please stay in touch. I love to hear from you.

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