Friday, 29 July 2016

Tale of three Ermitas

I had a business call last night from Ashley and we talked way beyond my usual bed time. Unfortunately I woke up as usual at first light and couldn't doze, so I made an effort to get going and out of the house earlier than usual. By nine, I was at the railway station to book my ticket for next Monday. Neither the ticket office nor the station cafe was yet open, so I had to hang around for ten minutes until the booking clerk had opened up. Driving out of the station by nine fifteen, I still hadn't decided what to do with the day ahead. The Ermita de San Sebastian, (patron saint of Vinaròs), 4km inland from the station, came to mind immediately, so I turned left on to the country road past the municipal cemetery, and was parking in the shade just outside the walls of the Ermita by nine thirty, on a lovely cool and clear morning.

I went into the Ermita precinct, took some photos said a few prayers, then looked around the Via Crucis on the promontory outside. Archaeological excavations of the mound of rubble which is all that remains of the mediaeval hill village at the far end of the Via Crucis must have continued since I was here last, as there's more clarity about the walls and remains of buildings uncovered. While I was inspecting, I saw a hoopoe flying across the pine trees nearby, typical of the environment they seek. The next half hour was spent walking quietly among the pine trees, camera ready, hoping for the elusive photo. No luck, although I did see one land on a tree trunk briefly, then take off in a direction I had no hope of following. I could hear the bird calling for its mate, but that was all. I saw a lapwing too, also calling for its mate on the wing. But no photos.

As it wasn't yet very hot, I took time on this visit to read the interpretation about the 'millennial' olive trees, characteristic of this region, explained on interpretation boards around the hill on which the Ermita is set. There are certain size criteria which indicate that an olive tree can have been resident on that site for a thousand years. This is reckoned to be when the Moors imported them here from the other side of the Mediterranean. The area is reckoned to have the highest density of 'millennial' olive trees anywhere in this region of Spain. It's a marvellous thought, when you think how many olive trees there are, just in the Peninsula.

As Alcanar is not far away, as the crow flies, I left the Vinaros Ermita, and went up and down narrow country roads, which initially ran alongside the riu Aiguadolivia, the riu Servol, and finally the riu Senia, before I could find an intersecting road that took me to Alcanar. It wasn't a matter of getting lost but rather a geography lesson in the way different rivers carved their ways from the sierras to the sea, over very variable terrain. I'd hope to find Alcanar church open, for my third visit, as it was early in the day, but no luck. I wonder if the town has a resident cleric any longer. Anyway, I drove out of town and up to the Ermita del Remei.

It's actually the Ermita de Nuestra Senora de los Remedios in Castilian Spanish - our Lady of Ransom we say in English. The Mediterranean coast has a number of churches with this dedication. There's an Ermita I've visited in Velez Malaga on a hill in the middle of town with the same dedication. This dates back to a time when Berber piracy was a commonplace along this coast. Inhabitants were kidnapped and held to ransom, and a religious community developed which specialised in hostage negotiation, in honour of Our Lady. How very modern, given what goes on in the Middle East these days.

Last time I was here, in July 2012, structural repairs and renovations were being made to the church interior, and much of the building was inaccessible. Work on the two side arms of the cruciform central section of the buildings still continues, but the nave and sanctuary have been re-instated. A notice on the wall at the back indicated that there's a fund-raising push going on this summer to complete the job.

The bar/restaurant next to the church was open for business, and I stopped to drink a beer and a coffee before continuing by expedition. The landlady was an abuela looking after a niño while the daughter was out, I joked with her about it in Spanish and was understood. The Catalan interpretation panels outside, again celebrating historic olive trees, were an effort to decode, though not impossible given a knowledge of French as well as Spanish.

The Ermita del Remei is on a mountain pass in the Sierras de Montsia, not far from Ulldecona. A little research had brought to my attention the Ermita del Pietat, a few kilometres north of Ulldecona on the way to Tortosa, so this was my next port of call.

I knew from tourism propaganda in Ulldecona that limestone cliffs in the Sierra de Godall across the valley to the west of the Montsia range was home to an outstanding collection of cave paintings in a designated World Heritage site, but hadn't realised that access to these was by means of a visitor centre at the Ermita itself. The Ermita is a nineteenth century foundation, The town of Ulldecona developed around the railway line and station in that era. The town was dedicated to the Pieta, Our Lady of Sorrows, Mary holding Jesus, taken down from the cross after his death.

The domain of the Ermita is spectacular, clinging to the limestone cliffs a kilometre across fields and above the road and rail corridors running through the valley. The visitor centre has an excellent exhibition explaining the cave art with marvellous large photos and artefacts, and there are guided tours of the caves, after six hundred metres uphill walk, morning and evening. I'd missed the morning tour and wasn't inclined to wait another four hours. Had I known, I would have been punctual one way or another.

I had to wait an hour to look at the sanctuary, as there was a wedding going on when I arrived, and there were about sixty people filling the nave, decorated for the occasion. It was lovely to see that such a building was in pastoral use, thought not surprisingly, given the location. A local cleric presided over the ceremony. I saw him slipping away quietly to his next assignment, middle aged, greying hair, smart casual attire, not clerical, small brief case in hand.

I was told that Ermitas in Spain are managed by the local municipality, and this is what make sit possible for them to be hire for use by non Catholics for services. There's still no chance of parish churches being shared. They are owned and run by the local diocese, and despite good will, ecumenism is not yet that advanced.

All three of the Ermitas I visited are within a 15km radius of each other, and there are more. Each town or village seems to have one. What's remarkable is the way they have retained a community focus, not only for occasional religious devotion and fiestas, but as leisure event venues. Concert programmes, art exhibitions, drama, lectures, conferences are organised, but each place has purpose made picnic areas with barbecue stoves, water supplies, tables and seating - all arranged to be disabled access friendly and safe as is practicable on the site.

This is impressive, and to be honest, it's not something that could be achieved easily if they were still owned and managed exclusively by the church. There's no doubt that Christians will be pulling their weight in making things this good, but what makes it happen is community good-will, despite, in this region, the divisive legacy of the Civil War. The effectiveness of these public institutions is evidence that somethings is being done right here.

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