By Marguerite Jill Dye
Sitting outside the Gran Hotel Pelayo in Covadonga, Spain, the internet connection was as elusive as el sol, but soon the sun and blue patches of sky emerged from swirling clouds and mist. We didn’t realize how rare sun could be high up in the Picos de Europa mountains. There my husband, Duane, and I were completing our third pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James. In its Jubilee anniversary year, a pilgrimage to Covadonga equals arriving in Santiago, where we’ve walked twice before along the Camino Francés.
The rose marble sanctuary stood high on the hill, visible through ancient oak, beech, and birch trees. Just below and deep inside, the yellow convent hid its 16th century cloister. Years ago, Pope John Paul II slept down the hall and within view of where we were sleeping too. We were lodged in the Casa de Ejercicios, the House of [Spiritual] Exercises, where the Mother Superior, María Magdalena, told us with a laugh and a smile, “On occasion someone rings the bell asking to ride a stationary bike!”
Above and behind the yellow house sit the cave and chapel of Mother Mary of Covadonga. Water falls from the sacred mountains down through the chapel to the fountain and pond. This has been a holy place since ancient times.
In 722 the Visigoth King Pelayo prayed in the cave to Mother Mary of Covadonga. When he and his men confronted the Moors in battle, armed only with stones, he was successful in driving them away. King Pelayo became the first King of Asturias, and Covadonga is known as the cradle of Spain. For this reason, the Prado Museum of Madrid’s collection of the early kings and queens of Asturias and Spain is in Covadonga.
During our stay we dined together and became friends with the four art conservators from the Prado, who are restoring 12 of the 17 life-sized royal paintings on permanent loan to the Museum of Covadonga. It is preferable for the foursome to move from Madrid for several months and work six-day weeks and nine-hour days to conserve the paintings in Covadonga, than to risk moving the paintings and changing their environment. They must complete their restorations before January when the climate is most damaging to the varnish and paint.
Throughout the millennia, kings and queens and the people of Spain and beyond have been blessed and healed by their journey to Covadonga. Pilgrims arrive to attend Mass in the sanctuary and chapel in the Covadonga cave. Although I’m not Catholic, I carried a special concern in my heart and spoke with a priest in the sanctuary confessional. He reassured me that a heart filled with love can conquer most any challenge. After his blessing, he gave me a hug. During the Mass he spoke of mothers’ universal concerns and that Mother Mary answers the prayers of mothers, grandmothers, and families.
After the Mass I gave Padre Alejandro a scallop shell I found on Florida’s Siesta Key beach. The sign of Saint James, the scallop shell, is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. He held it to his heart as we bid Adios.
One misty morning, our new friend from the Prado, Carlos, suggested we visit the Lakes of Covadonga. I knew nothing about them except for the travel bureau poster I’d seen. We boarded the bus, then climbed and climbed for half an hour. The road wound up around sharp bends, far too narrow for a bus and a car. Bus drivers communicated by radio, awaiting each other’s steep ascents. You couldn’t pay me to drive up that road! I saw the expressions of people in cars. The cliffs jutted out from the inner wall, falling thousands of feet at the road’s edge. (It reminded us of the harrowing road over a 17,000-foot pass from Lhasa to Gyantze in the Himalayas of Tibet.)
We followed the curves of the limestone formations, porous, intricate, white karst shapes. From peak to peak we climbed and wound, pausing for cows, goats, and sheep in the road. We spotted chamois high on the rocks and a large, black-tailed, furry red fox. We passed a lake that glistened and shone, then arrived in the heart of the Picos de Europa National Park, 8,000 feet straight up. I thanked the bus driver and complimented his maneuvers.
We hiked to the visitor center, named after the park’s founder, the Marquis Pedro Pidal. Since quoting his epitaph in my last column, my husband had researched the man who’d visited Yosemite and Yellowstone parks and befriended Teddy Roosevelt, it appears.
We hiked past gold mines, bulls, calves, and cows, to the second mountain lake. I climbed a peak to view both lakes as Duane watched a shepherd call out to his dog, who expertly rounded up his flocks of sheep, goats, and cows. A responsive herder is worth his weight in gold, keeping flocks together and fighting off wolves and bears.
I met a young woman from Los Angeles who’d come for one month (but so far had stayed two). She’d left home feeling like a second class citizen and came to Spain to discover her roots. I told her about the “True Cross” in Santo Toribio, the Camino Francés across Spain to our south, and the Camino del Norte along Spain’s northern coast. It has the power to transform lives. There’s a reason kings and queens and mere mortal seekers have walked this pilgrimage and sought its blessing. This is a holy place that extends its energy and inspiration around the globe.
“My Mother of Covadonga,” as San Pedro Poveda’s prayer goes, “save us and save Spain.” The voices of the Covadonga Boys’ Choir resonated against the rose marble walls, out the grand wooden doors, high into the Picos de Europa, growing in power and encompassing all of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and, at last, the Americas. “Our Mother of Covadonga,” I prayed, “save our earth and save us all.”
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s west coast.