Feast of the Virgin of the Snows

LAST UPDATED: 24 Jul, 2011 @ 22:48
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Novice Maria Carreras hikes to the top of mainland Spain’s highest peak to attend mass – at the second attempt!

“WELL?” Joe fights to be heard against the howling weather. “So where exactly IS this VIRGIN?”

It is 2:30 am. We are in the mountains of the High Alpujarra in the midst of a lashing hailstorm. High summer in the Sierra. Our tiny rental car, in the grasp of near gale force winds, is juddering like some giant cocktail shaker except with the ice clanging on the outside.

My companions wonder if this is another fine mess I have gotten them into with my famous disregard for facts and maps.

Flashback to an hour ago: I am dragging my two houseguests from their beds with promises of an authentic ‘Alpujarran’ experience: the Romeria a la Virgen de las Nieves. New to Capileira, I am determined to embrace all local festivities. First up on my folkloric calendar? The August 5 dawn pilgrimage and midday mass on the summit of Mulhacén – at 3,482 metres, mainland Spain’s highest mountain.

So, I pack a very groggy Sarah and dubious Joe in the car, along with sandwiches, thermos, walking sticks, ponchos and torches. We drive off into a cool night, towards a clear sky.

We are the only vehicle on the mountain road. I urge Joe to drive faster. “Perhaps everyone’s already up there?” I worry.

The higher we climb along the rugged roads of the Sierra Nevada National Park, the darker it gets. Finally, the lights of Capileira are swallowed by the gorge, leaving us draped in indigo.

It is delightfully eerie to have the park to ourselves in the middle of the night. Our headlights create strange shadowgraphs against the pine forests and crags as we pass. The stars wink through the treetops.

At the ranger station of Hoya del Portillo there is no-one about – not even the sentry. But as informed, the barrier is up, allowing private cars to continue a few kilometres more along the old Granada road to the Mirador de Trevelez. The starting point for our long hike to Mulhacén.

But just as we cross the gatehouse, the wind begins to blow… I glance up. Who removed the stars?

We are proceeding at a crawl on this unknown stretch of gravel. Leaves kamikaze against the windscreen. Suddenly, the road’s edge seems to drop into an abyss. We all instinctively lean left, as if shifting our balance would prevent us falling off the earth.

The first heavy raindrops join the wailing wind. Not looking good.

Ten tense minutes later we are at Mirador de Trevelez. Vehicles may go no farther. Fifteen cars are in the parking area but nary a soul in sight. Has the pilgrimage commenced? Joe turns off the engine and turns to me with that million pound question.

Before I can attempt an answer a vehicle approaches. The Guardia Civil.

Rather than admit I have no idea of the Virgin or anyone else’s whereabouts, I step out of the car to ask the officers.

The Guardia roll down a window and aim their torches at me. Struggling against the gusts and whipping rain, I weave my way to their parked vehicle.

“Si?” The older of the two officers enquires. My white poncho is fluttering wildly behind me. No doubt I look like some giant moth caught in their headlights.

“HOW DO WE GET TO THE VIRGIN OF THE SNOWS?”

They both gape at me as if I am mad. The older one speaks but most of his words are drowned by the storm.

I catch “…AND STAY IN YOUR CAR UNTIL DAYBREAK!”

“SI!” shouts his companion before rolling up the windows.

I flap my way back to the quaking little car and all three of us struggle to close the door against the wrenching winds. Joe and Sarah shake their heads in disbelief.

I have cobbled together an (admittedly) vague scenario for the Romeria from motley local sources. To wit: we join the merry Capilurrios at the Mirador de Trevelez in the crisp night air and form processions with flaming torches (those picturesque oil-fuelled ones wielded by country folk in period films). En route, we encounter our Trevelez neighbours carrying the statue of the Virgin on horseback. We proceed up the mountain singing sociably to await sunrise and mass on Spain’s highest mainland peak.

Reality check: I am in a seriously worsening storm with increasingly un-merry friends.

OK – so looks like I was off by a few hours and a fairy tale.

“Well, it could be worse…” I appease them above the din. “What if the storm started while we were on our trek?”

Origins of the pilgrimage

Coincidently, hikers surprised by similar weather is the reason why we are attempting this Romeria today.

One legend tells of a couple of travellers traversing the Sierra on a bright August day in the 1700s. Caught on Mulhacén by a fierce storm and fearing for their lives, they invoke the help of the Virgin of the Snows. The tempest recedes, revealing the Virgin’s form against the blue sky. Since then, it is widely believed the Virgin of the Snows protects the inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada.

I transmit the Guardia Civil’s advice of staying put until morning.

The three of us spend a fitful night trying to sleep in the tiny tempest-bashed car.

It is 7 am before the rain subsides and dawn breaks behind the mountaintops. We blearily look out the windows to note we are not alone after all. A few brave souls emerge from their cars to climb the mountain in gale force winds. A few not so brave, return a moment later.

We enjoy coffee and sandwiches inside the car. Then, we head back down the mountain to Capileira and bed. We fail our first attempt at the Romeria.

Second time lucky

The following year we get both weather and information just right.

My original group has now expanded to nine and we time our three vehicles to arrive for sunrise at the Mirador de Trevelez. The parking lot is already quite full. We pile out of the cars to join others enthralled by the unfolding Impressionist painting of first light over the Contraviesa mountain range opposite. Way below, the valleys and gorges are still hazy in Sandman’s mist.

A light breeze is blowing. We are dressed in layers, prepared for changing conditions. The path stretching from the Mirador is wide and well-marked. Steep in places, but not exceptionally strenuous. We scramble over rocks to cut corners. Even so, between stopping to catch our breath and the breath-taking views, it takes most of our group over three hours to reach the summit.

We do meet many a merry villager and several foreigners along the way. Some are on horseback but most are on foot. One old shepherd even sings to himself and plays air guitar as he walks, his dog at one side! Nearing the summit we encounter the procession from Trevelez headed by a white steed carrying the Virgin in a coffer.

We have shed a few layers and no doubt a pound or two by the time we finally reach the top of Mulhacén. Over one hundred people lounge like lizards on sun-warmed boulders. Though, even in August, there is still the odd patch of snow remaining in shadowy crevices. The views are vertiginous and not for the faint hearted.

Our group settles gratefully to picnic on hanging rocks. More and more participants arrive – of all ages. There is a festive atmosphere as people trade stories of their ascent or previous years’ pilgrimages.

Three hikers start rummaging from a crate. They pull on priestly robes, covering their t-shirts and jeans. A stone slab serves as a makeshift altar. The virgin is unboxed and people take turns being photographed with the statue.

Mass commences at 11. A children’s choir fills the thin air with a cheerful canticle familiar to many locals who also join voices. The service is simple and folksy. Communion begins and a priest clambers among rocks to reach all those who wish to partake. From the ruins of an old chapel, a young mountain goat wonders at the crowds. The priest jokingly invites “god’s creature” not to be shy and to join the congregation.

There is an open prayer session. In addition to the usual pleas of paz and que la abuela se mejore, a man begs for a good harvest. Another simply gives thanks for being born in the beautiful Alpujarra.

Then a voice thrice hails “Viva la Virgen de las Nieves!”

“Viva!” We all reply for the final time only to jump out of our skins as rockets explode overhead, their echo bouncing off every mountaintop and filling the valleys below.

Sarah, who is exhausted from the climb, is sleeping on a rock when the explosions sound. Badly shaken from her nap, she shakes her head at me: “Didn’t anyone tell you about the cohetes?”

The Feast of the Virgin of the Snows seamlessly blends the earthy and the celestial, friends with strangers, old ways and new. You need not be religious to shout “Viva la Virgen de las Nieves!”

And you need not be Spanish to yell “Viva la Alpujarra!” from your perch on top of the world.

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