Thursday, May 15, 2014

Jaca, Spain

I know there's more to Jaca than what I saw out the car window as we drove into town (after fueling up with slightly-cheaper Spanish gasoline outside the town), and what I glimpsed on a brief walk through the section of town around the cathedral. We stopped in Jaca for lunch - an excellent lunch - but not sightseeing; Pamplona was the day's tourist destination for us. My impression of the town, based on the neighborhoods surrounding the center and the older-but-healthy people taking brisk walks through them is that this is a place where you might go to retire. The weather's good, the Candanchú ski resort is close by, there are lots of hiking trails in the area, and a medieval town to explore. There appeared to be a good number of clinics and hospitals and other medical facilities, and it's a very walkable place with a decent public transportation system. And good food. And of course it's a stopping point for pilgrims who have crossed the mountains from France via the Somport Pass, and plan on doing their westward journey to Compostela on the Spanish side.

What part of the lands on either side of the Pyrénées hasn't, at some point, been under Roman occupation, disputed over by various local lords, or caught up in the larger conflicts between tribes and nations that kept this area in flux for centuries? I feel sometimes that I'm saying the same thing every time I start to describe a new place I've visited. What is now Jaca is no exception, with the added interest of having been part of the caliphates under the Muslims who arrived from northern Africa. The armies of the caliphate also occasionally crossed the mountain passes, and in the 8th century made it all the way up to Tours before they were beaten back to the south. When I was living there last year and researching cheese, I found that one of the legends behind the name of the traditional log-shaped goat cheese made in that area, the Sainte-Maure de Touraine, is that the "Maure" comes from the word "Moor" and that the invading armies, as well as their supply lines, introduced goats to the area, thus starting the tradition of making goat cheese. Most people consider this merely a legend, however.

When I proposed this road trip to Florence initially, I suggested going as far as Zaragoza, a larger town that has what looks to be a lovely cathedral. Zaragoza was the capital of the caliphate (or emirate) of Cordoba up until the 11th century. That would have made too long a trip for the two days we had, so we stopped our southern trek at Jaca, where around 915CE Galindo Aznárez II, Count of Aragón, rebuilt an old Roman fortress where local forces could be based and marshaled against the Muslim armies to the south. A century later, this walled town became the capital of the first Kingdom of Aragón, ruled by the bastard brother of the King of Navarre to the west; from what I'm gleaning off a handful of websites, Ramiro I was a bastard in more than one sense, first fighting against the emirate (which was embroiled in its own conflict that would eventually break it up into smaller independent caliphates) with the Navarrese forces, and then using the Muslim armies to try to get more territory for himself by pushing the border with Navarre. Ramiro I had a bastard son himself, Sancho Ramirez, or Sancho V, who took over Jaca and the kingdom in 1064 (nine centuries - nine centuries - before I was born; I can never get over my amazement at the sheer weight of history that surrounds me). The kingdoms of Navarre and Aragón were united in 1094 under Peter I, the son (by an actual wife this time) of Sancho V and therefore also related to the King of Navarre. Peter I was instrumental in the Reconquista, an effort that started with Charlemagne and continued for nearly 800 years as the Christian-ruled kingdoms, supported by the popes, tried to, and eventually succeeded in, driving the Muslim caliphates further south and then out of Spain entirely. As the Kingdom of Aragón moved south, the capital moved with it, from Jaca to Huesca and then eventually Zarazoga after its (re)conquest.

The fortress in the center of town played no part in all that, having been built around 1600. Known as Castillo de San Pedro de Jaca and also Ciudadela de Jaca (the Castle of Saint Peter and the Citadel of Jaca), it was commissioned by Phillip II of Spain, this time to protect against armies from the north instead of the south, as the territorial wars between France and Spain continued. There's a museum inside, but it was closed that Sunday, so instead we walked around a bit on the grassy walls bordering the moat. A herd of deer live in the moat, and there is a "Museum of Miniatures" inside that apparently contains the world's largest collection of toy soldiers. It was a lovely afternoon, and there were many people out enjoying a Sunday post-lunch stroll, or lounging on the grass.

There is another museum inside the cathedral that I would have liked to see, the Museo Diocesano de Jaca. It's said to have a very nice collection of medieval religious art, collected from monasteries and churches in the region and dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries. More art is in the open air at the monastery of San Juan de la Peña not far from Jaca, a place I didn't know about until I was looking up information on the cathedral after we got back. The monastery is built into and under a huge cliff face, and besides being another important stop on the Compostela trail, it's apparently where the Roman Catholic liturgical tradition was first introduced in Spain. There had been a monastery at the site earlier (8th or 9th century) and the site was rebuilt and rededicated by Sancho V in the 11th century as the spiritual center of the Kingdom of Aragón. He also commissioned the cathedral; the Romanesque outer building was completed almost a hundred years later, but in the 15th century the interior was redone in the Gothic style, chapels were rebuilt in the 17th century, and then they went all Baroque in the 18th century. All of the renovations were to the inside, though, so the outside still has its imposing solidity.

There was a mass going on when we stepped inside, so I couldn't wander around gawking and taking pictures. But it's yet another place I'd like to spend some more time, because the carved and painted walls are definitely gawk-worthy.

I'm definitely not a "religious" person and don't go to church regularly (or at all, really). I miss the Sundays at St. Stephen's because I enjoyed singing and making music for my own and other peoples' enjoyment, and I appreciated the thoughtful and often inspiring talks given every week. But I don't feel moved to participate in mass or worship or whatever you want to call it. I don't really believe. Oh, I've had my atheist-in-the-trenches moments, for sure, and being raised as part of a church-attending family has left me with attitudes and habits that I wouldn't even try to break, especially since some of them are good. However, though I don't feel moved to participate in religious services, I do enjoy being in cathedrals, both when they're empty and when they're full of people. I like the energy of all the people who do believe swirling around full of emotion and hope and the heavy comforting weight of tradition and the lightness of spirit I feel when I leave afterwards.

Maybe there is some part of me that does believe, after all.

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