Thursday, May 22, 2003

:: Going places 3 ::

Last Sunday, I went out to visit three places: Torreciudad, Barbastro, and Zaragoza. We were out for 13 hours, traveled 650 kilometers all in all, something unthinkable in the Philippines given the condition of our roads and the traffic.

The weather on Sunday was perfect for the trip. I peered out the window as I was dressing and saw that we were going to have a sunny day; the sky was clean and bright blue (somehow it looks much cleaner here than in Manila; it must be the smog back home, I guess), with only a few strange clouds that looked like white ribbons streaked across the sky disturbing the even blueness of the sky. We took a quick breakfast at 8:15 and then went down to get the car. At ten minutes before 9:00 we were off to the first destination: Torreciudad, a shrine to the Virgin (of the same name), the construction of which was promoted by St. Josemaría Escrivá in the early 1970s as an act of gratitude for a favor received as a child.

The trip to Torreciudad—about 200 kilometers away—was pleasant, and quite fast; I have a hard time getting used to the fact that we would travel at 140 or 150 kilometers per hour on the autovia and the autopista.

We went straight to Torreciudad, bypassing the city of Zaragoza and then the town of Barbastro. As we passed Barbastro we saw many people—couples, families, groups of young girls or boys—walking along the road. It turned out that it was also the day that people from Barbastro make a pilgrimage to Torreciudad on foot. The sight was reminiscent of the crowds that I would see making their way to Antipolo on the eve of Holy Thursday and of May 1.

My first glimpse of Torreciudad came when we were about 10 kilometers away from the shrine and the road began climbing towards the shrine. We passed the spillway of the dam, and then the lake formed by the dam. Impressive! The closest thing I could remember is the lake formed by the Ambuklao dam, on the way to Mt. Pulag, and the lake at the crater of Mt. Pinatubo.

We got to the sanctuary at 15 minutes before 12. The parking lot was full, as that day was also the day of the Encuentro Mariano de Familias con Descapacitados. We lingered for a few minutes at the information booth and bookstore, where I was tempted to buy some nice booklets. Unfortunately, I had very little money with me, and so I settled for some postcards, which I sent out today. I also got some pictures and estampitas that were available for free. Like a good Filipino, I wanted to get a lot, but the fellow at the counter said, when I asked if the items were for sale, that they were free but that we were encouraged to give a donation to help defray the costs of producing them. So I got only a few and then put in a €2 coin.

Since we had not yet attended mass, we then went to the main sanctuary to attend the 12:00 mass, which was the mass for the disabled persons. The main sanctuary was full, so we ended up on the choir loft along with about 40 other people. It was quiet—and cold—up in the loft, but I followed the mass better as there were fewer people (there were many families with small kids down in the main sanctuary) and thus fewer distractions. Also attending the mass was a group of deaf-mute people from Zaragoza, and a translator was standing in front of the first pew translating for them non-stop and with a lot of gusto. One of my companions said that he got tired just watching her translate.

It is a thoroughly modern shrine in terms of design and architecture, in contrast to other, centuries-old shrines to the Blessed Virgin that I have seen. Despite their modernity, the design and architecture evoke the same response, which is awe, and a sense of prayer.

There are several chapels below the main sanctuary, and 40 confessionals. After a short tour of the other areas of the shrine we finally went down to the original shrine, only to find out that it had just been closed for the lunch break. I could only see the interior of the shrine itself through the grills and the glass doors. Since it was already lunchtime, we decided to take our lunch then, and took a short drive down the road to a small hotel—Hotel Tozal—with an open terrace where pilgrims would normally take lunch. Apparently the hotel management is already accustomed to having people come in and have their lunch—everyone with baon—on the terrace even without buying anything from the hotel. We arrived just in time to get a nice spot in the shade; five minutes after we had settled down a busload of pilgrims came and filled up the terrace.

After lunch we drove to the small town of Barbastro, to see the house where St. Josemaría Escrivá was born. Barbastro remains very much a pueblo, with many little winding streets within which our car, a SEAT Ibiza, barely fit. The old building had been torn down, and a new residence had been built in its place. Outside the building is a small plaque citing it as the original location of the building in which St. Josemaría was born. Across the building is a small café where we took coffee to rest for a while. Then off to Zaragoza.

The drive to Zaragoza, about 100 kilometers away, took an hour. We entered the basement parking lot of the main plaza—the plaza del Pilar—and then went right away to La Seo. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that it was the International Day of Museums, so the portero kindly waived the entrance fee (normally €1.50). La Seo del Salvador is a cathedral built up gradually from the 12th to the 18th centuries, and so contains a mixtures of architectural styles: Roman, Gothic, Renaissance, Mudejar. The central area is dominated by the choir area, which has a 15th century organ in the process of being restored. There are about a dozen side chapels done in different styles, but the retablo of the main altar—a huge, detailed carving of alabaster and wood done in Gothic style—is far and away the most impressive piece in the whole cathedral.

The next stop was the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar. We coincided with a first communion ceremony—a practice which would be roughly equivalent to a young lady’s debut back in the Philippines in terms of social significance, judging by the attendance—and so the place was packed. We went to the main chapel, where the image of Our Lady of the Pillar, resting on, yes, a pillar (actually, the pillar on which she appeared) is kept. After a short while we went to the back of the altar where a small portion of the pillar was exposed, and the people had the custom of kissing it. The devotion is such that the piece is already worn out and concave, and I had a hard time making my lips reach the pillar when came my turn to kiss it.

There was also a thanksgiving mass for St. Pedro Poveda going on so we were not able to go around and see the entire church. One other curious thing about this basilica is that they have left untouched two holes in the ceiling dating back to August 1936. These were the holes through which two bombs (a third had landed outside the basilica’s walls) dropped from a plane had entered. This happened barely a month after the Spanish civil war had started, and one of the first aims of the anti-Catholic forces then had been to destroy the basilica, which was, and still is, one of the most potent symbols of Catholicism in Spain. Anyway, the story ended well, as the three bombs did not explode. In fact, the two that fell inside the basilica are displayed on one of the columns beside the main chapel.

Our last stop was the Aljafería, an 11th century Moorish castle, converted later into a palace for the use of los Reyes Católicos, and beautifully restored. We were lucky, as the restoration had only recently been completed and the palace had recently been re-opened.

It’s a beautiful place, with impressive Moorish details—those intricate curves and interlocking geometric figures—adorning the arches and ceilings. The castle itself is an ingenious fusion of modern and ancient portions. It seems that the restorers took whatever was left of the castle, propped it up and then cleaned and restored the interior, and then built modern, interconnecting structures—stairs, halls and corridors, complete with minimalist fixtures and decors—to put the whole place together. It was a thoroughly enjoyable visit, getting a sense of the old castle and the culture that it represented, and the way the ancient and modern elements had been put together very tastefully.

And all of these, just within a day (the other six days of the week I work and study!).