May 28, 2019
Every town along the Camino de Santiago, no matter how tiny, has a church with a spire thrusting into the sky and at least one bell dangling in its framework.
Each time we’ve tramped past a tapering belfry, I’ve looked up, wishing I could be in the steeple with the bell, ready to send music across the countryside.
‘Ah,’ I’ve mused. ‘If only I could perch beside the bell, or climb a spiral staircase, or even tug a bell rope, and feel the bronze weight swing, the clapper sending reverberations through the air!’
Larger towns tend to have elaborate belfries, collecting even more daydreams around their spires.
Imagine my delight when we walked into the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, and I saw the Torre Exenta (free standing tower) with eight bells!
Two euros bought a ticket giving permission to climb the tower, and I set off with irrepressible glee.
The first few steps were wide and straight, leading to a lower portion of the tower, filled with sunshine from windows. Soon the steps narrowed, curving invitingly. ‘Now I’m in the tower!’ I thought.
I noticed an occasional sconce attached to the wall, waiting with ageless patience to be filled with a burning torch. My imagination blossomed, feet treading the same stone stairs as generations of shadowy bell ringers, charged with marking the important events of the day, using eight bells!
I noticed an ancient round hole drilled through a stone step, covered with a modern plastic disk. What could it be? As I ascended, I saw more of these holes, and I pondered. Could it be for letting light from the torches filter upwards?
A tourist passed me, heading down, and I saw the red flash of his jacket on the turn below me, through yet another hole. Could the holes have been put there to keep people from sneaking up or down the tower steps? My imagination took fire yet again, nefarious assassins being foiled by heroic bell ringers, with the help of spy holes through the stairs!
Later I read in a pamphlet that the holes had been used to let ropes through, so the bells could be rung from below. Of course!
Fifty steps into my climb, I came upon the ticking mechanism of the tower clock.
This clock, installed in 1780, made by blacksmith Martín Pasco, is unique, in that it runs using the original mechanisms created by Pasco over 200 years ago!
A sign informed me that, inscribed upon the center of the clock, were the words, “Tempus fugit.” (Time flies.)
I continued upwards, pausing at an occasional arrow slit window to enjoy a view of miniaturized landscape.
Just as my leg muscles were contemplating open rebellion, I looked up to see the top of the stairs, with a bell hanging above!
I emerged into sunshine with a gentle breeze quickly drying the sweat patches on my shirt. Bells surrounded me, large, small, each hanging silently from its framework.
Reverently I circumnavigated the top of the tower, peering closely at these bronze harbingers of happiness!
In front of each bell was a sign, telling its name and sometimes telling its size and/or the donor’s name. Names of bells ranged from fanciful (Aguijón – Sting) to functional (Campana Grande del Reloj – Big Clock Bell).
One sign declared its bell, named Prima, had an inscription reading:
Una y otra mui del Caso
La Campana Fiel advierte
Sí la Ora de la Muerte
Que tan en olvido paso.
My feeble Spanish overwhelmed, I asked Google to translate.
Over and over again
The Faithful Bell warns
Yes, the Prayer of Death
So in oblivion step.
I can make no claims as to the correctness of the translation, but I did like the idea that these bells transmitted customs and beliefs of everyday life, whether they rang for joy, passing time, or the passing of a life.
It was with regret that I finally descended. I wanted to stay in the top of the tower for a whole day, watching the bells mark the hours. But I knew Jay was below, and I did want to share my discoveries.
From the Torre Exenta we progressed to the Iglesia Catedral de Santo Domingo de la Calzada. Again paying a small entrance fee, we toured this cathedral, an excellent museum giving homage to its founder, Domingo García, who built the first church in 1106. We saw many statues and works of art, and learned of the many miracles attributed to Santo Domingo. A large diorama left the biggest impression upon both Jay and me, showing daily life in the time of Santo Domingo. The details of the miniatures were amazing, bringing my imagination to life once again!
After filling my imagination with the lives of 12th century people, it was a bit of a shock to prosaically continue walking towards the next town. The hours passed, and my energy flagged. Jay pulled ahead, promising to wait for me in town.
The small village of Grañon held the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista. As I slowly approached, a stream of people exited the church. I stopped, wondering what I had missed. At the end of the crowd, Jay appeared, face alight with wonder and delight.
“Did you hear them?” He demanded eagerly.
“Umm, hear who? What happened?” I was lost.
“A singing group called Voces del Camino just practiced here. They’re good!” Jay’s voice was full of awe. “I’m glad I got to hear them! It’s too bad you missed it.”
(Jay took a short video of part of their practice, which is posted at the end of this blog. Their singing voices are truly beautiful!)
Fifteen minutes after leaving the town of Grañon, singers from Voces del Camino began to pass us, giving us an excellent opportunity to make new friends and learn more of this talented group.
We walked for an hour, to our final town of the day, Redecilla del Camino, enjoying the company of this group.
A woman stopped to pick a poppy and make a doll. “My grandmother used to make these for me and my sister.”
“How cool!” I exclaimed. “It reminds me of corn husk dolls made in the southern USA, where I grew up!”
Regretfully Jay and I said goodbye to our new friends, but gratefully I collapsed onto my bed at the hostel. What an incredibly full day!
P.S. Here is Jay’s short video of Voces del Camino.