The Spanish leg of the Camino Frances begins in the province of Navarra. Alto del Perdon, the Mount of Pardon, is the first serious ascent for the pilgrim after crossing into Spain over the Pyrenees. Napoleonic armies are said to have sacked the 13th century basilica at the apex, dedicated to the Virgin of Pardon (Virgen del Perdon), who expunged the sins of repentant souls. Though just 500 meters high and insignificant compared to the mountain pass crossed just days ago, gale force southern winds and squally rains are the norm on this road to atonement.
Just one small wall of the medieval church has been preserved. But that is not the main attraction for the dozens, often hundreds, of hikers, strollers, cyclists, pilgrims and assorted tourists, who brave the elements to reach the peak every day. Over the last quarter of a century, Alto del Perdon has become invested with a new mystique, as the point where ‘the path of the wind crosses the way of the stars’.
We left the famous walled city of Pamplona on an overcast autumn morning. Past the tiny town of Cizur Menor, the path starts to ascend steadily up through grassy meadows. There are dozens on the road already. More tourists will join the final 2 km ascent after parking their cars in Zariquiegui. Here the path is rocky underfoot with no trees to break the unrelenting pressure of the wind.
A couple of miles after Cizur Menor, as the clouds lighten a little, we see a light spark to our left. Inauspicious if that was the first flash of lightening. A kilometre on, an ark of light cuts through the still deep grey. Minutes later another. Then another. And again. Clearer. Bolder. A moving blade of white gold.
As the pilgrims progress slowly up they see more and more and more arcs of light – spreading from the left across the horizon in front. Something metallic is catching the sunlight.
Sudarshan Chakra, says my inner-Indian, the Splendid Wheel, Lord Krishna’s weapon of choice, sent to cut down the sinning universe in the blink of an eye!
Of course not! Wind turbines. Some forty of them in the hills ahead of us. As the sun comes out more brightly, some keen photographers are starting to take pictures of the massive magnificent machines, still several kilometres away.
In the early 1990s the first six wind turbines in the province of Navarra were installed here on the mountain where all is forgiven, and the wind is eternal. Elsewhere in Spain there were 400 already. Now there are 40 windmills here, each 40 meters high, extending North to South along the Alto Perdon mountain range. From here on, right through the ancient St James’ Way, the pilgrims will be accompanied by the vision of windmills on the horizon. Standing on hills, on the plains, the white and silver windmills move to the rhythms of the weather. In the first two months of this 2018, wind farms generated nearly a quarter of Spain’s electricity. Spain is the second largest wind-energy producer in the world and with government support for over two decades, Spanish companies are exporting their know-how around the world including Asia. (See http://aceer.uprm.edu/pdfs/wind_power_spain.pdf)
The tiny town of Zariquiegui, just 2 kms from the oldest of Alto Perdon turbines, has seen significant population growth since the establishment of the wind farm. From the town, the windmills on the surrounding hills look like the little paper fans I remember buying from balloon-wallahs on street corners of 1960s Kolkata. A kilometre further up the hill, you can hear a hum, like the distant sound of women blowing conch shells at an Indian wedding. It gets louder, but never loud enough to prevent the increasingly excited conversation as the walkers converge on the top. Someone starts singing a hymn in Korean, others recognising the melody are joining in, in other tongues – the turbines’ drone a bass note scaffolding the human voices, without overwhelming them.
As we reach the top, the handful of Australians in the crowd, inevitably remember how various brands of environmental vandals, led by the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot stopped the expansion of wind power in Australia in 2015. Abbot denounced wind turbines as ‘ugly and noisy’. I wonder if we might entice the self-proclaimed devout Catholic Tony Abbott to walk the Camino. Shall I get the Australians on the Camino to write to him: ‘Dear Mr Abbott, Climbing Alto Perdon will absolve you of your environmental crimes or perhaps help you look upon windmills with a new reverence? There is no shortage of dirtier sources of power along the way either. Two hundred kiliometres down the road, the city of Burgos, will hail you from 10 miles away with its industrial wasteland of chimney stacks spewing grey smoke on one side of the track, while to your right you will see bright white wings of the turbines dancing to the breeze…’
But I am soon distracted from my political purpose by the buzz of excitement. A big group of Koreans, determined to be photographed in mid-flight are taking turns to jump off a rock at the foot of the nearest turbine, which is astoundingly tall this close up and impossibly quiet. Some of the crowd are mesmerised by the wide open plains below. Others are taking photos of the most recognisable pieces of public art in Navarra: a silhouette of twelve pilgrims, sculptured in steel. They represent generations of wanderers who have passed along this way. The figure at the centre is riding on a donkey. On its flank is written the words: ‘Donde se cruza el camino del viento con el de las estrellas’; ‘where the path of the wind crosses the way of the stars’
Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the road of Saint James in the field stars. In poetic imagination the Camino is the earthly parallel to the milky-way. The sculpture by Vincent Galbete was opened in 1996, about the same time as the first wind turbines were being installed here on the mountain where mortal sins are forgiven, where medieval symbolism, contemporary art and twenty-first century technology live in perfect harmony and draw hundreds of tourists every week from all over the world.
Ah, Mr Abbott and all the other Mad Monks of Australian environmental politics, wish you were here – to see, to learn and to repent your environmental sins!
We follow the line of the pilgrim sculpture, cross the path of the wind, and drop down from the peak following the path of the stars. Within minutes the blustery wind disappears. A gentle breeze eases the pilgrims down a sharp and rocky descent.