What a way to start – 4 o’clock in the morning at Glasgow Airport! Well it was meant to be a pilgrimage so I suppose we couldn’t complain, and indeed, as the group from Argyll & the Isles Diocese (choir members and friends) assembled, they looked remarkably cheerful in spite of the pouring rain and, in some cases, not having been to bed at all!
Twelve hours later, we were in Salamanca at the Royal Scots College in glorious sunshine, being greeted by Fr. Charlie O’Farrell and given an introduction to the College before we found our rooms and settled in for a short rest. Then we headed down to the first rehearsal, for Mass that evening. At dinner we were introduced to a taste of Spanish cuisine and then the hardy among us went for a first venture into the Old Town to have a relaxing drink in the Plaza Mayor, and listen to the music provided by student groups.
The following day, after a sung Morning Prayer, Fr. O’Farrell gave us a brief introductory tour round some of the main sights of Salamanca before we had Mass in the ancient church of St. Thomas of Canterbury, dating from around 1175 and one of the oldest churches dedicated to the saint on mainland Europe. We then had the afternoon free to continue exploring the city. In the evening, we gathered for rehearsal and sung Evening Prayer before another beautiful dinner. Inevitably this was followed by singing in the lounge – with such an array of musical talent, what else!
Saturday saw an early start, after Morning Prayer, to travel to Avila for Mass in the Convent of the Incarnation which had been the convent of St. Teresa, and a look around the town itself. We discovered to our delight that there was a mediaeval fair going on, with processions of Christian knights and Moorish warriors, jugglers, musicians – the works! The Avilans enter fully into the spirit of the event and come dressed up from the eldest to the youngest, and there were stalls galore and meat roasting on a spit in the central square. We returned by way of Alba de Tormes where we sang Evening Prayer in the beautiful church of St. Juan de la Cruz.
The weather had been beautiful during the day but not too hot, but the temperature rose markedly in the evening when there was a Pub Quiz with suitably religious and musical overtones. It is amazing how competitive even the nicest people can get – there were protests and demands for recounts at various stages. Charity was somewhat strained when a team made up of visitors from Motherwell diocese won but every team got a prize and in proper Gospel fashion, the last were first in terms of the quality of prize.
On Sunday, we walked to the Oblatas church for Mass where, despite the best efforts of the nuns (including taking our power cable through their grill in an attempt to get our keyboard going) we had to sing à capella but the acoustics were great and it was a beautiful Mass.
After a relaxing free afternoon, we went to the nearby village of Mozarbez for a wonderful supper. After numerous plates of “starters” (starters! – many of us were full before the main course!) we were given hot stones and platters of finely cut steak to cook for ourselves to our own satisfaction. All of this was washed down with plentiful supplies of local wines and beer, and liqueurs to finish. The choir responded to this warm hospitality by singing an amazing range of songs, including a waulking song in Gaelic. The proprietor did look a bit puzzled, not to say alarmed, when we took the table cloth and serviettes in hand for the actions!
Monday was another early start to travel to Segovia for Mass at the tomb of St. Juan de la Cruz. The choir prayed for its deceased members, relatives and friends and placed cards with their names on the altar for the Mass. The temperature was now in the upper 30s but this did not stop some of the more determined members heading for the castle (which it is claimed is the model for the Disneyland fairytale castles), the cathedral and the aquaduct, before we returned to Salamanca. The swimming pool now proved very popular for cooling down, as well as the Spanish custom of the siesta.
In the evening, we had a great fireworks display which Fr. Michael assured us had been laid on especially for the choir – coincidentally it also happened to be the Vigil of Our Lady’s Birthday, which is a great feastday in Salamanca. On the Feastday itself, we went to Mass in the Cathedral which was packed with people – dignitaries, locals, visitors – and it was definitely a case of the weakest to the wall. The Mass itself started with a very grand procession and outside, the statue of the Virgin was set up in a beautiful framework of flowers.
The final day of the pilgrimage was a day of leisure and shopping, and catching up on any sightseeing still to be done. It was enlivened by the sights and sounds of the ongoing fiesta in town, with planes doing aerobatics and hot air balloons flying overhead. We had a final lunch together in town where the waiters were again a bit flummoxed by the appropriation of serviettes for the waulking songs or, in the case of a certain member of the choir, for her headscarf for one of her famous stories.
And so we ended the first pilgrimage of the Diocesan choir and it was such a success that Moira Shaw and Fr. Michael will have to start thinking of their next venture. Our thanks to both of them for a wonderful time and a brilliant mix of the spiritual, the musical and the relaxing!