Monday, December 10, 2007

stairway to heaven?

Because I am fascinated by paths, walk them and ponder over their origins, the desires that have scoured them into the land, and the time and skills invested in their making, the Valle de Laguart in south-eastern Spain had drawn me to it in pilgrimage. Not for nothing has it been coined ‘la catedral de senderismo’ – the cathedral of path-ism. The irony of the cathedral metaphor is that the system of paths that criss-cross the gorges of this valley, including a crossing of the notorious ‘barranco de infierno’ or ravine of hell, are attributed to the ‘Mozarabs’or ‘would-be Arabs’, who were Christians under Islamic rule but became entirely Arabised, and had clearly acquired the Islamic engineering skills needed for enduring and artful mountain paths.

Stepped zig-zags led me up the side of the ravine through grey-green shade, under a towering white cliff on the north-facing wall behind which lurked the sun. When I reached the eastern edge of the cliff, the path screwed itself into a series of steep tight stairways. It was like walking a series of terraces except that the turn at each end was perfectly graded for a pedestrian, almost disguising the effort of the climb. As I got higher, the sun inched over the cliff’s crest. It illuminated the white rocks that bordered the pathway, and the luxuriant grass between the edging stones of each step. Each time I turned to walk west, the sun, diffused through tree and rock, created a dazzling white incandescence high above the steps.

I reached a white knobbly crag sitting proud of the wall of the ravine, 500 metres above the river-bottom. The land from here would start to roll back, become less steep and lead to an escarpment, where road travel was possible again. The crag invited me to sit. I looked towards the Mediterranean through interleaving spurs of the ravine, growing incrementally paler as they became more distant. It was as if they were the measures of some kind of scale of distance, the striped detail of rock and foliage becoming less distinct, the colour more subtle. And before the drop to the Mediterranean plateau, there was peak where Al-Azraq’s castle had been, and with it a sense of his blue eyes watching since the 13th Century. He had perhaps bequeathed to this valley the fine engineering which made this walk through a ferocious landscape so graceful and calm, so redolent of an ancient inheritance that still marks the land and invites human journeying. If books can be considered a mark of civilisation, then perhaps fine paths stepped into steep land should be too.


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