With a vino tinto hangover, I stepped out of Hotel Patria into the late morning drizzle and a scene that appeared more like an epic Hollywood movie than the unassuming street of an industrial Spanish city.
Costumed Aragonese folks were hastily and gleefully bustling about. Dress shoes clattered and excited Spanish banter ricocheted down the boulevard. Everyone grasped bouquets of scented carnations and roses.
Yet I felt a bit glum and insignificant. These people had a purpose — their dress, demeanor and collective clamor rang of a jubilant party. I, on the other hand, felt like an uninvited guest — underdressed, overeager and embarrassed to have left the Jell-O salad at home.
I had traveled to Zaragoza, in northeastern Spain, not to mope but to celebrate the regional fiestas en honor de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, the festivities in honor of Our Lady of the Pillar. Not a typical tourist stop, Zaragoza is crammed with visitors each October as zealous pilgrims arrive to pay homage to the Virgen del Pilar.
In this world of grab-and-go amusements and stop-and-snap photo ops, it was refreshing to see people making a thoughtful journey for a special purpose. I was reminded of the universal need for more trips where respect, reverence and admiration — rather than refrigerator magnets, suntans and bragging rights — drive us to a special destination.
For these Spanish pilgrims, the banks of Zaragoza’s Río Ebro was that holy spot. Legend says that as the Apostle St. James preached along the river in the year 40, the Virgin Mother descended from heaven and appeared atop a pillar (thus the name). A magnificent church was erected, and devotees come to touch the sacred beam (think of a religious version of Plymouth Rock). Once a year, thousands of Spaniards from the Aragon region flock to the city to bestow the Virgin with flowers and prayers.
And flock they did. During my three days in Zaragoza, the mile-long procession toward the Plaza del Pilar continued morning to evening. As if tickets had just gone on sale in Detroit for another Kiss comeback tour, the pilgrims waited, inching along Paseo de la Independencia. Vigilance and umbrellas kept lace shawls and embroidered vests clean beneath the persistent rain.
Pilgrims place bouquets and memorials on a 50-foot scaffolding pyramid in Zaragoza’s cathedral plaza. Perched atop the giant configuration is a small Virgin Mother doll.
After that first rainy morning, I began to feel lucky to be part of it. While I didn’t actively pay homage, I understood the spirit, which conjured up memories of my own pilgrimages.
Three years ago, I visited southern France to honor Vincent van Gogh. From Saint-Rémy to Arles, I traipsed among the crippled trees, gardens, fields and quarries that van Gogh painted. I visited the asylum in which he suffered, and drank wine on the grounds of the hospital in which he restlessly rested. Now, when I see van Gogh’s paintings on a stuffy museum wall, I look in them, not just at them.
Many of my personal pilgrimages have revolved around the dead. Many, around music. And, not surprisingly, many around dead musicians. In 1991, my husband and I traveled to Memphis to visit Graceland. Like many Americans, my love of music was triggered by Elvis Presley. As we toured his home, I fantasized about wild parties in the Jungle Room and shed a tear in the Meditation Garden. For me and other visitors, Graceland is more than an attraction and we are more than tourists. We are pilgrims of rock ’n’ roll.
Pilgrimages don’t have to be bittersweet. They can be happier, simpler, emotionally easier, shorter and, then again, longer. I once drove 200 miles off route to hang out in San Antonio, Texas, induced by the sentiment of Doug Sahm’s song, “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone?”
Friends and I annually trek to Jazz Fest to be hypnotized by New Orleans’ mad musical spell. And my sisters and I always make a summer pilgrimage to our grandmother’s rustic beach house to honor her bewitching laugh, potent gin martinis and flowered bathing cap.
A pilgrimage is more than a trip to EPCOT Center for a fabricated exposure to German life. It’s a trip to Germany itself to follow the footsteps of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, walk the route of the Berlin Wall, or pay tribute to Richard Wagner by watching one of his operas in the place he composed it.
Shouldn’t we all make a few more pilgrimages to uncover what is sacred or meaningful in our lives? Are we ballsy enough to ponder what really causes our spirits to be aroused, our minds to stew, our hearts to palpitate or ache?
Think of the revered pillar in Zaragoza and what you hold sacred enough to place there. Whether it’s the words of your favorite author, the birthplace of an ancient relative, the music of a revered rock star or the footsteps of an early explorer, maybe it’s time to pay tribute. Maybe it’s time for a firstname.lastname@example.org