Saturday, 21 October 2017

Hinojos - no atheists here...

Gill is a very soulful person. However, she is the least religious person you are ever likely to meet. Richard Dawkins, compared to Gill, is a mamby-pamby agnostic. This results in her being less than comfortable in places that exude sanctity, authentic or affected. The former she finds spooky, the latter inadvertently hilarious. 

Hinojos, our nearest town definitely falls into her spooky category. There is a beautiful cycle track through the forest all the way from the site to the outskirts of the town. The place itself is a bit odd.

Typically, Spanish country towns seem to have developed quite differently to English ones. They do have an obvious centre, often a square, with the town hall, a statue or two, perhaps a municipal market, sitting spaces and cafés. However rather than having a main street with a row of shops and banks, the main plaza is surrounded by a clutch of smaller neighbourhoods, mainly residential streets, but each containing a few small shops and often a local church. In a way such a development pattern is more like a mini-city, and consequently it's quite easy to over estimate the size of a place. Hinojos has a population of less than 4000, but it seems much bigger than that if you explore it on foot.

On our first long trip we stayed at el Rocio about 20kms south of here. The famous pilgrimage town on the southern edge of the Donana Park is unique. Its annual pilgrimage is the biggest in Spain and draws half a million devotees, many of whom arrive on horseback or in carriages. Not surprisingly this makes el Rocio a somewhat peculiar place, particularly the ghastly gigantic pilgrimage church and the fact that there are no metalled roads in the town centre, just broad boulevards of soft sand.

We had assumed that el Rocio's strange atmosphere of kitch religiosity was the the effect of the annual festival. Hinojos made us suspect that religious fervour may be more widespread, that this corner of Huelva province may be a bastion of tradition - well that aspect of the Spain of yesteryear which was staunchly Catholic, monarchist, autocratic and patriarchal. 

It was late morning as we cycled down Calle Almonte; we heard the town centre before we reached it, a definite hubbub. When we arrived at a little square, somewhat to our surprise it was occupied almost entirely by elderly men. Some were sitting in the sun chatting on benches, others gathered in half shuttered rooms behind bead curtained doors sitting in groups of four or five in earnest silence playing cards. We locked the bikes about fifty metres up the street by a small grassy area and set off, Google maps on screens, to find an ATM. Hinojos is a confusing little place; the Barios beyond the centre are a warren of twisting streets, we must have explored most of them before we found a bank. What soon became clear was these backstreets were the domain of the womenfolk missing from the town centre. Again, the majority were middle-aged or older, dressed somewhat fustily in sensible skirts or shapeless flowery frocks, the sort of mid-length smock dress we remembered seeing in rural villages in France thirty years ago.

Social conservatism prevails here it seems. People stared at us as if we had arrived from an alien spacescraft. It was slightly discomforting. For Gill, un-nerving, as every street corner was marked by painted tiles of 'Our Lady'. Posters of the Mother of God, her head crowned by a diadem of preposterous proportions decorated many shop windows too. Spanish flags drooped from balconies and flagpoles. It was obvious that here faith and patriotism were inexorably intertwined. Why? Was this a hangover from last week's Spanish National Day? Was it a nationalist response to events in Catalonia? We had no idea, but as people with a healthy scepticism about flag waving the sight of national and religious symbolism so overtly conflated felt unsettling.

After a few minutes we arrived in Plaza Espagna, the church of Apóstol Santiago el Mayor runs the length of eastern side of the square, an unusual mix of a castle-like structure at one end and a small belfry at the other crowned with an untidy storks nest. On one side of the church was the town hall, on the other the local office of the Guardia Civil. It was the Spanish establishment in miniature.

Three boys in Sevilla kit were kicking a ball about on chequerboard central plaza. The clock on the town hall struck noon. A few seconds later the bell on the church began to clang. No sonorous tolling here, the belfry contained two small bells attached to each end of a short spindle which rotated quickly, driven by an electric motor presumeably. The effect was like standing next to a wind-up alarm clock of gigantic proportions. Just when you thought the cacophony could not get any worse, a firecracker exploded from the tower, a plume of white smoke drifted past the stork's nest, followed by another explosion moments later. Bells and booms from the town's other churches joined in. 

I looked around. Gill had disappeared. It was some moments before I noticed a pallid face peering nervously around the corner of the town hall. "It's very weird here, I think we need to go." she whispered. We found an ATM, robbed the bank, unlocked the bikes and rode away at speed like a couple of outlaws run out of town in a 'B' movie Western.

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