Nocturnal pilgrimage to Olvera in black and white

On overnight walk from Ronda to Olvera. Photo @ G. De La Barrera

For us who like nature hikes and village walks, the Andalucían summer poses a major problem – the heat. In July and August the temperature may rise above a stifling 40* C, which doesn’t encourage one to strap on a backpack and lace on heavy hiking boots. So, when, where and how do we get out in nature?

To avoid heat stroke, the Andalucían summer really only offers two hiking possibilities: semi-aquatic hikes or night hiking. While we have not had a chance to join the former one yet in the flash, we went on a night-walk during the last full moon. Unlike the flat areas around Sevilla and Cordoba, temperatures in Ronda thankfully sink down to a balmy 20*C at night, making it possible not only to sleep, but also to go for a hike at night.

As every summer around this time, a group of about 60 rondeños met in the Plaza San Francisco around midnight and set out on the 34 km walk from Ronda in the province of Málaga to the Hermitage Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our lady of the Remedies) on a hilltop outside the small white town of Olvera in the province of Cádiz. We were told that the hike would take about 6 to 8 hours and would include regular roads, gravel paths, farm roads and paths in various states of repair or disrepair. Last year, part of the path had been washed away by heavy rain, so the group had to fend through bush, following the moon and any other orientation devices at hand. This only made it sound more interesting to our group, as we were stamping our ‘hooves’, keen and ready for any challenges the night would bring.

Once we left Ronda behind us, the moon became our all-night companion. It was said that it was the biggest moon of the year. I do not know how people measure such and whatever makes it seem bigger to our human eye, but I assure you, the moon was giant! Almost like a fake set piece cut out of golden fabric and hung onto the night sky. A paper moon. I realized as we walked up the Setenil road from the Sevilla take off, that the moon is really no good indicator if one is lost, especially if one is walking up a switch back road. During the hour climb, we had the moon alternately behind us, on either side and in front of us. So at least to me, the moon was no help when it came to finding our way…

On the other hand, living in a modern society, in cities with electric illumination everywhere, people often do not realize how instrumental the moon must have been since the dawn of man, in simply providing light. How dark and dreary our nights would be without our moon? On a clear night, you can almost ready by moonlight. We did not need our headlights while hiking the open stretches – the moon provided all the desired illumination. Passing olive groves, the moon cast streams of light between the trees, so we really were ‘followed by a moon shadow’.

As we passed by the entrance to the Chinchilla vineyard (one of my favourite Ronda vines, in case you should be in the area…), the landscape flattened and the dirt road passed rolling hills, rocky outcrops and distant farms. We could see the light of the other hikers far behind and in front of us, as by now the group had spread out into smaller clusters of hikers all through the valley.

Walking at night reminds me of being a child, seeing trees and rocks that turn into witches and monsters. As an adult you know for a fact that you are looking at an olive tree. As you come closer you can clearly distinguish its branches. You pass it confidently. Of course it is a tree! Then as you walk on, you feel as if someone is watching you from behind. You start walking a little faster. Finally you turn back. Sure enough, there she is again, that scary bent witch!

Witches aside, a night pilgrimage is a meditative experience. All the bright colours, patterns and details that fight for our attention during daytime are turned off. What remains are softened shapes in an infinite tones of greys and blacks. As the visual stimuli and the audio noises are lessened, ones remaining senses become extra alert. We can distinguish the rustle of leaves, the trickling sound of water, a hooting of an owl, a white horse galloping across a field, a distant bark or a donkey’s complaining bray. Even usually unperceptive sounds, like the slight tingling of the electric wire containing a herd of sheep, are heard. You become hyper sensitized, yet very peaceful.

We could see the town of Olvera glowing at a distance, with its hilltop church and Arab castle fighting for the highest and most revered spot. It is amazing how much electric light we use nowadays, even when people are allegedly sleeping. Coming to the village of Torre Alháquime, we knew we were nearing our destination. Like any Spanish name starting with ‘al’, it has Arab roots. The name comes from Al Hakin family, meaning “the wise” or “the learned” and the village is said to closely resemble Berber towns in the hills of North Africa.

Though we knew that we just had a few more kilometres climb left, we did not know which road to take, so we had to wait for others in the group to lead the way. For good reason – The last piece is a meandering trip through the streets of the village before one departs on an unmarked trail along the fence of a local goat farmer onto a path that we never would have found on our own.

Walking in the dark is freeing. You have to trust your step and accept that you only see a few feet ahead. What will come will come. We had never been on the path we were walking, which edge fell off into a black nothingness. We did not know whether the drop was two meters or 200. Every step becomes a walking meditation, and time becomes fluid. Has hours passed or maybe only a few minutes? The calming darkness soothes all aches, and you just walk on and on.

Quite suddenly the trail ended and we stepped out onto a road. On stiff legs we walked the last steps up to the hermitage where our hike would end. It had taken us just under five hours of steady walking, so the sun had not yet risen. Some hikes took off immediately with waiting cars, other stretched tired limbs, some ate, while others laid down on a stone bench. I sat down and fell asleep almost immediately, as we had to wait for our ride home. Waking up, the sun was up and more hikers had arrived. A group of local women came in procession from the village to the church. A clergyman followed with a loud megaphone, repeating a prayer to a virgin. Spain is all about virgins – innumerable, holy and immaculate.

Our friends who would take us back to Ronda had arrived, as had the day, though I was not sure if I liked all that light… We had planned to enter the church to give our thanks, but the priest with the megaphone asked ‘the people outside’ (ie us) to be quiet or to leave, so we drove off, giving our thanks to the Gods of the Sun and the Moon instead.

The white town of Olvera seen from the hermitage Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. Photo ©


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