Legend has it that many many many many many years ago (I don’t know if we are talking about centuries or decades) the weather in Arrieta, Bizkaia (my father’s hometown) was dry and hot. Much of the food for both the people and the animals was lost the year before because of hot and dry weather, and the town’s people feared it would happened again. If it did, no one would survive. It was a scary time and the grace of God was needed.
The town prayed to San Iñazio (Saint Ignatius also the patron Saint of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa) and together a promise was made. If the weather changed and provided what was needed for a happy and healthy harvest to those in Arrieta and neighboring towns, on the feast day of San Iñazio, July 31, a pilgrimage would be made from Arrieta to San Juan de Gaztlugatxe. A statue of the Virgin Mary would be carried to the small church that sits atop Bermeo’s island and a Mass would be said.
The prays worked and from then on, starting at 6 am in Arrieta’s plaza a few hundred faithful make the four hour trek. Through the town, up the mountain, down the mountain and up again.
The Virgin Mary is still carried by four men with everyone else following behind.
It is also still tradition to stop in Mañuas, a neighborhood of Bermeo. For the walkers it is a time to have a quick snack or grab a beer or a glass of wine. But for those who live in this small one bar, a handful of homes town, it is time to adorne the Virgin Mary with fresh flowers before she and her faithful followers continue. It is also not unusual for people who live along the path to leave their houses and greet the group, putting more flowers on the statue.
I have to admit, my family and friends spent a little too much time in the bar (just one beer) during our stop. We missed the group photo and the Virgin left without us. Trying to catch up, we were offered a ride by a passer-by but we gratefully declined. Okay okay…since I am talking about prays, and miracles and the Virgin Mary I should confess that my cousin Udane and I didn’t decline, instead our friend Esther wouldn’t let us get in the car, saying we had to continue walking!!
Four hours later we were greeted by the hundreds of others who had walked in homage from a different location or those who came by car. Together, one by one, we walked the several hundred steps up to the church for a beautiful Mass and afternoon.
And as all Basque festivals, a celebration in Arrieta’s plaza took place later that night, once the Virgin Mary was brought back safe and sound!
Okay…so the legend is beautiful and this is my third time being a part of such a special tradition. But today I am praying to the Virgin Mary that she takes the pain out of my legs and butt because I simply can’t move!!! To the three older Basque women who were sitting in the shade commenting on how great they felt and how tired, hot and sweaty these young people looked…may the Virgin Mary herself forgive you!!! Oh and I should probably give thanks to the Virgin as well, that Udane was so out-of-breathe that she didn’t have it in her to give them a piece of her mind!!!