Andorran Philatelic Study Circle

Andorran Legends

Meritxell Mid Century

This account of the Meritxell pilgrimage is taken from Chapter 4 of the book, "The Road to Andorra" by Shirley Deane, published by John Murray, 1960. It gives an interesting insight into what the pilgrimage was like in the 1950s.

Copyright © Shirley Deane 1960
Note: This page is provided by E. J. Jewell. Attempts to contact the author for permission to reproduce the chapter here have been unsuccessful. It will be removed immediately if there is any objection by the copyright holder.

Notre Dame de Meritxell

Perched on a hill-top halfway between Encamp and Canillo on the road to France stands the Sanctuary of Notre Dame de Meritxell, the patron saint of Andorra. Once, long ago, the little wooden statue was discovered by a shepherd boy, like so many European Virgins, on the same hill-top beside a rose-bush, miraculously flowering in the winter snow. The people of Encamp took her to their church, and placed her reverently on the altar, but next morning she was gone again and back beside her rose-bush. The people of Canillo took it for a sign that she preferred to live with them, but the same thing happened. Both villages gave up, and combined to build the present Sanctuary, where she has remained, calm and content, ever since.

Every year on September 8th, her festival is celebrated, and pilgrims come to pay her homage, not only from all over Andorra, but from France and Spain as well. We rose before dawn and went down our mountain to Andorra la Vieja, where trucks and buses were waiting to transport the twentieth-century pilgrims from the capital. There was a traffic policeman in the town square. It was the first time I had seen an official of any kind in Andorra, except for the shadowy, friendly figure at the border. This one was not alarming, either - not ostentatiously glittering with guns and batons like a Spanish Guardia Civil, but quiet and brown and shabby like a country mouse, helplessly waving his hands at the impossible crush of traffic in the narrow streets.

The bus was packed and sociable, and we craned from the windows so as not to miss a moment of the sun rising so dramatically over the mountains. At the base of the Sanctuary we tumbled out and became pilgrims in earnest, for even the twentieth century could not devise a means of reaching the summit of that craggy hill-top except on foot. We joined a long, straggling queue of Andorran, French and Spanish pilgrims, young and old, all loaded with luncheon baskets and goatskins of wine. A tall, agile priest, his black robes flying, scrambled ahead of us, elbowing the faithful out of the way as he climbed.

Here and there old ladies rested, panting, by the side of the track, their baskets on the stones; and wherever a spring of fresh water burst out of the rocks, a little bar had erupted by the wayside, as miraculously as the rose-bush in the snow. The water was useful only for washing glasses, and for keeping the drinks cool as the sun rose higher, for no one thought of drinking it on this day of festival. People didn't even bother much with wine, though each carried his own supply, but bought exotic drinks in bottles - champagne, beer and cognac, creme de menthe and aniseed. By breakfast time, the popping of champagne corks echoed most pleasantly around the mountainside. Each little bar was a goal, a resting place, a social centre. Many of the young men of the district were already rather drunk, and swayed together with arms intertwined, singing happily.

At one bar stood a minstrel, improvising songs for the occasion. The sight of Malcolm's beard inspired him to heights of lyric poesy:

"O, heavenly growth,
O, furze bush of the Lord,
O, beard most impressive and glorious!"
He continued in this exuberant strain for quite five minutes, and at the end there was an appreciative round of applause from the audience. Poet and beard-owner bowed low to each other, and we resumed our climb, refreshed in mind and body.

Near the top of the hill was a shallow basin of springy green grass, where already families were spreading themselves out, claiming the best positions for their picnic lunches later. Above was the Sanctuary, a small and yellow building, blending with the rock. A solemn mass was in progress, rendered less solemn by the fact that it was being broadcast through a loud-speaker system to the great majority of worshippers who could not fit inside. It was almost unintelligible, especially from above, for a little track wound down and up again to a higher hill, and further shrines and sanctuaries. Here the mass bounced back from the surrounding mountains in a jumble of echoes, and one human voice became a thousand twangling instruments.

Beside the Sanctuary was a tall, three-storeyed building, with people milling in and out.
  "What is it?" we asked.
  No one seemed to know.
  "It belongs to the Authorities", they answered vaguely.

We followed the crowd inside, and wandered from one empty room to another, from one floor to the next. There was nothing at all - only the crowd of people wandering, too, and in a ground floor room with no furniture but a cooking stove, an old lady stirring something in a pot.

"It is a house for the guardian of the Sanctuary", she told us. "He lives here in summer to keep an eye on the tourists. And he must swear an oath of chastity during his term of office."

We stood outside the church, and listened to the sermon. It was in Catalan, which sounded harsh and guttural after Spanish, but we could follow most of it. It was a tactful sermon, in deference to the pilgrims from over the borders. Every time the priest (who was the tall, agile priest of the mountainside) spoke of Andorra, he spoke of Spain and France, too, in barely perceptible parentheses. Every time he mentioned the Andorran people, he mentioned the French and Spanish people, too, carefully reversing the order at each mention so as not to give offence. It was a superb piece of political diplomacy, but wasted on the happy, friendly crowd, who seemed to be neither politically conscious, nor - for that matter - particularly religious. The priest himself was not diplomatic in a religious sense. He told us that only Catholics were Christians, and that Christians were people who worshipped the Virgin Mary. He also inferred that people who worshipped Our Lady of Meritxell had a slight advantage over those who did not.

It is noticeable, however, that although she is the patron saint of the Valleys, the Virgin plays a less important part in the religion of Andorra and in Catalonia generally than in other parts of Spain. Many of the murals and altar pieces, both in Andorra and in the collection of Catalan primitives in Barcelona, have God the Father, God the Pantocrator, the God of the Old Testament, as their central figure.

When the service was almost over, the sound of more earthly music brought us all hastily leaping and scrambling down the muddy slope to the green for the folk-dancing. Some twenty girls and boys were gathering to the sound of two accordions and a pipe. Their costumes were like the traditional costumes of other mountain people, the Swiss Alps or the Austrian Tyrol. The girls wore green or purple silk skirts, with broad black velvet bands sewn on-wide skirts billowing over layers of cambric petticoats, and long white cambric drawers down to the ankles, rustling with frills of lace. Their bodices were of tight black velvet, corded across the front, and elaborately embroidered with sprigs of coloured flowers. Their blouses were white and frilly, like the drawers, with long full sleeves - and over their skirts they wore silk aprons, beautifully embroidered. Little white-lace mob-caps perched on their shining heads, threaded through with ribbons of green or yellow or purple; and some wore wide-brimmed straw bonnets over the caps, tied tightly under the chin with black velvet ribbons.

The boys had loose white blouses with flowing ribbons at the neck, tight black trousers and velvet waistcoats. They all had bright red cummerbunds round their waists, with one fringed and tasselled end resting on the right thigh. On their heads were flat, soft berets, or hard-brimmed hats; and they wore, when not actually dancing, loose knee-length coats or jackets, with long, full sleeves-grey or blue, and heavily embroidered.

The dancing gave an impression of artless simplicity, all very gay and bouncy, but was actually quite complicated, with much weaving in and out, ducking under clasped hands, and bowing to partners. The girls carried hoops of artificial grapes and vine leaves, which were used in some of the dances, and held aloft at the edge of the dancing when not in use. Hats and berets were waved in the air, and the wild shouts of the leaping boys encouraged the girls. They danced tirelessly and gracefully.

There is, of course, a sense of the theatrical about folklore nearly everywhere in Europe nowadays, even in comparatively remote little countries like Andorra. These girls and boys were not typical Andorran peasants performing their national dances in their own traditional costume. They came, in fact - we afterwards discovered - from Toulouse! There is no longer a traditional Andorran costume, though from time to time some tourist-conscious local suggests a meeting to decide on one, and at least one hotel makes its waiters wear cummerbunds. And though there are certain national dances, they are seldom performed and half-forgotten (except for the sardanas, which are common to all Catalonia). Nevertheless, the dancing in the autumn sunlight by the Sanctuary had a direct and simple appeal, because the performers were young and happy and unselfconscious. It had the qualities of folklore, although the boys and girls were just teenagers spending the afternoon in fancy dress; in the same way do the Easter processions of Seville and Malaga convey a genuine feeling of religion in spite of all their tourist-trapping pageantry.

It was amusing to see the dancers later when they had changed in the bushes into their everyday clothes - just as much a uniform as their folklore costumes, a teen-age uniform that stretches right through Europe from across the Atlantic - the girls in tapering slacks and little woolly caps, the boys in flannels or corduroys, with gay check American shirts. And they carried suitcases neatly packed with folklore as they leaped and pushed and scuffled their way down the hillside, whooping their twentieth-century war cries.

After the dancing, parties began to spread out, through the pine woods above and below us, with their picnic baskets, and the green itself - the centre of activity - was bright with busy people. We sat down to our simple meal of bread and cheese and salami, all in the lump to be hacked off with a penknife, and our goatskin of wine. I have always felt that, for the housewife's sake, a picnic should be simple, and not involve elaborate preparations, but I began to feel a failure as a wife and mother as my family - loyally silent but understandably envious - gazed with round eyes at the magnificence unfolding all about us. Fires were lit, and cauldrons appeared by magic from the baskets, chicken legs and slices of breast nestling in a thick, red, piquant sauce. Soon delicious and tantalizing odours were mingling with the fragrance of burning pine. But chicken stew was just an appetizer. By ancient custom, we discovered, the main course on festival day was lamb chops, succulently grilled on the flat slabs of slate which lay all around, and were propped on stones above the fires. Many fine Andorran lambs, fattened on the autumn pasture, were sacrificed that day by the altar of Our Lady. Some families had fifty or more chops sizzling simultaneously on the same great slab of slate; some had as many left over, which they casually tossed to the dogs that gathered round to share the feast.

"I like dogs", said Christopher sadly, "but it does seem a waste."

Champagne was the drink, unsuitable but festive, sizzling as merrily as the chops as it was poured into the best glasses, carefully packed in napkins for the picnic.

When lunch was over, and everyone had stretched and yawned and chattered, music began to emerge from the loudspeakers by the church - lively, secular music this, blasting away the last echoes of the morning mass. And here and there over the green, little parties of girls got up, leaving their elders to rinse the glasses and throw away the bones. They joined hands, and soon there were twenty or more different circles, bouncing up and down in the monotonous but cheerful rhythm of the sardanas. Up and down and round they went, not varying the steps, but occasionally quickening the tempo. And the circles widened as a few bold boys, egged on by the dares of their fellows, broke into them amid girlish shrieks and giggles. Then fathers and mothers, the picnics packed away, talked each other into joining, and grandpas and grandmas, too. There was room for everyone, for the green was broad; each new arrival slipped into step with barely a ripple on the symmetry of the circle.

On and on it went, hour after hour, and here and there a white-haired old lady dropped out of the dance, flushed and breathless, explaining to anyone who'd listen that she could keep it up forever when she was a girl. And the girls still kept it up for ever, in spite of the old ones' gloomy muttering that the younger generation was not what it used to be. Some of the livelier and drunker youths grew bored and sought more violent diversions. Groups of them linked hands, and rushed in a long, shrieking, jostling line in and out among the dancers, breaking the decorously bouncing circles, leaving havoc in their wake. But everyone was amiable and tolerant - the circles formed again and bounced decorously on, till the next shrieking line came to disturb them.

Near us a girl left her circle, tossing her head, in bright red dress and white heel-less slippers. She approached a patriarchal Spanish pilgrim, who had been lunching next to us, and who carried a camera.

"Will you take my photograph?" she demanded. "Take it while I'm dancing."

He agreed politely and without enthusiasm; obviously he would rather have continued taking posed shots of his fat wife and their enormous brood of children. But courtesy demanded that he get down on one knee in the approved position, and aim the camera at the bold, red girl as she rejoined her circle, preening herself like a film star, picking up her toes in an excess of daintiness. With great deliberation the patriarch focused, flourished his hand without touching the trigger, and nodded to her with false satisfaction, a better actor than she. "A good one", he called treacherously, and rejoined his placid wife, happy in the knowledge that he had not wasted a shot.

The girl pranced on more daintily than ever, happy in the illusion that her sardanas had been immortalized.

Meanwhile some of the noisy youths had started a violent game of leap-frog, leaping and shoving and once again disturbing the quietly bouncing circles. Others collected empty champagne bottles, tied the necks with string, and swung the bottles viciously round and round just above the level of the grass. Anyone in their path must leap the bottles, or sustain a hearty whack on the shins. This game was frowned on by the family parties; there were too many toddlers and hobbling grandmothers about.

"Que verguenza!" they called. "Shame! Shame!"

And when a bottle was broken, many stern fathers rose with one accord to their feet.

"Bastante! We've had enough", they demanded. "Pick up the pieces and throw them away."

The youths, chastened, got down on hands and knees, and collected all the scattered fragments carefully; for young people, however high-spirited, are obedient in the Valleys, and respect their elders.

So the afternoon wore on with singing and dancing - a simple, gay, warm-hearted celebration. Religion, as in all Catholic countries, was easily combined with merry-making, for perhaps God is so much an accepted member of the family that one need not stand on ceremony with Him. And the time for the evening service drew near.

Before the service started we visited the Sanctuary to pay our respects to Our Lady. The little church was almost empty, except for two or three elderly, praying figures; and very dirty and untidy, with bits of paper, tallow droppings and old candle ends on the floor. All kinds of wax images were hanging on the altar screen - white feet and hands and hearts and other votive offerings - and in a special little room above the altar, open in front like a doll's house and floodlit from within, sat the Virgin, Notre Dame de Meritxell. She is a very ancient statue, dating, some say, from Carolingian times. She is beautiful, but cold as the snows she was found in, as she sits erect and wooden on her throne, the Child on her lap. A little staircase leads to her, on one side of the altar, and two or three people were already in her room, kneeling reverently before her, touching her jewelled robe (which she wears only on feast days, and which was given to her in gratitude by the people of Andorra in 1865) or kissing her painted wooden feet, worn smooth by generations of the faithful.

Outside the church, music was still blaring from the loudspeakers, and a little group of four dedicated dancers continued their sardanas right beneath it. There were two old ladies (one sweet and gentle, prancing gravely for all her eighty years, the other ten years younger, with dyed black hair and a mischievous face) and a serious young couple. They all curtsied solemnly when we clapped them, and with great formality the young man handed us his visiting card.

And now the music stopped, and the revellers gathered for the evening service, to sing their goigs in honour of the Virgin. Soon afterwards, for darkness and coldness fall suddenly together in the mountains, we all began to stumble down the mountainside again to where the tiny buses waited far below us, floating on the narrow ribbon of road like barges on a river. Ahead, on the track, a respectable middle-aged couple staggered under the weight of an enormous suitcase, almost as big as themselves.

  "Was that full of lunch?" enquired Christopher admiringly, "or have they pinched the Virgin?"
 "I think it's just pyjamas and a toothbrush", soothed Michael. "They probably spent the week-end here."
We imagined them curled up on the barren mountainside, perhaps right inside the mysterious suitcase, in their anxiety not to be late for the festival.

Below on the road there were more accordions and sardanas to entertain the people as they waited to push on a crowded bus, and a black-haired man with yellow eyes had a porron full of champagne which he generously poured into and over anyone who crossed his path. Christopher and Michael crossed it immediately and even repeatedly, until we managed to find a bus with empty places, and dragged them away on the first stage of our own long, personal pilgrimage home to Anyos.