Fiesta at Els Àngels (2nd August 2015)
It was the satnav - or rather our disdain for it - that took us to Els Àngels.
Scoffing at its suggestion, we took the direct road to Girona, realising moments too late that this ‘shortcut’ actually crossed a mountain cloaked in scratchy green forests; a tiny twisting road, with Sunday cyclists at every hairpin bend.
We almost didn’t stop at the summit, already agitated by the unnecessary delay. But the stress of the winding road demanded the compensation of a view. So we parked by a curving modern art cross and stretched our legs. The heady scent of sun-scorched pine needles hung in the air like incense.
As we wandered up the tree-lined lane looking for a viewing platform, we were confused to hear music, folky and melodic. Maybe a car radio on too loud?
It grew louder until finally, the lane opened into wide stone steps where, at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning, people were dancing. They appeared, mirage-like, in the distance in everyday clothes, as though they’d been drawn away from more mundane matters, unable to resist the call of Sardanas music played by the band tucked in the corner. They moved with delicate steps, hands joined high in the air. A lycra-clad cyclist propped his bike against the whitewashed wall and cut into the circle while we watched open-mouthed, wondering if we were dreaming or had stumbled into some alternate reality.
At 488 metres, Els Àngels (Catalan for “Los Angeles” or “The Angels”) is neither town nor village. It is a mountaintop monastery speckled with balconied windows; a hotel and cyclists’ refuge (Santuari dels Àngels). A church is housed within the same L-shaped building surrounded by wide stone patios. Below sits a functional community hall, whose tiled roof has become an extension of the terraces, filled with tables and chairs where the older generation could sit watching and smiling in the shade of two sturdy trees.
Nobody really lives here, and yet there is community. And on 2nd August, the day of Our Lady of the Angels, that community fills it with life, music and dance.
After the forested enclosure of the road, the spacious terrace and wide sky felt liberating. Looking outwards we could see across to Girona city and the foothills of the Pyrenees, blue and misty in the distance. There is a surreal peacefulness about being on top of a mountain and the fiesta seemed to acquiesce with a calm joy as though slowly waking up to beauty.
Although mass wasn’t for another hour, people were drifting into the 18th Century church (where Dalí and Gala were secretly married in 1958). Shawls and bags strategically left on pews indicated how packed it would be later. Inside it was a blank canvas of simplicity with splashes of ostentation: gold framed icons and a shockingly blood-dripping statue of Christ. Upstairs, people knelt before a star crowned Virgin, grabbing its hand like a lost relative.
Back outside the band were still playing and more Sardanas circles were bobbing rhythmically to the gentle beat. Tables had been set up with scribbled signs advertising cheap beer and mojitos and I have been to enough Spanish fiestas to know the dancing would be less genteel later. But for now, there was a deep sense of peace and contentment.
It was reluctantly that we left for the city, already feeling nostalgic as we walked away. The music became gradually muted by distance and we kept turning back in disbelief, still wondering if we had imagined it all.
The satnav was right, but I will be forever grateful for ignoring it that day five years ago. It felt like wandering unknowingly into Narnia. Occasionally I think, ‘What if we’d just rushed on by? We’d have missed so much!’
And then I wonder how many times I have done just that: missing heart bursting experiences like this simply because I haven’t wanted to waste time.
Deviating from the plan can be hard. When you do, you can be pretty sure that a little way into this uncharted satnav-free journey, you will have doubts.
You will question your own sense of direction (not to mention your sanity).
You will think, ‘There’s a reason they told us not to come this way.’
But keep listening to your instincts. Maybe it will turn out that ‘they’ were right, but don’t turn back just yet. Keep going, even if you have to slow right down to get anywhere at all.
We all need to take the back roads from time to time, to follow our gut and see where it leads, even if it makes life a little tricky. The winding uphill road may feel tough, but you just never know what you’ll find at the top of that mountain.