The Camino and the Spanish Civil War (part 4 – La Rioja)

Santo Domingo de la Calzada, La Rioja (image author’s own)

There’s one person you’re bound to meet on your Camino, and if you don’t find him at first, keep looking and like Where’s Wally? (or Where’s Waldo? in the USA), he’ll eventually pop up — he’s José Antonio Primo de Rivera, and I first spotted him in La Rioja.

You enter the famous winemaking region at its capital, Logroño, a city renowned for tourists doing the ‘Elephant Walk’, as they lumber from one tapas bar to another, and possibly stumbling past its largest church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary.  With an inscription from July 1936 on the wall facing the large square declaring Spain’s victory in its crusade against Communism, it offers thanks to El Caudillo ‘The Leader’, Franco.  The inscription is too high up to be effectively mutilated by a passer-by, but when I was there in March 2022 some Bugsy Malone with a blue paintball splurge gun had recently given it a shot for each year of the civil war.  Not so the inscription to José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange Española, the Spanish fascist party which became Franco’s political organ.  It remains high on the wall around the corner, safer than José Antonio himself who was executed by the government in 1936.

But José Antonio isn’t gone, on the contrary, you’ll find him presente (‘present’) everywhere you go.  Just like those pilgrims you lose for a few days and then bump into at a random café, likewise, two days later, I caught up with him on a church wall in Azofra, a small town where the only sign of life was a municipal worker with a leaf-blower attempting to remove signs of life.  There, proudly presente on the church porch wall, José Antonio led twelve disciples who had ‘died for God and for Spain in this holy crusade against communism’.  And on my last day in La Rioja, I found him playing peek-a-boo on the Calle de la Alameda in Santo Domingo de la Calzada.  The cast-iron street sign riveted onto the wall only half-obscured the older painted name Calle José Antonio Primo de Rivera.  Perhaps no better metaphor for modern Spain; a hasty attempt at a durable change failing to obliterate an uncomfortable past still close to the surface.  As I took a photo of it, I asked a passing old man about the name change.  In the 1980s he said (and on this basis you could twin Calle de la Alameda with the Gran Vía in the heart of Madrid).  ‘And what’s more, you’re taking your photo from Calle Pinar, which used to be Calle Mola!’  I really like Santo Domingo de la Calzada and the people there are among the friendliest I have met on the Camino, but for God and for Spain it was time to leave.

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