National Geographic : 1954 Feb
Life in the Land of the Basques the America of the North and informed Co lumbus. "Then that grasping Genoese sailed across the ocean with another Basque as navigator," he said, "and took all the credit." As we turned inland along the Deva River, we noticed now and then steel nets suspended above the road, erected to catch stones that might fall from buckets in which they were transported on high cables from distant quar ries. After we saw one bucket, sagging and rusted, that had slipped from its pulley and was dangling precariously, we kept a sharp lookout for any rain of rocks from the sky. By accident we received a tip that led us to one of our most interesting experiences in the land of the Basques. We had stopped at a little settlement to inquire about Salinas de Leniz, an ancient town unmarked on our map. The place appeared deserted till I saw a woman's smiling face at a broken window. "Are you looking for the sacred thorn?" she asked, instead of answering my query. "The what?" "Didn't you know? It's at Salinas de Leniz, a mile and a half ahead." I thanked her for this surprising information and promised we would not leave without seeing the thorn. We entered Salinas de Leniz by a picturesque arch marked with a medieval coat of arms (page 158). In Quest of the Sacred Thorn On the curb of an old fountain in its tiny plaza two little girls sat talking in low tones. One of them, with eyes of eggshell blue, under stood my Spanish and directed us to the near by home of the town priest, Don Pedro. The priest was out, and the old lady in black who answered our knock was more interested in where we were from than where we were going. When I told her that I was English but that I had been in the United States, her face lighted up. "Then you may have met my son in Ne vada." When she told me his name, I shook my head, and the gleam died in her face. "You will find Don Pedro," she said, "at the Chapel of Nuestra Sefiora del Castillo, up that little lane." The chapel stood on a lonely hill a hundred yards above a salt mine of Roman times. A hunchback, working near by, showed us into the church, and presently a little old priest, at least 80 years of age, appeared. He addressed us in Spanish, apologizing for not knowing English. "I speak only Basque, Spanish, Italian, and Greek," he remarked, eying us keenly. "But you have come a long way, gentlemen. What brings you here?" "The sacred thorn," I replied. "Your housekeeper said you might show it to us." We followed Don Pedro's shuffling steps along the aisle and up to the high altar, a magnificent work of art dated 1710. Far up in a niche was a Madonna, the Sefiora del Castillo, a small carved figure of the 14th century. "The altar is young compared with its sur roundings," Don Pedro whispered. "This church was built centuries ago, on the site of another that was much older." Near a side altar he paused before an oil painting which portrayed the hermit of Sa linas de Leniz kneeling in a wilderness of rocks and trees and looking up into the shining face of an angel. A Basque priest has attributed the painting to El Greco, Don Pedro told us. Relic Kept in Gilded Safe The old man went into the adjoining ves try and returned in a white surplice and a crimson stole. Then he opened a gilded safe in the side altar and indicated that we should kneel. As we did so, I saw he was holding a small gold reliquary. In it was a glass tube, and within that a white object, resembling a fishbone, about an inch and a half long. He held the reliquary to our lips to kiss. I was curious to get a nearer view of the sacred relic. Don Pedro motioned us to follow him. Stopping in a pool of sunlight, he held up the reliquary. "Ask me what you will," he said quietly. "Why is the thorn white instead of brown?" "Through age, my son." "Did it come from the original Crown of Thorns?" "It is one of the very few. It has been tra ditionally accepted as such, for its authentic ity is vouched for by documentary evidence dating from Roman times." We were reluctant to leave, but miles of rough country lay between us and Guernica, the hallowed town of Spanish Basques, which we wanted to reach before sundown. Risking a subsidiary road from Villarreal de Alava, we threaded wild defiles cut by rush ing streams. Our car, spitting resentfully, at last reached the 3,504-foot pass of Urquiola.