The Goat-Herd’s Vision

It was just before Holy Week, and we were in an ancient town in Southern Spain in unseasonal pouring rain, lurking at the corner of the Convent Of Santa Eufemia, under the shelter of Santiago Church. The convent bell sounded once, dull. We look at our wrist watches, it is 4.30. An hour until the Dolmenes officially close.

The Dolmenes – three Megalithic burial chambers on the other side of town – were the only reason we were there, so we pulled up our Ravers Hoods to brave the rain and began to walk.

Information about the three dolmens around the Andalucian town of Antequera had been difficult to track down. Through the odd sentence or two in a number of guide books on the area we had found out that the burial chambers are called Cueva de VieraCueva La Menga and Cueva El Romeral. “Cueva” is a spanish word meaning “Cave”, a word that confusingly covers everything from a natural underground cavern, through megalithic barrow, to well-stocked wine cellar. The Viera and El Romeral  were discovered and excavated in 1905, La Menga it seems has always been known about by locals, “since antiquity”. Most sources agree that the La Menga cave is the oldest of the three, its internal chamber is quoted to be 25m(long) x 6.5m(wide) x 2.5m(high). The entrance capstone is said to weigh 180 tons. Viera and La Menga are sited very close together, El Romeral is much further out of town. All three barrows were constructed as chambers from huge local stones, which was then covered with earth to form a mound, they are all structurally well preserved, although no funerary artefacts or anything at all were ever found in any of the tombs whatsoever. For this reason accurate dating of the tombs has been a problem for scientists, quoted dates vary from 3500 to 1800 BCE. This was all we knew about our intended destination on that squally day in Holy Week.

The rain lays off, clouds clear and we begin to see the countryside around us. The ancient town is set down in a hollow, surrounded on three sides by mountain views to lose your breath to. We’re standing on the edge of the town, where the fields rear up into towering craggy hillsides then mountains. Standing on a wall, on the edge of town watching storm clouds billowing away around and above the steep hills, lost in our own images and imaginings of wildness, silence for miles and miles.

We heard bells, tinkling, jingling louder and looking over the wall, looking down we saw a goat herd and his goats; brown, black, tan-coloured and some white, fat, skinny, lame or tripping, skipping along the path, where it begins to rise into the foothills of the surrounding mountains.

The Goat Herd falls suddenly to his knees on the rain-grimey path. I blink at him, and unclasp my hands, which had wound themselves rapturously, at the sight of storm-driven mountain scenery, into a praying gesture. The Goat Herd blinks, stumbles to his feet, takes a few steps forward, then falls again into a head-bowed kneel. This time I am sure he’s kneeling to me, he’s even holding his goat herd’s staff outstretched in my direction. I try to slip away, he picks up a rock and looks intently in my direction. I jump off the wall, not wishing to become the subject of a millennial Marian cult instigated by a vision of Mary as seen by a goat herd one rainy Holy Week when news was a bit slow – Our Lady of the Damp Black Ravers Hood – jumping I catch a glimpse of him as he throws a rock at the hindmost old lame goat, who bleating loudly hobbles off, her two big milk-heavy udders slapping against the backs of her knees.

We continue walking and as the clouds clear further, we begin to discern the huge profile of The Sleeping Giant, swathed in mist. This mountain which from every angle in the town, and from the dolmens, is visibly recognisable as the profile of a Sleeping Giant is known by the locals as La Peña de Los Amorados, prosaically translating as “Lovers’ Leap”.

We were leaving the residential part of town behind now. A sign pointed out “Poligono Industrial”, “Industrial Estate”, it was starting to look grim, even though the sun was beginning to come out. We passed a petrol station, nothing but empty dual carriageway ahead. The petrol station is named “Gasolinera Dolmenes”, and there just by the side was a gate, a path and a sign saying “Las Cuevas Viera y Menga” with opening times.

Through the gate in the wire fence, we emerged onto a gently sloping and curving rain-damp sandy path. Past a mound, a small hillock groved with olive trees and a strange mediteranean species of Pine-Cone tree. There was a kinda garden-shed to the right at the top of the path, and to the left we encountered “La Cueva de Viera”, the smaller of the two megalithic tombs we were searching for. A narrow uncovered tunnel leading down to a capstoned entrance, wedged into the side of the mound, the entrance was barred and padlocked off. We looked around for a sign, notice, tourist information, souvenir shop, but there was nothing. Just the prehistoric tunnel leading to a locked gateway, the tantalising promise of dark burial chamber glimpses in the gloom beyond the bars. I wished we’d brought a torch to peep around with. And a compass to get some directional bearings. I estimate that the chamber entrance faces NE, with the Sleeping Giant (Lovers’ Leap) off to the East.

We follow the little path further, curving around another mound or hillock, quickly coming to the entrance of the second cave, La Menga dolmen. This one is rather spectacular, the solidity of the structure is staggering. Again, the entrance faces NE, and is iron-bar gated and padlocked. We kicked around, took some photos, wondered at the size of the stones, peered into the twilight inside the cavern, and noticed two light switches fixed into the stone. With a stick we tried poking the light switches into action, but they needed somesorta key, or hand crank or somesuch. I wanted to climb the hillock and stand on the entrance capstone, but the sandy soil of the mound was too slippy. We turned around to leave, feeling sad like after a visit to a zoo, where everything is locked behind bars. As we skirted the hillock of La Menga dolmen following the little path, we saw the door to the garden-shed was ajar. Gathering my finest Spanish I knock on the door. The guy tells us that he has the keys and he can open La Menga for us. So we turn around and start back on the sloping path. The guy with the keys is telling me everything he knows about the caves – The Viera isn’t open, stones moving, they are tombs, over 4000 years old, La Menga is the biggest in Europe. He unlocks the gates, switches on the lights and steps aside, leaving us to drift into the chamber alone. Inside the tomb the coolness and silence were perfect. We wandered around the oval womb-like chamber examining the stones. Six or seven upright stones form the curving walls. Three standing stones in the centre of the chamber appear to be supporting the three or four huge flat roof stones. Several of the uprights have deeply gouged hollows in them, some chipped out recesses big enough to burn candles in, some tiny circular pits, like eye-sockets.

Eventually the guy with the keys coughs a coupla times. I asked him if he had any information on the caves. No, nothing. Only postcards. Well, one postcard. We buy it, and with a flick of lights and a clang of gate, our visit to the dolmen is over.

Walking back to the Boarding House, we paused again at the low wall where we’d seen the Goat Herd, mist and clouds billowed around the mountains, peace. A woman was unloading huge, beautiful bundles of red and purple flowers for an Holy Week altar from the back of a van. Sun breaks through the scattered cloud, hitting parts of the mountains in bright, clear shafts of light. Sun dropping down into grey turning orange cloud, setting slowly. A quiet tinkling sound of distant bells drew our attention to the peak of a steep mountain. A figure, tiny with distance separates itself off from the dark bulk of the mountain. A human shape, standing tall, high far off on a mountain. Person, Mountain, Sky. Nothing inbetween. Then smaller shapes move, gather and mill around the human figure. Through binoculars we saw the goat herd and his goats on the mountain, looking down on us.

From there we were suddenly back in town, seated in a nasty café that I only remember as Bar Porno, posters of the Virgin Maria advertising Holy Week keep their eyes averted heaven-ward, while alongside calendar girls bare their cardboard breasts all year round in thick nicotine air. Hardby the Santiago Church.

We heard the bell of the convent of Santa Eufemia chime once, dull across the square, we look at the clock in the bar, it is 5.30.


Bella Basura
From the pamphlet Necro-Tourist 1999
and in Headpress – Bad Birds issue 22 2000

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