But its main feature is the enormous monastery, destroyed, abandoned, rebuilt, incinerated, restored over much time. How much time?
When a monastery first stood here, it was possibly by order or approval of a sixth century monarch of the Suevi. As Roman power retreated, and Visigothic power consolidated elsewhere, an earlier Germanic tribe already occupied and ruled over the area we know as Galicia. And when the Visigoths were still naughty Arrian heretics, the Suevi were already Catholics.
So who were the Suevi? They were Germans, but, more importantly, they were Galicians. Galicia is where they lived and flourished. “Celts” may have arrived in Spain three thousand years ago, before the Suevi. Other “Celts” may have arrived after the Suevi, less than fifteen hundred years ago from the British Isles, fleeing the Anglo-Saxons. If the Suevi were dominant in Galicia for a couple of centuries, there’s a chance they left a strong bloodline, perhaps stronger than that of those other Germans, the Visigoths. And as far as language goes, it’s the language of Rome that persisted, though there are little traces of Celtic and German in the neo-Latin we call Galician.
So we’re not just talking of “Celts” in talking of Galicia. Very important changes occurred during the dominance of this now-forgotten tribe of wandering Germans who stuck around.
Galicia, during the end years of Suevi power, saw a flowering of orthodox religion and monasticism, due to the influence of the extraordinary bishop and intellectual, Saint Martin of Braga, who converted the Suevi from Arrianism. It’s likely that the original monastery of Samos dates from this period. We’re talking late 500’s!
Soon came Visigoths, Muslims, new kingdoms of Asturias, León and so on. Wars, revolutions, anti-clerical movements, internal corruption, accidents, money problems did their worst. What is extraordinary, and gives a certain unnameable glamour to the town, is the sheer persistence of its monastery. It’s as if you could nuke it, and it would come back. This is how the exterior looks now, with its mix of late Gothic, Renaissance and barroco.
To my delight, I met an old friend in Samos…my Rafael Nadal! He’d retired from heavy walking duties and was keeping in touch with the Camino by light strolls and motor transport. Optimistic and committed, he now regards his injuries as a door into a new role as organiser and hospitalero.
The meeting was the beginning of a memorable evening: professionally sung Vespers in the monastery, a tour of the monastery interior, and an inspection of the tiny Chapel of the Cypress, outside the monastery. Lastly, we celebrated carnaval with the locals.
The interior of the monastery moved me less than it moved others. It was a touch improvised or lumpish after so much rebuilding and salvaging. Gone is the proportion, the glamour of cloister and chapel; what remains is a solid boarding-school style, though full of interest and curiosities. The modern frescoes could grow on me, but for the four-square tiling and ceiling of their gallery.
The chapel needs to be viewed from a certain angle to have any appeal or proportion.
The larger cloister is handsome, but too much of a parade-ground.
Don’t let the guides hurry you through the minor cloister: it’s cute, at the very least.
Most fascinating: a monastery pharmacy, which would once have been stocked with herbs from the scientifically arranged garden, or horta botica, as shown on the sign.
Beyond the monastery is a tiny ninth century chapel, with a cypess beside it, which, after some old tradition, was planted at its construction. So that tree could be up to twelve hundred years old.
Thanks to a friend of Rafael, a wonderful hospitalero at the monastery’s albergue, we were able to creep inside the ancient structure.
Just by chance, that night was carnaval, farewell-to-flesh, which explained all the kids running around in cloaks and witches’ hats. So, at the invitation of the town of Samos, we went down to the river for a churrasco before Lent, where I met many locals and pilgrims over more than one steaming chorizo. Great day, great night.
Moitas grazas, Samos!