The walk out of Samos is into deepest Galicia: ancient bridges, clear running streams, and greenery that, after the meseta, looks radioactive.
Sarria is a large citadel town, older at the top, with a newer and busier quarter below.
Of all start-points for the Camino de Santiago, it is the most popular. Because Sarria is a transport hub a bit more than a hundred kilometres from Santiago, pilgrims can reach it easily, and will be entitled to a compostela, a finisher’s certificate, on reaching Santiago. This may not seem important to non-Spaniards, but such a document can be a reference for employment or even a condition of parole or criminal sentencing.
I stayed up in the high town, winding and quaint.
Being a major pilgrim centre since its inception, Sarria is charged with historical interest. The Magdalen Convent, originating in the thirteenth century as a pilgrim complex, is now a private school.
The citadel still has much of its old fort, and is now an ideal setting for frequent town fairs and markets.
Most of the damage was done in the so-called “Brotherhood Wars” of the fifteenth century. Galicia then was inaccessible to central Castilian authority, and the local high nobility did pretty much as they pleased in what were especially hard times.
The lower and middle levels of society revolted, not with much immediate success; but soon the Catholic Monarchs in Madrid took measures which finally ended serfdom in Galicia. The centralising Crown of Castile wasn’t always a bad thing for the average Spaniard. (I suspect that the British Crown was more a help than a hindrance to the fostering of equality in Australia…but don’t say that too loud.)
This faintly comic statue of an earlier king, Alfonso IX of Leon, is interesting for its subject.
Founder of the Vilanova, or New Town, of Sarria – which now means the old town – Alfonso is remembered for a number of things. He founded the University of Salamanca, still one of Europe’s most illustrious, and he also did something we take for granted, but which was unheard of in the twelfth century. Remember this construction we passed in Leon?
Here, to the cloister of San Isidoro, Alfonso actually called a parliament, the Cortes of León – in 1188!
Of course, he was in need of funds and co-operation from nobles and clergy and anyone else, but the measure of calling the Cortes was an early and historic step toward parliamentary government.
Though he was once excommunicated for doing a realistic peace deal with the Almohad Muslims, his soldiering was finally important in the Christian reconquest of Spain. Yet Alfonso IX is as likely to be remembered for his brawls with Castile and the Pope, and his awkward marriage arrangements. No wonder he got so excited at times that he was nicknamed el baboso, the slobberer.
A remarkable, flawed leader, he is commemorated by a statue in Sarria, the town he founded, for another reason again.
Here on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, King Alfonso IX of Leon fell sick and died. His body was taken on to Santiago, where it was buried.