Archive for the ‘Q. INTO GALICIA’ Category

To leave Sarria, the pilgrim crosses a medieval bridge, and this one is choice.

Note the typical and delicious stonework: granite below, graduating to fine shale at the top. Those keen on masonry could well take a study holiday in these parts.

I came to the church and monastery of Santiago in Barbadelo, still in mist by late morning. Their origins are traced to the very start of the second millennium.


Lunch was at a bar along the track. A group of pilgrims were clustered outside in a sun-trap, and I joined them.

One German gentleman who had passed me earlier at considerable speed was enjoying a truly Teutonic serving of sausage, egg and potato, with beer on the side.

Between tables, a conversation began, which drifted to various opinions of global evils and deserved catastrophes, with such luminaries as Al Gore and Michael Moore referenced as quasi-biblical authorities.

The German gentleman, rolling a cigarette after his mighty lunch, was passionate on the evils of Western capitalism, and the impending destruction of both itself and that object of much recent concern, the planet. As his voice grew more shrill, and his face twitched, I decided to concentrate on my tortilla. When a certain type of German gets tense about lebensraum, he is best not provoked.

It seemed that things could not be worse. Then, from another table came a prediction that civilisation or humanity or the world (not sure which) was about to end anyway, with the Mayan calendar, that most certain of references, cited as proof. This set up a kind of contest between adherents of cosmic and anthropogenic cataclysm.

Shortly after, the group of us – transported by jet to this enchanted region, most of us alive only because of recent medical marvels, fed and housed better than many princes of centuries past – walked off into the mild spring sunshine.


There had been no rain, but the land was awash. Parts of the Camino de Santiago were racing streamlets. Two new friends with whom I would pass the day had to help me over a small crossing.

Una is Irish and a biologist, Yarrow a Canadian version of what we’d call a roustabout in Australia. One of his rural crafts and enthusiasms is stone. He was in the right place.

Soon one comes to the famous 100k-to-Santiago marker. It was most considerate of the cola drinker to deposit his or her empty can behind the stone.

Two specialties of Galicia: camellias…

…and hórreos.

These are constructions for conserving grain. They come in many styles, can be elaborate or merely practical, and be made with varying proportions of timber to stone. While I can see that they are vermin and bird-proof, it seems odd that the roofs are so slender. In Australia, the rain seldom falls vertically, and anything contained in such a narrow and porous structure would be quickly soaked. Does any reader know more about these hórreos?


The day brought us to Portomarin, which used to be here till the 1960’s.

No, I mean down there in the water. The Miño River was dammed for hydro-electricity, and the town actually got carried away.

When the waters of the Belesar Dam get low, you can still see remnants of the old Portomarin, which has been moved uphill to Monte do Cristo. The approach to the new town is impressive; no doubt much of the superb stonework is new or refurbished.

Some 2000 hectares of fertile land as well as the town were the exchange for a handy 225MW of power.

An afternoon view from the new town.

Much of the old town’s important patrimony had to be moved stone by stone – but Galicians are good at moving and fitting stone. Most unique and striking is the Church of Saint Nicholas (or Saint John). It is a late Romanesque structure from the period when the Knights of Saint John, or Hospitallers, controlled the town and served pilgrims. It serves fully as both church and fort.

Bring your crossbow, or bring your rosary beads.


FOOTNOTE: The KiwiNomad has linked to a bewitching camellia shot on her daily photo blog. Please check it out in comments if you have a love for the camellia. They are flowering here in Dondingalong as I write, and I may find an excuse to run an Australian sample against this NZ challenge.

Meanwhile, this camellia was photographed when I got lost in Galicia, though not on the the main Camino. I’ve been wondering where to locate it on this blog, so I’ll shove it in here under a paper-thin pretense of relevance.

As far as camellias go, this is about as perfect as I’ve seen.


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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.

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Samos is an out-of-the-way town which would be charming enough with its greenery and trout-filled river.

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!

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O Cebreiro is on a narrow ridge, so a brief stroll across town can offer a view of Galicia’s east before you descend.

Advancing downward at the very beginning of spring, I found there were still drifts of snow.

A satirist had been busy:

The Zapatero government had just introduced a trial reduction of maximum speed on Spain’s autopistas, from 120 to 110. It did seem odd to many, given the quality and purpose of these modern European freeways. It was not, I was told, a safety measure; rather, some boffins had concluded that the lessening of speed would reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

In any case, I left my own message:

Further along, two lovely ermitas exhibit something we see over and over in Galicia: wonderful skill in stone and slate, often without mortar.

Soon there are no more mountains, just the green hills of Galicia, which will be the pilgrim’s home till the end of the Way.

At the town of Triacastela, where I spent the night, the Camino forks into two alternative routes to Sarria. I meant to take the shorter, northern track, but somehow ended up on the southern. (For some pics and comments on that northern track, check out the KiwiNomad’s post.)

It’s one of the luckiest blunders I’ve made. After some road-bashing, the southern track  becomes a ramble along a warm and intimate valley.

Then suddenly…

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Here’s a photo of Dominic Walsh. Or is it Finian Doyle?

It’s actually a photo I took at Padrón market, along the Camino Portugués. The gentleman was smiling a moment before, so that he looked even more Irish. But he’s a Spaniard, a Galician.

Some sketchy thoughts about Galicia, the autonomous region one enters just before O Cebreiro:

Obviously, there are no pure Celts. Celtic persistence has depended on a high degree of gregariousness and impurity. Also, we have to allow for the fads and distortions due to a craving to identify with an alternative and close-to-nature culture. Celtism can be a beat-up.

Yet there are individuals in the north west corner of Spain with strong physical similarities to the Irish: not because they’re Irish, but because the racial blending was similar. (The Galicians don’t get so drastically drunk, at least not openly; so there the Irish resemblance weakens.)

As to climate, the Celtic-influenced region of Spain is, like Ireland, very wet, very green, and influenced climatically by the Atlantic Ocean. Ask any pilgrim who has spent some weeks on the trail there. We often think of Celt-like peoples as being pushed to the damp western edges of Europe – Welsh, Bretons, Cornish, Scots, Irish, Galicians – but there could be an element of preference. Sydney’s Irish ghetto used to be the beaches stretching between Coogee and South Maroubra. (Even to this day, if you are a guest at a surf club down there, someone may gently inquire after your Catholic credentials.) Celts didn’t originate near the sea, but seem drawn to where land is green under maritime influence.

Then there’s the Galician language. To an outsider, it’s a form of Portuguese which is sounded like Spanish. Any amateurish attempt to speak the language as if it were Portuguese will bring uncomprehending stares. If you have a smattering of both Spanish and Portuguese you’ll have no problem reading the signs in Galicia, many of which are now in Galician exclusively. (You can sure tell Franco is dead!) For speaking, however, stick to Spanish or English.

Some people tell you that the Galician language is mainly spoken in villages. In fact, just about everyone speaks a variant of Galician all the time. Because the crossover from Spanish and Portuguese is easy, this does not seem to present a problem to the locals. However the Galician gentleman below, who accompanied me along the trail south of Padrón, felt no need to talk Spanish, even though he was an educated and travelled musician. It did not occur to him that Galician might be a problem to me.

Experts say that there are still Celtic features in the language, though it just seems another neo-Latin to a layman.

All of this means that the Galicians, or gallegos, are cultural gluttons.

They get to participate in Saint Patrick’s Day festivities and all other pan-Celtic traditions. When there are lusófono (Portuguese-language) functions, the gallegos get to attend along with Brazilians, Angolans, East Timorese etc. They can exhibit their ethnic-minority status in gabfests with the Basques and Catalans. And they don’t miss out on anything Spanish: the Galicians are Castilian when they want to be. They’re shrewd in the handling of their ethnic minority status, and less fanatical than others.


Returning to the Camino, and that mountain village where I left off in the last post:

The town of O Cebreiro is full of shops for trinkets, pilgrim items, liqueurs and the famous white cheese of the region. If you like the gaita (bagpipe) music that is pumped into the the town square, you can surely buy the CD of it.

Some people find it a bit too precious, too deliberately recreated. The Church of Santa Maria a Reál is modern, but built on Romanesque foundations recovered in the sixties. It may not be ancient, but it is testament to the ancient Galician mastery of stone. The tradition of the Celtic thatched house, or palloza, is still alive, and the slate is superb.

I loved walking about O Cebreiro in snow. A bit of tourist nonsense, a sello from the little church, bagpipes wailing, maybe some Astorga chocolate to nibble on…just get shallow and enjoy. It’s very well done.

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Really, there are times when you just do the view.

So, without comment, this is the country as you ascend from Ruitelán, enter Galicia, and arrive in the mountain village of O Cebreiro. If it’s a clear, still winter’s day, you won’t ever forget it.







Don’t call it lazy blogging. Call it a photo essay.

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