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Santiago not far, spring advancing: most pilgrims would be pressing forward in excitement, lengthening the stride, extending the walk-time. You know what that lot are like.

Your dawdler had other things in mind. This was the first monument visited in the interesting historic centre of Melide.

One of Spain’s most renowned pulperías, or octopus restaurants, is far from the coast, and right here on Melide’s main drag.

One can eat other things, but pulpo gallego is the big item: freshly boiled octopus plucked from its steaming vat and scissored into bite sizes. The normal flavourings are olive oil, salt and pimentón, and it is common to be offered hot pimentón as an alternative to the normally sweet-and-smoky stuff.

Not expensive or fancy, and almost a must for the pilgrim or tourist.

Do not attempt to lick or bite your computer screen. It is an electrical device.

***

Rain was drifting in, the cold had returned. When I found a very modest hotel where the staff seemed intent on my comfort, I surrendered and took a rest day. The Hotel Xaneiro‘s proprietor is not just willing but keen to speak English, so keep these excellent folk in mind.

One can only eat so many cephalopods. There was time for cultural rambles, and Melide, traffic-ridden but cheerful, has a shabby charm. It lost its citadel completely in those class struggles known as “Brotherhood Wars”, when the Catholic Monarchs decided that nobody could have a citadel, since they wouldn’t share. Yet the Romanesque and other old styles and traditions find representation here, where modern expressways now meet.

***

I don’t bother with the novels or ideas of D. H. Lawrence. However, I have often read and remembered his verse, of which there is a great deal, though mostly forgotten.

In one spare and effective piece, he writes of an encounter with a snake near water. After watching the animal with fascination, he ends up throwing something at it to make it go away. One of the concluding lines of the poem is, as I remember: “And so I missed my chance with one of the Lords of Life.”

The Camino makes you more alert to certain things.

I was sitting at the internet table in the hotel, when none other than that angry and unhappy German mentioned previously came and sat behind me. He had his bumptious way of letting me know I was keeping him waiting for the computer. Yet I sensed he was letting me know something else: that he needed some contact or company, and it would only need to be brief.

In no mood for awkward greetings, let alone a rant about the superiority of Peruvian poverty to Western superfluity, I simply vacated the chair when finished and moved away without a glance. It sticks in my mind that I neglected something. Swayed by my own opinions and the man’s unpopularity, I had descended. It was just a slight descent, just a moment’s lack of urbanity.

And so I missed my chance with one of the Lords of Life.

***

If dawdling is a rough sort of craft, idling is one of the lower arts. But don’t over-praise it.

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.

So said Stevenson in his famous essay, An Apology for Idlers. He was really too kind to me, a genuine mucker-about, and too harsh on himself, an industrious author who struggled mightily against ill health. But I’ll take the compliment!

No, it is far too flattering. And when Stevenson goes on to characterise busy and acquisitive folk, he makes little allowance for the contradictions of human character: for that tycoon with an off-switch who can insulate his recreations from his work and find needed refreshment, as opposed that idler who frets and fiddles neurotically.

I speak as a realist of idling, one who views it from the inside. It is no superior train of life, merely an accidental condition best mitigated and exploited, rather than denied. Those who can concentrate for an hour on an academic lecture, those who can keep to a thirty-plus schedule on the Camino…they are the types who make my world function. Let them be a majority! What can I give in return? I can’t become a faint imitation of a focused and effective striver. All I can do is half-fulfill the few requirements which justify idling: good cheer, curiosity, and what Stevenson describes here:

His way takes him along a by-road, not much frequented, but very even and pleasant, which is called Commonplace Lane, and leads to the Belvedere of Commonsense. Thence he shall command an agreeable, if not very noble prospect; and while others behold the East and West, the Devil and the Sunrise, he will be contentedly aware of a sort of morning hour upon all sublunary things, with an army of shadows running speedily and in many different directions into the great daylight of Eternity. The shadows and the generations, the shrill doctors and the plangent wars, go by into ultimate silence and emptiness; but underneath all this, a man may see, out of the Belvedere windows, much green and peaceful landscape; many firelit parlours; good people laughing, drinking, and making love as they did before the Flood or the French Revolution; and the old shepherd telling his tale under the hawthorn.

Oh, I know the tone is Victorian and the sense a bit muddled. Yet RLS has got us right. An idler may be a pessimist, but, really, he can’t afford it. In adopting complaint as a posture or philosophy, the idler abandons the only currency the world will readily accept from him.

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CENTRAL GALICIA

Best to combine two days in one post, since weather and other distractions limited photography.

In Portomarin, there was a mass pilgrim dinner in a bar overlooking the Miño. Here I made several new acquaintances, including a New York priest called Bob, and a whip-cracking group organiser, an asturiano whom I later titled El Cid Roncador, based on his penchants for leadership and for snoring. (A roncador is a snorer.) I resisted his demands that I book into an albergue with the group, and instead stayed in a pensión. This meant I got a good sleep, but also missed an interesting clash between my Cid and the splenetic German gentleman met at lunch. More on that later.

Walking with an experienced mason, Yarrow the Canuck, on the previous day, I had become still more attentive to the raw stone at our feet and the finished stonework of this part of the Camino.

So important were Galicia’s stonemasons, that they developed their own variant of the Galician language, fala dos arxinas. Knowledge of stone was to be passed on in its own argot: one way that pride and professionalism could be preserved in what must be the most strenuous of occupations. Galician short-cutters don’t become Galician stone-cutters.

***

Here plush green fields alternate with spring forest, where a world-wide pattern is repeated: yellow pea-flowers, legumes preceding the year’s growth.

The day was taken up with the problems of two Korean ladies, who had come on Camino less than prepared. I missed a number of photo-ops, including a renowned stone cross at Ligonde. Mind you, I’m not big on crosses.

I found my friends from the previous day at a village short of Palas de Rei, and once again we had a joint dinner. Here I was able to order a cocido gallego. Every region boasts its own version of boiled dinner, and the most minor variation is grounds for discussion. In truth, by the time the ingredients have lain in the crush of a huge pot throughout the day, the broth is more interesting than the solids. I do prefer a carefully home-made cocido, and the French custom of serving sharp, cold sauce such as a ravigote with boiled meats makes the whole exercise more interesting.

Nonetheless, a fine dinner. El Cid Roncador was sad that I had once again escaped his authority and his snoring by booking an individual room. Here I was told of the previous night’s experience at the municipal albergue in Portomarin. The forceful German gentleman had decided that the windows should be flung open on what was a glacial night above the river. El Cid Roncador invited him to take even fresher air…en la puta calle! “On the street” is a polite translation. The windows were closed. You don’t mess with Mio Cid.

As I passed through the historic town of Palas de Rei, named for a Visigothic ruler who hung out there, I missed everything due to weather. Yet the day would have its compensations, such as this plump little Romanesque chapel.

A haunted looking forest was still in winter mode.

These are primulas, right? They don’t do it wild in Oz.

Saint Mary’s Church in Leboreiro is so plain, yet it draws so many eyes, mine included.

The story about the cute Madonna sculpture over the portal goes like this. The statue of the Virgin inside the church would not stay in place but continually popped up outside. The only way they could solve the problem was to sculpt another Madonna on the outside. It worked. To this day, however, it’s not known if the statue on the inside stays there because it is happy with the duplication, or because it resents the competition.

Now, to round off the day, a pilgrim bridge.

The weather would stay foul, but in the town ahead there are eight-legged compensations. That’s right, eight!

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.

TO SARRIA

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.

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!

INTO THE GREEN

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…

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.