getting our Compostelas

since the first experience I detailed when starting blogging our Camino de Santiago was our arrival at the Cathedral, I’ll move on from that to what we did immediately after our giddy “I can’t believe we made its!” and celebratory pictures — standing in line at the oficina de peregrino to obtain our Compostelas, or certificates of completion. it is weird experience to happily stand in such a long line (about 40 minutes) with so many people who have endured similar experiences and are just as happy to stand in that same long line with you. some people wait to get their Compostelas after resting or attending the mass, but it seemed most of the people we stood in line with hadn’t made any stops or left any luggage behind before arriving at the oficina de peregrino.

the Compostela stems from the same idea as Jubilee years and plenary indulgences, wherein the faithful are given a degree of absolution from sin for completing a good work or act on behalf of the faith (such as making a trip to the Holy Land and/or dying on the journey). in early years, peregrinos would mark the completion of their trek by carrying a scallop shell as evidence they visited the tomb of Santiago in the cathedral. of course, merchants took to selling shells to peregrinos as they entered the city and the Church had to take steps to crack down on these practices, going so far as to threaten excommunication of anyone caught selling shells fraudulently.

during the 11th century, the Church began issuing particularly generous indulgences for those willing to participate in the reconquest of Spain; many claim that Pope Calixtus II (he of the Codex Calixtinus) granted Santiago de Compostela the authority to grant plenary indulgences to those who visited Santiago’s tomb in a Holy Year (when the Saint’s day falls on a Sunday), made a donation his shrine, gave confession, attended mass, and pledged to perform good works. the document that subsequently made that offer perpetual is now considered a forgery dating from the 15th century; the earliest documentation of indulgences granted for the Camino dates from the mid-13th century and the first Holy Year in which it would have applied stems from 1395.

the earliest documents to illustrate completion of the Camino were “evidential letters,” sealed and handwritten documents with confirmation of communion and confession pasted on, initially known as la autentica. it was handy in that it granted peregrinos access to the royal hospital established by the Catholic Monarchs in the 16th century; a Compostela entitled them to three nights lodging and attention for their various Camino-related ailments. (the building was converted into a Parador in 1954, but they still serve meals to the first 10 peregrinos to present their Comopostela every day.)

the Compstela became a printed documents in the 17th century and the communion and confession requirements were dropped sometime in the 18th century. the changes wrought by modern transportation innovation in the 20th century prompted the Church to require further evidence, by way of the stamped credencial, that peregrinos receiving the Compostela completed the last 100 kilometers by foot. after standing in line, you are directed to a counter where an official takes your name, (and inquires after your reason for undertaking the Camino — religious, cultural, spiritual, sport — to determine which version of the Compostela you’ll receive), translates it into Latin, and writes it on the form, the text of which has remained relatively unchanged for the last two centuries. though it’s technically free to obtain, donations are encouraged (and can get you a handy tube for storing your completed and irreplaceable memento, if you ask the nice volunteer line attendant politely).

I discovered today that the office keeps and publishes statistics about the numbers of peregrinos who arrive everyday. I couldn’t find a record of how many peregrinos received their Compostelas the day we arrived in Santiago, June 8, 2012, but they do have a break-down of all the people who did in the course of the year (over 192,000, about half of which came from Spain and just over half of which were male. for more details, check out this PDF.). or you can just find out how many people have completed their Camino today

we got Compostelas framed, along with our credencials and a map detailing the Camino Frances as we hiked it. they look spectacular.

first glimpse of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela

once we regained the usual Camino, we made our way through a series of towns clearly devoted to serving peregrino purposes. for the first time I saw a sign indicating facilities were for guests or customers only. slightly off-putting considering the generally warm welcome we received virtually everywhere else along the Camino; but then, a lot more people travel this stretch of the Camino. busloads of people; people who might not have spent the previous month trying to be good stewards and respectful travelers.

in any case, just before we stopped before breakfast at a lovely stone casa rural (where the proprietor was cleaning up after the previous night’s guests and not quite ready for those inclined towards breakfast) we passed through Lavacolla where medieval peregrinos stopped to wash and purify themselves before making the final trek into Santiago. in the Middle Ages, average Christians bathed infrequently and peregrinos pretty much not at all. whether mandated or a matter of personal preference, peregrinos used the stream to bathe. apparently, purification practices differed in their complexity and thoroughness, from washing only portions of the body to cleansing all the dirt from the journey and changing clothes. (both the modern name and Latin name of the town refer to simply washing ones privates. I’ll leave it to the truly interested to translate Lavamentula [Latin] and Lavacolla [medieval Romance].) those peregrinos were often accosted by advance men for taverns, inns, restaurants, and other services in Santiago, warned of the scarcity of lodgings in the city and encouraged to hand over a deposit or full night’s payment to secure a bed. unscrupulous tavern shills offered samples of wine that never tasted quite as good in Santiago.

Cathedral spires!!

after Lavacolla, we passed the studios for TV Galicia (the highest point of this day’s hike, as lamented by our now-derided guidebook) and ascended the Monte de Gozo (Mount Joy), so named for the euphoria peregrinos experienced as they reached the summit and looked down on Santiago de Compostela. eager to get to the city, we kept going and got into a leap-frogging pattern with a group of day-trip Germans until just outside the walls of the old city. and just before we caught our first glimpse of the Cathedral at the heart of the city …

lost on the last day of the Camino

 each day at noon, mass is celebrated in the Cathedral in Santiago. while all manner of tourists attend, it’s designed for the weary peregrinos who’ve stumbled into town during the preceding day or so. we allowed nearly two full days for Santiago and could easily have waited to attend mass on the second day. but what kind of joyful, celebratory arrival would that be? instead, we set the alarm for 4:45 a.m., got into bed while the sky was still light and endeavored to temper the jubilant anticipation and get some sleep. the beds were a great help — some of the more comfortable ones of the Camino — once I got to sleep, but it’s hard to convince your mind to rest after a relatively easy 22 kilometer hike the night before you reach the destination you’ve been challenging yourself to reach for over a month. my journal entry from that night waxes a lot more philosophical than many of the others, which were largely contained to observations of the day, hike, meals, fellow peregrinos, and the like.

but arise at 4:45 a.m. we did. and promptly got lost for the first time on the Camino. I blame our initial misdirection on the circuitous route by which we approached town; I thought heading one way would shorten our route out of town … but instead it took us back to the east, something that would have been easy to rectify had the sun been up yet. fortunately, there were plenty of other peregrinos out to set us to right.

hiking through eucalyptus groves by the light of headlamps is a singular experience; both unsettling and serene. we weren’t in the trees very long, though, and when we emerged the horizon had just begun to lighten. despite the people we’d seen leaving Arca, there didn’t see any on the other side of the grove and reverted to following the usual trail markings … which ultimately proved somewhat problematic.

along the Camino, the route periodically joined with recreational trails with their own unique and regionally distinct markings. we’d never seen these recreational trails diverge from the Camino, as it was usually the best-groomed trail in the area, and got used to those directional signs accompanying the ubiquitous yellow arrow or walking peregrino sign. and on our last day on the Camino, we followed signs for the recreational trail as it diverged from the route we wanted. instead of heading down into the valley through Amenal we headed up and to the right, following a forestry road that eventually ended. without any indication of where the recreational trail might go from there. our map was woefully inadequate as to provide anything resembling assistance in determining how far off the path we’d gone and we were reluctant to use our mobile device to try and access a map that probably wouldn’t have a realistic pedestrian solution to our quandary.

fortunately, we had a pair of nice big landmarks to work with — the convergence of two major highways (N-547 and N-634) and an airport. we could hear the autopista from our misdirected location and worked our way towards it. the Camino crossed the road at the roundabout where we emerged and so, without any notable delay in our progress towards Santiago, we got ourselves unlost.

real ice cream in Arca

last stop before Santiago. day thirty-three. our soggiest day by far, with a steady drizzle through the first half of the morning. it was an uneventful hike, though there was the now-common influx of shorter-trek peregrinos. all the cafes we passed were packed with the weary and foot-sore; more Spaniards than earlier on the Camino though just as many Germans. met up with a young American college graduate who’d just concluded a year of teaching and working in Galicia. she was hiking the Galician leg of the Camino to wrap up her experience before (she hoped) moving on to teach in Andalusia. she was quite chatty and I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps it was refreshing to speak with native English-speakers or Americans. maybe I’m projecting; even with a compatible companion there comes a point when alternative conversational partners are a treat.

the path crossed the busy N-547 numerous times, more frequently and more dangerously than on any other day. it’s one of the major highways leading into Santiago — not unlike walking across US 14 when it shifts back into two lanes when driving south from Madison. the peregrino paths were well maintained but not always cordoned off from vehicular traffic. though at one point there was a pretty nifty pedestrian tunnel with large stones planted mortared into the walls that went under a hidden bend in the road and down into a cluster of farming houses and outbuildings.

Arca was an interesting place; the path spilled us out next to a sport complex and had us double back towards the highway. the whole town, it seems, is devoted entirely to the service of peregrinos to even greater extent than any of our previous stops. the first two places we sought lodging were filled for the evening — despite our early arrival. our third stop proved more successful, even if it sat on the busy highway in the middle of town. the guy working the desk seemed somewhat chagrined that the only remaining room didn’t have an en suite but for the price and the time of day we were thrilled. once we got up to the room and plopped down for our standard afternoon naps, we were even more pleased — memory foam bed and extra, fluffy pillows! once I finally got to sleep, it was a glorious sleep.

after the standard shower/catnap we headed out for an underwhelming lunch … and the first real ice cream since leaving Wisconsin! we’d had plenty of tasty ice cream bars and sandwiches along the Camino, particularly after the hot, sweaty days trekking across Castilla and León but this … this was real ice cream sundaes with whipped cream, a combination of tasty flavors, and (most intriguingly) hot chocolate to top them off. as a died-in-the-wool Wisconsinite, I’ve had my share of fantastic ice cream but what we had in Arca stands high on the list.

a mere 21 kilometers to go — a now laughably-paltry distance. that change in perspective was one of the more remarkable things about the last days of the Camino; what had only a few weeks earlier seemed like a insane challenge now seemed not only feasible but downright leisurely (which it wasn’t, but more about that shortly)!

the ever-changing Camino

there isn’t much to say about Arzúa or our thirty-third day on the Camino. evidence suggests the town was heavily settled before the arrival of Rome; following the expulsion of the Moors, the people who resettled the area came from the Basque region. it sits in the middle of prime dairy land and we saw warnings for cows crossing the road in many places (as seen below). in recent years, however, increasing tracts of land once used for grazing have been given over to eucalyptus groves, which is harvested and used in furniture and paper production. this proved particularly evident in the hike from Arzúa to Arca. several species were imported from Australia in the 1860s and have proved demanding in the ways of all non-native species — without natural controls, they consume resources local species would otherwise use and suck up copious amounts of water.

fortunate for the plants forced to compete with the eucalyptus, water is in plentiful supply in Galicia — rain shadow and all. this particular day provided us with deceptively numerous ups and downs, dropping down and climbing out of narrow river valleys and crossing over creeks. outside one shop (perhaps attached to a tiny not-yet-open-for-the-season albergue) we saw one of the more unique pack transportation mechanisms of the Camino: someone had attached their bulging pack to a golf cart. there were lots of places earlier on the Camino where this modification would have been more of a hindrance than a help, but on the well-maintained sendas of Galicia it was probably immensely useful.

somewhere earlier on the Camino, when the terrain was still rugged (i.e. before getting into Castilla) we saw a guy with a waist harness that hooked up to a bike-sized trailer with kid-buggy size wheels. unlike the golf cart version, this guy didn’t have to tire his arms out by pulling his stuff behind him; he’d just shifted the weight he carried so it didn’t rest on his shoulders. we saw another, larger cart in a village just outside Astorga. a parent at a cafe saw the cart (painted red with slogans on the sides) and wanted to get a shot of his kid standing atop it. they hoisted the young one up and he let out a wail of dissatisfaction that echoed down the main road. 

no-so-helpful maps of Galicia. where are we on that?

celebrating a milestone

while we didn’t take the opportunity to stop and take a photo with the 100 km marker, we did make a pit stop and snagged a banana at the first cafe after the marker. along with, it seemed, everyone who’d set out from Sarria that same morning. people lined their packs and walking sticks up along the stone wall across the road from the cafe, which reminded me of The Way but without the threat of potential snatch-and-runs. no peregrino would want to carry more than they already had and this village was far enough from anything as to deter would-be thieves from making the trek.
after our regular afternoon nap upon arrival in Portomarin, we headed out to find food and to enjoy a pint of the local brew — Estella Galicia.

pupol: a Galician delicacy

on day 32 we came to Melide, the first town of notable size in our last province of the Camino — A Coruña — and had our first opportunity to try one of the regional specialties: pupol! (disclaimer that will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me: I did not try the pupol. I wasn’t tempted in the slightest no matter how novel it looked from the open window to the street.) we reached Melide about lunchtime and had planned to stop anyway and I had a vague recollection of reading something about it being known for the regional specialty of octopus so, duly intrigued buy the guy hoisting the nearly-ready-to-eat for other inquisitive peregrinos, we stepped into the first place offering pulpol.

while I went with some tasty Galician soup, Andy opted for the smallest portion of pulpol, served on a small, round, wooden plate. when he ordered, the guy at the front window hoisted the steamed pulpol from the pot, snipped off pieces from the tentacles and sauteed them on a grill beneath the window. in just a few minutes, the delicacy was sitting in the middle of our table, toothpicks ready and waiting. verdict from across the table: it was good, interesting. but more than you’d want to eat without something to go along with it. I suppose maybe it’s like eating a solitary hot dog — no condiments or bun, just a chopped-up hot dog. 

the approach to Melide came over a medieval bridge crossing the rio Furelos. the village once belonged to the Hospitallers of San Juan dating back to the 12th century. on the near side of the bridge stood a man offering to stamp credencials with a homemade stamp. throughout Galicia it wasn’t uncommon to see stamps out in all manner of peregrino-oriented establishments or even on the side of the road. this particular guy stood out in my memory, though, because of his location, but because he had his stamp stand set up on the back of his bicycle and part of one of his legs was prosthetic. we didn’t avail ourselves of this stamping opportunity, however, because by this point of our Camino our credencials were nearly filled up. we had to ration our remaining space, unlike those who started from Sarria or thereabouts.

around Melide, Neolitic dolmens and other sites attest to the fact the area was densely settled in prehistoric times; during the Roman occupation the town served as a crucial transportation hub where the Via Traiana and Catabrian roads crossed. despite its strategic importance at this crossroads, however, there’s little in the way of defenses as we saw elsewhere along the Camino. no enormous wall or castles or barracks erected to fend off would-be invaders; perhaps it was far enough out that most enemy forces didn’t bother. even when residents received permission to erect a wall to enclose the city, they never finished it. all their efforts went into providing lodging and food for pereginos flowing through the town. in 1375 the town notary and his wife donated funds to Franciscans to run an albergue on the outskirts of town which was favored by Castillian monarchs and remained in use until the mid-19th century. by then, however, the diminished demand from peregrinos prompted its conversion into a military barracks.

soggy way to Palas del Rei

view out our window into someone’s back yard

one perk of the increased number of peregrinos after Sarria is the ease with which could find food and lodging. we’d had a room booked for Palas de Rei in what turned out to be a modern, comfortable, and highly solicitous hotel (Casa Benilde). our arrival coincided with two political events of varied importance: June 5th marked the date of the Recall election (of which we all know the outcome) and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. staying in a modern hotel meant we had an array of cable channels, not just the usual over-the-air basics and caught some of the coverage including her arrival at Buckingham and a flyover by an aerial acrobatic team with World War II Spitfires.

the rest of the day, hike included, didn’t leave much of an impression on me, though I wrote of not feeling physically taxed in the way I’d been on previous days. looking through pictures dredges up hazy memories that pale in comparison to what surfaces when considering the more challenging days. I suppose that four days of hiking fewer than 25 kilometers in favorable temperatures will do that to you. in more than a few ways, the character of the Camino had changed; less sweltering to be sure but also less solitary by quite a long way.

though evidence along the Camino to Palas de Rei suggests settlements dating to the pre-Roman era, little of substance remains. for example, a 7-meter wide ditch leading to a 7-meter wide wall lead up to the current outskirts of one town. outside another (Castromaior) ruins of a Roman camp were discovered, as well as assortment of ceramic vessels. written records of this stretch also refer to it as an “open-air brothel” where prostitutes would approach peregrinos individually to offer their services. for the pious peregrino, the “appropriate” response was to report such wanton women for excommunication, shaming and a punishment of a severed nose. not surprisingly, these women were also often accused of robbing their marks.

evidence of a proscribed burn along the edge of the highway

neither of my reference books have much to say on the town itself. it serves as an administrative center but only boasts a population of just over 2,000 (still huge compared to many towns we’ve been through, of course); the bus from Lugo to Santiago stops here though little remains of historic significance in the town. legend holds that the Visigothic king Witiza (who reigned from 701-709) built a palace here, from which the town takes its name, though none of that alleged structure remains. rather, the town has more in common with its medieval self, wherein agricultural hamlets surrounded the “big town” as they do today.


what I remember best from Portomarin is the group of Spanish gents at the table next to us at our dinner in perfect weather under the colonnades singing a Camino-based drinking song. they asked us to take their picture and were all wearing close-but-not-quite-matching hiking gear. the food was pretty good, if somewhat pricier than what we’d grown accustomed to during the portion of our Camino that occurred prior to Sarria. after so many bland bocadillos “sustaining” me through Castilla and León a tasty Galician soup went a long way towards satisfaction.

as with all the other small towns through which the Camino winds in Galicia, the hike from Sarria to Portomarin wended through hamlets consisting of no more than three or four houses each. one village, in which we stopped for a bite to eat at an albergue with at least three employees, had a registered population of one. more people worked at the cafe adjoining this one albergue than officially lived in the village!

of course, the most notable thing about this stretch of the Camino was passing 100 kilometer mark; some peregrinos (whom we didn’t recognize from our preceding weeks on the road) stopped to pose with the marker which, because of adjustments to the route, doesn’t actually mark the true distance from Santiago. as with the 0 mile marker in Key West in February, we didn’t feel compelled to stop and get a picture but rather pressed on to the next town, took a pit stop, grabbed a banana, and took a photo of the 99km stone. one benefit of the increased number of peregrinos became apparent just before the 100 km mark; whereas before we might have had to trudge through the shallow water of a inconsequentially-small creek or forge ahead unsteadily on stepping stones, the number and nature of peregrinos heading out from Sarria merited path improvements that separated and raised the pedestrian path from the water.

the bridge crossing the rio Minho has proven crucial to the development of the town since Roman times; it bolstered the importance of the village on the east-west route across northern Spain as well as a waypoint for peregrinos during the height of the Camino in medieval times. its strategic importance meant it was usually garrisoned — and mentioned in nearly every medieval and Renaissance-age itinerary through this part of Spain — and thus a useful stopping point for weary travelers of the Camino. even before Alfonso IX (he who died on his way to Santiago) granted control of the town to his preferred religious order, several hospices tended to the needs of the faithful passing through Portomarin.

this strategic importance changed drastically in the 19th and 20th centuries as motorized vehicles and the roads on which such things traveled favored the town of Lugo, some 30 kilometers to the north, rather than this historically significant and aquatically-situated town. in the 1950s, the town again came to prominence as location as an important source of hydroelectric power; the new reservoir ultimately drown the old town though important artifacts were removed block by block for reconstruction in the new town at higher elevation. apparently when the reservoir loses depth, either for draining or due to drought, evidence of the old town and its original Roman bridge emerge from the muddy lake bottom.

other interesting facts about Portomarin: while the main roads leading up from the river (and the one that transected the main road and led to the main albergue slightly uphill) contained an array of spiffy, tourist-oriented shops, just a block to either side told a different (though not depressing) story. the main drag, catering to peregrinos and other tourists, were quaintly constructed and clean — the picture with the colonnade looks back towards the river and the direction in which the Camino continues. the Post Office was one of the nicer ones I’d seen (though nearly all were more majestic than the one I usually go to at home, which occupies space designed to house a McDonald’s). walk to the other side of the building, or one block off the neat and clean main drag and you’d find a tractor parked, ready to head home after its owner conducted his (or, perhaps more likely, “her”) business in town.


as the title of my last post about Spain alluded to, the one-hundred kilometer threshold holds significance on the Camino. for those of us who set out from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port or farther afield, it serves as a somewhat awe-inducing reminder of how far you’ve come and how a once-staggering distance (i.e. the last 100 kilometers) now seems all but inconsequential. for many, though, Sarria marks a convenient location with lots of lodging and dining amenities from which to start an abbreviated but Compostela-earning Camino. in other words, you can walk from Sarria and still receive a certificate of your achievement upon reaching Santiago. some quarter of of all those who complete the Camino and wait in line to receive their Compostela start in Sarria.

while archaeological evidence points to pre-Roman settlement of Sarria, better evidence dates from the 6th century when a Bishop spearheaded resettlement after a Moorish invasion. early noble Galician families viewed the town as their seat and later Alfonso IX died in Sarria while on his pilgrimage to Santiago; the hotel in which we stayed right next to the rio Sarria was named in his honor.

during the 15th century, disgruntled peasants revolted in Galicia and destroyed the castles and holdings of nobles in Melide, Arcos, and Sarria. after its destruction, a bishiop reconstructed the castle in Sarria, but it didn’t last very long before deteriorating and falling apart. all that remains of the former residence of the counts of Lemos is one reconstructed tower.

in an effort to reach our next destination in time to secure some sort of tolerable lodging in Portomarin, we left Sarria as the sun rose. the view from atop the hill above the city as the sunrise burned off the fog was wonderful. just after crossing the medieval Ponte Apsera over the rio Celerio we had a close encounter with an early-morning commuter train. not unpleasantly close, giddily close. it was an interesting reminder of how long it had been since we’d been on any means of motorized transportation … and how we had another week on foot before reacquainting ourselves with such speedy movement.