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.