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.

approaching the 100km threshold

while Triacastela sits at some 670 meters of elevation (down from 1,293 meters in O’Cebreiro) and marks the end of the most mountainous aspects of the Camino, the hike to Sarria — the last sizable city beyond the 100 kilometer mark — descended another 230 meters. on balance. in reality, we faced a couple of steep inclines out of steep-walled valleys before we got to the gradual descending portion of the day. the rocky path was often slick with early morning rain or dew though usually not terribly slippery. on the downhill there were a few spots, however, where exposed slate or other metamorphic rock necessitated a bit of attention paid.

even though most of the Camino takes you along unpaved, rocky paths, I took more notice of stone and rock formations while in Galicia — and not just because inattention could lead to lost footing and a quick trip to rest on your bum. the fields were often protected by vertical slabs of stone, sometimes slate in what is apparently a Galician fashion. in the 12th century, at the height of the medieval Camino-boom, peregrinos frequently picked up limestone from quarries around Triacastela and carried them to kilns in the village of Castañeda, about 80 kilometers away. ultimately, the limestone was used in construction of the Catedral in Santiago; couldn’t find word on whether peregrinos carried the finished stones the remaining 40 kilometers.

as with the previous day, most of the towns on our voyage between Triacastela and Sarria are tiny, some no more than two or three houses connected to one another by narrow, uneven tracks. and we took the more heavily-traveled of the two routes between the two towns! despite their size today, many once housed hospices or churches with elaborate decoration or artwork.

it remained overcast for most of this day, though not as soggy as the previous day — a welcome change. as with other towns of notable size (at least compared to their neighbors), the suburban sprawl of Sarria came upon us quite a ways out and unceremoniously re-introduced us to an urban setting. of course, an “urban setting” in remote Galicia pales in comparison to the “urban settings” of Burgos, León, or Pamplona, where we entered urban tedium long before crossing over the outer limits of the city proper. Sarria boasts a population of just under 14,000 people and while not the most populous city in Galicia (that title goes to Santiago with just over 95,000 residents), is the most densely populated. but more on that to come …

sandy soil of El Bierzo

as we’re decompressing from that nightmare of a presidential campaign season, I thought I’d bring you some nice, soothing pictures of cultivation in Spain.

the soil in the Bierzo region of Castilla y Leon is very sandy — which makes it exceptionally good for growing both roses and grape vines. for several days around Molinaseca we saw incredible rose bushes in all manner of places — in gated front gardens, in the middle of an intersection, tucked next to a wall that lead to an underground garage … when we set out from Molinaseca at our slightly-later-than-usual time (7:15 a.m.) the roses in a garden a few doors down from our hotel had already gotten their morning soaking. probably a good thing considering how hot the weather got that afternoon …

on the way to Villafranca we also saw fresh cherry trees which, if I remember correctly, many farmers spray with something unpleasant to deter people from plucking ripe fruit off the tree (and cutting into their merchandise). we also got a lesson on the reason the hills between Villafranca and O’Cebriero are so good for growing grape vines when we stopped for a snack and some wine in Cacabelos.

over the course of the Camino, we listened to a lot of podcasts, as well as a couple of audiobooks. for some reason, the only day for which I can routinely recall to what I listened was this one — day 26. as we progressed along the busy main road in Camponaraya and on through a rare stand of trees I listened to episode #465 of This American Life — What Happened at Dos Erres. we stopped at a cash machine just as I got to a graphic part of the story and it was jarring to come out of such a gripping, awful narrative to a mundane if busy city street. later on, as we wended our way along the side of a quieter roadway (not entirely sure we’d managed to stay on the “alternative” Camino path), I listened to episode #212 of the Nerdist featuring Brent Spiner; recorded at a live show Phoenix it was the complete opposite of This American Life. and Andy could not understand why I kept laughing as we were struggling up another damned hill with sweat pouring out of everywhere and precious little water to slake our thirst.

he understood better why I was laughing when he got around to that episode a day or two later.

cow mailboxes

have a glass of fresh milk!

today’s post strays from our usual theme of travel and general history in favor of something from my personal history.

it’s a drive that I’ve made many, many times in the last nine years, and one that I mostly hated half the time while I was at school and it stood between me and getting home or me and getting back to Galesburg. I can tell you precisely how long it will take to get from my front door to campus — with variations for a pit stop in either Savanna (where I turn south onto the River Road) or in Freeport (where I often stopped for a snack at Culver’s), how many counties the route goes through (9), not how many times I’ve been stopped at the train tracks that cross the highway in Fulton (because it’s been that many), where houses were foreclosed on long before it was the norm, where buildings have burnt down and been rebuilt … if you’d told me a dozen years ago that I’d make this drive dozens of times, I’d have scoffed. mostly because I’d never heard of any of the towns I drive through south of the border, let alone Knox and Galesburg. now that I only make that drive once a year, at most I’ve come to really enjoy it; it’s novel once again, rather than tedious from making it so frequently, and while I no longer get to watch the changes wrought by the seasons, I do get to watch the changes wrought by the years.

my absolute favorite thing about driving to and from Galesburg is passing the cow mailbox at a farm just south of Freeport, Illinois. over the years, I’ve passed three different versions, the most recent of which went up in the last year. unfortunately, I never got a shot of the first one, but haven’t made that mistake with subsequent ones. I always thought of the first one (above left) as Lucy. this new one seems more like a Buddy. we’ll see if the name still suits him the next time I drive past, or if he’s been replaced by someone new in a few year’s time.

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