O Cebreiro

our arrival in O Cebreiro presaged much for the duration of our Camino and gave us an early glimpse of how distinct Galician culture would prove. the town sits astride a pass some 1,239 meters up that divides León and Galicia; it was immediately evident, looking down the western slope, to see how much differently the weather would be as we crossed through Galicia and finally entered Santiago. while the sun shone brightly as we entered town a thunderstorm swept through during our typical mid-afternoon nap, leaving the air significantly cooler and the cobblestones slick as we made our way from the room in our casa rural back to the pub from whence we’d retrieved our key.

a Roman way station guarded the pass into Galicia during their rule over Spain, but evidence points to even earlier habitation and settlement. the village is known for a large selection of well-preserved palloza structures — circular buildings with conical, thatched roofs that share similarities to the round houses of Iron Age Britain, as well as with those found virtually wherever archaeologists have uncovered Celtic settlements (e.g. Ireland, Brittany, Scotland, Morocco and, at least in fiction, the Gaul of Asterix fame). Galician culture shares much with Celtic traditions of Ireland as is evident throughout O’Cebreiro, and anyone who’s visited both can attest to the similarities in climate. some of the earliest people to inhabit Galicia were of Celtic descent and known as Gallaeci and had according to Roman records, had a particularly warlike spirit that repulsed the more pervasive efforts of the Romans to assimilate them into Roman culture.

in recent years O’Cebreiro has become something of a tourist destination; in addition to the well-preserved pallozas, there’s a museum dedicated to the ethnographic heritage of the region with traditional tools on display. the village is also known for a miracle involving the Holy Grail that reputedly took place in the local church. as my cultural guidebook puts it, in the 14th century the “Grail”, an incredulous priest, and a snowstorm resulted in a miracle; basically, when a local peasant arrived in the midst of a snowstorm to hear mass and the priest berated him for his foolhardiness, the wine and bread he was holding turned into actual flesh and blood. in 1487, Pope Innocent VIII certified the veracity of the miracle and this, in addition to an 1486 visit visit by the Catholic monarchs as they made their way to Santiago de Compostela, did wonders for the prosperity of the village. (the royals donated two “large gold nuggets” and asked the Pope to transfer a degree of authority and autonomy church officials closer to the village and, presumably, more aware of the needs of the inhabitants and peregrinos.)

success of the village in the modern era, as well as many notable improvements to the Camino for peregrinos who traverse it today, stems largely from the work of one parish priest, Elías Valiña Sampedro. he wrote two books on the Camino (and introduced the concept of placing explanatory text on one page with a map facing) and is credited for implementing the ubiquitous (and ever reassuring) yellow arrows to mark the path. he also played a role in collecting and preserving artifacts of rural Galician culture as can now be seen in the museum. he’s memorialized with a bust in the square beside the church; we stopped for a look when we realized we couldn’t go look around the church as interrupting mass wouldn’t go over well.

San Juan de Ortega

as I referenced in my last post, Domingo de la Calzada had a disciple named San Juan de Ortega (known to us English speakers as John the Hermit). born near Burgos in the late 11th century, he helped construct bridges in Logroño, Santo Domingo and Nájera. when Domingo died, Juan went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and nearly died in a shipwreck on his return. his prayers to San Nicolas to save him from death apparently answered, Juan devoted himself to improving the Camino between Villafranca Montes de Oca and Burgos.

Church in San Juan de Ortega

he erected a monastery about 50 kilometers west of the one Domingo established and attracted the patronage of Alfonso VII of Castilla. the King supported the monastery with tax money from around Villafranca and visited several times, going so far as to choose Juan as his personal confessor. following in that vein, Pope Innocent II offered his personal protection which proved useful for some 25 years before Juan’s death.

despite the royal patronage, the monastery and hospice struggled through the Middle Ages following Juan’s death. he’s buried in the church and serves as the patron saint of hospice-keepers, children and barren mothers (this line in my book made me wonder: are they already mothers who have become barren, or are they women who wish to be come pregnant and thus not yet technically mothers?).  among those who received his aid was Isabel (I) la Catolica, Castillian queen of the 15th century who conceived following two separate visits to the San Juan’s tomb. the church is built in such a way so that the rays of the setting sun on each equinox fall on the statue of the Virgin Mary, which some see as bolstering his fertility-aid claims. by 1756, some 114 miracles were granted according to monastery records. no mention of how many have been granted since then … 

Villafranca Montes de Oca

while our guidebook recommended we stop over in San Juan de Ortega, the reality of the situation (in which there are some 58 beds in the only albergue in town, all of which were taken by noon) prompted us to merely pause, refill our water and push on to Agés. we weren’t alone in stopping in at the only bar in town, though; in addition to many peregrinos there was a group of Spanish troops stopping for lunch. first and only people we saw in military uniform while in Spain which, it turned out, wasn’t terribly surprising as there’s a military training installation in the hills between Agés and Burgos.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada

the popular town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada takes its name from Domingo García, an 11th century hermit who improved conditions on the Camino for peregrinos. he repeatedly tried to join the Benedictines, spending time studying at two different monasteries, but he proved so inept in his studies they refused to let him continue. still determined to live a religious life, he became a hermit and, following a dream, went to work with San Gregorio Ostiense (who’d been sent by papal envoy to to address a locust plague affecting Navarra and Rioja) improving the Camino in Rioja. when Gregorio died, Domingo returned to the region of the rio Oja (where he’d been a hermit) to continue their work.

his first project was building a stone causeway (calzada), leading to the wooden bridge he’d helped Gregorio construct. it served served as an alternative to the Roman route between Burgos and Leon. that done, he used a sickle to cut 37 kilometers of road through forests to improve the route between Nájera and Redecilla del Camino (on the way to Belorado). as this route became more popular, he replaced the wooden bridge with one of stone. soon thereafter, García Sánchez III granted Domingo permission to convert an old fort into un hospital de peregrinos; around this hospice a larger village grew.

peregrino statue/fountain

when King Alfonso VI of Castilla captured the area in 1076, he enlisted Domingo’s help in civic works projects like those he’d already undertaken. (Alfonso VI was the first to officially refer to the region as “La Rioja” after the river that is the region’s focal point. I felt silly for not noting this fact earlier.) together with a disciple (San Juan de Ortega), Domingo devoted the remainder of his live to improving the Camino — rebuilding bridges, clearing more roadway, anything that bolstered his vision. he devoted his last few years to constructing a church in the village, where he was buried upon his death in 1109. though his church burned in the mid-12th century, the replacement (a colegiata) was much larger and sufficiently impressive to warrant the transfer of the bishopric from Calahorra there in 1227.

as with all saints, miracles are attributed to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, about which you can read more here. suffice it to say that, in honor of Domingo’s miracles, a rooster and a chicken (with white feathers) are kept on the cathedral grounds and peregrinos used to gather feathers from the birds and affix them to their hats. it was said that if one of the chickens ate directly from the hand of a particular peregrino it meant he (or she) would make it to Santiago de Compostela safely.

again, the village location on the Navarra-Castilla frontier meant it changed hands more often than residents enjoyed — six times between 1076 and 1143 (with Castilla ultimately victorious). two centuries later it was also the focal point of Pedro the Cruel’s ill-fated war against his brother; leading up to 1364, Pedro had 38 towers and 7 gates built along a 1.6 kilometer wall that enclosed the city. those walls remained largely intact until 1886; today only the fragments of 8 towers, 2 gates, and 300 meters of wall remain.

unlike many of the other small towns that we passed through on our way to Santo Domingo de la Calzada, this town has grown fairly steadily since the 1850s. as of 2010 the population stands at just under 7,000 inhabitants.