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.

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 …


after the distinct character of O’Cebreiro, hiking for 28 days, and the increasing presence of new peregrinos, I found it increasingly difficult to appreciate the character and charm of the some of the places we stayed in Galicia. perhaps the damp weather exacerbated my sense of ambivalence, but the new faces and increased commercialization of the small towns, seeking desperately to meet some unasked need of the new peregrinos didn’t help.

we didn’t have lodging booked in Triacastela and stumbled upon an albergue near the start of town and off the main road. we snagged perhaps the last two bunks in the place, which was clean enough if charmless. the communal space was somewhat odd and didn’t allow for much lounging. we found a restaurant around the corner for our big daily meal and then took a look around the village. even if we’d found the last two beds in the village, I felt a little cheated; while our albergue was on the main highway through town, the heart of the village was the other road, the one we’d deviated from to find our lodging. it was filled with cafes and several different lodgings of varying quality and after having such luck finding quaint or character-filled lodgings without notice, it was a bit of a let-down. one of my books likened it to the contrast found in Puente la Reina (way back on day 4) where the Camino passed along both a major motorway lined with modern (drab) apartment buildings and through the medieval buildings at the center of town.

the three castles from which the village takes its name dated from the 10th century but none remain standing; according to my cultural history book, they were all likely destroyed by Norman raiders in the middle of the 10th century and nothing remains of them today. (could you blame locals for carrying off a heap of already-quarried stones for their own uses?) despite the lack of stately accommodation, the town drew numerous royals for visits over the centuries. in the 13th century, Alfonso IX of León took a liking to the town and visited frequently, even going so far as to appoint the local mayor; his son took a liking to the Galician language, Gallego, and had troubadours perform songs at court in Gallego. shortly thereafter (in 1248), Fernando III gathered town representatives in the village to raise funds for his campaign to reconquer Sevilla. in May 1554, Prince Felipe II (later King … of several countries with varying strength-of-claim) spent the night in Triacastela before continuing to England to marry his aunt, Mary, who also happened to be recently-crowned Queen of England.

Celtic Spain

as I mentioned in a previous post, there is a strong Celtic vein running through Galicia — climatologically and culturally. the mountains upon which O Cebreiro sits are the first significant vertical obstacle that Atlantic weather systems encounter on their eastward journey, resulting in frequent rain and fog that leave the fields and flora the kind of lush green that reminds you why there are so many different ways to say green in Gaelic languages. the land is hilly and broken up into a patchwork of farms with much more space for grazing animals than in the more eastern provinces. the terrain at the heart of Galicia is hilly, though not quite mountainous necessarily, though mountains divide it from the rest of Spain, contributing somewhat to its isolation. the region is also crossed by numerous rivers, fed by the regular precipitation, winding through dense Atlantic rainforests. similar to Ireland, the ragged coastline is marked with archipelagos, firth-like inlets and high cliffs.

as with my experience in Ireland, the rain came most every day but not in torrential way. throughout our time in Galicia, there was really only one day where it rained persistently and all our rain gear was essential; the rest of the time it drizzled for a bit, or started out fogging in the morning and cleared up relatively quickly. the average rainfall in Santiago in June (one of the driest months and when we visited) is 57mm, while Galway in June sees an average of 72mm. in May, they both have virtually the same of average number of rainfall days and their temperature trends, even, are relatively close though the highs in Galway remain somewhere between 4 and 6 degrees Centigrade cooler.

emigration and economic problems have affected both Galicia and Ireland profoundly; while I’ve read extensively on the Irish diaspora, I had no idea the extent to which the problem might affect another region, or how it might manifest, until I witnessed it in Galicia. as with so many of the small towns we travel through on the Camino, denuded of younger inhabitants, few opportunities beyond life of getting by as a farmer exist in the small communities of Galicia; with the economic crisis Spain currently faces, there are few opportunities even in the cities for young people (though Citroën has a factory for electric cars in Vigo). the lack of opportunities has prompted young men in particular emigrate elsewhere in Spain and to Latin America; this problem is hardly new, however — Fidel Castro’s parents were both of Galician extraction. because of this migration (and a fertility rate of just over one child per Galician woman), the population of Galicia has grown slower than the rest of Spain. moreover, this problem is exacerbated by a gender imbalance favoring women that stems from the tendency of men to migrate. once I read of the nearly two-to-one gender disparity, I noticed it everywhere; women run everything, from bars to stores to farms. the first pub we ate at in Galicia featured a full staff of women and the number of visitor-men significantly outnumbered the number of local-men in the pub.

 not unlike Ireland, the native Galician language (Galega) has faced attempts at suppression by the nearby dominant language (Spanish). for four centuries, Spanish was the only official language in Galicia; eventually it fell out of daily use in urban areas but now it is the primary language of instruction. efforts to bring it back into popular usage among Galicians seem to have met with more success than in Ireland; the 2001 census found that 99 percent of Galicians understood Galega, 91 percent could speak it, 68 percent could read it, and 57 percent could write it — the latter two percentages up significantly from a decade earlier (the Franco regime forbid the teaching of Galego). it just barely makes it onto the list of 150 most-spoken languages in the world.

one last similarity is the music; apart from the festival performance we saw in Belorado, we didn’t hear or witness much live music in Spain. granted, we weren’t ones for going out late — much less late for Spain — given our propensity for awaking silly early to get walking before the worst of the heat (and to ensure securing beds on the nights we stayed in the albergues). but in Galicia, we saw more traditional dress and heard a tiny bit more traditional music. as with other Celtic peoples, the traditional music of Galicia features bagpipes called gaita. maybe it’s just through the hazy lens of passed time, but I recall the music featuring the gaita as not unlike what I heard in Ireland, though certainly with its own flavor. as we came down towards the plaza in front of the Catedral in Santiago, a young busker was playing gaita under the final archway, sending the familiar yet distinct music echoing out into the plaza. it was spectacularly atmospheric and I cannot think of a more appropriate way to reach our long-sought destination.


entering the last autonomous region of the Camino!

having never studied much Spanish history while at school (much less monarchical history), the intensity to which people associate with their ancestral kingdom surprised me. natives of Navarra descend from a very different narrative than natives from Castilla or natives of León or natives of Galicia. unlike the more central (and easily-conquerable) regions of Spain, Galicia has an independent streak not unlike that of Catalonia or the Basque country. (a fact mentioned in an article I read today in the Economist about the recent vote in Catalonia in support of independence from Spain.)

the area has been inhabited since the Copper Age by a culture characterized by a “surprising capacity for construction and architecture” and a cult of the dead. migration from the Castillian plain into Galicia during the Bronze age boosted mining interests and swelled the population. their successors, Gallaeci, were of Celtic extraction, lived in fortified villages, and form the basis for the region’s modern inhabitants. founded by the Suebic king Hermeric in 409 C.E., the kingdom of Galicia adopted Catholicism and minted its own currency as early as 449. in 585 the Visigoths annexed the kingdom and reigned (though didn’t much control) for just over a century before Galicia regained its liberty and amicably joined with the adjacent kingdoms for a period.

traditional Galician stew and hearty bread

though it became an independent kingdom briefly in the 10th century as a result of succession fights in Castilla, those same fights destabilized the region and Galicia subsequently fell under the control of a series of external monarchs. beginning in the 14th century, the distant kings began devolving more powers on local authorities (knights, counts bishops, etc.) and increasing after Galicians backed Joanna La Beltraneja in her successful bid against Isabela I of Castilla. towards the end of the 15th century, however, the language began a slow decline that led to the Séculos Escuros (Dark Centuries) when the written Galician language nearly disappeared. another fact some of you might find interesting — in the 1380s, John of Gaunt claimed the crown of Castilla on behalf of his wife, sailed to Spain to battle the French as part of the Hundred Years War, and dragged Galicia into his succession fight.

amazing dessert of local crumbly cheese
drenched in honey and the famous
Santiago almond tart

not surprisingly, Galicia found itself in the cross-hairs of various belligerent parties of the 19th century. the people allied themselves with the British in the Peninsular War and suffered consequences as a result when the French took control of the region for six months (you can “read more” about how they evicted the French from Santiago de Compostela in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles, which I was encouraged to read before setting out on the Camino.) the kingdom was dissolved permanently with the unification of Spain under one crown in 1833; a century later, in conjunction with the establishment of the Second Republic of Spain, Galicians voted in favor of a path to autonomy within a federalized Spanish state though the Spanish Civil war preempted implementation. because the initial military coup proved successful in Galicia, the region was spared the worst of the fighting that occurred during the war, though they certainly didn’t go unpunished or un-repressed. (fact I did not know: Franco was from Ferrol, northeast of Santiago but in the same province of A Coruña)

while Galicia has been profoundly affected by the economic and housing crises affecting the rest of Spain in the last decade, the region still retains its distinct, unique character. but more about that later.

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.