Leaving León and learning the tumultuous history that peppers this expansive independent region of Spain and reflecting on the moments since leaving Roncevellas, exploring the city landscapes of Burgos and León, now far behind, as are the vast open plains of the Meseta.
Continuing through the scenic Bierzo Valley and its rolling landscape of vineyards before stopping to sample local wines at Cuatro Pasos – Four Paws winery, produced by El Bierzo and learn about the wine region and the centuries old wine making practices.
Passing through one of the steepest climbs along ‘the way’, reaching an alto of 1,300 mtrs and being rewarded with stunning views across the Valcarce Valley. Reaching the marker that you are leaving the region of Castilla y León and crossing into the Galicia region.
The Valcarce Valley and village of O’Cebreiro showcase a wonderful foretaste of the unique Galician culture. This tiny hamlet with cobblestone streets marks the final stretch toward the last 185 km pilgrimage to Santiago. The fierce westerly winds coming from the Atlantic can and do hit fast, bringing an immediate change in weather. Frequent heavy rains, thunderstorms and thick mountain fog, sprinkled with intermittent sunshine and blue skies pepper this beautiful outer landscape and is reminiscent of Ireland and other Celtic lands, and comes with a warm and hospitable welcome.
Walking into O’Cebreiro, the first sight I see is the Iglesia de Santa Maria Real – Church of Santa María do Cebreiro A Real. A pre-Romanesque style church dating back to 872, one of the oldest references dated as 1072, when used by French Benedictine monks, and the oldest existing church associated directly with ‘the way’.
The parish church is also known and revived for what is believed to be the miracle of the Holy Grail, turning the hamlet into a necessary pilgrimage site for centuries.
The Galician Holy Grail: A tradition rooted in northern Spain tells us that on a rough winter morning early in the year of the 14th century, a priest was celebrating the Eucharist on the alter of one of the side chapels of the Iglesia de Santa Maria Real. Snow and wind made it almost impossible to access the chapel, and the priest assumed no one would make it to Mass. To his surprise a peasant named Juan Santín traveled all the way from the parish of Barxamaior to O’Cebreiro, desiring to receive Communion. According to the story, the priest (who had lost his faith in the Real Presence) asked the peasant “So much sacrifice for a little bread and wine?” At that moment the consecrated bread and wine became flesh and blood, restoring the faith of the priest. The Eucharistic miracle of O’Cebreiro had became famous thanks to the stories the pilgrims spread through the Camino and beyond. Courtesy
There is also a mausoleum with the remains of both the priest and the peasant, resting side by side in the Iglesia de Santa Maria Real.
The local history of this municipality is strongly influenced by its importance and relevance as a place of passage for ‘the way’. The small village of Pedradita do Cebreiro, a 45min walk away from O’Cebreiro was part of the itinerary of Roman roads: first, it was the road linking Triacastela with the inland ancient Galicia; later, it was part of the Saint James Way and the Royal Way, and from the 19th century was the first modern road access from the plateau of Castile. However, the humble hamlets history starts long before the Roman Empire and is known for its pallozas (traditional huts). The traditional round stone houses with peaked thatched roofs that are an excellent witnesses of a pre-Roman settlement were used during Celtic times, 1,500 years ago, until the 1960s, giving shelter to the hamlets inhabitants for millennia. Nowadays, they are insightful tourist attractions, with one being used as an Ethnographic museum.
Walking the cobble stoned streets takes you back to a time and land that has long been forgotten by modernised western cultures. Time spent in contemplative moments are peaceful whilst admiring the expansive outer landscape in between watching the fast approaching black clouds filed with heavy rain ready to fall.
Staying the night at the rustic Santuario do Cebreiro above the souvenir shop brought comfort from what had been a long and spirited 29 km walk. With a surprised and an unexpected, yet graciously welcomed gift by the inn keeper. In a display of true Galician hospitality, I was gifted a very enjoyable bottle of vino tinto to ward off the chill of the night and presented in local dialect Céad míle fáilte – Galicia bids you One Hundred Thousand Welcomes.
Leaving O’Cebreiro with a misty filled morning that shrouds the Peregrino statue showing the effort needed to walk through the harsh winds coming off the Atlantic Ocean. Passing the Alto do San Roque signpost marking the last high elevation point along ‘the way’.
Arriving in Hospital de la Condesa as the morning mist began to clear and finding the Casa de Lucas, open for a homemade slice of False Bica, local breakfast cake. And a much welcomed hot chocolate and a place beside the open fire providing comfort from the light drizzly day outside.
Feeling refreshed, I then continued on through the idyll rural landscape towards Biduedo passing the open church of Ermita de San Pedro, reportedly the smallest church on ‘the way’, before arriving in Triacastela in time for lunch. A new taste sensation experiencing the local specialty – Caldo Galego, a traditional soup consisting of local ingredients: lima beans, (seasonal vegetables), rapini, cabbage, or grelos and turnips.
Traversing through the Galician outer landscape it is obvious that very little has changed through some parts, during the passing centuries, as evidenced by the charming traditional hamlet of San Cristobo, and its local church – Igrexa de San Cristovo and the ancient weir and mill buildings. While other small towns like Samos, cloak itself around the imposing Monasterio de Samos; one of the largest and oldest monasteries in the western world, founded in the 6th century nestled in the peaceful Rio Oricio valley where time seems to stand still.
Tranquil and peaceful moments can change fast, with a reminder of the quick changing weather that is renowned in these parts. The heavens opened and the relentless rain continued to beat down for the last 15km to Sarria. Bedraggled, drenched and very tired, a clear vision of clean dry clothes, a hot shower, comforting food and an overnight rest stay with me… accomplished and grateful the rains had passed leaving an afternoon, evening to soak up the ancient atmosphere of this major medieval centre with Celtic origins that blend with modernism. The steeple of Iglesia de Santa Marina rising high above the town. A modern church built over another that was established in the 12th century.
More misty mornings, open to lush green farmlands and small hamlets that seem to blend into one another grace the outer landscape before reaching the 100 km marker. An inner moment of jubilation.
Reaching Portomarín before lunch provides opportunity to discover what lies within the town with its stone arched walkway that lines one side of the cobbled stone main street to the central square Prasa Conde de Fenosa.
Modern day Portomarín holds an interesting past with intrinsic and historic links to two former villages – San Pedron and San Juan that laid either side of the Rio Miño. During the 1960s the two villages were submerged under water to make way for the construction of the reservoir of Belesar.
The 12th century Romanesque fortress church of San Xoán – Saint John with ties to the Knights of Saint John was removed from its former site and rebuilt stone by stone, now stands proudly in the square. The small Capela de San Pedron – Saint Peter Chapel, was also removed from its original site and rebuilt in its current location.
Wandering the streets and surrounds of Portomarín provides moments to appreciate the outer landscape and the lush banks of the Rio Miño, peppered with ancient ruins and the remains of the old stone medieval bridge, remnants of what was once its historic past. Sitting awhile and reflecting on how times change; from what were once two ancient villages straddling opposite sides of a river, now long gone – buried beneath the flood waters that now serve a modern generation. Appreciating the gift of being in the moment, the only place we can truly be present.
Leaving Portomarín the following morning, I find many more Peregrino’s travelling the caminos Primitivo and Norte join the outer landscape on foot and on bicycles. Offering an opportunity to connect with others for the last 70 km stretch to the fabled city of Santiago.
A peaceful three days walk through many small hamlets, passing the 13th century Romanesque parish Church of Santa Maria in Lobreiro. The building opposite the church was once a pilgrims hospital, and still shows the Ullo family coat of arms having founded the hospital.
Reaching the medieval Magdalena Bridge that crosses the Rio Seco, nearing the hamlet of Disicabo and continuing onto the town of Melide; and the 50 km marker.
Approaching Boente, and another idyllic and quaint river crossing aptly named Rio Boente and a second crossing over the Rio Iso on the outskirts of Ribadiso de Baixo, before reaching the outer township of O Pedrouzo to stop, rest and rejuvenate my body before waking the last 20 kms.
Waking in O Pedrouzo, with the thought that I will be in Santiago mid morning. I am in no rush, however having followed the flow of waking and leaving by dawn since departing Roncevellas I am awake and leave early for the final stage of my journey to Santiago de Compostela.
Sections of the last 20 kms opens to peaceful woodlands, quiet country roads and a grove of native eucalyptus that grace the outer landscape and the inner landscape is reminded of the familiar stimulating scent from Australia.
Small hamlets have become quaint villages, quaint villages have become towns and towns close together have become cities. The sounds of city life greet me as I pass along the fence line that separates me from planes at Santiagos’ International airport – Labacolla Aeropuerto, awaiting those embarking on the next stage of their life’s journey, and the scent and sight of the road traffic along the busy N-634.
A light drizzle then greets me as I descend the flight of stairs along Rua do Peregrino, passing over the railway line and the statue of El Templario Peregino, then continuing along the main road before entering the wonderful fabled medieval city and finding myself standing in Praza do Obradoiro and the imposing sight of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The statue of Saint James stands front and centre of the cathedral overlooking the hordes that descend on its imposing and majestic structure, steeped in history. There are many, many people around…
… and I take time to arrive; and like many, many before me, appreciate the sight that beholds me together with a sense of personal appreciation; counting my blessings and gratitude for a safe arrival.
My accommodation is a very short, 2 min walk away at Casa Hotel as Artes, where I can see the cathedral spire from my hotel room. After checking in, I find my way to the Oficina del Pergrino – Pilgrim Reception Office to complete official documentation to attend the formal pilgrims mass the following day.
It’s now time to breathe in the magic and moving atmosphere of Santiago de Compostela. To take in the sights and history of Praza do Obradorio – Workshop Square; the grand square free from both vehicle traffic and cafes, in front of the cathedral’s western façade that earned its name from the stonemason’s workshops that were set up during the building of the cathedral.
Praza das Praterías – Silversmith Square – and the elegant 1825 fountain, the Fuente de los Caballos with four horses surmounted by a female figure holding up the guiding star, that legend has it, led the way to the discovery of Santiago’s tomb, located at the southern entrance of the cathedral.
The huge baroque Mosterio de San Martiño Pinario – Monastery of San Martiño Pinario looming over Praza da Inmaculada.
A feast of tapas and a glass or two of Sangria. My heart is full and there is much to be grateful for. Tomorrow promises to be an insightful, inspirational, inspiring and enriching experience.
The cathedral is packed with limited standing room only, as I make my way inside to attend the Pilgrim’s Mass.
Pilgrim’s from across the globe are present and for those like myself who registered with the Pilgrim Reception Office the day before are acknowledged, having their countries of origin and starting point announced at the Mass. The mystical and visual highlight of the Mass is the synchronisation of the beautiful “Hymn to Santiago” with the spectacular swinging of an enormous Botafumerio – incense burner, symbolising what was originally used to fumigate the nearly arrived (and possibly disease-ridden) pilgrims. The ritual requires half a dozen tiraboleiros – attendants to perform. The spiritual highlight of the Mass, the rite of communion, the Sacrament of Penance or confession is administered by Priests in many languages. A truly moving experience.
Leaving the mass highlighted both a completion and a new phase in a life journey… and the journey continues.
If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a track that has always been there waiting for you. And the life you should be living is the life you are living. Joseph Campbell
The following poem… the stirring in my Soul; what awaited and awakened – A Soul Awakening
I yearned to go for a walk
– not just any walk
A walk that would open my heart
and show me my true self
A walk that would show me the joy of sharing
life’s journey with others along the way.
I have a life – enjoyable and rewarding
I am part of a family – that have shared many magical moments
I have things:
things like technologies
things like music
things like pictures
things like shelves full of books
things like educational qualifications
things like money, superannuation and security.
I did not have one thing – and maybe that was why I started
When I started, I put one foot in front of the other
I still did not know – precisely – why I was doing it
The miles passed – many of them pleasantly
The eyes were seeing sights to be treasured
The heart was opening wide.
My feet ached and yet they were quick to heal
ankles turned on loose stones
The rain beat its way through my clothes
the cold chilled the marrow of my bones
Some nights, refuge was hard to find
some days, miles of hot dust had no fountains.
When the first few of many long days had passed
I found – that I walked these days, either with others
to create new experiences
or alone in quiet reflection of those who had passed long before me
we spoke in other languages; yet shared a common experience
Always I met the darkness of night – with gladness – for at the end of the day
I knew the comfort of resting and rejuvenating my body was enough.
When I got to the cathedral – I stood
I saw – through the eyes of those long before me
the blinding faith, the crucial thirst for reclaiming – what I felt I lost
And I counted my blessings – several hundred of them
starting with the kindness of ordinary people on the way
and the warmth of other travelers
Travelers not at all like me – not in age, not in origin, not in interests
but warm across all these differences – and ending with friendship and kinship
I had left behind where I began.
I knew why I had done it
to know my life is more important than the things I left behind
to know that I did not need many of these things
to acknowledge the awakened image in my heart
the image in my heart that calls me to my fate, and be where I belong
to know that kindness, friendship and love is all one needs
to know that I did not – after all – have to make this long journey to find this out
to know that – for me – it certainly helped.
With love and gratitude always – Marilyn
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This blog is the last in a five part series of posts sharing the heart opening joy of walking the Camino de Santiago that has been walked by many for centuries across Northern Spain. Purchase the most comprehensive ‘A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean – Roncesvalles’ here. And for those looking to book nightly accommodation, or stay in a location longer, you can find wonderful accommodation options here.
Thank you for taking the time to read and I hope you enjoy all that this centuries old pilgrimage has brought to myself and many, many others throughout time.
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