Finding St. James

~ Camino de Santiago part 4: from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela ~

Mists of Galicia
Galicia’s ties to the story of St. James stretch back to the first century of the Christian era when the apostle’s disciples reportedly brought his remains to this region for burial. It was customary at the time to inter proselytizers where they had spread the gospel in life, thus James was brought back to the coast (at Finisterre) for eternal rest. Here the stories diverge in an attempt to incorporate the symbolic scallop shell. By some accounts, the Saint was brought back on a scallop shell encrusted boat with no crew. By others, the ship was wrecked and St. James washed up covered in shells. More likely, the inclusion of scallop shells in these stories is an attempt to adapt an earlier Pagan symbol of the Finisterre pilgrimage to a new Christian tradition (the scallop being a visual representation of both the setting sun and many radial paths converging on one location). The legends agree that the disciples of St. James faced resistance to their aim. Queen Lupa of the Celts is said to have conspired with the Roman Legate at Dugium to destroy the Saint’s remains, his followers narrowly escaping over the river Tambre with the bridge miraculously collapsing behind. The Pagan queen also reportedly offered oxen to the disciples to make peace and allow them to shape the earth for a shrine. The oxen turned out to be wild bulls notorious for killing shepherds but the beasts allowed themselves to be tamed and hitched by the Christians nonetheless,  leading to Queen Lupa’s conversion. There are a hundred more legends concerning the saint who brought the gospel to this Celtic stronghold, the only thing most of them have in common is that they all agree that James came to Galicia and preached. The atmosphere still smells thickly of magic, spirituality, and a nature worship here. Beliefs that incorporated Christianity into themselves rather than be cast aside. It is no stretch of the imagination to see the attraction that brought James the greater to these shores; the atmosphere is thick with faith and it is easy to believe here.

Welcome to Sarria
It was in such a setting that we made our way from Triacastela. Light rain came and went throughout the day as our seasoned legs carried us quickly from village to village. We waited out the heavier showers under trees and overhangs or in cafes, where the barkeeps kept bottles of strong unlabeled liquor called orujo to provide inner warmth against the cold wet outside. It is custom for complimentary portions of the Spanish moonshine to be offered to patrons waylaid by weather and a generous practice made of this. We arrived in Sarria warm with orujo to find the xunta albergue, located in the old quarter at the top of a long and ancient stair, filled to the brim with travelers. This is perhaps the most popular starting point on the Camino for pilgrims eager to receive a Compostela (certificate of completion of the pilgrimage) from the church but do not have the time for an extended walk. We were now a mere 100 kilometers from the cathedral at Santiago and the route would be more populated from here on out, Sarria was a glimpse of what lay ahead.

Entrance to Mosteiro de
Santa Maria Madalena,
The city made a perfect place to rest and get a break from walking in the rain before taking on the final leg of our journey. B and I found a pension house (a kind of economy hotel) across from the albergue and moved our gear the following morning. We took the time to explore the town and pick up new credentials from the church (our original pilgrim passports were now full of stamps), finding numerous sites of interest and an amazing Italian restaurant transplanted to north-west Spain. Sarria was a major medieval halt for pilgrims and at one time held several churches, monasteries, and pilgrim hospitals. The old quarter has been excellently preserved in modern times due to the placement of the railroad north east of town pulling development away from the Camino to the south. We explored the ruins of the Fortaleza y Torres, a 13th century castle, and the Mosteiro de Santa Maria Madalena, of equal age but in considerable better shape.

San Nicolas (XIIth cen.),
We were greeted with sunshine and warmth in the morning, and chose to start off later to avoid the rush of pilgrims eager to reach Santiago. We passed through farming hamlets with streets covered in cattle manure and populated more by shepherding dogs than people. We had aimed to stay in the village of Ferreiros (thus escaping the crowds and spreading some of the wealth among more rural establishments) but had to continue after finding the xunta albergue inexplicably closed for day. Reaching Portomarin late in the evening, we checked into a private hostel to take advantage of laundry facilities in a less crowded environment while paying a little more for the privilege. The town climbs up from the Embalse de Belesar reservoir, leaving the Camino and ascending in cobblestones up to the Romanesque church of San Nicolas. This 12th century sanctuary was painstakingly moved and rebuilt at the top of the hill to make room for the modern water reservoir. The Portomarin church has links to the Knights of St. John and is ascribed to the workshop of Master Mateo, the artist responsible for the Portico de Gloria at Santiago cathedral.

Wayside cross, Ligonde
Our luck was better at finding a more rural albergue the following day when we arrived in Eirexe ahead of the rain. The small hamlet nearby, had a simple 17th century wayside cross on the way into town that lent some insight into the character of this forgotten countryside. Aside from pilgrims walking on the Camino, there is little contact with the outside world and only a handful of families remain in each area. It was here that we met an Israeli couple that was interested in the historical significance of the Camino and a Spaniard from Madrid whose legs were failing him after two strenuous days coming from O’Cebreiro without proper gear. We left our new acquaintances at the albergue and were fortunate enough to stumble onto some kind of family gathering at the local bar. Festivities included a bagpipe performance by a local youth and cast a warm communal atmosphere over the establishment.

Pulpo served up steaming
Our new Israeli friends walked with us for a bit the following day on our way to Mato-Casanova and shared our frustration when we found yet another inexplicably closed xunta albergue. We continued on to Melide, arriving late in the evening, and found a pair of bunks in the rapidly filling hostel. Melide is an administrative center for the region with a winding old quarter. B and I went down to the main drag and sampled the regional dish of Galicia known as Pulpo. Pulpo is a very simple preparation of boiled octopus tentacle tossed with olive oil and paprika and served with coarse red wine. We opted for a more tourist oriented restaurant called Pulperia Exequiel and ended up being the only patrons (as tourist season was coming to a close and the Spanish prefer to take their supper late at night), receiving the full attention of the animated restaurant owner. The octopus was delicious and fatty but sat queasy on both our stomachs, perhaps a consequence of not eating seafood in quite some time or never before eating octopus in such quantities.

Bridge over the river Furelos,
Ponte Velha
The next day spared us from rain yet again and saw us to Arzua, the last population center before Santiago. We opted for a private option to take advantage of the kitchen facilities as it is the habit of xunta caretakers to remove the cooking equipment from government albergues in an effort to increase commerce at local restaurants. The town is known for its cheese, an aged sharp departure from the soft Galician cheese we sampled at O’Cebreiro. We made good time to O Pedrouzo and the surrounding timber forest the following day. The Camino here winds through Eucalyptus plantation lots on its way to Santiago, a sign of our approach on more industrialized territory.

Monument to the Pilgrim,
Monte del Gozo
The cobbled hamlets covered in cow shit gave way to modern townships as we neared our goal. Perhaps one of the most famous destinations of all time, Santiago grows epic in the minds of pilgrims on the Way. The tension mounted further throughout the day as we passed shrines and way markers along the road side. Through forest track and asphalt senda we arrived at the Monte del Gozo (Mount of Joy) and got our first glimpse of the city. At one time, this was the first view of the cathedral spires for early pilgrims after months (sometimes years) of travel. The modern city now obscures the old but the view is still impressive and inspiring after weeks of walking west. Monte del Gozo features a modern monument to the pilgrim that commemorates the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to Santiago.

Santiago cathedral
Our energy began to wane as we made our way closer to the medieval quarter. Santiago is a bustling city, both an administrative center and tourist capitol, and we were unprepared for the urban environment after a week of rural Galicia. There is no wall to mark the medieval boundaries in Santiago but the change in environment was palpable. We were suddenly surrounded by twisting alleys full of merchants, street performers, and arresting Baroque façades not the least of which was the front of the cathedral itself, a sight that served to relieve and reinvigorate us. The Praza do Obradoiro is known as Santiago’s golden square and provides the main entrance to the cathedral through the renowned Portico de Gloria (Portal of Glory) by Master Mateo. This medieval masterpiece is now sheltered from the elements by an ornate (and somewhat gaudy) Baroque façade that comprises the entire south-eastern side of the square. B and I rested in shadow of Santiago cathedral for a few moments before continuing to our hostel to drop our packs.

Santiago cathedral
We returned to the cathedral to make our way up the steps past the Portico de Gloria. Pilgrims are no longer allowed to touch the Tree of Jesse, Master Mateo’s masterpiece feature of the portal, due to centuries of corrosion on the 12th century work. The portal is currently undergoing restoration to preserve this living artifact for generations of pilgrims to come and we were thus unable to see the monument in its entirety, entering the cathedral to the left of Master Mateo's entrance. We made our way to the altar and the small crypt underneath to view the remains of San Tiago himself. The reliquary rests in a small chamber with enough room for two or three people to pray. I descended into the crypt alone and was overwhelmed by a feeling of love and gratitude that drew me to take to my knees and give thanks for a safe arrival, for the tradition inspired by the life of the apostle before me, and for the good health of my partner. This cell remains one of the most peaceful places I've ever encountered in spite of being one of the most famous spiritual destinations in history. My moment was ended by the sound of another descending to pay their respects and I left the crypt via the opposing narrow stair to give them the privacy of their own thoughts.

Wayside cross, near Melide
St. James has worn a thousand faces over the centuries: robust friend to Christ, temperamental apostle, father of Galician Christendom, slayer of Moors, solitary pilgrim, and patron Saint of Spain. Perhaps something often overlooked is the excuse he gave to medieval followers of the Camino to continue an ancient tradition under Catholic rule. The pilgrimage continues to transcend religious orientation or beliefs and finds a common ground in its encouragement of community. Strangers welcome each other as close friends here and the power of this cannot be understated. The St. James story is but one chapter in the history of the search for our innately universal nature and the Camino is a path to a discovery of which I am proud to taken a small part.

Clocktower on the cathedral,
B and I took a few days to explore Santiago. The city has a great cultural wealth in her museums, monuments, and shops. We ran into several familiar faces from the Way including our young friends from Rabanal del Camino, the Israeli couple, and Robert. Each chance meeting had a kind of unspoken sadness stemming from a deep down knowledge that we would never see each other again. But the Camino is about finding your common ground with all people, not just a select few, and I knew that each one of us would return to our little corners around the globe and bring a piece of the pilgrimage with us. Some say that “the Camino begins at Santiago”. This saying still seems like a trite gift shop platitude to me. I much prefer “life is the Camino” for it truly always has been and always will be. Santiago was just the place where we realized it first.

Water font in the forest near San Xil.
The Camino through Galicia.
Monument to King Alfonso IX, Sarria
Fortaleza de Sarria in ruins, Sarria
Convent Mosterio da Madalena (XIIIth cen.), Sarria
Dream catcher in a hollow tree. One of the many tokens and shrines in the forest of Galicia.
The Camino through the forest of Galicia.
Rural shrine to the pilgrimage on  a remote forest track.

Playing with our food at the owner's requests (he did not speak a word of English). Pulperia Ezequiel, Melide.
Ant sculptures on the Camino. Near Eirexe.
The Camino winding through a eucalyptus plantation.
Modern village surrounding an old wayside cross.  In Lavacolla, where medieval pilgrims traditionally cleansed themselves before approaching the city.
Way mark for the approach to Santiago.
Monument to Cervantes whose seminal work, Don Quixote makes numerous references to St. James and the pilgrimage to Santiago.
Mosteiro e Igrexe de San Paio de Antealtares (XVth cen.), Santiago.
Fountain of the Praza das Praterias, Santiago.
View of the Praza do Obradoiro from the cathedral roof, Santiago.
Original cathedral bells of Santiago cathedral. At one time these were captured by the Moors who took them to Grenada. They were returned generations later, after the fall of Grenada to the Spanish.
View of Santiago cathedral at night from the Praza do Obradoiro, Santiago.

Compostela issued by the church to certify that I completed a pilgrimage to Santiago.

My credential (or pilgrim's passport) with stamps from albergues, churches, and institutions along the Way.

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