Thursday 27 December 2007

The Santiago Road: The Tenth Day

Sunday, June 2, 2002
O Cebreiro to Portomarin
75.99 km, total for trip 854.75

Cycling above the clouds

O Cebeiro is a significant stop on the Camino for several reasons. A hospice for pilgrims that was run by the Benedictines and was supported by the Crown and donations poured in after 1072. There is a tradition that the Holy Grail was hidden in O Cebeiro and a miracle in the 14th Century was attributed to it. There is a small pre-Romanesque church in the village but in fact this is a reconstruction undertaken after 1965 after foundations were discovered. The other feature are the low, oval stone houses with thatched roofs. They are of a style that dates back to the Celts and are called pallozas. They have two rooms--one for people, one for livestock-- and a single door. There are no chimneys, but smoke simply escapes through the thatch, curing hung meats and sausages on the way out. The structure is perfectly suited to the environment with its fierce mountains winds.

Again the rain had ended when I woke up and after a cup of coffee and some dry peanuts, I rolled out of O Cerbeiro, ever towards the west, on a very minor road, the LU 634. In a few minutes I came to San Roque, which at 1264 m marks the highest point on the pass. There once was a hermitage here but today the location is distinguished by modern bronze statue of Santiago fighting the wind, a feeling not unknown to me on this trip.

The road was excellent and I was looking forward to a fast descent. The miles rolled on and after an hour or so I looked ahead and in the distance I could see what looked like a large lake in the valley but as I approached I discovered that in fact it was thick fog. I was approaching Triacastela, according to my map, and after a few more minutes I rolled right into the fog. It was immediately obvious that to proceed would be insanely dangerous as I could only see about a foot in front of me. No car would ever see me if one came (rather unlikely) but I would have to ride at a walking pace to be sure that I would stay on the road! I decided that discretion would be the better part of valour and turned around and rode the 50 feet out of the fog.

To my delight, I emerged right next to a cafe-bar that I had noticed on the way into the fog. I leaned the bike against the front wall and went inside to discover I was the only customer. Early Sunday morning was clearly not the happening time in Galicia but no matter: I was dry and I could relax and have breakfast. The choice was pretty limited so once again I had a Tortilla Frances, an omelette on a baguette, along with a cup of hot chocolate. As I warmed up, the fog began to disipate and by the time I had finished my meal it had almost completely disappeared. As I went outside I realized I was about to enjoy a beautiful day.

The road took me on a smooth descent through the lifting fog, along a river gorge and soon I found myself at the monastery of Samos. This was established in the 6th Century and grew in prestige and power, holding an important place in Galician religious life. The monastery became so wealthy that it was actually sacked by several times by pirates in the early Middle Ages. Benedictine monks were brought to Samos in 922 and in the 12th Century it became part of the Cluniac network. At its height it controlled 200 towns, 105 churches and 300 monasteries. The main building, which features an 18th Century baroque facade, is distinguished by the cockleshell motif of the Camino and has undergone many changes to the recent day, including destruction of its library by fire in 1951. It continues to serve as a monastery.

Close to the monastery, in a small park, stands a tiny chapel that was constructed in the 9th or 10th Century for Mozarabic refugees who had come to Samos from the south. These were Christians living in the parts of Spain occupied since 711 by Muslims as second-class citizens. In times of less religious tolerance, many of them fled to the mountainous regions of Northern Spain for safety and brought their customs, dating back to Visigothic times, and their liturgy with them. The Mozarabs, who admired many aspects of Islamic culture, claimed that Jesus was not divine but actually the adopted son of God, which much have made them popular with the locals in Samos. The constant movement of people is a feature of Spanish history in spite of its current static nature.

After Samos I continued to follow the river gorge, now along LU 633, and after 12 kms of riding I soon found myself in the small town of Sarria. This small town was the site of a minor pre-Roman settlement but grew primarily as a pilgrimage waystop. There are a few fine old buildings remaining, although the castle that once dominated the town was turned into building materials. Of particular interest was that the day I cycled into town was Corpus Christi and the main streets were all filled with designs made from flowers and coloured sand.

Corpus Christi is a feast celebrating the Holy Eucharist. In Catholic terms this relates to transubstantiation, or the element of communion involving wine and bread as representative of Christ's body. It appears to be celebrated on a Thursday in some areas and on Sundays in others. As a non-religious person I am not completely clear on this whole concept but everyone in Sarria was involved and walking around, admiring the designs. I got off my bicycle and joined them, and when I passed the rather boring modern church I saw several musicians preparing to go in. One of them, a teenage boy, was carrying bagpipes, a traditional Galician instrument.

On the outskirts of Sarria stands the Iglesia de San Salvador, which has Romanesque features although much of the interior dates to the 14th Century. I got off the bike to take a photograph and as I did so an old man came out. He seemed delighted to see me and was very keen to stamp my credencia. We went into the church and looked around, he cheerfully going on in some kind of Spanish that I understand almost nothing of. Everyone was obviously at the new church in town since we were all alone. He went to a little desk and took out a rubber stamp and with an almost-Herculean effort he stamped the credenica, making an imprint so faint I could barely read it in spite of all his effort. He cheerfully waved goodbye as I left Sarria, heading ever westwards.

Although I attempted to follow the narrow dirt path, at this point, my path diverged from the historical pilgrimage route as I continued along the paved road, C 535, towards Paradela. From Sarria to my evening's destination of Portomarín was 24 kms but there actually was not a great deal to see along this stretch. Galicia is pretty empty in places and the villages, such as there are, seem to have only a handful of houses. Traffic was not very heavy and I made good progress, soon crossing a huge bridge over the Río Miño and entering Portomarín. This town's origins were pre-Roman and it had strategic importance at one time: the bridge had been attacked, destroyed and rebuilt numerous times since the 9th Century. But it served primarily as a pilgrimage waystop. The emergence of Lugo, only 30 kms to the north, with its highway connections meant that Portomarín shrivelled, cut off from commerical activity. Apparently it was not even reachable by wheeled traffic until 1919!

Portomarín immediately struck me as looking a bit odd compared to the other towns I had seen on my travels. The main street had arcades with a vague Wild West feel and the streets were all wider than what I had been used to. It turned out that in 1956 a large hydroelectric dam had been begun futher south on the Río Miño and the old town was permanently flooded after its monuments were dismanteld and relocated. In 1962 the new town of Portomarín was completed on the west bank of the river.

I found a little hotel and after attempting to communicate in crypto-Spanish discovered that the pleasant lady at the front desk spoke fluent German so arrangements became very easy. I unpacked my panniers and, as usual rearranged all my gear and then had a welcome shower. I went for a walk in the town in the blazing late afternoon heat and found a grocery store where I put together my usual pilgrim's meal of bread and cheese.

The primary monument in Portomaín is the Iglesia de San Juan, which is now the parish church of St. Nicholas. This is a massive church/fortress thing that was occupied by the Knights of St. John. It was constructed in the late 12th Century and is extensively decorated, which is a bit unusual for a Romanesque building. Its four towers feature battlements, so after prayer you could go upstairs and dump boiling oil on your enemies outside, I guess. The west facade has a fine arch with an impressive rose window. It was certainly unlike any other church I had seen on the Camino.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful! Enjoy every minute... I'm living vicariously through your posts! Cheers, Donald

Will said...

nice post

I always like "above the clouds" rides

Sprocketboy said...

Thanks guys! Sooner or later I will actually finish this report and arrive in Santiago. Your comments are most encouraging.