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Published: November 12th 2008
Crucifix & Window
Reyes Católicos Parador's Chapel
When the rain subsided and more people started to walk through Plaza del Obradoiro towards the cathedral, it was easy to identify who among the visitors had arrived to town on foot, many among them had been on the trails for about one month and hiked over 780 km (485 miles) from the border between France and Spain. A few of them had actually started their trek from origins much more distant such as Poland, Switzerland, or Italy following the way of Apostle Saint James.
Because these pilgrimages started about one thousand years ago, they are one of the oldest travel traditions in Europe. It is said that having so many pilgrims from so many different countries traveling together provided the first practical channel for Europeans to meet and exchange ideas during a time where these exchanges were very rare and difficult.
But the tradition is quite alive today as more than 100,000 people complete the pilgrimage each year. They all follow the ancient path through the woods and meadows of Spain and France; a path that is now well marked with yellow-paint arrows on rocks and on tree trunks.
At periodic intervals, a network of hostels provides
refuge to these modern pilgrims who are typically able to hike around 20 to 30 km (12 to 18 miles) each day until they finally arrive at their destination in Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain.
Once the destination is reached, there are many prescribed traditions that are followed faithfully by everyone (e.g. hug the statue of Saint James from behind, break your walking stick in half and then submerge the pieces on the fountain outside the back of the cathedral, butt heads with a statue at the cathedral’s Obradoiro entrance, etc., etc.). The first travel guide in history (Book V, Codex Calixtinus
) actually gave advice about how to go about this pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
My own arrival to Santiago had followed a much more ordinary approach and my purpose had to do with my usual work duties, so I did not feel as full of accomplishment as the more worthy arrivals around me. In any case, I felt a deep respect for all of them and wondered about their days and months on the trails when they anticipated the moment that they were experiencing now. Perhaps the next time that I visit this amazing place, I will be
one among them!
My trip to this area of Spain had given me the opportunity to explore the origins of my own family, but this exploration could not have been so complete without the help of my very kind host and colleague Joaquín Lameiro. Since my arrival on Saturday afternoon, Joaquín “adopted” me and gave me the kind of insights that only a person who was born and raised in a place like this is capable of sharing.
I felt so “at home” here, that I suspect that there is a connection deeper than mere cultural affinity. In any case, one of the first places where Joaquín took me was to the town of “A Estrada” (or “La Estrada”, as you would say it in Castilian), about 20 km (12 miles) south of Santiago.
I knew before arriving that my family name is actually quite common in the entire region of Galicia, but finding a town with my family name was icing on the cake because most Spanish last names are actually the names of the places where the families originated.
When we returned to Santiago, Joaquín took me around the main sites within the “monumental”,
Consello de Santiago
or old city. Knowing my interest in photography, he introduced me to the vantage points that would produce the best images, provided that the rainy conditions could improve at least within the next twenty-four hours or so that were left of the weekend.
In any case, because it rains so frequently in Santiago de Compostela, local people say that the rain actually enhances the mood of photos. Indeed, the ancient stones used as the main construction material on buildings and streets shine in a special way when wet; “rain does become an art form in Santiago de Compostela” the saying continues.
Sunday started also rainy and cold, so my early excursion to Plaza del Obradoiro had the objective of capturing the early light bouncing on the wet stone floors and walls, but after I spent a couple of hours going around the old city, the weather started to improve and glances of a blue sky started to appear over the horizon.
Between 10:00 and 11:00 AM, the blue skies eventually triumphed over the rain clouds and a sunny and pretty day ensued. I was obliged to repeat my photographic tour and re-capture the images (specially the long
shots) with a much better background this time.
Joaquín rejoined me again at close to 2:00 PM and offered to take me south of the city and visit the very unique Galician coast. He had mentioned the day before the term “rias”, which I first assumed to be a Gallegan way to say “rivers” (or “rios” in Castilian). But I was wrong!
A geological phenomenon occurred during the early ages in this corner of the planet, when several river deltas in relative proximity to each other descended under the sea level and the ocean moved inland invading their river beds and forming something somewhat similar to the fjords of Norway, but wider and less deep. These river-formed fjords are what Galicians call “rias” and are very unusual and rich ecosystems for marine life (Probably the reason why Galician seafood is so famous).
Another incredible site we visited was the ruin of Castro de Baroña, a fortified pre-Roman village (more like an early castle) that was built over a small rocky cape about two thousand years ago. The remains of the defensive walls and even part of the circular individual house walls still stand and mark the place
At the Reyes Católicos Parador
where the villagers lived.
The layout of the village is very much evident and the visitor can get a very clear idea of what the place looked when it was inhabited. When we arrived at the castro, the Sun was already getting low near the horizon, allowing us to enjoy a golden sunset much like the early inhabitants of this place enjoyed themselves.
Just before the sunlight was totally gone, we drove up Curotta Mountain, where a scenic outlook permits the visitor to appreciate several rias concurrently. The view from there was breathtaking.
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