CAMINO DE SANTIAGO: On Glory Roads
The Road to Santiago rarely fails to impress: the constantly changing landscapes, diverse flora and fauna; the encounters with unique and inspiring people; the varied legends of pilgrims past and present; the countless artistic and historical treasures found at every turn; the possibility of enjoying both silence or the animation and color of a Spanish fiesta; or the knowledge that your footsteps join those of millions before you across a thousand years of European history.
We walk in the shadows of this past and seek as well to understand those created in the present on our walking tour along this great medieval pilgrimage route.
COMPOSTELA TOUR: León to Santiago
Join us for this special 7-day tour starting in León and continuing through the rural Galician countryside. You will be eligible to earn the Cathedral’s certificate of completion, the Compostela, as we walk the last 100km over 5 of the 7 days.
Enjoy bucolic country lanes, enchanted forests and countless hamlets as we wend our way over the rolling hills to the ancient city of stone, Santiago de Compostela.
GALICIA, Celtic Spain: From Sea to Mountain
Wedged in between the roaring Atlantic and the gentle eastern sierras in Iberia’s northwest corner, Galicia is a magnificent combination of rolling, irregular countryside, 750 miles of breathtaking coastline, numerous deeply penetrating fjord-like estuaries as well as mixed forests and winding rivers.
On the tour we explore the wild coastline, the sea an ever-present right hand companion, as well as Galicia’s mountain, valley and river systems with delightful walks in forests rich in flora and fauna.
We'll pass small, rustic villages, archaeological ruins and witness traces of antique ways of living and working.
On this 7 day/night walking tour we roughly follow the medieval pilgrim's way from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela taking in the area's beautiful green mountain and valley landscapes as well as spending two nights on Galicia's spectacular southern coast in Baiona. We stay in three UNESCO world heritage towns - Porto, Guimaraes and Santiago de Compostela.
BASQUE COUNTRY & PYRENEES: Europe's Oldest Culture
Straddling the gentle western Pyrenees, this region is home to Europe´s oldest living language and civilization, breathtaking coastal and low mountain trails, prehistoric remains, sensational award-winning food prepared with charateristic Basque flare and charming seaside towns and high country villages.
Also included in our itinerary is a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
Learn about Basque history, culture and folklore, enjoy lush coastal and hill trails, and treat your palate to a gastronomic odyssey.
PICOS DE EUROPA: Heights of Emerald Spain
Lofty green and grey, the Picos de Europa play sentinel to the Cantabrian Sea only nine miles away. Surrounded by thick stands of beech and oak, sculpted by four strong river systems and modified by hundreds of years of shepherding, the ever changing limestone Picos offer a unique environment and a wide variety of walking opportunities through lunar-like high mountains, crystalline glacial lakes, lush woodlands, winding rivers, high open pastures and alpine meadows. We’ll explore the National Park’s most stunning trails and introduce you to the shepherding traditions that have made the Picos famous worldwide for their pungent blue cheeses.
Both Nancy and Jose have always held both walking and learning close to their hearts.
Their paths crossed while Nancy was conducting her doctoral dissertation research on the Camino de Santiago in the hamlet of Roncesvalles (Navarre) and Jose was just beginning a 450 mile walk across Spain.
Their paths rejoined a month later in Santiago de Compostela and since then have not diverged.
Together they co-authored the chapters on Galicia, Cordillera Cantabrica (Picos de Europa) and the Camino de Santiago for Lonely Planet’s Walking in Spain (1999 and 2003) and co-authored Lonely Planet's 1st edition of Walking in Scotland (2001).
Nancy and Jose started On Foot In Spain Walking & Hiking Educational Adventures in 1999. They have three children, Jacob (8), Marina (3)and Sam (born 11/27/06), and live on the Galician coast.
Nancy L. Frey, PhD
Nancy’s love of hiking grew from annual summer trips to Yosemite led by a Dad who always knew the name of every tree and who reveled in leading his children to inspirational points. Thus it wasn’t too surprising that when she selected her subject material for her doctoral dissertation in cultural anthropology (UC Berkeley) one very attractive element of it was the prospect of traversing the north of Spain on foot.
Since her first walk in 1993, Nancy has walked the Camino de Santiago numerous times and cycled it as well. In her book on the modern day journey, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago (UC Press, 1998), Nancy brings to life the contemporary way by discussing pilgrims' motivations, mishaps and discoveries while walking as well as providing insights into why the route is so popular today.
Nancy has also lectured for ElderHostel and Smithsonian Institution on their educational tours in Spain, Portugal and France. She has also taught a course on the Camino de Santiago at the University of Santiago and is currently researching the relationship between landscape and experience.
In her free time she enjoys reading, swimming, SCUBA diving, kayaking, tending her flower garden and cooking savory pies and tarts.
Jose Daniel Placer
A native of Santiago de Compostela, Jose received his law degree from the University of Santiago and then made a 180 degree turn away from lawyering and back to his real passion: children and the outdoors.
He has taught outdoor education and coaches soccer, basketball and volleyball.
With Europe as his backyard, Jose has hiked extensively both within and beyond Spain since he was a teenager.
Despite having enjoyed the Italian Dolomites, and hiking in the Alps while studying law at the University of Passau in Germany, his favorite stomping ground continues to be Spain’s Picos de Europa.
Jose especially enjoys writing short stories, carpentry, restoring furniture, working his garden, kayaking and mountain biking.
Each time we set out on a trail we go with the idea that to walk is to learn. Slowing down to the rhythm of your feet inevitably brings more to your immediate attention and consequently allows for greater speculation and wonder.
On our journeys into northern Spain’s exceptionally beautiful back roads we want to give you the opportunity to challenge yourself physically (without overdoing) and at the same time pique your curiosity by pointing out the not so obvious as well as providing insights into the wonders of the everyday.
Art, architecture, anthropology, folklore, history, Spanish fiestas, cuisine - we interlace them all into each day of your tour. Our carefully designed walks, combining charming accommodations in rural inns, monasteries, and hotels with the finest in local cuisine, will immerse you in the riches of northern Spain’s culture life and landscapes.
Photo credit: Katherine Peake
Walking in Spain (Lonely Planet, 1999, 2003). Miles Roddis, Nancy Frey, Jose Placer, Matt Fletcher and John Noble.
On Foot in Spain owners, Nancy Frey and Jose Placer, have chapters on Galicia, Cordillera Cantábrica (Picos de Europa), the Basque Country and the Camino de Santiago. The 2003 book covers all of Spain but not the Canary Islands.
Foster, Nelson and Linda S. Cordell, ed. 1996. Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World. University pf Arizona Press. Kerper, Barrie. 2003. Northern Spain. The Collected Traveller. NY: Three Rivers Press.
A good collection of articles covering parts of Spain hard to find information about in English including Galicia, Asturias, the Basque Country and Cantabria
Measures, John. 1992. Wildlife Travelling Companion: Spain. Wiltshire: Crowood Press.
A general guide on flora and fauna of Spain good if your travelling across the country but not a specialist’s guide.
Hooper, John. The New Spaniards. Penguin. 1997.
Hooper manages to provide a well-balanced accounting of Spain as it is today and why.
Lalaguna, Juan. A Traveller’s History of Spain. 1996
Excellent, compact summary of Spain’s complex history.
Crow, John A. 1985. Spain. The Root and the Flower. Berkeley : UC Press.
Barlow, John. 2008. Everything But the Squeal: A Year of Pigging Out in Northern Spain.
Barlow, a native of England, has a great time exploring Galicia’s food traditions focusing on pork with his Galician vegetarian wife. A funny read. We won’t be eating nearly as much pork as he!
Borrow, George. 1842. The Bible in Spain.
19th century English Bible salesman George Borrow relates his experiences, in an often humorous fashion, in this excellent volume on mid-19th C Spain. There are accounts of areas we’ll pass through including Finisterre.
Casas, Penelope. 1997. Spain’s Green Corner. New York Times Travel. April 27, p. 12, 29.
Good general overview of Galicia’s coastal highlights.
Frey, Nancy. 2004. Galicia. Coastal Corner. Spanish Magazine. June (Issue 5), pp. 16-25.
Now find the article HERE!
An article describing Galicia and its highlights from Nancy’s perspective as someone who has lived in the region since 1997.
Frey, Nancy. 2003. Serra do Courel: Galicia’s Wild Frontier. Originally published on www.wild-spain.com.
Now find the article HERE!
Here I describe the beautiful range south of the O Cebreiro pass with an emphasis on the geology, flora and fauna.
Gemie, Sharif. 2006. Galicia. Histories of Europe Series.
A good general overview of the region with a strong focus on modern history.
Kerper, Barrie. 2003. Northern Spain. The Collected Traveler. An Inspired Anthology & Travel Resource.
The author presents a very comprehensive annotated bibliography of themes not just related to northern Spain but Spain in general in addition to good selected articles about each zone of the north including Galicia.
Michener, James. 1968. Iberia. Spanish Travels and Reflections.
While everything else in the book is terribly outdated, his chapter 13 – Santiago de Compostela offers a great read with solid historical information.
Jenny Chandler and Jean Cazals. 2005. The Food of Northern Spain: Recipes from the Gastronomic Heartland of Spain.
Beautiful photography and delightful prose in this lovely book on food in northern Spain.
Rivas, Manuel. 2003. Vermeer’s Milkmaid: And Other Stories
Rivas is a contemporary Galician author who writes about his region and this is just one suggestion to introduce you to his work.
Rosalía de Castro.
Considered to be Galicia’s finest 19th C poet, her work is full of nostalgia and strong sense of landscape and place. Follas Novas(New Leaves) is a good start.
Also check out the following website which has many resources about Galicia:
Ena Alvarez, Vicente. 1996. In the Picos de Europa (Translation from Spanish). Leon: Edilesa.
General book on the Picos.
Browning, Frank. 1998. The Apple of Spain’s Eye. San Francisco Examiner. Travel Section. Sept 13, pp. T-1, T-4, T-5. Travel article on Asturian sidra
Clissold, Stephen. 1974. Saint James in Spanish History. History Today 24 (10): 684-92.
Excellent general overview of the development of the pilgrimage and cult of St James.
Coelho, Paolo. 1995. The Pilgrimage. A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom.
One of the most popular and controversial contemporary Camino books. Brasilian best-selling author, Coelho takes us on his mystical journey along the Camino in search of wisdom. He provides spiritual exercises.
Egan, Kerry. 2004. Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago. Doubleday.
Personal account written by a Harvard graduate student of theology. After her father died of diabetes she walked the Camino.
Follet, Ken. Pillars of the Earth
Masterpiece novel set in 12th C Britain during the period of transition between Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Follet develops a fascinating human and historical journey that even coincides w/ the Camino.
Frey, Nancy. 1998. Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago. Berkeley: UC Press.
Nancy’s anthropological study on the contemporary pilgrimage which brings to life the multitude of experiences of the modern traveler along the Camino based on her hundreds of interviews with pilgrims from 1992 to 1997.
Gitlitz, David and Linda Kay Davidson. 2000. The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago. The Complete Cultural Handbook. St. Martin's.
The title says it all. The guide covers art, architecture, history, folklore, flora and fauna.
Hitt, Jack. 1994. Off the Road. NY: Simon and Schuster.
Humorous and irreverent personal account of Hitt's 1993 walk to Santiago.
Hoinacki, Lee. 1996. El Camino. University Park: Penn State Press.
Deeply felt personal account with a strong spiritual emphasis by an older man who walked to Santiago.
Jacobs, Michael. 2003. The Road to Santiago. Pallas Guides.
Architectural guide for travelers along the Camino.
Lack, Katherine. 2003. The Cockleshell Pilgrim: A Medieval Journey to Compostela.
In the late 1990s, while an English cemetery was being moved, a 14th C pilgrim was discovered buried with his scallop shell. Lack, a historian, attempts to reconstruct his journey and 14th life on the road.
Laffi, Domenico. 1997 (1681). A Journey to the West. The Diary of a Seventeenth Century Pilgrim from Bologna to Santiago de Compostela. Trans. James Hall. Leiden (Netherlands): Primavera Pers and Santiago: Xunta de Galicia.
Delightful account and translation of Laffis 17th C journey. His eye for detail leaves us with a memorable legacy and Hall has added excellent illustrations to accompany the text.
Maclaine, Shirley. 2001. The Camino. Journey of the Spirit. Atria Press.
People either love or hate this book. Maclaine walked to Santiago in I994 and then wrote about her spiritual, physical, other-worldly and celebrity experiences along the way.
Melczer, William. 1993. The Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela. NY: ltalica Press.
First English translation of the 12th C pilgrimage guide Codex Calixtinus that helped popularize th pilgrimage route. His translation and first-rate historical background and extensive notes, bring to life this fascinating and invaluable document.
Michener, James. 1968. Iberia. Spanish Travels and Reflections. NY: Random House.
While everything else in the book is terribly outdated, his chapter on the Camino (Chapter 13 - Santiago de Compostela) offers a great read with solid historical information.
Moore, Tim. 2005. Spanish Steps. Travels with My Donkey. London: Vintage Press.
Funny account of this Englishman’s trials and tribulations walking with his donkey to Compostela.
Mullen, Robert. 2010. Call of the Camino. Myths, Legends and Pilgrim Stories on the Way to Santiago de Compostela. Findhorn Press.
Mullen blends issues of mind, body and spirit in this engaging account of his walk along the Camino.
Newman, Sharon. 1997. Strong as Death (Catherine Levendeur Mysteries). Forge Books.
Murder stalks Catherine and her husband Edgar on their 12th C journey to Compostela. She must use her wit to figure out who among the assorted traveling companions did it!
Nolan, Dee. 2010. A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Penguin
A journalist and olive oil producer Dee fulfilled a dream walking the Camino with us and then wrote this exquisitely beautiful book in which she let her heart and palate be her guide.
Nootebaum, Cees. 1997. Roads to Santiago. Detours and Riddles in the Lands and History of Spain. NY: Harcourt.
This popular Dutch writer takes you with him on his long journey through Spain to Santiago covering many, many topics.
O’Marie, Sister Carol Anne. 1993. Murder Makes a Pilgrimage. NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Modern day murder mystery set on the contemporary Camino with a septuagenarian nun Sister Mary Helen as the protagonist and unlikely crime solver.
Rudolph, Conrad. 2004. Pilgrimage to the End of the World.
Very good and thoughtful, compact travel essay by an art historian who walked to Santiago.
Rupp, Joyce. 2005. Walk in a Relaxed Manner. Life Lessons from the Camino. USA: Orbis Books.
Rather than the typical diary account Joyce, a 60+ walker, focuses on the basic messages she took from the pilgrimage: Live in the Now, Listen to Your Body, Don't Give Up, Trust in a Higher Power, Humility.
Camoes, Luis Vaz de.16th C. The Lusiads. Oxford University Press.
Considered to be the greatest epic writer of his time, Camoes writes nostalgically about the age of oceanic discovery just as Portugal’s golden age was dimming.
Gomes, Tania. 2006. Flavors of Portugal. Thunder Bay Press.
Provides interesting recipes including unusual family ones in this bilingual edition.
Hermano Saraiva, Jose. 1998. A Companion History of Portugal. Carcanet Press.
Good historical overview of Portugal’s fascinating history.
Kaplan, Marion. 1998. The Portuguese: The Land and its People. Viking Press
Kaplan is a photo journalist and her writing is strongest when discussing the art and architecture.
Russell, Peter. 2001. Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’ : A Life. Yale University Press.
Deals with this key figure of Portuguese history toppling many of the legends surrounding his personage and giving excellent contextual material surrounding his life and age.
He is a Portuguese Nobel Laureate who has published many works including the non-fictional: Journey to Portugal: In Search of Portugal’s History and Culture, and the wonderful, haunting work of fiction, Blindness (Harvest Press).
Barrenechea, Teresa and Mary Goodbody. 2005. The Basque Table: Passionate Home Cooking from One of Europe’s Great Regional Cuisines. Harvard Common Press. he Lusiads.
Wonderful introduction for foodies.
Gallop, Rodney. 1970. A Book of the Basques. University of Nevada Press.
Excellent collection and analysis of Basque folklore from song to dance to witchcraft.
Kerper, Barrie. 2003. Northern Spain. The Collected Traveler. An Inspired Anthology & Travel Resource. Three Rivers Press.
Great collection of articles by well-known writers on a variety of topics covering all of northern Spain.
Kurlansky, Mark. 1999. Basque History of the World.
A very readable but incredibly biased description of the Basque people from pre-history to the present day. It can’t be taken seriously as a historical account as many of his outrageous claims are not backed up. His take on the current situation with the Basque terrorist organization ETA is misinformed and one-sided and should be taken with a grain of salt.
Laxalt, Robert and Joyce. 1999. The Land of My Fathers: A son’s return to the Basque Country. University of Nevada Press.
Memoir written by the son of a Basque immigrant who returned to visit his father’s village in Spain. Laxalt is considered to be one of Nevada’s finest writers and has written several books set in the Basque country including the award winning A Cup of Tea in Pamplona.
Sevilla, María Jose. 1990. Life and Food in the Basque Country. New Amsterdam Books.
Discover the Basque Country and its people through its food culture. Good, leisurely read.
Woodworth, Paddy. 2007. The Basque Cultural History. Signal Books.
Irishman Paddy Woodworth has been writing about the Basques for thirty years and is most well known for his take on the Basque terrorists, ETA, in his Dirty War, Clean Hands. The book provides good background information on the Basque Country in general.
How the Costa da Morte (Death Coast) Got its Name
According to legend, Roman explorers named this coastal area Finisterrae or land's end because it appeared to to be the Peninsula's most western point. This place, where the land ends and the open sea begins, was in Roman belief the symbolic transition point between life and death, beginning and end, light and darkness. It also appears that pre-Roman (Celtic and Greek) ancestors appreciated the spectacular sunsets and the dramatic coastline as the place is also home to an ancient Ara Solis (Altar of the Sun) or sun cult.
The less romantic version of the name's origin is based on the sad fact that more than 140 ships and 500 lives have been lost on this rocky coast in less than 100 years. A gruesome, now discounted, legend of this historical version suggests that the coastal inhabitants provoked many of the shipwrecks to hijack their cargo. To lure the boats upon the dangerous rocks lights were strung on cows' horns and then the unsuspecting accomplices would be led to pasture on the hills. From the water the lights would appear to be boats sailing closer to the shore. Belieiving it safe, the ill-fated ship would then approach the coast and crash into the rocks. Another legendary method of the earth-bound pirates was to set bonfires (in imitation of the pre-electric lighthouses) along unsafe parts of the shore to bring the hapless victims to their fate in the chilly waters.
The Celtic Mount Olympus
Monte Pindo, the destination of Day 2 of the tour Galicia: From Mountain to Sea (in bold), is a sacred, mysterious mountain that has for generations inspired a rich corpus of legends in coastal Galicia. Beginning with its name, it's suggested that the mount reminded a Greek colony of merchants, established in the same area, of their own Mount Pindus. The name stuck across the centuries becoming adapted to the local language.
The Roman chroniclers, who accompanied the Legions in their colonization of the Iberian Peninsula, commented on the heroics of those in the rebellious northwest. Refuging themselves in Monte Medulio, believed by many historians to be present day Monte Pindo, against the fierce Roman barrage, the native Celtic warriors decided to commit collective suicide rathan surrender their arms.
Glacial action left behind huge granite boulders and subsequent erosion produced curiuos rocky outcroppings and formations scattered along the mount's slopes and upper pastures. Over the centuries the human imagination has seen in these strange stones animal figures, human faces and monsters. Some are even named such as the easily to identify Nose and Warrior. One section of the ascent, where these rocks are particularly abundant, is known as the Celtic Olympus. According to legend, the rocks were scuplted by Celts paying homage to their deities. Other legends and place-names indicate that Celts used specific rocks for sun and star worship or as "fertility beds". The latter were specific bed-shaped rocks that were used by infertile couples in hopes of bearing a child.
Monte Pindo also harbors the ruins of a 10th century castle and watchtower against the Viking attacks of the same period. In the 15th century the castle was destroyed by peasant uprisings. Other ruins include numerous stone shepherds’ cabins and a poor and isolated mining hut that during WWII was used to supply wolfram for the Allied and Axis powers’ war operations. During this same period, refugees from the Spanish Civil War were also said to eke out an existence in the ancient mount.
La Torre de Hércules / The Tower of Hercules
Among the numerous lighthouses that stand watch over Galicia's rough coastal waters, the most famous is the Torre de Hercules located on a lonely, rocky outcropping north of La Coruña. It’s the oldest, continuously active lighthouse in the world.
Constructed by the Romans in 2nd Century AD, its top had a platform with a larger circular steel plate. Shined to brilliant perfection, during the day the plate reflected the sun’s rays and at night it reflected the flames from a fire.
To fuel the fire a cartload of wood was pulled up daily by a pair of oxen along the great circular ramp that wrapped around the lighthouse's exterior. At the end of the 18th century, to protect the Roman structure, walls were constructed around the lighthouse giving it the altered neo-classic appearance that it has today.
The tower's fanciful legend suggests that Hercules constructed it on top of the cranium and weapons of his arch-enemy, the giant Gerion, who Hercules defeated after three days and three nights of uninterrupted battle. Gerion had raped Hercules' sister and fled the Mediterranean and the sibling's wrath. He believed he had found safety in this deserted coast at the edge of the world. After his victory, Hercules ordered the construction of a city which he named "Crunya" in honor of its first inhabitant which later became "La Coruña".
The Tale of the White Deer
Once upon a time, in the heart of the Ancares mountains lived an ancient noble with his two children. The elder, a boy named Egas, loved to hunt while his sister, the lovely Aldara, found great pleasure in taking long walks in the dense forest near the castle where they lived. One day Aldara did not return at the normal hour and her father and brother, greatly alarmed, set out to find her. After long joyless days, they sadly abandoned the search fearing that she had been victim to some treacherous bear or wolf. Several years later, while returning to the castle from a day of hunting, young Egas came upon a startlingly beautiful white deer eating by the side of a brook.
It was unique for its color, as pure as snow. Without thinking Egas took out an arrow and shot the deer which fell dead to the ground. Unable to return with the deer, he decided to cut off a hoof as a trophy and return later for the rest. Wrapping the hoof in silk and placing it in his pouch he returned to the castle. When he unwrapped the unusual prize for his father, they were both horrified to discover that instead of a hoof a delicate, feminine hand was in its place. In addition, the hand bore a ring that once belonged to the beloved Aldara. With a great sense of impending doom, the pair raced to the brook only to find Aldara’s lifeless body, dressed in white, and an arrow piercing her heart.
PICOS DE EUROPA
How the Picos Got Their Name and Asturias' Most Infamous Pirate The Picos de Europa (Peaks of Europe) are so named due to their altitude and proximity to the coast making them an ideal European landmark for sailors returning from the Americas.
The Cantabrian Sea, which laps the coast at the foot of the Picos, supported intense maritime activity, most importantly, fishing and commerce. According to a famous legend both maritime trade and fishing were seriously threatened during the Middle Ages by North African pirates. The most famous of all was Cambaral, the dread captain of a swift ship that terrorized the fisherman and merchants of the area.
Fed up with his villainy, a noble knight, who lived in a castle on the edge of the sea near the fishing village of Luarca, decided to put an end to his shenanigans. On an apparently defensefless merchant ship, the knight and his contingent of armed men, embarked to do battle with the pirate. During the bloody fight Cambaral was gravely wounded and taken prisoner. The Asturian knight agreed to take him to his castle and cure him for the long-awaited public trial. Unwittingly foolish, he ordered his young, beautiful daughter to cure the pirate's wounds. When Cambaral recovered consciousness he fell instantly and profoundly in love with the young woman who, during her hours of passionate nursing, had also fallen in love with the dastardly pirate. When the pirate recovered sufficiently to walk, one night they fled to the port and took a boat. Finally safe, they paused for a long, passionate kiss. Unbeknownst to them, the knight had been warned by his guards and he raced to the port where he saw the ill-fated kiss occur. Blind with rage he unsheathed his sword and with one fell swoop cut off their heads. While their bodies remained eternally entwined, their heads slowly rolled to the sea.
In Luarca today this legend actively continues in the fisherman's quarter which is called El Pirata Cambaral. Also, the Luarcan bridge, El Beso (The Kiss), remembers the spot where the embracing lovers fell to the sea.
The Spanish John Muir
Pedro Pidal, the Marquise de Villaviciosa, (1870-1941) is the most important figure in the history of the Picos de Europa. Conservationist and dedicated supporter of the Picos, Pidal spent his life exploring, observing and defending its thousand faces.
Ahead of his time and imitating the US system of conservation, he managed to make the Picos Spain’s first national park June 22, 1918 as a state senator. He’s also known for having initiated the history of Spanish mountaineering by being the first person to reach the summit of the Naranjo de Bulnes (2519m) August 5, 1904 accompanied by the sheperd Gregorio Pérez.
One of his favorite places in the Picos de Europa was the Mirador de Ordiales (we ascend on Day 3) and in one of his writings he expressed his wish to be buried there: "…under these humid ferns that receive the dew of the Picos and close to this rock mildewed by the cold winters, I will leave my bones to turn to dust over the centuries." His last wish became a reality eight years after his death during an emotional fall day when his many friends carried his remains to his beloved lookout.
El Rebeco/The Chamois
Due to inaccessibility and relative isolation, the Picos are in a relatively good state of preservation with thick forests and a huge variety of plant and animal species. The most representative animal of the Picos is the agile chamois, master of the rocky peaks.
Perfectly adapted to its hostile environment, some 6500 chamois leap and bound about the highest and most impossible appearing slippery slopes in constant search of green pastures.
Brown in color, they look like small goats but with a more svelte figure. The fur on their heads tends to be lighter and they appear to be wearing a mask due to swath of dark fur that extends from the ears to the snout.
Their thin, narrow horns are hook shaped. The chamois dominate the steep slopes between 1800m and 2000m and the does group with their offspring while the bucks wander solo. Natural selection controls the population: reproduction is limited to one offspring a year, the winters tend to kill off the old and sick, and predatory wolves and eagles make sure that the population is young and fit.
It’s likely that we’ll observe chamois during at least one day of our walk.
CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
Along the Camino, as well as back in their home countries, pilgrims of the medieval era told and retold up and down the Camino numerous fantastic stories of miraculous cures, of pilgrims’ trials and tribulations on the way to Compostela, of superhuman saints, of the Holy Grail, of Saint James’ (Santiago’s) interventions, etc. These stories and legends have been passed down through the Camino’s long history creating a rich body of folklore. On our On Glory Roads walking tours you’ll have the chance to visit some of the places where these events allegedly occurred and hear many, many more rich versions. Here are a few examples:
How the Apostle James Got to the Far Northwest Corner of the Iberian Peninsula
James was one of the original 12 apostles and was martyred (beheaded) in 44 AD in Jerusalem. The next news that we have of James comes from a 9th century religious hermit, Pelayo. Apparently, upon searching for the source of a strange, starry light, over what is present day Compostela, he discovered the apostle’s long forgotten tomb in the dense forest. But how did James get there after being beheaded in Jerusalem? The answer leads to one of the most remarkable translation stories of the medieval ages and is best understood in the context of medieval religious belief. After James was beheaded two of his disciples gathered up his remains and placed them in a stone boat. They set sail for Hispania, where James was said to have proselytized during his lifetime, and arrived on Galicia’s Costa da Morte before sailing upstream to present day Padrón (then a Roman colony). His body was then moved inland some 20 km, buried on Mt. Libredon and then neatly forgotten before Pelayo’s fateful discovery eight centuries later. Once the presence of his remains were confirmed faith drove millions of pilgrims to undertake the long, arduous journey to Compostela.
The Hanged Innocent
"Entering Santo Domingo de la Calzada cathedral’s south door, a curious pair of live white chickens (rotated weekly) are kept in an elevated niche on the western wall. This odd custom traces back to the famed miracle of Santo Domingo. A young pilgrim, traveling with his parents to Santiago, was accused of pilfering silver from a local tavern. In reality the barmaid, her amorous advances rejected, angrily slipped the silver into his knapsack and notified the authorities. To his parents’ horror, the pilgrim was strung upon the gallows.
Praying, they continued to Santiago and returned. Surprisingly, rather than encounter his rotting body, they found him well - yet still hanging, the saint supporting his feet. They ran to the judge who, having just sat down to roast chicken, refused to be bothered. When the pilgrims insisted, the judge exclaimed that if their son were innocent the chicken would rise from his plate and crow. And they did, giving the town its motto: ‘Donde la gallina cantó después de asar’ (Where the hen crowed after roasting). It is considered good luck to find a chicken feather or to hear them crowing." (Reprinted from Walking in Spain, p. 395, author Nancy Frey).
"In addition to the encounters with wild dogs that some pilgrims describe are the curious accounts of ‘dog pilgrims’…When I talked to pilgrims walking with dogs I was surprised to hear that their companions were often not pets brought from home but animals who had at some point joined them on the road and then never left their side for the rest of the journey. Sometimes traveling hundreds of miles, these dogs would leave their local areas to follow a pilgrim; often their paws suffered from the uneven, stony roads, and some came into the refuges wearing bandages. The pilgrim ‘owners’ remarked with awe that the dogs would continue despite the pain. These dogs, who had perhaps been abandoned, starving or lonely before joining the way, were always docile, usually older, and extremely loyal to their new companions.
A Portuguese man recounted that on his first journey to Santiago in 1995 he was joined on afternoon outside Logroño by a large, white, female dog whom he had given something to eat. He was convinced that the dog would not make it to Santiago, but each day she rose and set off with him and his companions. On the day they reached Santiago he said he sensed that she too knew the journey had ended; after having visited the cathedral they all went to a local park, and there she lay down and died.
This pilgrim, like several others whom I met, interpreted the unanticipated relationship with a canine companion as part of the mystery of the Camino and suggested that the dogs were pilgrims in their own right. Some even suggested that they bore the souls of pilgrims who had never been able to reach Santiago." (Reprinted from Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago, pp. 108-9, by Nancy Frey).
Pilgrim’s Blessing from Roncesvalles (12th Century)
At the daily pilgrim's mass (usually 8pm) in Roncesvalles the priest reads the following blessing.
Priest: Oh God.....Be a companion for them along the path, a guide at crossroads, strength in their weariness, defense before dangers, shelter on the way, shade against heat, light in the darkness, a comforter in their discouragements, and firmness in their intentions, in order that, through your guidance, they might arrive unscathed at the end of their journey and, enriched with graces and virtues, they might return safely to their homes, which now lament their absence, filled with salutary and lasting joy....
Priest: May the Lord direct your steps with his approval, and be your inseparable companion on the entire camino.
Priest: May the Virgin Mary grant you her maternal protection, defend you in all dangers of soul and body, and may you merit to arrive safely at the end of your pilgrimage under her mantle.
Priest: May the Archangel Rafael accompany you on the Camino as he accompanied Tobias, and protect you from every injury and obstacle.
Walking the streets of Bilbao you're bound to spot one of the many representations of Bilbao's coat-of-arms. Looking closely you'll see that a large tower (bell tower of the Church of San Antón) abuts a double-arched (usually) bridge (San Antón Bridge) over a rushing body of water and, to complete the picture, two black wolves float off in the sky. These three symbols - the River, the Bridge and the Wolves - reflect the genesis and subsequent evolution of Bilbao.
Bilbao owes its development to the importance of its port and its relationship to the Nervion River. This tidal river or estuary (ría in Spanish, not to be confused with río which is river) that runs the length of the city past the Guggenheim and out to the sea permitted Bilbao and its safe inland port to become a major commercial center linking products from Castile (wool, wheat and wine) and the Basque Country (iron) to the rest of Europe.
The 15th and 16th century Church of San Antón, located on the right-hand bank of the Nervion River and adjacent to the San Antón Bridge, sits atop what once was Bilbao's great fortified alzcázar or castle (destroyed in 1366 to make way for the church) and which protected the walled medieval city. As was typical of bell towers in Europe they served the double function of ringing the hours of the day and mass for the faithful as well as making excellent watchtowers to spot potential attacks. The current double-arched stone bridge dates to 1878 and since the 14th century it has been the major artery and entry point into the city.
The two wolves owe their presence to the town's founder Diego López de Haro (son of Lope Díaz de Haro) and his family's coat-of-arms also adorned with wolves. Lope comes from the Latin lupus which means wolf and López signifies son of Lope (all 'ez' endings in Spanish family names originally meant 'son of' - eg, Fernandez - son of Fernando).
Since the 14th century the coat-of-arms has been used as a seal on all official documents as well as to adorn important public buildings such as the town hall. Enjoy looking for the numerous examples found in the city today.
The Enchanted Basque Land
Look up at the dramatic Basque peaks and you'll unwittingly gaze upon the dwelling place of Mari, the Basque Country's most powerful pre-Christian deity. Known for her quick fury and strong sense of justice, Mari's high mountain caves are said to be luxuriously adorned with golden furnishings and precious gems. It's very bad luck to enter in her caves without being invited, to sit without being asked or to turn your back upon departure. Reports of balls of fire or a brilliant chariot crossing the mountains at night are attributed to Mari moving from one of her caves to. She helps those who repeat her name three times and accepts tributes from villagers (explaining the presence of money and objects left in her caves) who pray to her to save their crops from bad weather as well as the ill-will of other deities such as the mountain-dwelling giant Maruak or Aideko who brings all manner of ruin usually with wind upon villages and villagers.
We'll be approaching two of these dwelling places on our hikes : the Aketegi cave in the Aizkorri range Aketegi and Anboto in the Urkiola range. The Dama (Lady) de Aketegi and the Dama de Anboto are the names given to Mari who dominates these dramatic ranges. Apparently belief in her was so widespread that the monks of the Arantzazu sanctuary would given special mention to her each year to prevent storms from raining down upon the Guipuzcoan fields.
It is believed that devotion to Mari continued into the 19th century and that she was an extremely powerful pre-Christian goddess who was never incorporated into the Christian host of saints and holy figures. Clandestine devotion to Mari may have been at the heart of the alleged gatherings of witches which were prosecuted with great severity from 1500 to 1700. The billy-goat, commonly associated with the Christian devil, was also apparently linked to the Mari cult as a symbol of fertility. According to Basque popular belief, a black goat was always kept in the stable to protect the other livestock from illness.
Witchcraft in the Basque Country
On the Basque Country tour we visit the village of Zugarramurdi (located on the border of France and Spain in the heart of the Labourd region of the Basque Country) and the immense caverns which were the alleged site of some of the most famous gatherings of witches or akelarres in the Basque Country. The word akelarre means field of the billy-goat and comes from the caves of Zugarramurdi (Akelarrenlezea). These three enormous limestone caves are cut through the center by a river known locally as the Rio del Infierno (Hell's River). Most likely the grain of truth in the outlandish stories is that clandestine meetings took place in which pre-Christian beliefs were perpetuated in violation of Christian rules and morality. Being a threat to the established order, the Catholic Church primarily, they were weeded out in the Inquisition as a dangerous form of heresy.
In 1609 at the height of the witch hunt craze the French prosecutor Pierre de Lancre executed 600 people (mostly marginalized, poor women) in Labourd. In 1610 33 people from Zugarramurdi were tried and executed as witches.
During the 14th to 17th centuries the Basque Country and Europe at large were plagued with accusations of witchcraft, witch hunts and subsequent trials and atrocious punishments in the name of purifying the countryside of evil practices and beliefs. The belief in witches was widespread and may have been based on remnants of pre-Christian religions present in the Basque Country (and Europe as a whole) as indicated above regarding the Basque mythological figures (Mari and others). Below we've included a story which captures a number of the elements which characterized Basque witches and witchery : primarily old, ugly women with terrible powers to fly, transform themselves into animals, do evil to people and crops, worship the devil (in the form of a billy-goat) dancing around fires and participating in illicit orgies and terrible crimes (sacrifice of children).
An excellent novel (unfortunately only in Spanish) set during this period in the Basque Country which treats the clash between remnants of pagan worship and the terror of the witch hunts is Toti Martínez de Lezea's La Herbolera (2000, Ttarttlo : San Sebastian).
"When Bidabe was a young man he arranged to get married. His betrothed had the reputation of being a witch, but witch or lamiña he was determined to marry her, for he loved her dearly. One evening he went to visit his betrothed and her parents. As a present for Kattalin he took a pair of sabots nicely cut and ready to put together. He took with him the leather uppers, the straps, the little nails of yellow brass, a hammer and an awl. He stayed some time with the family and it grew late. As it was a dark night he arranged with the people of the house that he should sleep on a wooden chest and leave at dawn. So he lay down and fell into a peaceful slumber. Just about midnight he was awakened by a slight noise. He did not move, but opened his eyes ever so little and saw Kattalin approach the fireplace. The girl lifted one of the hearth-stones and took out a bowl full of something that looked like oil. With this ointment she anointed her body and forthwith disappeared up the chimney. 'Now I know the truth about Kattalin,' said Bibade to himself.
He took the same bowl and, as Kattalin had done, he greased his body and made off in the same way. Without knowing where he was going he flew through the air and came to rest in a beautiful plain, where was gathered together as fine an assembly as ever you could see. Quite a number of Bidabe's friends were there. He saw Kattalin dressed in red silk, and stayed hidden, petrified with fear. He learnt a great deal about the Witches' Sabbath and found out, for instance, what virtue there is in alder-bark, what one can do with a stick of holly-wood, and what illness can be cured with mole's blood. He learnt furthermore how a man can pass through a key-hole and how one can discover the greatest of all secrets. Who knows what things he did not so unexpectedly learn ? But Bidabe had to keep these horrible things to himself under pain of being flayed alive. The hour had now come for rendering special honours to the Chief of the Sabbath. This was a big man, black of face, with great ears like two big cabbage leaves, long teeth and a narrow forehead. All the witches of the Sabbath were obliged to kiss his hind-quarters. When Bidabe saw what manner of salute this was, he began to scratch his head. However, he did not dare hang back. So he swore an oath as big as a mountain : 'A thousand million carts full of devils can carry you off yelling before you receive this honour from me !' When it was his turn he took the awl form his pocket and .... zist ! he plunged it into the King of the Sorcerers. The black brute gave a roar which would have shaken the desert. Of a sudden all the lights went out and the witches disappeared. Bidabe found himself in a thicket of prickly bushes, in the ravine of Kakueta, and it was eighty days before he could get out. The people of the house did not worry, for they thought that he had gone to the inn to get drunk with one-eyed Gilgorri. For two months Bidabe was ill with fright. As soon as he was better he started to look for another wife. And I promise you that Marie, she whom he married, was no witch." (An excerpt from Rodney Gallop's A Book of the Basques, pp. 255-57)
The Basques are known for their deep love of games and outdoor activities. The most popular and widely played are the numerous types of handball or pelota (Spanish) or pelote (French). The small ball (around 105 grams) has a rubber or latex core and is wrapped round with wool and cotton string and then encased in goat leather. Sewn when wet it dries to a mean tightness. This very hard ball becomes incorporated into several types of games played one-on-one or in couples: mano (handball), pala (long and short paddles), cesta punta (using a long curved basket called a chistera). Clad in red shirts and white pants the players, or pelotaris, play on a court, called a frontón, which is enclosed on three sides.
A frontón is ubiquitous in Basque communities and in villages it normally takes center stage sometimes incorporating one of the church walls into its structure. The game is intense whether it be the hand version (which leaves the hands of players deformed and "swollen to double their normal thickness") or the spectacular and potentially dangerous cesta punta in which the ball moves exceptionally fast as it is rocketed from the chistera to the wall. Popular in both the Spanish and French Basque Country it also has spread to South America and some parts of the United States, especially Florida, where it's called jai alai (an Euskera word which means happy game).
Other popular games, more like contests which take place on special occasions such as village festivals, stem from traditional activities such as log-cutting (aizkolaris - log cutters), weight-lifting of 400-lb (200kg) stones by arrijasotzaile stones, soka-tira - tug-of-war, dragging of huge stones using carts and oxen and regattas which consists of 13 rowers and one captain or caller. The regattas apparently had their origin with fisherman who would race back from the fishing grounds hoping to reach the port quickly to get the first corner on the market. The most famous of the regattas takes place in San Sebastian the first and second Sunday of September.
Emilio Estevez's film The Way set on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, and starring his father Martin Sheen premiered in Santiago de Compostela on 8 November 2010. Nancy was there and met them both.
By Nancy Frey:
When I heard that Emilio Estevez’s new film, The Way, set on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain would be premiered in Santiago de Compostela on November 8th, I was eager to go. Starring his father Martin Sheen, Estevez wrote and directed the film as well as appears in it as Sheen’s on-screen son. I knew that in 2009 they had been filming along the route and I wondered what kind of Camino film two Hollywood notables would make. I invited my friend María Santos and off we went to the elegant 19th century Teatro Principal in Santiago´s historical quarter to find out. I have to admit it was quite a thrill to see Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez walk the mini-red carpet surrounded by a sea of umbrellas as the rain accompanied their entrance.
As we sat down to wait for the movie to begin, I realized how interesting it was to have María at my side. The Camino is something that I’ve lived and breathed for the last 18 years. María, born in the US and a daughter of Galician immigrants, knows about the Camino de Santiago but has no personal experience with it herself. How different, perhaps, our perspectives would be. When the movie began to roll I was filled with emotion as I could I identify nearly every scene, landscape, historical monument and bit of Camino.
Estevez and Sheen’s angle was clear early on: It’s a movie of the heart from start to finish. 2010 has been my own personal year of the heart and so this tack resonated strongly with me.
Countless times over the course of this year I’ve been reminded to listen to my heart: Let the heart be your compass.
(I’ve accompanied the article with several photos from the film and post-premiere event as well as images of heart stones that Jose and I have collected over the years along the Camino de Santiago that we have in our house.)
In The Way Sheen plays Tom Avery an ophthalmologist from California who becomes an accidental pilgrim when he receives the tragic news of his son’s death on the Camino.
Estevez and Sheen take us on a gripping, epic journey in equal parts hilarious, deep, heart-wrenching and moving as we share the struggle of a father gripped with confusion and remorse to understand the tragic loss of his only son Daniel, a person he realizes he never really understood. Tom suddenly finds himself in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small village in southwest France where many pilgrims start the Camino today. Impulsively, he decides to take his son’s pack and ashes and walk the 800km across Spain making the journey that his son could not.
The opening scenes are very moving and set the stage for the profoundly human story of how we must each fumble along to find our own way. In the movie Tom says to Daniel before he heads to the Camino, ‘I live the life I chose. Why can’t you do the same?’ Daniel responds, ‘You don’t choose your life, Dad. You live it and that’s what I’m doing.’ The pilgrimage is a metaphor for life and the pilgrim the lost soul who finds his way back home by following his heart. Estevez (and Sheen through his inspired performance) makes you care about this lost soul and wonder how he will ever make it. Unlike other Catholic centers of worship where pilgrims often look for a cure of the body through faith, modern pilgrims to Santiago (most of whom would not define themselves as religiously motivated) frequently seek some kind of answer for life’s inner woes. The focus is on the power of the journey rather than simply reaching the destination. Many people find themselves doing the pilgrimage to Santiago and are not sure exactly why but somehow know that it is the right place to be. The contemporary pilgrimage to Santiago is very popular precisely because of its openness: there’s a place for everyone irrelevant of age, background, faith (or lack thereof) and motivation and it has a way of hitting each individual in just the right spot (even though what that spot might be can be quite a mystery).
One of the common sayings among pilgrims along the Camino is that ‘You can start alone but you never end alone.’ The power of community and friendship is a theme reinforced throughout the film. Tom starts very much alone but soon acquires three unlikely companions who share his journey.
As Estevez shared with me at the after-party, The Way is a modern-day Oz story as three flawed characters help Tom (Dorothy) find his way back home to his son, his heart and, ultimately, himself and his faith.
The movie brings vividly to life the sights, sounds (both pleasant and annoying – in addition to a great soundtrack including Coldplay, Alannis Morrisette and James Taylor), color and feel of the Camino as we see the group of pilgrim friends share meals, sleep together in the pilgrims’ refuges, walk through the varied landscapes as well as have both good and bad encounters with locals and, importantly, with each other.
Despite their conflicts, and also because of them, the pilgrims are able to have unexpected moments of liberation and insight.
The Way gives us a picture of the Camino, warts and all, to show how pilgrimage is a process of trial and error, forgiveness and insight, sorrow and laughter and how pilgrims’ motivations are as varied as a rainbow from the deeply religious to personal angst to physical challenge to the apparently trivial. The characters are credible and you care what happens to them keeping you riveted until the end.
Estevez and Sheen want to show how the Camino’s magic helps to work change in pilgrims – when people leave behind their normal lives and go to the pilgrimage stripped of most of their possessions, normal stress and obligations, they connect more easily with the world (ie, self, nature, God, others, body, history, etc). Unhindered by the labels, status and titles they may have back home, when the day’s obligations are reduced to the basics (walking, eating, and finding a bed), suddenly life seems much easier. As pilgrims lighten their loads mentally, they often describe how their inner worlds also free up giving way to the possibility of greater insight and self-awareness. On the Camino people describe connecting more intensely to everything around them and inside of themselves. Making the pilgrimage to Compostela helps many people discover their own way on the Way – it can be a type of mobile therapy.
After the premiere I asked María her general impression of the film. Overall she was very positive but was surprised at how ‘religious’ it was. I hadn’t felt the same way. Reflecting on it more, the themes of re-finding one’s faith and connecting with something spiritual are definitely present but it seemed to me part of each person’s private story and not an imposition on the audience. Also, being a religious pilgrimage in its origin, it’s inevitable that elements of the Catholic church will be woven throughout. I think I also take for granted with my years along the Camino the incredible diversity of stories and how on the Camino it is possible to be steeped in religion yet not feel religious. Yes, religion is inevitably present throughout the film but its intention is not to prosthelytize.
The moving story behind the story also involves the heart. When Emilio Estevez introduced the film to the audience he started with a quote: ‘It’s a pleasure to return from whence I came.’ He said, ‘It is the same for Martin and me. Our film is a love letter to Spain. It’s a love letter to Galicia.’ Before Martin Sheen took his stage name he was Ramón Estevez son of a Galician immigrant from Salceda near the coastal town of Pontevedra. Spain remained close to Sheen’s heart and he continued to return to his father’s native land. Seven years ago Sheen invited his family to tour Spain with him. They ended up doing their own road trip of the Camino as they crossed the north of Spain to Galicia. This journey and Sheen’s own faith eventually led them to make their own film about the pilgrimage way and transform it into a tribute to the land of their ancestors. The film is dedicated to Martin Sheen’s father.
Anyone who intimately knows the Camino will find a number of odd edits of landscapes. Emilio Estevez explained to me after the premiere that his original movie was 3.5 hours long and he was required to do some creative editing. This is inconsequential to the overall feeling of the film as the scenes selected are visually rich and conjure the depth of beauty of Spain in its many facets (and at its best). They did skip the sections where pilgrims must walk along roadways or wait in lines at refuges but one would expect that type of poetic license. Also, the pilgrims themselves remain remarkably immaculate during much of their pilgrimage, they don’t seem to have any physical problems and Tom tends to charge through the whole Camino with great determination and vitality. I would have softened his pace as his character softens and evolves over the course of the journey. The development and transformation of Sheen’s character is particularly good. We see how the others are deeply touched by the Camino but I did wonder how the experience would stay with them over time. Of course, this a major interest of my own (How does the journey impact people in the long-term, if at all?) as I explored in my book Pilgrim Stories. On and Off the Road to Santiago.
These are minor complaints as The Way manages to touch on and give accurate and colorful insight into a wide ranging mix of Spanish (eg, regional differences and Gypsy stereotypes) and Camino culture. There are several scenes that poke fun at Americans and there is an especially funny moment when two characters debate about the proper word to use for Spanish finger foods – tapas or pinchos – in northern Spain that brought the house down in the predominantly Spanish-speaking audience in Santiago.
The film also wrestles with one of my favorite Camino topics: authenticity. One night around the fire the pilgrims debate about the nature of the ´true/authentic’ pilgrim. One side claims that real pilgrims only walk and must suffer as they did in the medieval past. Another pilgrim points out the hypocrisy in this idea of modern self-styled suffering pilgrims who travel with plenty of comforts (eg, cell phones, credit cards and waterproof shoes) unknown in the past. It’s not how you do the pilgrimage that’s important but how you carry it in your heart. Walking with your own pack is one way to do the Camino but it’s not the only way. Everyone must find their own Camino. That’s one of the central messages of the film: Nunca es demasiado tarde para encontrar el Camino. It’s never too late to find the Way/way. There’s no formula to be a ‘real/authentic’ pilgrim. It’s a real shame how many, many people today see the Camino as a competition of who is a better (ie,imagined ‘authentic’) pilgrim and get very snooty about where they started, where they stayed and didn’t stay, how far they’ve walked, how many times they’ve done it, etc as if that were the point of the Camino. What a sad outcome of a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago. Authenticity comes from within and isn’t found by following some unwritten code of oughts and shoulds and trying to impose it on others. Live your own life. Live your own pilgrimage. Follow your own heart. Walk your own Camino (and stay clear of anybody who tries to tell you there is a right way)!
***I’d like to thank my dear friend María Santos for accompanying me to the premiere and the post-premiere cocktail where we met the remarkably gracious Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen.
***For more information on the film, see the official The Way-The Movie website: https://www.theway-themovie.com/
To prepare for and enjoy more your walking and hiking tour in Spain, along the Camino de Santiago or in Portugal, here are some of the brochures from these area’s official tourism websites (www.spain.info, www.turgalicia.es, www.visitportugal.com, www.turismo.navarra.es, www.tourism.euskadi.net).
They are great resources and will help you with trip planning and anticipation of your holiday in Spain and/or Portugal. Find many additional brochures not listed here through the tourism websites.
In 2003 Nancy wrote this article about the Sierra do Courel in eastern Galicia. Unfortunately, the site it was published on – www.wild-spain.com – is now defunct but here is the original article. To see photos of the Courel, please look at the Galicia gallery.
Author: Nancy L. Frey Date: April 02, 2003
The Serra do Courel is a place to come to without rush, to discover its ample modesty found in its flora and fauna, ancient villages hanging on by a thread, walking trails, river systems and its continuing, though disappearing, links to its traditional ways of work and living.
Located south of the Pedrafita do Cebreiro pass connecting Galicia to the rest of Spain, the Serra de Courel range runs on a northeast-southwest axis creating a natural border and barrier separating Galicia from León.
Devesa da Rogueira
From the north, one enters the Serra do Courel high along an open ridge.
Looking south the range's distinctive outline fills the skyline. Twisting roads along rounded, steep sided mountains separate you from the range and lead into the Courel's heart.
At first open, thick forest soon mitigates the views and each curve reveals a new facet of the Courel: rushing cascades, large handsome brown cows on the way to and from pasture, stone mills, centenary chestnuts. Canals chiseled into the hillsides, fed by year-round springs, water green pastures blanketing the plunging slopes. Spreading out around the range for 193 sq km, the Folgoso de Caurel township (Lugo province) contains some 45 villages hanging off of the hillsides and some few lie at river level.
Today, roughly 1600 people populate the villages in contrast to 6957 inhabitants in an 1860 census.
The rounded, primarily slate, schistic and sandstone (interspersed with quartz) mountains (there's an active slate mine in the heart of the Courel), rise to a modest maximum altitude of 1654m at Pico Formigueiros and then rush vertiginously downward to 400m at the valley floors cut through by numerous streams and three major river systems (Lor, Soldón and Quiroga). These rivers eventually drain into the Río Sil further south and water the Quiroga and Ribeira Sacra vineyards.
Limestone deposits in seams and their effects on soil conditions, also enhance the area's bio-diversity as well as account for Galicia's largest concentration of caves complete with karstic stalagmites and stalachites. At 130m the Aradela cave, near the A Rogueira forest, is Galicia's deepest explored cavern.
Examples of some of Galicia's 16 bat species take shelter in these caves and abandoned mines.
Due to the range's NE-SW axis, its diverse soils, dizzying elevation changes, and the climate which has both strong Mediterranean and Atlantic influences, the Courel represents only 1% of Galicia's surface area yet contains 40% (roughly 800) of the floral species identified in Galicia.
This remarkable statistic means that a visit to the Courel is a must for any traveler searching for excellent examples of mixed woods relatively unaffected by incursions of invasive species (such as eucalyptus and pine commonly found in other parts of Galicia and Asturias), unusual and rare wildflowers as well as diverse shrubs. At lower elevations in the southern part of the Courel (eg, near Froxán) it's possible to find more typically Mediterranean flora including cork oaks (Quercus suber), rock rose, arbutus or strawberry trees and aromatics such as thyme. Two types of woods are especially characteristic of the Courel : the devesa and the souto (which means chestnut grove).
The humid, north-facing forests of the Courel are called, devesas. Thriving on the steepest slopes, devesas have a distinct growth pattern of trees depending on the altitude, soil and exposition to the sun. Hazelnuts (Corylus avellana) branch out at all angles near watercourses and ravines. Evergreen holm oaks (Q. ilex), a Mediterranean species, are found by the occasional limestone outcrops while common and sessile oaks (Q. robur, Q. petraea) and beech (Fagus sylvatica) form the heart of the devesa on the shadiest, steepest slopes. Out of the steep slopes, the sun seeking beech rise towards the sky creating some L-shaped trunks. These beech are also among the Iberian Peninsula's westernmost examples.
Three trees with red berries - the yew (Taxus baccata) (its berries are toxic!), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), and holly (Ilex aquifolium)- join the oak and beech in the forest's center. The holly trees provide significant winter shelter for some of the Courel's 160 vertebrate (for example, mountain cat and marten) inhabitants whose branches provide a few degrees of extra warmth. Birch (Betula celtiberica) dominate at the highest altitudes while on the fringes of the devesa, where the steep slopes give way to gentler angles, Pyrenean oak (Q. pyrenaica) and rowan are found.
Many of the 40 mammals dwelling in the Courel are found in the devesa or near its limits and include wild boar, hare, fox, wolf and, along the river banks, otters. Ten species of amphibians including Galicia's three types of salamanders, the long-legged Iberian frog (Rana iberica), various snakes including the venomous Vipera seoanei, join approximately 100 species of birds including the highly endangered golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and eagle owl (Bubo bubo).
Most important of the Courel's devesas is the Devesa da Rogueira, accessed from the interpretative center in Moreda (open daily) beyond Seoane do Courel. Starting at 650m a hard 10km round-trip walk (from Moreda to the Fonte de Cervo and back) takes you up through the forest to the Courel's highest ridge-line (1600m) passing through each of these distinct growing areas. Another easier (6km round-trip and less ascent) option which also gives great perspectives on the forest departs from the Alto do Couto.
Setting off from Moreda's chestnut grove, the trail passes interpretative panels in Galego (the Galician language) which explain the traditional uses of various trees found throughout the forest. The trail winds through carefully hand-tended, green hay meadows (producing winter animal forage) and past wood and stone storage cabins (some in ruins) roofed with slate. As you ascend, the stately chestnuts give way to thick stretches of chaotic hazelnuts.
Wild roses and blackberry brambles vie for the sunny, open areas hedging the trail.
While ascending be on the lookout for, among many others, prickly butcher's broom (Ruscus aculeatus) known locally as rasca cus (butt-scratcher), purple columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris), various members of the sweet pink family (light-pink Dianthus isofolium, white Stellaria vulgaris), the violet and white orchid Orchis morio, and the long stemmed, dainty blue Omphalodes nitida.
At one point early on, the trail opens and the barren ridge-line is visible ahead while the thick mass of the devesa neatly fills the huge north-facing bowl. It looks like a daunting ascent but once in the devesa, its enchantment takes over (and it's just one foot in front of the other). The trail crosses several cascades and waterfalls where water shoots down across the path flanked with lush ferns and numerous small green plants including wild blueberries.
Nearing the ridge crest, where the trees notably thin and birch predominate, the trail reaches the Fonte do Cervo (the deer fountain). Especially spectacular in the spring time when more water flows, the natural spring gushes forth from two different fissures at the base of a steep, bush enshrouded cliff where lilac colored butterwort (Pinguicula lusitanica) thrive alongside the misty spring. What makes it curious is how distinct the two waters are - the water running through a limestone vein is sweet and delicious and the other, coming through an iron deposit, is distinctly metal tasting.
This spring is the birthplace of the A Rogueira stream which you forded on the trip up and which later feeds into the Lor. During one hike in the devesa a local woman from Moreda told me the story of a man who had traveled the world looking for a solution to his health problems. He heard of the spring's curative powers and trekked to the fountain to drink freely. Soon thereafter he was healed. Come and try it yourself !
The iron in the spring's water provides the link to another Courel theme - it's mineral wealth (primarily gold and iron). First exploited on the small scale for weapons and jewelry by the local inhabitants who lived in fortified settlements called castros (many vestiges of them mark the Courel landscape) dating from at least the Bronze Age (from the 7th century BC). Gold fever brought the Romans en masse to the area and their mines still remain etched in the landscape 2000 years later at La Toca and Torubio, both in the Courel (whose etymology - also written Caurel - derives from the Latin root for gold - aur).
Great quantities of iron were used in the mining operations but despite that the iron reserves held out well after the gold disappeared and the Romans abandoned the area. Until the mid-19th century iron from the Courel supplied ironworks and foundries throughout the sierra as village names clearly indicate : Ferreirós de Abaixo, Ferrería Nova, Ferramulín or O Ferrería (in Galego ferro means iron). Many of the Courel's old growth forests were destroyed at this time when wood was in high demand for the foundries and even household wood supplies were threatened. The Devesa da Rogueira can thank its particularly steep slopes for its salvation as they made the extraction of timber from the forest too costly and difficult.
Continuing past the fountain and working your way up past the tree line you discover that most of the Courel's upper heights are open and covered with matorral (various types of Spanish broom, erica, tree heath, heather as well as the scratchy shrub Chamaespartium tridentatum). In June white and yellow broom and purple and white heather choke the trails and blanket the upper reaches in a dazzling show of color. Outstanding panoramic views are available from the ridge crest, topped by Picos Formigueiros, to other mountain ranges, such as the Serra dos Ancares to the north.
Looking down the steep, often thickly wooded, slopes, Moreda, below in the valley floor, is a mere speck.
Looking south-east the desolate, unassuming shrub-covered hillsides are home to one of the Courel's most productive iron veins exploited during centuries. From here the words of the Courel-born poet Uxío Novoneyra (1930-1999, b. Parada de Moreda) are particularly apt :
Courel dos tesos cumes que ollan de lonxe ! Eiquí síntese ben o pouco que é un home...
(Courel of the immovable summits that look from the distant heights ! Here, one feels how insignificant man is...).
From the ridge it's possible to continue following the open dirt road and loop back passing above Galicia's only glacial lake - Lagoa da Lucenza. In late summer it usually dries though the reeds and rushes mark the humid zone. Up on the ridge you may also find clusters of yellow-throated purple toadflax (Linaria triornithophora) before heading back down through the devesa.
Romans may have taken the gold from the Courel but they left behind another valuable commodity : sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa). Over time chestnuts and their products would become the Courel's gold standard providing sustenance for both animals and humans, lumber, fuel and an exportable product fundamental to the Courel economy. Exploring the Courel you'll notice that nearly every village is embraced by a huge communal grove.
In the Meiraos and Seoane parishes there are some 20 sq km of groves. Each tree had an owner but the trees formed part of the village patrimony and were fundamental to the yearly cycle of life and work. Thriving at altitudes up to 900m, chestnuts are rich in carbohydrates and were the basic building block (along with pork) of the local diet until about 30 to 40 years ago.
On a side note, the potato (brought from the New World in the 16th century) was actively cultivated in Galicia by the 18th century and slowly supplanted the chestnut in importance. In some areas of Galicia the potato is still known locally as 'castaña de terra' (earth chestnuts) highlighting the nut's prime importance. Chestnuts were eaten fresh, boiled and mashed, used in stews and dehydrated in an elaborate 20-day process which allowed for their consumption all year long after the fall harvest. The dehydration took place in sequeiros, split-level structures located near the groves.
In the soutos the huge-trunked centenary trees are pruned in an eye-catching way. Rather than allowed to grow with one long-limbed trunk, as they would if left to themselves, the chestnuts are carefully pruned to produce numerous branches thereby increasing the productivity of each tree and also allowing for timbers to be cut for lumber without harming the tree. The low-trunked trees have at least six branches stemming off from the main trunk growing with roughly vertical offshoots. In spring time the long yellow tassles (candea) of the male flowers paint the grove while the long oblong jagged-edged leaves, shade the forest floor. Slowly over the course of the summer the flower converts into a spiny and very prickly yellow-green case (in Spanish erizo, in Galego ourizo - both of which mean hedgehog).
By fall the prickly case is dark brown and the forest is a kaleidoscope of yellow, ochre and tan. The chestnut casings pop open and the smooth, amber-brown hemispherical nuts (usually coming in threes from the case) drop to the ground. Chestnuts start producing flowers after 20 to 30 years.
It's also possible to find a number of chestnut varieties valued either for the quality of their wood or fruit : Brava, Caurelá and de Presa varieties were known for their outstanding wood, while de Parede, Luguesa and Revolta were prized for their large, tasty nuts. The Rapada variety is easy to peel and was often boiled with milk while the Vilacha might produce up to ten little chestnuts within each shell.
Each year on the second weekend in November the villages of the Courel gather in either Folgoso or Seoane do Courel for a communal chestnut roast called a Magosto based on the tradition of families getting together on Todos los Santos, ie, Day of the Dead (November 1), to eat roasted chestnuts and drink the local wine. Particularly fine groves to lose yourself in are those of Vilar, Parada and Mercurín.
• A good way to wrap up a visit in the Courel is to stop by Bar Pontón located on the road between Folgoso and Seoane by a small river in Ferreirós de Abaixo for a drink or outstanding meal. The owner cum artist Manolo has managed to transform the remnants of the chestnut forest into masterpieces of practical and aesthetically very pleasing pieces of furniture.
• For more information on the Courel, check out the Spanish-language website - https://caurel.fegamp.es - which is the official site run by the Courel township.
• For information in English, in the chapter I have co-written with Jose Placer for Lonely Planet's Walking in Spain 3 (due to be published in April 2003), we describe the Devesa da Rogueira walk and a magnificent one to three day hike following the Lor River canyon. In the descriptions we give suggestions on places to stay and eat. Jose and I also run walking tours in Galicia in which we spend time in the Courel. Click on [Author Info] for details.
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