PHOTO CREDITS: Photos of Allie, Mike, Andrea, Julianna, Giancarlo, Ricky, Hailey, Amy, Matt and Dr Myers by Giancarlo Milea; photos of Alyssa, Rachel, Katie by Hailey Cox; photos of Nicole, Tom and Dr Gyug by Amy Gembara.
PHOTO CREDITS: Photos of Allie, Mike, Andrea, Julianna, Giancarlo, Ricky, Hailey, Amy, Matt and Dr Myers by Giancarlo Milea; photos of Alyssa, Rachel, Katie by Hailey Cox; photos of Nicole, Tom and Dr Gyug by Amy Gembara.
As I write this, the smells of El Gato Negro come rushing back to me – the pulpo, the pimientos, and of course, the pan. After our inside (and outside) look at the cathedral, our pursuit of the authentic pilgrim experience continued, and we found ourselves in the classy arms of a five-star establishment. Well, five stars if the rating system were determined by great companionship and how much “sweet smell of success” hung in the air. We spent two hours together, and our final meal was one for the books. Although we were in a warm, crowded back room of this small bar, we were all glowing with pride – we had FINALLY made it to Santiago. Yes, there were bumps and bruises, but we were all together, a Camino family, sharing in one last experience that would conclude one of the best times we will ever have.
Following our feast, the illustrious Drs. Gyug and Myers surprised us with our very own version of the Oscars. It was at this point that we all realized just how once-in-a-lifetime this experience truly was, and just how wonderful our two leaders truly are. Thoughout the Camino, they paid attention to the multitude of personalities, likes, and quirks of each and every pilgrim in our group, and presented the Camino awards to each person, tailor-made. From Little Miss Sunshine (Amy) to the Kantian who “does the right thing whether he likes it or not (Matt),” these awards came straight from the keenly observant minds and kind hearts of our professors, and the gifts they gave each of us reflected this compassion. The Camino awards made the experience that much more special, as it reflected just how close we had all become.
Queimada | Photo by Mike Perlowitz
The capstone of our last evening together was the Queimada ceremony. Unique to Galicia, the traditional Queimada ceremony consists of sitting around a cauldron of burning Queimada (a special Galician drink) while reciting an incantation together to ward off evil. It seemed like a fitting end to our journey – together, we warded off the evils of blisters, sunburn, and tendonitis, trading them in for laughter, conversation, and even a student-professor arm-wrestling match for the ages (picture included). It truly was a perfect ending to this life-changing pilgrim experience.
Final test | Photo by Mike Perlowitz
Although we’ve finished our Camino pilgrimage together, the journey is never truly over. As we go forward, the Camino, specifically this Camino experience, will hold a “special place in our hearts (to quote the talented Giancarlo’s ‘Camino Song’).” I, for one, have grown by leaps and bounds from this experience – the confidence, companionship, and occasional blister (for which a fellow peregrino always provided a band-aid) have given me a renewed faith in humanity, in the goodness of the human being and the indomitable human spirit. I think I speak for all of us when I say that our Camino experience has taught us what human solidarity truly entails, and what the human experience is all about. Our two-week Camino may be over, but our lives’ Caminos move forward, with the lessons we’ve learned and the friendships we’ve formed always in mind.
Before the sun rose on the last day, we were walking.
It was dark. Those who packed headlamps strapped them on. Those without used cell-phone flashlights. Some simply let their eyes adjust.
Though the moon was out, it was dark as we entered the forest.
Eucalyptus stretched up into the sky. I could barely see the ground in front of me, and roots as well as rocks provided occasion to trip. As I looked up at the canopy, I could see a faint blue light beginning to fill the spaces between leaves and branches.
As the sun rose, we emerged from the trees.
Day was dawning. (For the atmosphere and color scheme of this part of the walk, see the closing scene of Fantasia.)
Some people stopped for breakfast in the first café. I had a slice of apple tart and talked with Drs. Gyug and Myers about the experience of pain and the psychological mechanics of redemptive suffering.
The closer we got to Santiago, the more urban the landscape became. Forest faded into village, faded into suburb, faded into city. The last part of the walk felt frustrating because it began to feel like we had arrived in Santiago long before we reached the cathedral itself.
My first view of the church was the blue and yellow cloth hung on its scaffolded tower. A street busker played “Imagine” by John Lennon on a soprano melodica as I walked down the alley that led to the cathedral’s front. (Oddly enough, I found a clip of someone doing this very thing on YouTube.)
For much of the middle ages, the pilgrim’s initial encounter with the church would have been with the three, round, Romanesque arches of the twelfth-century Portico da Gloria. A statue of St. James on the mullion upholding the central arch would have greeted medieval peregrinos and served as an object of ritual devotion. This, however, was not our experience, because somehow, in 1740, Fernando de Casas Novoa had turned all those tons of Galician granite into the sweeping, curling, stretching towers and embellishments of the baroque façade, with its crazy-elaborate carvings, solemn statues and its bronze crosses pointing up into the sky. Wow!
I saw our group standing in the Plaza del Obradoira in front of the church. Some of us embraced and cried. Others were just lying on the ground, looking all chilled out, surveying the cathedral we had walked 300 km to reach.
We made it! Santiago de Compostela!
Guys, we’re here! Thank GOD.
Can you even believe it? Finally, Santiago!
From there we walked to our hostel to put our bags away and then returned to attend the mass. The cathedral was packed! Pilgrims from all over the globe filled into the cruciform church. Even in the back of the right transept there were not enough seats for us. The mass was in Spanish, with some Latin songs and responses. Of course, it was the botafumeiro that stuck out to me: that great, hulking, pendulous censor, flying between the arms of the transept at 30 mph!
As for our visit to the relics, I watched the friends I traveled with for so long wait in line, curled in-queue around the florid baroque baldacchino. All that Churrigueresque craziness!
We all filed through a small gated door.
I watched us approach the statue of St. James silently, placing our open palms on his bejeweled back in a traditional gesture of affection and respect. We then made our way down a set of stairs.
A middle-aged man in an orange jacket was crying and praying before the relics. I knelt down, made my requests, and moved on in little more than a minute. All that travelling for that moment: to be in the presence of that small, silver reliquary coffer; to offer the apostle a prayer or two.
How must it have felt for countless other pilgrims from other eras to have made this journey, to have made their prayer, and then to have turned around and left for their equally grueling journey home?
Later in the day, we were taken on the roof for a tour. You could see the red-tiled buildings that lent the Galician capital its color. As an enthusiastic of medieval church architecture, it was a wonderful experience to be able to interact with these typically-untraveled architectural features.
As we were leaving the cathedral, I glanced back up the nave toward the statue of St. James at the altar. Even from there, I could see a small pair of hands wrapped themselves around his front. They looked small, like a child’s, in comparison to the width of the statue.
How strange for us 21st century peregrinos! Even for those who did not make their pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, this thoroughly medieval, highly ritualized component of the camino remains mysteriously intact, like a relic of its own.
The walk to Melide was a nice 14km and gave us all some time to nap and recover before our final two-day trek to Santiago. After settling in at our albergue, we headed over to Plaza del Convento. This plaza is the crossing of the Camino de Santiago (the French Way) and the Camino de Oviedo. The parish church in the center is 14th-century Romanesque with sixteenth-century wall paintings and an ivory baby Jesus. Unfortunately, we arrived at the same time as a funeral procession and were not able to see the church for ourselves.
We did get to visit the Terra de Melide Museum, which gave us insight into the history of the town’s culture. I certainly enjoyed the traditional dessert display, which showed how its famous pastries, ricos, melindres, and amendoados, were made. We then visited the Church of San Roque, which was combined with the Church of San Juan previously and is also 14th-century Romanesque. Next to it stands the oldest stone cross in Galicia, the Crucero do Melide. On one side Christ is shown majestic and godly, while on the other he is shown crucified.
Although we are all in some pain from two weeks of walking, it is with very bittersweet hearts that we make our final trek to Santiago…
After leaving the quite crowded albergue of Portomarín, we crossed the Miño river heading towards the Ligonde mountain range. The day’s walk was about 25 km, one of our tougher days, but we had beautiful weather and of course, beautiful company.
We arrived in Palas de Rei, a fairly newer-looking town with great cafés and bars and a lot of happy pilgrims. Like most of Galicia, the area is surrounded by small hamlets and green valleys and the agriculture and livestock industry is what drives the economy, in addition to the camino of course. The name of the town is a little deceiving because although it means “palace of the king”, there is no palace in sight. It is said to have been constructed by the Visigoth King Witiza during his reign from 701-9 so we can assume that his palace was destroyed over time. The two main sites that we saw were the Iglesia de San Tirso and the small statue of San Tirso. San Tirso was a Holy Christian saint who was sentenced to be cut in two, but on the day of his execution the saw wouldn’t cut his skin and became extremely heavy. Although he was beheaded eventually, the statue in the plaza shows him standing tall with the bucksaw at his side. The church that takes his name has undergone recent renovations, but it’s 12th Century Romanesque portal still remains. It was a peaceful church to visit, with a cute little old man running the office where they stamp our credenciales.
After eating some tasty raciones in a local restaurant we witnessed an incredible performance by some students from Pennsylvania. They are all high-school graduates who started the Camino in León without any money, surviving off of the generosity of others and living the very frugal life of a pilgrim. They started drumming and singing folk tunes and then broke out into a series of juggling tricks, including one with our very own Allie! It was really intense and the atmosphere that surrounded us kept us dancin’ and singin’ until the sun went down. In every little bar or restaurant we passed we reunited with friends that we had met on the trail and met new ones that were also celebrating the long journey. It’s crazy to think that this experience is coming to an end. The friendships that we have made on the Camino are definitely special ones and I know that they will continue on past Santiago.
I think we were all very happy to have an extra hour of sleep that night. Luckily, the next day was going to be an easy one, with just 14 km to Melide!
Fordham has officially taken Portomarín by storm, and the dream team is still going strong. As we have officially passed the 100km mark, the road is packed with peregrinos new and old walking the last leg of the Camino.
Santiago becomes more real each day. The days have become rather rhythmic. Feet continue to ache, but the now-veteran Ram peregrinos have soothed their woes with tarta de Santiago (almond cake) and a fair bit of orujo (local DRANK), in addition to the usual patatas and pan. As a town, Portomarín has been intrinsically linked to the Camino- serving as an outpost for the Order of San Juan of Jerusalem, the Knights Templar, and the Knights Hospitaller throughout the Middle Ages.
Portomarín is a town with a fascinating modern history as well. The town we peregrinos entered after crossing the Miño River is a sham. It is the result of a long process of industrialization undertaken by Generalissimo Franco in the 1950s and 60s. The General hired architect Pons Sorolla to design and construct a hydroelectric dam on the river, and the resulting stoppage of water threatened to flood the medieval town. Desperate to keep artifacts of the national Spanish identity intact, Franco made arrangements to, in quite literal terms, move the town brick by brick from its initial location to its current place higher on the river bank.
Several of the town’s most important monuments, including the imposing 12th century, late Romanesque church fortress of St. Xoan, were moved, and new, more organized streets and plazas were created. At low tide though, one can still see a remnant of the old medieval bridge that was deemed superfluous.
The town has a very quaint feel to it, but its recent history begets important questions about the region and the Camino that are worth consideration. Politically, this history adds much nuance to the relationships between Spanish autonomous communities and the centralized government. Furthermore, the town is a Disneyland- it’s a construction of an idea of the “authentic.” With regards to the Camino, an activity often rooted in notions of authenticity, can this new town even be considered the real Portomarín? The answers to that question have important implications for peregrinos, many of whom strive to do the Camino “the real way.” The issue of authenticity has arisen both in our studies and in my own experiences on the road. When you’re tired enough though, a hot shower and a good meal quell the debates that may rage in the mind.
AND NOW THE CHORUS OF THE SONG OF SANTIAGO:
You can go your own way,
you can walk and you can pray,
but if you ain’t talkin’, you ain’t seen a thing.
St. James is a friend of mine,
but I want some friends for other times!
I want to hear my friends in Santiago sing!
Giancarlo, aka The Prodigal Mumbler, aka Like Mike, aka Jean ValSwoll, aka Ga, aka Johnny Bravo, aka Juanito Carlito
Today was one of the longest days because many of us didn’t reach the albergue until around 4. We left just as early as we usually do, around 7am, from Triacastela. Tricastela, whose name is misleading due to the lack of existing castles presently standing, was a great halfway point between O Cebreiro and Sarria. Upon leaving Tricastela, two routes of the Camino re available. One leads directly over the mountain and out of the valley. The other is slightly longer but includes a stop at the Benedictine monastery in Samos.
All of the students decided to take the route to Samos, where we stopped for bocadillas, tortillas, and cafe. For only 3 euros, we took an hour long tour of the monastery. It was founded during the Visogothic era with the first account of the monastery dating to 665. The building was abandoned during a Muslim invasion and served as a refuge for King Freula I of Asturias’ wife and son following his assassination. The monastery was taken under royal protection and grew to be one of the wealthiest and most powerful monasteries on the peninsula. In 922, Benedictine rule was established and in the 11th century it was an important pilgrims hospice and pharmacy. At it’s peak, the monastery of Samos had the largest ground plans and cloisters in Spain and it is considered one of the oldest monasteries in the western world. Two fires have devastated the monastery, in the 16th and 20th century, but extensive restoration efforts have revitalized the monument.
After our tour of the monastery, we were also given the chance to visit a 12th century hermitage on the grounds. All learned and enjoyed the experience, but after a three-hour break we continued to Sarria.
Exhausted, we arrived and settled into out beautiful albergue in Sarria, a town of about 13,000 people that is distinct by a daunting staircase up the Main Street. Sarria is just over the required distance necessary to receive the compostela. From this point on, the camino will probably be more crowded.
In Sarria, we saw the church of San Salvador, the Convent of Magdalena, and the tower of Sarria. The church of San Salvador is a Romanesque church from the 14th century that differs from pervious churches in it’s granite tympanum. The door also features medieval ironwork.
The convent of Magdalena was founded by Italian pilgrims in the 12th century to aid pilgrims and grew to be an Augustinian monastery in the 13th century. It had baroque and gothic elements and currently belongs to Mercedarian fathers and functions as a private school.
The tower of Sarria is the only remaining element of a 14th century castle that was destroyed in a war between Galician nobility and the Irmandinos. In the 17th century, the castle fell into disrepair and was dismantled to use stones for sidewalks.
We have had great weather since venturing into Galicia and we hope it continues as we continue to climb the hills and explore the valleys on our way to Santiago!
El Camino aporta! The way provides.
Now we are halfway through our journey, and there is certainly a lot to share thus far! Before I discuss all the gifts that O Cebreiro, also known as Pedrafita do Cebreiro, has to offer, I will recount our walk from Villafranca to La Laguna (the town we stayed in prior to O Cebreiro). Our fearless leaders, Dr. Gyug and Dr. Myers, warned the group that our trek from Villafranca to La Laguna (approximately 22k) was going to be difficult. Walking along the highway was not so bad at first, but once we approached the last few kilometers, we hit a very steep climb. Most of the group made it to La Laguna just fine, but Mike and I had quite the adventure.
Everything was going great until we reached a small town called La Faba. Mike and I took a left instead of a right, and ended up walking 10 hours that day, about 10-15 extra kilometers out of our way up the mountain and through the valley. Thankfully we had each other, because we were very much off the path and deep into the mountains with barely any people and definitely no cell reception. We also did not have much food or water either, so I start to panic a little bit. But The Camino provides, and a woman in the only house in this part of the mountain guided us in the right direction. Fatigued and anticipating the next albergue, Mike and I finally made it to O Cebreiro which was not far from La Laguna. I was a good person to be lost with at that point because O Cebreiro was my town to research, so I recognized it as soon as we approached the pallozas, Celtic music, and Gallego speaking tienda keeper. Good conversation, faith and hope helped us get through our adventure. And we kept saying that we would certainly have a story to tell!
After staying in La Laguna that night, the entire group went to O Cebreiro, the first town within Galicia. Dating back to the Medieval period, this town has several major features. The first is the Iglesia de Santa Maria la Real, a church with Romanesque features, but most importantly, the Holy Grail. Legend has it that in the 14th century, a peasant from a neighboring hamlet went to the church during a storm to receive the Eucharist. He entered during the consecration, disrupting the priest whom immediately scolded him, saying that the peasant came just to eat. Immediately the bread and wine turned into flesh and blood. This miracle established the chalice used at this Mass as the Holy Grail. This isn’t the first Holy Grail we have seen though, there was another one, recently found in Leon too! How many people can say they have seen the Holy Grail twice?
Other noteworthy features of O Cebreiro included the monument for Father Elias Valiña Sampedro, a parish priest from the 1970s who did a lot of wonderful work for the parish and pilgrims. He helped preserve parts of the Camino, including O Cebreiro, and bringing tourism to the town. He is buried within the church, and a bust of him is outside. If you look carefully, you might mistake him for Dr. Gyug!
Other exciting things about O Cebreiro are the pallozas, which are oval, stone houses with thatched roofs. These are Celtic homes with two rooms, one for animals and another for humans. There is a museum entirely dedicated to the history of this unique architecture.
After O Cebreiro we walked to Triacastela. This marks the halfway point through our walk, and the end of the most difficult part of trekking through the mountains!
Peace and love,
On Tuesday we walked from Molinaseca to Ponferrada, one of the shortest walks of the Camino at only 8km. Ponferrada is also one of the oldest cities that we will pass through on the Camino. The site that has now become Ponferrada was conquered in the year 29 bc by the Emperor Augustus in the Astur-Cantabrian wars and has been occupied ever since. In the city we visited the Templar Castle, whose outer walls were constructed by the Knights Templar between 1218-1282 and was used by that order until their disbandment in 1312. After a sumptuous lunch in the hostel we boarded a bus with the students from Marquette for Las Medulas, the largest gold mines in the Roman Empire. The Romans notices specks of gold in the soil on the scale of 1:1,000,000, so naturally they had to build 300 kilometers of aqueducts and canals to transport water to wash the gold out of the soil in an early form of hydraulic mining. Although it rained while we were at the mines, the experience was incredible. Tom, Mike, and I were particularly adventurous and went into some of the deeper caves of the mines, getting especially dirty in the process. After exploring the lower portion of the mines the bus took us up to a vista overlooking the entire operation, and the view of the eroded mountains was incredible. Seeing the sheer scale of the operation, including the lines on surrounding mountains where the Romans had constructed aqueducts was a tremendous sight. After having seen such a tremendous feat of ancient civil engineering, we got back on the bus to return to Ponferrada where we were on our own for dinner before going to bed in our respective rooms.
The following day we walked from Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo, by far my favorite day of walking yet. We walked on a slightly different route than the yellow arrows pointed us (in what Dr. Gyug assured us was the original medieval pilgrimage) to get to the El Bierzo valley, which has become known throughout Spain and Europe for its wines. We walked through vineyard after vineyard in great weather. The sun shined and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, so the pain if sore feet and blisters seemed to fade away. At one point we could even see the mines that we had visited the previous day. Arriving in Villafranca was pleasant, if a bit confusing, but fortunately we all arrived intact.
We left a little later yesterday morning as a result of both staying up to watch the Champions League Final, and indulging in the breakfast that the hostel provided. Once on the outskirts of Astorga we came in full view of the snow covered peak to the southwest the we would journey towards for remainder of the day. The weather was a little chilly but perfect conditions for walking and the countryside was magnificent. Rolling hills of shrubby trees and yellow and purple wildflowers flowed to the base of the mountains towering in the distance. We passed through a few small towns, notably El Ganso and Santa Catalina where many of us would stop for a coffee or lunch. We stayed in Rabanal which is a beautiful small town with Roman origins. The most notable aspect of the town is the church which was first constructed by the Knights Templar in the 12th century. Amy and I caught the last mass of the day at 12:30 and then we all went to the vespers later in the evening. Today we are staying in Molinaseca. Along the way we stopped at the Cruz de Ferro where we all tossed a stone at the base of the cross as a representation of a sin which we are asking forgiveness for, a burden we are leaving behind, or anything else we may want. The walk was long and the intense downhill walk was treacherous and hard on the knees but for the most part spirits are high even if we are a little weak. Molinaseca is a beautiful resort town and everyone is ready for our shortest walk of the trip tomorrow. Though there is pain, it is now mostly only pains that we expect and that makes them more tolerable.