Every pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago between Burgos and León knows Frómista, a small town famous for the romanesque church of St. Martin de Tours. They are also familiar with the canal along which the path runs before arriving to the town. Said canal, known as the “Canal de Castilla”, has a long and storied past that reflects the history of Spain during the last three centuries.
The Canal de Castilla was first planned in the XVIII century, during the Enlightment. The Marquess of Ensenada, one of king Ferdinand VI’s ministers in charge of modernizing the country, had the idea as a way to improve communications between the central regions of the Spain and the coast. (Let’s remember that before railroads, land transport of cargo was extremely difficult, and even more so in a mountainous country as Spain). His project, which started construction in 1753, had initiall four canals, which would link Segovia with Reinosa, near Santander. This way, Castilla’s wheat production (specially in the region of Tierra de Campos in Palencia) would be exported abroad through the Santander harbour.
As we can see, it was an incredibly ambitious project for its time, and it’s not surprising that the construction was interrupted several times. Neverthless, in 1791 a part of the Northern Branch was finished, connecting Alar del Rey and Calahorra de Ribas. This branch is the one we can see when passing through Frómista.
The War of Independence in 1808 interrupted the construction again, and afterwards, the state of the country’s finances forced king Ferdinand VII to grant the work to a private company. The Carlist Wars in the 1830s hampered the construction again, and the canal wasn’t finished until 1849, almost a century after its start. By then, railroads had already made it obsolete, and parts of the initial project (the Southern Branch to Segovia and the parts of the Northern Branch that reached Santander) were never built.
Despite all that, the canal was en economic boon to the regions that it crossed, thanks to the irrigation it provided as well as the infraestructure (mills, paper factories…) built taking advantage of hydraulic power.
The Canal today
Nowadays, the Canal de Castilla still provides water to nearby cities and irrigation to farmers, but it has also been turned into a recreation and tourism destination. Its facilities (locks, mills, docks…) are of great historic value, and the canal as a whole was declared “Bien de Interés Cultural” (spanish heritage site) in 1991. Besides, the surroundings of the waterways have turned into wetlands of great ecological value, with birds such as the bittern or the aquatic warbler finding habitats in them.
Some sections of the canal are open to navigation, and we can take organized boat trips on them, as well as practice kayaking and canoeing.
The Canal de Castilla and the Camino
The best known meeting point between the canal and the Camino de Santiago is, as mentioned above, on the Camino Francés, in the stage between Boadilla del Camino and Frómista. (There is also another point in Herrera de Pisuerga, a town through which the Camino del Norte passes).
Our first sight of the Canal will take place shortly after leaving Boadilla, after walking for around 1.7 km. From there we’ll have the canal to our right all the way until reaching Frómista. Shortly before arriving to this town, we will find the old lock operator’s house, turned now into the tourism office. In order to reach Frómista itself we have to cross a small iron bridge, and from it we can enjoy the unique sight of the famous four-level lock located there, the biggest level change in the entire canal. We are sure that pretty much every pilgrim has taken at least a picture from this place.
Boat trips along the Canal
Another attraction that we can enjoy in the canal are the touristic boat trips. Close to the tourism office mentioned above, we can embark on the “Juan de Hómar” boat, which makes round trips from Frómista and Boadilla del Camino. This initiative was started in the autumn of 2018, and it kept operating right until the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020.
Regarding the current 2021-2022 Jacobean year, we have been in touch with the boat operators, and they say that they plan to start operating as soon as the Camino season starts, although with the expected health-related capacity restrictions. Its planned scheduled is:
- From march to summer: departures from Frómista every day except Tuesday, at 11:00, 12:30, 16:30 and 18:00.
- During the summer: same as above, except that the afternoon trips start at 17:00 and 18:30.
For further information, we advise following the Palencia Turismo Facebook page, or calling the phone number (34) 673 368 486.
Many of our readers, as they prepare their future Camino, must have heard that the year 2021 is a special one, since it’s a Jubilee Year or “Año Jacobeo” (“Año Xacobeo” in galician). What does this mean?
According to the Catholic Church, a Jubilee Year is celebrated in Santiago de Compostela whenever July 25th (the day of Santiago the elder) falls on a Sunday. And indeed, the next time this will happen will be on 2021 (and then in 2027). For catholic christians, this means that they can attain a plenary indulgence (full forgiveness of their sins) if they:
- Visit the Santiago cathedral. (Strictly speaking, one doesn’t need to have made the full pilgrimage; it’s enough to have visited Santiago).
- Pray for the pope (at least the Lord’s Prayer or the Creed).
- Receive the Sacraments of Penance and Communion.
The Jubilee Year is also special because it’s only on those occasions when the cathedral’s Holy Door is open.
Indulgence can also be gained, for those pilgrims who haven’t been able to reach Santiago due to accident or illness, if you reach Villafranca del Bierzo and cross the Forgiveness Gate at its church.
This tradition was created by pope Calixtus II in 1120, and it was a big factor in the increase of pilgrimages to Santiago during the Middle Ages. (For those readers knowledgeable about the History of the Camino and who might find Calixtus II’s name familiar, the “Codex Calixtinus” takes its name from a supposed letter by this pope attached to the beginning of the document).
From a practical point of view, on jubilee years there is a considerable increase in the number of pilgrims, so it’s convenient to plan in advance and make reservations for your lodgings, specially in Santiago. Of course, one can also avoid such hassle by walking the Camino on a non-Jacobean year, such as 2020 itself…
Atapuerca is one of the best known villages through which the Camino de Santiago passes. Known today mostly thanks to its archeological site, it is also relevant though for the yearly reenactment of the historical battle that took place in the town in the Middle Ages.
The battle of Atapuerca took place on September 1st of 1054, between kings Fernando I of León and Count of Castile, and García Sánchez III of Pamplona. Both of them were sons of king Sancho III of Navarre, who divided his kingdom at death between them.
A series of personal conflicts among both brothers, that had roots in part in king Bermudo III of León’s attempt to wage war against Fernando and García’s help to the latter, provoked the battle between both kings on the plain in the valley of Atapuerca.
The battle concluded with the death of García Sanchez, but Navarre’s army managed to keep calm and recover the king’s body in order to bring it back to the pantheon in Nájera. García’s son, Sancho Garcés IV, was named king on the battlefield itself.
(Pictures courtesy of www.batalladeatapuerca.com).
The current reenactment began in 1996, as an initiative of a group of neighbours organised in the association “Amigos de Atapuerca”. It has now been declared an Event of Touristic Interest by the Castilla-León regional government, and it has a medieval market that takes place during the day. All the elements used in the reenactment (shields, tents, historical clothing…) are made by the village’s inhabitants.
This year (2019) the reenactment will take place on August 24 and 25. If you are interested, you can get more information at www.batalladeatapuerca.com.
There are few places along the Camino the Santiago more significant for the pilgrim than the monastery of San Juan de Ortega, in the Burgos province. Built by the saint of the same name (known in the English speaking world as Saint John the Hermit), the monument has been associated with the pilgrimage to Santiago since its foundation.
Juan de Velázquez was born in the village of Quintanaortuño in 1080, and from his youth he devoted himself to improve the Camino de Santiago, building bridges and paving roads in collaboration with Saint Dominic de la Calzada. The decision of building the monastery came from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. According to the legend, when traveling back to Spain he suffered a shipwreck, and San Juan prayed to Saint Nicholas, promising to build a chapel in his honor if he survived. He did, so back home he started the work in the zone of the Montes de Oca, close to his hometown.
The San Juan de Ortega monument is comprised by the original chapel, a romanesque church built along it (where the saint is buried), the monastery and the pilgrims’ hospice. From the artistic point of view, the church’s main highlight is the capital of the Annunciation, which depicts the story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary.
The miracle of light.
Speaking of this capital, one of the most interesting phenomenoms associated with the monastery takes place in it, the so-called “miracle of light”. Every equinox (March 21 and September 22), at five o’clock (solar time), a ray of sunlight enters the church and illuminates the capital, going from left to right, “telling” the story of the Annunciation.
Besides the remains of Santiago the apostle, one of the most precious treasures that are kept in the Compostela cathedral is the so-called “Codex Calixtinus”, also known as the “first guidebook for the Camino”, written in the XII Century.
The “Codex Calixtinus” is a medieval manuscript dating from year 1140 (approx.), which contains the oldest known copy of the so-called “Liber Sancti Iacobi”, a compilation of sermons, liturgical chants and miracles related to Saint James. There are about twelve copies of this book in Europe, but the oldest one is, as mentioned, the one kept in the cathedral.
The codex, or the “Liber Sancti Iacobi” (if we want to be accurate), begins with a letter supposedly written by Pope Calixtus II (hence the name of the manuscript), and continues with five sections, which contain:
- Liturgical texts (sermons, Masses) related to Saint James.
- Accounts of miracles attributed to Saint James.
- A description of how the saint’s body was carried to Compostela. This book contains the first appearance of sea shells as symbols of the pilgrimage, since it describes how pilgrims collected them at the beach as proof of their arrival to Santiago.
- The story of Charlemagne‘s arrival to the Iberian Peninsula and how Saint James appeared to him in a dream (Charlemagne’s iberian military campaign includes his famous defeat in the battle of Roncesvalles,which inspired the “Chanson de Roland”. These events are also described in the book).
- A “guide” for the medieval pilgrim, with a list of rivers, towns, hostels, churches… found along the Camino.
This last book is the best known one, and it’s the one that earned the Codex the nickname of “first pilgrim’s guidebook”. For decades, historians have relied on it for insights about the towns in the Camino during the Middle Ages, as well as details about the pilgrimage during those times.
The book’s authorship has traditionally been attributed to french monk Aymeric Picaud, who joined pope Calixtus II during his pilgrimage to Santiago in 1109, and might have taken the chance to compile the information that appears in Book V. However, many modern historians have doubts about this attribution.
Lastly, we can’t help but mention the occasion where this codex, with hundreds of years of history, jumped to the front pages in 2011, when it disappeared from the Santiago cathedral. After several months of investigation, the police managed to recover it and arrest its thief, a electrician who used to work at the cathedral.
One of the words most frequently associated with the Camino, to the point of finding it in all kinds of contexts during the journey, is “Ultreia!” What does it mean and where does it come from?
“Ultreia” is a latin word, and it literally means “beyond”. It originally appeared in the “Codex calixtinus”, the well known medieval manuscript that constitutes an invaluable document about pilgrimage during the Middle Ages, to the point of being called by some the first “travel guide” for the Camino. In one of the appendices of this manuscript, devoted to religious hymns, we can find this line:
“E ultreia, e suseia,
Deus adiuva nos”
(Go beyond, go higher, protect us God).
“Suseia”, in turn, means “go higher”. The legend says that, in old times, when pilgrims found each other, they exchanged these words as salutation: “¡Ultreia!” “¡Et susaeia!”
If you have ever made the pilgrimage to Santiago, or are currently doing it, you shall know by now how well marked the route is, and you will be quite familiar with the infallible and ubiquitous symbol of the yellow arrow, the standard indicator in every Jacobean route, and the most safe sign that we are in the right path and heading to Santiago.
The symbol of the yellow arrow is relatively recent, and contemporary with the Jacobean pilgrimage revival at mid eighties. Its presence is not incidental or spontaneous, but the result of a huge effort by the man who made the transformation of an almost forgotten old tradition into the mass phenomenon that we know today possible: the Father Elías Valiña (1929-1989), who since 1957, when he was made the parish priest of Santa María do Cebreiro, became the greatest champion of the recovery of the ancient route that passed in front of his church.
It was in 1984, as part of his tireless work for the restoration and promotion of the pilgrimage to Santiago, that the need of an adequate signaling of the route arose.
Elías Valiña was receiving many complaints from the scarce pilgrims who then walked the route that they were constantly missing the path. The Father acquired a batch of spare yellow paint of the type used in Spain to make surface markings on stretches of roads as a roadwork sign, and he went to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the French starting point of the French Way, in his Citroën 2CV, and from there right down to Santiago, signaling with a hand painted yellow arrow every one of the hundreds of points where the route could be missed by the pilgrims. That is the Jacobean route restored and signaled by Elías Valiña himself, and it is considered the most reliable restoration of the original medieval route. During these long efforts Elías Valiña became a great scholar in everything related to the Jacobean pilgrimage, with an ample knowledge about history, art and cultural heritage, and countless published works and papers.
In his will, he left his family in charge of maintaining the proper signaling of the pilgrim’s way, a work that they are still carrying; but of course this is a work too demanding for so few people, and this heritage has been actually passed on to the many voluntary associations of the Camino and to the public administrations.
If today the Camino to Santiago is not just a beautiful memory of a splendorous medieval past, we owe it mostly to the selfless work of the Father Elías Valiña. The yellow arrow is a symbol not only of a collective selfless effort for guiding the pilgrim on a safe path, but it’s also a symbol of the great effort of transforming what was little more than a romantic memory of ancient medieval times in a mass phenomenon more alive than ever.
Every city has its origin on some cause or pretext: natural or human
resources, stages and crossroads between them; power, oil, harbors…
most of them seem to have been placed by nature itself, arbitrarily.
Compostela, instead, was founded for a different a very particular
reason: the fact of there being buried a man, in a place that had been
previously nothing closer to a city than a derelict necropolis, abandoned in the top of a forested mount called Libredón, with some enigmatic ruins standing out, that were later found to be an early Christian temple. As tradition goes, the remains of the apostle arrived by sea from Jaffa to Iria Flavia, an ancient settlement on the confluence of the rivers Sar and Ulla, and from there to the necropolis on an oxcart, centuries before being discovered by a hermit called Paio on a distant day of the year 813.
Since it was found out that one those ancient tombs was lodging nothing
else than the remains of James, son of Zebedee, the Jesus’ Apostle that
had been beheaded in Jerusalem on 44 AD, the sepulcher has been receiving an unending tribute, and surrounding it were built, first a small shrine, then an inconspicuous monastery and a settlement surrounding it, encouraged by a royal privilege that, in a full feudal era, made a free man of anyone who had remained inside the city for 40 days without being claimed as his vassal by any feudal lord. Many things have happened since, up to the city we know today, surrounding a cathedral that surrounds an ancient tomb. A long —yet relatively short— history, with battles against Vikings, Arabs
and French invaders, a five times centenary university, and the lengthy
litigations to preserve its status as the holiest city in Western
Few cities as Compostela can be so sure of the exact reason why they are here and now. And there is it still, the tomb of the Apostle James the Elder, his remains and those of his two faithful companions Athanasius and Theodore within a richly engraved silver urn in the crypt beneath the cathedral’s high altar.
Visiting the tomb of Santiago is one of those inescapable pilgrimage
rituals in Compostela; regardless of any debates about historical
truths, and no matter which one’s own beliefs may be, the sepulcher of Santiago is a spiritual and cultural symbol with a universal value.
As we announced a few months ago, Caminofácil has started providing services in the Camino Portugués through our friends at TransferTaxi, beginning in Porto. The stages we cover are:
- Porto – Vilarinho
- Vilarinho – Barcelos
- Barcelos – Ponte de Lima
- Ponte de Lima – Rubiaes
- Rubiaes – Valença do Minho
- Valença do Minho – Tui
- Tui – Porriño.
- Porriño – Redondela.
- Redondela – Pontevedra
- Pontevedra – Caldas de Reis.
- Caldas de Reis – Padrón.
- Padrón – Santiago de Compostela.
You can make your reservations now in our website.
The Camino Portugués.
After the Camino Francés, the portuguese way is currently the most popular one among pilgrims, and it has a long history behind it, stretching back to the discovery itself of the apostle’s tomb. By the XII century, when Portugal declared independence from the kingdom of Galicia, the route was already well established, and during the following centuries, important personalities like Santa Isabel (queen of Portugal) walked its roads to reach Santiago.
During the early years of XX century, with the appearance of the sanctuary in Fatima, the Camino experienced a dip in popularity, due to the “competition” from another pilgrimage site in Portugal, but in the last few years, it has benefitted from the renewed interest in the Caminos, as well as the work of associations and amateurs who have documented its history and marked the traditional routes. Today, the pilgrim can choose a variety of paths through Portugal (coastal, inland…) in order to reach Santiago and receive the “compostela”.