One of the most distinctive regions that the Camino Francés passes through is El Bierzo. Located right before Galicia, between mountains and valleys, El Bierzo is a region with a distinctive identity that deserves special attention from the traveler. We are going to highlight here some of its wonders, so that the pilgrim can check them out in his next Camino and stop for a few minutes (or even hours) to experience the unique features that this region can offer.
Riego de Ambrós
Riego de Ambrós was a mandatory stop for pilgrims during the trip to Compostela. Being a town dependant directly from the king (“realengo”), it had a pilgrim’s hospital called San Juan de Irago, that was destroyed by a fire in the XVIII century. It has excellent samples of popular architecture, like the parish church of Santa María Magdalena with its Baroque altarpiece, the fountains of San Sebastian, Santa María Magdalena and the town square one. Close to it we also find the bridges of Malpaso, in a detour of the Camino towards Los Barrios.
Church of Santa María de Vizbayo
Probably the most ancient romanesque temple in the region, the church of Santa María de Vizbayo is in Otero, a small town close to the Mount Pajariel. Built in late XI century, it features horseshoe arches and a singular window on the front.
The capital of El Bierzo is the biggest town we’ll find in the way until reaching Santiago, and it has plenty of attractions to visit. The most famous one is obviously the templar castle from the XII century, but we can also have a look at the “Fábrica de la Luz”, a technological museum located in an old power station.
Another important symbol of the region is the basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Encina, where we find an image of the Virgin Mary that was brought to Spain, according to legend, by Saint Turibius from the Holy Land.
Los Barrios (Ponferrada)
The parish of Lombillo, which belongs to Ponferrada, forms the region of Los Barrios along with other parishes such as Las Salas and Villar. Declared as Good of Cultural Interest by the spanish government, Lombillo preserves beautiful examples of popular architecture and magnificent examples of emblazoned houses. We can also visit the ermitage of Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación and one of the most beautiful lookouts of the region, from which we can see Ponferrada, the Aquilane Mountains, Salas and Villar and the church of San Martín de Salas.
On the outskirts of the town of Cacabelos, the pilgrim can find the Sanctuary of Angustias, built in the XVIII century in the same place where there used to be an ermitage devoted to the Virgin Mary. In it, we can admire the image of the Virgin Mary and have a look at its seven altarpieces, among them the biggest one, made by Miguel Núñez and Juan de Solorzano, as well as a painting of the Nursing Madonna, a relief of Jesus as a child playing cards with St. Anthony of Padua and the organ, brought here from the monastery of Santa María de Carracedeo.
Church of San Miguel at Corullón
The romanesque church of San Miguel in Corullón was declared “Good of Cultural Interest” in 1931. Built in the XII century, it’s remarkable for its decoration full of real and fantastic animals and obscene motifs, as well as the southern door with its archivolt and blind arcade over columns.
Villafranca del Bierzo
One of the most important towns of the region, Villafranca is known among pilgrims mostly for the church of Santiago, where we can find the “Puerta del Perdón” (Forgiveness Gate), which opens only during Holy Years. Pope Calixtus III gave to sick or disabled pilgrims the privilege of getting the same indulgences when reaching this gate than if they had walked all the way to Santiago.
We can also visit the Santa María Collegiate Church, built on the old site of the Santa María de Cluniaco monastery, which belonged to the Order of Cluny. Other highlights are the church of San Francisco, with its mudejar decoration, and the “barrio de los Tejedores” (weavers’ neighbourhood), with its typical wooden galleries.
We can’t finish this text without talking about the food in El Bierzo. With two designations of origin -DO Bierzo and Reineta Apple-, three Guaranteed Brands -Conference Pear, Chestnuts y Cherries- and two european PGIs -Roaster Pepper of El Bierzo and Botillo-, this region offers a huge variety of products that can satisfy the most demanding consumers.
All pictures courtesy of Cardinalia Comunicación.
Traditionally, one of the highlights for any pilgrim that manages to finish the Camino is the visit to the Santiago cathedral: hugging the saint’s statue, assist the Pilgrim Mass and, perhaps, if one is lucky, watch the botafumeiro fly.
However, pilgrims who walk the Camino during these months should be advised that, due to the restoration works in the cathedral, some of these experiences won’t be taking place.
Since last January 28th, the masses and religious services that used to take place at the cathedral have been move to other churches in town. The Pilgrim’s Mass, for example, takes place now at the St. Francis Church, close to Plaza de Obradoiro (about 300 m. further). This also means that the botafumeiro will not be working during these months.
Please note that this doesn’t mean that the cathedral is closed. It still can be visited, and the pilgrims will still be able to enter it, visit the Saint’s crypt and the museum and admire the Pórtico de la Gloria. The only visit that remains closed is the one of the rooftops. The entrance to the cathedral should be done through the Puerta de Platerías, in the southern facade (next to the Fonte dos Cabalos).
Cathedral authorities say that this situation is expected to last about 12 months. For further information:
- Information about the masses in the Cathedral of Santiago.
- PDF with schedules and locations of the religious services that have been moved.
- Information about the visits to the Pórtico de la Gloria.
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.
Once the pilgrim has reached Santiago, (s)he has a series of mandatory rituals and places to visit: the cathedral, hugging the statue of the Saint, taking the proverbial picture in the plaza de Obradoiro… But Santiago is a city with lots of hidden treasures that are worthy of discovery, and today we will talk about one of them.
The monastery of San Martín Pinario, located close to the cathedral, is the second biggest one in Spain, and it was founded in the X Century by the benedictine order. The current building is from the XVI century, and is therefore of renaissance /baroque style.
One of the most spectacular elements is the church’s vault, with fake coffers. Another item of interest is the main altarpiece, designed in the XVIII century by Casas y Novoa (the same architect that created the Obradoiro facade of the cathedral), which shows Saint Martin (sharing his cape with a poor) and St. Millán de la Cogolla and Santiago fighting infidels.
An interesting anecdote is that the church’s towers rise only to the same height than the facade, due to the intervention of the cathedral chapter, which didn’t want towers higher than those of the cathedral itself.
Today the monastery hosts a museum of religious art, with an important collection of jewelery, sculptures and manuscripts.
We start the year in this blog talking about one of the elements most closely associated with the Compostela pilgrimage: the botafumeiro, the enormous incense burner (or thurible) in Santiago Cathedral that swings
What does “botafumeiro” mean?
The name “botafumeiro”, in galician language, means “smoke expeller”, though strictly speaking, a more correct expression would be “bota fume” or “fumeiro”.
Where does it come from?
The botafumeiro was installed in Santiago cathedral for the first time in the XIII or XIV century, in order to alleviate the odor caused by the masses of pilgrims that spent the night at the cathedral after their long voyage. Santiago wasn’t the only place with a similar device: in the past, the cathedrals of Orense, Zamora and Tuy also had their own botafumeiros. Nowadays, however, it’s only used in the latter in special occasions (and in Santiago, of course).
Through history, the temple has had four botafumeiros: the first one was used until 1530, when a new one was made of silver thanks to a donation from king Louis XI of France. This one, however, was stolen by the french troops during the Peninsular Wars in 1809, and it was replaced by a new one made of iron that was in comission until 1851, when the current one was built by José Losada, the same craftsman who made the urn where the remains of the apostle Santiago are kept.
What is the size of the botafumeiro?
The botafumeiro weights 80 kg. and measures 1.60 m. of height. Every time it’s used, it has to be filled with 40 kg. of charcoal and incense.
When the botafumeiro is used, seven “tirabuleiros” pull the ropes and make it swing, thanks to the elaborate system of pulleys in the cathedral. The botafumeiro swings for about 15 minutes, which is the time it takes for the priests to walk around the nave and aisles of the cathedral.
When can I see the botafumeiro?
The botafumeiro is used oficially during the opening and closing of the Holy Year of Jubilee, as well as in the most important religious celebrations. During the year 2016, these will be:
- Epiphany, Jan. 6.
- Easter (Resurrection Sunday).
- Feast of the Ascension.
- Apparition of the Apostle Santiago – Clavijo, May 23.
- Santiago Day, Jul. 25.
- Assumption of Mary, Aug. 15.
- All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1.
- Feast of Christ the King.
- Immaculate Conception, Dec. 8.
- Moving of the body of the Apostle Santiago, Dec. 30.
As we mentioned when talking about the church of Santa Maria de Eunate, there is a church in the nearby village of Olcoz with an almost identical portico. This unique fact in romanesque art has caused lots of legends to sprung around these two works; here we will recount one of them.
According to it, the portico in Santa Maria de Eunate was started by a master sculptor from the templar order, who after doing a large part of the work, had to leave for unspecified reasons. The local authorities called another local sculptor to finish the work, which he managed to do in only three days (according to some versions, this second sculptor was a giant, which would explain a lot, as we’ll see).
When the original sculptor came back from his voyage, he was angered by what he saw as an usurpation of his work. The local authorities challenged him then an identical portico in the same time that it took his substitute. Faced with such a challenge, the master had to resort to the black arts.
(Pictures courtesy of TaxNavarra).
It was the midsummer night (St. John’s day). Following the advice of a witch that lived close to the nearby river Nekeas, the master hid himself close to the river, and waited until a huge snake appeared. The snake left a moonstone that it was carrying on its mouth on the shore. The master waited until the snake had submerged into the river, then picked up the moonstone and ran away to the unworked portico, which was already raised in front of Eunate. He put the moonstone in a cup full of the river’s water, put the cup under the portico, and waited…
…And when the moon reached its apogee, the portico’s stones started taking by themselves the shapes of the sculptures, columns… that existed in the original portico, only reversed. The only problem happened when the second sculptor found out. Angered by the copy that his competitor had made in just one night, he kicked the portico with such force that it flew away from Eunate to Olcoz, where it is now…
And indeed, the current portico in Olcoz is almost identical to the one in Eunate, except that its features are reversed.
Throught the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim can find many religious monuments (churches, monasteries…), remains of the centuries of tradition and history originated in this route. Among them, however, the Monastery of San Millán de la Cogolla is special, since it holds the honor of being considered the birthplace of the Castilian language, the most spoken language in modern Spain.
The Monastery of Suso (one of the two existing monasteries in San Millán) was, in effect, the place where the “Glosas Emilianeses”, considered the first words written in Castilian (or at least a primitive version of it), were authored. These were notes written on the margin of latin codexes, in order to clarify words or expressions from the main text. Some of these comments were also written in a primitive version of the Basque language, so they can also be considered the oldest existing Basque text.
San Millán de la Cogolla was also the working place of Gonzalo de Berceo, considered the first literary writer in castillian. His main work, “Milagros de Nuestra Señora”, was a compilation of miracles attributed to the Virgin Mary written around 1260, and is considered as one of the first literary works written in Castilian.
Due to these reasons, the Monasteries of San Millán were declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1997.
Of all the monuments that the pilgrim can find along the Camino de Santiago (St. James Way), one of the most original is probably the Church of Saint Mary of Eunate, one of the greatest achievements of spanish romanesque architecture.
How to arrive.
Eunate is located 2 km. of Muruzábal, in Navarra. If you are following the Camino Francés, once you reach said town you can take a detour towards the church, instead of going straight to Obanos. Once in the church, you don’t need to backtrack to Muruzábal to go back to the Camino; you can follow the N6064 until you reach Obanos and Puente La Reina.
Why it is special.
The church of Eunate (one hundred doors, in the Basque language) is a romanesque construction from the 12th century, although there’s a lot still unknown about its origins. Since it’s outside the town, and archaeological excavations have found scallops (symbols of pilgrimage) in the burials alongside the church, it’s been speculated that it was used as a hospice for pilgrims.
(Pictures courtesy of TaxNavarra).
The most original feature in this building, aside of the arches that surround it, is its octagonal plan, extremely unusual in romanesque art. This plan, similar to that of other churches founded by the Knights Templar all across Europe, has caused all sort of theories and legends about its association with said military order, despite the lack of evidence.
The legend of Eunate and Olcoz.
Regarding this church and a similar one in the nearby town of Olcoz, there is an interesting legend, which we will recount at a later time…
One of the monuments that can be admired along the Camino is in the town of Navarrete (Logroño). Here we see the facade of the old San Juan de Acre’s pilgrim hospital, which was founded in 1185. The hospital was named after the city of Acre, located in the Middle East and used by the Knight Hospitallers of Malta as their base of operations during the Crusades.
In the XIXth century, given its state of disrepair, the old hospital ruins were demolished, and the facade was moved to the town’s cemetery, where it can be seen now.