21 Sep A Taste of the Camino de Santiago in Celtic Portugal and Spain
We waited at dawn, a thick curtain of fog hiding the arrival of a third person until he parted the mists right before us and stepped through, a fisherman just off his boat, holding two live octopuses in a bag.
“For the bus driver,” he said.
Oh, good, I thought. That meant we really had found the correct granite rock described by our hostess—the only landmark that marked the bus stop—to wait for our ride to the town of Noia. The town was named after Noah and his ark because that is where it first hit land, according to the residents of this outpost in northwestern Spain, Galicia, which is located just north of Portugal and has more in common with it, in language and culture, than with the rest of Spain. I could hear but not see the Atlantic lapping languidly nearby, a rare moment of calm along what is called the Costa da Morte, the coast of death.
This was my first time here. I had come to walk a portion of the famous pilgrimage road, the Camino de Santiago, across northern Spain, or in this case, up from Portugal along the coastal route, to the purported tomb of the apostle Saint James. Remote as it was, here we stood sandwiched among thick Celtic, Roman, and Biblical worlds that included Noah, James, and of course, Mary, for this was also matriarchal Iberia, where old cultural norms giving women more self-governance persisted in spite of the first patriarchs who tried to conquer it. In some villages still, the youngest daughter inherited the land and fishing boats. We were on different footing here.
We soon learned that the bus driver was married to the fisherman’s sister and that it was normal to hand off lunch, still puckering fresh, at dawn. He chuckled at my marveling at this and was just as curious about us. Why were we here on this outcropping of land jutting into the Atlantic, Santiago far inland to our right, Noia north overhead, and ocean, only ocean, to our left and south.
“We came up from Portugal,” I explained, “and were planning to head straight to Santiago de Compostela, but as our train passed Padrón, we leapt.” Padrón was also inland and to our right, but farther south of Santiago.
His eyebrows went up.
My husband, Miles, a fellow trekker into the unknown, and I had suddenly realized that Padrón, not Santiago, was where we needed to be, because the story really begins here, not there.
Saint James the Greater arrived in Galicia from Palestine by miraculous means via a stone boat with no sails guided by angels. He was “the Greater” to distinguish him as the physically bigger of the two James who made up Jesus’ top Twelve, the other known as James the Lesser. Big James was beheaded in AD 44 and soon after, his two favorite disciples rushed him to the boat that carried him to Padrón. Apparently he had come here in life to evangelize, shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion. Twice, when he was feeling low, Mary had miraculously appeared to him to encourage him, and one of those times had been not far from here.
Soon after mooring the boat to an old stone pillar fabled to belong to a temple dedicated to Neptune, James’ disciples had earned permission from the local Celtic queen to bury him on a sacred burial hill, today’s Santiago de Compostela.
Why, then, Miles and I had wondered, were so many pilgrims starting so far east at the Pyrenees? Our answer to this had been to get off the train along this Atlantic coastline. This seemed the best place to begin, where it had all began. We dusted our hems, and walked into town.
Like magic, we quickly found a place to stay in a pristine B&B that was run by an energetic matriarch who directed us to the center of town in time for the Spanish dinner hour, earlier in Galicia than farther south, at 9:30 pm. Soon we were seated in a sea of locals enjoying a dinner of food and wine grown and caught right there, nothing shipped or trucked in.
That night we had our first octopus ever, Galician style, boiled, legs cut into disks like sausage, and sprinkled with paprika and olive oil. There were sautéed tiny green peppers in olive oil called pimientos de Padrón, a local specialty thanks to an 18th-century monk who brought them back from South America and fiddled with them in the local earth. This was like eating Russian roulette, for ten percent of the peppers were hot and the other ninety percent sweet; you never knew which until you’d committed. Thick chewy rustic bread was at hand to tear and dip. And we sipped the special vintage from the local varietal, albariño, a sprightly, minerally white wine akin to (and sharing similar earth, climate, and air with) the nearby Portuguese vinho verde just on the other side of the border south of us. This was the food and wine that sustain fishermen and farmers, not to mention trekkers, surfers, kayakers, and pilgrims.
From Padrón, after paying homage to the Neptunian mooring post displayed under the church’s altar, we walked more deeply into the magical green hills and forested coastline of pilgrim and Celtic Iberia. Trails were not marked—or rarely existed—but locals guided us, and also helped us out with our diminishing supplies of food and drink. We saw no one else. We were beneficiaries of the deep kindness of remarkable strangers.
It was thanks to innkeepers who opened their summer-only inn just for us in early spring that we landed in this village with a rock for a bus stop. The proprietors also shared their evening meal, one that the husband had hauled in from the sea and the wife had plucked from their kitchen garden: grilled fish with boiled potatoes and roasted red peppers.
Two of Iberia’s most stunning Celtic settlements lay to our south, both likely over 2,300 years old: Santa Tecla in Spain (above the modern coastal town of A Guarda), and Citânia de Briteiros (north of the Douro river in Portugal). But everywhere, including a few kilometers north, across Galicia and northern Portugal, are thousands of castro sites—castro being the Spanish word for these Celtic fortresses. There are so many that the northwest is considered the heart of Celtic Iberia.
Not to be left out, later peoples also wanted a claim to the stunning sacred landscapes. As Romans and early Christians arrived, they wove the old local legends in with their newer ones. Many natives today consider the Camino de Santiago a pilgrimage that began with the Celts, and maybe even earlier, with Europe’s first farmers and herders some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago.
The bus arrived. The fisherman handed the octopuses over. They gave a brief kick of protest before settling into the nook on the left side of the driver’s dashboard. The two men did the manly thing in these parts and offered the customary two-cheek kisses, one on each side, asked after the family, and wished each other a good day.
We arrived in Noia. We did not find the ark but did discover an ancient seaside town ideal for lunch. Then onward we went to Santiago, a stunning jewel of a city of granite medieval buildings, arcaded passageways, and cobbled streets whose stones take on the colors of the rainbow after the frequent rain showers mingle with the sun. Archaeologists have confirmed that tombs dating to Celtic and Roman times rest under the cathedral; perhaps one really was James’.
That was my first journey into this magical land, so different and enchanting, made two decades ago. I have been back many times and continue to trek along many of the inland and ocean trails across the Iberian north. The only change is that the trails are clearer. The land and culture remain the same. The food and wine are still local and superb. The people are warm and welcoming. And beauty is everywhere you look.
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