- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2007


The botafumeiro, the 175-pound silver incense burner, swings from side to side across the altar through the transept of the enormous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, almost touching the vaulted ceiling. Far below, the officiating priests distribute the host to the worshippers, and a clear-voiced soprano sings “Jerusalem.” It’s an exquisite moment in time, a merging of medieval traditions and contemporary faith.

Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s northwestern province of Galicia was one of the three great pilgrim shrines of the Roman Catholic Church, third only to Rome and Jerusalem in importance.

According to legend, the Apostle James — Santiago — came to this remote corner of Spain known as Fisterra (land’s end) to evangelize the northern part of the Iberian peninsula. He returned to Judea, where he was beheaded.

It is said that two of his disciples placed his body in a stone boat that sailed miraculously without a pilot to the area where he had preached the gospel. In the year 813, a hermit followed a bright star and discovered the grave of the saint in a field. The town that grew around the discovery was called Santiago de Compostela, which may mean St. James of the Star Field or, in a more recent interpretation, St. James of the Cemetery, based on the Latin word “compositum,” or cemetery.

Since the ninth century, pilgrims have been arriving in Santiago to pay homage to the saint from what then were far away places such as Poland, Ireland and Turkey. The northern routes merged in France and continued over the Pyrenees across Galicia to Santiago. The southern routes crossed Spain, and one came north through Portugal.

The first pilgrim is said to have been Charlemagne, who died in 814. During the Middle Ages, between 1.5 and 2 million pilgrims crossed the Pyrenees each year to pay homage to St. James. Many carried a long staff and wore the traditional cape and hat adorned with the scallop shell, the symbol of the saint.

Pilgrimages continue to be made on foot, on horseback or by bicycle. Pilgrims receive a document at the beginning of their journey, which is stamped at various points along the road. Once Santiago is reached, the office near the cathedral will issue a certificate attesting to the completion of the 62.4-mile pilgrimage. Along the various paths, government-run hostels offer free lodging, each indicated by the scallop shell.

We followed — in a minivan — the less traveled Portuguese route beginning in Porto, Portugal’s second city, through green hills and valleys, across river estuaries and into medieval stone towns. We didn’t earn a document, but it was an exciting experience nonetheless.

Porto is on the mouth of the Douro River, which runs from Spain west to the Atlantic Ocean. The Romans built a fort there and called their settlements on either side of the river Portus and Cale, which later became Portucale, hence Portugal.

Porto gave its name to the wine made famous by the British who added brandy to keep the wine from spoiling on its journey from Portugal to England.

Porto’s upper town, where the cathedral is located, is a charming combination of 19th-century and art-nouveau buildings with occasional modern structures. The colorful two-story Bolhao market is in this part of town, as is the Sao Bento railway station, with blue and white azulejos — tiles — depicting early modes of transportation.

Many of Porto’s buildings are covered with tiles, not only in the traditional blue and white but in other colors and various patterns as well, a craft that was brought to the Iberian peninsula by the Moors and continued after their expulsion. Tiles require little maintenance, and many 20th-century houses were tiled rather than painted.

One of Porto’s contemporary buildings is the stunning new Casa da Musica, its multifaceted exterior constructed of brilliant white concrete. The interior spaces — two concert halls with extraordinary acoustics, rehearsal rooms, recording studios, restaurants and bars, a documentation center and a cyber music space — are color-coded to reflect the use of the space.

Near the Atlantic Ocean beach, the Serralves Foundation includes a modern structure and a 1930s art deco building in a leafy park. Changing exhibits focus on trends in contemporary art; the museum shop sells some lovely objects and jewelry. The gardens are sprinkled with amusing contemporary sculptures, including a huge trowel by American artist Claes Oldenburg.

Beyond the museum on the seashore stands the stern St. Francis Xavier fortress, nicknamed the Cheese Castle by the native Tripeiros (tripe eaters). Tripeiros are playing cards on the beach below on a windy afternoon; fishermen try their luck in the wild waves; and an occasional solitary couple shivers on the sand. The road along the coast is a popular promenade on summer afternoons and evenings when the many cafes and restaurants are frequented by locals and tourists.

The Ribeira is the lower town quarter on the river; the fish restaurants favored by the Tripeiros are along the bank of the Douro. Salt cod, prepared in a number of ways, is the favorite. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but it’s the national dish of Portugal.

The winding streets and colorful squares with narrow houses make the Ribeira a delight. Across the bridge, designed by an assistant to Gustave Eiffel, lie the numerous port lodges where visitors are welcome to sample the fortified wine that takes its name from the city.

We left Porto, deviating a little from the direct route to Santiago, to drive up into the Douro Valley to visit the region where the grapes for port and the excellent Douro red and white wines are cultivated.

The Douro Valley also produces olive oil and cork. The vineyards are terraced on the steep hillsides bordering the Douro, so named for the golden reflections on the water. Grapes are still stomped by barefooted women during the weekend wine festivals at the end of September and the beginning of October.

Nestled in the terraced hills are the wine estates (fincas), many of which have been turned into country hotels. Lunchtime found us at the delightful Casa Nova with its 1750 manor house, charming guest rooms, modern swimming pool and lunch al fresco, followed by a bout of grape picking. Lunch included the ubiquitous fried cod, a typical dish of rice and beans, and jam made of the red touriga grapes. Wine, olive oil, almonds and ham are products of Casa Nova.

Back on the road to Santiago, we stopped in the charming little town of Amarante. Sampling sweet almond- and egg-yolk-based pastries — the whites were said to be used by the nuns to whiten their wimples — and excellent espresso in the Hotel Casa da Calcada, we watched the rain fall gently on the old stone bridge and graceful 16th-century church dedicated to Sao Goncalo, patron saint of marriage and fertility. Set in one of the bridge’s obelisks is a memorial stone commemorating Amarante’s stand against Napoleon’s army in 1809.

On our way to Guimaraes, we pass the Casa de Mateus, the manor house depicted on the labels of bottles of Mateus rose. Guimaraes lies in the area between the Douro and the Minho rivers. The Celts settled in the region in the first millennium B.C.; the Romans introduced viniculture in the second century B.C.

It is in the Minho region that Portugal’s crisp vinho verde (literally “green wine” but actually red, rose or white, sometimes with a green tinge) is produced. Curiously, many of the grapevines in this area grow vertically up on trees rather than horizontally.

The Minho area is said to be the birthplace of Portugal; Guimaraes, where Portugal’s first king, Afonso Henriques, was born, was the first capital. Guimaraes has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The decisive battle that led to the creation of Portugal in 1128 took place within sight of Guimaraes’ 12th-century castle.

Leading from the large medieval square in the center of town, the narrow streets retain a medieval flavor. Many of the houses have flower-bedecked balconies.

The Portuguese used chestnuts as a starch staple until potatoes arrived in the 18th century. Wonderful dark and chewy Portuguese bread accompanied our main dishes, and a local bakery supplied delicious custardlike tarts.

At the time of the Roman conquest, some of the most important roads passed through present-day Braga. Since Roman times, the town has been an important commercial and religious center, although a single 14th-century tower is all that remains of earlier fortifications.

Barcelos is the town where the symbol of Portugal originated: the ceramic rooster with his bright red coxcomb. According to local legend, a Galician pilgrim was accused of stealing and condemned to the gallows. He proclaimed his innocence to the judge, who was just sitting down to a dinner of a fine roast cockerel.

The pilgrim insisted that to prove his innocence the rooster would stand up in the plate and crow. The judge scoffed and the pilgrim was taken off to be hanged. Just as he was fitted with the noose, the rooster did as the pilgrim foretold and the judge interceded.

The brightly painted ceramic roosters (as well as live ones) are on sale at the large Thursday market in the center of town. Almost anything can be bought at the market: fruit, vegetables, handmade linens, crafts, live poultry, clothing, wooden shoes, flowers, notions and straw baskets. In one corner of the square stands a small church with blue and white tiles illustrating the life of St. Benedict. Of note are angels with six toes.

At the beginning of each May, Barcelos’ Festa das Cruzes — festival of the crosses — celebrates the miraculous vision of a 14th-century cobbler who saw a cross etched in the ground. The festival includes flowers strewn in the streets, fireworks, displays of folk costumes and a colorful religious procession in which large crosses are carried through the streets.

Festivals are popular throughout the year in towns and villages of northern Portugal. In Miranda do Douro near the Spanish border, stick dancers (pauliteiros) perform at fiestas using wooden sticks in lieu of what probably once was a sword. In another village, witty papier-mache giants lead the Assumption Day parade. Flamboyant fringed costumes and outlandish masks sporting Pinocchio-like noses are worn by village boys during the Christmas season in several northern villages.

After skirting the 16-arch Roman bridge in Ponte de Lima, we reached the Atlantic coast at the mouth of the Lima River at Viana do Castelo, an important fishing center in the 15th century from where the great Portuguese explorers of the Congo and the fishing grounds of Newfoundland sailed. It is a town of imposing Renaissance and baroque mansions. Viana’s 14th-century cathedral and the Gothic former town hall are along the Praca da Republica, the central square.

Viana is famous for the delicate gold filigree work of its jewelers; brides there traditionally wore black wedding dresses adorned with numerous gold necklaces.

Spanish Galicia is more akin to Portugal than to the rest of Spain. Its dialect resembles Portuguese, and the food and culture are similar, as is the landscape. The inhabitants trace their roots to the Celts, and bagpipes are the traditional instrument.

The Minho River forms a border between the two countries, which often waged war during the Middle Ages. On the Portuguese side, the fortress at Valenca do Minho guards against Spanish attacks, while on the other side of the bridge, the hillside town of Tui has a cathedral fortress as protection against the Portuguese.

Today, the fortresses elicit chuckles rather than arrows and boiling oil. The 1866 iron bridge across the Minho joining the two countries is another Gustave Eiffel creation.

The road to Santiago enters Spain at Tui, an ancient Roman colony known as Tude. It’s a charming small town with steep streets tumbling down to the river. Arrows painted on the houses point the way to Santiago. Two museums, one specializing in archaeology and the other in sacred art, stand within the shadows of the cathedral, which was built over Celtic ruins.

Not far from Tui, on Monte Santa Tecla outside the little fishing port of A Guarda (famous for its sweet lobsters), lie the fascinating ruins of a pre-Roman Celtic village. The castro includes about 100 dwellings dating from 600 to 200 B.C. It was inhabited until A.D. the fourth century. One stone hut has been reconstructed to give visitors an idea of what the village looked like.

Cruceiros — stone crosses representing the stations of the cross — are found on a nearby hill and throughout Galicia. At the top of the hill, a small museum, several cafes and stalls sell colorful witches in all sizes.

One of Christopher Columbus’ three ships, the Pinta, returned from the New World to the small town of Baiona in 1493 with the first news of the discovery of America; a replica of the ship lies at anchor in Baiona’s harbor.

On a promontory north of the harbor stands the imposing royal fortress of Castelo de Monterreal. Inside the fortress walls is the Parador de Baiona, a hotel and restaurant serving Galician specialties. The paradors of Spain are state-run hotels in historic buildings.

The road to Santiago goes through the town of Pontevedra on the Pontevedra estuary. It’s a typical old Galician town with narrow, arcaded streets, small squares and a fine museum with an excellent collection of Bronze Age artifacts.

Nearby is the fishing village of Combarro with its many distinctive horreos, which resemble the raised tombs of New Orleans but are actually raised stone granaries, each decorated with a cross and a pyramid, the ancient symbol of fertility. The granaries are built above ground to prevent humidity and rats from spoiling the grain.

O Grove is another colorful fishing village. From the port, visitors can take a glass-bottomed boat out to the mussel platforms in the Arousa estuary. Long ropes, to which baby mussels have been attached, descend from the platforms into the water. The mussels are harvested when they reach full size.

The boats stop next to one of the platforms, allowing passengers to get a close-up view of the mussel-covered ropes below the surface of the water. A highlight of the excursion is a feast of huge platters of steamed mussels and plastic cups of delicious light white wine or soft drinks.

Finally we approach Santiago, passing the town of Cambados, home of one of Spain’s best white wines and site of a festival dedicated to the albarino grape on the first Sunday in August.

Our pilgrimage concludes as we approach the magnificent cathedral, built in the 11th through the 13th century on the site of a ninth-century basilica. On its west side are the two great baroque towers; below, just inside the Portico de la Gloria — the sculpted Doorway of Glory on the west side — stands the marble column of Santo dos Croques (Saint of the Bumps), topped by a sculpture of the Apostle James.

Modern pilgrims line up to place their fingers in a niche and touch their foreheads to the column three times for fortune and wisdom.

The square in front of the cathedral, known as Praza do Obradoiro, named for the stonecutters who worked there, is an ensemble of extraordinary historic buildings. Across from the cathedral is the 18th-century building that houses the town hall; on the north side is the magnificent Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, begun in 1499 as an inn and hospital for sick pilgrims and now one of Spain’s most luxurious paradors; on the south side is the College of San Jeronimo.

Beginning 10 days before the feast day of St. James on July 25, the town celebrates with exhibitions, theatrical productions, concerts and street fairs. On the 25th, the square is filled with tourists and townspeople admiring the display of fireworks to the sound of the traditional bagpipes. Years when July 25 falls on a Sunday are declared holy years, the next being 2010.

Behind the cathedral is one of the oldest monasteries in Santiago, the Convento de San Palo de Antealtares, founded in the ninth century. It once housed the tomb of St. James, but the saint’s relics now lie in the cathedral. From the roof of the cathedral, visitors can enjoy a magnificent view of the red-roofed town.

Santiago is a lively university town. The narrow arcaded streets are filled with shops selling souvenirs, pilgrims’ attire, jewelry and fashionable clothing. Cafes and restaurants abound. In the restaurant windows, tanks of octopuses attract fascinated children; pretty girls with trays of sweets and cheeses stand in shop doorways with samples.

A typical cheese is the tetilla gallega, made with milk from the Rubia gallega, Galicia’s blond cows. The pyramid-shaped cheese with a little nipple on top has a straw-colored rind and a delicious creamy, slightly nutty interior.

The cuisine of Galicia is renowned for its fish, especially shellfish. Octopus, grilled with olive oil and paprika, is a tasty delight. Delicate lobsters — smaller than our Maine lobsters — are the principal ingredient of luscious Galician paella. Scallops are served in their shells. The Gallegos, like the Tripeiros, revel in cod.

Throughout the year, northern Portugal and Galicia offer a visitor unspoiled national parks; beautiful beaches; intriguing small towns and villages; countless festivals, both religious and secular; megalithic remains and prehistoric petroglyphs; Roman structures; excellent wines and good food. Galicia is a land of mixtures: genealogical, cultural and historical. To wander through it is a delight whether as part of a pilgrimage or just as a visitor. Be sure to catch a glimpse of the botafumeiro in motion, although it’s no longer essential to perfume the church in the presence of hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.

TAP, the Portuguese airline, flies nonstop from Newark, N.J., to Porto on certain days of the week. Iberia, the Spanish airline, flies from New York to Madrid, with a connecting flight to Santiago.

Hotel Infante Sagres, Porto; 351/223 398 500. The hotel has a splendid lobby; well-appointed bathrooms and pleasant rooms, albeit somewhat in need of refurbishment. It’s the only five-star hotel in the center of Porto.

Hotel Rural Viscondes da Varzea Lamego, Portugal; 351/254 690 020. This large country hotel, set in a vineyard, is delightful. Rooms are large and very comfortable. Everything in the hotel is for sale. Good kitchen.

Casa da Calcada Hotel, Amarante, Portugal; 351/255 410 830. A beautifully appointed, elegant hotel in a charming small town. Excellent kitchen and access to a golf course.

Hotel Balneario de Mondariz, Mondariz Balneario (Pontevedra), Spain; 34/986 656 156. The remodeled old-fashioned hotel is part of a spa complex in a small town. Rooms are large, somewhat on the functional side; bathrooms are equally large with plenty of hot water.

Hotel NH Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela, Spain; 34/981 558 070. A modern hotel with very comfortable, well-appointed rooms, about a 15-minute walk from the center of town but across the street from a new arts center and convention hall.

Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, Santiago de Compostela; 34/981 582 200. The hotel, on the main square in Santiago, is one of Spain’s most elegant paradors. Rooms are beautifully decorated, and the public rooms are splendid. The parador has two restaurants, one of which is informal.

Information on Portugal, www.visit portugal.com and www.pousadas.pt; on Spain, www.spain.info, www.turgalicia.es and www.parador.es; for excursions to mussel platforms, go to www.cruceros doulla.com.

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