Northern Spain, Asturian Coast and Ribadesella

Cantabria Coastline Beach

The Beaches of Asturias…

This was the final stage of the long journey and we kept stubbornly to the coast road and took our time as we stopped off regularly at beaches along the way.

The first that we came to was just outside of the town of Llanes and we took the road which swooped down to Playa de Toro which translates as the beach of bulls and although I can find no explanation for this  I assumed that it was on account of the natural sculptures, little pronounced pinnacles – rocky outcroppings leaping up out of the caramel sand, skeletal survivors of the erosion action of the sea on calcareous rock and which, with a little imagination could be said to resemble a herd of black bulls charging into the surf.

At the back of the beach only a few kilometres away the Cantabrian mountains soared into the sky and as they did they collected all of the clouds that were sweeping in from the sea and here their progress was stalled like traffic at a motorway incident and they joined together in a sort of cloud congestion that grew darker and darker and obscured the peaks of the natural barrier between land and sea.

By contrast it was very sunny down on the beach and we wandered along the shoreline and watched the incoming tide before resting a while at a beach side restaurant and sat outside with diners who were tucking into the menu del dia.  We were tempted to join them but our plan was to eat in mid afternoon in preparation for the journey home so we resisted and carried on.

Lets Go Fly A Kite…

As we drove west the beaches on the Cantabrian coast come thick and fast and we stopped to admire the Playa de San Antonin where Atlantic breakers rolled in one after another and where surfers were practising the moves and then came across a beach, the name of which I carelessly forgot to find out where there was a gathering and an event and what looked like a thousand kites being flown in the sky.

We turned into the car park and walked along the sand and the grassy headland and admired the range of kites on display from the simple things that I remember from my boyhood holidays (two bits of wood, some plastic and string) to some very complex exhibits which I assume required great skill to keep up in the air.  I was glad that we had stumbled upon this because it was one of those Spanish festivals/events which includes all of the family and is quite unlike anything in the UK.

Cantabria Kite Flying Beach

All of a sudden time was ticking by quite quickly and it was getting close to our intended lunch stop so we left the hobby kite fliers and continued on to the seaside town of Ribadesella and found a parking spot in a strangely solumbulant Saturday afternoon town where boats rested in the water and the seafood restaurants were serving unhurried food to relaxed diners and there was a lazy ambiance as we strolled along the harbour street looking for a restaurant.

There were a number to select from but as the sun was shining and this might well have been the best weather of the entire week we wanted to find a table in the sun and we had to walk practically the entire length of the harbour to find one.  Tables in the sun are generally free because local diners prefer the shade and this was no exception as we settled ourselves down for lunch.

We choose the four course menu del dia which turned out to be wonderful and we sat and ate and shared the bottle of red wine and reflected on our journey.  It had been an excellent week and we had enjoyed every place that we had visited.  Castilla y León is not the most attractive region in Spain but it is encrusted with the jewels of the cities that stand out like diamonds and more than compensate for the dreary landscape and we had enjoyed our itinerary which took us through most of Spain’s largest Autonomous Community.

After lunch we walked through the streets of the town but our visit had clearly coincided with the afternoon siesta and many places were closed and those that were open were not very enthusiastic about receiving customers so after a walk through the town and a last look at the harbour we returned to the car and headed for the Autovia del Cantabria for the very final stretch of our drive.

The road took us south of the industrial towns of Gijón and Avilés we sped past without stopping, filled the hire car with fuel and then made our way back to the airport and the late evening flight home to London Stansted.

Ribadasella Cantabria SpainAsturias Postcard

 

 

Northern Spain – Cantabrian Coast, Comillas and Gaudi

Comillas Cantabria

Cantabria, Mountains and Coastline…

Although the forecast was poor the weather by contrast was better than expected and there was a clear blue sky with just a few wispy clouds and from the museum car park it was possible to see the sea only a few hundred metres away.  We drove out of the village on a road that climbed quickly and at the top we were overawed by a sight that we were not prepared for.  At a distance of about fifty kilometres we could see the two thousand five hundred metre high peaks of the Picos de Europa which remained snow capped and glistening white in the mid morning sun.

We headed towards the coast road and enjoyed the dramatic contrast of the Atlantic Ocean to our left and the lush green meadows of the hills to the right with the snow drizzled mountains in the near distance.   We were heading for the town of Comillas but stopped several times to admire the power of the sea as great waves rolled in and fizzed onto and through the caramel sand and caressed the random rocks littering the beaches.

I had always thought of Spain as a Mediterranean country but closer inspection of the map shows that a third of the Country’s coastline is along the much more dramatic Atlantic Ocean and the Cantabrian coast is over two hundred kilometres of panoramic beaches, hidden coves tucked into the pleats of the cliffs, green headlands and little towns where fishing boats shelter below harbour cafés.

Comillas, Cantabria…

In the high summer Comillas is a very busy seaside town but it is a lot quieter in May and there was plenty of room in the car park to park the car.  We walked across the pristine blue flag beach washed scrupulously clean by the strong tides and then towards the little harbour with a handful of colourful little fishing boats lying lop-sided as though recovering from a heavy night out on the San Miguel and sheltering behind the strong granite walls.  The tide was coming in quickly and as we watched the harbour began to fill with water and one by one the little boats sprang into life as the sea lifted them off of the mud and they began to dance on the water.

Gaudii Capricho ComillasAntoni Gaudi and me

Comillas is a declared historic/artistic site that in the nineteenth century was once popular with the Spanish nobility who built many fine buildings and mansions here and is picturesque enough to get it hovering near to any top ten list of best small towns in Spain (ok, there are a lot of these lists so it isn’t difficult to pop up now and again in one or another of them).

El Capricho, Gaudi in Cantabria…

Before we left we drove into the old town where there were some fascinating buildings but none better than a rare example of the work of  Antoni Gaudi outside of Barcelona, a mansion called El Capricho complete with a signature tile clad tower, playful ceramic sunflowers and whimsical images of animals playing instruments.

It was built in 1883 for a nobleman who wanted an exotic villa in an oriental style and the really significant fact is that this was Gaudi’s very first commission.  There was a €7 admission charge which was a bit of a shock but having walked all the way through the town to find the place we went through with the transaction and made the visit to the house and the gardens and we were glad that we did.  Kim may have got tired of towers, castles and cathedrals but she remains comfortable with palaces and Gaudi it seems.

So far today the only disappointing thing was the weather which remained rather dreary but as we left El Capricho the sky began to brighten and the temperature leapt a degree or two and we took the opportunity to walk through the historical centre and the flower filled Plaza Mayor and alongside the fish restaurants that were already preparing for lunch time business but being too early for food we moved on and continued our final journey.

San Vicente De La Barquera…

When we reached the motorway we headed promptly west again and in a very short time we were in the fishing town of San Vicente De La Barquera where there was an interesting castle and an old town that stretched from the headland to the church of Santa María de los Ángeles and which enjoyed magnificent views over a busy river estuary to the mountains beyond and a good view too of the Maza Bridge, with its twenty-eight arches, which was built on the orders of the Spanish Catholic Monarchs in the sixteenth century.

Shortly after leaving San Vicente De La Barquera we crossed the Ría de Tina Mayor estuary and crossed out of Cantabria and back into Asturias.

Cantabria 008

More posts about Antoni Gaudi:

Catalonia, Barcelona and Antoni Gaudi

Alternative Twelve Treasures of Spain – Antoni Gaudi

Twelve Treasures of Spain, La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Casa Batlló, Barcelona

Park Guell, Barcelona

Northern Spain – The Caves at Altimira

Santillana del Mar in the rain

“I visited the Cave of Altamira while traveling in Europe with two friends in 1968.  Once inside, I was of course in awe, not only of the age of the paintings, but also of the delicacy and skill with which they had been executed. I think we tend to look down on our distant ancestors as primitive and stupid, but cave paintings like those at Altamira remind us that they were not.”                         Susan (Washington) – Blogger

On the final morning of our visit to Santillana del Mar the weather proved to be a disappointment, I could hear rain on the window as I started to stir and when I did the weather check I could only report back that the sky was grey and it was drizzling.

At breakfast our host confirmed the worst and informed us that the forecast was gloomy all day so we decided that it was probably a good day to go and do something undercover and perhaps visit a museum.

After breakfast we settled up and said goodbye and took the road out of Santillana Del Mar and then followed signposts to the Altamira museum on the edge of the town.   I wasn’t expecting a great deal to be honest so was surprised to find a very big car park and a large building built into the hills.  I was about to learn about something else that I was completely unaware of – Cantabria is the richest region in the world in archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (that’s the Stone Age to you and me).  The most significant cave painting site is the cave of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9000 BC and declared, with another nine Cantabrian caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Well, you learn something new every day it seems!

Altimira cave painting

Around thirteen thousand years ago a rockfall sealed the cave entrance preserving its contents until its eventual discovery which was caused by a nearby tree falling and disturbing the fallen rocks.  The really good bit about the story is that it wasn’t discovered by Howard Carter, Tony Robinson or Indiana Jones but by a nine year old girl who came across them while playing in the hills above the town in 1879.  Her father was an amateur archaeologist called Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and he was led by his daughter to discover the cave’s drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin.

So well preserved were the paintings however that there ensued an argument about authenticity and some believed the whole thing to be a hoax and it wasn’t until 1902 that they were eventually accepted as genuine.

We paid the modest entrance fee of €2.40 and went into the museum, which turned out to be a real treasure with interesting displays about the Stone Age, or the Paleolithic period if you prefer, with the highlight of the visit being a full size recreation of the original cave and its precious paintings.  Today it is only possible to see this copy because the actual cave is now closed to vistors.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the damp breath of large numbers of visitors and smoke from Fortuna cigarettes and Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened with only very limited access in 1982.

altamira[1]

Very few visitors are allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list.  It would be nice to go into the actual cave but actually the replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works and also includes some sculptures of human faces that cannot be accessed in the real thing.

And, let me tell you, these people were really good painters.  The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often scratching or diluting these dyes to produce variances in intensity and creating an impression of remarkable and sophisticated contrasts and they also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give a three-dimensional effect to their subjects.

The painted ceiling is the most impressive feature showing a herd of bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe and a wild boar.  Other images include horses, goats and hand prints created from the artist placing his hand on the cave wall and spraying paint over it leaving a negative image of his palm.

Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain palaeolithic art but none is as advanced or as famous as Altamira.

The entrance to the real cave is not so impressive however…

Entrance to the cave of Altamira

Northern Spain – Santillana del Mar

Santillana de Mar Cantabria

“Le plus joli village d’Espagne”  Jean Paul Sartre

Having visited Santillana del Mar once before, we were fairly confident of the directions and we arrived in the town and made our way to the free car park at the edge of the medieval centre. This place is overwhelmed by visitors in peak season and is entirely pedestrianised but it was quiet today and the summer restrictions didn’t appear to apply quite so rigidly but even so I wasn’t prepared to risk a fine so we then carried on by foot into the labyrinth of streets into the centre.

Santillana del Mar is a most picturesque town and often appears in any top ten of best villages in Spain along with Cudillero, Almagro, Ronda, Trujillo and Alcala de Henares.  This may of course have something to do with the fact that the French writer, philosopher and all-round clever dick, Jean Paul Sartre declared it to be the prettiest village in Spain in 1938, although I am not absolutely sure just how much of Spain he visited and just what he was comparing it with or how he came to this rather sweeping judgement.  Perhaps it was just a lucky guess!

Actually, I might be inclined to agree with him because the route to our hotel took us along uneven cobbled streets past yellow stone buildings with terracotta pantile roofs, stone walls, hidden gardens and tempting twisting alleys.  I may have been inclined to follow them but Kim wasn’t because, and I have to agree with her, it was a bit of a chore dragging our luggage over the bumpy surface and it made sense to go directly to our accommodation.

The Hotel Altimira was a delightful old seventeenth century grand house with stone walls, wooden floors and creaky rustic furniture and, unlike in Burgos, we were allocated a room at the front with a stone balcony and iron balustrade which allowed excellent views in both directions along the main street.

Santillana del Mar Spain

It was mid to late afternoon and we were both rather hungry so we went straight away to a restaurant that we had used previously, the Castilla, selected some tapas dishes and waited for service – and waited and waited and waited!  I realise that it was the end of the lunch time shift and the staff were looking forward to a short break but these guys were really rude and showed no enthusiasm to serve us.  As a result we abandoned the idea of food and a single drink and moved on.

Santillana is not an especially large town and there are only a couple of streets running from top to bottom so we walked slowly to the bottom of the town past half timbered houses and stone colonnades and to the well at the very bottom outside the Church of the Colegiata with its crumbling stone facade and slightly neglected appearance.  There is apparently an old saying that Santillana del Mar is The Town of Three Lies, since it is neither a Saint (Santo), nor flat (llana) and has no sea (Mar) as implied by the town’s name. However, the name actually derives from Santa Juliana (or Santa Illana) whose remains are in the kept in the Colegiata, a Romanesque church and former Benedictine monastery.

From the outside the church is a Romanesque masterpiece, squat but elegant, grey but welcoming, informal but grand, austere but inviting with weathered sandsone walls and sinewy arcades where it is easy to imagine merchants conducting business before worship

We had visited the church on our last visit and as there was an entrance fee we declined the opportunity for a return and walked instead around the back and towards the edge of the town past more grand villas, grand wooden doors and weathered stone statues and when we had reached the very edge of the town we walked back along a road that ran parallel and returned us to the Plaza Mayor and the small town museum which we visited largely on account of the fact that there was free admission.

Finding a shop was the next priority and this was quite difficult.  I was beginning to despair that we wouldn’t find one but eventually we came across a mini-market just outside the town centre and took possession of a bottle of red wine and some San Miguel and with essential supplies secured returned to the room.

An hour or so later as we were preparing to go out for dinner there was suddenly a lot of happy music from somewhere outside and it was clear that it was getting closer.  From our balcony we could see a gathering of people and a fun band of musicians in blow up suits advancing along the street and right underneath our window.  I have no idea what it was all about but the music was nice and the children all seemed to be enjoying the festival atmosphere.

There was now a debate about evening meal and whether or not we should return to the Castilla but we eventually decided to forgive them for their bad manners earlier in the afternoon and we returned for dinner and we were glad that we did because the food was excellent, the service first class and the atmosphere perfect.

As it turned out the room on the front of the Hotel Altimira was rather noisy on account of looking out over the street and the wooden floorboards which creaked every time someone in the hotel turned over in bed but it didn’t matter at all, it was a charming place and we were glad to be there.

Next morning the weather was disappointing again and it reminded me of childhood holidays to Wales or Norfolk – grey skies and anoraks.  Kim upset the breakfast staff over the issue of hot water that wasn’t hot – in Spain there is a general failure to understand how important this is to a proper cup of tea and so after the meal and with a promise of better weather to the west we checked out of the hotel and began our final drive along the Cantabrian coast and back to Asturias airport.

Church Santillana del Mar

 

Northern Spain – Mountain Drive, Burgos to Cantabria

Cantabria Road Hazard

Not long after leaving Burgos and as we travelled north the landscape began to change.  Only gradually at first and then more rapidly as we approached the snow capped Cantabrian Mountains.

The endless brown prairies of Castilla y León started to slowly give way to enclosed green fields of Cantabria and now there were ridges and escarpments each one playing host to a clutch of wind turbines.  There was livestock in the fields as we began to climb, gently at first and then more dramatically into the mountains.

After an hour or so we left the main road and took a minor route into the mountains where the fields became smaller, the grass became greener and the sky seemed a great deal closer as we drove past verges of wild flowers sheltering under the dry stone walls, soaring buzzards and occasional herds of the horses of Cantabria.  We climbed high into the clouds, way above the snow line with strips of ice clinging defiantly to the crevices where the sun doesn’t reach and stopping frequently to enjoy the stunning views stretching away in all directions as we reached the highest point of our drive at one thousand two hundred and sixty metres.

There was a price to pay for these grand views and that was the temperature which dropped so dangerously close to zero that Kim made a change of clothes into something much warmer and more appropriate for the prevailing conditions.

At the very top the grey clouds were crawling like a contagion over the mountain tops and then as quickly as we had started to climb we started to descend through a succession of sweeping theatrical bends where bubbling waterfalls twisted and roared down every narrow gorge and overhead there was a canopy of swaying emerald which parted just now and again to let the sunlight through and allow views of the mountain peaks wearing their lace bonnets of cloud.

The road kept dropping in a dramatic fall, through hairpin bends, alongside vertiginous drops to certain death in the river valley below and adjacent to soaring grey mountains and constant warnings of rock falls and debris in the road and this wasn’t the only danger because, although there was an absence of traffic we frequently found ourselves competing for road space with local farm livestock which thankfully announced their presence with a loud clanging cow bell.

Valle de Cabuérniga Cantabria Spain

Eventually the road began to level out and we followed the route of a river valley, the Valle de Cabuérniga with the River Argoza carving its relentless way through the hills as we made for our first stop of the day, the Cantabrian mountain village of Bárcena Mayor which is a village nestled in the mountains and the only residential community within the beech wood nature reserve of Saja.

It is said to be the oldest town in Cantabria and was declared a historic-artistic site in 1979.  Because of this designation it is now one of the most visited places in Cantabria as tour buses fill the road and the edge of town car park but it was quiet enough today and we walked through the pretty medieval stone streets and houses with wooden balconies and washing lines in a hanging mist which added to the character and the charm of the place.

We left Bárcena Mayor just as the intrusive tour buses started to arrive and spill their passengers into the narrow streets and then carried on to our second village visit at Carmona sitting in an impossibly attractive natural fold in the landscape surrounded by lush green fields and with a stunning backdrop of the Pico de Europa.

Carmona was rather similar to Bárcena Mayor except there was a bit more activity in the tiny cobbled streets with wild flower verges and where sunlight spilled into the dark  corners of the workshops where traditional wood carvers were busy making customary products of cattle yokes, sandals, clogs, canes, and cutlery which, I am told, are distinctive to rural Cantabria and I say that in a slightly cynical way because I got the impression that there isn’t really a great deal of tradition here and that whilst a man was busy whittling wood in an open barn for the benefit of the tourists there was probably a factory somewhere full of drills and lathes where the products for sale were being produced as the villagers were taking advantage of the new roads that brought the visitors to the once isolated communities.

I liked these little stone villages but not that much that I wanted to stay all afternoon and after we had walked through the streets, admired the wooden merchandise and dodged the free roaming dogs we returned to the car and made our way to our final overnight stop at the town of Santillana del Mar.

Carmona Cantabria Spain

 

Northern Spain – The Plaza Mayor and an Updated Top Ten

Cities of Castilla y Leon

Tomorrow we would be returning to the coast in Cantabria and so now we had come to end of our drive through Castilla y León and our visit to the main cities although, and I apologise for this, we had missed out Soria.

It would have been just too much of a detour as we came to the end of our travels but I have promised to go back one day and apologise for this rudeness because Soria has one of the most bizarre festivals in Spain where once a year local men demonstrate their faith and fearlessness (stupidity) by walking over red hot coals!

We had visited a lot of new cities and it was time now to reassess our top ten list of favourite Plaza Mayors.  The more places we visit the more difficult this becomes so I have now extended this list from five to ten and introduced two categories – cities and towns.

Salamanca Plaza Mayor

The Plaza Mayor is arguably the most important part of a Spanish town or city and I really cannot think of an equivalent in the United Kingdom where we have public squares but use them in an entirely different way – all day drinking, littering and anti-social behaviour.

In Spain the Plaza Mayor is the place where people meet, relax and enjoy themselves; it is generally flanked with shops and restaurants and usually has the town hall and the main church somewhere close by.  This is the beating heart of a Spanish community and when we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a glass of wine and complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the town and its people.

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Castilla-La Mancha

In the search for real Spain (not the coasts and the Costas), in the past five years, we have visited and enjoyed dozens of Plaza Mayors; Madrid, the largest, Salamanca, the second largest, Toledo, next to its towering cathedral and the tiled Plaza de España in Seville.  We liked them all and we began now to compile a list with a view to choosing our favourites.

We considered Ávila,  Mérida and ValladolidCáceres and Santiago de CompostellaOviedo and León  but after a lively debate weighing up the pros and cons and putting forward the case for each one in turn we finally agreed on the top five in each category but could not reach consensus on the actual order.

Valladolid Spain

First the cities:  Segovia in Castilla y Leon because of the Cathedral and the architecture and the little streets running away from it like spokes from a wheel, Trujillo in Extremadura, because of its unspoilt medieval charm, its grand palaces and dusty, sunburnt aura and then Salamanca with its grand baroque architecture and after that Alcala de Henara and the Plaza de Cervantes with its statues and gardens and grandly colonnaded perimeter.  These were all from previous visits to Spain but we both agreed that after this journey then we would simply have to add Palencia  because of its unspoilt charm and the timeless quality of the buildings and architecture – a real gem!

And so to the towns: the unpretentious and functional Ciudad Rodrigo and reeking of the Spanish Peninsula War in every crack and crevice, Chinchón with its open balconies and bullfights and Siguenza with its stone simplicity, cobbled alleys, sharp stairways, deep arches, shady courtyards and stone buttresses leaning across the street and leaving barely a single shaft of sunlight and which was the probably the closest yet that I have been looking for in Spain.  Almagro with its stone colonnaded arches and Tuscan columns supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of green and fully glazed in a central European style which makes this place unique in all of Spain.  Finally Tembleque which we visited on a dreary overcast day but despite that there was no ignoring the quality of its fine Plaza.

That was a difficult debate and lasted as long as a couple of San Miguels and two dishes of olives but once we had finished we drained our glasses and returned to the Meson del Cid to prepare for a second night in the town.

Chinchon Madrid Spain

 

Northern Spain – Pilgims and the Way of Saint James

Pilgrims' way Santiago de Compostella

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage);
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Burgos lies on one of the principal pilgrim routes of the Camino or the Way of Saint James and during our visit we had to share the streets and the restaurants and the hotel with dozens of foot weary walkers all sharing their hiking tales as they walked towards their ultimate objective – the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is located in the most northwest region of Spain in the Province of A Coruña and it was the European City of Culture for the year 2000.  I didn’t know this but after Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Christendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.

Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great.  Santiago was one of the twelve disciples and a devout follower of Christ but in 44 A.D. he became the first of Apostles to suffer martyrdom when Herod Agrippa arrested and (according to the story) personally beheaded him (this seems rather unlikely to me) in Jerusalem.   According to legend Santiago had preached for a while in Iberia prior to his execution and after his death his own disciples returned his body by boat back to the peninsula (this also seems rather unlikely).

On the way they were caught in a storm and almost certainly doomed when a ship miraculously appeared, led by an angel, to guide them to land and safety.  They buried the saint near Compostela, ‘field of stars,’ where Santiago lay forgotten for nearly eight hundred years.

The tomb was conveniently rediscovered in the ninth century in a time of great need when Christian political and military fortunes in Spain were at their lowest ebb after they had suffered defeat time and again at the hands of the Muslims, until that is God revealed the Saint’s remains, and inspired them with the confidence that he was on their side, fighting in the battlefield with them through the heroic figure of Santiago and the holy saint became a warrior.

Santiago Pilgrim

People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and there were many here in Burgos who could be instantly identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell.   The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travelled, all eventually arriving at a single destination.  It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.

I have been giving some thought to perhaps tackling the Camino myself one day and have been looking at the various different routes.  I have to say that I may have a preference for the one that starts in Plymouth in the UK because that would seem to include rather a nice cruise on a P&O ferry across the Bay of Biscay and an evening in the duty free bar followed by a just short stroll from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela.

Way of St James

St James the Apostle is the Patron saint of Spain and if El Cid represents the secular aspects of heroism and military conquest during the Reconquista the spiritual hero representing the religious justification and the Christian ethos of the crusade against the Muslims was Santiago.  In ‘Don Quixote’ Cervantes wrote – ‘St. James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had … has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.’  Since the reconquest ‘Santiago y cierra España’, which means St James and strike for Spain has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.

The truth was that as the Northern Kingdoms began to assert themselves they needed spiritual assistance and justification and in this era of crusading reconquest there was a need for the living presence of a religious-national figure as an emblem of Christian strength and supremacy that was capable of rallying around themselves the Spanish Christian forces.   This was to be Santiago whose image fulfilled the desire of the Iberian Christians for heroes to emulate, and unite them in their struggle for political and religious independence from Muslim rule.

An important manifestation of the crusading mentality during this time was the creation of an iconic patriotic creation of Santiago and the mythical military contribution of St James to the Reconquista was the inspirational presence of the Saint on the battlefields of the peninsula.

The most famous of these was the legend surrounding the battle of Clavijo in 844, where the vastly outnumbered and demoralised Christian forces were inspired by the appearance of St James in a full suit of armour riding on a galloping white horse with a sword in the right hand and the banner of victory in the left.

Modern historians dispute that there ever was such a battle but the story goes that the night before the encounter, Santiago appeared in a dream to the leader of the Spanish forces, King Ramirez of Castile, and promised him a victory over the Muslims.  The following day, at the height of battle, the warrior-saint appeared on the battlefield, leaving behind him the defeated infidels that he has slaughtered and crushed to the ground and in front of him what remained of the terrified enemy promptly surrendered.  Thus was born the legend of Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer.

Burgos Pilgrims Weary