Celts loved to build on high spots, picking strategic lookout points for their castros (settlements). O Cebreiro is one such site, one that has maintained the continuity of castro architecture in its round stone houses with thatched roofs.
Once an Iron Age lookout point, today O Cebreiro’s only reason for existing is the Camino, which may already have been the case in the Middle Ages. When you arrive at this stunning vista of layered mountains, you feel the burn of the climb and the necessity of such a stop. You also are greeted with one of the most stunning views on the entire Camino.
Arriving in O Cebreiro also marks arriving in Galicia and leaving the province of León. The pilgrim has at last arrived in the last region she or he will cross to complete the Camino.
Among the sacred architecture, O Cebreiro’s sweet pilgrim church, San Benito, also known as Santa María la Real, dates to the 9th century and welcomes the pilgrim with a serene atmosphere to just sit and meditate.
Sometime in the 13th or 14th centuries, a famous miracle occurred here. It begins on a winter’s day when a treacherous snowstorm kept worshippers from coming to mass. A priest was there half-heartedly celebrating the Eucharist’s transformation of wine to blood and bread to flesh for an empty church.
His spirit wasn’t into it, and he even doubted the miracle of this mystical alchemy. Moreover, according to Camino legend, the chalice he used was the original Holy Grail. (Other legends claim that the original Holy Grail was in fact hidden at one time in O Cebreiro and that this green, enchanted location for the Grail inspired Wagner’s opera Parsifal.)
At that moment, a devout man pushed through the door and entered, having come from another village and braved the snow, determined to receive Communion. At the true believer’s arrival, the wafer and the wine turned visibly to flesh and to blood. It both stunned the priest and restored his faith on the spot.
The news of this miracle traveled along the Camino and added to the attraction for pilgrims to come to O Cebreiro and attend mass in the same church. Today, on special occasions, you can also see the vials holding the miraculous blood from that day. Beyond the physical marvel is the deeper spiritual one about faith and transformation, and more, about the meaning of the Eucharist and the transformation of the ordinary into the sublime.
Another interesting aspect of this story is its mix of religion and magic. Around the time of this incident, the Church had held several councils and synods, including two in Santiago de Compostela, in 1289 and 1309, to determine what to do about the prevalent practice of pagan Galician priests performing magical ceremonies in church rather than religious rites. Sometimes, the two were so fluid to the locals, that they weren’t even aware they had mingled and blurred boundaries between old magic and new religion.
The Church position by 1309 was excommunication to anyone performing pagan practices in church. But how can this mingling be determined when the Eucharist itself is strong magic and brings the God embodied in blood and flesh into the church via the wine and the bread?
Entering Galicia, you enter a land of maze-like green mountains that form a universe separate from the mountains of León, the meseta (high plateau), and the Pyrenees, which all feel more knowable by comparison. Galicia’s landscape is hard to pin down, it seems to shift, and before you know it, you are in another valley isolated from the world, you are passing creeks, stones, and trees intimately known to their locals.
You can loose your sense of direction, the world becomes so close, isolated, and accentuated with the mists that roll in and at night and take a few hours in the morning to burn off. This geography is one reason why Iberian matriarchy survived longest here in Galicia.
In Galicia you will also begin to hear more day-to-day references to things folkloric: witches and witchcraft, wandering souls, Celts and Druids, bagpipes (made to be a part of the Celtic tradition here, but the bagpipe is a traditional instrument, in many forms and sizes, all across Europe and into Asia), black carved jet stone in the form of a fisted hand that people
wear to ward off evil, and a drink called quemada, made in a cauldron of herb fortified firewater to that is lit with a flame to prepare for the ritual drink shared with friends and used to chase away evil spirits around one and inside one.
It is a place thick on the ground with rich folklore. Galicia does not necessarily have more folklore than the rest of the regions of the Camino, but its isolation has forged a distinctive culture that today does not hide its difference but celebrates it. And its landscape is the natural setting for these stories to come out. These mountains are tight, intimate, shift, and sublimely beautiful.
Sunset and sunrise are stunning in O Cebreiro. An early start just after sunrise also assures a leisurely hiking day in these beautiful, green Galician mountains and gives the mists a chance to lift and burn off, making navigation easier but also adding a dreamy quality to the walk.
You will pass through countless rural villages, each one different and each one inviting the pilgrim to discern for him or herself who the old native god and goddess of that little pocket might have been. This part of the Camino more than any other is as if the pilgrim is entering the enchanted forests and mountains of Middle Earth or the Arthurian tales.
The Camino continues to Triacastela.