Developing infrastructure, from refuges to roads to churches to bridges—especially bridges—was a much-heralded activity in the world of kings and pilgrims alike. King Alfonso VI of Castile was a major patron of the Camino. Two of the medieval engineers he hired in the 11th century to develop the Camino’s infrastructure did such great works that they became saints.
One was Santo Domingo de la Calzada, who gives his name to this settlement that he founded and where he lived. The other sainted builder was San Juan de Ortega, Santo Domingo’s student, whose namesake village follows shortly on the Camino in Castile.
Santo Domingo was a hermit. Before he founded Santo Domingo de la Calzada, he lived alone in the wild forest along the Oja River. He was of lowly birth, so low as not to be admitted into the nearby monastery. Instead, he turned his desire to be of service to building up the pilgrimage road.
In this territory where rivers were treacherous and claimed many lives, the act of building bridges was of great importance. He also built a paved throughway between Logroño and Burgos as an alternate to the old Roman road, thus opening up new paths for the Camino.
Especially by building bridges, Santo Domingo turned the most dangerous areas of the Road west from Nájera into places of safe passage. A significant number of the stone bridges along the Camino were built either by him or by San Juan de Ortega. Santo Domingo is often called the “Engineer of the Camino.”
In Santo Domingo de la Calzada, the most famous Camino structure is the 13th century mixed Romanesque and Gothic cathedral. The cathedral is associated with the famous story of a roasted rooster and a hen that came back to life and sang, thus saving a pilgrim who was wrongly accused of stealing and hanged.
There are actually several varied versions of this story, but one especially colorful version of the story says that as the pilgrim hung from his noose, he remained barely alive and his parents seeing this begged the local judge to bring him down. The judge, sitting down to eat, said something to this effect: ‘I’ll release him if these two roasted birds on my plate sit up and sing.’ They miraculously did and the young man was rescued.
Some versions of this story give Santo Domingo credit for being behind the miracle that resurrected the birds.
To carry on this miracle, the cathedral today maintains resident birds in a cage near Santo Domingo’s tomb, a roosters and a hen that are purportedly descended from the very two miraculous fowl (also implying healthy reproductive abilities thereafter). The caretakers also frequently rotates the pair with other illustriously descended offspring pairs so that no one bird spends too much time in the cage.
In the Middle Ages, as today, pilgrims collect the molten feathers that fall down to the ground from the cage for good luck. Some medieval pilgrims wore the feathers in their cap.
With so much attention paid to the cathedral and the rooster and hen, it can be easy to overlook other less famous but powerful sacred places in town. Just around the corner from the cathedral on a small square where the cathedral’s bell tower stands (separate from the cathedral) is a sweet little Gothic hermitage chapel, the Capilla de La Virgen de la Plaza.
This little church has a single nave and a beautiful stained glass windows, including one in blue and white with nothing other than the seed of life design, a six-petaled flower. In sacred geometry and architecture, six is the number of harmony and balance between opposites, such as male and female, good and evil, heaven and earth.
Here, in a town whose main story is about balance and true justice, not to mention the miraculous resurrection of those two roasted birds and the hanged pilgrim, this little chapel couldn’t deliver a more potent truth. (And it took a male bird and a female bird to restore truth and justice.)
Santo Domingo built the first chapel here, in honor of Mary. Before that this spot may have been the center of an outdoor altar. The present building is from the 15th and 16th centuries, after heavy restorations of the original chapel.
You’ll find Mary as La Virgen de la Plaza on the altar, the patroness of the harvest. Locals carry her in procession through town twice a year, once to celebrate Mary’s assumption into heaven on August 15, and once for the Fiesta de Gracias, the festival of thanks on September 18. This latter festival is for the harvest season and closely aligned with the autumnal equinox.
The Camino continues to Grañon and crosses the border into Rioja just before Redecilla del Camino.