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Whether called “Mons Februari”, “Zebuaril” or “Zebberrium” in the past and having been inhabited since ancient times, O Cebreiro was and is a mystical place. In the United States only Santa Fe, New Mexico and Sedonna, Arizona come to my mind as comparable places. Although there have been no reports of an harmonic convergence here, there most certainly have been pilgrimonic (I just made up this word) convergences for over a thousand years.
Romans knew the value of this strategic location and protected the road here that led west through the mountains of Galicia. Roads have a funny way of leading in two directions and the village was also the site of a battle in 968 that barred Norman pirates from entering Castilla. Legend has it that the Holy Grail was hidden in this very village and kept in the church.
O Cebreiro is the first Galician town on the Camino Francés and there can be no doubt whatsoever that it was the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela that put this small remote enclave on the map. A hospice was founded here sometime around the year 863. The church is the oldest extant church on the Camino and a plaque commemorates the fact that the Benedictine Order has been celebrating mass in the church here since the year 838!
O Cebreiro gained european fame with what was called the Miracle of the Eurcharist (Milagro de la Eucaristía) or the Legend of the Holy Grail of Galicia (Leyenda del Santo Grial de Galicia).The legend has it that sometime around the year 1300 a Juan Santín, who lived in the hamlet called Barxamaior that was a distance of a half a league from the church of O Cebreiro, was so devout that he would attend mass whether it rained, snowed or was windy to a extent that produced bitter cold conditions. On a day in that year when a furious storm struck O Cebreiro, just as the parish priest thought that the conditions were so impossible that no living soul would be able to attend mass, who would be the only person to enter the church but the aforementioned Juan Santín! The priest was so flabbergasted that he exclaimed, “Look who comes here in such a great storm and so exhausted to see a little bit of bread and wine!! The priest then unwisely said, “Your presence was not worth the effort”. As the Priest was raising the sacred host for consecration, God, in order to punish the lack of faith and charity of the priest, turned the bread and wine that was in the Holy Grail into the blood and flesh. It must of been quite a lesson to the Priest! This lesson was not lost on the rest of Europe as pilgrims flocked to O Cebreiro.
The reason that modern pilgrims flock to O Cebreiro and the Camino is largely due to the ground-breaking efforts of Father Elías Valiña Sampedro who was a parish priest here and a great scholar of the Camino de Santiago. At a time when the popularity of the pilgrimage was at an all-time low Father Valiña’s 2 superb books, Caminos a Compostela (1961) and El Camino de Santiago: Estudio Histórico Jurídico (1978), along with his never-ending promotion of the Camino revived the pilgrimage. He was responsible for the first modern guide for walking pilgrims, the introduction of the format of having a map and text on facing pages and the concrete steles (with the yellow scallop shells) that you see everywhere. You could very well say that the rebirth of the Camino was nutured by a parish priest in O Cebreiro!
Here in this village you will also get to see a Palloza. In order to do justice to this unique and ancient architectural style I’m going to quote the excellent book, The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2000):
The pallozas, low, oval stone houses, with ridge-hugging thatched roofs, are remnants of an ancient architectural style that goes back to Celtic times. They are found by archaeologists wherever there have been Celtic communities, from northern Scotland and Ireland to Brittany, Galicia, and the mountains of northwestern Morocco. Their rounded walls and aerodynamic straw roofs (celme), lashed firmly with twisted sprigs of broom (veos) to wooden ridge-poles against the the fierce mountain winds, are perfectly adapted to their environment. Pallozas tend to have 2 rooms: one for animals and the other for humans. Generally both set of inhabitants enter through a single door. Pallozas have no chimneys: smoke escapes through the straw roof, under which are hung joints of meat and sausages to be cured for eating during the long winters. Within the stone oval, the family side of the house is often divided into 2 levels by a wooden platform loft, with sleeping quarters upstairs, and the family kitchen, living quarters and work spaces below.
Unfortunately commercialism in the form of shops with trinkets is rife in the village but I guess everyone is entitled to make a euro every now and then. As for my stay in O Cebreiro it was a brief one. Since I did not reserve a room ahead of time I was forced to ask around at some of the casa rurales in the village. One person told me to ask at a Cafe/Restaurant and much to my surprise they ran a lovely casa rural and had two rooms available.
Our stay in O Cebreiro was also made pleasant by the excellent food and excellent wine we had and our first taste of a Torta de Santiago (Cake of Santiago). As the first village in Galicia I could think of no better place to have experience it than here!