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Stories About Spain

Legends and Myths: Connecting to Ancient Spain

Written by: Don Harris

stone bell towerJuly 25th is the feast day of St. James – Santiago – the patron saint of Spain. According to tradition, his remains rest in the crypt of a cathedral in Galicia, a remote part of Spain. According to legend, St. James, the brother of Jesus, was martyred in the holy land, and his mourners placed his body in a small stone ship, which then set sail across the Mediterranean Sea.

Once the boat passed through Gibraltar and the Pillars of Hercules, the stone craft headed due north along the Atlantic coast until it reached a small port called Padrón in Galicia. (You may have enjoyed Padrón peppers, whose seeds were brought by Columbus from America to the local monastery there.)

Santiago’s body was discovered by shepherds who were guided by a star (Compostela means campus/star). News of this discovery spread across the realm like wildfire and energized Christians who were trying to repel the seemingly invincible advance of the Moors.

The story of Santiago became their inspiration. Some of the Christian warriors would see him riding out of the heavens on a white horse, to lead them into battle. He became the patron saint of Spain. St. James’ symbol is the seashell and we have chosen to take the seashell as La Tienda’s trademark. Our private label is called Peregrino, the word for pilgrim in Castilian Spanish.

Many older people wring their hands about the reality of their aging. Of course, there are inconveniences, and many aches and pains. However, the senior has a special gift: the ability to recall events earlier in life and to put them into a broader perspective. It is called wisdom.

For example, I find it enriching to look through the pictures my wife Ruth and I have taken over the past 50 years. With the help of my friend Elaine, I have entered over 3,000 of them in a Flickr account and arranged them by region, and have made them available to all. Many of the pictures revolve around our experience visiting the route of the pilgrims who have traveled the Camino de Santiago.

I find the most interesting category of pictures to be those that were taken in the 1960s before digital cameras were available. Do you remember threading your camera with film – only to run out after 24 or 36 clicks? Then there was the wait until the corner drugstore got a packet of your pictures from the regional processor. Slow as the process was, I must admit I enjoyed leisurely sharing my snapshots with friends.
harvesting olives
I remember one late afternoon in the late Sixties, when my wife Ruth and I were first discovering the romance of Spain behind the wheel of our tiny Seat 600 sedan. Driving somewhere along the back roads of Andalucía, we stopped by the side of the road and for the first time my wife Ruth and I watched the process of harvesting olives.

The laborers, with members of the family, spread a tarpaulin under a somewhat gnarled olive tree and shook the branches gently so that only the ripe olives fell to the outstretched cloth. Then they gathered the fallen olives into baskets to bring to the mill. To think that this exact kind of task has been going on for hundreds of years within this very olive grove! The pictures of laboring in the olive groves could have been taken in 1920 or 1820 just as easily as 1965! It would not be much different.

It is part of a timeless evolution stretching back to antiquity. Some of the trees are hundreds of years old and have seen kingdoms rise and fall. The only difference between then and now is that a centrifuge extracts the oil from the fruit rather than being pressed between several esparto discs.

This aura of timelessness was particularly present as we drove along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. For over 1000 years, pilgrims have followed this route across the breadth of Spain, some 400 miles. In medieval times, many of them came from all over Europe. Nowadays pilgrims come from all over the planet! Even St. Francis of Assisi has followed the pilgrimage route.

The Camino de Santiago still prospers today. It is traveled by many more people than it was 20 years ago when my son Jonathan traversed it with some other students. Some of you may have seen the movie The Way, where Martin Sheen reflected upon his experience of the Camino. The pilgrimage road made such a sufficient impression on my son that on their honeymoon, he and his bride Stacey retraced some of his steps together.

cows with rabbit pelt head coveringsThe Atlantic Coast is active, like coastal Maine, and the source of some of most extraordinary seafood in Spain. Some people say their experience of Galicia is similar to their wandering throughout Ireland, especially in the mist. There is a certain spiritual feeling you rarely will find anywhere else.

The first time my wife Ruth and I experienced this was when, many years ago, we were headed towards Santiago, and approached the forlorn, windswept mountain village of Cebreiro. Along the way we would encounter cordial people leading their oxen from a day’s labor in the rocky field. The animals had head coverings of rabbit pelts so that beasts of burden would be protected from the sun.

That day we spent in Cebreiro could have easily been 968 AD rather than 1968. The hamlet consists of a grouping of pallozas, or round stone houses, with a straw roof. The townspeople lived in these sorts of sod igloos, along with their chickens and goats. If I can find it, I will show you a picture of a jaunty rooster “ruling the roost.”

There was a very simple refugio, a rudimentary country inn, where we stayed overnight (I was young and foolish then. Now, I am not so sure I would risk a mattress filled with straw). Next to it was a pre-Romanesque church - the oldest one remaining fully intact on the Camino. The priest rings the church bells during the winter to guide the pilgrims through the mists. For many of the pilgrims, the mountain pass of Cebreiro was the last major hurdle before descending to the ocean and Santiago.

We also learned that within this stone church was the legendary Holy Grail. For safekeeping in the face of invading Arab forces that were sweeping across the coast of Africa, Christians passed the sacred Chalice, one to another, from the Holy Land until it ultimately rested safely in this remote corner of the world. To see it we entered the nave of the church and passed by the very large granite baptismal font until we came to the chalice displayed right by the altar.

One stormy day as the wind howled, and people of the village were huddled in their pallozas, the parish priest dutifully went to the church to celebrate daily mass. So the legendary story continues: the door of the church opened in the howling gale, and a faithful pilgrim stumbled inside. The skeptical priest thought to himself "Why in the world would anyone be so foolish as to brave the elements to come to my Mass? After all," he thought looking at the elements on the altar, “probably this is just bread and wine.”

As he raised the Host during the liturgy, the thin wheat wafer became flesh. When the priest looked into the chalice, he saw that the wine had turned into blood. The news of the miracle spread throughout the area and soon it was confirmed that this was the Holy Grail.
palloza round stone house with a straw roof
You know, if you are able to suspend your rational 21st century mind for a while, you also can enjoy these legends and myths which animated the minds of our earlier brothers: stone ships crossing the Mediterranean, the relics of Jesus’ brother discovered by shepherds in a field by night in a pasture in Galicia; olive oil being harvested on the same land that Roman soldiers trod; the age old Camino path walked upon by ancient pilgrims whose spirituality might be close to yours.

The cover of the latest Smithsonian magazine brazenly proclaims, “Future is here.” I take comfort in knowing that “Yesterday is here” as well, and it provides a mother lode of wisdom.

Legends have a life of their own, and I encourage you someday to go to Galicia in northwest Spain, just above Portugal. Quietly wander around from town to town. The people of Galicia are of Celtic stock such as those in Ireland and Scotland. They even play bagpipes!

Tu amigo,


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"Good article Don. I was stationed in Rota 1974-1976 and loved it immensely. I got your book and really enjoyed that too ... a wonderful trip down memory lane. It was a thrill seeing the picture of my Spanish teacher. Keep it up."
July 2015

"Dear Steve, it looks as if we were both in Rota at the same time. I am sure that teacher you are referring to is Pedro Diaz. We still keep close contact with his widow Isabella, their children and their families. In fact, Isabella and their daughters , Olga and Eva, joined our family at Ruth and my 50th Wedding Anniversary celebration in Carmona in 2014! Thanks for your comments about the book. I loved putting it together, as you can imagine. Tu amigo"

"Thank you for bringing this region to life, with your words. Beautifully expressed. I feel the mist of Galicia now, as I write! "
July 2015

"Dear Robin, Our whole family loves Galicia. Our son Christopher, his wife Rian, and baby Cleo (Chris and Rian are diplomats at our embassy in Madrid) just wrote last week about the fabulous time they had at the Parador in Bayona: the medieval battlements and waters of the Atlantic splashing on the long stretch of beach. I can hardly wait to return. Tu amigo"

"I always enjoy your articles and this in particular since my grandparents were from Galicia. Thank you.I also pass these on to cousins so they will know more about our people."
July 2015

"Thank you Dolores. I am glad that my writing connects you to your roots, and very pleased you are passing my reflections to your cousins. On the home page, if you scroll down the bottom and click on Don’s Travels – and then Don’s Blog you can find many more stories about Galicia – many of which are also printed in my book The Heart of Spain, which I am sure you would enjoy. Abrazos"

"As a native of Galicia, a beautiful land I know well, I am amazed by how extremely well you write, not only about Galicia, but Spain as a whole. Keep it up, please; you are doing Spain a great favor by helping Americans learn about its food, customs and traditions…a it certainly does not hurt your business,"
July 2015

"Dear Luis, Thank you for your kind remarks -- they are very gratifying, especially from one with a Spanish background. Were you born in Spain? I must admit that every time I sit down to write these essays, I enjoy being transported to Spain in my imagination. Tu amigo"

"Thank you for sharing your stories with us. I really enjoyed reading especially since I just returned from a 25 day road trip in Northern Spain and visiting family in Madrid."
July 2015

"Dear Sylvia, How was your visit with your family in Madrid? Is that where you are from originally? A 25 day road trip in Northern Spain must have been a sheer delight. I envy you! Saludos"

"Thanks, Don. I enjoyed your stories and photos about your travels in Spain. Also appreciate your company's products. My wife is Sevillana and La Tienda provides us some nice things we otherwise would do without most of the year. They help keep us in touch with our own fond memories of Spain. Regards..."
July 2015

"Dear Mike, Thank you for taking the time to write. What you are describing is exactly the motivation behind founding La Tienda almost 20 years ago. We are delighted to continue to bring you good memories and good food! Abrazos"

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Leyendas y Mitos: Conexión a la Antigua España

stone bell towerEl día 25 de julio se celebra la festividad de Santiago Apóstol, Santo Patrón de España. Según la tradición, sus restos reposan en la cripta de una catedral en Galicia, una región remota de España. Según la leyenda, Santiago, hermano de Jesús, fue martirizado en Tierra Santa y sus discípulos colocaron sus cuerpo en un barco de piedra que surcó el Mediterráneo.

Una vez que la embarcación pasó por Gibraltar y por las Columnas de Hércules, la nave de piedra se dirigió hacia el norte bordeando la costa atlántica hasta que llegó al pequeño puerto de Padrón en Galicia. (Puede que alguna vez hayan probado los pimientos picantes de Padrón, ya que sus semillas fueron llevadas por Colón desde América al monasterio local de Padrón).

El cuerpo de Santiago fue descubierto por unos pastores que iban guiados por una estrella (Compostela significa campo de la estrella). Las noticias del descubrimiento se extendieron como la pólvora por todo el reino y sirvió de revulsivo para los cristianos que estaban intentando frenar el avance de las que entonces parecían invencibles tropas musulmanas.

La historia de Santiago se convirtió en su inspiración. Algunos de los guerreros cristianos le veían bajar cabalgando desde el cielo en un caballo blanco para guiarles en la batalla. Se convirtió en el santo patrón de España. El símbolo de Santiago es la concha y nosotros optamos por adoptarla como logo de La Tienda. Nuestra marca privada se llama Peregrino, como los peregrinos del Camino.

Muchas personas mayores se resignan a envejecer. Por supuesto que el hacerse mayor tiene sus inconvenientes y sus muchos dolores y achaques. Sin embargo, la gente mayor tiene un talento especial: la habilidad de recordar acontecimientos anteriores de la vida y de ponerlos en una perspectiva más amplia. Esto es lo que se conoce como sabiduría.

Por ejemplo, me parece muy enriquecedor examinar las fotos que mi esposa Ruth y yo hemos sacado en los últimos 50 años. Con la ayuda de mi amiga Elaine, he subido unas 3000 a una cuenta de Flickr, las he organizado por región y las he hecho accesibles a todos. Muchas de estas fotos giran en torno a nuestra experiencia visitando la ruta que han recorrido los peregrinos que han hecho el Camino de Santiago.

La categoría de fotos que me parece más interesante es la de aquellas tomadas en los años 60, antes de que todo el mundo tuviese una cámara digital. ¿Recuerdan ponerle el carrete a la cámara para que se acabase tras sólo 24 ó 36 tomas? Luego estaba la espera hasta que a la tienda de la esquina le enviasen el sobre con las fotos de uno desde el centro de procesado de la zona. Por muy lento que fuese aquel proceso, debo admitir que me gustaba compartir mis fotos con mis amigos sin prisa alguna.
harvesting olives
Recuerdo una tarde a finales de los sesenta, cuando mi esposa Ruth y yo estábamos descubriendo por primera vez los misterios de España al volante de nuestro diminuto Seat 600. Conduciendo hacia alguna parte por las carreteras secundarias de Andalucía, nos detuvimos a un lado y por primera vez mi esposa Ruth y yo vimos el proceso de recolección de la aceituna.

Los trabajadores, con sus familiares, extendían una lona bajo un retorcido olivo y sacudían las ramas delicadamente para que sólo las aceitunas maduras cayesen al suelo sobre la tela. Luego metían las aceitunas del suelo en cestas y las llevaban al molino. Y pensar que exactamente la misma tarea se ha ido repitiendo durante cientos de años en el mismo árbol. Las fotos del trabajo en el olivar se podría haber sacado tanto en 1920 o en 1820 como en 1965. No habría habido mucha diferencia.

Es parte de una evolución atemporal que se remonta a la antigüedad. Algunos de los arboles tienen cientos de años y ha sido testigo del apogeo y de la decadencia de diferentes reinos. La única diferencia entre entonces y ahora es que una centrifugadora extrae el aceite de la aceituna en vez de ser prensada entre varios discos de esparto.

Este aura de atemporalidad estaba especialmente presente cuando conducíamos por la ruta de peregrinación que es el Camino de Santiago. Durante más de 1000 años, los peregrinos han seguido esta ruta a lo ancho de España, unos 650 kilómetros. En la época medieval, muchos de ellos venían de toda Europa. Hoy en día vienen de todo el planeta. Incluso San Francisco de Asís hizo esta peregrinación.

cows with rabbit pelt head coveringsEl Camino de Santiago sigue prosperando hoy en día, de hecho, lo hacen muchas más personas de las que lo hacían hace 20 años cuando mi hijo Jonathan lo recorrió con otros estudiantes. Muchos de ustedes quizá hayan visto la película El Camino, en la que Martín Sheen reflexiona sobre su experiencia en el Camino. El Camino dejó una huella tal en mi hijo que durante su luna de miel, él y su esposa Stacy volvieron a revivir parte de su experiencia juntos.

La costa atlántica es activa, como la zona costera de Maine, y es fuente de algunos de los mariscos más extraordinarios de España. Algunas personas dicen que su experiencia en Galicia es similar a la que han tenido caminando por Irlanda, especialmente por la niebla. Hay un cierto sentir espiritual que difícilmente se encuentra en otro sitio.

La primera vez que mi esposa Ruth y yo lo experimentamos fue cuando, hace muchos años, íbamos camino a Santiago, y nos acercamos a un solitario pueblo de montaña azotado por el viento: Cebreriro. Por el camino nos íbamos encontrando con gente amable que recogía sus bueyes tras un largo día de trabajo en los terrenos pedregosos. Las bestias de carga llevaban las cabezas cubiertas con pieles de conejo para protegerlas del sol.

Ese día que pasamos en Cebreiro podría haber sucedido perfectamente en el año 968 en vez de en 1968. La aldea consistía en un grupo de pallozas, unas casas circulares de piedra con el tejado de paja. La gente del pueblecito vivía en esa especie de iglús cubiertos de hierba junto a sus pollos y cabras. Si logro encontrarla, les enseñaré la foto de un gallo muy alegre que llevaba la voz cantante.

Fue un refugio muy simple, una posada rural rudimentaria, en el que pasamos la noche. (Entonces era joven e inexperto. Ahora, no estoy tan seguro de que me atrevería con un colchón relleno de paja). Cerca de ahí se encontraba una iglesia prerrománica, la más antigua que se conservaba intacta en todo el Camino. El sacerdote toca las campanas durante el invierno para guiar a los peregrinos a través de la niebla. Para muchos de los peregrinos el paso de montaña de Cebrerio era el último gran obstáculo antes de descender al océano y a Santiago.

También nos enteramos de que dentro de esta iglesia de piedra estaba el legendario Santo Grial. Para protegerlo de la oleada de las fuerzas invasoras árabes provenientes de África, los cristianos se fueron pasando el sagrado Cáliz los unos a los otros desde Tierra Santa hasta que finalmente permaneció seguro en este remoto rincón del mundo. Para verlo entramos a la nave de la iglesia y pasamos por delante de una gran pila bautismal de granito hasta que llegamos al cáliz que estaba expuesto en el altar.

Un día de tormenta en el que el viento aullaba y la gente del pueblo se refugiaba en sus pallozas, el párroco fue diligentemente a celebrar su misa diaria. La leyenda continúa de la siguiente manera: La puerta de la iglesia se abrió a causa del vendaval, y un fiel peregrino entró tropezando. El escéptico sacerdote se preguntó a si mismo: “¿Cómo es posible que haya alguien tan incauto como para desafiar a los elementos para venir a esta misa? Después de todo,” pensó viendo lo que había en el altar, “probablemente esto no sea más que pan y vino.”

palloza round stone house with a straw roofCuando levantó la Hostia durante la liturgia, la delgada forma de trigo se convirtió en carne. Cuando el sacerdote miró en el cáliz, vio que el vino se había transformado en sangre. Las noticias del milagro se extendieron por toda la zona y pronto se confirmó que se trataba del Santo Grial.

Si por un tiempo son capaces de dejar a un lado su mente racional del siglo XXI, ustedes también podrán disfrutar de estos mitos y leyendas que motivaban las mentes de nuestros antiguos hermanos: barcos de piedra que surcaban el Mediterráneo, la reliquias del hermano de Jesús descubiertas de noche por unos pastores en un campo de los prados gallegos; aceite de oliva obtenido en la misma tierra que pisaron los soldados romanos; las antiquísimas sendas del Camino recorridas por antiguos peregrinos cuya espiritualidad pueda que esté próxima a la suya.

La portada del último número de la revista Smithsonian anuncia con descaro: “El futuro está aquí”. Me consuela saber que “el pasado está aquí” también, y que es una mina de oro para el conocimiento.

Las leyendas tienen vida propia y les animo a que un día vengan a Galicia en el noroeste de España, justo encima de Portugal. Vayan tranquilamente de pueblo en pueblo. Los gallegos son de origen celta, igual que los irlandeses y los escoceses. ¡Incluso tocan la gaita!

Su amigo,


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