Day 15 – Portomarín to Palas de Rei (30.7 km)
As always, when I left the hostel it was pitch dark – so dark that, when leaving Portomarín, I missed the sign to a narrow path branching off. I had to retrace my steps when I saw torch lights in the distance disappearing to the left. From there the footpath snaked to the footbridge crossing the río Mino. The bridge was covered with iron floor plates and every step reverberated like an explosion. On the other side of the river the footpath continued through a bushy forest and a head-lamp would certainly have been useful. Not having any light, I had to stay close to others.
To reach Mount Sierra Ligonde at an altitude of 720 m the fifteen kilometres long path was almost continuously uphill. The way downhill from Sierra Ligonde was less strenuous, but the closer I came to Portos, a distance of twenty one kilometres from Portomarín, the slower I advanced.
Because of my interest in the history of the Knights Templar, the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights of Santiago, a visit to Vilar de Donas was a must, although this meant a five kilometre detour. I branched off on weary legs and put more instead of less distance between me and the next albergue in Palas de Rei.
The church El Salvador, built by the Knights of Santiago, was constructed with very large rectangular stone blocks stacked without mortar to the vaulted ceiling. The church is rectangular in shape with an apse at one end; there were no transepts and aisles. Despite the damp and cold interior I took off my shoes to allow my feet to breathe and walked around in socks.
A nunnery and accompanying infrastructure dating back to the 10th century and the 14th century church once formed a major stronghold, today only the church remains and vegetation covers the land surrounding it. Inside the main attraction was a centuries-old, extremely faded mural with motifs of the Knights of Santiago, faintly visible and covering most of the apses. I find it amazing that the murals could be seen at all: the church was very draughty, there were no windows that could be closed, just wall openings higher up, and the lower parts of the walls were wet and green with algae. After many centuries of the murals being totally exposed to the elements, it is no wonder that they are hardly noticeable. Apart from the frescoes, there were stone sarcophagi and lids as well as stone effigies from the Knights of Santiago. This imposing church building, very high and exceptionally bulky in construction, seemed very medieval and forbidding ‒ it was not a place suited for long sermons.
The Knights of Santiago were noble warriors affiliated to catholic orders. Their stronghold was in Galicia and during the 12th century they participated in the crusades against the Moors in Spain. They also fought in the Middle East under the banner of the papal crusades. Having achieved success in these campaigns the Knights received a bull from Pope Alexander III in 1175, granting them the privilege and responsibility to protect pilgrims on their way to Santiago and this event is depicted in the painting I saw in the St. Marco Gallery in León.
The Knights Templar was a secular order of dedicated nobles and their followers. They also played a major military and political role at the time of the crusades against Muslim expansion in Jerusalem and the Levant. It is likely that the Knights Templar were rivals of the Knights of Santiago.
Christian crusaders to Jerusalem consisted of detachments of nobles with their private armies. They functioned rather independently, often lacking strategy and cohesion. No wonder that in time the Christian cause lost its drive, while Islam amalgamated their warriors into well-organized army units. In 1187 the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem fell to Islam, the Knights Templar had to retreat to Tortosa (Tartus in Syria today) and from there to the island of Arwad, their last foothold in the Middle East. In 1302 the Knights Templar and all other Christian armies were finally defeated and the crusade ended unsuccessfully.
In Europe the Templars had countless properties and castles and when their crusading ventures to the Middle East came to an end, they focused their energies on this part of the world. They continued their banking ventures in western kingdoms, acted as diplomats and policy advisors and expanded their influence. In the end they were perceived to be fabulously rich and powerful.