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Tales from the Camino: Santo Domingo

The stone column stood by the side of the road with some four stubby prong limbs of rock eroding near the top. A biker peddled by and asked if he could take our picture. He told us that this was the Column Justica, where those who broke the law were hung in public disgrace. Consequences of the Spanish Inquisition or of Spain’s Judge Judy? It sounded like a Draconian way to shame citizens into the appropriate behavior in the nearby towns. We wondered aloud if this method proved the best way to deal with capital punishment in medieval Europe.

When we reached Cirueña and the top of the 300 meter climb from Nájera, fellow pilgrims, Miguel and Michael, radiated thanks for their strong legs and good lungs. The wind was cold and it threatened rain, but as the two secured their hoodies, Miguel exclaimed, “I feel like I am arriving in heaven!” and they crested the last hill.

Miguel in heaven

The weather remained dry and wind howled as we gazed at the vista of Santo Domingo de la Calzeda. We still had a 5.8k decent into this ancient city of 6,600 people and we were ready for a hot shower.

We walked to town and then to our hotel. We took that hot shower we longed for in Cirueña, and dressed in warm clothes. After freshening up and washing our hiking socks and clothes, we went to see the Parador. As our mother would say, “It’s a glimpse of the idle rich at play.” It also gave us a taste for how the other half lived when visiting Spain. The Parador Bernardo do Fresneda is well-appointed in every way. It’s a four-star gem with thick walls, comfortable furniture, solid wood tables, and magical art. The array of carvings, etchings, frescos, and paintings is extraordinary. We had hot tea and some glasses of local wine, while we planned our evening.

Parador

A thick picture window looked through an old wooden doorway in the Parador, which made us feel a bit like we were in a fishbowl, but the overall setting was very pleasant.

Strolling across the Plaza Mayor we entered the church (Catedral de Santo Domingo) and spotted a black cage with a live chicken in the coop above one of the side chapels.

The guide books had given us a taste of the mythology of the church founder, but we were not fully prepared to look at the chicken, nor to take the Saint’s intervention myth/miracle seriously. The real live bird walking around in the dark cage caused us to re-evaluate the whole story. Embellished fancifully over the centuries, no doubt, the story goes roughly like this:

A pilgrim couple and their son stopped at an inn in Santo Domingo de la Calzada on their way to Santiago. The pretty innkeeper’s daughter had her eye on the handsome lad, but the devout young fellow thwarted her advances. Incensed by his refusal, she hid a silver goblet in his backpack and reported to the authorities that he had stolen it. The innocent lad was caught with the goblet by the sheriff and condemned to hang … The parents had gone ahead and returned to the town to find their son hanged, but still alive on the gallows, thanks to the intervention of Saint Dominic. The parents rushed to the sheriff’s house and found his lordship about to eat his dinner. Upon hearing the parents’ version of the story, the sheriff replied, “Your son is no more alive than the chicken I am about to eat!” Whereupon the cock stood up on his plate and crowed loudly. This miracle was not lost on the sheriff, who rushed back to the gallows and cut down the poor lad, who survived and was given a full pardon.

There is no mention in the story of what happened to the innkeeper’s daughter, so lots can be speculated on that topic. Apparently there have been a lot of miracles attributed to Santo Domingo over the years, as he has intervened into the daily lives of every day citizens. We experienced no miracles ourselves, but we have counted our blessings. Having the time and health to walk the Camino may be miracles in and of themselves.

The stories and “myths” have helped make believers of many peregrinos, who pass through this city every day. The live chicken in the cathedral and the statues/portraits of Santo Domingo with chickens at his feet are testaments to the continuation of heavenly stories along the Camino, and this is a good one, even for those who cry fowl.