Ecosystems and nature on the Way of St. James

The Camino de Santiago has as its main attractions aspects such as spirituality, culture, gastronomy and even deep and personal motives, stories of self-improvement, gratitude and friendship. However, this experience also brings us a sometimes forgotten sensation: to find oneself again in Nature.

On most occasions, pilgrims say they feel admired by the beauty of the landscapes and natural environments they find along the way. The Jacobean route in Galicia runs along rural roads, surrounded by rivers and springs, lakes and shady valleys. They are the secular scenario around which an outstanding architectural and ethnographic heritage is erected and differentiated from the rest of the Peninsula.

Given the diversity of Ways that have existed since ancient times, it would be too long to talk about the natural environments on the Way of St. James. There are some important guides such as the one by Antonio Viñayo González, author of the book Caminos y peregrinos. We will focus today on talking about the roads along which the stages of our tour run, that is, the French Way in Galicia.

From our entrance through O Cebreiro, we will make our way through the so-called eastern mountains: to the north the Ancares and to the south O Courel; perhaps two of the places with the richest ecosystem in the northwest of the peninsula.

Then we will leave towards Triacastela and Samos, crossing forests populated by “carballeiras”, groves and chestnut trees. The Atlantic forests will give way to green meadows, beeches, poplars and ferns, traditional images of grazing and traditional livestock.

We will continue our way from Sarria to Portomarín, where we will keep the magical memory of its medieval bridge, covered by the waters of the Belesar reservoir and still visible when its level drops.

Then we reach the region of Ulloa and from here to Palas de Rei where the pilgrims coming from Lugo joined the pilgrims from Castile.

Our next destination is Melide. During this itinerary we will pass through beautiful meadows and villages such as Leboreiro and Furelos whose origins date back to the Middle Ages. The kilometers become shorter after our arrival in Arzúa. Through the Pino and Lavacolla we enter Santiago and from Monte do Gozo we can finally contemplate the towers of the Cathedral.

Throughout our route we will have the opportunity to enjoy the view of beautiful landscapes and to find inner peace in the harmony of Nature. Finally we understand that the meaning of the Camino is not simply to reach a goal but to discover our limits, to reward our efforts and to learn to appreciate the free spectacle of a sunset.

Some natural environments of singular beauty that we can find during our tour are:

1) Summits of the Ancares

Ancares gallegos

These are the last mountains of the Cantabrian Mountain Range. Two great climatic areas of the Peninsula cross here: the Eurosiberian and the Mediterranean region. This fact gives rise to a very diverse flora and fauna. In just ten square kilometers we can find shady oak groves, holly bushes, hazelnut trees and holm oaks.

All this results in an ecosystem of great biological, scenic and geological biodiversity. The highest peaks reach 2000 meters and are visible from the north of O Cebreiro.

Since this mountainous region serves as a border between Galicia and León, we can speak of Galician Ancares and Leonese Ancares.

The Galician Ancares are a National Hunting Reserve since 1966 but despite this activity, its forests continue to be privileged by the large number of natural species that can be found in this region: eagles, partridges, blackbirds … Until the mid-twentieth century there were also bears in the place, but hunting and habitat loss made them disappear completely.

2) O Courel

South of O Cebreiro, is the mountainous region of O Courel. Included in the register of areas of natural interest of the Xunta de Galicia with 21,020 hectares, it also has very unique climatic and geographical characteristics.

Its first inhabitants took refuge from the harsh climate in fortified settlements called castros. Then the Romans forced them to dig the mountains in search of gold, but there are still traces of the settlements of these pre-Romanesque peoples.

In O Courel two predominant macroclimates in the Peninsula merge: the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Another quality is the large amount of limestone outcrops that give rise to the appearance of many caves.

In this exceptional habitat are located more than 40% of the species that exist in the Galician flora and about 160 species of vertebrates, making it one of the richest natural regions of the entire northwestern peninsula. It is easy to find trees characteristic of the Mediterranean climate such as holm oaks and cork oaks with others typical of the Atlantic forests such as oak or birch.

3) From O Cebreiro to Triacastela

In this stage of our tour we will be able to know closely the Nature of the Atlantic forests and the way of life of the people who inhabited the region before and after the Roman conquest.

In O Cebreiro we will visit the pallozas, the oldest inhabited dwellings in Europe. They were built with granite slabs and their main characteristics were a circular floor plan with thick walls to shelter from the cold and a roof reinforced with rye straw. Their interior was prepared to spend long winters without leaving them.

As far as the natural surroundings are concerned, we can talk at length about this part of our tour. To point out some aspects of importance, in the Liñares region we can find one of the few remaining faiais in Galicia (faiais are tall forests (30-40m) that grow on rich and humid soils). It is formed by holly, birch and kapudres. Another attraction of the area is its beautiful parish church of San Estevo built around 714.

From the Alto de Poio we can see the southern valleys of O Courel, such as the valley of Lóuzara whose river crosses the Ouribio mountain range and flows into the Lor. From afar we will also be able to see the mountain range and the high plateaus of the mountain, surrounded by pasture land. The “leiras” are divided by stone walls reminiscent of the forts, forming the panoramic view of a beautiful natural mosaic, with squares and rectangles of colors ranging from brown to deep green depending on the types of crops and the time of year.

Monumento al peregrino en el Alto de San Roque
We continue our way to Triacastela. Some pilgrims make a detour to see the forests of Biduedo, with lush groves of birch, oak and chestnut trees.

The walk continues through Filloval, As Pasantes and Ramil to Triacastela. As we told you some time ago, the toponym of the name is confusing and it is not known if it comes from the three forts to the northwest of the village or perhaps to three castles that must have existed in the region and whose memory was reflected in the tower of the church. Whatever the case, Triacastela is an agricultural and livestock region, whose lands are irrigated by the vicinity of the river Oribio and with mountains full of partridges and quails.

4) Sarria and Portomarín

In the third and fourth stage of our tour we will pass through the lands of Sarria and Portomarín.

We talked about Sarria at the time, pointing out its importance as the largest town of the French Way in Galicia and the starting point of many pilgrims to start their tour to Santiago de Compostela. We also mentioned its important architectural legacy linked to the Jacobean route. So, in order not to repeat ourselves, today we will keep only the beautiful image of a landscape: the old Ponte da Áspera located on the Celeiro River. It was built in Roman times with pieces of slate and granite masonry, and has witnessed the walk of thousands of pilgrims from the Middle Ages to the present day.

Little by little, we feel that we are becoming part of the Camino, we are real pilgrims! From Sarria to Portomarín there are about 20 km. Once here we will be impressed to see the gigantic reservoir of the river Miño. On the other side is the current village of Portomarín. In 1963 a rupture of the dam caused the medieval villages of San Pedro and San Xoán to be submerged under water. They can still sometimes be seen when the level of the reservoir drops, as well as the 2nd century Roman bridge that linked the two villages. Only a few religious buildings and manors were saved from the catastrophe, such as the church of San Nicolás protected by the Order of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem and the Order of Malta. This church is among the most important Romanesque buildings on the Camino de Santiago. Near it we also see the church of San Pedro de Portomarín and the pazo of Berbetoros (XVII century) that were moved from the neighborhood of San Pedro.

The distance that separates us from our next destination, Palas de Rei, is approximately 25 km. We cross the Vacaloura mountains, populated by tall eucalyptus trees and very picturesque from the natural point of view.

5) Melide and Arzúa

We continue unstoppable to our goal walking through medieval villages. However, we were surprised by some beautiful natural images: a medieval bridge and the old road of the Camino over the Seco river. After Furelos, we find again another medieval bridge (already mentioned in the Codex Calixtinus) that, diverted from the path, forms one of the most picturesque images of the last stages of our tour.

Ponte Río Seco
We enter Melide and, besides knowing its urban area and visiting its famous pulpeiras, we can delight ourselves with its beautiful landscapes, suitable for agriculture and livestock. Its most remarkable natural environment is to the north of the town, towards the Montes do Bocelo and the Caerón mountain range (a natural fork of the Cova da Serpe mountain range that originated at the end of the Tertiary Era and runs from Estaca de Bares to the Miño). If we go north along the Toques road, we will reach the Furelos waterfall, 30 meters high and surrounded by native vegetation and trees such as oaks or chestnut trees.

Our next stop will be Arzúa. This town has a great interest from the gastronomic point of view although it does not have much architectural legacy except the chapel of the Madalena (s. XIV) and some manors and stately homes. The 37 km. that separate us from Compostela, we will travel along rural roads surrounded by oak groves. We enter Santiago through Monte do Gozo and before that through Lavacolla where the primitive pilgrims used to bathe before presenting themselves to the Apostle.

If you want to see more images about the landscapes and Nature that will accompany us on our tour – Camino de Santiago, you can go to our image gallery where we keep the memory of some of the best moments with you.

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