Landscapes on the Camino: Portomarín

One of the greatest attractions of doing the Camino de Santiago with Pambretours is to know the historical and cultural richness of the places that we will be able to visit during our tour.

Each enclave has something emblematic but certainly one of the places that we will not easily forget is the municipality of Portomarín in Lugo. This town was formerly the cradle of the Knights of Santiago, had a rich architectural heritage that made it one of the most beautiful in Galicia.

However, in 1963 the Belesar reservoir flooded the medieval villages of San Pedro and San Xoán, on both sides of the river (part of the old buildings and the primitive bridge are still visible when the level of the reservoir drops).

After the event, the village moved to the neighboring Monte do Cristo on the right bank of the Miño, where some of the most important buildings, both civil and religious, were rebuilt. This is how the rich historical legacy was rescued from the waters of the reservoir, rebuilt in such a way as to preserve the original style of its monuments.

The new Portomarín preserves all the charm of the original localities. From the top of the Miño we can contemplate the beauty of its unique landscape.

Let’s know a little better the history of Portomarín and its tourist value:

1) A past linked to the Camino de Santiago.

Twenty centuries of history sleep under the waters of the Belesar reservoir. The true origins of Portomarín are very old. The very name Portus-Marini is recorded in early medieval documents.

The village was born and grew up next to an old Roman bridge from the 2nd century that linked the villages of San Pedro and San Nicolás (both were important urban centers). This bridge, one of the most famous of the Jacobean route, was an imperial work. It measured 152 meters long by 3.30 meters wide and was built according to typical Roman architecture, still visible in the tamajares. It must have had at least ten arches.

In the Middle Ages, Queen Doña Urraca ordered it to be partly destroyed to make it difficult for her husband “El Batallador”‘s troops to pass through. But then she herself entrusted its reconstruction to the famous Pedro Peregrino around the year 1120. This same architect, under the auspices of Queen Urraca, was responsible for the construction of the hospital of the burgh of San Nicolás, which was located behind the apse of the church. It collapsed in 1944 and only its coat of arms and an inscription remain in the Provincial Museum.

The old Roman bridge resisted the passing of the centuries, although some events, such as the wars against the French troops in 1893, accelerated its deterioration. On one of its original arches was built a small chapel dedicated to the Virgen de las Nieves, to whom the people professed special devotion, invoking her to ask for protection against the misfortunes that the river could bring.


The pilgrimage route favored the economic and urban development of Portomarín. At least two important hospitals were built: the “Peregrinos Jacobeos” and San Lázaro; pazos and civil buildings such as the Palace of General Paredes or the Casa del Conde, and religious buildings such as the Church of San Pedro or the Romanesque Church of San Nicolás, protected by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem and the Order of Malta. It is considered one of the most important Romanesque monuments on the Camino de Santiago. Another emblematic building was the Palacio de la Encomienda. A fire destroyed it in 1938 and all that remains of it is a coat of arms in the town museum with the name of the founder and the date of foundation.

Some illustrious pilgrims who passed through Portomarín were the Catholic Monarchs, Charles V or Philip II who spent the night in the village around the sixteenth century.

In 1946 the original municipality was declared a Historic-Artistic Site (the Church of San Nicolás had already been declared a National Monument in 1931). However, the Franco dictatorship and the arrival of the president of Fenosa, at that time Pedro Barrié de la Maza, set the date of death of the beautiful Jacobean village around 1963 in order to build the second largest hydroelectric dam in Europe.

The reservoir and the new Portomarín were inaugurated for the benefit of the lucrative business of volts, leaving hundreds of houses, orchards, fields, vineyards and historical monuments buried under the water.

2) Portomarín rescued from the waters

After completing the Camino de Santiago and taking stock of their experience and the places they have seen, many pilgrims cite among their memories the municipality of Portomarín. In the last days of summer, coinciding with the descent of the river flow, the vestiges of the primitive village can be seen under water. It is an admirable landscape for the pilgrims who visit the place but desolate for the neighbors who had to rebuild their lives.

Silvia Rodríguez, mayor of the municipality of Portomarín explains that: “They were given the option of moving to a house in the new village, built on the Monte de O Cristo or money to go elsewhere. Many neighbors did not want to live with the memory of a life’s work that would bury the water and left. The population dropped considerably in those years”.

However, before the old Portomarín was submerged under water, the neighbors who stayed to live in the new town did an admirable job: rescuing part of its history. They numbered and moved stone by stone part of its architectural heritage, such as the famous Church of San Nicolás, thus saving it from an irreparable cultural loss. It was a very hard work according to the locals themselves. But thanks to this, today we can see it in the center of the new town, next to the Town Hall. It was also rescued an arch of the old Roman bridge that currently presides over the entrance to the village and some civil buildings such as the Pazo Conde da Maza or Berbeteros.

Other monuments were not so lucky, such as the Romanesque church of San Pedro, dated 1182 and of which only the main door was saved.

The new village was designed by the architect Pons Sorolla and retains some of the old aesthetics reminiscent of the Portomarín of the past.

According to an anonymous pilgrim: “Portomarín is an essential stage, an unavoidable photo stop. One must stop to enjoy the views and the tranquility. You arrive tired after an endless climb but you are left in awe when you discover its beauty and even more when you discover its history”. We fully agree with this perspective, but we will also add that as pilgrims we can only identify with the sacrifice and effort of the inhabitants of Portomarín, their struggle to rebuild their identity and start a new life. This is what many people wish to achieve when they embark on their Camino.

To end the article, we will talk a little about the architectural jewel of Portomarín, the Church of San Nicolás.

3) The Temple-Fortress of San Nicolás de Portomarín

The church of San Nicolás de Portomarín (also called the church of San Juan) is among the most important architectural works of the Camino de Santiago. It was declared a National Monument on February 8, 1946.

Nowadays we can admire it in the square of the Town Hall of the new town. In its transfer intervened the neighbors of Portomarín who moved and numbered each stone of the building, and the technicians of the corresponding Ministry to reproduce it in its original state.

The church is of late Romanesque style. It had a double architectural purpose of temple and fortress. According to Francisco Vázquez Saco it is the work of knights who “under the soldier’s breastplate wore the habit of monks”.

It has a great crenellated tower from which they watched over the security of the burghs on both sides of the bridge, and of the hospitals for the tranquility of the pilgrims.

Inside the temple, the apse and the nave stand out, covered with a barrel vault over several sashes that support part of its weight. The arches are supported by semi-columns attached to the walls. To these interior columns correspond exterior buttresses, joined in arches according to the style of the architecture of Compostela. In this way the nave, both internally and externally, is divided into five bays, each of which corresponds to an opening or window in its walls.
The windows are of the arrow slit type, with a wide interior spill. They are covered by semicircular arches, each supported by a pair of columns with slender monolithic shafts and capitals with vegetal decoration.

Access to the nave is provided by three classic doors of Romanesque architecture. On the façade, inside an enormous semicircular arch, there is an extraordinary rose window, both for its proportions and its decoration.

Another outstanding aspect of the church of San Nicolás de Portomarín is its sculptural decoration, at the level of the best works of the late Romanesque. We can see it mainly in its three flared doors with archivolts. They have a very varied decoration, although plant motifs prevail: rosettes, leaves, pine cones in the semicircular moldings that outline the archivolts or in the jambs and elbows of the south door.

A type of sculptures with much presence are those of animalistic iconography. The capitals decorated with harpies, mythological divinities in the form of birds of prey and women’s faces are striking. Other representations show a strongly rooted dualistic vision: an evil angel devours the body of a sinful man while the good angel has a human figure sitting on his knees, in a gesture of protection for those who choose the path of good.

All this profusion of grotesque, fabulous and in some cases horrifying figures was deeply rooted in the popular culture of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. From Italy to the disappeared Byzantine Empire, all these myths present in the Greco-Roman traditions were assimilated and adapted to the religious thought of a constant dichotomy between good and evil.

However, in addition to the representations of pagan origin, in the church of San Nicolás de Portomarín we also find abundant elements of religious iconography. This type of sculptures can be found mainly in its three tympanums and in the interior archivolt of the main door. In the latter we can see the figure of the Savior or Pantocrator, and surrounding it radially on the interior archivolt, the twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse appear.

Decoración de la puerta principal
In the tympanum of the north door the Annunciation is represented. It is composed of the figures of the Angel and the Virgin. In the middle, a lily flower represents the virginity of Mary.

More doubtful if it fits is the sculptural representation that we see in the tympanum of the south door. There are three figures dressed in long tunics. The central one opens her arms in the traditional praying form. The figure on the right holds a harp while the one on the left holds an open book. King sees here the bishop San Nicolás, patron of the church, officiating a mass and accompanied by his acolytes. For Vázquez Saco, however, what is represented in this scene is the Priesthood of Jesus Christ and the figures accompanying him would be King David pressing his harp and the prophet Isaiah. Many scholars consider this interpretation improbable since the sculptor would not have represented King David without his crown. In short, it remains a mystery.

Escena de la puerta sur
What do you think?

We hope that today’s tour of Portomarín has interested you and will encourage you to start your adventure tour-Camino de Santiago. Contact us for more information about our tours!

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