Camino Portugués: The Church of the Divine Pilgrim

Snowpocalypse/Snowmageddon/Snowzilla 2016:  Day 4. 

Frankly, I love being snowed in.  We have heat, electricity, food and…time. 

Some of that time I spent wandering through photos from my pilgrimage on the Camino Portugués in 2010.  Among them, I came upon these of the most wonderful, little church in Pontevedra, Spain, La Iglesia de la Divina Peregrina (The Church of the Divine Pilgrim). 

Camino Portugués - Nuestra Señora del Refugio

La Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Refugio

While other depictions of the Virgen Mary as a pilgrim exist along the various Camino routes, they are few and in my opinion, this chapel in Galicia is the most beautiful.  It is easy for pilgrims to find, as it sits right on the Camino Portugués in the Praza Ferreira.

As you arrive in the Plaza, the first thing you notice is the unique design of the sanctuary. It is shaped like the vieira, or scallop shell that is the universal symbol of pilgrims and pilgrimage.  In the front is a large fountain, graced on either side by matching staircases that lead to the glass doors of the main entrance.

Camino Portugués - La Divina Peregrina, Santiago,San Roque

Above the balustrade, La Divina Peregrina, Santiago, San Roque

Looking up, slender twin towers – the left, a clock tower and the right, the bells – flank an allegorical representation of Faith.  Just below this there are three niches.  In the center, is a sculpture of Mary the Pilgrim. On either side of her are two of the most iconic figures of the Camino – Santiago (St. James) and San Roque.   It reminds me very much of the sculpture of St. James on the Cathedral of Santiago, which of course if you are walking this Way, is your ultimate destination. 

Camino Portugués - Santiago Peregrino

Santiago Peregrino

This is one of the most important churches in Pontevedra since Nuestra Señora del Refugio (Our Lady of Refuge) or La Divina Peregrina (The Divine Pilgrim) is the Patroness of the city.  So unlike many rural churches, you will nearly always find it open. 

Camino Portugués - Main Entrance

Main Entrance

Built specifically as a sanctuary for La Divina Peregrina, symbols of the Camino de Santiago appear everywhere!  On each of the plate glass doors, a large, etched, vieira welcomes pilgrims.  These are crossed by the bastón (staff) and gourd and accompanied by a pilgrim hat also bearing a shell. 

Camino Portugués - Stained glass

Stained glass – bastón y calabasa

Just inside, a huge oyster shell forms the Holy Water Font.  The elegant, stained glass windows, the doors of the confessionals and the benches also all bear the symbol of the vieira crossed with the staff and gourd.

Camino Portugués - Vieira


Above the main altar is the image of the chapel’s namesake, the Divine Pilgrim.  She is dressed in the style of a French pilgrim and her dark curls contrast with the vivid green dress, cape and hat.  In her right hand, she holds the staff and gourd of the pilgrim, in her left, the infant Jesus. At the highest point, suspended as it were by cherubs, is a lovely relief of the flight into Egypt. 

Camino Portugués - Main Altar

Main altar – La Divina Peregrina

Camino Portugués - Nuestra Señora del Refugio

Nuestra Señora del Refugio

Construction of this unique chapel began in 1778 – it was consecrated in 1794.  The style is late baroque with neoclassical elements.  In 2008, the church underwent a major renovation to repair the main altar, the paintings, stained glass and the clock, which originated (1896) at the Hospital of San Juan de Dios, now demolished.  

Historically and artistically, the church is a designated monument.  But for the pilgrim, it is a special place of great beauty and refuge.  Pilgrims always ask, “Is there any place that I must see?”.  When on the Camino Portugués, this is definitely one. 

Do you have a “must see” place on the Camino Portugués?  Tell us about it in the comments. 

Al dente on the Camino de Santiago


I froze.

My eyes opened wide and I burst into tears as my front tooth dropped out of my mouth and into my hand.  Broken off at the gum line.

Three weeks prior in Madrid, I had cracked the tooth.  Nothing special, just an aging tooth after a 30-year-old root canal.  I was previewing a film for my students, mindlessly nibbling on my thumbnail.  Suddenly I heard an odd noise and thought I had broken my nail.  Unfortunately, the nail was just fine.

The young Spanish dentist who tended to me on an emergency basis was wonderful.  He did his best to explain clearly what was happening – my Spanish is good, but the medical/ dental terminology wasn’t exactly part of daily conversation.   Still and all, there was no mistaking his conclusion:  “No podemos salvar este diente hoy.”  “We cannot save this tooth today.”  The most he could do was to try to stabilize it until I got back to the States to have it properly looked after.  Read:  replaced.

“Cuando vuelves a los Estados Unidos?”  “When do you return to the States?” he queried.  “Perhaps a week or two,” I replied, both uncertain and confused. This little episode was unexpected.

camino frances map

I neglected to inform the nice dentist that it was my plan to walk the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage route across northern Spain – a journey that would take a minimum of 30 days.

He assured me that if I were careful with what I ate and drank, the tooth would probably stay put until I returned home.  So I cut my food into tiny pieces, fastidiously chewed in the back of my mouth and carefully made sure all potentially damaging ice cubes remained firmly in the bottom of the glass.

But I noticed that each day, notwithstanding my diligent care, the tooth was bailando – dancing – a little more.

So there I was, in the tiny village of Azofra, seven days into my Camino adventure when a single strand of spaghetti al dente threatened to bring my dream to an end.

Despite my valiant efforts to cut the spaghetti into small bits and chew in the back, one brazen little piece worked its way to the front and when I bit down, the already fragile tooth gave way.

“I have to go home!” I sobbed to the other pilgrims who gathered ‘round to see why I was crying.

“Does it hurt very much?” asked one.

“No,” I snuffled through my tears, “it doesn’t hurt at all.”  The errant tooth stared back at me from the palm of my hand.  “But I can’t walk to Santiago with a hole in the front of my mouth!”

“Why not?” one of the women asked.  “If it doesn’t hurt, then why not just keep going?”

I stared at her blankly.  That was absurd.  Of course I couldn’t keep walking to Santiago, a distance of at least three weeks walking time, with a gaping hole in the front of my mouth.  No one walks around like that unless they are…well, unless…well.

Hang on a minute.  I had to walk at least 2 days just to get to a town that had a bus station.  And maybe 8 days to Burgos to catch a train back to Madrid.  If I could walk that far, what, exactly was keeping me from finishing my pilgrimage?  Pride?  Vanity?  Fear?

Yes, yes and yes.

The gathered crowd began to drift away.  Nothing to see here.

Deirdre Y Ana

Deirdre Y Ana

I wiped away my tears and tried to comfort the poor Italian woman, Ana, who had been walking with me and was so excited to make her spaghetti al dente for our dinner.  She felt terrible – somehow responsible.  I laughed my toothless smile as I self-consciously moved my hand to cover my mouth – a gesture that became all too familiar in the ensuing weeks.

“Vino,” I said.  “We need some wine!”  Everything appears better after a glass of Spanish Rioja.

For reasons that I cannot explain, I deposited the broken remnants of my tooth in a zip lock baggie and tucked it safely into my rucksack.  In the morning, I strapped on the pack and headed out the door with all the other pilgrims making our way west.

There are many photos of that journey and in each and every one of them I managed to develop a calm, soft-looking, closed-mouth, half smile.  When people spoke to me I had a rather unusual habit of resting my elbow on the table and placing my hand lightly across my mouth as if I were contemplating my response.

I made it all the way to Santiago de Compostela – 500 miles and none the worse for the wear.


Cruz de Hierro

And the infamous tooth?  There is a place on the Camino called the Cruz de Hierro – the Iron Cross.  It is a spiritual place where pilgrims often leave a stone that they have brought from home.  The stone represents the burden they carry with them as they make their pilgrimage.  I had forgotten to bring a stone, but as I stood in that place, I suddenly recalled the tooth, buried in my backpack.  I dug it out, said my small blessing and left it there among the stones and ephemera.  A very personal contribution to the Camino de Santiago.

12 hours after my flight from Spain touched down in the US, I was firmly ensconced in the dentist’s chair.  Because it’s obvious that you simply cannot walk around for weeks with a gaping hole in the front of your mouth!

A Million Steps by Kurt Koontz

imgres Recently, author and fellow member of American Pilgrims on the Camino Kurt Koontz graciously forwarded me a copy of his new book about the Camino de Santiago, A Million Steps.  I have walked various parts of the Camino de Santiago, one of the three great pilgrimage routes of the world, four times and so am quite familiar with the subject.

There are many, many books in print about the Camino de Santiago.  They range from the ridiculous to the sublime, covering everything from profound spiritual awakening to cavorting through the Spanish countryside.  Every once in a while one captures, at least to me, the essence of the Camino de Santiago – the personal journey.

Kurt KoontzA Million Steps is clearly about Kurt’s personal  journey.    From the title, which is his estimation of how many footsteps he walked from San Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, to the daily-diary style, the reader gets a true sense of the people, places and experience that is the Camino de Santiago.

Most Americans have never heard of the Way of St. James, El Camino de Santiago.  Despite the fact that people have been traversing the routes for more than 2000 years – first as a trade route and later as a pilgrimage route- it has remained largely a well-kept Spanish secret.  And for most Americans, who furiously seek out the camino frances mapparking space closest to the doors at the mall, the thought of walking 500 miles anywhere is more foreign than the Spanish language.  But more and more, in large thanks to the personal accounts of famous and soon-to-be-famous authors like Kurt Koontz, the Camino de Santiago is a secret no more.

Like so many pilgrims, Kurt kept daily notes in a journal, jotting down the names of people and places, his impressions and emotions.  Those extensive notes, along with relevant photos, provide an excellent account of the highs and lows of the pilgrim experience during the 30-day journey.  Chapter titles such as “Camino Wine”, “Arrows and Signs” and “Taxi Temptations” lead the armchair pilgrim through some of the most familiar and memorable aspects of the Way.  I don’t think there is a pilgrim alive who at some point on the journey, did not gaze longingly at a taxi, bus or train wishing to be on it going anywhere – as long as it meant not having to stand on your own feet.


View from the Camino – near Castrojerez

But more than just writing a memoir of an amazing walk, Kurt opens his heart and allows us to share deep personal insight.   To me it is one of the reasons to walk the Camino “alone”. ( I put the word alone in quotation marks because on the Camino it is a relative term – a topic about which you could write volumes.)  In our incredibly OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbusy world of electronic “connectedness”, the Camino provides an opportunity to disconnect, to quiet your mind and life and to take stock.  From the outset of A Million Steps, Kurt makes no secret of the spiritual, emotional and physical aspects of undertaking the Camino that drew him to it.  Through the progression of days, he shares his thoughts in ways that allowed me to empathize, to smile and made me nod my head in recollective agreement.

Tomb of St. James the Apostle

Tomb of St. James the Apostle


A Million Steps is an easy read.  It is neither ethereal nor ponderous, but rather a down-to-earth account of one man’s journey and his existential burdens to which many of us can relate.  I would highly  recommend it to anyone who is contemplating walking the Camino de Santiago.  For those of us who have walked it, A Million Steps is a marvelous way to revisit the journey.  Finally, if walking across Spain to the tomb of St. James the Apostle is not in your future plans, you can still enjoy the journey vicariously through A Million Steps.  A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Full Disclosure:  The author provided me a copy of his book to read, but all thoughts and opinions are entirely my own.

A Million Steps by Kurt Koontz  ISBN: 978-061585-292-8 Available in paperback at