During the turbulent Middle Ages, the discovery of some funerary remains in Galicia gave birth to a unique element of medieval culture, the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James). This pilgrimage route generated a connection between the north of the Iberian Peninsula and Europe, at a time of territorial conflict with the Mozarabic people. The Camino was formed by several routes to Santiago de Compostela. Splashed with architectural elements built in relation to the pilgrimage, such as hospices, churches and bridges, it established an artistic and political connection within the European territory. Its social and spiritual meaning has changed with the times.
Significant in the construction of what Europe is today, the relevance of the Way has been recognized by the institutions that are in charge of the custody of patrimony. Already in 1985, the Camino de Santiago obtained the consideration of Heritage of Cultural Interest by the Spanish Government. That same year, the city of Santiago de Compostela was declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The Way would also be recognized as such in 1993. At present, the Master Plan of Camiño de Santiago 2015-2021 aims to preserve the values of the way, protecting its identity, and connection with the values of the Galician territory, while adapting to the values of the 21st century pilgrim.
Other plans promoted by public administrations are also in charge of protecting the Way. The ‘Program of Conservation and Rehabilitation of the Architectural Heritage’, which the Ministry of Development has brought about in order to meet the needs of the Architectural, Historical and Social Heritage, promoted in 2016 an architectural competition to intervene on different points of the Camino de Santiago Francés (the French Way). Among the different interventions proposed was the restoration of the Furelos bridge in the village of Melide. It was entrusted to AGi architects, and opened the possibility of reflecting on the meaning of this element as a milestone within the Way as it passes through Melide.
The origin of the Camino is due to the discovery of the tomb of the apostle James the Great in Galicia around the year 820. A hermit named Paio had found the burials of who he said to be James –Santiago in Spanish–, together with his disciples Theodore and Athanasius. At that time, there was already a popular tradition that linked Santiago to Galicia. According to it, the Saint would have traveled to the Iberian peninsula after the year 33, when the apostles were sent abroad to preach. Later, when he returned to Jerusalem, he was killed by Herod Agrippa. His body would return by boat to Galicia, where, following the medieval legend, he was buried.
After the discovery by Paio, the King of Asturias Alfonso II, made the first pilgrimage to the place, and ordered the construction of a small church. This would be the germ of the cathedral of present-day Santiago. During the tenth century European pilgrims began to arrive. The golden age of the Camino would be somewhat later, between the 11th and 13th centuries, thanks to a union of interests that carried out the main centers of Western power –the Crown, the Papacy and the monastic orders of Cluny and Cister–, while the Mozarabs pressed from the south. Religious scholars close to Cluny wrote the Calixtino Codex. The kings, seeking openness with Europe, favored a network of Cluniac monasteries in northern Spain and around the Camino.
The Codex Calixtino compiles sermons, miracles, stories and musical pieces related to the Apostle Santiago. It includes a guide for the pilgrims.
The Way, celebrated between centuries X and XIII, lost relevance later, due to the hardness of the fourteenth century, marked by the War of the One Hundred Years (1337-1453) and the Black Plague (1348). The religious schism, the Protestant Reformation and the religion wars took away many pilgrims. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century with the second discovery of the relics of the apostle when the route recovered. The relics had been hidden in 1589 because of the fear of an attack on Compostela by the English ships of Francis Drake.
Santiago de Compostela was the third of the great pilgrimage centers of Christianity, next to Rome and Jerusalem. The original route passed through the Roman road that crosses the Pyrenees through Puerto del Palo, but it would soon be abandoned to use the port of Somport, in Huesca. The Camino de Santiago Francés originated here and also in Roncesvalles, and both branches are then joined in Obanos, Navarra, running to Santiago de Compostela.
Along the way, bridges, churches and hospices were built. The reception of the pilgrim at each stage was one of the main aspects of the Way’s experience. A physical and spiritual care given by institutions built thanks to the donations of the Church, the kings or the nobility. In the Middle Ages, the pilgrim was linked to God. Jesus used to be represented with the signs of the pilgrim, such as the wallet and the scallop shell.
The Camino de Santiago is an element of civil architecture, a route dotted with architectural and artistic pieces. But a road can not be conceived only as a geographical space. It is also an temporal element. The Way is an experience conceived by walking, it is an experience of transformation linked to the body and to a certain spirituality.
In addition, as the philosopher Gustavo Bueno pointed out, «the spatial moment of the road, the road, when it is incorporated into the living way, is something more than a mere material component, since the road embodies the very norm of walking». The proposal put forward by AGi architects for the conservation and recovery of Furelos Bridge presents this idea. Starting from the rhythm of walking, and the phenomenology of the experience, an architecture is drawn marking the passage of the pilgrim.
The project physically marks the passage of the traveler, but also that of the river that he or she crosses. Large stones demarcate the threshold as the pilgrim’s reception area; keystones, pillars, stirrups and breakwaters are referenced in the pavement using big stones; points of observation upstream and downstream show the future road that awaits and the road that is left behind… Antique measuring methods based in the human body are recovered, based in the hand, the rod… and the foot. They define the rhythms of the bridge in order to give it a human scale.
The recovery of the bridge’s local memory is another fundamental aspect of the project. Thus, non-local stone elements from late interventions, mostly executed in granite, are replaced with gneiss from the quarries of the area. The low retaining wall of the hydrographic margin is extended to configure a stone bench. It is a place where you can observe the landscape, rest and prepare the way again.
Check the project in detail on our website.