Why do they keep live chickens in the cathedral?

Working on ankle recovery 🙂

The most important ingredient in Pete’s backpack.


The holy hen pen, right in the heart of Santo Domingo cathedral. Above it is part of the gallows.


The hermitage of Santa Barbara at the top of a mountain by the ski resort whose snowy peak I have been walking alongside for a while.


Very exotic butterflies swooping all round the hermitage.


Not walking today, but I got to see some beautiful parts of La Rioja.


Loads of flowering broom and heather.



A drummer started playing outside our window at 5am. It was quite a doleful sound so we decided that after the celebrations of the 2nd May about the insurgents rising up against Napoleon’s forces, this was commemorating the time they were all executed. Unfortunately we were wrong.

“No the drumming is in preparation for the fiestas of Santo Domingo which will be held on the 10th May,” the receptionist told us. “Every morning between the 1st and the 10th of May the drummers go through our streets at 5am and 7pm in memory of our great saint,” she said proudly, as we groaned a little inwardly. “When he was a child, Saint Domingo ran through the city’s streets banging his toy drum at 5am every day to get the pilgrims out of bed and on their way. Then he ran through the streets again at 7pm banging his drum to remind the pilgrims to go to mass.” Personally, I think his mum was a bit lax on discipline and I bet he wasn’t too popular with the neighbours.

After physio, we decided to take a good look at the cathedral and see if the tales of live chickens being kept in there were true. Sure enough, there was a white rooster and hen in residence, as they have been every day since the Pope ordained it in 1350. They seem perfectly happy and plump. The hens are in situ due to Saint Domingo’s most famous miracle. The story goes that a German pilgrim family arrived in the town and stayed at the local inn. The inn-keeper’s daughter fell passionately in love with the 18-year-old son named Hugonell, but he wasn’t at all interested. She became so miffed with him that she planted a silver cup in his luggage and then told the authorities he was a thief. This was a crime punishable by hanging, so they strung up Hugonell, which thoroughly upset his folks.  However, they were good catholics and continued on to Santiago. On the way back they decided to visit their son’s grave but when they arrived at Santo Domingo they discovered him still hanging. And alive. “Mum! Dad! Saint Domingo has brought me back to life, could you run to the Mayor’s house and ask him to cut me down.”

“No probs son,” they replied in delight and dashed off to the Mayor’s pad. The Mayor was about to have dinner with his friends, so he wasn’t well chuffed at being interrupted by a couple of delusional pilgrims. “Your lad is as alive as these two roast chickens we are about to eat!” He scoffed. Suddenly the chickens came to life, sprouted feathers and beaks and began clucking about the dinner table. Which led the Pope to decree that there should always be a rooster and hen kept in the cathedral in memory of the miracle. It also  led to the saying “Santo Domingo of the Way, where the roosters crow after being roasted.” Which rhymes in Spanish but sounds pretty weird in any other language. There is a piece of the orignal wooden gallows kept above the chicken cage.

The rest of the cathedral is curious. There are some very ornately carved choir stalls with the organ above them set behind a grill in the very centre of the building and, while most of the cathedral is old, the altar area is modern in an almost Ikea-like way.

Pete and I drove up to Ezcaray (so that my leg could have a rest day and because our friend Julien, who used to live here, had recommended it) where there is a ski resort and a steep road across the mountains. 

Tomorrow we go our separate ways again. I have already had no luck booking accommodation for tomorrow night and the Camino forums are full of stories of this getting worse and worse the closer a person gets to Santiago with the last 100km already being swamped (you only need to “walk” the last 100 km to get the certificate, and it appears bus loads of people are stopping at the villages along this part of the way, getting their passports stamped and then hopping back on the bus to the next village, one forum writer compared the early morning exit from the albergues, hotels and hostals being like rats flowing out into the streets to follow the Pied Piper). The albergue owners who in the 1980s had to cope with “a handful” of pilgrims each year, were struggling when in 2014 (after the 2010 film The Way) numbers swelled to 200,000. This year, that number looks set to double and the infrastructure is not in place to cope with it. Every time the problem is mentioned the albergue owners look deeply worried. “I don’t know how we’ll cope in June and July if this carries on,” one said to me, “it’s complete madness.” I think I’ll put it on record now, if I have to start sleeping rough I’ll be coming home. Maybe I’ll come back in the winter and finish what I started, but I have limits and that’s definitely it!

2 thoughts on “Why do they keep live chickens in the cathedral?

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