Home       Previous Story       Next Story

Santiago de Compostela

September 23, 2007

Many years ago, during a trip through the Burgundy region of France where we would be dining at the renowned l'Espérance restaurant, we visited the nearby town of Vézelay. We found that it is the site of a noted abbey church, Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, in whose reliquary we viewed bones of the fingers of Mary Magdalene. Betty Lou commented that, based on the number of such relics we've seen, Mary Magdalene must have had several more hands than most of us. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised – at least two sites claim to have the head of John the Baptist; perhaps one was as a child.

We also learned that Vézelay was one of the starting points for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela, capital of Galicia in the northwestern corner of Spain.

It seemed an intriguing destination, but although we've been to Spain several times, Santiago is remote from most other sites of interest. Then we discovered that although Vigo, our first Silversea port of call, is Spain's most important fishing port, it's also only an hour away from Santiago, and we immediately signed up for that shore excursion.

The Story of Santiago de Compostela

Although I had read about pilgrims and their travels, I hadn't realized that Santiago was Spanish for Saint James. Sant was obvious, but not Iago as James. Little is known about the fourth apostle recruited by Christ, leaving plenty of room for embellishment about his life, about which we learned more from a lecturer on board and from our guide on our way to Santiago de Compostela.

After the crucifixion of Jesus, James set out for Spain, where he was not very successful in converting the Roman citizens of Hispania to Christianity. In fact, winning over only seven new believers, he returned to Jerusalem. This turned out to be an even less successful trip, as King Herod beheaded him and had his body parts thrown outside the city wall to be eaten by wild dogs. Although the martyrdom is recorded in Acts, the proselytizing visit to Spain and the remainder of James' story are extra-Biblical events.

Devotees of James collected his remains and carried them to the beach where he was placed in a boat hewn from solid marble, but devoid of sails, oars, or rudder. However, when pushed into the sea, the vessel sailed, unmanned but directed by the winds – and angels – the length of the Mediterranean, between the Pillars of Hercules (the straits of Gibraltar), up the coast of Portugal and Spain, to land at Finisterre, "the end of the world" – until 1492. The beach on which it landed, 20 kilometers from the present-day city, was littered with scallop shells, which later came to symbolize Santiago de Compostela.

The adventures that ensued after his boat was met by divinely-forewarned disciples, perhaps all seven, continue in a similar vein, but the location of his final resting place was soon lost. The Romans had been displaced by the Visigoths, and later the Moors, who by 814 had conquered most of Spain.

At this bleak moment for Christianity, James propitiously reenters the picture. One night, a hermit saw a series of unusual lights in the sky that seemed to indicate a direction. As he followed them, they gradually approached the ground, and he heard the singing of angels. He went to inform the bishop, who had the undergrowth cleared and found a cave with the body of St. James – as fortuitously revealed by accompanying papers.

Rome named the site "campus stellae" – field of stars – and declared it a pilgrimage, incidentally finding it a good way to lure men and money to combat the Moors, and helping to unite the local kings against a common enemy. The local king built a church and monastery on the site, and a city, Santiago de Compostela, began to grow around it.

Later battles saw an avenging James in full armor, sword flashing, swooping down from the sky on a large white charger to lead the Christians to victory. It was just in time, because earlier accounts, presumably in Arabic, had reported that Allah had appeared on his own heavenly steed. James now had earned another appellation, Santiago Matamoros, "St. James the Moor Killer," since he was seen in battle gripping, in his non-sword hand, a bearded severed head. It does seem ironic that Othello's Iago is a Moor.

That is not to say that the eventual outcome was swift. In 997 the town was sacked, the church burned, and its bells taken to Cordoba to be ignominiously used as olive oil containers. Construction of the present cathedral was begun in 1075, and by the twelfth century the Moors no longer were a threat to the north.

The Pilgrim's Road

Although pilgrims may start anywhere – some have begun in Belgium, England, Switzerland, even Eastern Europe, just the portion of the route only in Spain, beginning in Roncesvalles, is nearly 500 miles long. Long-distance trekkers also have the consideration of avoiding winter in the Pyrenees. At least today they have few concerns about being beset there by bandits – or wolves.

Pilgrims had many reasons for their pilgrimage. The promise of accumulated sins being washed away was strong for many, for some it was a form of clearing the mind, for others, "because it's there," and for still others, as a sentence to a crime. That indicates the severity of the trek, also illustrated by the story of Jacques Lemestre of Dunkirk, who had gone to beg that his mother survive a painful illness, another popular reason. Along the way he was kidnapped by pirates, pressed into slavery, and was eventually presumed dead. When he did return three years later, his mother, who was cured by then, was so astonished to see him that she died of shock.

Even without the unknown dangers, it must have taken a strong motivation for the average person to start off on a pilgrimage in an era when they otherwise rarely would have traveled far from where they were born. But the trek was not limited to ordinary people – others included at least one pope, such notables as St. Francis of Assisi and El Cid, and so many monarchs that the route was named the Camino Real (Royal Way). Others, including Edward I, finked out by sending proxies.

Although the major towns along the route had their origins in Roman times, the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims – up to a million during a year when James' saint's day, July 25th, fell on a Sunday – enriched and expanded them, and towns sprang up about "refugios," places of shelter and food, constructed a day's walk apart.

Pilgrims receive a "Passport" where they begin their journey, which is stamped by monks and civic officials along the way. At the cathedral in Santiago, it is exchanged for a "Compostela," a certificate testifying to the successful completion of one's journey. After processing a millennium of pilgrims, this function must be similar to that of the DMV. One earnest pilgrim, after giving his name and address, replied that the motive of his pilgrimage was to find his motive. The bored functionary showed him a card indicating that it was not an essay question, but rather multiple-choice: religious, cultural, or historical. He didn't recall which one he chose.

One does not have to traverse even the entire Spanish section to qualify, but at least 100 km is required for walkers and 200 km for bicycle riders. I haven't been able to determine what the requirement is for the pilgrims on horseback we saw in the square. I had read (Travels with my Donkey: One Man and His Ass on a Pilgrimage to Santiago by Tim Moore, one of three books by pilgrims from which I have also excerpted other facts) that pilgrims with donkeys are enjoined to travel with pooper-scooper or equivalent. The Pyrenean who rented "Shinto" to the novice mule-driver assured him that by journey's end he would have no qualms even about picking it up directly with his hands. In the square we had occasion to verify that equestrians must have the same obligation, although they didn't perform it in that fashion.

As you may infer from the variety of pilgrims' motivations, not all were necessarily pious. Fights were not uncommon in the cathedral, sometimes over line jumpers at St. James' tomb, sometimes along racial lines, often brought on by drinking. In fact, so many stabbings occurred, requiring reconsecration of the cathedral, that Rome authorized a streamlined version of the ritual specifically for Santiago.

Even under the best of conditions, after weeks, even months, on the road, pilgrims were a smelly lot. The solution to fumigate, or at least air-freshen, the cathedral, was to develop a censer similar to that swung by the priest, but one on steroids. The resulting Botafumeiro weighed 50 kilograms, and a rope long and strong enough to support it weighed another 50 kilograms. The total weight of about 220 pounds required eight men to raise and swing it above the multitude.

Although today's pilgrims, and tourists, don't generally require such ministrations, on days of special religious import, the ritual is revived – and our Sunday visit fortuitously corresponded to such an occasion.

Our Visit

However, that was several hours away. On our drive into town we saw pilgrims on the last leg of their journey.

Leaving the large bus parking lot, we walked through quiet streets towards the cathedral. Although Santiago is also a university town, with 40,000 students, our guide noted that the peacefulness was no doubt because of the students' slow recovery from Saturday night's revelries.

Arriving at the square that is the center of most Spanish town's activities, our guide pointed out the surrounding edifices. Of course, the cathedral to the east,

but also the Rajoy Palace to the west, now the city hall,

topped with a sculpture of Santiago Matamoros.

And to the north, the "Hostal dos Reis Catolicos."

The "Monarchs" referred to are Ferdinando de Aragón and Isabel de Castilla – yes, of Columbus-expedition-funding fame – who erected this building in 1499 to serve as a hotel and hospital for the pilgrims of Saint James. Later converted to a parador, today, according to Frommer, it is not only the oldest, but one of the most spectacular hotels in Europe.

Paradors, a uniquely Spanish institution, are historical buildings; castles, monasteries, fortresses, convents, and palaces that have been converted into hotels with modern facilities and run by the government. During previous trips we have stayed in several. However, the most popular ones, including the one in Granada located on the grounds of the Alhambra, require reservations months in advance, which rarely fits with our travel style. Originally, pilgrims who showed their compostela could receive three meals a day for three days, a policy which still stands, although not in the restaurant dining room.

We then observed the cathedral in more detail. Inside the west entrance are three arches representing the Last Judgment. Saint James is seated beneath Christ, flanked by the Four Evangelists and surrounded by the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse playing medieval musical instruments.

The detail is so fine that when musicologists studying the hurdy-gurdy wanted to construct a replica of the forgotten instrument, they used this sculpture as a guide. On either side of the portal are Prophets of the Old Testament.

The spectacular portico was carved in 1188, and was in fact the exterior entrance until the eighteenth century, when concern about the detrimental effect of further exposure to the elements led to construction of the Baroque addition to the Romanesque cathedral. Amazingly, after all those centuries, faint traces of color remain on some the sculptures.

The north side of the cathedral, receiving no direct sunlight but considerable rain (contrary to the song, the rain does not stay mainly in the plain; Santiago is the rainiest spot in Spain), has proven to be a haven for the growth of a multiplicity of plant life, which in the past has received periodic "weedings." However, after a biologist determined that over 130 species exist there, they are now treated more as an attraction than a nuisance, and weedings are not as frequent.

The south side has no such problem, and is festooned with sculptures depicting lessons from the Bible, to educate the populace, which was mostly illiterate in early days.

A large nearby building originally housed a seminary. However, with only five currently studying for the priesthood, the remainder now houses university students. Another nearby building is a convent which originally accepted only the daughters of the rich. After their choir became renowned, young women whose voices were richer than their purses were allowed free admission. Based on the angelic tones of the one we heard during the Mass, their legacy is secure.

While waiting for the Mass to end, we were escorted into one of the parador's courtyards where we tasted delicious tapas and Spanish wines while being treated to a variety of folkloric dances.

This wasn't flamenco, accompanied by guitars, castanets, and boisterous hand clapping; rather it was more a Scottish or Irish style of dance, accompanied by bagpipe and drum. It turns out there's a good reason for this – the Gaels who invaded Galicia prior to Roman times came from central Europe and later also invaded Ireland and Scotland. However, castanets were used.

The Spectacle

Returning to the cathedral, our guide led us to a prime viewing location. The Botafumeiro would be swung along one of the axes of the cathedral, and if you were along the other, you'd get only a brief glimpse of it as it came hurtling past the intersection. Although the cathedral was sardine-packed shoulder to shoulder by the time we returned, there was still room at the top of the steps at the north, uphill, entrance, which gave us a clear view over the throng.

Eventually the incense was ignited,

the censer was raised, and swung, gently at first, then further and further, eventually hissing directly towards us. There was a downside to our elevation.

Fortunately, the rope held, and we emerged unscathed, except perhaps for our incense aura.

But also, as Betty Lou reminded me, free of any accumulated sins.

© Copyright 2007 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

    Home       Previous Story       Next Story