May 20, 2011

A Visit to Santiago de Compostela

In the 1st Century A.D., Saint James, one of the original Apostles, preached throughout Europe ending up in what is now the Province of Galicia in northwestern Spain. According to legend, along the way he rescued a knight from drowning in the sea and the knight resurfaced covered in scallop shells. Saint James then returned to Judea where he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa. The story continues that his body was recovered by angels who transported him back to Spain on a rudderless ship where he was entombed in stone and interred in a field. Nearly 800 years later, a hermit witnessed a miraculous light and the sound of angels singing that led him to the burial place, and the rest, as they say, is history. Today, Santiago [Saint Iago, or James] de Compostela [Campus Stellae = field of stars] is a destination for Christians on a par with Rome and Jerusalem.

Now the "real" way to visit Santiago de Compostela is to make a pilgrimage that involves at least a 100 kilometer walk along the Portuguese Route, the English Route or the most popular camino francès or French Route that crosses the Pyrenees from France and heads west across northern Spain. Carrying backpacks and walking sticks, often adorned with a scallop shell, modern day pilgrims must collect stamps in a passport, or credencial, along the route to be presented at the final destination to prove they have walked the distance and can truly claim the honor of having made a pilgrimage. How many people make this trek you wonder? Well, last year was a Holy Year in Spain (meaning Saint James' Day, July 25th, fell on a Sunday) and Santiago de Compostela welcomed 300,000 pilgrims in addition to the millions of less dedicated visitors who arrived via car, train or bus, like me.

I have long been enthralled with the idea of making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, not entirely for religious reasons but also as a personal test and a period of reflection, however the possibility of spending weeks hiking and away from civilization, and my computer, is not realistic at this time. So when the opportunity to visit Santiago de Compostela in a less pure but considerably quicker way came up, I grabbed it, and rode in modern comfort to this mythical place.

The skyline of Santiago de Compostela is dominated by the towers of its Cathedral that stands on the Praza do Obradoiro in the casco antiguo, or Old Town. Initially constructed in 829 AD, it was destroyed by the Moors in 1000 AD (fortunately the tomb of Saint James was not harmed) and rebuilt in magnificent splendor in the 11th Century. The original Romanesque structure was re-fronted in the 18th Century with a more fashionable Baroque façade now stained ochre with lichen and moss. This is the finish line for pilgrims who have walked the camino for days and weeks and many were overcome with emotion as they looked up to see the statue of Saint James the Pilgrim with a staff and a cloak welcoming them from the top of the Cathedral.

Inside many pilgrims go directly to hug another statue of Saint James, kiss his cloak and to put their hand on the column that also bears his likeness. A staffed row of confessionals awaits any pilgrim who feels the desire to confess and earn a plenary indulgence that purportedly cleanses him of mortal sin in the hope of salvation. There is a special Mass for pilgrims at noon when the Priest reads the names of all who have completed the walk that day and may, if one is really lucky, culminate in the ritual of the botafumeiro (see replica at right). Here, an enormous silver censer is hoisted over the apse and eight men operate ropes that cause it to swing like a pendulum at speeds up to 40 miles per hour to release the perfumed smoke.

Now as I was just a tourist I had a slightly different but very pleasant experience in the Cathedral. I was enthralled with the ornate interior decorated with lots of gilding and huge polychrome angels bearing archers' bows along the ceiling. I took the stairs under the altar to see the crypt where the relics of Saint James and two disciples are contained in a massive silver casket and I visited the museum next door to see other ecclesiastical treasures before exiting through the gift shop to the Plaza de la Quintana.

A short walk around the corner and I was in the Praza das Praterias on the south side of the Cathedral that was once home to many silversmiths and is now the site of some very lovely shops. I was at the edge of the Cathedral enclave and at the beginning of the town with its 15th Century stone arcades built to protect pilgrims who slept in the streets. Today the narrow passageways are lined with boutiques selling everything from fine silver objects to t-shirts sporting the yellow arrow that points the way to Santiago along the routes.

The old town is also famous for its many fish restaurants and I took advantage of the hour to stop in for lunch along the Rua Franco (not named for the dictator but rather the country, France). I feasted on small plates of ham and cheese, chorizo, a sort of potato pancake and octopus with sweet paprika all accompanied by a delightful Galician white wine. It was delicious!

My stay in Santiago de Compostela, indeed my trip to Spain, is nearly over. As I was walking back through the arcades and plazas I was struck by a most unexpected sound - someone was playing the bagpipes! It turns out that the Celtic roots are very deep here in Galicia and as a native Nova Scotian who grew up with bagpipes I took that as a very good sign that one day I will return again, maybe even as a pilgrim!

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