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Europe Part 6 – Santiago de Compostela

‘I will walk by faith even when i can not see’ –   2 Corinthians 5:7

santiagoSantiago de Compostela, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

It’s difficult to describe a place that is built almost entirely around religion. Much of it depends on your personal beliefs of a god, of religion and its place in faith. Take from this post what you will, whether good, bad or indifferent.

I don’t think I have been anywhere where there are such fingerprints in time of religious war than Spain – a country that has see-sawed between Catholicism and Islam for hundreds of years. I have seen cities and buildings where middle eastern architecture blends with western architecture within what can only be described as a part mosque/part church. The building style of course dictated by whichever religion was currently in control at that point in time which begs the question  of whether the name of god is dictated on a ‘might is right’ basis. The same could be said of course about general history where the victor writes the history books.

santiago-9Cathedral de Compostela, Canon 5d2, 70-300L

The Way of Saint James  is the 1000 year old pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela . The legend is that the remains of the apostle James were brought to Galicia for burial and that a shepherd was guided to the burial site in Santiago de Compostela by a bright star.  (Compostela is thought to be derived from Campus Stellae – ‘Field of Stars’) The subsequent development of this legend over the years has led to the Camino de Santiago – a path that tens of thousands of people undertake each year.

The full legend of how James’ body got to Galicia is quite a tale involving beheadings, boats made of stone, dragons, pagan queens and bulls. I will lift it from wikipedia at the bottom of this page if you want to take a peek.

So, off I strode from the bar where I was staying, past the University and into the centre of Santiago. Lovely blue skies, a lot warmer than the Picos and a wonderfully relaxed place.


Architecture, University Park, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Dressed in a rather fetching attire of sandals, combat pants and an orange t-shirt i dove into the stone buildings and cobbled streets of Santiago. Stopping to buy some fruit and a drink I was asked if I was undertaking the camino. I wasn’t really prepared for that question, raised a hand and said ‘no,no’ with a smile. Even though it was early in the season, there were plenty of pilgrims there – all looked fatigued and yet elated to have reached journey’s end. By bike, by foot and ( I imagine) some by train and car they all convened on Cathedral square. Some took photos with their arms outstretched towards the spires, others just collapsed in the shade. I wonder what goes through the mind of someone who undertakes this journey when they reach the end? Elation but then a sense of ‘what now?’ perhaps. I also wondered how I would feel when I eventually reached Nordkapp – would I feel the same as I did in Ireland at Malin head…joy, relief and a bit of sadness that the journey was over? My guess is that we all feel the same but as Hemingway wrote ‘It is good to have an end to journey toward, but its the journey that matters in the end’

The streets of Santiago are a pleasure to walk around and get lost in – immaculately maintained, plenty of shade, plenty of places to stop and sit and eat. There is a real sense of calm which is hard to describe – it just feels very relaxed, very measured. I like that.

santiago-15Galician Hake, yum, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

The food is seriously good and quite affordable in Santiago – the bar staff had recommended a backstreet restaurant and I ate fish, chorizo and drank local wine all for under a tenner with fresh dessert thrown in for good measure. I can still taste that meal even now. The streets are filled with people in the evenings, feasting, drinking, talking – boosted by the student numbers and the tourists. I had deliberately left seeing the Cathedral until the second day so after the lengthy walk back through the cobbled streets (made no easier by the effects of a few glasses of the red stuff) I dropped into bed and slept soundly.

A quick breakfast of churros, coffee and a slice of Santiago cake (offered freely by the owner of the bar – a portly chap who had immense frustration that he couldn’t talk with me because of the language barrier) and I headed back into the centre. Blue skies and a warming sun lifted my spirits and bathed the stone structures in a wonderful warm light – I spent an hour at a local cafe just watching the town come to life with people turning up for work, delivery vans bringing fresh foods to the restaurants and locals buying fresh fruit and vegetables from the market. A perfect start to the day and even the ache in my shoulder was beginning to fade.


Town Hall opposite the Cathedral, Pilgrims Resting, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Visiting the museum/exhibit that explains the history of Santiago and St James was interesting – I don’t usually go in for that kind of stuff but it held my attention for an hour or so along with a throng of schoolchildren who were there on a class visit. Watching the videos of the way in which the camino has developed was a real eye opener. The first travellers along the camino would have had a very tough journey.  Seeking shelter along an unmarked route, lacking food and with all the medical problems associated with long hikes without the benefits of modern clothing/footwear. Many died. I did see some leaflets/posters in a part of Santiago which seemed to say that performing the camino on a pushbike or by train was not ‘really’ performing the camino. That’s an interesting debate really – how far do you take that? Should it be done only in sandals and with no lodgings booked for it to be more ‘real’. I wondered if God would care. I guess the real nub of the matter is ‘why’ you undertake the camino. Is it to tick a box and say you have done it or is it to take time out to reflect whilst on the journey? Both are equally noble in my eyes if they give people some value. In a world where we have to Facebook and snapchat selfies to show what a good time we are having/how great our life is, I did wonder whether some were missing the point of the camino and, as I would see many times during my tour, missing the point of travel altogether as I will discuss below.

Leaving the museum, I walked into the Cathedral – it’s a little overwhelming when you walk in. Very high ceilings with a central piece of the altar and the swinging urn (more on this below) and a huge golden repository for the ‘remains’ of St James. A coach load of tourists had just arrived and were hastily scurrying around so I went to the rear of the Cathedral and found a small private antechamber with a statue of the Virgin Mary and candles adorning the walls. I sat on one of the oak pews at the rear of the chamber, feeling the coolness of the stone walls on my skin and put my cameras away. Signs were present in the entryway prohibiting any form of photography – I think because this was a place for quiet reflection.


Cathedral de Compostela, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

There was only one other person in the room – an elderly lady with her back to me, stooped over a painting of a Saint that was at hip level. She was murmuring softly, obviously in prayer. My eyes flicked back and forth between her and the eyes of the Virgin Mary which seemed to be looking at me no matter how I moved my head as statues have a habit of doing. Slowly she moved around the room, stopping momentarily to light candles. Behind me, the tourists had arrived, wandering in, cameras flashing, whirring, laughter, Facebook posts being made. Flashes illuminated the chamber in cold hard light, my eyes flicked sideways in disapproval, the elderly woman fell silent. They left, having got their snap. She turned around a moment later, walked towards the exit and smiled at me, I smiled back. Her eyes were glassy with tears, obviously mourning a loved one. There are a whole host of points I could make here but if you’ve got through this far, you can no doubt work out what they would be. I’d like to think that God would value respect for others above all else and therein lies the juxtaposition of religious doctrine and the reality of the world. I sat for quite a while in that chamber before returning to the main Cathedral.

I joined the queue to view the remains of St James and I felt uncomfortable doing so. Why would I want to see this, I hadn’t come as a pilgrim and it is a place of immense significance to those who believe. A group of people pushed in from of me, elbowing me and smacking one of my cameras. I sighed as they laughed loudly in the queue, ignoring the protests from the warders and security guards to keep quiet. Approaching the relic, they each bowed down and kissed it and made the sign of the crucifix. I walked past. Box ticked by both parties I guess, I wonder how St James would view it however.

Remains of St James, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I left the Cathedral but returned a few hours later to attend the mass. Well, to be precise, I wanted to watch the famous swinging urn of Santiago. I was at the rear of the church with a crowd of probably 100 others. I didn’t understand much of the mass, although part was delivered in English – presumably to cater for the varying nationalities that were present. At the end of the ceremony, the urn is lit and swung high up into the rafters and covers the full length of the church – quite an amazing sight with several people putting their full efforts into pulling the rope. The urn goes right up to the roof at both ends and you can see the rope straining as the urn leaves a trail of incense high above the congregations head. I have no idea if this is done to cover all the congregation or whether it it just purely a spectacle. In both respects it succeeded. The Cathedral emptied immediately afterwards apart from about half of the seated congregation who remained in silent prayer.


The Urn, iPhone 5SE

You will have your own views on God, on religion, on belief, on faith. As I walked back to the bar, I couldn’t help but think that the serenity of the place (tourists aside) is because of the respect that people show. In the cool antechambers, with the staring statues and the silence it is easy to perceive that as being in the presence of God. For me, however, if there is a God then it was in the eyes of the elderly woman I saw. Maybe pained, definitely mourning but at the bottom of it all, a love for people in her life.

I arrived back at the room, packed my gear, plumped the pillow and checked my route for the next day – crossing from Spain into Portugal.



 Santiago at Dusk, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Excerpt from Wikipedia :

‘Saint James decided to return to the Holy Land after preaching in Galicia. There he was beheaded, but his disciples managed to get his body to Jaffa, where they found a marvelous stone ship which miraculously conducted them and the apostle’s body to Iria Flavia, back in Galicia. There, the disciples asked the local pagan queen Loba (‘She-wolf’) for permission to bury the body; she, annoyed, decided to deceive them, sending them to pick a pair of oxen she allegedly had by the Pico Sacro, a local sacred mountain where a dragon dwelt, hoping that the dragon would kill the Christians, but as soon as the beast attacked the disciples, at the sight of the cross, the dragon exploded. Then the disciples marched to collect the oxen, which were actually wild bulls which the queen used to punish her enemies; but again, at the sight of the Christian’s cross, the bulls calmed down, and after being subjected to a yoke they carried the apostle’s body to the place where now Compostela is.  





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