Last September 2015, I visited the famous pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela, the destination for millions of pilgrims each year who walk along the camino. After my own run to Fisterre, I explored the city for a few days, so here’s my blog on what I found.
Today I took a day off. No real plan or timetable. My body and mind were tired after 3 days on the road. This is my version of a pool day. I had a nice fruit breakfast in the apartment, then headed up to the cathedral for the 12pm Pilgrims Mass.
Catedral de Santiago
Santiago Cathedral is a busy place 7 days a week. Along with Rome and Jerusalem, it’s one of the trident of holy pilgrimage sites, so I guess having 800+ people at a Mass on a Monday morning isn’t surprising. The daily pilgrims mass is full of pilgrims who’ve made the journey and want to celebrate.
The cathedral is packed with people in heavy boots, capes, ponchos, walking sticks, umbrellas, back packs and of course cameras. You really can’t go anywhere without people sticking phones in the air taking bad photos or videos of experiences they’d be better off viewing with their own two eyes, rather than funnelling the whole experience into a 2-inch screen.
It was a special mass as everyone had achieved some sort of goal: physical, mental, personal, shared, hard fought. A relief for many and the emotion came out for lots of people. It was powerful and real – not fake. The church was packed. It works like a well-tuned machine – security at the doors and inside, seats filled early, no flash cameras, visiting groups gather, visiting priests get the red garments and co-celebrate the mass on the altar.
The mass lasts over an hour and it’s all in Spanish. I did notice confession boxes – including one in use with a sign saying “confessions in English – agus as Gaeilge”.
The highlight of the Mass is the botafumeiro – something you’d expect in Disneyland rather than a catholic church. You know when they burn incense and shake the container through the aisles. Well in Santiago they went full on in suspending a metre-high incense burner from a 20m rope hanging from the nave above the altar. Once it’s raised, several men in red robes pull the ropes to swing the botafumeiro in a pendulum fashion above the aisles. It flies above your head, reaching a maximum speed of 90kmph. Heart in your mouth stuff – totally captivating and special to see. Although I’d bring a helmet if it was in the front row!
Mercado do Abastos
I enjoyed cooking lunch each day in the apartment. I shopped in the local market, Mercado do Abastos, meant to be one of the best outside Madrid. The quality of the fish, meat, veg and fruit is out of this world. Not shrink wrapped packs of fruit all the same size (and probably devoid of taste, e.g. tomatoes), but you can touch, feel, smell before you buy. The glorious figs, the huge green tomatoes, cranberries, the nuts. Wow, a pity I couldn’t buy more. Lunch was una ensalada con gambas. Yum.
That afternoon I wandered around the streets – since most of the museums were closed. The park was a nice place to relax and do some stretches – something simply but I never have time to do at home. After a chocolate éclair and a browse in a bookshop, back home to relax: time to plan the next few days: Pontevedra or A Coruna or kayaking on the coast.
I like staying in apartments with Airbnb. I like cooking – breakfast is so much nicer and you can get such good ingredients for lunch. Nobody wants to eat out 7 days a week. I just wish I could eat more than 3 meals – so much great food, so little time!
Day 7: Exploring Museo del Catedral
Santiago has so many parks, more per person than other European cities of its size apparently. With the bad weather, I went to the Museo del Catedral. It was surprisingly interesting – filling in the whole history of the city, who was the apostle James (Santiago), why the pilgrimage is important and how some amazing architecture was built here.
Brief history of Santiago & the Camino
In brief: James (Santiago) was one of the Apostles, and after he was killed, his sons took him back to Galicia to be buried, as he’d spread the word of God there. It quickly became a pilgrimage route to visit this special place in the Roman empire.
By the 10th century, the Spanish kings built a church and that got the ball rolling. People have been coming ever since. Btw, there are several Camino routes – the most famous is the Camino Frances, which starts in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
But there are routes from all over Europe – el Camino Ingles, el Camino Portugues, el Camino de la Via de la Plata, etc. Every iglesia de Santiago in Spain connects into a pilgrim route.