The whole Santiago Day was a bit funny for me – I’d just spent five weeks walking over 800km to this place, the last day speed walking about 20km to ensure I got to the Cathedral before noon. I had even walked the first half hour in the rain, in the dark, and through a forest! And once I did reach the city outskirts, it was still quite a ways to reach the “old” city. Every time I thought I found the Cathedral, I hadn’t. I kept passing old buildings and churches, but none of them were The Destination. Then suddenly, about 11am, I found myself in this big square. I turned to my left and saw this large church-like structure. I squinted at it in befuddlement. I think I may have even turned in a circle to take in all sides of the square as I wondered, “Is this it?” I asked someone who had the air of a freshly bathed pilgrim.
“Excuse me, did I reach? Is this the Cathedral?”
“Yes! This is it!”
“Really?” I asked. I was either incredulous or skeptical. I have no idea why I felt that way. I think she congratulated me and offered to take my photo. To this day I don’t know why I said no. I stared blankly at the Cathedral but just couldn’t get excited about it. I shrugged, deciding to let it go for now and go get my Compostela.
Finding the Pilgrim Office was more difficult than one would expect – between the poor signage, the magpie-like behaviour of the brain having reached the end, the mass of humanity, and twisty medieval streets…it took a bit of doing to find the place. It would have been easier to ask a pilgrim either without a backpack or if (s)he had one, (s)he also had a tube clutched in hand. The line, though a bit long, passed quite quickly. I had to answer a few questions about myself but was soon the owner of my very own Compostela inscribed with my untranslatable-to-Latin name. I bought a tube in which I could transport it safely (1 euro). Checking into my hotel and making my way into the Cathedral itself, I started to realize that this was it! I had completed a 800+km journey across Spain to Santiago just as I’d dreamed for the past seven years and I am now seated in a pew about to listen to The Pilgrim’s Mass! For someone who rarely ever cries, I almost did at that point. I had made it to Santiago! wooHOO!!!
Location: The Cathedral is in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
Legend/History: Saint James is the one who brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula. In 44 AD he was beheaded in Jerusalem and his remains were brought back to Spain. Briefly lost to the annals of time, his tomb was rediscovered in 814 AD by the hermit Pelagius, and was ‘authenticated’ by Bishop Theodomirus of Iria. The king of the time ordered that a chapel be constructed on the site. It expanded to a church in 829 AD and grew from there. It soon became a major place of pilgrimage. The present cathedral was built between 1075 and 1128. It was expanded and embellished with additions in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Cool Fact: The Cathedral was built according to the same plan as the Church of Saint Sernin in Toulouse. I didn’t know this until I came back home – this was extra cool for me because the day I left Toulouse for SJPDP, I stopped by St. Sernin on a whim! I thought the coincidence of bracketing my Camino with two cathedrals with the same floor plan is randomly cool. Dorky, yes, but I still say it’s cool.
Pilgrim Sightseeing List:
Visiting the crypt can take two seconds up to ‘you may as well move in’. It is a matter of going down a few stairs, crossing a little room, and going back up some stairs on the other side. The little room contains a spot for one person to kneel in front of a silver reliquary that houses the supposed remains of St. James. When I passed through, there was someone already there so it felt intrusive to stand about gawking. The line of people behind me didn’t help either. And the fact that there was someone praying also meant taking photos would have been rude. Not to mention there was a giant sign telling us NO PHOTO! So while my ethics allowed me to break into a church’s grounds, they didn’t extend to snapping a few shots of a saint right next to a praying believer.
Tree of Jesse
The Tree of Jesse (12th-century) is no longer available for pilgrims to fondle. But you can certainly see the five-finger imprint left behind by centuries of touching. In the dim light of the Cathedral, it can take a minute to find the holes, but they’re there! For me, seeing those finger marks was what really drove home the point of how OLD this Camino thing is.
Statue of St. James
The statue is at the back of the front altar and if you are seated in a pew for a sermon, keep your eyes peeled – you’ll see pilgrims passing behind giving the ritualistic pat or hug! And as you pass St. James yourself, you can peek out at the faithful worshipers. Just make sure you behave yourself and don’t wave to the crowd!
On days it will swing, the botafumeiro is attached to a pulley mechanism, filled with 40 kg of charcoal and incense. Eight red-robed men pull on the ropes until it swings back and forth. It is an incredible sight to see it whooshing by, almost hitting the ceiling! The purpose of this spectacle is to dispense incense – many say the tradition started 700 years ago to help fumigate smelly and disease-ridden pilgrims!
- Sit not facing the altar if you’re interested in getting good photos when the botafumeiro swings
- There is a good restaurant just down from the Cathedral called Casa Marcelo if you’re interested in trying modernized traditional tapas. Go with a group so that you can try as many as possible!
- The Cathedral Museum is worth a visit.
- Stay at Hospederia San Martin Pinario Seminario Mayor (to the left of the Cathedral when facing the church) for a decently priced treat – also, if you book in advance, they have a good Pilgrim’s price.
- Take the roof-top tour of the Cathedral – definitely worth seeing the place from above…and you get to go outside!
- Plan to stay the night before your arrival to Santiago in a place closer than O Pedrouzo if you want to arrive before that day’s Pilgrim’s Mass. This way you can avoid the necessary speed-walking.
Question: What was your arrival like? Anti-climactic? Sense of accomplishment? A mix of both like mine?