We waited until Monday to go to the Cathedral. It simply would have been too much to try to experience it late on Sunday. As we were headed there, we ran into Marie and Klaus who had just gotten their Compostelas. We all congratulated one another and they waved goodbye as they left to plan their return to Germany. We arrived at the Cathedral about 10:00am and approached it from Praza do Obradoiro, which sits at the West Front (the main side). The plaza is a grand square surrounded by public buildings (the 5-star Parador hotel, which was built in 1492 as a pilgrim hospice; the town hall, Pazo de Raxoi; and the Colegio de S. Jeronimo, which is part of the University). Since Cathedrals are generally built so that the rising sun shines through the window(s) behind the altar, i.e., the top of the nave points east, that means the West Front was in the shade at 10 in the morning (so pictures had to wait until the afternoon, but see the shot with a smiling Ted that Charlie took later in the day). Of course we’d seen countless pictures of the Cathedral, but in real life it was nonetheless breathtaking. The iconic tall medieval towers (76 meters), which were added as an external Baroque facade between 1738 and 1750, so clearly define this as the home of St. James. A statue of his father, Zebedee, stands atop the left tower and his mother, Maria Salome, graces the right tower. And statues of St. James the Great and his disciples shown as pilgrims are prominent on the center of the facade. However, notwithstanding the overwhelming beauty of the exterior of the Cathedral, I could not help but be disappointed in the fact that it was in dire need of a serious facelift. The stone was deeply stained by acid rain; moss, lichen, and other unwanted plants grew from places that never saw the sun; and windows were in need of major cleaning. A “grande” power wash would make a huge difference. (We later saw that some other facades had indeed been cleaned, so I guess the West Facade must have been waiting its turn).
When we entered the Cathedral we encountered Master Mateo’s masterpiece, the Portico de Gloria (Door of Glory). Unfortunately, it was shrouded by scaffolding and netting as it was undergoing major restoration. This Romanesque inner portico was carved by Mateo and his understudies between 1166 and 1188. It includes the Tree of Jesse, which is the central column depicting St. James sitting as an intercessor between Jesus Christ and the pilgrims. It is this column that has been hugged by pilgrims for centuries, to the point where finger holes are now present in the solid marble. And on the back of the column (facing the altar) is a kneeling statue of Master Mateo himself, where millions of pilgrims have knelt and touched their brow on his head to receive some of his wisdom. Unfortunately, all this was behind barriers for us, so we couldn’t hug the column or knock heads with Mateo.
The original part of the Cathedral is near the main altar and the right transept. Construction of the Romanesque structure began in 1075 and the Cathedral was consecrated in 1128. Today the basically Romanesque Cathedral demonstrates significant Baroque and Gothic architectural elements that were added as modifications through the centuries. The main altar has an ambulatory passage that enables pilgrims to walk behind and above the altar, and a passage under the altar where the remains of St. James are interred. Charlie and I climbed the stone steps worn deeply by the passage of millions of pilgrims to place our arms around the bejeweled silver statue of St. James that sits above the tabernacle on the main altar. I cannot clearly describe the mix of feelings that overcame me as I knelt with my arms around the Saint’s silver shoulders and looked out over those shoulders down the main nave of the Cathedral that was filled with pilgrims trying to digest what they were experiencing. I think I finally felt that I was no longer just another person making this pilgrimage, but that I was finally a pilgrim myself.
After we climbed down the stairs behind the altar, we walked along the ambulatory to the entrance to the crypt. Then we squeezed down a narrow staircase to a vault under the altar where a silver casket held the remains of the great Saint and two of his disciples. We knelt in a very small chapel, just the two of us with the casket in front of us, and said our own private prayer to the Saint who has inspired this journey for so many people for so many years. It was surreal.
Each day there is a pilgrim mass at noon. We found seats near the front of the main nave (good seats), since we were there early. As noon approached, the church continued to fill to the point of standing room only (seating was expanded in the festival year 2010 to 1,000 so there were over a thousand pilgrims for Monday’s noon mass). We didn’t really know what to expect, but when noon arrived, the organs above our heads began to play and a procession of clergy in their vestments and lay people dressed in ivory tunics emblazoned with the Tau (or Pilgrim’s) Cross marched down the main aisle and into the main altar area. The mass was going to be conducted by six priests, two of whom were Monsignors and one a Bishop. So much for your average weekday mass!
The mass was conducted in a variety of languages (I heard Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, German, and English). It was closer to a High Mass in form, but it really had its own structure. The homily was delivered in Spanish and was specifically targeted to us as pilgrims. With such a large crowd, communion was given by the six priests plus some assistants who deployed around the Cathedral. The offering was collected in good size leather sacks hand carried by a group of capable looking Spanish men. Besides communion, the highlight of the mass was the swinging of the Botafumeiro, the giant incense burner that was originally used to counter the odors emitted by the horde of sweaty (and possibly disease-ridden) pilgrims. The Botafumeiro today is a silver censer (reputedly the largest in the world) that is suspended by a heavy rope (about 2 inches in diameter tied in a knot that Charlie described as a “rolling magnus”) that is connected (through a series of pulleys installed at the highest point at the intersection of the main nave and the transept) to a rope that is pulled by a team of people who are trained in the art of Botafumeiro swinging. The censer is lit (it holds 40kg of charcoal) and the ropes are pulled so that the Botafumeiro begins to swing along the plane of the transept — back and forth — until it climbs to reach the highest point of the Cathedral’s ceiling. For a former altar boy, this was really, really cool (and I have it on my iPad video)!
The Cathedral emptied quickly once Mass was over and most of the pilgrims scattered. Charlie and I loitered in the gift shop and then exited into the Praza da Quintana (east facade), which was bright and sunny. We were debating where to go for lunch and had begun to walk when a woman called my name — it was Margot from South Africa — a woman whom we had met at our very first stop on the way up the Pyrenees on our very first day on the trail! Charlie had befriended her at that stop, as she had been robbed on her way through Pamplona and was really very bummed. We saw her briefly again in Estella, just after Father Javier had taken me for blister treatment, when we directed her to the same clinic for treatment of her blisters. That was 37 days ago and here we were in Santiago at the same time. We sat down and she introduced us to her son and his girlfriend, who had both come down from England to meet her. She insisted on buying us beers.
As our beers arrived, up walked our friend Kit who was looking for Carina. So we introduced Kit to Margot and her family, and the circle grew. After a bit I grabbed Kit to go find Carina. We walked up the plaza and around the Cathedral and there sat Carina and her friend Nadine, who was also from Germany. The four of us then headed back to where Charlie, Margot and family were sitting.
As we were crossing the plaza, I heard Doug Foreman’s deep voice calling my name; I turned, and there sat he and Jannice, about three tables away from Charlie, Margot and company. We’d lost them about a week ago; we knew we were on about the same timeline to Santiago; but we didn’t know how well Jannice would be able to fare; or where they might be. We introduced everybody to everybody. And, bingo, we now had a crowd!
Doug and Jannice were sitting with a friend, so we made plans to meet to have dinner, and we got the rest of the crowd to all go to lunch. Margot’s son recommended a tapas bar and we headed there, where we had a great lunch and an even better time. When it was done we said goodbye to Kit, Carina and Nadine as they were headed out of Santiago, and Margot agreed to join us for dinner with Doug and Jannice.
Doug had done his homework and selected a nice restaurant not too far from the Cathedral that had a good menu at reasonable prices. Doug, Jannice, Charlie, Margot and I were joined by two German guys who walked a lot with Doug and two women, one from Germany and one from New Zealand, who were somehow connected to the German guys (the Camino walkers are a loosely coupled, but tightly bound, collection of people who share this one common experience). Later, Margot’s son and his girlfriend joined us. We had a great dinner together and you’d have thought we’d all known each other forever.
On Tuesday morning Charlie and I met Leslie Yun for coffee. She is a young woman from Canada with whom we’d walked a lot during the first week. We’d lost track of each other when we were sidetracked in Estella, and she had contacted us thru the blog to say she’d be in Santiago on Tuesday (she’d completed her Camino with Angela from Portugal/Paris/London on June 8). It was great to see her. We’d spent some quality time together in the early days and it felt really good to close the loop with her. She’ll be attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins and I hope we get to see her again sometime in the US. Charlie and I spent the rest of Tuesday sightseeing and doing some shopping in Santiago, and we had dinner at a delightful Italian restaurant that featured home made pasta. Bene, Bene, Multo Bene!
Until the 15th century or so, the end of the world was thought to be the west coast of the Iberian peninsula, and the westernmost city was Finisterre (Latin for “end of the world”). Some pilgrims choose to walk to Finisterre to complete their journey (it’s another 3 days of walking); some just ignore it as a marketing ploy to get the pilgrims to spend more time in Spain; and some take the bus and back. We chose to spend Wednesday on option three. Doug and Jannice had gone to spend a few days at Finisterre on Tuesday and we agreed to meet them on Wednesday. Margot joined us and we took the 9:00am bus from Santiago for the 2 – 3 hour ride to the coast. I brought both pairs of shorts that I’d worn on the trail to burn them at Finisterre, a pilgrim custom to signify a final end (Charlie felt that his stuff still had enough life in it, so he declined to bring anything to burn).
We met Doug and Jannice about 12:30 and they introduced us to Marvin and Cecilia from Maylasia, who were friends they had made on the walk whom they bumped into that morning. We all went to lunch and had a wonderful feast of Spanish seafood. Marvin and Cecilia went their own way after lunch, and the rest of us set out to walk about 3km to the lighthouse at the end of the world. We did so; I got to place my shorts on a pile to be burned later in the day; we took lots of “end of the world” pictures; we had celebratory drinks; and we walked back to Finisterre full of good feelings for the whole journey. We said goodbye to Doug and Jannice and took the 7:00pm bus back to Santiago. We had a tapas dinner with Margot and said our goodbyes to her. She had a 15-hour travel day back to Capetown in the morning. It was a fitting way for Charlie and I to spend our last full day together. I head to Madrid tomorrow, and Charlie heads to Vigo to meet Eileen. It’s been a great adventure, one that neither of us will ever forget, and one that we would encourage others to seriously consider. I hope you enjoy the pictures that follow.
Ted at West Facade
Marie and Klaus
Charlie and Margot
Kit, Carina and Nadine
Doug and Jannice
Ted and Leslie
Charlie and Margot, Finisterre
Charlie and Ted, Finisterre
Doug and Jannice, Finisterre
Pilgrim on road to Finisterre with lighthouse in background
Doug, Charlie, Ted and Pilgrim
The final 0.0 distance marker at Finisterre