May 16, Santiago de Compostela

Santiago, once the third holiest place in Christendom, and for centuries the destination of one of the most popular of Christian pilgrimages, I came, partly out of a sense of obligation, partly out of curiosity, expecting to be disappointed, hoping to be moved. In the end, I was neither. I do not regret the time spent. Santiago has a special air and cachet about the historic area. For over a millennium it has been a pilgrimage destination, originally the shrine of Saint James and later the cathedral. Legend has it that the remains of the apostle James were brought to Galica in 813 CE, and that the light of a bright star had guided a shepherd to the burial site. For what was probably a combination of political, religious, and economic reas- ons the bishop of Iria declared them to be the remains of James the apostle and Santiago de Compostela has thrived as a travel destination ever since. Santiago de Compostela has always catered to pilgrims, to those drawn to the idea of pil- grimage, and to simple tourists. Tourism is still a major part of the economy. The draw is especially strong in “Holy Compostelan Years” when July 25 falls on a Sunday. In 2010, 272,000 registered pilgrims and unnumbered tourists vis- ited the cathedral.  Happily, tourist hype is not as intense or blatant as elsewhere but it is still present. The little white tourist train still runs, street performers still perform, and souvenir stands and shops proliferate. What sets it apart is that it is mostly about the pilgrimage and despite increasing secularism in the west, the pil- grimage still lives, it goes on. Walking the streets of the old city, pilgrims are often evident by their dress and demeanor. They are mixed lot, but at this time of year mostly retirees and a few young people. Some, freshly arrived look haggard, foot sore and weary, their posture and gait one of fatigue, their expression vacant or pained. Others have spent a night or more recuperating and are refreshed. Backpacks are shed but they still wear the garb of the pilgrim, hiking boots, water bottles, hat, and hiking poles or staffs hung with a scallop shell and gourd. It is gratifying to see the number of seniors who qualify as pilgrims having walked at least 100 km to Santiago. The cathedral, largely Romaneque with later Gothic and Baroque additions, dominates the central plaza. Confessionals lined the transept and aisles of the cathedral and signs identified the language of the con- fessional.  We saw only one in use but many of the pews were occupied, most visitors wearing the headsets and play- ers of audio tours. Long lines queued to see the crypt of St. James, the treasury, and the roofs. The majority were dressed too well to be recently arrived pilgrims who had been living out of a backpack. I had been surprised by the number and style of confessionals at in the cathedral, and I had been surprised by machines vending votive candles in other churches I had visited, but when I discovered the coin operated banks of candle shaped electric lights (0.50 Euro lights 1 lamp) I was a little disillusioned. I was expecting to see the giant censer requiring six handlers and able to burn enough incense to mask the stench of unwashed pilgrim masses, but was disappointed to see only a small version hanging from two large steel arches spanning the roof. The giant is kept in the treasury and is used now only on special occasions. Fortunately accommodation and bathing facilities have improved and the pilgrims no longer arrive in unwashed masses, so it is no longer needed. The giant censer may have been miss- ing, but the main altar and side chapels projected more than enough opulence and authority. The city is quite beautiful, some of its stone buildings, weather- ing softly in the moist climate, support a luxuriant array of vegetation. Unfortunately, the roots of  these lovely, living decorations are secreting acids and enzymes that are turning the lovingly hewn and sculpted stone to soil that will eventually wash away in winter rains. The intricately carved figures decorating many of the buildings are softened and weatherworn, noses, hands, and arms often missing, but they can still evoke a sense of loss, or wonder, or piety. Our route back to the van took us away from the old town, tourists and pilgrims disappeared. A young couple enjoyed a drink and the afternoon sun at a streetside bar, others lined up to buy hot sandwiches at a street stall. Outside the city mar- ket, a women sat eating a crusty roll amidst crates of produce, and inside vendors were just closing up their stalls. Separate aisles and buildings specialized in fish, meat, vegetables, or condiments. We breathed in the redolence of dried fish, herbs, spices, and cheeses. There was nothing of tourism or religion, only everyday life and commerce, but to our great disappoint- ment, we were too late in the day to do more than realize what we had missed. Sheila noted that it was not discussed in either of her guide books and we both felt this a major omission. Back at camp, we learned another lesson about where not pitch for the night. We had found shade and a reasonably level pitch near the empty pool and closed restaurant/bar. We slept well the first night, but on Friday night, the children's pool was full and the restaurant a drinking place for locals. ATVs and motorbikes roared up and down the road past our pitch until dusk, restaurant patrons drank, sang, and shouted until past midnight. One local stud, revved his new Maseratti to impress the girls, unfortunately he succeeded only in impressing the young boys gathered around.
A Sense of Place:  Travel, Photography, and Photo-art
by David E. Moon
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
Slideshow Slideshow Route Map Route Map Two pilgrims climb the final stage to the cathedral. A pilgrim confesses at a public confessinal. A street performer poses incongruously outside the cathedral. The main altar exuded opulence and authority. The city market presented the secular side of Santiago.

May 16, Santiago de Compostela

Santiago, once the third holiest place in Christendom, and for centuries the destination of one of the most popular of Christian pilgrim- ages, I came, partly out of a sense of obliga- tion, partly out of curiosity, expecting to be disappointed, hoping to be moved. In the end, I was neither. I do not regret the time spent. Santiago has a special air and cachet about the historic area. For over a millennium it has been a pilgrimage destination, originally the shrine of Saint James and later the cathedral. Legend has it that the remains of the apostle James were brought to Galica in 813 CE, and that the light of a bright star had guided a shepherd to the burial site. For what was probably a com- bination of political, religious, and economic reasons the bishop of Iria declared them to be the remains of James the apostle and Santiago de Compostela has thrived as a travel destina- tion ever since. Santiago de Compostela has always catered to pilgrims, to those drawn to the idea of pilgrim- age, and to simple tourists. Tourism is still a major part of the economy. The draw is especially strong in “Holy Compostelan Years” when July 25 falls on a Sunday. In 2010, 272,000 registered pilgrims and unnumbered tourists visited the cathedral.  Happily, tourist hype is not as intense or blatant as elsewhere but it is still present. The little white tourist train still runs, street performers still perform, and souvenir stands and shops proliferate. What sets it apart is that it is mostly about the pil- grimage and despite increasing secularism in the west, the pilgrimage still lives, it goes on. Walking the streets of the old city, pilgrims are often evident by their dress and demeanor. They are mixed lot, but at this time of year mostly retirees and a few young people. Some, freshly arrived look hag- gard, foot sore and weary, their posture and gait one of fatigue, their expression vacant or pained. Others have spent a night or more recuperating and are refreshed. Backpacks are shed but they still wear the garb of the pilgrim, hiking boots, water bottles, hat, and hiking poles or staffs hung with a scallop shell and gourd. It is gratifying to see the number of seniors who qualify as pilgrims having walked at least 100 km to Santiago. The cathedral, largely Romaneque with later Gothic and Baroque additions, dominates the central plaza. Confessionals lined the transept and aisles of the cathed- ral and signs identified the language of the con- fessional.  We saw only one in use but many of the pews were occupied, most visitors wearing the headsets and play- ers of audio tours. Long lines queued to see the crypt of St. James, the treasury, and the roofs. The majority were dressed too well to be recently arrived pilgrims who had been living out of a backpack. I had been surprised by the number and style of con- fessionals at in the cathedral, and I had been surprised by machines vending votive candles in other churches I had visited, but when I dis- covered the coin operated banks of candle shaped electric lights (0.50 Euro lights 1 lamp) I was a little disillusioned. I was expecting to see the giant censer requir- ing six handlers and able to burn enough incense to mask the stench of unwashed pilgrim masses, but was disap- pointed to see only a small version hanging from two large steel arches spanning the roof. The giant is kept in the treasury and is used now only on special occasions. Fortunately accommodation and bathing facilities have improved and the pil- grims no longer arrive in unwashed masses, so it is no longer needed. The giant censer may have been missing, but the main altar and side chapels projected more than enough opulence and authority. The city is quite beautiful, some of its stone buildings, weathering softly in the moist cli- mate, support a luxuriant array of vegetation. Unfortunately, the roots of  these lovely, living decorations are secreting acids and enzymes that are turning the lovingly hewn and sculp- ted stone to soil that will eventually wash away in winter rains. The intricately carved figures decorating many of the buildings are softened and weatherworn, noses, hands, and arms often missing, but they can still evoke a sense of loss, or wonder, or piety. Our route back to the van took us away from the old town, tourists and pilgrims disap- peared. A young couple enjoyed a drink and the afternoon sun at a streetside bar, others lined up to buy hot sandwiches at a street stall. Outside the city market, a women sat eating a crusty roll amidst crates of produce, and inside vendors were just closing up their stalls. Sep- arate aisles and build- ings specialized in fish, meat, vegetables, or condiments. We breathed in the redol- ence of dried fish, herbs, spices, and cheeses. There was nothing of tourism or religion, only everyday life and commerce, but to our great disappointment, we were too late in the day to do more than realize what we had missed. Sheila noted that it was not discussed in either of her guide books and we both felt this a major omission. Back at camp, we learned another lesson about where not pitch for the night. We had found shade and a reasonably level pitch near the empty pool and closed restaurant/bar. We slept well the first night, but on Friday night, the children's pool was full and the restaurant a drinking place for locals. ATVs and motor- bikes roared up and down the road past our pitch until dusk, restaurant patrons drank, sang, and shouted until past midnight. One local stud, revved his new Maseratti to impress the girls, unfortunately he succeeded only in impressing the young boys gathered around.
A Sense of Place:  Travel, Photography, and Photo-art
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
Slideshow Slideshow Route Map Route Map Two pilgrims climb the final stage to the cathedral. A pilgrim confesses at a public confessinal. A street performer poses incongruously outside the cathedral. The main altar exuded opulence and authority. The city market presented the secular side of Santiago.