In the Middle Ages, half a million pilgrims travelled to Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. Now about 200,000 people walk, ride or cycle the Camino de Santiago each year, not only one but many routes, which end in the city.
Many people are true devout Catholics who walk the route as penance for some sin, or in search of an answer to their prayers, a solution to their problems or a miracle cure for an illness. Of course, some are just tourists lured by the promise of stunning scenery, romantic Romanesque churches and great Galician gastronomy.
Pilgrims have been walking to Santiago de Compostela ever since the remains of the apostle James were found by a hermit called Pelayo in 814 AD. Although James was martyred in Palestine around 45 AD, it is said that angels guided his body to Galicia in a stone boat which landed at Padron, 21km from Santiago. All rather convenient for the Catholic church of Spain, during the dawn of the Reconquista against the Muslim Moors.
In 1589, when Drake attacked the Galician coast, the sacred bones were hidden away, so well in fact that they remained lost until 1879 when a cathedral workman stumbled across them – another miracle!
The building of the cathedral was paid for from annual taxes imposed on the people of Spain by Ramiro I of Asturias after St James assisted in the defeat of the Moors during the battle of Clavijo in 844. The original 9th century basilica was superseded by the 11th – 13th century cathedral and an 18th century Baroque façade which hides the delicately sculptured Portico de Gloria by architect Maestro Matteo. However, today’s pilgrims are welcomed only by the site of two huge scaffold towers which block the main entrance – what a disappointment!
Inside awaits a grand, silver-clad high altar, also partially obscured by scaffolding. A 12th century statue of St James adorns it and pilgrims queue to climb the stairway, kiss the statue’s robe and receive a holy card (proof of their pilgrimage). In the crypt below, St James’ remains are kept in a shiny silver reliquary behind a locked grate for safe keeping.
I attend the pilgrim’s mass at midday, where a mixture of pious elderly Spaniards, youthful multicultural backpackers and inappropriately-dressed American tourists repeatedly stand and sit, and stand and sit for the hymns, prayers and sermons given by red-cloaked Catholic priests and a harmonious nun. There must be over 400 people in attendance and the collection bag looks very weighty indeed. No need for a tax when the daily donations are so forthcoming. The botafumeiro hangs limply above the altar. Today it will not swing wildly in great arcs along the transept, dowsing devotees with perfumed incense. This spectacle only occurs on Friday at 7.30pm,or when someone privately pays the €350 for the honour.
I pay €6 for the privilege of visiting the cathedral museum. It allows me access to the large cloister and several floors of exhibits, including the library filled with ancient encyclopaedias and religious manuscripts, such as a 12th century illuminated Codex Calixtinus, the world’s first travel guide about the pilgrimage route. There are also some interesting tapestries by Rubens and Goya on the top floor, along with a lengthy stone balcony which overlooks the Prazo do Obradoiro (square of works), the 18th century Pazo de Rajoy (now the town hall), the Colegio de San Jeronimo and the 16th Century Hospital Real (originally a hospice for sick pilgrims but now a five star Parador).
My visit to Santiago de Compostela feels fraudulent. Although I have passed along much of the Camino on my travels: St Jean-Pied-de-Port, Roncevalles, Pamplona, Burgos (The French Route); San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santillana del Mar (The Northern Route); A Coruna (The Maritime Route), I have not walked “The Way”. And I don’t think watching the 2010 film by Emilio Estevez counts either. However, Santiago de Compostela is an interesting city to visit, with a spiritual and friendly vibe due to all the devotees passing through. I leave with a feeling that my soul has been nourished, and with a small tarta de Santiago to nourish my body.