Tag Archives: Cathedral

After the Camino, part I – Santiago

Sunday 1 October 2023 – I hope you’ll forgive a couple of days of not posting updates, but I haven’t had a lot of time, what with having Nice Lunches and that. After finishing the Camino last Thursday, we had three nights’ stay in Santiago before moving on. The first day we had a guided tour of the city; the second was spent on a day trip that included two other key Camino destinations. This post is about our time actually spent in the city. The photos are selected from pictures taken on the evening after we finished walking, during our guided tour and after it; no particular order, no particular theme, but I wanted to try to give some impression of the city.

Which is quite overwhelming. Getting back to dealing (a) with life in a bustling city after six weeks in the wilderness and (b) the sheer amount of detail, history and massive religious buildings was quite tricky. But here goes….

Let’s start with some statistics. These were reeled off by our guide, Joaquin,

among a vast gout of information which meant that our brains were full after only about 10 minutes.

Despite its feeling of huge size, Santiago is by no means the largest of the cities we passed through. Burgos has 350,000 residents, and León has over 122,000. Santiago has just 90,000 residents, but receives 2 million overnight stays each year, of which over 300,000 are pilgrims. The resulting crowds, buzz and ubiquity of great lumps of religious masonry means that Santiago felt much the largest of the three to me.

At the heart of the city is the cathedral. It is massive, a very imposing presence across the city.

The above video shows it mainly from the west; in front of it you can see a large square, the Praza do Obradoiro, which is where today’s pilgrims tend to end their Camino. There are also squares on the other three sides: North, the Praza de Inmaculada, the historical end of the Camino, where we bade farewell to Susan and Bob;

with its stunningly intricate façade;

and Praza da Quitana, to the East (pay attention, now; we’ll be returning here later).

To the south of the main bulk of the cathedral lies Praza das Praterias and the cloisters, which we visited as part of our time with Joaquin.

One interesting fact came out of the welter that Joaquin deluged us with – atop one tower is a pyramid shape influenced by the architect’s visit to Mexico where he saw Mayan pyramids. The other tower around the cloister is similarly Aztec-influenced.

In the centre of the cloister courtyard is a huge stone bowl, made in the Romanesque style,

which used to stand in the square to the north of the cathedral – the historical end of the pilgrimage. Its purpose was to enable pilgrims to finally wash and purify themselves as part of their pilgrimage. There were four parts to the ritual:

  1. Wash and purify
  2. Burn the old pilgrim’s robes
  3. Don fresh white robes
  4. Finally wear the cockle shell that the pilgrim had acquired from shell sellers (in the city, rather than by the sea shore)

This then granted a “plenary indulgence” – forgiveness for all past sins. I’ll return to this topic later as well, so better keep paying attention, here.

The cathedral was built between 1035 and 1211, which is a pretty impressive feat of building when you consider the vast size of it. It has been renovated in the 17th and 18th century with the last titivation being in the baroque style. This means that if you look at the building through the eyes of an architect you can see a great mixture of styles: medieval, romanesque and baroque.

Inside the cathedral is probably the most impressive of the three great Camino cathedrals – Burgos, León and Santiago – at least to my eyes.  The nave is large

whereas in Burgos, for example, the huge number of fancy chapels around the nave actually served to reduce its area and thus its impact. Notice the hortizontal organ pipes – these are are used for sound effects rather than musical notes.  Horizontal pipes were once very common, but almost all other sets have been discarded over the years.

Behind me, as I took the above photo, is the Portico of Glory, the original, and very imposing, entrance to the church. Entrance to the cathedral can be free, but if you want to see the Portico, which has been very carefully and beautifully restored, you have to pay extra and join timed groups of a couple of dozen at a time to stand and marvel at it. That’s all you can do, since the buggers won’t let you take photos of it, or touch it (the sculpted Tree of Jesse bears the marks of millions of pilgrims in the form of the deep imprints of fingers and thumb – but one can no longer place ones fingers into that piece of history).

Another way that the cathedral parts punters from their money concerns the eponymous St. James – Santiago, you’ll remember. His statue forms part of the altar piece, and for an extra consideration, people are allowed to file down into the crypt to view the actual tomb of the Saint, then queue up

and climb up behind the altar to “hug the saint” and whisper their problems to him in the hope of getting inspiration, resolution or absolution.

There is, of course, a wealth of detail in the endless architectural flourishes inside the cathedral. A couple of things stood out for me: some of the original windows at the back of the church,

which predate glass – they are actually wafer-thin slices of alabaster; the original medieval baptismal font, the oldest item in the cathedral, which survived the destruction of the original medieval building by the muslim hordes;

and some of the various chapels around the side of the nave are used for taking confession in various languages.

In my post about Villafranca, I mentioned the concept of Holy Doors – special doors passing through which (along with other flummery) confers a plenary indulgence. The one in the Santiago cathedral is not hugely imposing.

However, if you look at it from the outside, there’s an impressive portal.

Peering through the bars of this portal reveals a dark secret – the portal is kind of a fake.  Through the bars, you see

the back end of the original church building! This was deemed to be not impressive enough, and so the façade was put in place to gussy the whole thing up to give it more gravitas.

Another thing the cathedral is famous for is its thurible, which is vast – it weighs 60kg.

On holy days and religious festivals – and, yes, if one is prepared to stump up the necessary moolah – this incense burner, called the Botafumeiro, becomes the centre of a spectacular piece of theatre after communion has been taken at mass.

We were lucky enough to see this twice in one day – from the side, as above and, earlier in the day, from the back, by the Portico of Glory, which was better musically but not so impressive to see.

Joaquin got us into the cathedral early on in the day, which was good because one could take photos without there being too many crowds around. He also took us into the cloisters and the museum, where, as ever, he drowned us with fascinating facts which neither of us can easily remember. Taking of photos in the museum is not allowed (yawn), but I managed to sneak one shot of a prized item,

an alabaster-and-wood altar piece depicting the life of St. James. This is a pilgrimage offering from the 1456 Holy Year of Compostela carved in Nottinghamshire at the behest of “Johanes Gudguar” (thought to be the English priest John Goodyear from the Isle of Wight).

Outside the cathedral, as you can imagine, there’s an ongoing hive of activity, particularly on the huge western square, with pilgrims arriving, sometimes en masse, like this bunch of schoolkids who had just been on a one-day “pilgrimage”

There’s often a piper.

Bordering this western square,

are the Town Hall (on the left above) and the Hospital Real de Santiago de Compostela. This is now a posh Parador Hotel with an impressive entrance with bouncers an’ everyfink

but once it really was a hospital intended for pilgrims.  It’s a regrettable fact that around half of pilgrims never made it to Santiago, having died en route, or been killed, or any one of a number of causes. Having arrived in Santiago, a surprisingly large proprortion of them fell sick and many of them died, too – hence the need for the hospital. Originally pilgrims might sleep in the cathedral – women upstairs, men downstairs – but this became intolerable (I’ve heard it said that the huge incense burner was a defense against the smell!) and the hospital took over the brunt of this care.  Not all of them survived this care, so, conveniently next door to the Hospital is the Igrexa de San Frutuoso, which is where the bodies went – a funerary church.

Another interesting nugget from Joaquin was that pilgrims who had arrived safe and well often simply stayed in Santiago – I had assumed that they would just go back to where they came from, but this was apparently not the case. So there developed language-based communities of pilgrims across the the city, with French pigrims congregating in one part, Germans in another and so on.

One final piece of cathedraliana: the lightning conductors. There are three in the squares around the cathedral, and at street level they are lead into concrete posts.  In the Quintana square (remember that one?) after dark, the street lighting leads to an interesting illusion:

called the “Secret Pilgrim”. See?  It was worth paying attention, after all.

Other religious buildings that we noted included the Franciscan Church, just down from our hotel.

To the left in the picture above, you can see a remnant of the old city walls, with the church

therefore being outside the walls – no room for Franciscans in the city, it appears. On the other hand, just outside the cathedral and hence inside the city walls, is the Benedictine Monastery, Mosteiro de San Martiño Pinario.  This is so huge that it took me some time to realise that the front, by the cathedral

and the side, considerably nearer our hotel

were actually both parts of the same complex. The monks were once very rich and influential. so between 1835 and 1837, a series of decrees from Juan Álvarez Mendizábal was published, which confiscated, without compensation, monastic land estates. Well, if the dissolution of the monasteries was good enough for Henry VIII, it’s good enough for anyone, that’s clear.

Another subject that Joaquin covered was the pre-Roman history of Santiago, which means Celtic.  Something I hadn’t appreciated until walking the Camino was the extent of Celtic population and culture in Spain. Celtic presence may date back as far as the 6th century BC, until their influence was subsumed by the Roman Empire, starting from about the second century BC. There’s still evidence of Celtic culture in the presence of decorative materials (particularly jet) showing Celtic symbols

including a particular Celtic protective gesture to ward off evil.

Other things we saw included the market, Mercado de Abastos

the courtyard of the city library, which has a lovely cloisters

and features a statue of Alonso III de Fonseca, a Galician archbishop and politician and a major supporter of the university of Santiago de Compostela. He is depicted in a pose of deep thought

and not on his mobile phone, after all.

We wandered around other parts of the city, which is handsome

and quite busy in all the areas around the cathedral.  We even tried some shopping, as we wanted to buy for friends some of the so-called “Santiago Cake“, the almond cake with the St. James cross outlined on it, which is ubiquitous in these here parts. Seeking out an artisanal shop, we were spoiled for choice

but were allowed a taste test, which was nice of them.

This has only scratched the surface of our time in the city. For example, we had two Very Nice Lunches (a major factor in me not posting before now), at Asador Gonzaba where they served us 95% of a cow, and Casa Marcelo, where they served us what they chose; both very fine meals from very fine establishments. And we walked around for some 12km, almost none of which was on the straight and level – it’s quite the uppy and downy place.

As well as wandering the city, we had, as I mentioned earlier, a day trip to, inter alia, two important Camino destinations. It was an interesting trip and I’ll post about it in the next thrilling instalment. I bet you can’t wait, eh?




Camino Rest Day 3 – León

Sunday 10 September 2023 – As you will have read (you will have, won’t you? Good!), we arrived here yesterday. Walking through the city to our hotel gave us a chance at some of the sights. Since our hotel room was available and a Nice Lunch was forthcoming there, we needed a walk afterwards, and we also went out during the evening to see if any of the sights looked nice lit up. Today we took another walk around, so we’ve covered a few miles and seen quite a lot of what the city has to offer,  It’s-a nice-a place – the centre is very handsome and has such a cosmopolitan feel that I actually found it difficult on occasions to remember that I was in Spain.

This post is going to be mainly just a selection of the photos I took, and most of them are of the many religious buildings that litter the place.  If you’re content with that, please read on….

The City

León has a long history, having been founded as the military encampment of the Roman Legio VI Victrix around 29 BC. So the city’s name comes from the latin for Legion, and not from Lion, although you’d never guess from the number of Lion statues around the place

The lion has also been adopted as a local emblem for the Camino

though this is apparently not popular and I’ve heard some of these signs even feature bullet holes. I’m not surprised; it’s a rubbish idea, and demeans the Camino, the animal and the City all at once.

In 1188, the city hosted the first Parliament in European history under the reign of Alfonso IX, and this is why it was acknowledged as the “cradle of Parliamentarism”. Now, the Icelanders might have a thing or two to say about that, since the Althingi, established in 930 AD, is often regarded as the world’s oldest extant parliamentary institution. However, it’s essential to note that it was a very different kind of assembly from modern parliaments, being an outdoor gathering of chieftains, rather than a systematic process of representation from local burghers as well as noblemen and clergy. The city’s prominence began to decline in the early Middle Ages, partly due to the loss of independence after the union of the Leonese kingdom with the Crown of Castile, consolidated in 1301. This still rankles with the locals; all over the place you can find signposts where the “Castilla y” part of “Castilla y León” has been black spray painted over. The signpost above is one of the few I saw where this had not happened.

After a period of stagnation during the early modern age, it was one of the first cities to hold an uprising in the Spanish War of Independence, and some years later, in 1833, acquired the status of provincial capital.  This chequered but consequential history goes a long way to explain why it is such an important city.

Religious buildings

Apart from the cathedral, there are many churches and other religious buildings across the city.  Our hotel, the Hotel Real Colegiata San Isidoro, is part of the fabric of the Basilica of San Isidoro, which has a striking interior.

and also features a museum.   I took some unofficial photos in the museum.

Some of the books date from the 16th century

In the Pantheon part, they actually police the prohibition of taking photos, so I was reduced to buying a couple showing the Pantheon and some of the mural painting that has survived nearly a thousand years.

The Basilica has some lovely cloisters.

Somewhat away from the old town is the Convento de San Marcos, which has a splendid portico

and much of which is now a parador hotel (featured in the “The Way” film, apparently.

And of course, there is the cathedral.

In the 100 years after the Moors were defeated, 200 Christian cathedrals were built over Iberia. The three largest are Toledo, Burgos and, yes, León. It gives less of its interior over to the vast number of chapels that there are in the Burgos cathedral, so the inside space feels much larger.

It’s difficult to realise from the outside, but inside is one of the largest arrays of stained glass anywhere.

The choir is exquisitely carved.

The stained glass is so famous that people even use it as a garage door decoration.

The cathedral also has very grand cloisters.

There are, of course, other churches, such as the Iglesia de Santa María del Camino o del Mercado, on Plaza del Grano.

Thinking of which, there are lots of plazas, such as del Grano,

several smaller ones, inevitably with a selection of bars and restaurants,

the main one, of course, being the Plaza Mayor.

The plazas tend to feature buildings with cloisters or galleries under building overhangs,

All around the place you find statuary

The above is on a plaza outside a building designed by the famous Antoni Gaudi, whose buildings contribute to the unique feel of Barcelona. This one, by comparison is somewhat muted,

but still features an extravagant entrance.

There are other lovely architectural settings, too numerous to articulate in full.

but the tout ensemble makes the old town a very pleasant place to wander about. As we did so, it was nice to bump into some of our “Camino Family” – Molly and Mike from Minnesota, and Petra and Tom from Kõln. In the evenings, some places are lit up. This makes the cathedral even more impressive, for example.

and the shopping streets, which feature innumerable bars and restaurants, have a wonderful buzz about them.

Mind you, occasionally things take a slightly more rowdy turn, such as when we came across this bachelor party celebration in one of those plazas.

León has provided a wonderful break from walking the Camino, but we have to get back on it tomorrow.  We will retrace our steps to the convent and cross the Roman San Marcos bridge

as we make our way towards Villar del Mazerife, about 23km away – a medium-distance walk which we hope will get us back into the swing of progressing along The Way. We’re hoping for decent weather, of course, as we start this next segment of the Camino. Do please keep in touch so you can find out how it all works out, eh?

Camino Rest Day 2 – Burgos. Blimey!

Thursday 31 August 2023 – We’ve had a day to decompress after the long walk yesterday and so despite yesterday’s exertions we went for a walk. Obviously.

Jane had mapped out a few Things To See and so after a very ordinary hotel breakfast (after probably the least comfortable bed of our time on this particular junket) we headed out into the streets of Burgos, which is a very handsome city.

The first stop was the cathedral, Santa Maria, which is brain-bogglingly big, and inside so extraordinarily sumptuous that I actually felt a bit offended on behalf of all of the people to whose benefit the money involved in creating this edifice did not go. But it may be that my jaundiced view was as a result of a poor night’s sleep.

Catholic cathedrals are intended, designed, to inspire awe. I found that the completely over-the-top Sagrada Familia in Barcelona did inspire that in me to some extent. Santa Maria, not. But it was still interesting to look round – and the infrastructure to guide tourists (signage, app for audio guide, etc) is very well designed and implemented.

The thing has over 12 chapels, for God’s sake! (see what I did there?), amazing stone working and other fascinating aspects.  Rather than bore you with the many, many photographs I took, I have put some of them in a Flickr album; click the image below if you would like to look through them.

Santa Maria Cathedral, Burgos

Here are a couple of photos to give you a taster.

Wandering around outside gives a few views of the place and surrounding items of interest.

The Santa Maria Cathedral is on Santa Maria Plaza, and access to that is through Santa Maria Gate.  Looking at it from the square, you see something substantial.

Walk through it and look back, though…

From there, one can walk along the Paseo, a pleasantly shaded green space

with a bandstand

and lots of statuary,

including that of four kings, who can also be seen on a bridge at the far end of the Paseo.

For the record, these are (in alphabetical order) Alfonsos VIII (1155-1214)  and X (1221-1284), Fernando III (1199-1252) and Enrique II (1334-1379). Just so you know for the quiz later.

There’s another significant figure enstatuated round the corner – El Cid, the honorific for Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, a Castilian knight and warlord in 11th-century Spain.

There’s a huge amount to see wandering around Burgos, as befits somewhere that was once the capital of the Kingdom of Castile. Much statuary both modern and ancient

varied street art,

imposing gateways and churches,

St. Stephen’s Gate

St. Stephen’s Church

a tourist train,

and ancient city walls.

There is also a castle; we tried to get in, but it was closed. That exercised me sufficiently that I walked the 200 steps back down to the hotel to get my drone to walk back up the 200 steps to take a photo of it,

so you can now understand why it was closed. On the way, though, one passes a fantastic viewpoint over the city.

which I think is the best way to leave it – too much to see to do a splendid city justice.

We’re back to the walking thing tomorrow – 21km to Hornillos del Camino, on the first trek across the second third of the Camino – the Meseta.  The forecast is for a chilly start but a warm finish and it will be interesting to see the how different the landscape is.  To find out, check back in at some stage, won’t you?