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:
- Wash and purify
- Burn the old pilgrim’s robes
- Don fresh white robes
- 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?