Tag Archives: Religion

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?




Day 14 – Comin’ For To Carry Us Home

Saturday 28 May 2022 – Rather surprisingly, the wedding didn’t prevent us from sleeping reasonably well.  Come the dawn, there was time for a final cup of Twining’s finest Earl Grey as we got up, and another with a brisk breakfast, blessedly (for me) possible as my ulcers were finally beginning to cede control of my mouth back to me.  We also got a reasonably close view of the starlings which are ubiquitous in Jordan and quite melodious.  These two were making the most of the breakfast buffet.

Saeed, prompt as ever, came to collect us to take us out of the Dead Sea area.  He gave us a parting present  of some olive oil soap (first experienced at Feynan – it’s a good soap) and, bless him, some local variant of sage – the same herb that we believe had caused the ulcers that had bedevilled the last few days.  However, his instructions were to serve it as tea, rather than just stuff it in your mouth, which will probably give a better result.

There followed a long, long climb to 600m above mean sea level (or 1km above Dead Sea level), past a ceaseless succession of big, big, heavy lorries, carrying mainly minerals from the Dead Sea area. The route goes through a very green area, fed by natural springs, and there were many cars stopped by the roadside as people took advantage of spring outlets of fresh, potable water, something that doesn’t come out of the taps in Jordan.

And then we were at the airport, saying goodbye to Saeed and thanking him for the truly excellent job he had done of looking after us for a fortnight, before coming back into the care of Edward (he who greeted us a fortnight ago, you’ll remember), which meant something of a canter trying to keep up with him as he took us to a fast-track side entrance and ushered us into the tender care of the Royal Jordanian airline Crown service.

The check-in process had much in common with the Virgin Upper Class check-in at Heathrow Terminal 3 in the Good Old Days when I occasionally managed to score this for business travel: a separate, private entrance;  its own dedicated passport control; and its own dedicated security scan. You’d have thought that the security johnnies would be familiar with ostrich eggs as a concept, given their prominent role among tourist purchases in Jordan, but Jane had a bit of a struggle explaining the one she’d bought; and they insisted on swiping both her egg and my camera for traces of explosive, but at least the chap nodded and said “good” as he handed me back my Nikon.  Nice that he approved.

(Parenthetical and post-factum note, here, penned later in the day with gin in hand. Prior to disappearing through the apparently wonderful, dedicated passport and security facilities, Edward had handed our bags over to two guys with a set of scales, checked us in with the desk and then told us to take those annoying long thin baggage tagging strips back to the two guys.  We (rather trustingly) did this and they assured us that they would handle the tagging and passing on the bags. When we got to Heathrow, being Crown Class got us off the plane nice and quickly, and the passport gates were working, so we were the first two at Belt 7 in the T3 baggage hall, arriving there by about 16.45. Some 10 minutes later, bags started appearing in desultory fashion on the carousel. These included a succession of boxes, which were picked up by various different people. Wonder what was going on?


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As time ticked by, more and more people came to the belt, waited a while, eventually picked up bags and left.  Eventually, there were fewer and fewer people standing by the belt, and still our bags hadn’t come through.  An hour after the first bags had appeared, we’d just about given up hope and Jane had worked out where the “Lost Baggage” desk was – and then our bags finally appeared.  Specially labelled “PRIORITY” – and, as far as we could tell, the last ones off the plane. Harrumph! Cost us an extra tenner for the waiting taxi, as well as an unwanted surge of cortisol.

Anyway, where were we?  We were in the Jordan airport departure lounge…..)

We had to ask someone how to find the RJ Lounge, because the signposting at Queen Alia airport is less lavish than at other airports, but here we are and I need to update the blog, so an 0930 gin (we’re still on holiday, OK?) to fuel the creative flow seems to be acceptable.  Yes, it is.

So, whilst waitin’ for the Dreamliner that is comin’ for to carry us home, we’ve looked over Jordan, and what have we seen?

  • A wonderfully heterogeneous culture, drawing on religious, historical and popular influences from the vast range of the different peoples who have come through, stayed to add to indigenous ways and maybe moved on.  Yes, it’s basically an Arab country with Arab customs, but it’s also very diverse in its attitudes towards other mores. Given that 20% of its GDP is through tourism, this is just as well, really.
  • (Hand in hand with the above, Jane found it a comfortable place to be as an un-veiled (Western) woman, which is not always the case in the Middle East, in our experience.)
  • An astonishing history, contributing hugely to the way the world as we know it today works.
  • A very welcoming people.  It seems that “Welcome” is the first word in English that Jordanians learn, they use it a lot and, by and large, seem to mean it.
  • Quite often, as a tourist, when you hear the word “Welcome” on the lips of someone in Jordan, it is followed, implicitly or explicitly, by a solicitation to talk, have tea, whatever – but basically to buy something. Although there are some very rich people in Jordan, there are also some very poor people; very rarely is an opportunity to earn a dollar or two spurned. There are two clear consequences: one is that contactless or card payments are taken in the most surprising places; the other is that people are grateful for tips.  If you’re thinking of visiting and using services such as guide or driver, it’s a very good idea to arm yourself with a selection of 1, 5 and 10-Dinar notes.
  • A highly opportunistic entrepreneurial attitude, combined with a ramshackle retail experience.  Wherever you go, there are people selling stuff – on the roadside (of a motorway, for heaven’s sake!), up a mountain, in a desert, often out of the back of a a ramshackle, probably Toyota, pickup truck.  Saeed told us that he’d simply built up, over the years, a knowledge of which are the best places to go to buy cheese, or watermelons or mulukhiyah, or whatever.
  • A “long game” approach to property development.  Similar to what we’ve seen in Spain and Portugal, there’s a developmental attitude to domestic and small business properties; this was something I’d meant to refer to earlier, but, well, didn’t: wherever you go, there are businesses apparently trading out of unfinished buildings, with reinforced concrete rods sticking out of the top, and houses, some apparently lived in, in the same state.  The reason is that the family has built enough to go on with for now, and the next generation will come along and add the next storey. Or that they’re still waiting for money to complete the works.
  • A ridiculous driving experience. My strongest advice to anyone considering renting a car whilst being unfamiliar with the “Insh’Allah” roadcraft of the locals, the apparently negligent approach to road surface maintenance and the “this looks as good a place as any” speed bump placement philosophy on the part of The Powers That Be is – don’t. Just don’t.
  • An expensive currency.  The Jordanian Dinar is currently worth more than a Pound Sterling and some of the prices charged might seem high relative to other places you’ve visited (particularly for booze and items that have to be imported). In your financial planning for a holiday visit, try not to compare the prices with, e.g. European norms, which will only cause you angst; be lavish in your estimates of cash needed and relax and enjoy the service.
  • A varied climate. If you hate the heat, avoid the peak summer months and the south of the country. If you hate the cold and wet, avoid the winter.
  • Overall, a great tourist experience – based, that is, on our limited statistical sample of one.   Our particular priority has been seeing as much of a country as makes sense in one trip, and the size of Jordan is perfect for visiting a wide range of places over two weeks. But you can find intense concentrations of specific activities – hiking, diving, camping, sunbathing – if that’s your bag.  We’ve had a fantastic fortnight and would unhesitatingly recommend it as a place to visit.  Would we come back?  There’s a good question. The answer is a probable “yes” – a bit earlier in the year, and with a more focussed plan – fly and flop to the Dead Sea; stay at Feynan – but better equipped, emotionally and packing-wise for the experience – and go hiking or experience more of the local culture; even (sigh!) go canyoning at Mujib or snorkelling in Aqaba. Whatever, as I bring this section of the blog to a close, we’ve had a blast and hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about it. Interested in Canada? Come back in August…..

Day 12 – Bordering on Dead

Thursday 26 May 2022 – I’m playing for the sympathy vote, here.  During the night, my vigorous crop of mouth ulcers ripened into a mouth full of agony which grew worse every time my tongue touched anything. Have you ever tried eating, or drinking, or even talking without your tongue touching anything?  Take it from me: it’s not possible.  Breakfast was simply not an option; even a cup of Twinings finest Earl Grey was a significant challenge. That’s how bad it was.

However, I wasn’t going to let it entirely bring my day to a halt. Jane wanted to visit Bethany, the site of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, and, although organised religion and I are barely on nodding terms, it’s clear that it’s a site which has deep symbolism for a vast number of Christians over the globe.  It would have been churlish not to take the opportunity to visit.  So we did, having arranged with Saeed that he could do the driving for us.

The site is quite close to the Hotels Area, and the short drive there enabled us to increase our ever-expanding insight into the pharmacies of Jordan by making a stop off to buy something to address the pain of my ulcers.  We ended up with a gel called Afta Med which promises that it “immediately reduces pain” and seemed somehow just the ticket. I think it helped somewhat.

If you do a simple online search for “Bethany” you might expect that something of the pith and moment of the baptismal site for Jesus Christ, one of the most significant figures in the development of the world as we know it today, might figure high on the list of results.  You’d be wrong.  Among the inordinate number of churches, towns and charitable organisations using the name, there’s Bethany, where Lazarus was raised from the dead (a transition I was hoping might be reversed for me today), but that’s near Jerusalem on the West Bank. It’s described by one website as “a miserably untidy and tumble-down village facing East on the Southeast slope of the Mount of Olives, upon the carriage road to Jericho.” I couldn’t actually find any reference to where we were headed without using more focussed search words, but eventually you discover that it’s a Unesco World Heritage site and has its own website.  Clearly, having major religious significance doesn’t in and of itself convey any SEO skills. So, “Bethany Beyond the Jordan” it is, or “Al-Maghtas” in local currency.

The site is reasonably well-organised from a tourist’s perspective, with a car park by the ticket office and a shuttle bus (air-conditioned, woo hoo!) that takes customers and a guide on a short drive to the site itself. It was a hot, hot day as these dogs could vouchsafe.

Our guide was called Noor

who said that he was part of the team which discovered the site in the ’90s and did a good job of herding us cats from place to place along rather thoughtfully shaded walkways, whilst explaining what we could see.  So, what could we see?

  1. It’s now, unsurprisingly, the site for a concentration of churches of the various Christian faiths – Coptic, Armenian, Russian Orthodox.
  2. In the background are areas described in the Bible such as the wilderness where Christ wandered for 40 days and 40 nights (they didn’t have GPS in those days) and resisted the temptation of the Devil
  3. A Russian Orthodox Monastery
  4. The remains of the Byzantine St. John the Baptist Church/Monastery (destroyed by flooding and earthquakes)
  5.  The church built in 2003 to replace it
  6. A mosaic depicting the visit of Pope John Paul II (which was instrumental in bringing unity among all of the various flavours of Christianity that this really is The Place)
  7. And, of course, the baptismal site itself, described in travellers’ writings in A.D.500 as being marked with steps leading down to what would have been a cruciform baptismal pool with vaulted arches above. Noor explained that although there was no running water visible today, in biblical times the whole area was covered in the waters of the Jordan river.
  8. The River Jordan, the holy river where one could not only dip one’s feet (should one wish) but could also see its significance as a border point.

A religious service of a somewhat happy-clappy nature was under way whilst we visited

and we were able to go into the new (Greek Orthodox) church of St. John the Baptist, which is highly painted and very colourful.

On the floor is a mosaic of The Tree Of Life

directly under the painted ceiling.

On the site, there is also a museum (and, of course, retail opportunity)

which features, among the exhibits, some original mosaic work

and some amazing embroidery

in a nice – cool – space

which suited me well, as it probably did a fur-coated local.

How credible are the claims that this is really the site of Christ’s baptism?  Well, in addition to much archaeological and anecdotal evidence of the religious importance of the site over several centuries, the leaflet that comes with the tickets says, “The authenticity of this site is as pure as the testimonies from the gospels, the pilgrims and travellers that have visited this cherished site.” Whatever, it felt like a worthwhile visit and we were grateful to Noor for giving us the extra context of where things fitted into the biblical story.

After this visit, Saeed took us to the Panorama Complex and Dead Sea Museum that we had been unable to visit yesterday, which is a little south of the Hotels Area, and reached along a steep, twisty road.

Saeed stopped occasionally as we ascended and encouraged us to admire the view, but, frankly, it wasn’t that interesting.

We reached the museum complex and again stopped to look at the view.  It had hardly changed, but at there was something there to tell us what we could see and the compass direction of other places of interest in Jordan (all boxes we had ticked by this stage, fnah fnah).

We could see the works associated with the Ma’in geothermal springs (whose water nowadays gets pumped to Amman, rather than being allowed into the Dead Sea)

and amusingly the road that the complex is on is called Ma’in Street. I hope this naming was done with an appropriate amount of twinkle in an official eye somewhere.

The complex is a handsome building

and is well set up as a home for the museum as well as a restaurant.

The architecture is nicely done and offers the chance of some, well, architectural photography.

It was this architectural content that kept me interested for a while, but I really was beginning to flag in the heat and the oral agony, which is a shame, because the museum has some interesting exhibits that I simply couldn’t be arsed to read – I just wanted to get back to the hotel by this stage.  There was one arresting installation on the floor by the museum’s door, though.

This shows the projected shrinkage of the Dead Sea if nothing is done about anything.  Saeed told us that an initiative to replenish the Dead Sea with waters from the Red Sea had been gradually building for about 50 years, but the pandemic had got in the way and it has effectively been abandoned.

Saeed took us back to the blissful cool of the hotel, where we spent much of the rest of the day relaxing, in my case updating the blog, and building up energy for the evening, for life had sprung a pleasant surprise on us.  Magda and Guy, friends whom I first met when I lived in Sweden 40 years ago, happened to be breezing through on their way to a wedding in Amman on Saturday, and we overlapped at the Kempinski For Just One Night.  Over the years since, they have been responsible for some of my most famous hangovers, so a session with them, given my fragile state, was something to be seriously prepared for.  It turns out that a combination of Afta Med, paracetamol and gin acts as a good anaesthetic and it enabled us to have a great evening catching up, as it had been four years since we saw Magda, and five years since we saw Guy. We all treated ourselves (I think that’s the right word) to a meal in Rehan, the Lebanese restaurant at the hotel, and I even managed a little soup as effectively the first thing I’d eaten all day.  Isn’t it marvellous how good company can overcome mere bodily pain?

That said, my system wasn’t robust enough to allow the meal to degenerate into A Session (ah! memories!  vague and blurry memories!) so despite the fact that there was a bar outside as we left the restaurant, Jane and I decided to head for bed. Anyway, we had to get up especially early and preferably compos mentis the next day, so it seemed the best idea.

As to what it was that we had to get up for?  You’ll have to come back and find out, won’t you?