June 5: Santiago de Compostela

Before the sun rose on the last day, we were walking.

It was dark. Those who packed headlamps strapped them on. Those without used cell-phone flashlights. Some simply let their eyes adjust.

Though the moon was out, it was dark as we entered the forest.

Eucalyptus stretched up into the sky. I could barely see the ground in front of me, and roots as well as rocks provided occasion to trip. As I looked up at the canopy, I could see a faint blue light beginning to fill the spaces between leaves and branches.

As the sun rose, we emerged from the trees.

Day was dawning. (For the atmosphere and color scheme of this part of the walk, see the closing scene of Fantasia.)

Some people stopped for breakfast in the first café. I had a slice of apple tart and talked with Drs. Gyug and Myers about the experience of pain and the psychological mechanics of redemptive suffering.

The closer we got to Santiago, the more urban the landscape became. Forest faded into village, faded into suburb, faded into city. The last part of the walk felt frustrating because it began to feel like we had arrived in Santiago long before we reached the cathedral itself.

My first view of the church was the blue and yellow cloth hung on its scaffolded tower. A street busker played “Imagine” by John Lennon on a soprano melodica as I walked down the alley that led to the cathedral’s front. (Oddly enough, I found a clip of someone doing this very thing on YouTube.)

For much of the middle ages, the pilgrim’s initial encounter with the church would have been with the three, round, Romanesque arches of the twelfth-century Portico da Gloria. A statue of St. James on the mullion upholding the central arch would have greeted medieval peregrinos and served as an object of ritual devotion. This, however, was not our experience, because somehow, in 1740, Fernando de Casas Novoa had turned all those tons of Galician granite into the sweeping, curling, stretching towers and embellishments of the baroque façade, with its crazy-elaborate carvings, solemn statues and its bronze crosses pointing up into the sky. Wow!


Obradoiro Façade | Photo from http://www.turnbacktogod.com

I saw our group standing in the Plaza del Obradoira in front of the church. Some of us embraced and cried. Others were just lying on the ground, looking all chilled out, surveying the cathedral we had walked 300 km to reach.

We made it! Santiago de Compostela!

Guys, we’re here! Thank GOD.

Can you even believe it? Finally, Santiago!

From there we walked to our hostel to put our bags away and then returned to attend the mass. The cathedral was packed! Pilgrims from all over the globe filled into the cruciform church. Even in the back of the right transept there were not enough seats for us. The mass was in Spanish, with some Latin songs and responses. Of course, it was the botafumeiro that stuck out to me: that great, hulking, pendulous censor, flying between the arms of the transept at 30 mph!

As for our visit to the relics, I watched the friends I traveled with for so long wait in line, curled in-queue around the florid baroque baldacchino. All that Churrigueresque craziness!


Looking up at the altar | Photo by Rachel Butcher

We all filed through a small gated door.

I watched us approach the statue of St. James silently, placing our open palms on his bejeweled back in a traditional gesture of affection and respect. We then made our way down a set of stairs.

A middle-aged man in an orange jacket was crying and praying before the relics. I knelt down, made my requests, and moved on in little more than a minute. All that travelling for that moment: to be in the presence of that small, silver reliquary coffer; to offer the apostle a prayer or two.

How must it have felt for countless other pilgrims from other eras to have made this journey, to have made their prayer, and then to have turned around and left for their equally grueling journey home?

Later in the day, we were taken on the roof for a tour. You could see the red-tiled buildings that lent the Galician capital its color. As an enthusiastic of medieval church architecture, it was a wonderful experience to be able to interact with these typically-untraveled architectural features.


Pilgrim embracing the statue of St. James | Photo from http://www.salvemariaregina.info/

As we were leaving the cathedral, I glanced back up the nave toward the statue of St. James at the altar. Even from there, I could see a small pair of hands wrapped themselves around his front. They looked small, like a child’s, in comparison to the width of the statue.

How strange for us 21st century peregrinos! Even for those who did not make their pilgrimage for spiritual reasons, this thoroughly medieval, highly ritualized component of the camino remains mysteriously intact, like a relic of its own.


– Rachel

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