A Pilgrimage, Of Sorts, to Santiago de Compostela

May 10th, 2008 at 6:38 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

On Thursday, we had an early (and very tired) start, getting on Zodiacs for the first time as part of our disembarkation in the fishing village of Finesterra, Spain. Finesterra, also called Fisterra, is located in the Galician area of northwestern Spain. The name of the village allegedly comes from when the Romans arrived there a couple of millennia ago, and figured they had reached the end (fini) of the world (terra).

The fishing village of Finesterra, Spain
The fishing village of Finesterra, Spain

Boarding the Zodiacs was reasonably simple as the briefing we had received on the process the evening before was quite thorough, and all went according to plan. We’ve been told that the use of Zodiacs for getting to shore is the norm for most Lindblad trips, but as previously noted, we’ve been using docks and piers all along. Apparently we are also due to use Zodiacs tomorrow to leave St. Malo, as the tides will require the Endeavor to leave the dock before we return.

Krystyana, Linda, and Bas aboard one of the Zodiacs from the National Geographic Endeavour
Krystyana, Linda, and Bas aboard one of the Zodiacs from the National Geographic Endeavour

We boarded the ever present tour bus with our fellow horde of co-passengers, and headed off to Santiago de Compostela, a major Christian pilgrimage site featuring a cathedral which reportedly contains the remains of St. James, an Apostle of Christ. The remains were certified by a Bishop in the 9th century A.D., according to Isabella, our charming Galician tour guide. After Jerusalem and the Vatican, Santiago de Compostela is the third most visited site for Christian pilgrims.

The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

Apparently, there are some very strict requirements for someone to be considered a proper pilgrim. First is that they must arrive on foot or by bicycle, but arrival by motorized conveyance is not permissible for pilgrim status. Pedestrian pilgrims need to travel at least 60 km to get to Santiago de Compostela, and get stamps certifying their pilgrimage walk at various checkpoints along the way. For those preferring to bicycle, the distance is 120 km, with checkpoint stamps required as well. Once a properly stamped pilgrim arrives in Santiago de Compostela they need to go to the Pilgrimage certification office and get an official certificate verifying that they are in fact a real pilgrim. Then, the first ten of such certified pilgrims each day can get a free meal at the Hostal hotel/restaurant.

Pilgrims also are supposed to be carrying scallop shells as a symbol of their pilgrimage, as in addition to being a useful tool for drinking and eating, it also represents a religious icon in Christianity (I didn’t quite grasp how or why that was, though, during our tour). Scallop shell motifs adorned the cathedral in many places in any event.

A symbolic scallop shell on the outside of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
A symbolic scallop shell on the outside of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

One thing that was very surprising to me about the pilgrimages was that pilgrims only needed to complete the journey to be certified as pilgrims, and not actually even enter the cathedral. It’s not always been that way, however, according to a historical account I later read, as pilgrims at one point had to go to a mass, visit the tomb of St. James, have their confession taken, and take communion, at a minimum. Now, however, the process seems less spiritual and more bureaucratic.

The drive to Santiago de Compostela was a bit drizzly and foggy – something that Isabella indicated was more the norm than not, as sunshine tended to be rare, and rain plentiful. But it was a beautiful drive, at least the part during which we were awake (as we had not had much sleep the previous night). Our arrival in Santiago de Compostela seemed to be at something that was a cross between a Greyhound bus station and a cruise ship terminal, seething with mostly oddly dressed individuals overladen with giant handbags, backpacks, and camera equipment, speaking in a myriad of mostly incomprehensible but strangely familiar languages, ourselves included. As we were herded along – amongst the hundreds of other tourists – we paused briefly at a restroom and then made our way to the square in front of the cathedral, being teased by free samples of almond cookies and almond cake, both of which have become traditional foods associated with the town.

In the square before the cathedral, we were introduced to the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, a hotel and dining facility which started life as the accommodations for visiting nobility; the administrative offices for the county of which Santiago de Compostela was the county seat; the old school building, and of course the cathedral itself. Isabella said the square and its surroundings represented the basic element of human life – education (the school), work (the administrative building), leisure (the Hostal), and spiritual (the cathedral).

We then visited the interior of the cathedral itself, which at first glance appeared large but very simple and plain, but as we walked on, that changed, with amazing (and somewhat expected) ornamentation in the area around the resting place of the remains of St. James, which was also surrounded by ornate private chapels.

The bureaucratic nature of modern day Santiago de Compostela came through inside the cathedral as well, where priests sat in confessional booths lining one wall of the cathedral ready to take confessions. Seeing this felt like a Monty Python moment brought to real life.

A priest reads while waiting to take a confession in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
A priest reads while waiting to take a confession in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

We were also told about how local cheese makers became political revolutionaries of sorts, when, in protest to a bishop having a sculptor give a statue a breast size reduction, started producing all their cheeses in the shape of a voluptuous female breast. That practice continues to this day.

Two of the breast cheeses of Santiago de Compostela
Two of the breast cheeses of Santiago de Compostela

The other thing the cathedral is famous for is the giant censer – called the “botafumeiro” – which is swung after communion is given at a mass, filled with incense. The censer weighs 55 kg and reaches speeds of 60 km an hour, and requires a handful of priests to swing it. The censer was apparently first put to use due the stink of the unwashed masses of pilgrims that visited the cathedral back in the days when pilgrims did not have access to the showers that modern hostels for pilgrims now offer. While the censer we saw did in fact emit a lot of smoke, we could smell no incense at all, so it appears to be just for show now, and not for masking human “fragrance”.

The kids got to witness part of a Catholic mass, a first for them. Bas said he found the experience boring and that he almost fell asleep, and I pointed out to him that that was not an uncommon reaction even for devout parishioners at a mass or sermon.

The local Bishop gives a sermon during noon mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
The local Bishop gives a sermon during noon mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

After the mass was over we enjoyed an aperitif of wine and appetizers at the Hostal and entertainment of local traditional dancing and music, which also includes the playing of a bagpipe, something Isabella attributed to Galicia’s heritage as a Celtic-based community. Lunch followed in a huge ornate room where every other chair was throne-like. We had a bit of time to wander after lunch, and went and purchased some previously sampled almond cake and a couple of handfuls of breast-shaped cheese.

Our bus ride out of town took us to La Coruna (the Crown), a larger coastal city where the Endeavour was able to dock. In order to delay our arrival at dock until the appointed boarding time of 6pm, we toured the city by bus and also got out at the Tower of Hercules, a structure originally built by the Romans, and now featuring 243 stairs, which Krystyana and I climbed in a few minutes (and which my thighs are now still in pain from, two days later). The top of the tower afforded us a very nice view of Coruna, but as we had only 20 minutes away from the bus, we had to hustle all the way back down the tower, and even so arrived a few minutes late.

Once back on board the Endeavour we had a “recap” – a briefing that is apparently a bit of a tradition on board Lindblad cruises, and which are supposedly summaries and further discussions of things we have seen that day. Of particular interest was a presentation by one of our naturalists about the collection of Lalique jewelry at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Fascinating pieces, and we wish we had known about them before visiting Lisbon instead of days later. Historian Steve Blamires also provided an overview of the Celtic people in relationship to Galicia where we had just been.

Dinner was a BBQ served in the very chilly region of the back deck – a great location had it been sunny and warm out, but decidedly uncomfortable considering the exterior climate (slightly moist and windy, with temperatures in the low 50s).

We retired to bed late and tired, but well nourished – physically and mentally.

 

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2 Responses to “A Pilgrimage, Of Sorts, to Santiago de Compostela”

  1. Ann Phelan Says:

    very cool about the Geobee, Yana and Bas. I used to know a very special lady from Basque. She lived in Antigua, still does. Very mystical woman too. Your experiences are tremendous. Travel well.

  2. Whitney Says:

    Hello, I came across the shell of St.Peter on your website, and would like to talk to you more about the image. I would like to use it in a travel pubication geared towards travelers destination and would like your permission. Please email me. Thank you,

    Whitney