July 25 is the Christian feast day celebrating James the Great, ( as there are two apostles named James, "great" indicates either older or taller.) According to legend, after being martyred in the Middle East, his body was transported to Galicia in northwest Spain, to the site where the great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela now sits. This became the third most visited pilgrimage site during the second millennium (after Rome and the Holy Lands of the Palestine), a trip known variously as the Camino de Santiago, the Route de St Jacques, Jakobsweg. His brother was St John the Evangelist, whose feast day 24 June is my father's birthday.
In May 2018 I was blessed to visit the city of Compostela, and to visit, tour and photograph the cathedral there. Here are a few of my photos, as the best is included in my photobook #CathedralsToTheGloryOfGod.
From my trip report of my visit to #SantiagoDeCompostela:
20-21 May: Santiago de Compostela Perhaps because it was a Sunday, or maybe there’s just no demand for the route from Braga to Santiago until the afternoon, but the continuing bus was due to leave Braga at 14:10 for a three-hour ride. An hour later we crossed the border into Spain, so this time I was prepared, and adjusted the time zone and power cycled my phone, and reset the watch. The bus arrived early at Praça Estaçáo Rodoviária. Per Google Maps, it was pretty much a straight shot to the flat.
However, for a pedestrian to exit the station, one climbs to the top level, up 3 sets of escalators. Then out to the boulevard to begin going down a hill, passing the entrance for the buses, and within 30 meters of where you debark. This left me rather confused, and it took 15 minutes to figure out how to get to the street. (I also checked on my outbound ride 36 hours hence.)
My walk was less than a kilometer straight down a hill; I even staying on the same side, with a big park on the far side of the 4-lane separated boulevard, and only one rotary. Up a few steps into the foyer with the lift, up two levels and down a long hallway to the entry to two flats. Javi had guided me from the street, and explained he was living to the left, while the flat with my room was to the right. Passing the eat-in kitchen, and then the shared bathroom, my room was on the left, with two other bedrooms off a central common room.
Other than showing me around and then the back entrance to the building, Javi disappeared quickly. About 7pm I headed out, back up the hill from the rear exit, and found the brass Camino scallop in the sidewalk, directing me towards the cathedral. Arriving just before the evening Mass, I settled into a pew. Two concelebrants, with a jolly humorous head priest. He gave instructions: first in Spanish, then in English: “No cameras. No phones.” Of course, the guy in front of me got a call, hung up, was called back and stepped aside. During the distribution of Communion, a woman made a video on her phone. All through Mass, pilgrims were mounting the steps behind the altar to hug the effigy of St. James, which was a bit distracting. Matched ornate pipe organs hung above the pews in the central aisle, as there was no enclosed choir as in most Spanish cathedrals.
Following the service, about 50 people were called up to the sanctuary and presented with medallions. After the ceremony, I took a few pictures inside, and then went outside to capture the cathedral in the setting sun. Backtracking as best I could remember, I began returning towards the flat, keeping an eye out for a place to eat. Many places seemed to cater to the pilgrims finishing their Camino, with simple, inexpensive food and early dining.
Orixe was bright and new, looked a bit upscale, and had few patrons at 9:30pm. Ah, these Spanish – even in Galicia, they still dine late. I started with a traditional cream of Galician broth with Bolinosdo Pote, sipping on an albarino from Marteleira, Rias Baixas. For the main, a Galician oxtail stew in red wine from Mencia, accompanied by a 2014 tinto Fernandez de Pierola, a Crianza from La Rioja. I found the soup to be bland, excepting the bits of pepperoni. The beef in the stew had been formed into a block of shredded meat. It was placed on a creamy potato base, but was a bit cool. The broccoli was perfect, and the chips of turnip and sweet potato added to the picture. Both wines were good, in fact, the red was excellent. My notes indicate I finished the stew without having it reheated, suspecting it would taste better hot.
For dessert, a cheesecake made with blue cheese, and a Galician apple crepe. The latter was pretty much just a crepe. The cheesecake, however, wasn’t the sticky sweet lump from New York City. Creamier, not sweet, truly delicious. I didn’t taste the blue element, but still liked the cake. The sweetness came from the almond slices, the jam topping and the two pieces of fruit, which it should. Bravo to the chef! A decaf cappuccino to finish, and a chocolate truffle with the check. A fine sendoff as I left to find my way back to the flat.
Monday morning I had booked the 2 hour FreeTour of Santiago de Compostela, and needed to be in front of the cathedral at 10am. Waking ahead of my phone alarm, I was at the cathedral well in time, but I was unsure where the rendezvous point was – outside the active entrance on the south side, or out on the big square in front of the main doors which were being repaired and renovated. Fortunately, a blue umbrella opened at the center of the big square, and a group congregated around it. Our guide, Pedro, was from Poland, and, per my notes, talked a blue streak.
Relaying a lot of information, he started by pointing out the five statues of St. James on the face of the cathedral. We moved through the old city, through a number of arcades which offered protection from the weather. There is a form of black amber that is special to Santiago de Compostela called Azabache. One of the small streets was named for the jewelers who work with this stone, and I picked up a pair of earrings in a nice silver filigree to bring home as a gift. Pedro also informed us as to the correct positioning of the scallop shell used to guide pilgrims: there are six primary pilgrimage routes across Western Europe that culminate in Santiago, so the merging curved lines of the shell is the direction to the cathedral. Since I’ve seen it used in both directions, I’m not sure if this is correct. At least in the city, the shells all have the rays merging to the shell’s hinge point as the direction to the cathedral square.
As with most big Spanish cities, there was an impressive palace that now houses the city and regional government functions. Churches and chapels to St. James abound – there is probably at least one on every street – tucked into small spaces or occupying a half block. As with most free tours, we visited the city market, and area where three separate markets exist, focusing on grown product, fish and meat, and ready consumables.
When the tour was over, I poked into a few shops, looking for souvenir gifts. I found a circular cross pendant that I’d not seen before, so go it for me. Then I headed into a park, where I wandered for a bit, looking for a long distance shot of the cathedral. While I was there, I ran into kiosks with booksellers – that program I’d seen in prior stops was here in Galicia. Much of the spring blooming trees and shrubs were in flower – chestnuts and rhododendrons pleased me, as I don’t see them now in Florida. A huge Ferris wheel was in the center of the park, at its highest point, surrounded by big trees.
Leaving the park, I headed to the cathedral. Entering, I began my traditional exploration, walking the side aisles and visiting the chapels. Most of the chapels contained old statuary, with the occasional entombed bishop or noble. The dome over the high altar was exposed stone, not the plastered over to be painted in style of many other cathedrals. I descended into the crypt below the main altar. Behind an iron gate, the silver and gold tomb held what are believed to be the remains of the Apostle. Coming back to the main level, I joined the queue. Climbing a few steps, you stand in back to the statue of St. James, and put your arms around its shoulders. Per a website, “thousands of people visit the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela each year to hold a statue of St James and ask him for help in their obstacles, thank him for support and make a wish.” I can’t admit to doing any of these three.
To visit the tower, museum and treasury, one needs to exit the cathedral proper onto the main square. At the far left end, I was able to book a spot in the penultimate tour of the day, including the museum and a walk on the roof. There was a special exhibit in the building to the left of the main front doors, honoring Master Mateo, the primary architect of the building. Photos were not allowed in the exhibit, however, my notes indicate I found it to be a very well planned and executed presentation. Exiting the building and crossing to the opposite side, I entered into the museum, where a tall chapel altarpiece, wooden, impressed me with the quantity of statuary and relics. Tapestries, art works, statues, carvings and bas relief – a nice collection was on view.
After 90-minutes indoors, I was able to get to an internal courtyard where I could get a few shots. No plantings, this cloister was covered by a screening to keep out the birds. There was a balcony that opened out to the big square in front of the buildings, the Praza do Obradoiro, where arriving pilgrims were relaxing in the afternoon sun. One could see rooftops of the nearby buildings too.
Exiting the church complex, I had an hour and a half to kill before the museum tour and roofwalk. I walked a bit, and found Croques Café Bar, where I had a beer and an open-faced tuna sandwich. Four Irishmen, with one’s son joining later, were at the next table. The four had traveled 135km along the English Way, while the son had completed the Portuguese Way and was completing his Camino by going to Fisterra in the morning. Giving me their last Irish flag, they were returning to Dublin by air at 9pm.
When we were admitted for the tour, the 20 of us climbed stairs to the museum where we walked quickly through the Master Mateo exhibit and a second gallery. Then, with a “no longer restricted” camera, we climbed another flight and were in the galleries over the side aisles of the nave, which gave me an opportunity to capture the cathedral’s main aisle from the rear to the main altar. Worshipers were gathering for the evening Mass. At the rear, the large rose window was covered, to protect it during the restoration work outside. More stairs, and we exited a doorway onto the slate roof. The “roof tiles” were carved stone, possibly 60x24x6 inches. On a slight slope, they covered the portion of the roof over the nave and one side of the transept.
This tour was in Spanish, and our woman guide spoke in rapid-fire Castilian. My guess looking at the number of dumbfound stares, at least a third of the folks didn’t have a clue what was being said. A couple, formerly from CDMX and now living in Puebla, Mexico, were kind enough to translate some of the introduction. An elderly Dutch couple and I bonded – I was quite attentive to and assisted the female half, offering her my hand frequently for stability. We walked to achieve vantage points to observe the five towers, each representing a continent.
Exiting to the plaza after about an hour, it was too early for dinner. I slowly wandered towards the flat. Most restaurants were closed as it was Monday evening. At the point where I had to turn downhill for the flat’s rear entrance, I walked a bit further and popped into a bar for a beer and bacallo tapas – marinated cod. On my way back to that downhill turn, I stopped in a market and picked up a cook-it-yourself pizza, two bottles of beer, bananas and a bag of snacks.
Our kitchen didn’t have an oven – that was an improvement scheduled to happen this summer, so Javi took it to his flat and baked it a bit. Now I like a very hot, well-cooked pie, with the cheese melting into the crust. Europeans seem to prefer a lightly cooked, lightly sauced pizza. In the meanwhile, I spoke with Juan Jesus, a single night guest from Murcia, who has stayed there before. After I had my supper, I returned to my room and went to sleep. While the bed felt soft, it slept firm – go figure?
Tuesday morning, the male of the third bedroom was in the bathroom. I managed to slip in before his wife, and then had a banana, water and my pills. I was out of the flat earlier than I’d planned, and found the uphill push to not be as bad as I anticipated. I skipped walking up and around, entering with the buses, and found my platform. The first bus out went to Porto, full of pilgrims. Our bus had 6 waiting courteously in a queue, up until 3 minutes before, when 5 Spaniards barged in front. Well, I was in no mood, and gave the leader a loud scolding (in English) and they moved to the back of the line. A two-and-a-half hour trip to Lugo, we made our first stop in A Coruña. At the next stop in Betanzos, the Spaniards got off. We arrived in Lugo on time.
Photo link: Santiago de Compostela