September 20, Santiago de Compostela – For many pilgrims who embarked on the Camino de Santiago or The Way of St James, the Cathedral of Santiago – where the tomb of St James the Elder, the disciple of Jesus who was the son of Zebedee and brother of John, lies – is truly a sight for sore eyes, or more aptly, sore feet. Whether you took the longest route (some 800km starting from France) or the last 100km from Sarria, you will be deliriously happy to see the sight of the Roman Catholic church, as it is not only regarded as a masterpiece of Romansque art with Gothic and Baroque touches, it ultimately announces that you have completed your camino…
There’s supposedly a couple of rituals that pilgrims do when they enter the Cathedral – hug a statue of St James and a particular pillar, touch the tomb of St James, etc. Regret to say, I didn’t do any of those as I was awed by the architecture and decor alone.
The basilica is huge and is actually shaped like a cross. Besides the impressive pulpit centrepiece, a number of galleries lined the sides of the pews and back of the altar, many depicting the life of Christ. An architectural marvel to look out for is the Portico de la Gloria which framed on the side entrances. Comprising three arches, the columns that act as its bases bear intricate cravings depicting Christ after the crucifixion and the 4 apostles who wrote the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
SWINGING GOOD TIMES: Arguably, the main highlight at the Cathedral is the Botafumeiro ritual. After seeing this breathtaking ceremony in actor-director Emilio Estevez’s film, The Way, it was one of the reasons that made me embarked on Mi Camino. Take note that this ritual is not performed at every mass and there’s no schedule to refer to. According to my guide Jesus, the church is requested by the city tourism bureau to perform it regularly at the Friday 7.30pm evening mass. Which is why our tour agency arranged for us to reach Santiago on a Friday. So thank God for that cos I missed it at the noon Mass but was able to catch it that evening. I would advise you to sit on the pews that flanked the pulpit. The monks (above) would be pulling the humongous incense burner – one of the largest in the world and weighing some 80kg, mind you – with the help of a giant pulley fixed at the dome of the roof and it will swing sideways above the side pews. Let me tell you as the incense fragrance fell over me as the Botafumeiro swung above the left pews, it’s an uplifting experience like no other. The ceremony lasts about 15 minutes, and is the only time you can take pictures or video as that is prohibited during Mass services. Here’s a video I took of the breathtaking ceremony…
LIKE A MONASTERY: Our last hotel for our tour was the truly magnificent Hotel San Martin Pinario which was literally a stone’s throw away from the cathedral – it faces the side door on the west (if I’m not mistaken). It was a former monastery that has been given a ultra modern contemporary makeover for the interiors although the ancient brick structure is maintained which adds to the hotel’s grandeur. The room is immaculate with the look of a monk’s room maintained (above right) except of course it’s now filled with modern-day amenities bar a TV. Highly recommended if you intend to spend a few days in the Old Town which you should.
THE LAST SUPPER: “The tour ends with dinner tonight with me at the hotel – The Last Supper with Jesus so to speak!” quipped my tour guide – whose name is pronounced Hey-Zeus – who relished making this statement at the end of every tour he makes. *roll eyes* Our last meal with the affable chap took place in this huge dining hall with long dining tables (below) which won’t look out of a place in a Harry Potter movie as tour mate Sandra said, “It looks like the hall in Hogwarts!” as she took pictures for her daughter. Food though was oddly underwhelming although we have no complaints about the free-flowing wine.
One fun bit occurred when this huge tour group which we suspected was Polish started singing at the the top of their voices after their dinner. Not to be outdone, our Irish ladies demanded that we stand up and sing something too. What resulted was individual talent-show-offing time such as Barbara’s Mary singing a blinder with Barbra Streisand’s ‘Summertime”; Sorcha’s Mary reciting a poem; and the group of seven who also has a Mary in their midst, sang an Irish ditty. Jessica and her sister Mary managed to get out of it, as did Americans Bob and Clare, and Jesus. I sang a Chinese nursery rhyme which went down well cos I didn’t realise it has the same tune as a French ditty. One good thing of singing in a “foreign” language is that no one knows whether you are doing it right or not. Well Phil and gang, if you are reading this, it’s actually “Three Little Mice” and not “Three Little Tigers”! *yuk yuk*
Well, that concludes Mi Camino Flashback. Will I ever embark on the camino again? “Hell, no!” I told most of them that night. But 2 months after, the urge of covering another route is getting stronger. The Finisterre Way, the only camino that begins from Santiago de Compostela and ends on the cliffs of Finisterre, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, is mighty attractive. If there’s ever a next time, I will spread it over 10 days.
Meanwhile, for those who are considering or are already on The Way – Buen Camino!