Europe Visita Iglesia #5: Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain

I never really thought I’d be able to pull it off – biking the 750 km. Camino pilgrimage route from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela. Seeing the mountains to climb and the never-ending, twisting ribbon of asphalt roads as well as the stony dirt tracks where peregrinos walked with the patience of Job made my heart sink from Day 1. But somehow, with the aid of a Higher Calling, I was able to do it in 12 days which, for me, was nothing short of a miracle! So finding myself entering the Plaza Obraidoro right in front of the Cathedral drenched to the bone under a heavy downpour made me cry, partly out of tiredness and partly out of relief for accomplishing what I had set out to do.

Saint James at the altar.
The cathedral facade in all its Baroque glory.
The cathedral facade in all its Baroque glory.
Staircase leading up to the entrance.
Staircase leading up to the entrance.
The Pilgrim's Mass which is held daily at noontime.
The Pilgrim’s Mass is held daily at noontime.

The Camino de Santiago leads to the shrine of St. James in the Galician province of northern Spain and starts from various points in Europe, with the most popular one beginning from the town of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains at the French border.

The church organ looks like some props in a sci-fi movie.
The church organ looks like some props in a sci-fi movie.
Pilgrims arrive at one of the doors.
Pilgrims arrive at one of the doors.
The marker in the middle of Obraidoro Square.
The marker in the middle of Obraidoro Square.
This is the Golden Jubilee door that is only opened when the July 25 Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday. Pilgrims who pass thru this door get absolution for their sins.
This is the Golden Jubilee door that is only opened when the July 25 Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday. Pilgrims who pass thru this door get absolution for their sins.

Legend has it that the remains of St. James were carried in a boat to Spain and was buried in what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela. A shepherd saw the burial place under a field of stars (Campo de Estrellas), and when King Alphonso heard about it, he made a pilgrimage to the place and had the initial primitive church built on the spot. This was in the early 8th century, and soon, people started going there nonstop, growing in popularity over the centuries as thousands upon thousands of pilgrims made their way from different parts of the continent. A book, the Codex Calixtinus (shades of Lonely Planet!), was even published at that time to guide those who wanted to walk the whole route, giving tips on lodgings, food, places of interest to see; along the way, and even scams!

You can pat the saint's head at the back of the altar where everyone queues to ask for his blessings.
You can pat the saint’s head at the back of the altar, where everyone queues to ask for his blessings.
This is the Botafumeiro (Galician for "smoke expeller"), a giant incense metal container that is swung over the people during the Mass from a suspended pulley mechanism in the dome on the roof of the church.
This is the Botafumeiro (Galician for “smoke expeller”), a giant incense metal container that is swung over the people during the Mass from a suspended pulley mechanism in the dome on the roof of the church.
Entrance sign to the crypt below.
Entrance sign to the crypt below.
Angels standing on the mantelpiece.
Angels standing on the mantelpiece.

The church was rebuilt several times, but the present Cathedral was constructed starting in 1075 in Romanesque style with additional expansion and other embellishments made in succeeding centuries. The current Baroque facade with its twin spires, however, was built in the 18th century.

The crypt below the altar where the Saint's remains are buried.
The crypt below the altar where the Saint’s remains are buried.
Opposite the Cathedral on the main square is this Neo-classical city council building.
Opposite the Cathedral on the main square is this Neo-classical city council building.
Note the worn-out marble on the steps going up behind the altar. Imagine how many millions of pilgrims have trod on them over the centuries!
Note the worn-out marble on the steps going up behind the altar. Imagine how many millions of pilgrims have trod on them over the centuries!
We attended the noontime Mass packed to the rafters.
We attended the noontime Mass packed to the rafters.

A large Square (Obradoiro) serves as a place for pilgrims to congregate when they arrive, and you will see people meeting up, laughing, crying, singing, and playing music to celebrate the long and hard toil they experienced on the way to get to Santiago. When I was there the last time, there was an Irish band complete with bagpipes and kilts parading down the square to the cheers of the large-sized crowd who were waiting for the Mass to begin.

The pulley holding the Botafumeiro censer.
The pulley holding the Botafumeiro censer.
Arches above one of the naves.
Arches above one of the naves.
The brass censer stands about 1-1/2 meters and weighs 80 kilos, swinging at a 65 meter arc above the heads of the churchgoers while emitting incense.
The brass censer stands about 1-1/2 meters and weighs 80 kilos, swinging at a 65 meter arc above the heads of the churchgoers while emitting incense.
Mimes standing on Obraidoro Square.
Mimes standing on Obraidoro Square.

Most have walked, some have biked, and others had come on horseback – these are the ways to do the pilgrimage to claim your Compostela or Pilgrim’s Certificate attesting that you have done your duty. At least you should have walked 100 kms. Or biked 200 kms. as shown on the stamps of your Credencial (Pilgrim’s Passport) that you secure from the place you started from. Then you collect stamps from the churches, hotels, cafes, or ayutamientos along your route.

That's me arriving at the Cathedral after biking the Camino.
That’s me arriving at the Cathedral after biking the Camino.

Every day at 12:00 noon, a Mass is held as a symbol of welcome to the exhausted pilgrims who have arrived. It is the highlight of the whole Camino experience.

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About the Author

Al P. Manlangit is a Filipino architect based in Kuwait who loves to travel and take photos everytime he gets the chance to do so. The genres that he explores are landscape, architecture, and street photography which come in handy wherever he goes. He blogs at designerq8.com, focusing on interesting places he visited with short stories to tell behind each frame.

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