Camino Santo (Spain)

I reached Santiago de Compostela shortly after 7am following another overnight train journey; tired dirty and hungry. Come to think of it, isn’t that how pilgrims have been arriving here for a thousand years? Be that as it may, I was not expecting much of a welcome and that was just as well because it was Sunday and everything, including the churches, appeared to be shut. I freshened up in the station bathroom, put on my only remaining set of clean clothes, fortified myself with a strong coffee and set out to try to find the historic part of the town. With my luggage still in tow as there was no left luggage office at the station.

After about an hour I at last found my way into the cathedral, still dragging my suitcase, and a few people began to appear. I was directed to the Pilgrims’ Assistance Office where I was permitted to use the luggage facilities despite the fact that I was obviously not the right sort of pilgrim. By about 10 o’clock the walkers started to arrive in the Square and there are plenty of pictures below to give you an idea of the type of people who qualify for the coveted “compostela” status by walking the last 100k of the ancient route from the Pyrenees. Although not (quite) all young, they seemed highly trained and expensively equipped. In fact, if I had to choose one word to describe their peregrinations it would be “recreational”.

It rained for most of the rest of the day although I did manage to catch a few pictures in a short spell of sunshine. There is a positive confectionery of ornate medieval architecture in the old town, with palaces, colleges and scores of additional churches obviously having being commissioned to accommodate the pilgrim overspill and never having suffered the architectural spring-cleaning of the reformation or the pollution damage of a large industrial city. An excellent display in the Cathedral Museum explains many of the conservation and restoration challenges.

The cult of St James (Saint Jacques or Sant Iago) really took off in the ninth century although the saint himself was actually one of Christ’s apostles, re-branded, I mean re-buried here several centuries after his death. Many classic representations of the Saint show him smiting the “Mussulman” as he was often a chosen figurehead of the “reconquista”. The bloodthirsty period of several hundred years when Christianity re-asserted itself in Spain and put an end to Muslim rule in Western Europe. This is interesting to say the least as, to have known Jesus Christ, James himself must have died a long time before the birth of the Prophet Mohammed.

On the list of holiest destinations it featured after Jerusalem but before Canterbury and in the Middle Ages a phenomenal number of people braved poor roads, bandits and even the plague to make the pilgrimage to Compostela. Perhaps I had picked a bad day or perhaps, nearing the end of my own trip,  I was just too fatigued but I was not inspired with the same respect for the devotions of the faithful that I had experienced at Walsingham or at Guadalupe. I’m afraid Santiago reminded me much more of Glastonbury but I’m very glad I made the trip, if only so that I now know what all the fuss is about.

Categories: Europe

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