Monday, 17 September
The prospect of the journey’s end put a spring in our step and after a very good breakfast we set off on the last leg of the journey. The fact that the whole group, including those who had blisters or were otherwise footsore, were keen to do it added to our enthusiasm and we covered the first six kilometres in just over an hour. The number of pilgrims was now a flood and the international mix was very evident, again all in good form and urging each other on for the last leg of the journey.
Eventually we reached Monte Gozo, the hill overlooking Santiago that is known as the Mount of Joy, as it is from here that pilgrims catch the first glimpse of their goal: the Cathedral at Compostella and the shrine of St James. Traditionally they dropped to their knees to give thanks but we settled for a group picture with us all pointing to the city (photo). Whatever about doing another pilgrimage, it hopefully will be the only occasion in which we spend time in Mountjoy.
The last five kilometres took us through the suburbs of the city and then through the winding streets of the old town with its magnificent medieval and Baroque buildings. We approached the cathedral on its north side and paused to allow us to regroup and to send out scouting parties to see what we’d do next. We were standing beside an arched passageway and entertained throughout by a young man playing the Galician bagpipes, not dissimilar to the Irish uilleann pipes and with a similar distinctive sound. He had spent two months busking in the West of Ireland this summer (photo).
On entering the square we were overwhelmed by the sheer scale and beauty of the Cathedral and the surrounding buildings. Opposite it is the Town Hall, while the University of Salamanca and the 1492 pilgrims’ hospice flank it on either side. The hospice is now the Parador Hotel but the conditions of its lease means that it has to offer hospitality to a number of pilgrims each day. We applied all our charm. It didn’t work.
When our scouts returned they briefed us on the next step. Having watched the movie The Way in preparation for the trip, we were looking forward to placing our hands in the pilgrim’s palm print in the Portico of Glory. Unfortunately, this has just been restored and this practice is no longer possible. We did improvise once we got inside though (photo).
The cathedral is a curious mixture of architectural styles. For the most part the outside dates to the eighteenth century and is in an extravagant Baroque style. Once inside, the nave and side aisles are the purest Romanesque imaginable and the atmosphere is calm, tranquil and serene. It is regarded as the masterpiece of a twelfth-century architect known as Master Matteo, who also designed the Portico of Glory and whose statue faces into the church, his gaze centred on St James’ shrine at the High Altar. Traditionally, architects and engineers would rest their foreheads against the head of his statue in the hope that some of his genius would rub off on them. Although this is no longer possible we did pay our respects(picture). The Baroque reappears around the High Altar and although overwhelming, it does draw attention to the tomb of the saint.
There are two elements to visiting the shrine. First you go up a short flight of stairs behind the High Altar and rest your hands on the large reliquary bust or statue of St James that forms the centrepiece of the altar. This symbolises the handing over to him of whatever care, concern or intention that the pilgrim has carried to Compostella. Descending, one then enters the crypt underneath the altar area and visits the saint’s tomb, where his relics are displayed in a silver shrine. Whatever about the historical accuracy of this, it is impossible not to be moved by the thought that one’s prayers are being joined to those of countless millions who have made this same journey over the last millennium and more. This is holy ground.
After visiting the rest of the cathedral, we had some down time and were encouraged to explore the rest of the city centre and experience the local culture. Google Maps had given us the location of the nearest Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet so we headed there instead. It would have been great to have found a Subway but you can’t have everything. Some of the French guys in the group used the time to strike up conversation with some Spanish Chicas and made great progress in advancing Franco-Spanish relations. (photo) They reckon we’re a bit behind in this regard and have offered to run masterclasses when we get back to Glenstal. It won’t be cheap though so watch out for that on the PSR.
After all the walking it felt really weird to get back on a bus to make our way back to the hostel in Pedrouzo. We went back to the same restaurant as the previous evening and Naria, our hostess, told us that we were the nicest group she had received in a long time. We had heard the same compliment at the hostel and earlier at Portomarin and just wish we could convince our own staff of how wonderful we are.
Tuesday, 17 September
After an eventful day yesterday, it was great to have a lie in and to reach our destination refreshed and relaxed. Our main goal was to attend the pilgrim Mass in honour of St James at noon. As this is very popular with pilgrims we’d been advised to get there early to ensure a seat. It was just as well as the cathedral was packed. The Glenstal Abbey School group was announced among the English-speaking pilgrims at the start of Mass but most of us missed it. Although the Mass was in Spanish some elements of the music were very familiar from Glenstal, particularly the Latin chants which had been composed so that pilgrims at shrines all over the world would be able to sing the same hymns. It was a very reverent celebration and many pilgrims were visibly moved by being there, in some cases to the point of tears. One can only wonder what burdens they’d carried with them on their Camino.
At the end of Mass we had the thrill of seeing the Botafumeiro in action. This is a huge thurible or incense burner that hangs from the roof of the cathedral and if a pilgrim group requests, it is used to burn incense in honour of God and St James. A team of eight men operate it and when it’s in full flight it swings in an arc of 68 metres trailing clouds of incense and flames in its wake. In the middle ages it was used to mask the smell of the pilgrims, many of whom had been walking and sleeping in the same set of clothes for several months. It certainly was effective as a deodorizer and we are thinking about getting one for the dorm.
At the end of Mass we gathered again outside the cathedral and did a run through of what had struck us in the course of the previous two days. We’ve done this regularly and it has been a great way of reminding ourselves of what we’ve seen and experienced. Our scout had applied his charm at the pilgrim office the previous afternoon and we didn’t have to queue to receive our pilgrim passports with the final stamp from the cathedral. We then received our Compostella, the official certificate issued by the cathedral authorities to those who had fulfilled the requirements of the Camino, namely to have walked, cycled or ridden a horse for at least 100 kilometres. The certificate itself is a beautiful document written in Latin in the style of a medieval manuscript. It has an image of St James from a twelfth-century manuscript called the Codex Calixtinus, which contains the earliest full account of the Camino. Our first names were given in Latin and some caused a great deal of amusement when read out at the presentation: Dominum Theodorum, Dominum Beniaminem, Dominum Felicem. It is possible to walk the Camino on behalf of another person as an expression of love, prayer and spiritual solidarity and a number of the group had done this for family members who were ill.
It will take a long time to unpack what we’ve seen and heard on this journey but it has been an extraordinary experience and we are grateful to those of you who made it possible.
This account began as exercise to help the pilgrims remember some of what they saw and heard on Camino. It seems to have circulated more widely than initially anticipated. While largely the work of one author it reflects the sights seen, things heard and conversations had en route. The intention is to polish it up, insert some photographs and to add each pilgrim’s reflection on what his experience was like.