Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The last day. Santiago de Compostela

To give you some idea of what the cathedral looks like with no scaffolding I've copied a photo of me arriving from a couple of years back. Then I was walking for injured British servicemen and have so far collected £5600 for that fund. Hopefully I can do as well for St Lukes in the fullness of time.

I went to the service in the cathedral last night and they swung the Botafumeiro, a huge incense burner that needs six men to pull on hawser sized ropes that stretch to the ceiling. Its original purpose was to make the filthy and sweaty smell a little better. Imagine thousands of medieval pilgrims all crushed together after walking hundreds of miles to attain their life's ambition. Most had no change of clothes and rarely washed. And often so many were trying to get In that riots ensued.

The action is quite theatrical. The assistants, known as Tirboleiros, surround the rope and lower the burner towards the floor. Then, in unison, they pull together and this massive silver bowl begins to swing. Ever so gently to start with and then higher and higher until eventually it is whooshing down the isle over the heads of the congregation before almost touching the cathedral ceiling. Incense bursts from the Botafumerio to cloak the congregation in a cloying sweet smelling fog. While this is going on a pitch perfect baritone male voice is filling the cathedral accompanied by organ music that seeks out every space not taken by the incense. It is a stunning experience that leaves the congregation silent and awed, with many wiping tears from their cheeks. Eventually the burner gently reduces its swinging arc, the musical crescendo and the service end. There is a collective intake of breath as the congregation come down to earth, and then everyone slowly disperses.

My photo does not do this event justice but I have video that I think does and will post on YouTube next week.

On. my last day I went to the pilgrim's office to collect my certificate that would show I had completed all the stages of my walk. If you go in the middle of the day you can be waiting up to two hours to get into the office, so long is the queue. And that is no fun in hot sun. The office opens from 0800 to 2100 so I went early to avoid the crowds and the heat. I duly presented my pilgrim passport and I thought the stamps of varying designs had turned a boring piece of card into quite a work of art. A young man with a beard sitting behind a counter and a computer scrutinised my passport while I filled in a form giving my details. Eventually satisfied he presented me with my illuminated scroll with my Christian name spelt in Latin upon it. Rogerium. I went to another desk and paid 2 euro for a cylindrical cardboard container. The man carefully rolled up my scroll and slid it inside. It would remain there until I got home.

It was now time to visit the cathedral. The remains if St James are contained in a shining silver casket under the alter. Steps lead down to this very small space. There is an in door and an out door which no one takes notice of, leading to a confusion of bodies struggling to pass each other. The situation is made more difficult when someone stops to pray or to slip their hands behind the bars of the vault to get a picture.

I now had my duty to perform. I had chosen a side chapel to be on my own.  Candles have come a long  way since the days of tallow. Today they are electric, but burn the same length of time and have the same meaning to the faithful. Anyway, who am I to pass judgment. I was reading out a list of names from an iPad. 

For all those that asked rest assured the candle for your loved one now burns in the cathedral. I lit three extra. One for those that were too shy to ask, one for those in hospice care worldwide, and a special one for those that couldn't care less. Well, you never know, sometimes we get protection and we don't even realise it. 

There were very few people in the cathedral early that morning. In one of the chapels a Japanese priest was conducting a service for his fellow countrymen and women. Some chapels had been reserved for other nationalities to hold a service later. Priests were hearing confessions in various languages, and people were mounting the steps behind the alter to wrap their arms around the figure of St James that sat high above it.

The incense burner that had performed so sterlingly the previous night lay at rest and I could clearly see the four wrought iron ladder supports that sat high on the columns above and which held the wheels and pulleys that made it swing so ferociously. 

It was nice to spend the rest of this last and sunny day in an unstructured meander though the old quarter. A museum here, a shop selling jet there, and a quiet stroll to the park to seek the shade of trees as the temperature soared.

So that was it, my second camino completed. I had said yesterday that this might be my last camino. Now I am rested, cleaned up, and those feelings of negativity I experienced have gone.

I am often asked what prompts people to walk such great distances. I leave religion aside, that is personal to each of us. I tell them I enjoy the solitude, the challenge, the fleeting friendships, the start of each fresh day. But they continue to ask, what reward do I get from it? That is simple.

Tomorrow, at mid-day, as my plane flies me over Iberia and back to my family a priest will stand on the alter in the cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela. He will face the congregation and say....'An English pilgrim has arrived from Porto', and that will be all the reward I need.

Thank you for being with me on my journey, and may your God go with you.

At last, Santiago de Compostela


  1. Thanks so much for taking the time and effort to blog. I enjoyed it greatly but I have one comment (to prove I read it :p )... I thought it was a statue of St. James behind the alter that people hug, no?

  2. Thank you Michael, I was trying to promote him, all corrected.

  3. What you could call ....a Clerical error.....!