Sinners in the City of a Saint

04/12/2011 18:49

Stumbling over his own feet, drawing the last bits of already exhausted energy, he was walking slowly towards the last hill on a long journey. Looking at the sunlight, he felt almost like a God blessed man. Just him. Alone, in the silence of thoughts. He did it. He is here. Nothing else matters.

This is how thousands of pilgrims must feel after arriving at their final destination—the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in north-western Spain. This thousand-year-old pilgrimage to where, as tradition has it, the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried is simply called the Way of Saint James. Pilgrims on the Way of Saint James may choose any of the pilgrimage routes leading to Santiago de Compostela, but the most popular one is Via Regia and its last part--the French Way, or Camino francés in Spanish. It runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side and then continues to Santiago de Compostela through the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and Léon. The full route covers 780 km and takes at least four weeks to complete. Camino inglés or the English Way starts in La Coruña. The English usually arrive there by boat and then continue on foot for two days. As this is the shortest of the routes, one would say that the English are the laziest of all pilgrims.


But they are not. We were even lazier. Our trip took us an unbearably great amount of time--5 hours by bus from Oviedo. As we reached the city, nothing could compare to the shame we felt. It was full of dirty, tired--and exceptionally even barefoot--but smiling pilgrims. They were blessed; we had sinned. As we had come to share happiness with them, we quickly left our things at the hotel and hurried to the centre.


It was a sunny afternoon as we were walking through the streets of the medieval city. Starting at Cervantes Square, we set off right towards the cathedral. Little souvenir shops lined all the way to the 16th-century Baroque Abbey of San Martín Pinario, a huge Benedictine monastery that faces the back of the cathedral. Yes, we crept in through the back entrance like true sinners, uninvited but instantly overwhelmed by solemnity of the moment.


In silence we walked through the main nave below the Botafumeiro, a gigantic thurible weighing 80 kg and measuring 1.60 m in height, which makes it the largest censer in the world. During the Pilgrim Mass and some other special occasions, it is attached to its pulley mechanism, filled with 40 kg of incense and pulled by the ropes into swinging.


Afterwards we moved towards the final destination of all pilgrims. We bent our heads in humility and entered the crypt below the altar. The place called for saying a little prayer for our families, so we remained in silence, contemplating.


We went out below the western façade of the cathedral, facing the main square called Praza da Obradoiro. Right in front of us, there was another of the city’s main sights--The Rajoy Palace, which nowadays serves as the city hall and seat of the regional government. Absorbing the greatness and majesty of the place, we felt as if we were just too small to bear it.


After that, we headed for the Carballeira de Santa Susana, a beautiful oak park that overlies a Celtic hill fort on the top of which a chapel of another patron saint of the city, St. Susanna, is situated. On the opposite side of the grove, below the chapel, there is a different park. Only later on did I find out that a special fir tree grows there. It was planted by Eva Perón, the world-famous first lady of Argentina generally known as Evita, while she was visiting Santiago de Compostela in 1947. Since then it has grown to the height of more than 22 meters.

A little confused by the striking mixture of tropical palm trees, oaks and spruces, we strolled contemplating the beauties of nature. On our way back we stopped for a while at the statue of Rosalía Castro, a significant 19th-century Galician writer and poet, and headed to the centre again to have  a tomar café (a cup of coffee), as sitting in cafés, watching people and chatting with friends is typically Spanish.


Back to the streets, we were making faces of disgust at strange sea animals on display at every restaurant when we suddenly heard some noise. Sounds of drums. Wondering where they could be coming from, we were following them through crowds. With the sun setting in between little medieval houses, we unwittingly returned to the square in front of the cathedral.


A crowd was surrounding a group of young percussionists called Trópico de Grelos who were just beating out steady rhythms, moving around to change their formation, smiling and having fun. All the people standing around them were so captivated by the music that they started to dance and jump, regardless of their age, simply enjoying the moment. They got us, too. We had never had so much fun during our stay in Spain as on that evening. When the group wanted to finish, people cried for more. And thus they were playing, everybody was dancing and having fun…We really didn’t want it to end. But everything does sooner or later. When the percussionists finished, we stayed for a while, just like that, thinking about our day and admiring the illuminated cathedral in the middle of the square.

The evening was cold, but the atmosphere around us was surprisingly warm. It was just a group of a few random people and us sitting on the ground in front of the cathedral and listening to the distant sound of a street bagpiper. We felt like at home. We raised our heads and saw the stars above us. Only then we recalled an interesting thing we had been told at the beginning of our trip--the word Compostela is supposedly derived from the Latin expression “campus stellae”, which means “a field of stars”. Romantic, isn’t it? So we stayed there, in the starry night, wondering if it is possible even for sinners like us to be blessed with so much happiness...

                                                                                              Jana Eldesová



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