Camino 16a – 3 October 2014
By Parson Thru
We’d been promising ourselves a meal in Santiago if and when we made it. The thought had kept us going for days – echoes of John Mills and Sylvia Syms in “Ice Cold in Alex”.
Raising ourselves from a torpor of relief and exhaustion, we tended our blisters and pulled some clothes on. The only things I could bear on my feet were flip-flops.
The hotel receptionist told us there were bars and restaurants in the next street. We found a place with tables under plane trees and ordered food and a half carafe of wine. N ordered lamb and I chose a steak for the meat-hit. That steak tasted good in the sunshine.
The tables around us were filled mainly with people in smart business-clothes. We sat and adjusted to urban life a little, watching the locals. Conversation became idle. It’s nice to be able to enjoy that luxury with another person. The Camino reminded us why we get along – gave us the chance to find each other again after a year apart.
An hour later, we were back in the old city, among the tourist shops and crowds. I’d put my shoes back on as I didn’t relish having my tender feet trampled. We stopped into a couple of souvenir shops to buy postcards for family and friends, including a friend in Madrid who’d passed this way years before.
Someone called N’s name as we passed a café. It was David, sitting at a table with Astrid. We sat with them and ordered drinks. While we were chatting, a man I recognised came over. He was in his thirties, short but powerful-looking. He’d been passing us practically every day, driving himself on with his two walking sticks. He had a quiet way about him, but always gave a wave and wished us “Buen Camino!” It turned out David and Astrid knew him. He was from Italy and, like David, had set off alone from St Jean. He spoke no English, but they could get by in Italian. He stayed with us a while before melting back into the crowd, just as he had on the route. I never caught his name.
We paid the bill and started towards the cathedral. I wanted a photo of the west end , with its famous bell-towers, but the façade was being renovated and was screened-off.
We walked up to the door where people seemed to be assembling – Kirsten was already there. Ursula and Jurgen came wandering up. They’d booked into an albergue on the edge of town – I didn’t know how they could stand it after their sleepless night in Pedrouzo.
Inside, the sound of drilling and hammering echoed around the vast nave. We slid along pews, looking around, pilgrim-spotting. We looked for the Irish lads, Stephen, Michael and Mick. David told us they were due to arrive in Santiago by late afternoon.
Beautiful vocal harmonies were coming from a side chapel. It was an African choir. The bright chitenges worn by the women reminded me of my visit to Malawi the year before. Their clothes and voices brought something wonderful to the scene. When they finished, they stood and chatted quietly for a while before being discreetly ushered out along an aisle away from the nave. Something about the way it was done made me feel awkward.
I decided to go and find the reliquary of St James. N wasn’t interested. Beyond the great girth of a Gothic pillar I saw a queue leading into an opening in the wall. I joined it and waited. I made my way up to a small gallery just wide enough to walk through. At the entrance was a member of the clergy, discreetly signposting a collection box. I dropped a euro in.
Once inside, I could make out the head and shoulders of a large statue – we were behind it. I assumed it to be Sant Iago, the martyred apostle whose way we had been following for the last eleven days. I watched people in front hugging the shoulders of the apostle and saying their piece.
When it was my turn, I rested my hand on his cold broad shoulder and the words came immediately to me: I wished my auntie back in York a peaceful death. She’d been going downhill for over a year and was close to the end. Her husband had died earlier in the year and she was now housebound, alone and in constant pain. In only a few more weeks she would be admitted to hospital.
I followed the queue from the gallery down into the crypt. There, in the ninth century heart of the building, was a silver reliquary about the size of a small casket. I paused for a moment. It was just possible that it contained the bones of a man who had followed the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Maybe.
My auntie died just under three months later – on 23 December. She hadn’t been short of visitors – I’d seen her about a week before. My other aunt and a cousin maintained a vigil in the last days. They told me she thanked everyone, stroked my cousin’s arm then simply stopped breathing.
By the time I returned to N the pews were crowded. I looked across and saw Stephen, Mick and Michael. They’d made it. Their erect but deferential manner reminded me of my own family in church. I waved to them and received a discreet nod in return. I never was much good at this stuff.
The clergy assembled at the high altar and the service began with a hymn. Mass was said mainly in Spanish, and what sounded like a list of nationalities produced by the Compostela office was read out. It was a long list. Whether one is religious or not, there’s something about seeing these buildings fulfilling the purpose for which they were designed. The Bernabeu's probably the same.
Eucharist over, the cathedral’s organ took a deep breath and filled the nave with a dramatic, almost sinister, tone – the grand finale was being prepared.
Over the years, I’ve visited a number of religious sites around the world that lay claim to great artefacts: St Peter’s Basilica in Rome; a Hindu temple in India that claimed to have the second largest bull carved from a single piece of granite. Santiago has its Botafumeiro or incense-burner, which is almost the size of a small car.
Eight red-robed operatives lowered the device from the ceiling on the end of a thick rope. The rite was administered and the Botafumeiro raised to its operating altitude in a series of jerks reminiscent of a mainsail being hoisted.
Dramatic effect was provided by the organ as a small blaze of incense began to swing back and forth above the congregation. At each lift, the censer swung further through the nave, increasing its arc steadily until it almost reached the ceiling.
Operatives, or tiraboleiros, rose and fell to their task as a single body until the organ and Botafumeiro climaxed together in a shower of cinders and a great cloud of incense smoke. They say that in days of old its real purpose was to ward off the stench of assembled pilgrims. It’s probably as necessary today as it ever was.
As the service ended and we filed out, I found myself alongside Stephen, the Dublin cabbie who’d given me his rehydration salts on the way to Portomarin.
“That thing would have made a hell of a mess if it had hit the ceiling.” he said. “I was getting worried there, standing under it.”
I grinned. It would have burned a lot of pilgrims to a crisp. Thank goodness for small mercies.
We gathered in the plaza. It was time to find a bar.