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Santiago de Compostela

by Horacio Espinosa
Cathedral Santiago de Compostela

The Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela is, for many, the pilgrimage capital.

It is the final destination of the Camino de Santiago, a series of medieval routes that by the grace of God thousands of people walk every day on foot, by bicycle and in all kinds of vehicles.

The historic center of the municipality, which is also the capital of Galicia, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. According to data from the Peregrine Welcome Office that depends on the local cathedral, only in April 2019 did they visit the place 31,721 pilgrims.

Before going into the story of the visit to the holy site, I would like to clarify that I have not made the Camino de Santiago. I only shared the last section from Monte del Gozo, which is a hill located about seven kilometers from the finish line.

We arrived to the city by bus and stayed about 500 meters from the cathedral. Contrary to the majority, we set out to walk through historic streets and experience what it feels like during the pilgrimage, starting with the temple where the relics of the Apostle Saint James, the diffuser of Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, are located.

  One of the facades of the famous cathedral faces Plaza del Obradoiro. There we could see many pilgrims who arrived on foot, with their shoes shattered from so much walking, but with a full soul. What we were trying to achieve, they already had it. While there are many pilgrims who walk with faith, there are also those who do it for sport or tourism, without realizing that the Lord has begun to touch their hearts.

The square is large and is surrounded by historic buildings of singular beauty. Undoubtedly, the most impressive is the cathedral. The other three that close the square are: the College of San Xerome currently Rector of the University of Santiago; the Pazo de Raxoi, today the town hall; and the famous Hostal dos Reis Católicos, which since a few years ago serves as a parador of the Spanish state.

The Pazo de Raxoi (in Galician) or Rajoy Palace (in Spanish) is a neoclassical construction. It was ordered by the archbishop of Santiago, Bartolomé Rajoy Losada, in the year 1766 to serve as a seminary for confessors. It is located in the western part of the Plaza del Obradoiro.

To the right of the palace is the College (whose dedication translates as San Jerónimo) and, to the left, is the Royal Hospital of the Catholic Monarchs. This was donated by the monarchs at the beginning of the 16th century for the welfare of the pilgrims who arrived on foot from far away. Although it is a hotel, the price of staying there is usually not moderate, but it is advisable to at least have a coffee inside and appreciate the decoration of the place.

Around the plaza it is common to find groups of young students playing music. This tradition dates back to 1876, when students from the three faculties of Santiago took to the streets at carnival to imitate the old schoolboys of the twelfth century who sang and played beautiful songs to awaken their loved ones.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, as we said, is the great protagonist of the Plaza del Obradoiro.

The facade that faces the Plaza is the Portico de la Gloria. Unfortunately, when it was our visit, that part of the temple was in maintenance and we could not enjoy it in all its splendor. It is one of the most beautiful religious buildings in your country. Its architectural style is a mixture of Romanesque and Baroque.

If you enter the back of the cathedral, you find an immensely large building, so much so that from the outside it is hard to get an idea of ​​its true size.

The main altar is dedicated to Santiago Apóstol and the pilgrims can walk around it. There is a custom that consists in embracing a statue of the disciple and, beyond fulfilling the tradition, I lived something very special when doing it. Somehow, it was as if I had received a hug back. It was such a nice feeling that I repeated the experience three times. I really felt that that image embraced me with father’s warmth.

The temple is immense, it began to be built in 1075 by order of King Alfonso VI on the ruins of a small and ancient pre-Romanesque church that had been destroyed. It is said that the tomb of the apostle Santiago is inside the cathedral, which is why since the Middle Ages it has been pilgrimage there.

One of the highlights of the cathedral is the Botafumeiro, a huge censer of 53 kilograms and a meter and a half high. This is balanced by eight men known as “tiraboleiros” and reaches a speed of 70 kilometers per hour. Such a practice began to take place centuries ago in the face of the need to mask the smell of the pilgrims’ sweat.

The silver vessel moves from the central dome of the temple, where it is hung by a system of pulleys, to the side aisles. It is used with liturgical motifs, like any other censer. The priests resort to him for the main solemnities of the cathedral, during the entrance procession or at the end of the Eucharist.

The Botafumeiro symbolizes, as for the ancient Jews, the true attitude of the believer. As the smoke of the incense rises towards the highest of the naves of the temple, in the same way the prayers of the pilgrims rise towards the heart of God. Just as the aroma of incense perfumes the entire basilica, so the Christian, with his testimony of life, should impregnate the good smell of Christ, the society that surrounds him.

We were able to participate in a celebration of Holy Mass in the cathedral that culminated with the wonderful dispersion of incense. It was a unique sensation of soul elevation, as if our prayers, requests and thanksgiving had gone on a direct path to the Lord.

As for the city, it is best to lose yourself aimlessly and transport yourself to another era. In each street, each square and each alley there is something worth seeing: palaces, manor houses, convents, fountains, chapels, museums … However, some places are almost obligatory for the visitor, such as the Plaza de Quintana and the Plaza de las Silversmiths Also, the Monastery of San Martín Pinario, which currently serves as the Major Seminary (it is the second largest religious building in Spain) and the Convent of San Francisco. According to tradition, it was Saint Francis of Assisi who ordered it to be built by a peasant who welcomed him on his pilgrimage to Compostela.

The most important thing that Santiago de Compostela left me was to know the Apostle Santiago, to get me with his story and to feel his fraternal embrace. Santiago el Mayor was the brother of San Juan Evangelista and is patron of Spain.

To learn more about Santiago Apóstol and listen to an audio about his history, enter the hagiography available in the Celebrations and Saints section.

Traveler Tips

  • I can not recommend doing the Camino de Santiago since I did not, but having toured the city, it made me want to do so. There must be a great sense of peace and humility.
  • Walk through the historic center. You will notice that, by the way, the photos of temples that appear under this section have no references. This is not an error, it is an invitation to enter every church that you can. You will see that the pilgrim spirit of the Apostle James is reflected in each stone.
  • Embrace the image of Santiago, no matter how much time they create in the waiting line, they will see how the image embraces them with a human warmth that can not be understood with reason.
  • Get lost walking through Santiago, it is a safe city.

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