Camino Day 32 – Arriving in Santiago

We pass the town of Lavacolla and stop for second breakfast. Traditionally, this is where pilgrims would bathe themselves before entering Santiago itself, and some speculate that the town’s name is a bastardized reference to this (lava = wash, culo = ass, or cola = tail, so the town’s name would roughly translate as Asswipe. I am rooting for this interpretation, since Dorcinda and I have already visited a place denigrated as el culo de Espana on our previous trip).

The town actually does smell like butts, but despite that, there’s a large crowd gathering and we have to fight for seating. We sit outside and are surrounded by people who seem very pleased with themselves. A Spanish man does handstands outside. An old Canadian woman, toes painted mint green, takes this as an invitation to show off, and attempts a handstand of her own. She almost manages, but then pouts, “It’s not a competition. I’m in my 60s.” We can’t help but overhear her conversation, since she’s just at the table next door and is a loud talker. She’s a tour guide, and she mocks the idea of pilgrim suffering, which doesn’t endear her to the three of us. She’s got just four people on her tour, and she books everything ahead for them.

We leave Brenda behind today, since she has a plan to walk into Santiago to meet her brother and best friend from the Netherlands and attend mass. She plans to stay at Monte de Gox Dorcinda and I press on ahead, since we’re nearly there, and have no problem sleeping in the city before doing all of the touristy stuff in the morning.

We walk into Santiago, with all the other pilgrims streaming in around us. The first view of the Cathedral, our destination, is a disappointment – the entire church facade is covered in scaffolding. I had read a lot about the Portico de Gloria, the arch above the entryway, and had talked it up to Dorcinda, since it features medieval instruments played by the Elders of the Apocalypse during the day of judgment. For all the heavy import of their task, they seem to be remarkably casual, tuning and chatting, as if preparing for a mundane concert. I thought that the historical instruments would appeal to the music historian in her, but it turns out that the entire Portico has been disassembled and removed for restoration.

We take a quick look around the Cathedral, and walk in the back entrance to hug the golden statue of Saint James, placed above and behind the altar. There is barely any line  (I remember it being very crowded when I visited with Ian back in my teaching days, but I believe that was a Holy Year, and it was during Easter), so we give a quick hug and speed through to see the relics stored below.

We arrive in Santiago just a bit before the 7:30 pm pilgrim’s mass, and I convince Dorcinda to go. For once, she’s more tired than I am, and would rather skip it and go to mass in the morning.

It’s standing room only, and we’re already tired. The mass includes priests, former pilgrims themselves, from all over – including the U.S.A, El Salvador, Slovakia, and elsewhere – but the service is entirely in Spanish, and I apologize to Dorcinda for dragging her here. The only English spoken during the service is one short prayer, and then a translation of the head priest’s reminder that Communion was reserved for Catholics only.

We are amused by the fact that St. James continues to be hugged by a steady stream of pilgrims and tourists throughout the entire service. The statue has a wide-eyed look on his face, as if he’s perpetually being surprised by huggers sneaking up from behind, or perhaps even being throttled by his well-wishers.  We try to get photos or videos of the hugs, but its too far to get a clear shot.

The offering is collected by an old lady with a velvet sack. Since many of the donations are in 1 or 2 euro coins, there is a steady sound of clink, clink, clink of coins, during the offertory hymn of “Holy, Holy Holy.” It is comical to see her toting around an actual sack of loot that I consider the possibility of robbing her and running out of the Church.

The priests invite Catholics to approach and take communion, and we get in line.

“I’m not letting those Catholics deny me the host of Christ!” she says, indignant.

The announcement of communion was accompanied by a little bell that sounded like an old-fashioned call to dinner. I rub my tummy. I am pretty hungry actually.

We are given wafers by the American priest, but no wine.

“No wine?” I say.

“Those Catholics sure are cheap,” Dorcinda says.

“I thought that’s what we were chipping in for!”

Dad would be proud of our irreverence, Dorcinda says. When another group of attendees stands up to join the Communion line, Dorcinda notices.

“When they get up for Communion, let’s steal their seats,” she suggests.

We continue on the topic of money.

“This is not the fanciest church we’ve seen, by far,” Dorcinda complains. “They’re raking in major money, and they didn’t even paint the ceiling.”

“Not a single stained glass window,” I add.

Dorcinda says that Dad might have gone to Communion twice, something he’d been prone to do at times, especially since it was forbidden.

“Not for those nasty crackers,” I say.

“You just called Jesus a nasty cracker!”

I imagine it, ignoring the priest speaking religious Spanish that I can barely understand. If the body of Jesus was actually bread, or crackers. Gingerbread Jesus. “This is my body,” I hear, in the high-pitched cartoon voice of the Gingerbread man from Shrek.

A couple of other people at mass give us odd looks, and we try to suppress our giggling.

And then, at the end of the mass, we are treated to the swinging of the Botafumerio, the massive silver incense burner that is the Cathedral’s signature artifact. We had been warned not to expect it, and were told that it was only used on certain days, or on days when people paid the church to use it. We were either misinformed, or perhaps the collection had been successful enough to warrant it, but either way, it is an unexpected treat.

The censor was originally used to combat the smell (and potential disease) of the pilgrim masses cramming themselves into the cathedral. Nowadays, it’s more of a tourist attraction, but it’s still a hell of a show. The arc goes from left to right for most attendees, and the massive silver plated censor reaches heights of 21 meters and speeds of 68 km/h (Wikipedia). It’s impressive, and after standing in place for a moment, we rush forward for a better view from one of the side chapels. The organist, whose playing has been relatively muted and unadventurous throughout the mass, adds to the sense of the majestic by bursting into a higher volume with a flurry of notes.

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