We just came back from a long weekend in Santiago de Compostela. See our pictures at:
We took the day train out... not sure I will opt for that again. A 9 hour train ride is long no matter how you cut it. But the town is really quite lovely. We toured the cathedral (of course), sat for a few moments in the tomb beside Saint James and spent 2 lovely days just walking through the old city. We had a good time in the fish and vegetable market, buying such local delicacies as plums known as “cojones de fraile” (look it up!), and a cheese known as Tetillas. (According to legend, a local bishop decided that one of the female statues was a little too voluptuous. He ordered the sculptor to take out his hammer and chisel for some breast reduction surgery. The local cheesemakers were indignant at this, and in protest, they began making their cheese in the shape of the appropriate part of the female anatomy. I don’t know if this story is true or not…but so what? It’s a great story!)
The cathedral has a different feel from the others we have visited, and I am not sure I can put my finger on why it felt different. Maybe it is because the others were mainly built as monuments, sometimes inspired by the vanity of the local church officials, Bishops, Cardinals, etc. The cathedral in Santiago was built to mark the site where Saint James was found after centuries of war with the Moors, and mainly as a tribute to Heavenly Father. In many ways it is much more modest than some of the other cathedrals, but then there is the alter which is an amazing display. We attended Vespers Saturday evening at a monastery near the cathedral, where the service was sang by the nuns. That was truly heavenly. One can tour all these old cathedrals and churches, and admire their beauty, but to me, they seem to really come alive when you can hear them with music, even if you cannot understand the language.
Santiago de Compostela is at the end of the Medieval Pilgrimage Trail, The Way of Saint James, which leads to the tomb of Saint James. The trail has several starting places in France, crosses the Pyrenees, and the entire northern coast of Spain. This trail has been followed by spiritual pilgrims since 900 A.D. It is reputed to be one of the loveliest hikes in Europe and has become popular in recent years. I understand that it takes at least 4 to 6 weeks to complete the walk. Sunday morning we took a taxi about 6 miles out of town and walked the last part of the pilgrimage trail to the cathedral. The countryside is beautiful, with a Northwestern feel to it (green and rainy, although we were blessed with two rare sunny days for our visit). The trail is clearly marked with the symbolic scallop shells and yellow arrows. (Those scallop shells show up again and again. During the medieval pilgrimages, scallop shells were used as “poor men’s cups” to scoop water from the wells. Pilgrims would bring scallop shells back home as proof they’d finished the pilgrimage.) There’s a statue at the top of Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy), the hill from which the pilgrims could first see the towers of the cathedral. Unfortunately, during the last thousand years, there has been enough construction that you can no longer see the towers.
We didn’t make it to the cathedral in time for the Pilgrim Mass at noon, so we went to Vespers at the cathedral. The cathedral has an enormous pipe organ that I had hoped they would play, but unfortunately we were not that lucky. Beyond the cathedral, and some really beautiful vistas, Santiago is just a dumb, quiet little town. But quite lovely.
Santiago is in the Spanish province of Galicia. Galicia has its own language, Gallego, which is supposed to be a sort of cross between Spanish and Portuguese. Just between us…shhh!...written Gallego looks to me like mis-spelled Spanish. Spoken Gallego has a sort of Italian lilt which is rather pretty to listen to.
On the way home, we took the night train… a much better idea…and spent Monday in Madrid. See the Madrid pictures at:
Madrid is okay, but it’s a big city, not unlike any other big cities. The old town was not especially interesting. I was not impressed. But Madrid does have more commerce, so I was able to find a couple of things that I was looking for. As the Prado, Madrid’s world renowned art museum was closed, we toured the Palacio Real. The Palacio is very pretty, though not as impressive as the French palace at Versailles. On the other hand, the Spanish people never beheaded any of their kings, so maybe the Spanish royals had the right idea. Sadly, people are not allowed to take pictures inside the palace. The most interesting part was an armory with many fine examples of weapons and armor from the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries.