During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of camellias in the gardens we visited. Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.
Santiago de Compostela
Breaking News: I could find no evidence of Puss in Boots in Santiago de Compostela. You may remember from the movie, Shrek 2 that Puss boasted of being the great cat burglar of Santiago de Compostela during one of his past lives.
I’m sorry to say that nobody here remembers seeing him. But that, I guess, is the nature of cat burglars.
Unabashedly I admit that the cavalier Puss in Boots was my first introduction to the city.
Since that movie, the name of this city has rolled off my tongue with cadence and lilt. It was such a delight to my ears, even though I didn’t know a thing about the city.
Now that I have visited, I know that Santiago de Compostela is one of three great pilgrimage cities, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem.
Whether you come as pilgrim or tourist, your travel through Galicia must lead you to Santiago de Compostela.
It is a city of legend and great faith, of soaring cathedral and spacious squares, of history and hallowed dreams, of busy shops and crooked streets.
I came as tourist, initially with the Ciceroni tour group, then later, when my flights home were delayed, I spent time wandering on my own.
When I left I was almost beginning to feel at home in this ancient city with crooked streets where ATMs and grocery stores, fresh produce and florists, and a large indoor seafood hall (selling Galician mussels, of course) are tucked into ruas with porticos and iron balconies.
Venerable as the city is, I am pretty sure they still pull up those crooked streets at night and rearrange them. Each day presented a challenge for this walker accustomed to city grids.
If you hear the story behind Santiago de Compostela you will have some understanding of why this is a holy city. It goes back to 44 AD when the apostle James is beheaded in Jerusalem. He is the only disciple of Christ to be martyred.
With the help of angels, the apostle’s disciples spirit the body away, through the Mediterranean, along the Iberian coast, ending in an overland trek to present-day Santiago de Compostela. A perilous 3000-mile journey, like crossing the Atlantic in a skiff, but quite doable when guided by a heavenly host.
Fast forward to 700 AD and a shepherd looks out on his field (compo) at brilliant starlight (stela) focused on the burial site. The discovery is so momentous that a church and monastery are built to honor the relics. Three hundred years later moors burn the church to the ground, and construction of a finer, grander cathedral begins.
The name of the city is on tongues across the land: Sant Iago de Compo stela The miracle of St. James becomes the foundation of great faith that inspires pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
A wave of Christianity explodes throughout Europe. St. James becomes the patron saint of Spain. He inspires holy warriors in their Crusade to defeat the enemies of Christianity: moors, muslims, and arabs. The city becomes the touchstone for celebrating a new, stronger faith.
Likenesses of the martyred disciple appear in a range of guises. The bold sculpture on the facade of the Monastery of San Martino Pinario celebrates St. James as moor slayer.
Santiago de Compostela becomes a destination for pilgrims. A network of routes known as caminos begins to crisscross Europe and converge on this holy city.
The Way of St. James is not an easy way. In the beginning there are no maps, no direct roads, no signs. Pilgrims follow the stars, propelled by faith, informally creating their own web of trails. Terrain is rough, bandits attack, and health often fails along the caminos.
Prosperity dawns in towns along the way. New churches are constructed, roads improved, hospices and hospitals are built for sick and weary travelers. Shopkeepers offer services — like repairing shoes — to a new clientele from out of town. Itinerant artisans contribute talent and skill to this vibrant awakening during the late Middle Ages.
As hosts of pilgrims arrive, Santiago de Compostela becomes a destination for tradesmen: shoemakers, tailors, bakers, cooks. And artisans, too: stone masons, carpenters, painters, brick layers, and silversmiths. A thriving city emerges.
Ferdinand and Isabella order construction of a hospital for tired, sick and hungry pilgrims. It is a remarkable building, large enough to house a self-sufficient community, with chapels, dormitories, great kitchen, infirmary, apothecary, even a jail and eventually an orphanage for foundlings.
The Royal Hospital is run like a town, staffed by clergy, cooks, gardeners, doctors, nurses, apothecaries, artisans.
Our group stayed in the hospital, this rich depository of history. Today it is one of the finest paradors in the country, part of a chain of hotels established by the Spanish government. It still offers free meals to a limited number of pilgrims who apply.
Photographs capture imperfectly the detailed sculpture around the entry, which is designed as an altar screen with a cast that includes Adam and Eve as part of an allegory of man’s sin and salvation. On either side of the entry are large prominent medallions of the Catholic monarchs. The cloisters in the pictures below were originally functioning areas.
The great heart of Santiago de Compostela is its cathedral. Its towers soar. They are the skyline. They are symbols of a saint. And they are abiding landmarks for a wanderer who may not always pay attention to street signs and lesser landmarks.
Medieval cathedrals weren’t built in a decade, or even a century, and this cathedral proves the precedents. A millenium passed from the building of the first church, now in ruins under the altar, to the completion of the cathedral.
Though it was consecrated in 1211, early romanesque, its architecture goes with the flow of centuries, from romanesque to gothic to baroque. It is a grand cathedral, complex in its footprint, with imposing entrances that open on to spacious squares that in turn complement imposing palaces and ornate centuries-old buildings.
The interior is large and dusky with wide aisles to accommodate the press of pilgrims who would make their journey of faith toward the altar. The baroque eclat of the altar is not apparent at first, until you come close. Then its opulence overwhelms. I kept my camera hidden.
Below the altar, through a small passage, lies the ornate silver crypt of St. James, a giant gilded leap from those uncertain days of the first century.
Since reconstruction barred the main gates, we entered the cathedral through the gate with the scallop shell near shops selling silver and jet stone, or azabache. On our way, each day, we would pass a Galician playing the bagpipe, a tradition, in this palace archway.
During those early days, the cathedral was a smoky scene, result of air-freshener incense liberally dispersed by a huge botafumeiro to sweeten the odors of unwashed pilgrims attending masses.
The large, lavish silver censer was managed by eight tiraboleiros who would swing its ropes across the transept with such speed and precision that the botafumeiro would fairly fly up to the vaulted ceiling, then dive back down to just miss worshipers seated in front rows.
If the cathedral is the heart of the city, surely it is the stonemasons and sculptors who gave the city its soul. Stonework and sculpture on buildings and statuary astonish. Who were these artists and artisans and how did they produce such magnificence over centuries? Most of it in granite! Originally in color!
If I could sail back into medieval history, Santiago de Compostela and the Praza do Obradoiro would be my port of call.
Here, beneath the baroque facade of the cathedral was the workplace for teams of artisans. What a scene that must have been. Cluttered workshops. Tools clanging. Workmen running errands, hefting statues, balancing columns, scaffolding great heights. Each team signed its work, not for recognition by posterity, but to be sure they got paid.
I crossed that stone plaza many times, and each time I remarked how hard it was. New York City’s pavement, set on bedrock is said to be the hardest in the world, and I’ve walked many miles on it. But this grand square of granite stone laid on granite bedrock is made of sterner stuff for soles.
You can’t see any signs of workshops today. Instead, the Plaza is a gathering place for tourists and pilgrims, and activists and others, though we saw few pilgrims in March. Pilgrimages are better made in fairer weather.
In recent decades, partly in response to promotions by the Galician government, more pilgrims are walking the Way each year, 300,000 of them in 2017. Most carry “pilgrimage passports” stamped at each station as they walk the required 100 km (or bike 200 km).
If they complete the walk and profess spiritual purpose, they receive a compostela, or certificate of accomplishment. It is, in fact, a life-changing experience for many.
Pilgrims may begin the Way of St. James because they are in mourning, or troubled, or seeking fulfillment in their lives. Often they experience deep spiritual awakening that changes them indelibly.
Along the way, they are guided by the symbol of St. James, the scallop shell, which may be affixed to sign posts and mark trails, or worn by pilgrims.
Across the avenue from the once-walled city is an elegant park, the Alameda, crisscrossed by paths that invite strolling and lead to overlooks above the city. Here you can find lovely camellias and ancient eucalyptus and lemon trees and banana trees, and palm trees. And hundred-year-old oak trees, called “carballos” in Galician.
And churches and monuments. Two of my favorites depict a pensive Rosalia de Castro, 19th century Galician romantic poet, and the Marias, eccentrc sisters who daily walked the park.
The Alameda is now almost two centuries old and it bustles in early evening. As I was leaving, I passed two tatterdemalions, tall-and-burly, and lithe-and-slender, having a wonderful time dancing and laughing. That started me laughing. Nobody understood a word of conversation. It didn’t matter. What could be more universal than laughter.
I gave them a few coins and as I was turning away, tall-and-burly ran after me to plant a spontaneous kiss on the back of my head. (My second continental kiss, the first by a leprechaun helping me down stone steps. Will there be a third?)
For those who like statistics, Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage site, a city of about 95,000 people. Its university system has a population of 40,000 students and 2,000 teachers. Like the rest of the city, the roots of this institution lie in the late Middle Ages. Fonseca College was founded in 1532 by Archbishop Alonso III, constructed on family property. It encloses a lovely cloister.
And so we leave Santiago de Compostela: its cathedral, its squares, its ruas, its park, parador, and palaces, with reverence for the faith and talents and industry of pilgrims and builders, thoughtful leaders and everyday people, who created this masterpiece long long ago. The cross of St. James remains a symbol of their devotion.
Next: Part IV, The Journey Home
For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.