I’ve earned my “Compostela”! October 26, 2011

swinging of the botafumario

Swinging of the Botafumario

It’s official… I’ve earned my “Compostela”!  I walked into Santiago de Compostela about 1pm on Sunday, the 22nd.  It was a beautiful day and a beautiful walk!   I managed to find a room, visit the cathedral and get my certificate of completion all within the first few hours.  

Coming into town was very much as portrayed… I  re-met many people I had seen walking the trail.  Every pilgrim hugs the other, no matter how brief or slight the acquaintance might have been.  The woman who had suggested I was not a proper pilgrim hugged me like a long-lost friend!  The reunions go on for a day or two, as people of different paces wander in… or are met on THEIR second or third day in town.  I was surprised at how many people I DID reunite with… I walk so slowly, I thought there would be no one I knew left!  But not so!  Well, okay.  Several of the people I saw had walked an additional 60 kilometers to Finisterra and returned to Santiago!

I reunited with a German man who credited me with saving his friend’s camino!  I had met the two a week earlier at a small hotel in a town that was nothing more than a cow farm.  He and his friend had been walking for only two days and his friend was so badly chafed that he thought he would be unable to continue.  I was able to share my supply of “Two Toms” anti-chafe lotion, saving the day (and camino)!

My Aussie friend, Pollyanna was another happy reunion.  Many others….

The day after my arrival it started to POUR cats and dogs… and hasn’t let up since!  And it has been cold and damp!   I was SO lucky to have great weather the whole way!  It rained for a few hours in the morning early on, and then I had one day of rain towards the end.  Other than that, I had great weather!  Really remarkable!

I am only a block or two from the cathedral, along a street that has a stone arcade nearly the entire length.  The walk to the cathedral is almost entirely protected from the rain, so it is one place I have seen a lot of… well, I would have anyway, I like cathedrals.

Tradition has it that this cathdral holds the relics (earthly remains) of Saint James, the greater, apostle of Jesus.  The legend of James goes something like this: after the pentecost Saint James journeyed to Spain to bring the gospel of Jesus to the pagans there.  He didn’t have a huge success rate, returned to Jerusalem, where he ticked off Herod Agrippa and was summarily beheaded.  His followers shipped his body back to Spain, where it was given an important burial place… and forgotten for seven or eight hundred years.  A hermit helped a bishop rediscover the tomb and the pilgrimage began!  

The tradition of Santiago as the burial place of Saint James has shaped Europe in many ways.  The most significant was the “reconquest”.  Muslim “Moors” had swept up from Africa onto the Iberian peninsula and had conquered and settled southern Spain and Portugal… and were moving north.  The reported presence  of Saint James’ relics gave Christians something to rally to, reportedly helping to defeat the Moors.  As the route to Santiago became safer, pilgrims by the ancient busloads came, saw, spent money…and often stayed.  Reshaping the landscape as they settled.  

The present cathedral is the second one on the site… the first was replaced as it became too small.  Today’s cathedral is a massive Romanesque structure that somewhere along the way got bitten by the baroque bug in a BIG way!  I don’t think the main alter could BE any more “Baroque”.  It has reached the maximum legal limit!  Gold, silver,  jewels, angels and decoration up the wazoo!  

The relics of the saint are housed under the main altar and a life sized representation of Saint James sits center stage.  Pilgrims are encouraged to climb a back staircase (even while mass is being said) to give the silver clad, jewel encrusted effigy a big ol’ HUG!   The steps and the saint are well worn from the centuries of adoration!

Another traditional highlight of the pilgrimage is to witness the swinging of the botafumario… A GIANT incense burner!  Supposedly the tradition began as a way to mask the unsavory smells of the ancient pilgrims… showers and laundromats were few and far between back then.  Now it is tradition… but since it takes six or eight strong men to swing the thing, it is not necessarily a daily event.  Rumor has it it only swings when some one or  some tour group coughs up a  $450 donation.

I had not gotten to Santiago in time for the Sunday noon pilgrim’s mass,  which is the most likely time to see the botafumario swing.   It HAD been swung then, so I was almost afraid I would miss seeing it during my stay, but I happened to be at the cathedral that night for the 6 pm mass… and it swung again!

The botofumario stands about three and a half feet tall, and then is hung from a ornate chain harness that brings the total to about the height of an average man.  It is polished silver plate… the original was solid silver, but I recall reading that Napoleon’s army stole that one and melted it down.  Anyway… it is big, heavy and ornate!  

A team of men first lower it to be set on fire, then raise it, smoking, from a thick rope on a pully from the center of the high dome.  The lead handler gives it a big shove in the right direction and the other men time their tugs of the rope until the thing is swinging up into the rafters, nearly hitting the very high ceiling!  Such a sight!

Then it is allowed to wind down until it is swinging just about the width of the main altar, a foot or so above the ground.  That’s when the lead guy jumps out and wrestles it to a stop!  He times his movements just right, rushes in, grabs a chain by both hands… and he and the botofumario rotate around each other by centrifugal force until they have lost their momentum.  Quite a wild ride!

Tonight I am taking the night train to Madrid, and then I will continue to Toledo.  Something big must be happening in Madrid, all the cheap rooms were taken, so I will spend a few days in Toledo.  I have been missing  the wonderful Islamic mudejar styling that is so prevalent in southern Spain, Toledo has a good bit remaining.

On October 31st I will fly to Rome and spend a few weeks there before I return home.  Rome seems like a good place to really end my pilgrimage journey.

Life’s a trip!