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South Florida Sun-Sentinel


From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel
At the end of the way in Santiago de Compostela

By Thomas Swick
Published March 20, 2005

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain -- The pharmacies in Santiago de Compostela are rich in foot-care products. This is not because the city produces bad shoes but because it is filled with pilgrims. They come from all over the world, walking across the north of Spain, sometimes starting in France, to enter the portals of the great weathered cathedral in this Galician city that, according to legend, contains the remains of the apostle St. James.

El Camino de Santiago, or "The Way of St. James," is a curious phenomenon, begun in the early Middle Ages—when pilgrims in wide-brim hats sought absolution for their sins, the promise of eternal life—and perpetuated today by students, vacationers, New Agers, mid- lifers who are also in search of something, though it can run the gamut from enlightenment to exercise.

Whatever their purpose, today's pilgrims share at least one thing with the ancients: suffering. Though better equipped, and more sensibly shoed (few head off today in sandals), they still walk great distances, day after monotonous day. And they still spend their nights in modest hostels or, when there are no beds available, under the stars. It is a harsh penance, a grueling touring strategy, a drastic diet plan. As they make their way into Santiago—limping, bandaged, heavy-laden, though sometimes singing and splashing in fountains—it is only the most hardened who cannot feel their pain. And joy.

The city, with its close granite buildings, goes well with pilgrims. The distinctive sound of Santiago is the click of metal-tipped walking sticks touching stone pavement; a blind man visiting the city would imagine it full of people like himself.

Summer, understandably, is the most popular time to make the pilgrimage. Everyone is pulled in the direction of the cathedral, an unfathomable mass of stairways and annexes and soaring towers rising in the heart of the city and bookended by two imposing plazas.

The Praza do Obradoiro fronts the main entrance. Visitors climb a double staircase and, once inside, make their way under the Portico de la Gloria, three 12th Century arches carved with Biblical scenes. Pilgrims pause to touch the pillar, divoted by centuries of caresses, that stands beneath the feet of St. James.

Then, their eyes adjusting to the darkness, they make out the oversized bust of the apostle above the altar. And then, strangely, what seems to be a hand coming around one side. Then the hand disappears, and another takes its place. These belong to the people who have been lining the Praza da Quintana for hours, waiting for the opportunity to enter the cathedral, from the back, and embrace the statue of the saint and visit his "grave." (A sign reads: "Hug the apostle. Visit the tomb.")

Atop the canopy is an image of Santiago Matamoros, St. James the Moor slayer. Even more farfetched than the idea of St. James' remains ending up in Galicia (he was martyred in Jerusalem) is the legend that has him appearing miraculously in 844, on a white horse, and helping the Spanish defeat the Moors in the Battle of Clavijo. But whatever its veracity, the story has proved a potent force in history.

Difficult days

"The last few days were difficult," the Frenchman said. He was standing with his pilgrim wife in the Praza do Obradoiro.

"All the hostels were full. You can do just the last 100 kilometers [and still get absolution for your sins] so there are a lot of people. We spent the last four nights sleeping on the ground.

"Today was a bit disappointing. We couldn't attend the mass, because the cathedral was full. So we'll come back for the mass this evening.

"Last night, we met a Pole," he continued, "who walked from Le Puy [in central France]. When he got here he found it was a four-hour wait to get his certificate, saying he'd completed the pilgrimage. So he didn't wait. He went back to Krakow."

The line this past August often wrapped around the pilgrimage office and trickled down Rua Nova. Pilgrims waited patiently, relieved, perhaps, just to be stationary, their sightseeing needs down to nil. One afternoon, in the nearby Praza das Praterias, young people appeared on the roof of a cathedral annex and unfurled a banner.

"It's a protest against the wildfires," a young woman said, explaining that they were a problem every summer. "Most of them are set by people, and the government is not doing anything to stop them."

Another young woman moved through the crowd, handing out little cellophane packets. They read "Fragrances of Galicia." They were filled with cinders.

A different pace

Alberto was not Galician but Colombian. "I lived in California, Miami. My wife's family is from Galicia, and we said, 'Let's try something different.'

"There is a whole different pace here. We have a 2-year-old son, and I think this is a good place to bring him up. Santiago has something special about it. The people are modest. They don't show off.

"There are cultural activities, in the summer every day. And they're free, or very inexpensive. Bob Dylan was here on July 25 [the feast of St. James]. Lou Reed was here too. David Bowie was supposed to make it, but he couldn't." Good that the apostle's grave is not really here, because there would have been feverish spinning in it.

Winters were a little tough, gray and damp. But Alberto downplayed the grimness. People say that in Santiago, because of the way the drizzle makes the granite glisten, "rain is art."

A mime played the crowd in the Praza da Quintana. He had a captive audience, as people waited to enter the cathedral. He pulled a young woman out of the line, conjured a bouquet from inside his sport jacket and then, with equal ease, plucked a white veil from out of nowhere, which he also presented to his new "bride." He pointed to his cheek and requested a peck. As soon as the young woman's lips came close, he spun his head 'round for a stolen kiss. The audience howled.

It took him 15 minutes to walk the length of the line, which snaked back and forth across the plaza, and receive his donations. When he was finished, he climbed the steps to the upper level. Halfway there, a beggar approached him. He tossed two handfuls of coins into the beggar's hat. The audience applauded in appreciation. He stood up straight, and applauded the beggar.

At midnight, the Praza do Obradoiro was dark and dry and echoing with song. Under the arcade of the town hall, a dozen young men strummed guitars and sang old ballads. They were dressed as medieval troubadours, in floppy hats and baggy pantaloons, and looked like undergrads. (Santiago is not just a cathedral but a university town; in the fall, the crowds of pilgrims are replaced by students.)

About a hundred people stood listening, and laughing, and frequently singing along—tourists, you could tell; the pilgrims were long unconscious from fatigue. There was an easygoing familiarity between musicians and spectators, an unspoken cultural solidarity in the shared lyrics and the playful banter. Having come from around the country, they all seemed equally at home, and united in the late-night business of having fun. Two girls walked out from under the archways and danced on the plaza, the great floodlit spires of the cathedral towering before them.
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