Monday, 17 May 2010

Party time in Santiago

At one point it seemed completely surreal. Just before the Mass ended with the Botafumeiro they announced that its conclusion everyone should leave quickly as a pilgrimage of 2000 people was arriving for an extra Mass at 1.15. I walked outside to see what was happening. I stood at the top of the great staircase at the front door of the Cathedral. Behind me was the sound of the organ playing the Hymn to the Apostól as the Botafumeiro swung in front of the packed Cathedral. In front of me were at least 2000 people filed in lines behind regimental flags and a military marching band. This was Spanish retired service people on pilgrimage. Above the din the familiar sound of the Galician pipes pierced the air from one side whilst to the other a huge group of people cheered on a talented juggler. I gazed in amazement as a choo choo train drew up disbursing tourists in front of the Parador and a group of walking pilgrims threw off their rucksacks and threw themselves to the ground in celebration of their arrival.
Almost on cue several hundred chanting soldiers processed into the square in full kit including rifles. They were finishing a 3 day march from Sarria and they were on their way to the Pilgrims’ Office with their Military Credenciales to collect their Compostelas.
Santiago is celebrating the Holy Year Big Time. There is a festival air about the City. In the Cathedral nothing is normal. The place is packed several times a day. Security has been stepped up. There is more order. Walking pilgrims are submerged in a sea of groups of other pilgrims. I was waiting on Joaquin at the foot of the stairs to the organ when a marksman with a Kalashnikov appeared. “Surely his playing wasn’t that bad?” I wondered. No. A Royal was making an unannounced private visit. A couple of days later the Prince and Princess with the President of Galicia walked 15 kms into the City with full panoply of press. Hundreds walked behind the statue of Our Lady of Fatima to celebrate the feast on 13 May. A Cantor with a call-centre style radio microphone bellowed above the din…”Ave, Ave, Ave Maria.” He glowered darkly when an usher called loudly through the main microphone that the next service was about to begin.

In the streets clowns clowned and jugglers juggled. Serious bagpipers made a lot of noise whilst Gallegos in national dress danced in circles in the Plaza Quintana entertaining the long queues for the Holy Door. Someone started a Conga and I saw an American pilgrim whose Compostela I had issued earlier tag on with the most bewildered look on his face. In the park a calliope struck up its carnival sound and in the streets I found a better class of busker than ever before. Children ran everywhere with bubble making machines which are all the rage competing only with balloons and balls of candyfloss on sticks.
In the office the queues of pilgrims were relentless. We started at 9am and most days it was after 12 before someone placed a tepid coffee in front of us to be drunk at the desk. All round the office I heard colleagues still taking time to ask “How was your pilgrimage?” “Did you walk all the way?” “How was the weather?” But they were doing so without lifting their heads whilst stamping the credenciales, entering the data and writing the pilgrim’s name in Latin on the Compostela. There were still some problems. Pilgrims with very few sellos who said they had walked considerable distances were outshone by one Spanish pilgrim who had collected more sellos on his way from Roncesvalles than I have ever seen. And there was still time for some tender moments. Karin from Sweden a small women in her early 70’s appeared at my desk. “Where did you walk from?” I asked, gazing at some unfamiliar sellos at the beginning for her passport. She appeared almost embarrassed and with huge modesty whispered, “ I walked from Sweden.” She quietly shed some bittersweet tears as the final stamp of her journey was applied. On the other hand David from Australia chatted in one of the few quiet moments. He had walked from France but he hadn’t really enjoyed it and really didn’t know what all the fuss was about. He was a very nice chap and I wonder if when he reflects he might understand more. I also think we will see him again! Winfried from Germany is a doctor who recently retired. He said the experience had been so powerful he couldn’t describe it. With a tear in his eye he told me that he had cancelled his 4 star hotel booking in Santiago and was off to spend two last nights in the albergue at the Seminario Menor with the friends he had met en route before the group had to disperse to their respective countries. An American pilgrim was overjoyed to have reached Santiago. She kissed her Compostela and said, "All this, and I've just seen a poster for a Glen Millar Big Band concert tonight in the square!" She gushed. In Santiago? Can't be. Or so I thought.
Sadly for the first time I also witnessed people who were aggressive, insulting and just downright offensive. It would be easy to put this down to their nationalities. That may very well be a common denominator but what was more immediate was the fact that of the several incidents which occurred this week none involved weather beaten, weary pilgrims who have that air of still calmness about them. Rather every single argument involved people who for some reason or another thought they were entitled to a Compostela when they patently had not walked 100 kms or in one or two cases perhaps even 10 kms! I must confess I can’t get excited about people who try to cheat. In many ways I wonder “so what?” if they get a piece of paper to which they are not entitled. What I do object to is loud mouthed arrogance. As ever, honey would be more effective than vinegar. If it is any consolation my colleagues reckon that Spanish people are the worst offenders. Schhhhh, don’t tell anyone.
They also know how to enjoy themselves and although in this Catholic country only a minority go to Mass that doesn’t stop the great feasts of the Church being used as a reason for a good party. In the UK we also “celebrate” the Ascension, often not really knowing what to do with it. In Santiago they’ve adopted it as their local feast. They make the weekend a “Puente” i.e. if the feast is on a Tuesday or Thursday it is not really worthwhile going to work on the Monday or Friday. Very civilised.
So the week ended with the big wheel and big bands, classical concerts and a huge bicycle race. There was a lot of rain and the weather is still cold. Pilgrims reported facing all kinds of weather from snow to scorching sun on the routes. From the queues in the Office and to enter the Cathedral to the packed bars and restaurants everyone is saying, “Wait until it gets really busy in summer!” Can’t wait.


  1. Great post Johnnie! I read it twice and enjoyed it both times!

  2. Wow! Looks like an amazing time if you can get yourself in the right frame of mind. For me...I'm still thinkin of a quieter time to go! But thanks so much for sharing, and the pics. I couldn't open the pics at had to wait...and they were worth it! K

  3. Crazy what's happening in Santiago, kinda glad I am not there this fiesta year, tho it does sound fun. Hope the botafumiero survives the extra use and we can attempt to experience it next year. So far, the 3 times we've finished up in Santiago in the last few years, we've not struck the right day . Not the end of the world but would be special.
    Thanks for telling us about it, Johnnie. Now I'm off to look for your latest on Madrid camino. CaroleH

  4. Well written piece, it makes me want to pack my gear now but I have to wait until next April - I am consoling myself with the fact that it should be quieter next year.
    Keep up the good work.

  5. Hola Ian - well yes it will be quieter next year but exciting in its own way. Buen Camino when it comes.