Monday 24 June 2013
Santiago de Compostela is the final destination on the famous Camino de Santiago which has been traipsed by pilgrims for thousands of years. The old city is yet another example of careful preservation of architectural and cultural heritage. The whole place has a slightly cheesy aspect to it, however. There are endless shops well-stocked with the same souvenirs, and none sell anything remotely useful like a decent pair of polarising sunglasses.
There is a particular “uniform” associated with the Camino which we soon learned to appreciate. It appears that you can’t walk the Camino without a stick or possibly even two sticks. Some of these are a high-tech variety of ultra-light aluminium pole with pneumatically-assisted Teflon fittings at the base that are designed to absorb the bone-juddering impacts of paved walkways and roads that have, over the centuries, replaced anything that once resembled a track through the bush.
Footwear can vary but generally employs space-age design to deliver an aesthetic message whose core meaning is ‘sensible shoes’. If sandals are worn, they should be wide enough for Thor Heyerdal to sail to America on. An ugly hat is essential, and one must be adorned with at least seven pieces of jewellery bearing symbols of the Holy Roman Empire. Pants are allowed, but if you can find a pair of burlesque, knee-length shorts with seventy-five pockets and natty cuffs, you will accumulate even greater symbolic capital.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the Camino was a 750-kilometre-long catwalk for uber-practical chic in infinite shades of taupe, bone, and mission brown. After three days I was dying to see someone dressed in pink sequins—anyone!
Even for the most hardened cynic, however, it was impossible not to feel a vicarious ripple of excitement as a group of pilgrims stomped into the plaza and prepared to approach their final destination of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The passage between the plaza in front of our hospederia and the plaza in front of the cathedral was formed by a stairway carved in stone that descended through a covered walkway between two buildings. It was a favoured place for buskers, especially those who played the Celtic bagpipes. The drones and melodies reverberated in the stone archway and were projected into the plazas at each end of the tunnel. Thus the arrival of pilgrims was frequently attended by an appropriate air of medieval festivity.
On our first morning in Santiago, Susan, Ruby and I went in search of something more profane than spiritual communion with the bones of St. James: we went in search of pastries. First we sampled some savoury ones, including the traditional “pilgrim cake” which is a pie filled with bacalau (salted cod) that has been sweetened with cooked onions and probably a generous dose of sugar as well. It was interesting, but I think it would have had more appeal if one were utterly famished and the only alternative was another pilgrim’s socks.
After enjoying the savouries in a sunny spot on the edge of the old city, we stumbled on another pasteleria that sold sticky delights filled with cherries and cream and glazed with translucent sugar syrup. We scurried off with a cache of them and sat on the steps of the plaza Quintana do Muertos like guilty sinners, devouring the sticky treats and licking our fingers. You could have photo-shopped us into Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and we would not have looked out of place.
After our sinful breakfast, we booked a tour of the Cathedral’s rooftop for 6 p.m. the same evening, and we took the self-guided tour of the Cathedral by hiring an audioguide. The cathedral itself was well worth inspecting. We even stepped up behind the altar to give the statue of St. James a pat on the shoulder for stashing his bones inside such an excellent building. The “foreigners’ chapel” is perhaps the most endearing corner of the edifice. It is a medieval church that has been incorporated into the larger structure. The audio commentary was rather cheesy, however: it was dripping with earnest, religious sentimentality and featured the “voice of a pilgrim” who addressed the listener in the first person. We recognised his voice from another audio-guide we had hired in Bilbao. Evidently, this fellow gets around.
What really caught my attention, however, was the mixed messages that surrounded a large, garish statue of Santiago Matamoros. This depicts St. James as a white crusader on a horse, brandishing a sword at a moor or two (it was difficult to see exactly how many moors were being carved up because this part of the statuary was rather coyly obscured by a bunch of flowers). The moors cringe under the horse’s hooves, and are depicted using ugly, racial stereotypes. The commentary on the audioguide was overtly critical of the statue, and began with a somewhat embarrassed homily about using religion as a pretext for waging war. When you step back from the statue, however, there are two brass plates that have recently been mounted directly over it, and which bear the names of the last two popes. Of all the places in the complex they might have been mounted, they were mounted here, and it is difficult not to read them as an endorsement of contemporary military aggression against Islam.
After our tour of the Cathedral we returned to the scene of our previous evening’s indiscretions for lunch. We sat at a small table in the shade of a narrow street and enjoyed octopus, tomato salad, and a third dish that mainly consisted of red peppers with the skins removed. I then set off in search of a haircut, and Ruby and Susie joined forces in an all-out assault on the shoe-sellers of Santiago. We were all spectacularly unsuccessful.
We met up again later in the afternoon for our rooftop tour of the Cathedral. These were purchased for the princely sum of 26 Euros, and basically involved hopping around on the roof of the cathedral in a large group with a tour guide. This contrasted very unfavourably with our elevator ride in the cathedral at Zaragoza which cost a mere 3 Euros, which brought us to a much higher point at the top of one of the cathedral’s towers, and which afforded much more impressive views for a ninth of the price. If you go to Santiago, my advice is to skip the rooftop tour. It is ridiculously overpriced and overrated.
That said, we had some fun cavorting on the roof while our guide prattled on—usually just out of earshot—in an endearing but almost unintelligible Spanish accent. The highlight of the tour was definitely a peculiar gargoyle that was said to have been carved by a stonemason who was disgruntled because the bishop had not paid him for his work. It takes the form of a shapely arse which is presented to the viewer devoid of any other identifying features—an unambiguous message to ecclesiastical authority.
Our extortionately expensive rooftop tour entitled us to “free” entry to another museum that was described as the bishop’s dining room or somesuch. This was even a bigger yawn than the rooftop, so we swiftly repaired to our room at the hospedaria where Ruby regaled us with tales of her travels and we generally lapped up each other’s company along with a bottle of nice red wine that we had transported from Asturias.
Late in the evening we headed to a tapas bar where Ruby and Susie demolished a couple of gins and tonic, and we all filled up on series of tasty morsels. The standard was not quite up there with San Sebastian and Bilbao, but it still made for an enjoyable and social late-evening meal. Our company in the bar consisted largely of pilgrims slaking their thirst on a couple of well-earned beverages, but there was also two sleazy, middle-aged men, one of whom kept leering over his shoulder at Ruby. Most of their attention seemed to be directed at trying to pick up a pilgrim or two, which was utterly hilarious, not only because the men themselves had all the charm and allure of a couple of bog-trolls, but also because it is hard to imagine a less likely target for cac-handed pick-up lines than a pilgrim decked in symbols of Catholic chastity. The entertainment was compelling.
We were among the last to leave the bar that night. At length, however, we read the writing on the bartender’s forehead and wove our way home through dimly-lit plazas and narrow, cobble-stone streets.