A day in Santiago de Compostela

Tuesday 24th June 2014

The Night of Fires wasn’t dampened by the rain. The festival of St Juan attracted an entirely different part of Muros’s population. None of the generation shuffling along in the street to the sound of a brass band. The towering inferno was created by a group of the town’s ‘youf’. We were in bed before they lit the bonfire, but we heard the music that thumped out of the sound system, all night. It eventually was turned down at about 08:30 (in the morning, this morning, for the avoidance of doubt), and some were still bouncing around, the bonfire a pile of ashes. They had a trailer filled with ice and spiked with beers, when emptied would presumably mark the end of the party. I said to the Marineros, if that was in the UK, the police would have shut it down, but he just shrugged. It was what it was. Pete had the worse night because of it (I never travel without ear plugs), but I managed to sleep through it.

Our alarm call was the earliest in a while – 07:15 (!) – because we had a bus to catch (at 09:30) and neither of us were convinced we’d be able to accelerate into the morning! As it was, we were ahead of ourselves, to arrive at the bus stop a bit early. That wasn’t necessary, as the bus wasn’t early, and when it arrived, it was full! WHAT? I went to climb on the bus, but the driver wagged his finger at me, shaking his head. He held up his index finger – one person only. I looked at Pete, and looked back at the driver, who was circling his hands. I took this to mean that another would be along, but we weren’t convinced – was I just being optimistic. We decided to go back to the Tourist Information hut and see if we could glean any more information. Pete suggested going for a coffee and waiting there for the next one due (10:15), but I wasn’t convinced about that (no loos on the bus). So just as we were sighing a lot, I saw one come around the corner, which meant we had to leg it back to the bus stop. Fortunately he stopped, and it was going to Santiago, and there was hardly anyone on it? Go figure! (actually, we do have a theory, which is linked to the pilgrims, more later). The journey from there was uneventful, and took about an hour, and we seemed to be on the ‘direct’ bus. The bus dropped us at the bus station (none of repeating the same mistake as Pontevedra even if it did try and drop us at anywhere else in the city), which then left us with a problem of where to walk towards. There were no maps, no obvious information point, but fortunately Pete had spied a road sign to the centre, the old centre, so we walked out of the bus station and towards this sign. Like most towns, the bus station never is in the most salubrious part of town, so initial impressions? Not so charming – but push those thoughts aside.

We picked up signs for the cultural centre, and ended up following brass shell shapes on the pavement. This scallop shell, it turns out, is one of the symbols of the pilgrimage (along with an empty gourd, for water, and a wooden staff), and we were walking into the city on the ‘official’ route. Evident not only because of the brass shells, but the walk-weary people we trailed, and then picked off. Our legs were much fresher than most, it has to be said. Many were limping – quite wince-making to see. By now Pete had orientated us to the small map in the guidebook, and had an idea of where we were, and where we needed to head towards. The cathedral!

We approached it from behind, through a series of lovely old lanes, for the most part quite quiet, until we reached the heart of the city, where it felt incredibly busy. Lots of ‘tat’ shops and lots of tourists. It is by far and away the busiest place we’ve been to on this trip. There is an enormous square in front of the cathedral, which saw groups of walkers, modern day pilgrims, gathered. Some were smiling, some laughing, but some looked mighty relieved to have made it. Whilst the square is impressive, sadly the cathedral was half covered in scaffolding, taking away some of the drama of the sight. Pete asked if you’d pilgrimed for 100km, would you be disappointed? I wasn’t sure – as I suspect it’s more the achievement of the task, rather than looking at an amazing sight. The early pilgrims did it for St James, who is reputed to be entombed there, but how many are truly religious, I’m not sure. Is it a bit like doing The South Downs Way, or Lands End to John O’Groats? It’s a challenge. I hadn’t appreciated that Chaucer’s Wife of Bath was on the pilgrim’s route to Santiago (and it was my O’level text!!!), nor that St Francis of Assisi had made the long walk from Assisi. We went into a beautiful building (old convent, I think) and saw an exhibition that we couldn’t understand about it.

At the catherdral
At the catherdral

We went in search of a better map, hoping for something like we enjoyed in Pontevedra, a walking tour of the city, but this wasn’t to be. We stopped for coffee whilst we tried to work out what we might do. It seems to involve the potential for mooching, and also a lot of religious art (museums) or Cathedral museums (four different parts, according to the ticketing system). We weren’t sure that was really what we were up for, so we headed back to have a look at the Cathedral. It was now past 12:00, and there was a special mass going on for the pilgrims. You couldn’t get in the front entrance, but I’d seen a back door, so we went in search of that. You could get in, but not get very far because it was wedged with people attending mass – and those who weren’t attending mass were watching those attending (it was quite odd). Pete and I didn’t feel very comfortable, so we snuck out, wandering around the streets around the cathedral. Pete noticed an photographic exhibition in a building near the cathedral (no idea which one), so we went in. It was super. The concept was in taking an old photo, and interpreting it, and creating a new photograph, inspired by the original. There must have been 30-40 images, each with a thumbnail of the original – and then some explanation of the new interpretation… in Spanish! However, the inclusion of the thumbnail, and a little imagination worked for us.

We’d seen everybody pour out of the cathedral when mass was over, so we walked in against the flow of people. It’s a massive space and the alter area is incredibly opulent – shades of the Vatican, dripping in gold. Impressive, at one level, but still rather uncomfortable.

Oppulent, or what?
Oppulent, or what?

We now had the ritual dilemma about lunch. Did we go with the guidebook, or the trusty formula? The trouble with Santiago is, that around the cathedral, it’s a complete tourist trap, and we’ve been spoiled by more authentic places, and both of us wanted more of the latter… so guide book it had to be. The first one we selected was shut (!!), the second was empty, so we searched for the third choice, near the police station. It looked busy and interesting (the criteria) but it was a poor choice. It was like eating canteen food – we both had the “menu”, me a crab salad (with crab sticks!) and then grilled salmon (fried, tasteless, with awful potatoes). Pete had squid (good) and then pork shoulder (actually thick slices of pink ham). The waiter was harried, no smiles, no time to do much. The coffee was on the cool side, but strong. A lady behind us had opted for the desert, and was given a 0% Activa yoghurt! Total canteen experience, and really, well disappointing. We had to have an ice-cream later to recover (!).

As we were near a park, Pete suggested that we walk to a viewpoint. Leaving the throng of the city was a great suggestion. We didn’t wander for long, but it was like we’d stepped through the green lungs of the city (pinched from the guidebook describing Pontevedra’s park). Gone were the tourists, but a few locals with their dogs. We passed by a derelict church in the centre of the park, which lay shrouded in leafy branches. Graffiti was thick on its doors, plants were growing from the stones along the roof, and the windows had been target practice for someone, as the glass had signs of stones being thrown. It was sad to see, on another hill, looking towards the much fussed-over cathedral. Same religion; different treatment.

The desecrated church in the park
The desecrated church in the park

We found our way to the main mirador of the old city. Not in our guidebook, but it should be. It’s a great view. It reminded me of a viewpoint we stumbled across of Carcassonne, and there are parallels – not just in that you have a wonderful panorama. There is something of a caricature that Carcassonne has, and something I feel about Santiago. The tourists, the likes of me (granted) who want to visit these places, turn it into a bigger version of itself, and the ‘tat’ that comes with mass-tourism is a turn-off. It stops places being those that you’ve experienced, travelled through, and somehow become part of a tick and click collection.

Santiago's old town from the park
Santiago’s old town from the park

We’d talked about leaving Whinchat for a couple of days and spending time there; I’m happy that we didn’t, deciding to take the bus back to Muros. And here’s the theory. It’s become popular to extend the walk from Santiago to Finisterre, the almost-western point of Spain, so for some Santiago is a stopping point on their challenge. The bus that didn’t stop for us in Muros came from Finisterre, and we think that it was full of walkers heading back to Santiago to connect with flights. On the bus back to Muros, there was hardly anyone on it.

After our longish day out, it was super to come back to the relative quiet of Muros, and kick back with a book. We weren’t really sure what we wanted for supper, sort of not much, but at the same time something more satisfying than lunch! Step forward the chef – a Julia-omlette, thick with onion, courgette, jamon and cheese. It was quite Spanish in shape, and a wonderfully sunny yellow. High on the satisfaction stakes with a crisp salad.

Santiago had been a good excursion, always feels good to go on local transport, and whilst we found it overwhelmingly touristy, we imagined that early morning, or into the evening, it could take on a different charm and reveal the best of itself. A bit like coming to our Cornwall out of season.

Today’s haiku:

abandoned church lies,
damaged and desecrated,
words the open wounds.

One thought on “A day in Santiago de Compostela”

  1. T would sympathise with you about Santiago! When we went he was so put off by the crowds inside that he went and sat in the shade, with a friendly dog until we emerged later!! But I,m glad I saw it!! xx

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