In Honor of Santiago de Compostela, A Magical City

As someone who takes a train to work every day, I was saddened and horrified when I heard the news (and saw that terrible video!) of the train crash in Spain last week.

And then I learned that the crash (which resulted in 80 unfortunate deaths) took place in Santiago De Compostela, which was just another blow.

No, I’m not from Santiago. I don’t have family or friends there either. I don’t know anyone who was on that train or any of the victims.

It’s just that Santiago is probably one of the most magical cities. With thoughts and prayers going out to everyone affected last week, I wanted to share my love of that magical city located at the “end of Earth.”

Santiago De Compostela is completely out of the way from everything and pretty isolated at the top and farthest western point of Spain. This is precisely why the Apostle James called it the end of the world (because, well, it was back then). James made a pilgrimage to ‘the end of the world’ to spread Christianity, and his body, reportedly, lies in a tomb in the city’s cathedral. Despite the location, and the maneuvering of our trip itinerary that it took to add it in, we decided to visit Santiago on our trip to Spain and Portugal last year.

About a month before our trip, we saw that Netflix had added the movie The Way to it’s instant watch. The movie is about a father whose world-roaming-son dies on the Camino to Santiago. A fancy doctor whose idea of traveling would never include a backpack decides to take the pilgrimage in honor of his son. It was perfect to watch right before our trip. We both gained a deeper understanding of the pilgrimage and, thanks to a scene at the end of the movie, we knew exactly what we wanted to see at the cathedral—the botafumeiro. That’s about when we found out that the botafumeiro occurs roughly 13 times a year. Making the chance of us stumbling on it in the ONE day that we were there pretty unlikely.DSC_5003

The drive from Salamanca to Santiago was long and relatively unscenic. Upon arriving we started a rather short list of sightseeing. We saw the market, smelled the pilgrims, walked the charming but a little bit commercial streets, and saved the cathedral for last.

The cathedral itself is impressive but what makes it more special is the steady stream of pilgrims dragging in from their camino lugging heavy backpacks and nursing huge blisters. They get to the front of the cathedral and they stare up (maybe thinking I walked all that way for this?) Probably not. They look very happy and quite satisfied. So we stood and watched groups of pilgrims take photos, shoot video, reunite with folks they must have met at some point on the camino and just overall revel that their journey has come to a rewarding end.

Santiago's cathedral at night.

We ventured inside (happy that the cathedral was one of only a few in Europe with no entrance fee) and took a seat on a pew. There were a lot of people inside, but we figured it was just a normal weekday afternoon crowd. I noticed and loved the two rows of confessionals going down either side of the cathedral’s nave manned with confessors ready to absolve some sins. I really wanted to take a picture because it had this whole ‘the confessor will see you now’ vibe to it, but it didn’t feel right to take a picture of a confessional. Then it seemed that a mass was starting. We sat around while they sang and a long row of priests and others walked around the church and down the aisle. At one point we were *this close* to sneaking out as we hadn’t planned on attending mass, but we decided to stay.

Good thing.

Because after the reading, a beautifully sung Psalm, and the Gospel, we realized that we had unwittingly joined a mass with the botafumeiro. Yep, one of the roughly 13 that happens a year. We watched as a group of grown men heaved the large rope to let the 120 pound incense holder drop and then rise high again. The incense was spilling out and then they started swinging it from one side of the transepts to the other.
I shot a short little video on my phone.

And then I realized, this is a once in a lifetime occurrence, Stephanie, put down your phone and just be present. So I did.

A mass with the botafumeiro (occurs only about 13 times a year!!)


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About Stephanie Y.

I'm a professional news writer in Frederick, Maryland. I blog at S.Y. Ciphers.

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