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Santiago de Compostela: the Cathedral, continued.


View of the cathedral interior from the roof (photo: Helen Bunting). 

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Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral is the spiritual center of the city and a place of rest for the many thousands of pilgrims who complete the Camino de Santiago every year. On certain Sundays, the cathedral’s clergy host a special pilgrim’s service. My friends and I happened to be in town on one of these Sundays and decided to attend.

Streams of people thronged into the cathedral as we slowly made our way in. The place was packed. Finally, not long before the service was to begin, we found a spot on the side of the altar with a good view of the action. We were lucky to even get a seat on the ground—with the pews filled and nearly every inch of floor space taken up, it was standing room only.  
The service started with a nun leading the congregation in song and proceeded with the usual pomp and flair. Priests from several different European countries came forward to bless the pilgrims in their own languages. Then the archbishop gave the main message. He spoke Spanish with a clear, easy-to-understand accent, but he was so boring that I gave up trying to listen.
Everything went according to plan. Except, that is, the botafumeiro. For months, my new Spanish friends had been telling my Australian friends about the famed botafumeiro, which is basically a massive version of the swinging incense burners often used in Catholic services. It is so big that it must be suspended from the roof and operated using a pulley system. Centuries ago, it was used to mask the stench of smelly, travel-weary pilgrims. Now its purpose is simply to impress. I have a hunch that, spiritual feelings aside, half the reason so many pilgrims come to the cathedral is to see the botafumeiro show.
But alas, there was no show for us. My friends were crushed. After the service, there were rumors going around that the cathedral clergy only bring it out when someone makes a big enough donation. The cathedral website tells a slightly different story, stating that there is a botafumeiro show only about 30 times a year, on special occasions. Whatever the real reason, we were all extremely disappointed.
Next on our agenda: standing in line to embrace the statue of St. James (
Santiago
), then racing to catch a tour of the old cathedral cloisters. The best part was when the guide led us up on the roof (perfectly safe, actually), where, centuries ago, pilgrims burned the set of clothes they had worn during their journey. Nowadays, pilgrims receive a large white shell—St. James’ symbol—upon completion of the pilgrim route. According to tradition, his remains arrived in
Spain
after his death in
Jerusalem
and are said to be buried under the cathedral altar.
Despite a religious upbringing, I felt more emotionally stirred just looking at the cathedral lit up at night than I did when I was actually inside it. It could have been my general dislike of Spanish cathedral interiors, which are often too over-the-top for my taste. Or perhaps it was the combination of a late night and no breakfast on the day of the service. In the end, I found the illuminated cathedral itself to be utterly transcendent.

Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral is the spiritual center of the city and a place of rest for the many thousands of pilgrims who complete the Camino de Santiago every year. On certain Sundays, the cathedral’s clergy host a special pilgrim’s service. My friends and I happened to be in town on one of these Sundays and decided to attend.

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