written 26th december 2009
This is the second pilgrimage we have inadvertantly been on. The first was earlier this year, before we came up with the current crazy plan, when we went camping in the west of Ireland for two weeks in May with the midget and a tent. We travelled up the coast from Kerry to Connemara and it was great. On one of our last days, we decided to climb Croagh Patrick, the mountain where, alledgedly, St Patrick rid Ireland of snakes by throwing them off a cliff. In August, thousands of people pilgrimage up it, barefoot, in the middle of the night, stopping at various places to walk round it several times. Having had a lazy start, we didn't get there until about 3pm but it said it should only take a couple of hours and we figured, well, if your average catholic granny can get up there, we should be able to no problem... turns out we under estimated the average catholic granny... :) it was hard, and near vertical scree slope in places. it was also cloudy at the top when we started out, and we met knackered people coming down saying that they couldn't see anything from the top. So we said to ourselves that we would just go as far as the cloud line... (un)fortunately, the cloud kept lifting as we got higher unil we finally reached the windswept top in glorious sunshine with the most fabulous views - just going to prove that God rewards the lazy who lie in bed all morning... :) we spent the whole way down working out what to use our plenary indulgences on and went out that evening and got locked in a bar until 2am... :)
Apparently thousands of people come here from all over the world, many of them starting from Roncevalles in the Pyrennese, where we first picked up the trail, and walking the 500 miles. Those that don't want to walk the whole way, walk the last 90 miles from the Galicia/Asturias border - we didn't :)
Christmas eve didn't turn out quite as we had planned. In A Coruna, full of birthday plum cake, we didn't feel like going out for dinner, the restaurants in Santiago sounded much more interesting and both LP and Cedric had indicated that Santiago was a great place to go out so we thought we would treat ourselves to christmas eve meal out before midnight mass. Arriving mid afternoon, we were lucky enough to find a free car park, just at the bottom of the hill from the Cathedral.
From the outside, it is a big building with a "bobbly", moss and lichen covered facade which is much fancier than anything we have seen elsewhere. Inside however, and especially after Burgos, it is, for the most part, surprisingly small and plain, however, being the traditional cross shape, to me, it actually felt more like a church than Burgos. There are a couple of small side chapels dedicated to holy communion and Mary and Jesus but the whole eastern arm is taken up with what can only be described as a massive grotto of an altar, dedicated to St James which is covered with gold carving and pale statues (lots of arms and seemingly disembodied heads - a bit like a horrific train crash between a plastic doll factory and that hindu god with all the arms in a gold leaf mine... ;) ). Because the altar is so big, the pulpit area is in the centre of the cross shape and the congregation can therefore sit in all three arms. One of the oddest things is the access you have to the altar. You can't get close from the front but St James's bones are kept in a silver box in a crypt under the altar that you can go down to and then on the other side, you can go up into the altar to kiss the back of the statue of St James (if you are a pilgrim - we just looked at it) it is just the most bizarre place, even compared to Burgos, which was awesomely impressive, but quite traditional - just a lot of it.
We weren't sure if we could take pictures or not so didn't - and I was going to find some google images but can't find any which adequately capture what I saw so again, you will need to go yourselves... :)
We got kicked out for mass at 6pm and spent a happy couple of hours in a bar drinking coffee before setting out to find one of the many restaurants in the two different LP's we have - and en route, found a doorway off a square where we could squat and steal some internet from a nearby hotel, to upload the blog, although with limited battery and homeless people wandering the streets it wasn't a comfortable stop, and it why this post was only half finished...
They were clearly shutting up by 9:30 so we though we would have to go back to noisy bar, only to find that they had shut even earlier as it was shuttered up and completely quiet. We spent the next half hour wandering the streets in vain looking for somewhere that was open - several places clearly had people in them but doors locked and blinds down - even the kebab shop (no, we hadn't drunk that much and yes, we were that desperate!) were very sorry but they were closed for a private family party. We weren't the only ones as we kept bumping into the same groups of people (all spanish and of various ages and groupings) also wandering the streets. As a very last resort, we tried the posh hotel in the square which was originally built by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as a pilgrims rest stop, only to find there was no room at the inn as before we even got there. we saw two men, and then a family regretfully turned away by the liveried doorman.
Someone could make money for just one night in Santiago!
Eventually we gave in and went back to our lonely donkey for home made pintxos of cheese and chorizo on cracker and cheap table wine (at €0.65 the cheapest yet!) - we considered taking the van up to the square for open house but didn't quite have enough to go round... ;)
We did walk back to midnight mass and were surprised to find it quite full, an obviously not with the usual crowd who've just been kicked out of the pub! This was the first proper catholic service I have been to - all "bells and smells" as my mother would say! - although I am reliably informed that they use a lot more incense in Northfleet where Will was taken as a child. Either a little incense goes a long way when you are small or they just use less here - might even be part of a clean air, no smoke in the workplace initiative as aparently, so will tells me, in a survey done, catholic priests had worse lungs than bar workers - I don't know where he gets this stuff from!
Anyway, we were clearly not the only tourists there and we did see some of the same groups who had been walking the streets - although they left halfway through! why bother making the effort at all then?? - so we stood up and down when everyone else did, hummed along to the sung responses and generally took it all in. And although, personally, I find the catholic (and high church anglican) rituals to be more of man than of God, it was rather lovely to watch in that amazing church. The bishop even made the effort to welcome visitors in french, german, english and italian which I thought was a nice touch. At the end, when the proper churchgoers lined up to kiss the stone baby Jesus, we decided we had seen enough and pottered off hrough the quite streets back home - where's a nice kebab when you want one... ;)