Santiago de Compestela-- A Magical Place
Last night when we arrived in Spain it was dark so we had no sense of the landscape. This morning when we woke up we saw the most beautiful view from our window: an old stone church steeple rising up in the village surrounded by green hills with white washed houses. We are in Santiago de Compestela and it is stunning.
We ate breakfast this morning under a grape arbor in the garden. Breakfast was brought out to us in stages. First was a large slice of toast and slices of cheese followed by grilled croissants spread with honey, and a traditional Santiago cake which is almond flavored dusted with powdered sugar. We met a man from Connecticut who walked the 75 mile journey for pilgrims with his 78 year old mother, his wife, and ten year old son. Along the way they met a man walking the same journey on a prosthetic leg.
Heading down the winding cobblestone lanes there was beauty everywhere. Flower boxes are bursting with flowers and tiny shops have wrought iron signs. The cathedral is massive. Much of the facade is covered with scaffolding which can be disappointing, but at the same time we can see that the restoration will be amazing, Already cream colored stone pillars stand beside stone blackened over the centuries. When finished, the church will look incredible.
Here at Santiago de Compestela, there is al spiritual vibe, but a joyful one too. In the courtyard, arriving pilgrims with walking sticks celebrate. One couple posed for pictures with walking sticks held high, another man leaped into the air for a photo, and two men threw down their bikes and embraced in happiness. Other pilgrims spread out their gear to just lie down facing the cathedral with a look of total contentment.
We followed the massive crowd into the sanctuary for high mass at noon. It was standing room only, but from our vantage point we could see the altar. It was brilliantly decorated with gold and marble. While I find the altars in many cathedrals dark and too ornate, this one was flashy and meant to capture our attention. The mass was mainly in Spanish and began with an announcement that all phones and cameras were forbidden.
During the service we made our way to just left of the altar and at the end of mass, the most wonderful thing happened. Eight men in red velvet robes untied ropes holding a silver incense burner the size of a small child hanging from the ceiling on a pulley. The incense was lit and the men pulled the burner up and down causing it to swing the full length of the sanctuary back and forth as the organ played. It was swinging so high it seemed as if it would hit the ceiling and as it was swinging, it filled the church with the sweet aroma of incense. This tradition was originally to mask the scent of the pilgrims centuries ago who were tired and sweaty, but today it filled the crowd with pure joy. All cameras and phones previously forbidden, appeared to document this amazing event which only takes place during certain times of the year. It was one of the most spiritual moments I have experienced in a long time.
We wanted to visit the crypts, but the line wrapped around the church. We decided to try a restaurant recommended in our Rick Steves' guide and were not disappointed, At first glance it seemed like a bright and cheerful modern cafe which it was, but it was also a pulperia. This means that grilled octopus is its specialty. We decided to skip the octopus and go with a safer choice, tortilla patata. It's a potato omelette baked in a pan and is delicious. While we waited, the man preparing the octopus for customers could not keep it coming fast enough. Everyone wanted it so we ordered it too. It came on a round wooden plate in bite size chunks sprinkled with olive oil, sea salt, and paprika. I have to admit, it tasted slightly like crab and was great.
In the evening, the mood outside the cathedral was celebratory. A youth group marched to the cathedral singing with kayak paddles, people poked their heads out of holes in a painting of two people hiking for a photo, and children ran about on the cobblestones. We joined the line to view the crypt where it is said a silver chest with jewels contains the bones of Saint James.
Dinner tonight was at a small restaurant inside a parador beside the cathedral. We had the mussels and scallops which were delicious, I felt confident I had asked in perfect Spanish if they had a table for two , but they immediately handed us the English menu. Sometimes things get lost in translation. One of the menu items was fried lobster fingers in a bag.
Tonight the town has a vibrant positive energy. Walking around we came upon three outdoor concerts in the plazas. My favorite was an all male Spanish band in fancy robes and I didn't want the concert to end. Santiago de Compestela is an amazing place and I hope to come back here again.