Cathedral Highlights Visit to Galician Capital City

At least the remains of Saint James are in a box, rather than on display in their naked, bony glory like Saint Teresa of Ávila.

Santiago de Compostela started as a pilgrimage site shortly after a tomb was discovered in the early 820s that reportedly held the remains of Saint James (Santiago) the Great, one of the 12 apostles.

A church was raised near the site that has undergone destruction, rebuilding, expansions and renovations over the intervening centuries. In fact, religious ceremonies here may have pre-dated Christianity.

As news of the remains spread, pilgrims began traveling to the city to pay their respects or seek atonement, leading to El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that more than 240,000 people undertake each year. Pilgrims usually sport a scallop shell, the symbol of St. James, on their backpacks. They also carry a “passport” containing stamps for places where they’ve stopped along the way.


As long as a pilgrim has a spiritual motive for undertaking the pilgrimage, those traveling more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) on foot/horse or 200 kilometers (124 miles) by bike are rewarded in Santiago de Compostela with a certificate. There are dozens of established Camino routes from several European countries, but here’s a primer for the novice pilgrim on how to prepare and the more popular routes.

Declan is already plotting for when he can walk the Camino and who will accompany him. In preparation for our trip, he made us watch “The Way,” about a man who travels to Spain to recover the body of his estranged son who died walking the Camino and winds up walking it himself. It stars Martin Sheen and his real-life son Emilio Estevez, so even if you’re not interested in El Camino, you can spend a couple of hours reliving the Jeb Bartlett presidency.

The square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago is the gathering place for pilgrims, who stop to take pictures of themselves or groups they have been traveling with. Backpacks are everywhere, which is why they aren’t allowed in the cathedral. Fortunately, shops around the square have paid storage facilities.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the Galician region of Spain, an area with Celtic roots. That’s why Marilynn was at an Irish Studies conference here. And in Galicia, like in the Catalan and Basque regions (and Northern Ireland), there are vocal groups clamoring for autonomy.

Honkin’ big censer swings fast

The Cathedral de Compostela hosts special services for pilgrims twice a day. If you’re lucky, you will attend services on a day that the world’s largest censer (thurible) is swinging, belching thick clouds of white incense smoke. Called the Botafumeiro, the censer weighs 135 pounds when empty and nearly 220 pounds when full. Eight men are needed to set the giant thurible on its 90-second voyage, where it swings in 17 cycles and can reach speeds in excess of 40 miles an hour.

The highlights of a self-guided tour include viewing the ornate casket containing the remains of St. James in the crypt. It also includes a trip behind the high altar, where you can hug the huge statue of St. James that dominates the scene. From a pew in front of the altar, you can see arms grasping the sides of the statue from behind, 50 feet above you.

A large-scale renovation project is currently under way at the Cathedral de Compostela, with much cleaning and updating evident between where scaffolding has been erected and where it has been previously. It has quite a shine for such an ancient building.

Around the cathedral, you will find a confusingly arranged set of streets with ever-changing names that can quickly confuse veteran travelers. But that’s OK, because you will find tapas bars galore at every turn, all the better to have a drink and a nibble as you plan your next steps.