I can hear the shriek of seagulls outside in the pre-dawn light as I sit writing to you from the ghost cafe in Santiago. It’s a very ephemeral city, forbidding when cold and grey, a huge party town with people from all over the world when sunlit, and everyone, everyone, with strong legs and a look of relief.
The cafe is actually part of the wonderful Hostal Susa. Hostals in Spain are not youth hostels or albergues, but rather grouped with pensiones or lower-priced hotels. I have a tiny, immaculate room with a bathroom in the middle of the old town of Santiago for 20 euros a night… the lowest price yet. There is a bar-cafe attached to the hostal, but visually blocked and closed off from the street. It is only accessible if you have a room, yet two people work there. Dishes are washed, but there is nothing but coffee and scanty, used-up bottles of liquor on the shelf… if you can get in. There is a menu, but when I picked it up, the barman, with a look of alarm on his face, asked me to put it down, as nothing on the menu was available. And yet, I sit here writing to you, with the magic of Spain tolerating me..
I realize I am skipping the days before my arrival in Santiago. I’ll share that in another post. I arrived on July 3, but saved my entry into the Cathedral until 7AM the next day, to avoid the crowds. The seagulls were shrieking and it was raining, with the echo of a Galician bagpipe filling the square.
Every pilgrim is supposed to do 4 things, more or less in order. The first is to admire the portal with the Tree of Jesse, designed by the master artist/architect, Master Matteo. There are so many portals to the Cathedral that I had no idea which one that was. Then you enter the vast, new universe of space that is the cathedral. They actually designed it to be a Cathedral of Stars, for Compostella, field of stars. That’s the positive reading. It was really built on an ancient Roman cemetery . Anyway, it is about the transition into other worlds, whether the starry Way or the passages of death.
In the old days you could walk up to the Saint and touch his feet. That is no longer allowed, to preserve the sacred marble. Personally, I think that to touch the place where millions have touched with a full heart is worth a lot more than the sculpture.
It’s an amazing place. So much of the gothic stonework was painted in the old days, but for some reason the paint is never restored. I know from illuminated manuscripts how vivid the pigments were. Yet the original paint is faded and almost gone, increasing the forbidding aspect of the cathedral.
So now I have not been able to do two out of the four things that pilgrims traditionally did. On to number three. This was news to me, but apparently there is actually a chance to touch your forehead to the head of an image of Master Matteo in order to receive divine artistic inspiration! Bring it on, said I. So I set out to search for Master Mateo.
But I couldn’t find him, lost in the echoing dampness of the Cathedral. It’s dark in there on a rainy morning.
Then God intervened. A German woman cathedral docent approached me and asked in German if I needed help. Apparently there is a mass in German in a side chapel at 7:30 and she thought I was looking for that. She spoke no English, but I could use my German to ask for the location of Master Matteo.
One of the towers is under renovation. You can see it here. I had hardly noticed, as any Gothic cathedral has so many towers that having a couple of spares is not a problem.
So I went under the draped tower and there, barricaded in darkness, was Master Matteo, a delightful, lovingly executed sculpture around 4 feet high, just right for the shorter midieval pilgrim to lean over and get some forehead inspiration. But there were iron barricades and almost total darkness. So I asked myself, what would Matteo do ? He would find a creative solution.
First I used my bendy tripod and a low light program to take a picture of him. But I couldn’t stand being so close to him and not touching him. I reached out my arm, and I swear I was within an inch of touching him, but no dice. Time for another plan. You are talking to a woman who actually managed to take rubbings from Assyrian bas-reliefs under the noses of the guards in the British Museum. This was not going to stop me.
I checked the area and no one was around so I stepped through the first layer of iron bar barricades. I was close enough then to press my hand against his forehead. I left it there for awhile until the cold of the stone seeped in, then pressed my hand to my forehead. I could swear the Master smiled.
The last of the four items is to visit the silver box full of bones, and say your prayers. So I did.
My timing has been so good… I found out from Severin, the Swiss colossus youth who always knows everything, that every Friday night they have a mass where they swing the giant incense holder. The Botafumerio is an icon of the pilgrimage, and you also saw it in the film The Way. So I went 1 1/2 hours early to get a place in a pew underneath the action, having learned from Christmas in Rome that you don’t fool around with the big masses if you want to get a seat. The timing was good…. the Cathedral filled with around 1200 people. They don’t swing the thing every day.
You have to wait through the whole Mass to get to the good part– the Catholic Church knows how to keep people in their seats. They are firm. “Silencio! Silencio!” But finally the B.F. is lowered. Up there in the vast cathedral space it looks around 2 feet high. Then it is lowered and you see that it is bigger than a man. They pour coals into it and heap on the incense, then raise it and begin a controlled swing over your heads.
What the films can’t show you is that it is on fire, sparkling with red flame from the bottom, and emitting these giant clouds of sweet smelling smoke: copal and frankincense, if I’m not mistaken. It’s just the most joyful thing to be under… you instinctively duck as it goes over your head. Everyone was smiling and laughing… you have never seen anything like it, and never will again. Talk about an unidentified flying object!
I’m always glad to leave the church… I felt like a ginormous golden Baroque angel was glaring at me through one eye. I wish we could skip the Baroque decoration and just take the music. This photo gives an idea of how full the church was.
I feel full, happy, and yes, blessed by the Cathedral. The seagull shrieks are calling me on to the coast, so I’m hopping a bus to Finisterrae, the end of the ancient world. Many consider it to be the natural, prehistoric end of the Way. The two workers in Ghost Cafe have spent the last hours reading the newspaper, and I, the only customer, am ready to pay up and get on the road. I’ll write you from the Atlantic coast, and I’ll tell you more of the saga of my journey.
Santiago is like a goth girl, full of spikes and jewelry and Celtic signs, very emo, and tattooed with the marks of millions of pilgrims. I leave her now, but will probably return. Buen Camino, Suzanne