"The success of the resurgence in the pilgrimage to Santiago is partly, perhaps mostly, a result of cooperation between a number of tiers of local and regional government, church authorities and the diocese and the regional development institutions of the EU."

Santiago de Compostella, 29.8 – 1.9.2015

Whilst staying with friends in Cabezon, Cantabria, I took the opportunity to visit Santiago de Compostella, roughly a day’s train journey away. This would be an exploratory trip to get a sense of whether more extended fieldwork would be useful for the project.  As both an ancient and contemporary centre for pilgrimage it would give me some pointers as to how the city and the religious authorities managed the phenomenon of large crowds looking for a religious high, and although Santiago would not fall into the category of a city in conflict as a result of religious tensions, this absence of inter-religious tension would also give me a sense of what works and how – what would be the basic structure of a pilgrimage city before tensions perhaps distorted its workings. I had read some articles and tourist material but carried out no academic research on the contemporary situation.[1] I had arranged no interviews. The wife of a colleague in Exeter had spoken to me at length about her experience of walking one of the pilgrimage routes of the Camino de Santiago. My friends and their friends in Cabezon are not religious in any way and yet several of them had also completed the Camino, some in one go, others over several years, and all of them talked of how moving an experience it was. Despite their leftist and anti-establishment views, some of them had even collected the official certificate of the Camino with elaborate stamp and seal to demonstrate they had competed the whole pilgrimage.

On arrival at the train station, it was not obviously clear where to go, which surprised me, but walking towards the cathedral I chanced upon the Tourist Information Office, obtained a map and found the hotel I had booked into online. It was in the Old City about 10 minutes walk from the Cathedral and in a small quiet square away from the main thoroughfares. It was already quite late but I had a quick look round the streets, spending some time in the Praza do Obradoiro, the main plaza in front of the Catedral del Apostol, with its huge baroque façade looking down over you. The atmosphere was friendly, happy, pilgrims meeting up with each other, there was a buzz as new arrivals appeared with their walking sticks, their scallop shells which signified their pilgrim status, badges and palm crosses. Earlier on, I had watched a comedian performing in front of a huge crowd sitting on the steps behind the cathedral and the atmosphere also was good natured and comfortable.

The next morning, Sunday 30th, I carried out a more thorough orientation of the Old City and also visited the cathedral museum. The displays were not that well interpreted or contextualised and I got little sense of the growth of the cathedral and its relation to the city.  There were, however, great tapestries by Malet and Goya on display. Almost the most interesting part of the museum was the 2nd floor cloisters and the view from the balconies overlooking the Praza do Obradoirio.  Here again I could see tired pilgrims arriving in groups or singly or in pairs, mingling with the more sprightly tourists. There was an atmosphere of hushed excitement. 

At 12 am there was a service called the Pilgrims Service in the Cathedral.  When I entered from the cloisters at 11.30, the nave, chancel and transepts were already full. Most people were standing and quite a few seated on the floor.  It was hard to distinguish the pilgrims from the tourists and the generally people were noisy and restless.  The altar and choir stalls were carved in the most lavish and ornate baroque style you can imagine and provided a great deal to look at while I waited for the service to start. The service was participatory, fairly informal and relaxed, and more modern and ecumenical than I expected. A nun began the service with some lovely solo singing and the congregation was taught some Latin responses to sung prayers. There was a long and quite serious sermon by a senior cleric.  I could not catch all of it but I think it was about the meaning of being a pilgrim in the modern world accompanied by what sounded like admonishments rather than platitudes.

The service culminated with the ceremony of the flying censor!  - the botafumeiro. About a dozen sextons in deep burgundy robes and white neck ruffs, positioned themselves at several points close to pillars at each corner of the centre of the chancel where cathedral’s tower rose to a great height.  They slowly lowered, by means of thick ropes and large pulleys, a huge censor the size of a large van.  It was lit and billowed smoke from side to side filling the cathedral with a sweet pungent smell of incense.  By tugging different ropes alternatively, the sextons began to swing the censor the length of the chancel.  Gradually the pendulums got higher and higher until finally it swung up to the rafters at one end, down again and right through the middle and length of the chancel at tremendous speed and right up to the rafters at the other end, the ropes being bent by the chancel arches holding the tower in the middle as the censor hurtled and soared past on its way.  It was quite jaw-dropping and an amazing spectacle.  The speed of the flying censor was alarming and it went on for several minutes. It was absolutely extraordinary, given this era of public safety awareness, how the large crowd of people seated beneath the swinging censor in the chancel were not removed from its path immediately!

A real spoiler for the experience of the service and censor ceremony was the behaviour of the congregation – pilgrim and tourist alike. There was a constant intrusiveness of people taking photographs, jockeying for a better position, standing in the way, entering quiet spaces and immediately looking through a lens or a smartphone, disturbing those at prayer, silver-white flashes bombarding the scene in front of your eyes. Despite repeated and regular requests by sextons and other attendants, whose sole task seemed to be just for this purpose, for the congregation to be quiet and to refrain from taking photography with flash, after a period of acquiescence the rumble of voices and the agitation of photographers would start up again.  In this sense it felt a most un-spiritual experience. Partly for this reason I did not join the long queues waiting to both “embrace the Apostle” James or to touch his tomb which is the reason for the construction of the cathedral.

In the afternoon, I set out to follow in reverse the route of the Camino to the hillside overlooking the city and find Monte de Gozo (Mount Joy) where pilgrims arriving after their long trek first catch sight of the cathedral.  A cluster of huge statues of medieval pilgrims stand exclaiming and pointing in the direction of the city mark the spot. Following the route is easy as it is marked by a series of scallop shells embedded in the pavement and tarmac at regular intervals. However, I actually got a bit lost as I took what I thought was a small detour to find the bus station so I could buy a ticket to Ferrol for the next day, but eventually found my way back to the Camino and the route to Monte de Gozo. This was initially a little disappointing. On the outskirts of the city, the route ran along several busy roads and dual-carriageways and then passed through a suburb spread out over the hillside.  Near the top, instead of a park or something rather tidily laid out, there was a rather tacky kiosk, rough area for parking and on top of a sizeable mound a huge modern sculpture made of metal and stone – Tony Caro-esque metal crescents sat on a stone plinth of about four meters squared covered in large metal facings depicting various scenes which were difficult to decipher. Protuberances had ribbons, wristbands, string bangles and necklaces tied to them, presumably by pilgrims.  The view from the mound towards the city was obscured by some woods just in front of it.  There was no welcome sign, or information board, or any form of interpretation and no sign of statues.  Quite strange.

It was only my curiosity at reading a number of boards erected by the municipality, the regional government and the EU concerning various development projects in the area, which led me to follow a track across a field to a lower hill top about half a mile away where I found the famous statues.  This was a much more pleasant spot and the view to the city was clear and despite the fading light I could make out the towers of the cathedral. The statues were impressive, conveying excitement and urgency, and sitting quietly for a while below the outstretched arm of one of the statues, I could feel the pull of the city and the pull of the Camino urging me on.  The hilltop was surrounded by parkland and some hostel chalets and on my pass them heading back to the Camino route, I came across an extensive but seemingly recently abandoned commercial complex with deserted shops cafeterias and children play areas. This would suggest that the increase in pilgrims and walkers to Santiago was perhaps not as large as some investors had hoped.

The next day, Monday, I staked out the official pilgrim centre, the Oficina de Agocida del Peregrino. This is where pilgrims who have completed 100 or 200 kilometres and have obtained the necessary stamps in a booklet are issued with a certificate of completion – for which they pay for, I think it was 10 Euros. The certificate is attractive, written in Latin calligraphy with a colourful seal.  (My field notes say “a significant document”, so it must have struck me then) Even fairly early in the morning – around 9.30, there were queues inside the courtyard.  The atmosphere amongst the pilgrims was light-hearted and relaxed and they were directed by officials and an electronic number board to a line of about 5 counters inside a medium-sized office where they had their booklet authenticated and stamped. The exit from this room led to shop where good quality religious paraphernalia was on sale including the Camino moniker – the scallop – made out of various materials.

Despite the friendly atmosphere, there did seem to be something slightly lacking or deflating in this process of official recognition. I would imagine for some, the collection of the certificate would be the culmination of many days and weeks of walking and some sacrifice of comfort and this queueing in what is essentially an office is not exactly uplifting.  Obviously they cannot put the bunting out for every pilgrim to make them feel special, but the final stretch of the pilgrimage being a bureaucratic exercise of handing over money for piece of paper was short of drama and meaning. Having said that, there were signs that there was an awareness of how finishing the pilgrimage can be anti-climatic.  I picked up leaflets giving guidance to pilgrims as to how the experience can lead to a new way of life or how the positive feelings can be used as service to others both in terms of assisting in the pilgrim hostels and also more general.  I saw several notices in different languages inviting pilgrims to prayer and bible study groups so that they could build on the companionship and spiritual feelings they had experienced and find support once they had completed.

Leaving the Pilgrim’s Office I headed for the Cathedral but the queues for the sepulchre of St James and the Embrace were once again very long, but I had spotted that the Benedictine church, the Monasterio de San Martin Pinario, was open and explored that instead. This was the outstanding experience of my visit to Santiago. It was virtually deserted and after the clamour of the cathedral, the silence and peace was very welcome. The high altar and choir was absolutely stunning and the side chapels were equally absorbing.  The dark ornate ultra-baroque carvings, the cascading opulence and imposing size of the figures and the profusion of symbols left me quite speechless.  The interpretation notes were well-written and engaging and I began to appreciate the over-the-top baroque art form much better, and learnt to recognise the designs of the different schools and craftsmen. There were several other rooms with amazing artefacts, one containing the refurbishment and reconstruction of a large wooden choir with intricate carvings in every stall. Other rooms included early printing presses with examples of publications and details of how science teaching was gradually introduced into the seminary in the 19th Century.  From a upper floor you could step onto a balcony overlooking from quite a height the chancel and altar below.  It was a striking view.  All in all, San Martin monastery was a fascinating highlight of my trip and made my understanding of the city much richer.

Santiago as a pilgrimage city is the finishing point of several caminos.  The most famous, popular and developed one is the Camino Frances, which starts in different parts of France but joining together at the Pyrenees. (Over 70% of pilgrims used this route in November 2015) There is also the Via de la Plata, or Silver Way, (4%) and the Camino Portuguese (10%) which start to the south of Santiago. There is a much smaller and shorter one called the Camino Ingles which comes down from the ports of La Corunna and Ferrol (3%).[2]  I headed for Ferrol as I wanted to return to Santander via the FEVE railway along the coast of Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria (which also followed another camino, the Camino del Norte)  The bus brought me to an industrial and extensive naval port-city in the pouring rain, quite a contrast to the baroque grandeur of Santiago. The central parts close to the old port is, however, attractive with art nouveau buildings laid out in a grid system designed by planners from the Enlightenment period. I traced the camino by the scallop shell markers down to the port and sat looking out across the water imagining sea-sick pilgrims gratefully disembarking from a bumpy sail across the Bay of Biscay! That evening, to celebrate the end of my reverse pilgrimage and my forthcoming train-pilgrimage I ordered a traditional Galician dish which comprised of 12 scallops in their shells cooked in butter, white wine, lemon, garlic and herbs.  Fantastic!

The next day, 1st September, I caught the 8.20 train to Santander which stopped at every village, every town and meandered in and out of every estuary and every river valley the whole way to Cabezon.  It took 11 hours, but was worth every minute of the journey.

So what did I learn from this trip which helps me with my project? Firstly, that the success of the resurgence in the pilgrimage to Santiago is partly, perhaps mostly, a result of cooperation between a number of tiers of local and regional government, church authorities and the diocese and the regional development institutions of the EU. The maintenance and promotion of the routes as both a leisure and a spiritual activity has been backed up with infrastructural support for accommodation, information (signs, posters, websites, leaflet, booklets etc.), medical assistance, transportation and facilities to cater for the large numbers of pilgrims and tourists. It would be useful to know what the mechanics of this are – what coordinating bodies have been set up, are the different agencies and departments competing or collaborating well, does the Catholic Church and the Diocese of Santiago have a leading role in decision-making and funding? Has the availability of EU regional grants assisted in their work? The economic benefits of this cooperation and the successful promotion of the pilgrimage is quite clear to see in the gift shops, bike and shoe shops, hotels, hostels, cafes, grocery stores and pharmacies in and around the city but it would be good to see how much of this is generalised tourist development and how much can be attributed primarily to the pilgrimage.  What is especially interesting to see is how the church has clearly embraced the broader cultural dimension of the pilgrimage which includes those who join in for leisure, health, historical, social and heritage reasons.  There did not appear to be any attempt to privilege religious or Catholic pilgrims and the general tenor of the experience is inclusive.

Second, while I experienced little tension in the city and in and around the cathedral, I could see how crowd management is a real issue.  This has also been an issue in Lourdes where a special order of lay helpers, the brancardiers, has been established to ensure orderly control over thousands of pilgrims.[3] At peak times in Santiago, possibly on the Feast of St James on 25th July with its fireworks and burning mock facades, the crush in the Plaza do Obradoiro and in the cathedral must be difficult to control. In other cities where there is tension between different religious groups and where cooperation is minimal and replaced by competition over sites and access to them, say Jerusalem, the potential flashpoints are numerous.



[1] Wright, J. B. (2014). "The Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain." Focus on Geography Spring: 25-40. , ibid.

[2] http://peregrinossantiago.es/eng/pilgrims-office/statistics/

[3] Eade, J. (2000). Order and Power at Lourdes: lay helpers and the organization of a pilgrimage shrine. Contesting the Sacred: The Anthropology of Christian Pilgrimage. J. Eade and M. J. Sallnow. Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press: 51-76.


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