David arrived at about 10pm last night (Thursday) and after dumping his bag at the hotel we went towards the old town for a ‘welcome to Santiago’ drink. The next morning we decided against breakfast in the hotel and I showed David the approach to the city that pilgrims follow towards the cathedral. After admiring the beautiful cathedral square we found a cafe in a lovely old building for breakfast, and then visited the museum of the city, where there were very intricate models of the old city and the cathedral.
The whole of the ancient city is pedestrianised, apart from the odd delivery vehicle, taxis and police cars, so there is a very leisurely feel to the place and although it is extremely busy with tourists there are no vehicles to dodge.
We have discovered that the botafumeiro will not be swinging at the pilgrims’ mass at noon today, but that it will be used after the 7:30pm mass this evening, so we decide that we will attend the later ‘performance’.
The square in front of the cathedral is huge and devoid of commercialisation, no bars, no shops just a vast space full of people looking up in awe at the surrounding buildings. Because of its history as a destination for pilgrims since medieval times the old city is full of ancient monasteries, convents and hospitals, many now converted to hotels, university buildings, schools, local authority offices and museums. The whole of one side of the cathedral square is taken up by a parador in the building of the royal hospital dating back to 1499 and suggested to be ‘the oldest hotel in the world’. We walk in to have a look around and stop for a drink in the bar. I notice a door in the corner and find that it leads to an outside terrace, tucked right up in the corner of the main square, quite hidden away but with a real vantage point to view all that is going on. We move outside and have a couple more drinks to while away the time in the lovely sunshine. When we manage to tear ourselves away from the parador terrace we mooch around the narrow streets deciding where we shall eat lunch.
This choice is entirely governed by my ‘scallop-fest’, which David is very keen to indulge in as he is also rather fond of them. We decide to revisit the scene of my first encounter with the shell fish, but although they are good, they are a little over-cooked. Maybe that will cure me of my lust for zamburiñas for the time being.
In the afternoon we seek out a park that I have been told has wonderful views towards the cathedral spires. After taking a very round-about route, I realise it is the same park that I visited the day before and could have been reached much more directly, but never mind, it was fun to discover some new streets. We climb to the top of the park where we expect to see the stunning views, but everything in the direction of the cathedral is hidden by the leaves on the trees. I wonder if the view is only available in the winter months and we turn and walk back down, when suddenly at a lower level, we can see what all the fuss is about.
We return to the hotel to change into warmer clothes and set off once again to the cathedral for the mass. We arrive in good time to find seats where I think we will have a good vantage point and the botafumeiro will soar immediately above our heads. As a ‘heathen’ I am disappointed by the mass, no singing as in the pilgrims’ mass, in fact all very business-like. It is over relatively quickly and then the incense burner is hauled upward by the six red-cloaked attendants, and as they expertly pull on the ropes it starts to swing, gaining incredible height and swinging in a huge arc above us, billowing out incense as it passes. At the same time the organ starts up and the nun with the magic voice starts to sing. I filmed it for a while and then just turned the video off because I wanted to properly enjoy the experience to the full. The music and the splendour are truly fabulous.
After the service we find a cosy bar for a light supper and then return to the hotel.
David wants breakfast in the hotel this morning (Saturday), before checking out. Luckily we can leave our bags there for the day. The staff at the hotel have been very friendly and helpful and the room has been impeccably cleaned every day. Although it doesn’t have much character, we would not fault it at all.
We wandered through the food market which is very close to the hotel. It is a pity that Ella didn’t have time to discover this market because she is passionate about food and would have loved to see all the goods on show.
I remember being told in the cathedral office that it is possible to take a rooftop tour. So we book a tour for mid-day and mosey over to the corner of the square to while away half an hour or so until noon. But to our dismay the pardor terrace is not in use and the door to the bar is locked. Unperturbed, David walks to the main entrance and through to the bar and asks the attendant if he will serve us drinks on the terrace. “No” is the response, in the usual brusque no-nonsense Spanish way. So David orders the drinks which the bar tender insists are delivered to a table in the lounge where David must sit. Whereupon David picks up the cups of hot chocolate and carries them through reception, out of the main entrance (where a wedding party are arriving) and the fifty metres or so to the terrace where I am waiting. Some people just don’t take “no” for an answer – thank goodness!
Our tour coincides with the start of the pilgrims’ mass and as we walk into the cathedral to access the tower steps the ‘wonder nun’ breaks into song and David is mesmerised and wants to stay for the service. I persuade him to join the tour and assure him that the service will still be going on when we have finished the tour, as it lasted for an hour and three quarters when I attended it and the tour is only for one hour. He hesitatingly follows and after a few stops for explanations of various objects (in very fast Spanish that I cannot understand very well) we reach the roof. I have seen from aerial photos and from models that the roof is in the shape of a cross and is grey in colour.
What I had not realised is that this grey area is made of slabs of stone in steps up to the apex. The minute I exit onto the roof I feel like a child in a toy shop. I am free to wander at will around this huge area of rooftop, up and down the steps, looking over parapets down onto the square below. I absolutely loved it. This is one of the great things about the Spanish – you are allowed to do things that are potentially a bit dangeous and use your common sense to look after yourself. In the UK the health and safety police would ban anything of the sort.
I was taken back to childhood again, when I lived in Tewkesbury between the age of 8 and 14. I went to a senior school that was connected to Tewkesbury Abbey and we were allowed (in the good old days before the damned health and safety police were invented) to have access to the tower roof. It was tiny in comparison to what I was experiencing today, but I remember finding it very exciting.
I leave the guided group and explore on my own, up and down the steps of all the aspects, seeing all the statues and spires from a different angle, and I really am like a child in my enjoyment, clicking away with my camera and ipad, totally lost in the moment.
I peer through a dirty window of a dome and can vaguely see some sculptures but when I put my ipad to the window it somehow lights up the scene inside and I realise I am looking down on all the finery that rises above the altar and the golden statue of Saint James.
All too soon (although we must have been on the roof for at least forty-five minutes) we are ushered back inside and as we emerge onto the gallery above the cathedral floor, the botafumeiro is in action again and wonder-nun is singing her special song, and we get to see it from yet another angle.
If I seem irreverent in my description, please believe that I have the greatest respect for everything that I witnessed in the cathedral of Santiago. It is a most special place and if you ever get the opportunity to attend the pilgrims’ mass, please go along and you will absolutely know what I mean.
We sat quietly for a while before leaving the cathedral via the shop where I bought a mug with, of course, a botafumeiro print, and then visited a cafe at the rear of the church and contemplated our visit. We both absolutely love this place, the inner city is ancient and beautiful and full of character. It is a place to visit where you don’t need to rush around making sure you see this and that. It is a totally leisurely place meant for strolling, eating and drinking and admiring the architecture. I would highly recommend Santiago as a city for a short break, and it is so cheap to fly from Málaga that it certainly won’t break the bank.
We took one last stroll to the park and could hear some chanting and drumming so went to investigate. We came across a group performing what we discovered to be Capoeira, a Brazilian martial art incorporating elements of dance and music, developed by slaves in the 16th century. It was very entertaining for half and hour in the sunshine. Google it – it is very interesting.
The time soon came to return to the hotel, collect our bags and catch the bus to the airport. As we took off the sun was setting in the distance and halfway through the flight I looked out of the window and saw the full moon shining below us. It was stunning. I had never looked down on the moon before. A perfect end to a fabulous few days.