Religion is the tourism industry’s cash cow. Whether you’re a hardcore religous pilgrim venturing to bow to St Peter at the Vatican, a Hugo/Disney fan searching for a hunchback at Notre Dame or just simply paying an entrance fee to bask in the splendour of Europe’s countless churches, chapels and cathedrals from a purely artistic and architectural point of view, religious sites make a lot of money for the tourism industry of a city or region..
Galicia is no exception. As I explained in Part 1, Santiago de Compostela is the symbolic finishing line of the ancient pilgrimage route across Spain where countless Catholics would offer their devotion to St James. I may not have visited Santiago as a fervent Christian but the religious aspect of the destination certainly played its part in drawing me to this corner of the Iberian Peninsular.
The skyline of Santiago de Compostela is dominated by its most famous and visited landmark, its cathedral. This ostentatious flag carrier of the Church of Rome is certainly the high point of any sight-seeing visit to this region. What’s more, thanks in part to the role that it plays as a fully functional house of God where they yearly welcome millions of visitors, this cathedral is much more than an architectural wonder.
Pleasantly surprised that the whole city wasn’t a tourist trap, it was at the cathedral that we discovered where all the tourists were. They were packed to the very high rafters in this wonder of medieval, Romanesque, baroque feat of Christian construction.
Although we were already forewarned by Lonely Planet that at the time of our visit, there would be scaffolding of Biblical proportions present on the famed Pórtico da Gloria, the intricately-carved main entranceway to the cathedral, we were not prepared for such modern day ugliness on the interior.
Not to be put off, we embraced the gilded features of the building which, for many pilgrims, culminates in the larger than life statue of Santiago (St James the Apostle) himself. Walking in centuries-old footsteps we climbed up behind the main altar and literally embraced the statue. That’s right; we hugged a statue of a saint.
The main selling point of this cathedral visit though, if not the actual building itself, was the pilgrim’s mass that takes place every day at noon. Although touristic visits are “discouraged” during mass, the draw of the catholic mass to a man from a country which practices its own version of Protestantism was too much of curiosity to miss. And what a curiosity it was.
Having grown up going to a church of England on a Sunday, I could feel like nothing more than an enthralled spectator in this highly ritualised display of Catholicism. And the Latin, kneeling and the baffling number of clergymen made it seem we were looking into the past; that not much had changed here in the last hundreds of years.
Even those accustomed to such a brand of religion still could not be prepared for the climax. I was already aware that incense was used (something about carrying prayers to heaven with the smoke?) but Santiago’s version could be described as matching with the scaffolded surroundings. The ball of incense was the size of a wrecking ball!
Hanging from a thick rope, the silver device took 6 men dressed in traditional uniform to swing the thing up and down the aisles and across the altar until it was nearly breaking through the ceiling. All of this accompanied by chanting made the whole thing more Pagan than Christian and definitely made a visit to the work-in-progress cathedral feel like we were doing something, rather than just seeing something.
There was something however that I needed to see before leaving Santiago. Like many a cathedral, this one offers a museum, which like all the others includes exhibits on stained-glass and stonework.
Entering from the appropriately named Praza do Obradoiro (Workshop
Square in Galician), some of the interiors offered the palatial grandeur that I was expecting from the main portion of the cathedral. With illuminated manuscripts, plenty of tapestries and a very very large medieval military flag, you could tell this is where they were hiding the wealth of Santiago.
Even more precious though, at least to me, was something I revere as much as any Catholic revers the gold statue of Saint James. Off the cathedral’s cloister, which unusually was not at ground level, lie the medieval kings of Leon, who ruled over this territory long before Spain was a united country. Although arguably not as important or screech-inducing as seeing Isabella and Ferdinand, for me any proximity to a monarch is a religious experience.
That said, I can’t tell a lie and say that this cathedral was one of my favourites. Having seen other Spanish cathedrals in Madrid, Seville and Granada, as well as countless others across Western Europe, and hearing how important Santiago de Compostela is and has been of such importance to the world’s Catholic community, I was left disappointed.
Maybe it was all the scaffolding, maybe it was the sheer number of tourists, pilgrim or not, but Santiago cathedral was neither the gold slap in the face of Granada nor the fine work of art of Rouen and ultimately, despite my lack of religion, I couldn’t feel the “power” here as I have felt in Vatican City. I’m sure that were I Catholic and more permeable to such divine forces, I may feel differently, but on this occasion, with the exception of the giant ball of incense, this house of God failed to move me.