Travels & Traditions: Santiago De Compostela, Spain - #606

BURT WOLF: Christ, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha and the Hindu prophets all became pilgrims in their search for wisdom and self-knowledge. Their followers were encouraged to visit the holy sites and the sacred relics where miracles took place. Traveling to a sacred place will challenge your everyday life and offer you a special wisdom that you cannot find at home---it can help you heal your soul.

Today, sacred travel is more popular than it's been since the Middle Ages. Each year millions of people travel to the world’s sacred sites and one of the most popular destinations is Santiago in the Northwest corner of Spain. Everyday, for the past 1200 years, pilgrims who have been walking the ancient road to Santiago arrive at the city’s great Cathedral. They celebrate the completion of their journey; they applaud each other, relive moments of shared excitement, and honor their accomplishment.


BURT WOLF: Construction on the Cathedral began in 1075. It is the work of many craftsmen and incorporates a number of different architectural styles.

The most famous image of the Cathedral is the main façade that was put up in the middle of the 1700s.

The entrance to the Cathedral was the ultimate achievement for medieval sculpture in Spain. It is known as the Portico of Glory and it was designed like most medieval sculptures to explain Christian traditions to people who could not read. But a thousand years later the Portico also does a good job of explaining to us what life was like in the middle Ages.

My guide to the Cathedral was Manuel Ruzo.

MANUEL RUZO ON CAMERA: The Portico of Glory is like the representation of the glory of Our Lord. So, through the Old Testament that we can have represented here. Moses, Isaiah, Daniel and Jeremiah. The New Testament, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. James, St. John. So what separates old from new? Jesus. Where is Jesus? Up there above St. James. And you are here, so since the very early days of the pilgrimages. The idea of the pilgrimage was not just to convince you that you have to pray to the relics. No, the relics are the way to reach divinity. And Mateo the architect who made this reminded us by sculpting St. James in between us and our Lord. Like telling you ‘listen, you’re doing the way to Santiago, but the goal is not just St. James. St. James is the way to look for divinity.’ And this is very much in line with the thoughts of many pilgrims. 

It’s not so simple. It’s not okay, I’m going to Santiago de Compostela to pray to St. James. No, you are walking to Santiago de Compostela to grow up inside you, something very spiritual and a very wide aspect of the word. 

BURT WOLF: On the arch above the entrance are 24 elders, talking to each other and carrying a series of musical instruments.

MANUEL RUZO ON CAMERA: Some of these instruments are just fantastic. If you look at the two right on the center, that instrument is played by two people. One turns round and round one piece, while the other plays with a key board. Music was also part of the way to Santiago.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: There is a way in which music transcends the spoken word or perhaps better reveals the meaning of the spoken word. And so it's the most natural thing that the most important speech - speech to God has with it this tradition of being sung. And so in the very early tradition of the church and the monasteries in Europe the prayers were sung or chanted and out of this tradition has grown some very beautiful liturgical music and some very beautiful prayers set to music.


BURT WOLF: The great churches that were built for the pilgrims on the way to Santiago went up between the 11th and the 13th century. They were the largest construction projects since the time of the ancient Romans. The most important architectural innovation in these churches was an ambulatory---an extension of the side aisles that passed behind and around the altar. This change in the floor plan allowed the pilgrims to circulate inside the building without disturbing the solemn ceremonies that were taking place. Keep in mind that each year over two million people made the trip to Santiago.

MANUEL RUZO ON CAMERA: The height of the church is 22 meters. Nowadays maybe is not so huge. In those days it was impressive. That vault is unique. And it also had a function because the acoustics of this cathedral are fantastic, are of this world. In those days the most important part of the mass, of the liturgy, was the Gregorian Chant. But it was almost like an obsession because as pure as the sound was, as pure as the chant was, as pure as the prayer was, it was like the idea of chant synonymous with pray. The Gregorian Chant needed good acoustics. 

BURT WOLF: The physical and spiritual focus of the Cathedral in Santiago is the High Altar which sits above the Apostle’s remains. 

Pilgrims climb a short set of steps and embrace the statue of Saint James which has been around since the 1100s. Over the centuries pilgrims have developed a rather intimate relationship to this statue. They see Saint James as a friend, someone who pitched in and helped them get through the long journey. They want to give him a hug and express their appreciation. But even if you are not interested in that level of physical intimacy with the Saint, it’s a good idea to come up here because the spot offers the best view of the Cathedral.

The most spectacular work inside is the canopy above the shrine. It was carved in wood, then covered with gold leaf. It’s decorated with angels, vines, flowers and coats of arms. The objective of a canopy in a church is to focus the viewer’s attention on the altar and this one certainly does the job. Above the statue of Saint James as the Apostle is Saint James as a pilgrim. And above that he sits astride a horse as the slayer of Moors.

Below, a passageway leads to the crypt where a silver casket contains what are said to be the remains of the Saint. They are being kept in the same spot where they were buried in the first century.


BURT WOLF: The veneration of relics and the undertaking of a pilgrimage to a holy place is part of almost every religion. In Spain, relics have been admired and honored since the arrival of Christianity.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But there is no record of any pilgrimage until the discovery of the body of Saint James in Santiago. As a result of that discovery pilgrims started coming to the city and the city became rich and powerful, and quickly learned to honor the arrival of travelers.

BURT WOLF: Each day at noon the cathedral holds a mass for the pilgrims. The country of origin and the mode of transportation used to reach Santiago are announced.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: The mass in the Catholic tradition and for many Christians is the ritual presentation and he passion death and resurrection of the Lord and so by partaking in this it becomes the most profound expression of unity between the believer and God and the believers among themselves from which then they lead the mass with a greater encouragement to witness to the mercy and love of the Lord.

BURT WOLF: The mass becomes an act of closure, the conclusion of an extraordinary life altering experience. It touches people who have made the journey with a religious conviction, but it is equally impressive to people who have no interest in religion. It is a ceremony that marks the physical end of their trip, the moment of their arrival at their goal. THROWING SMOKE

BURT WOLF: On special occasions and during a holy year the Cathedral puts it’s botafumeiro into play. Botafumeiro means “smoke belcher” and in this case it is an incense burner suspended from the ceiling of the Cathedral.

Eight men are required to control its movement as it swings through both the north and south transepts in front of the altar.

The original burner was stolen by Napoleon’s troops in 1809. What you see here is a replacement that was made by a goldsmith in 1851.

One of the explanations for its enormity was the need to freshen the air in the cathedral after it was visited by thousands of travelers wearing clothing that had not been washed for months. The smoke and the smell also added to the already mystical quality of the building.


BURT WOLF: Another essential aspect of the arrival in Santiago is a visit to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office down the street from the Cathedral. This is where you present the Pilgrims Passport filled with the stamps that indicate your activity on the road.

PASSPORT WOMAN ON CAMERA: So you started your way in. . . .


BURT WOLF: An attendant at the office will ask you about your trip, where and when it began, the reason you made the journey, and if you would like a list of recommended podiatrists. To qualify for the certificate you must have walked at least 100 kilometers which is 62 miles or 200 kilometers if you used a bicycle. 

If all is in order, you will be issued the Compostela, a document that certifies your completion of the trip.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Thank you very much.


BURT WOLF: The earliest Compostela that we know of was issued to a Frenchman who arrived in 1321.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the middle Ages the Compostela was proof that you had completed a journey that in some cases was ordered by religious authorities or a religious transgression. And in some cases by a civil authority because you had committed a crime. 

The Compostela also separated the real walkers from the big talkers and made it harder for you to falsely include the journey on your resume.


BURT WOLF: During the 12th century the Book of Saint James was published. It is our best source of reliable information on what was really happening here. And it has been translated into English.

The final chapter is a detailed guide to the road---where to stay, where to eat, what to see, which routes to use, and how to cross specific rivers. There’s even a short list of key travel phrases like... “----- CAN YOU CHANGE A 20?”

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Even though there were laws protecting pilgrims and guaranteeing them a toll free journey. The road could be pretty tough. Locals might try and charge you for crossing their bridge or kill you for the few meager things that you were traveling with. And sometimes your fellow pilgrims were no help.

BURT WOLF: When the pilgrims finally arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago they often celebrated with too much drinking and ended up in drunken brawls.

The Pilgrims Guide became the prototype for all of our guide books. But most important, it spread the word about the Road to Santiago and the magnificent city at the end of that road.


BURT WOLF: Santiago’s most important square was designed to hold thousands of pilgrims. The buildings on the sides of the square represent the four great powers that control the city---the Cathedral represents religion.

The Neo-classic Palace represents Government. It is the headquarters for the regional government, as well as the city council of Santiago. At the top Saint James on horse back leading the Reconquest.

On the south side of the plaza is the College of Saint Jerome. It was founded in the 1400s for poor artists and students attending the local university. Today it houses the university’s library.

On the north side of the plaza is the Hospital of the Kings of Spain. It was built in 1499, with funds donated by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

The building was both a resting point for the pilgrims and a hospital for the sick. Pilgrims were allowed three days of rest during the summer and five days during the winter.

The building itself is a major work of art.

Of particular interest are the four interior patios, each designed by a different architect for a different group of guests---one for healthy men, one for sick men, one for healthy women and one for sick women.

Each patio contains an elaborate group of gargoyles whose throats act as waterspouts. The Latin word that gives us the word gargoyle is the word that gives us gargle and gurgle, so no matter how elaborate or scary the sculpture, its not a real gargoyle unless it is draining water.

A description of the facility written in the 1500s, points out that every patient and pilgrim was treated as if the hospital had been built for his or her particular benefit.   The building still takes that approach to its visitors, but today it's no longer a hospital---it is a luxury hotel. In fact, it is the world’s oldest hotel still in operation---part of the Spanish government’s network of Paradores, which are historic buildings that have been turned into hotels.


BURT WOLF: After spending weeks or months on the road the pilgrim arrives in a city with a rich gastronomic tradition.

Michael Burros is an American who has lived in Santiago for almost 10 years. He is my guide to the city.

MICHAEL BURROS ON CAMERA: This is the Rue de Franco. This is a wine street. Almost every Galician town has a wine street. It’s where people come and they have a beer, wine, and tapas. 

Tapas is a small snack that you have. It’s usually put on a small plate and that plate goes right over the top – hence tapas – of your glass. So that you can hold the glass and hold the food. And it’s very economical.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Oh, this is where I want to have lunch.

MICHAEL BURROS ON CAMERA: Now these are tapas. Here you have salmon, this is anchovy and date. This is tomato with shrimp and a little olive. 

BURT WOLF: Got one of thoese. . .

MICHAEL BURROS ON CAMERA: The Tortilla Espanola which is one of the most famous tapas. That’s lettuce, mayonnaise, and salmon. This is anchovy and local cheese. 

BURT WOLF: Gracias.


BURT WOLF: Very good, very good. What’s that?

MICHAEL BURROS ON CAMERA: These are Pimentos de Parome or Padrone Peppers. They’re famous here which are typical Galician tapa. And they’re boiled in oil. Normally they’re very very mild, but probably today they’re gonna be a little hot. They’ve got some salt on them.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: They’re a little hot.

BURT WOLF: Next day we went back to the Parador for a more formal dinner. Esperanza Senande is an executive at the hotel. Nancy Frey was my guide as we walked the road to Santiago.

NANCY FREY ON CAMERA: This is a very special chicken called Gayo de Cararow with oysters over a bed of cabbage. And it’s a free range chicken and they’re very highly valued. 

This is the specialty of the house. The Galician seafoods are just out of this world. And this has the scallop from St. James of course, turbo, sole, as well as lobster. 


NANCY FREY: These are fioas. Which are Galician pancakes in a sense. They’re layered and in each layer there is cream and apple sauce and caramelized on the top.

MICHAEL BURROS ON CAMERA: This is a tarto de Santiago which is the typical dessert of Santiago. It’s made with ground almonds with flour, with eggs, and depending upon where you got the recipe from, people throw in lemon peel or orange peel. And this particular one has both lemon and orange, and there’s a little sprinkling of cinnamon here on the side in the form of the staff of a pilgrim.


BURT WOLF: One of the few places on earth where jet can be found is the land around Santiago. Ricardo Rivas Mejuto is a master craftsman whose family has been working in jet for generations.

Jet is a type of coal that comes from ancient trees that died during the Jurassic period and have spent the last 180 million years being crushed at the bottom of swamps and rivers.

It’s light in weight. Takes such a high polish that it can be used to make a mirror and feels warm against your skin. Its blackness is so black that the phrase “jet black” has been part of the English language since the 12th century. The gemstone is called jet because that was the name of the ancient Greek city where the stone was mined. His shop in Santiago produces objects in jet with many of the same techniques that have been used for centuries.

There’s not a lot of jet but for over ten thousand years people have been using it to make lucky charms and elegant jewelry.

When Christianity arrived in northwestern Spain jet was the ideal material for small religious objects. By the ninth century jet was used to produce souvenirs for the pilgrims arriving in Santiago.

The Reformation and the subsequent drop in the number of pilgrims traveling to Santiago resulted in a rapid decline in the jet business but there are still master craftsmen working here and with the rebirth of the pilgrimage there is a reawakening of an interest in jet. OPEN DOORS

BURT WOLF: Every religion that has expanded beyond a single area, a single race or a single culture has incorporated the idea of pilgrimage. It is a communion with the sacred that has existed since prehistoric times. It's a ritual journey that can be taken alone or as part of a group. It can be taken with the aim of achieving purification, perfection or salvation. It can be a religious experience in which bonds are established between this world and a higher sphere, between an individual traveler and a community, between the pilgrim as he was when he started the journey and what he has become.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A journey on the road to Santiago can connect you with the divine---it can open doors to the spiritual, but only you can decide if you’re going to walk in.

For Travels & Traditions I’m Burt Wolf.