Santiago de Compostela

Day One

The end was near.

We awoke before dawn on June 8th to a lovely serenade performed by the three two tenors, Dr. Gyug and Dr. Myers, with the knowledge that this would be our last day of walking. The quota for the day was only 12 miles, which seemed easy compared to the previous day’s 23 miles. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that the walk to Santiago de Compostela was easy due to the shorter distance. Setting off to Santiago wasn’t nearly as scenic and beautiful as some of the previous walks by the end (Molinaseca and Villafranca, we’re looking at you). More importantly, the finality of it all made it incredibly bittersweet. Yet throughout the morning we walked, slowly filtering into our destination, filled with mixed emotions. Some of us were sad that the journey was ending, others were overjoyed to have actually made it to Santiago, but no matter what the emotions were, they were overwhelming. A particular highlight was watching the sunrise peek through the forest canopy, the last bits of Galicia’s selva oscura, with a brief recitation of Dante, of course, to set the mood. Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita…

Sunrise on June 8thThe Galician Sunrise feat. Kas

The end of the walk was the most agonizing. First, one has to navigate the suburbs of Santiago and the more modern metro area before even reaching the old city. It seemed endless at times, compounded by the knowledge we were so close and yet so far. But then the beauty of the old city revealed itself until we were fully immersed within its winding streets. We caught a glimpse of the spire of the Cathedral; our hearts beat faster and the adrenaline carried us through the last stretch until we were in the Plaza do Obradoiro. 


When the realization of what we achieved hit us, we proudly hugged one another. Some laughed, others cried. We shared an impromptu celebratory meal of nuts and cheese (thanks Louisa!) until everyone, for the most part, had arrived.


Who knew hot stone could be so comfortable? Perhaps it had something to do with the fact we had been walking for over two weeks to reach Santiago, the promised land. Most of us laid there with our eyes closed, taking it all in, while simultaneously becoming tourist attractions for those visiting rather than walking to Santiago as pilgrims. After our arrival, we were left to our own devices until the next day. Most of us went our separate ways to either shower or shop, relishing in the fact we could be clean and for good this time without having to walk all over again tomorrow. Yet we arrived the same way we embarked on the journey: together.

Day Two

Time for site reports! We met in the Plaza promptly at 9:15, where we learned about the city’s legends and history in preparation for the Pilgrim’s Mass at noon. For example, pre-Roman legends of supposed Celtic origin describe Santiago as the place where the souls of the dead gathered to follow the sun across the sea. Those unworthy of going to the Land of the Dead, however, continue to haunt Galicia.

For our purposes and that of the Camino, we focused on the discovery of St. James’s remains in 813 by a shepherd named Pelagius. The light of a bright star guided him to a field (some claim the etymological origin of Compostela refers to campus stellae or the “field of stars,” while Santiago is the Galician evolution of Sanctus Iacobus, i.e. St. James) where the burial site of St. James the Greater was located. He reported his discovery to the bishop of Iria, Teodomiro, who notified King Alfonso II. To honor the growing cult of St. James in the eleventh century, the cathedral was built on the spot where his remains were said to have been found. According to the tradition recorded in the Codex Calixtinus (which we read!), St. James preached in Galicia, but returned to the Holy Land. There he was beheaded, but his disciples brought his body to Jaffa where a ship awaited that took them and the apostle’s body to Iria Flavia in Galicia. The disciples asked the deceptive pagan queen Loba (“she-wolf”) for permission to bury the body. She sent them fetch her oxen at the local sacred mountain, Pico Sacro, in the hopes that the dragon that dwelt there would kill the Christians. The Christians were triumphant, however, as the sight of the cross destroyed the dragon and the oxen ferried St. James’s body to the resting place Pelagius would discover. The legends and the miracles associated with them inform the history of the city’s growth and development focalized in the cult of St. James. They served as devices of engendering support and legitimization as Santiago, the city, became a central Christian stronghold against Muslims in northern Spain during the Crusades. For example, the cult of St. James and the city of Santiago as a metonym for Christian dominance during the Crusades gave way to the representation of Santiago Matamoros or “St. James the Moor-slayer,” which depicts St. James as a white knight who supposedly intervened during the mythical Battle of Clavijo to help an outnumbered Christian army defeat the opposing Muslim army. 

Next, we turned our attention to the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, the first pilgrim hospital adjacent to the Cathedral.


It was the first of three site reports in Santiago and each covered key aspects of the historical pilgrim’s experience once in Santiago. Though Isabel and Ferdinand decided to construct this hospice in 1492, construction on the building itself was not completed until 1501. While an active hospital, all services to pilgrims were provided free of charge; additionally, the hospital served the medical needs of the city, it caused one of the largest medical schools in the country to appear nearby, which established Santiago as a center for higher education. Today, the Hostal is part of the Parador system and is considered one of the finest hotels in the world with a world renowned restaurant, Libredon, located in the chamber that used to serve as the hospital’s morgue.

Next, we discussed the Cathedral, paramount to the traditional pilgrim’s experience, along with our own for the day. Unfortunately, the front facade is currently under renovation (it’s being restored and should apparently be done by the next Holy Year in 2021), so it’s covered in scaffolding. It is beautiful, nonetheless, and a living (mostly) Romanesque monument to the city’s history and the Camino. 

Construction on the cathedral began in 1075, under the reign of Alfonso VI. The Plaza do Obadoiro in which we marked our arrival was the very location of the workshops. Work was suspended multiple times during the construction for various reasons until 1100 when Archbishop Diego Gilmirez revitalized construction by declaring Santiago a bishopric. The interior of the cathedral is Romanesque whereas the exterior is Baroque due to the multiple updates the exterior underwent. 

However, we got to see the beauty of the cathedral and the plaza from the impressive perspective of the roof.


We climbed over 100 steps and eventually reached the roof, which meant we could look out over all of Santiago. Our tour guide taught us about all the different towers, which additions were made to the cathedral throughout the years, and restoration process itself. It was amazing to get to look out and see where we had just walked in the day before.

Later, we attended Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral. While we were all squashed together in the seats that we luckily found, they provided the perfect view of the glorious botafumeiro as it swung from one end of the cathedral to the other. It swung so high, it looked as if it was about it hit the ceiling. And to quote Louisa, there was “so much fire” (!!!) on the inside. Large clouds of incense soon filled the cathedral and it served as the perfect ending to tradition. 

With only 20 minutes left before the next site would close, we raced to the nearby Monasterio de San Paio (Galician) or San Pelayo de Antealtares. It encircles and closes part of the Plaza de la Quintana de Vivos, which we caught a glimpse of on the roof of the cathedral. Chronologically and thematically, we shifted backward in time, from the height of Camino infrastructure (the development of the Cathedral) to the Camino’s humble beginnings and the experience of the earliest pilgrims with our final site. The monastery, founded by King Alfonso II, was instrumental in that it established the earliest liturgical services and worship dedicated to St. James for pilgrims in the ninth century. It also housed the relics of St. James under the care of the Benedictine monastery’s twelve monks until the popularity of the pilgrimage and the prestige of Santiago grew, creating the need for the grand Cathedral. It was the first monastery of its kind in Santiago de Compostela under the invocation of San Pedro, i.e. Saint Peter. By 1150, the monastery’s dedication changed to honor the Christian martyr and child saint, Saint Pelagius of Cordova (c. 912-26) or San Pelayo Martir. The change reflects the popularity of the cult of this saint, with the anti-Muslim sentiments of his martyrdom, during the Reconquista. The image of his death dominates the church facade.

The monastery, and monastic life in general, fell into decline in the fifteenth century; reform closed most monasteries and San Martín Pinario, also located in Santiago de Compostela, came to dominate the city’s monastic life. In 1499, Fray Rodrigo de Valencia, prior of St. Benedict of Valladolid and General Reformer, by order of the Catholic Kings united all the Galician Benedictines (14 priories), and converted the monastery into a convent under abbess to Dona Beatriz de Acuña from Castile. It was thus the first and one of the most important historical centers of convent reform of the Benedictine Order in Galicia. It still functions as a cloistered convent today, along with its status as a museum and church with regular worship. 

Here, we saw 5 rich Baroque retablos that used to be in the cathedral, along with the original liturgical ornaments. One of the retablos contains a popular Spanish representation of Marian iconography in which she is visibly expecting known as la Virgen de la O or Virgin of the Hope (it is celebrated on December 18th, in longing for Christ just before his birth). It was certainly a nice companion piece to the representation of the pregnant Virgin in Leon at the start of our Camino! The museum also housed a large collection of Marian statues, indicative of the Benedictine convent’s particular devotion to her.



The most noteworthy object in the convent that we were able to see, however, is the altar of St. James. Legend holds that the marble ark of Santiago is a Roman construction that was consecrated by Santiago’s disciples. It is considered the oldest piece of the cult of Santiago, located where his remains were “discovered” in the ninth century. Diego Xelmírez donated it to the convent when he replaced it with a more opulent one inside the Cathedral and it remains an additional claim to fame for the monastery/convent and its namesake.

CS0298With our last site report done, part of our group ventured to the rocky coast of Finisterre, which was believed to be the end of the world during Roman times. Though our pilgrimage officially ended at the Cathedral, many peregrinos choose to continue to the ocean and stop once they reach the official 0 km marker. The serene, yet sublime, expanse of vast ocean, untampered by boats or ports, still made us feel as if we were at the edge of the world; and with the doomsday clock set to two and a half minutes to midnight, we very well might be.

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In the evening after a brief break, the group met for our last supper (sad!) at O Gato Negro (Dr. Gyug’s old favorite and with good reason!). There we enjoyed more delicious seafood and each other’s company. The students expressed their gratitude with gifts for our fearless leaders and chaperones. It was also the site of the prestigious Camino awards. 

With our bellies full and our spirits high, we made our way to Fuco Lois, where we made a spirit of our own (and banished a few malignant ones…how many plays on “spirit” can we make here?). With the help of Melissa’s excellent translation and MaryKate’s recitation of the traditional incantation, we made a brew of Galician Queimada.


Warm drinks in hand, we shared our equally warm and fuzzy thoughts about our respective Camino experience(s) in a final group reflection. It was then the unavoidable and bittersweet goodbyes began, some more difficult and reluctant than others, but none were without gratitude for one another. As we all slowly staggered from Fuco Lois in waves, parting ways to return home or explore more of Europe, we were burdened with the knowledge that our Camino was truly over. For some, perhaps more so than when we reached Santiago a day earlier. But the inevitable end to the Camino made it all the more special in our hearts and minds. For an all-too-brief period of time in the insular space of the Camino, 2 professors, 2 chaperones, and 23 students spoke, laughed (and maybe cried), sang, danced, ate, and most importantly walked the Way, together. We are forever grateful.

Until our reunion,

Monica, Grace, and Cristina (roja)

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