St. James looms over the Camino not in the form of a man, but of a giant gold censer, the botafumeiro, that periodically swings in a great arc between the north and south transepts of the Cathedral of Santiago. The Cathedral does not use the botafumeiro at every mass for fear that it will become a mere tourist spectacle. It is that, nevertheless, especially since Martin Sheen’s and Emilio Estevez’s movie “The Way.”
After re-grouping at the end of our long walk from Sarria to Portomarín, we boarded the bus and rode to Monte de Gozo, just above Santiago. It was sunny and windy. At the top of a nearby hillock was a large, modern sculpture, a monument to Pope John Paul II, who visited Santiago in 1989. But the popes are sitting in Rome, one of the three most important Christian pilgrimage sites along with Jerusalem and Santiago, and it seems they don’t feel a strong need to travel regularly to this city of 96,000.
We walked the two and a half miles down into Santiago in silence. It must have been a somewhat strange sight, this group of twenty-four older men and women walking single-file along the narrow sidewalks of the commercial-industrial area ringing the old city center, none of them speaking a word. We were still on the Camino, but on a much less scenic one than we were used to. We passed what had become the sadly familiar sight of empty storefronts to rent, their metal security blinds full of graffiti. We passed furniture stores, uninteresting cafés, and sooty stuccoed row houses. We walked around roundabouts and across on-ramps for highways that channeled traffic below and beyond us and made it seem that although you could leave Santiago by car, you were required to enter on foot. Now and then a yellow arrow or the molded contours of a concrete seashell appeared on a sidewalk.
At last we passed into the narrow streets of the old city, completely different from the modern but slightly shabby area we’d just been walking through. Any vague feelings of unease dissipated in the aromas of bakeries, fruit stands, bars and in the voices of people now crowding the streets. The sun slanted over the rooftops and into these little rúas, as they’re called in Galician, and turned the final meters of the Camino into an open book, one page shade, the opposite page almost unbearably bright.
Finally I caught a glimpse of the elaborate towers of the Cathedral. They resembled Tibetan stupas more than medieval spires. We walked down the steps of a passageway and emerged in the main plaza at the foot of the Cathedral steps. We had finished walking our short Camino.
The first glimpse of the towers was more exciting to me than the official arrival. It’s probably different for pilgrims who have walked the entire way. Or perhaps not. Perhaps one of their friends has also missed the last step in the passageway, out of fatigue or excitement, and fallen forward onto the stone pavement. That happened to one of our number, and our concern over whether he had injured himself preempted a little whatever other emotions we might have felt. So did the fact that they are cleaning the Cathedral façade, half of which was shrouded in scaffolding.
We shuffled along with crowds of other visitors into the side entrance to the Cathedral and waited in line for our turn to walk up the steps behind the main altar and embrace the large metal bust of St. James, whose back is turned to you. The following day, which happened to be Ascension Day, it would be carried around the nave on a litter. Surprise, St. James! Guess whose arms embrace you: perhaps someone with your same need, as recorded in the Gospels, to be first, to be better than others, despite (in her case) evidence to the contrary accumulated over sixty-four years.
The following day, after attending the ten o’clock mass in order to be sure to have a seat for the Pilgrims’ Mass, and then the latter beginning at noon, some of us walked to a tapas bar for lunch. I have been in one kind of culinary heaven in northern Spain, but especially in Galicia: anchoas, anchovies, available everywhere, on slices of toasted baguette, with olives, as briny X’s atop salads. So I ordered them here as well and ate them again at our farewell dinner, a tapas extravaganza. One might say that the end of the Camino was also simply this: a lunch of anchovies, olives and local white wine in a city two hours’ drive from the ocean.
But of course it was not only that. Already at the ten o’clock mass we watched maroon-clad monks light the botafumeiro and begin to pull on the massive ropes suspended from metal girders in the ceiling over the altar. The botafumeiro swings higher and higher, up to the ceiling and then back down low over worshippers sitting, as we were, in one of the transepts. A local band of Galician bagpipers and horns accompanied the swings. Ash-colored clouds of incense filled the air. In front of us tears streamed down the cheeks of a sturdy-looking middle-aged woman, clearly a pilgrim who had made the whole journey.
They also streamed down mine. True, the tradition began in order to fumigate a cathedral full of unwashed pilgrims. But the tradition has created its own holiness, and even I, the occasional pilgrim, was part of it, watching our ephemeral offering rise to the heavens.