Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela - Your Camino Destination

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Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela - 2015
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner © 2015

You have arrived at your destination. For a thousand years, pilgrims - peregrinos - have walked the Camino de Santiago to arrive at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in western Spain.

It is the resting place of the relics of St. James the Greater (Santiago), one of the twelve apostles of Jesus. He evangelized in the region that would become Spain. Tradition says that his body was brought here after his martyrdom, and then discovered centuries later in 814 A.D.

The first church was built here in 829 A.D.. Construction of the cathedral began in 1075 and it was consecrated in 1211. As the resting place of an apostle, it joined Rome and Jerusalem as one of the big three pilgrimage sites of medieval period.

Today, you will see a constant stream of pilgrims enter the Plaza del Obradoiro to view the Western façade of the cathedral and take their "end of the Camino" photo holding backpacks over their heads. Historically, pilgrims would enter here through the Pórtico da Gloria ("portico of the glory") designed by Master Mateo. The portico is undergoing restoration and it was not accessible in 2015.

The cathedral is a very active Roman Catholic house of worship. People of all faiths are welcome to enter, view the main cathedral, and attend Mass without a fee. Entry is through the north and south transept doors. A visitor's center and tour tickets for the cathedral museum and rooftop tour are located under the center stairs.

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St. James - Visit the Crypt and Hug the Statue

Tomb of St. James - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Tomb of St. James - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

When you enter the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, you can line up to go into the crypt under the main altar. This viewing window, with kneeler, allows you to view the silver reliquary that houses the remains of St. James the Greater. Pilgrims say a prayer here as one of the final steps of their pilgrimage. The crypt is open from 7 a.m. until 8:30 pm.

Hugging St. James
You can also line up to hug the statue of St. James. Look for the rope line. Photos are not permitted. As you face the main altar, even during Mass, you can see the steady stream of visitors hugging the statue from behind. This is open from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Then St. James takes a siesta and it opens again 4:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Portico da Gloria Traditions
Two other traditions for pilgrims entering the cathedral are not accessible at this time due to the restoration work on the Portico da Gloria. Pilgrims would place a hand on the column that supports the stone statue of Santiago in the Portico. Then they would place their forehead on the statue of Master Mateo, designer of much of the cathedral, hoping some of his genius would rub off on them.

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Main Altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Main Altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Main Altar of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

The main altar of in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a glorious affair with gilded angels and giant candelabra. The life-size statue of St. James that you lined up to hug seems tiny as you view it at the center of the altar.

The cathedral is Romanesque style, with barrel-vaulted ceiling in the nave. There is seating in both the nave and the transepts. Seating may be reserved for pilgrims at pilgrim masses. It pays to arrive early or you may have to stand.

Visit the side chapels as well, one contains a relic of the True Cross. Catholic Mass services are offered in different languages throughout the day in the side chapels and at the main altar. Their are often several priests attending at each Mass, as priests from around the world come on pilgrimage.

Pilgrims traditionally would go to Confession and then attend Mass and receive the Eucharist to complete their pilgrimage. Today, it is requested that only those who are in full communion with the Roman Catholic church receive the Eucharist at the cathedral. It is up to each pilgrim to decide if this applies to them.

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Lighting the Botafumeiro at the Pilgrim's Mass

Lighting the Botofumeiro at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Lighting the Botofumeiro at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Peregrinos - religious or not - love to attend the noon Pilgrim's Mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for the chance to see the botafumeiro incense censer swing the length of both transepts.

The botafumeiro does not make an appearance every day, it is only scheduled for specific feast days. However, it can be sponsored (currently for a donation of 350 euros) and during high pilgrimage season it is likely that somebody has made the donation. If you want to be sure to see it on a specific day, you need to be the generous donor.

Pilgrim's Mass
To see the botafumeiro in action, you need to get a seat or standing room at the noon Pilgrim's Mass. Bring your credencial to be granted admittance to pilgrim seating areas. Seats in the transepts get a better view of the botafumeiro, as it will pass directly overhead. It is wise to arrive 30 minutes or more in advance. Backpacks are not allowed.

You will have to attend the full Mass, which is offered in Spanish and lasts an hour. You won't have to do the usual sit-stand-kneel during these packed services, the priests tell you to remain seated to reduce the noise and disruption. You can take Communion if you are a practicing Catholic, although you may not end up back in the position you staked out for watching the botafumeiro.

During the Pilgrim's Mass, they will announce how many pilgrims of different nationalities have arrived the previous day.

The botafumeiro will swing at the very end of the Mass, at approximately 1 pm. Eight red-robed men (tiraboleiros) come out to pull on the ropes to lift it and set it swinging.

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Botafumeiro at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Botafumeiro Swinging at Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Botafumeiro Swinging at Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

The incense is lit with charcoal and smoke emerges from the botafumeiro. The tiraboleiros pull the ropes to raise it and set it swinging across the transepts of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Photography is not allowed during the Mass (you will get admonished by the roaming guards). But photography is tolerated when the botafumeiro is lit as the Mass is officially over. Go ahead and get out your camera or phone and grab video and stills, Be courteous to everyone around you who is doing the same.

This silver botafumeiro is the largest in the world. It weighs as much as a man - 80 kilograms or 176 pounds, and it is 1.6 meters or 5.2 feet tall. Half of the weight is the charcoal and incense.

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Botafumeiro Overhead

Botafumeiro Overhead in Transept of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Botafumeiro Overhead in Transept of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

The botafumeiro reaches a speed of 50 miles per hour/80 kilometers per hour as it swings the length of the transepts of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and reaches a height of 69 feet (21 meters).

It is very thrilling to see it swing, reaching almost to the ceiling on either end of the transepts. It also makes you wonder how sturdy the ropes are, and whether the pulley system from 1604 is still in good condition. There have been cases of the censer flying off the ropes, as recently as 1937, but so far nobody has been killed. If you prefer to lessen your risk, get a seat in the nave instead.

Incense is a traditional part of the Catholic Mass, although usually reserved for Holy Days. The use of the giant botafumeiro at this cathedral was thought to be a way to purify the air from the odor of the pilgrims, who often slept in the cathedral.

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Confession - Part of the Pilgrim's Journey

Confessional - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Confessional - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Catholic pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago for religious purposes may complete their journey with spiritual renewal at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

The first step of the renewal is to engage in the sacrament of Confession. The nave is lined with wooden confessional booths. A light shows whether a priest is available, and there are signs indicating confession is provided in different languages.

Confession, attending Mass at the cathedral and receiving Communion are the final steps in the pilgrimage to receive the indulgence and remission of the temporal penalties of sin. Traditionally, a pilgrim would walk the Camino de Santiago and have the time in Purgatory they had earned for their sins removed.

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Touring the Cathedral Museum

Cloisters - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Cloisters - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

Tours of the Cathedral Museum's permanent collections, cloister, and the Gelmírez Palace are available from the ticket office located under the stairs at the Western facade, facing the Plaza del Obradoiro.

If you are a pilgrim, bring your credencial to receive a discount.

The museum tour includes royal chapels, the library with illustrated manuscripts, the cloister, the room where the botafumeiro is stored between uses, and archaeological history displays of the cathedral.

Photography is not allowed in most of the museum.

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Roof Tour - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Roof Tour - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Roof Tour - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

The roof tour of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a must-do stop. Not only do you see the cathedral from a new viewpoint, it is an excellent historic overview of the cathedral. Most tours are conducted in Spanish, but there are tours in English twice per day (ask for those times as they are not indicated on the Cathedral web site). You must purchase a ticket at the Cathedral ticket office or online. Bring your pilgrim credencial for a discount.

This tour is not accessible. You will need to climb the stairs to get up to the roof, but they are well-constructed, unlike many worn and broken stairs I've climbed in other cathedrals. You will pass by the Portico da Gloria, which may be your only chance to glimpse it until restoration is complete.

The stone roof was built to be patrolled by troops, with paving stones that are at only a slight angle. If you have been able to walk the natural trails on the Camino de Santiago, you won't have trouble with the roof. But leave the heels and flip flops at home, wear athletic shoes or trail shoes for good traction.

Troops were needed to fend off opposing Spanish kings, Viking marauders, Moors, Sir Francis Drake, and the town's population during tax revolts against the bishop.

You will see the bell tower and other towers up close and personal - be ready when the bells toll! You can look down through a window onto the main altar. You can view the city and the squares below.

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Pyre on Roof of Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Pyre on the Roof of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Pyre on the Roof of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

When pilgrims arrived at the cathedral at the end of the Camino de Santiago, they were given a new set of clothes. The old clothes were burned on pyres such as this one that remains on the roof of the cathedral.

The cathedral guide will tell you that the same practice in Finisterre is a johnny-come-lately. In the olden days, it was rare for pilgrims to continue their journey to the coast. They were given the scallop shell as a sign they had made it to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. No need to go on to the end of the world.

Once their pilgrimage was complete, they could now reverse their steps and head back home. In reality, the guide said that most resettled in Santiago de Compostela.

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The Holy Door - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Holy Door - Porta Santa - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
Holy Door - Porta Santa - Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

The Holy Door (Porta Santa) is on the east facade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It is only opened during Holy Years of Jubilee when the Feast Day of St. James (July 25th) falls on a Sunday. The next ones will be in 2021, 2027, 2032, 2038 and 2049.

During a Holy Year, visitors to the Cathedral can earn a plenary indulgence (remission of all temporal penalties of sin). They do not need to have walked the Camino de Santiago to receive it. But pilgrimages increase greatly on Jubilee years, with many combining their Camino walks with the special graces earned by visiting the Cathedral during a Holy Year.

That can either make it a good year to go (if you believe you will have all of the punishment for your sins erased) or a good year to avoid due to the crowds.

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Pilgrim's Office - Oficina do Peregrino

Pilgrim's Office - Oficina do Peregrino - Santiago de Compostela
Pilgrim's Office - Oficina do Peregrino - Santiago de Compostela. Wendy Bumgardner ©

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela operates the Pilgrim's Office (Oficina do Peregrino) nearby to issue Compostela certificates to pilgrims who have completed the Camino de Santiago. It is located at Rúa do Vilar, 1/3. You will probably notice the line-up of peregrinos with their packs and trekking poles.

To receive the Compostela, a pilgrim must complete the last 100 kilometers of a Camino route on foot or horseback or the last 200 kilometers on bicycle. Proof of this journey is provided by stamps the pilgrim's passport - the credencial.

The Compostela is only issued to those who go on the pilgrimage for "an act of devotion, under vow or promise to the Apostle’s Tomb," as the Latin inscription on the certificate is translated by the Cathedral web site. Previously different certificates were issued for those who had a religious purpose and those who did not.

The Compostela certificate is free, with a donation appreciated. Most people also buy the scallop-shell design mailing tube for one euro to keep their precious document safe on the journey home. You will see pilgrims brandishing these throughout the town.

There are free restrooms here for pilgrims and a welcoming space set aside to meet other pilgrims and share your experiences.

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