an idiot in spain

santiago diaries

Monday, 9th October.
Santiago de Compostela

It was a strange morning. Fog covered the city. We couldn't see much at all. Through the old town we walked, and then we could see the spires of the cathedral prodding the mist. The morning mass was ending as we arrived, and there were tourists everywhere.

The cathedral is the finishing point of the Camino de Santiago. I was unprepared for the huge number of tourists that were in the square and inside the cathedral. It was a struggle for us to even get through the door.

Once we had struggled through the door two Brazilian women descended upon us. One of them spoke a little english, and wanted to know if we were pilgrims. Someone replied that we were. The woman then asked us if she could have her photo taken with us. I wasn't happy about all this - I'm not a tourist attraction. I submitted and had my photo taken with the others.

Tourists were swarming around everywhere, mostly in tour groups that jostled for position in front of the pillar in the centre of the portico. Traditionally the pilgrims enter the cathedral, place a hand on the pillar, and hug the giant statue of St James, which is at the other end of the church behind the altar. These days you have to battle the hordes of tourists and their umbrella-toting guides, who push and shove to put their hand on the pillar, and form a massive queue to hug the statue.

We bagged a pew in the nave for the Pilgrims' Mass, which started in over an hour's time at noon. We had to claim a pew early, before the place filled up with tourists. By this stage I was a grumpy little pilgrim, ready to have a swing at the next tourist that got in my way. In a rare flash of sensibility, I left the others in the Cathedral and went outside and walked around the old town.

Outside, Santiago was still blanketed in low, grey clouds. I found a little photography place, and bought some film. Then I bought a drink and some chocolate, and sat in the square watching the pilgrims and the tourists. Is this how it ends? I've walked over 760km to get here, and I'm feeling second-class. Who made this town famous? St James and the pilgrims. Every shop sells Camino souvenirs, from tacky "pilgrim" figurines, to hats and staffs and everything in between. I'm so glad to be part of a massive merchandising industry. I felt like the last month of my life had been cheapened by the tackiness and touristyness (a word I just made up) of it all.

I finished my drink, calmed down a bit and went back inside the cathedral. Lolly the South African was sitting with Noelle, Barb and Dave. She and her Mum arrived a day or two before. Then Amilca appears...have I told you about Amilca? Probably not. He's another Brazilian pilgrim. With half-an-hour remaining before the service, I joined the queue to hug the statue of St James. In the queue, squeezed in between the tourists, were pilgrims that we had met along the way. Even the Japanese women! And they were all so happy to be there.

Having invaded the personal space of St James, I returned to the pew to find that a large, elderly tourist had taken my seat! The other's shrugged their shoulders as if to say there was nothing they could do about it. I squished in next to my fellow pilgrims, feeling better for having seen so many pilgrims in the Cathedral. Even the French women. (Who are still insisting upon speaking French to us!)

The service was conducted in Spanish. I'm neither Spanish nor Catholic, so a fair chunk of the service was a complete mystery to me. Towards the end they wheeled out the Botafumeiro, the world's biggest incense burner. The tourists in the congregation went mad, rushing to the front to take photos. It is swung by a system of pulleys and a team of large men, from one side of the nave to the other. Dave was sitting on the end of the pew, and the contraption was swinging fairly close to his head on its way up to nearly touch the ceiling.

Following the service we marched off to the refugio. We forked out for a three-night stay, and then went up to the dormitory. We weren't impressed. It was cold, uninviting, and institutional. Gloomily, we claimed beds. The others went to sleep, I wrote some postcards. Outside it started to rain.

But it's not all doom and gloom. After siesta we wandered off in the rain, and pondered at great length how I'd managed to have such an impact on the others' vocabulary. We drank fizzy red wine at a restaurant (really, we did) then walked, in the rain, back to the refugio. As we fell asleep, a bloke at the other end of the dorm let off a long, loud fart. We burst into laughter. The perfect end to the day.