The Holy Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain

by Nick Carlton, Captain, Sapphire Princess

Swinging the Botafumeiro in Spain
Swinging the Botafumeiro in Spain

As the captain of a cruise ship, I’ve spent more than 40 years at sea, so it’s not surprising that I’m often asked about my favorite place to visit.

But where do I start when so many wonderful experiences come to my mind?  My favorites include the Scottish highlands and islands, the beautiful Norwegian Fjords and Hawaiian island of Maui.  

Other places have a family connection such as Venice, where I’ve stood in St. Mark’s Square and thought of my father victory-rolling his Spitfire Mk 9 over the campanile in 1945;  the Crimea, where I gazed out at the fields which were the scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade, where an ancestor died in the great siege of Sebastopol in 1855; and the Mediterranean island of Malta, which was my home during my teen years.

However, throughout the world, one of the places that means the most to me is both historic and inspirational,  Santiago de Compostela,which is one of the most sacred places in the Christian world after Rome and Jerusalem.

Perhaps for me, this Spanish city resonates because it’s believed to be the final resting place of St. James – one of the 12 apostles of Jesus.  As such it’s become a site of an incredible pilgrimage, with more than 100,000 people making their way there each year.

While not exactly a pilgrimage, my visit to Santiago (which translates to “St. James”) was one where I felt a strong connection to two important people in my life – my maternal grandfather and my son – both named James.

My journey started from the picturesque cruise port of Vigo, a vast natural harbor protected from the Atlantic Ocean by the Cies Islands.  It’s not far from Cape Finisterre which in ancient times, for those living on the eastern shores of the Atlantic, was the edge of the known world with only mysteries beyond its shores.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the beautiful region of Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain.  It’s a unique place – and even has its own language – Galician, or Galago, similar to Portuguese.

The main attraction in town is the magnificent cathedral built nearly a thousand years ago over the shrine which is said to contain St. James’ holy remains.   He was martyred in Jerusalem but spent a great deal of time preaching in Spain, so according to legend his body was brought to this place after his death. In the ninth century, what are thought to be his remains were discovered, and ever since, it’s become a place of pilgrimage.

The tens of thousands of pilgrims who come here every year journey from all over Europe, many traveling overland by foot and spending weeks on the road.  The most notable route, the Way of St. James, starts in France and runs for about 500 miles.  Pilgrims have been making the often arduous journey for more than 1,000 years.  However,  not everyone walks solely for religious reasons, some journey there as an  adventure through a foreign landscape and a unique opportunity to meet people.

Santiago de Compostela is probably the only UNESCO World Heritage Site where the road to it also carries this special designation.  The famous route across France and into Spain is not just a physical voyage, but a spiritual journey where routine life can be put on hold — and will probably never be the same again.

I, instead, came to Santiago de Compostela while my Princess cruise ship was docked at Vigo, about 60 miles to the south.  The drive north though the countryside was nonetheless a time of quiet contemplation about this special site I was about to visit.  One day, however, I would love to walk part of the Way of St. James.

No matter how you get there, an intense ambiance surrounds this place of pilgrimage. Some cathedrals are quiet somber places, but in Santiago, the cathedral resonates with energy and enthusiasm, the culmination of days and, for some, weeks of exertion, anticipation and fulfillment.  Once they reach this cathedral, pilgrims receive a “compostela,” a certificate that recognizes their achievement.

The cathedral has been added to over the years, and today is a beautiful Romanesque building with an ornate Baroque façade with two bell towers.  Inside, the remains of St. James lie beneath the high altar in a silver coffer.  Grooves have been worn in some of the cathedral’s pillars from the millions of pilgrim hands that have touched them over the centuries.

On special days a mass is held for the pilgrims when a massive incense burner called the Botafumeiro is swung from pulleys on a long rope trailing clouds of smoke above the crowds while they sing the Hymn to Christ.  I’d say it’s one of the world’s most amazing experiences.

The cathedral is situated in the grand Plaza del Obradoiro, surrounded by historic structures.  Across the plaza is an exquisite hotel, the beautiful, ancient Hostal dos Reis Catolicos.  It was originally the site of a hostel to house pilgrims, and today is a five-star parador that’s considered one of the oldest hotels in the world.

A mass of cobbled, narrow, winding streets lead away from the main plaza with a whole variety of little restaurants tucked in among them.  It’s traditional to try several restaurants, so of course I did, and the food was superb.  Among the food we enjoyed were seafood from the chilly Atlantic waters, Serrano ham, cheeses, and caracoles (snails), all served with the delicious local wine, Albarino. It’s also customary to leave a small coin in gaps in the stone walls for good luck.

The many lovely little shops in the area mainly sell a selection of silver jewelry and artifacts.  Since the scalloped shell has become the symbol of St. James, it’s the traditional souvenir for a pilgrim. The shell has taken on a number of special meanings,  one in which it serves as a symbol of the journey — displayed by the way the shell’s grooves meet at a single point represents the various routes the pilgrims have travelled to the cathedral.

No matter where I went in the town, I felt the spirit of St. James everywhere.  One of Jesus’ first disciples, he would become a key figure in the Christian world.  As I wandered the streets I thought about his deep faith, his commitment to principles, and how he had been a teacher to many.   I couldn’t help but feel the connection to my grandfather, James, about whom I can say these same things.  But through this ancient place I especially thought about my son, James, the continuity of the generations and my hope for the future.