*By “triumphal” we mean stumbling past the sign that read “Santiago”.
So, Day 5 of the Camino de Santiago, the condensed, 73-mile version of a pilgrimage that can be 10 times as long, for the minority who start walking in distant lands, and often is about six times as long when starting just north of the France-Spain border.
Actually, we hardly paid any heed to the “Santiago” sign because all it meant was we were still on the edges of a fairly big city (100,000 or so) and were still hurrying to make the “peregrino mass” scheduled for noon in the Santiago cathedral, and perhaps — perhaps — the “swinging-of-the-botafumeiro” conclusion.
Two of us started the march in the dark, which in northern Spain at this time of year lasts until well after 7:30 a.m.
We were out the door of our pension at 7:15, and for the first half a mile or so our only light was from the tiny device in a smart phone — and the remnants of a late-setting, nearly full moon.
It did not help that within five minutes of grabbing a couple of pieces of toast and some cocoa/coffee we were in the forest.
I feared, as we hurried along the dirt trail, that we would miss some big roots or a prominent rock and be sent sprawling.
But our luck held; the ground underfoot was soft dirt and when we emerged from the forest we realized daybreak was nigh, and we could see well enough to dodge most obstructions. A thin layer of fog was hugging the Galician landscape, and the moon was still a help, and we paused for a few seconds to get a photo of the fascinating melange.
Then, it was powering forward. Or our version of it.
My companion was scheduled to leave late tomorrow morning and her one shot at attending the pilgrim’s mass was the service scheduled a bit more than four hours (and 13 miles) ahead.
We began passing dozens of fellow peregrinos as our pace hit ramming speed. One woman, who saw us blaze past, said:”Ah, rapidos!”
The day was like our previous four — some flat, but more climbing and descending, and we worked up a sweat even before the temperature had reached 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
We had expected a walk marred by all the things one finds at the edges of a modern city — suburbs, light industry, big-box stores … but for the first eight or nine miles it was more of what we had come to appreciate on the camino: Bucolic, woodsy, with farms or grazing land on either side.
In those first two hours, before we backed off a little, we did eight miles (which is pretty good for walking, on the fifth consecutive day, especially with blisters and injuries taken into account.
By then, we had passed hundreds of pilgrims, and ourselves been passed once — by a group of three.
We did not turn aside from the path until we reached Monte do Gozo — “mount of joy” — where pilgrims, over the past 900 years or so, can first catch sight of the Santiago cathedral’s spire.
From there on, we were fairly confident we could make a noon service.
We began passing one-day pilgrims. Companies in Santiago offer a one-day camino. Buses take the last-minute pilgrims up to Monte do Gozo, and they amble on down and into the city. It’s the camino with all the swag and a hint of the effort.
Our biggest concern, after Monte do Gozo, was getting lost in the city and losing our time cushion.
In Santiago, the direction arrows carved into waist-high plinths disappear, replaced by street signs in the traditional yellow of the pilgrimage. Sometimes, however, when you don’t see a sign for a few city blocks you begin to wonder if you are off the track. That worry took hold a time or two, once when we were discussing “little road straight ahead or larger road to the left” and another peregrino went past and gestured at her feet.
There was a yellow directional arrow, painted on the asphalt.
We made it to the cathedral at 11:20. In plenty of time. We had scurried the 13 miles in four hours. We took deep breaths. We walked about a little. The city seemed a bit sleepy still but beggars were out in force.
We noticed the scaffolding covering a big part of the cathedral, as repairs are made.
We also spotted fellow peregrinos, especially those who brought injuries with them into town. Many of them limped. Others sat, sometimes glassy-eyed, exhausted from the daily grind many had taken for the previous four days or four weeks.
It seemed a bit of a letdown. Our welcoming committee had been limited to one man’s hearty “bravo!” as we entered the city. Now we were just tourists — albeit tourists who were dirty, sweaty and perhaps a bit smelly coming to grips with … “our journey is over”.
Then came the mass. We had been warned the church often is filled to overflowing for the noon event, one which few pilgrims seem to miss — whether on the same day they finish, or the following day.
The pilgrimage has, of course, its roots in religion. It was meant for Christians to show their devotion to their beliefs as well as their veneration of Saint James, whose remains are believed by the Catholic Church to lie in Santiago’s cathedral.
So, into the church we went. It already was filling up. We took seats about 20 rows back on one of the three arms of the sanctuary and admired the glitter of precious metal around the altar area, but also wondered about the gritty, work-a-day interior. No frescoes on the ceiling, which looked mold-stained in discolored white. The pews seemed worn, and glamorous niches/chapels common in famous cathedrals were missing.
The service followed the order most Christians find familiar. Readings from the Bible, a psalm, confession …
Then a priest went to the lectern and gave a 20-minute homily, entirely in Galician-inflected Spanish. We did not understand most of it, but we knew he mentioned “peregrinos” quite often, and he seemed to be congratulating us on making the effort to get to Santiago.
Just as things were winding down, we got lucky again.
Guide books, as well as camino websites, are keen to emphasize that the botafumeiro — one of the best-known sights of the pilgrimage, is not a standard event at masses in Santiago. Not at all.
It no longer is performed at nights, except on certain holidays, and it is unlikely to appear at the pilgrim’s mass, either.
The origin of the word goes like this: “Bota” means “boat” and represents a sort of box carried by eight men. “Fumeiro” also is what it sounds like it might be — fumes. Smoke.
It was instituted centuries ago to, literally, fumigate the air in the cathedral, give it a pleasant odor, because the newly arrived pilgrims were thought a risk to spread disease or vermin as they sat in the church.
And on this day, out marched the eight men with the bota, and a few minutes later, the enormous thurible containing incense was hoisted into the air, and given a gentle push, and it began to swing left and right in front of us.
There was a thrill through the crowd, and the smoking thurible rose higher and higher, and its swing extended feet and then yards and then tens of yards, and to be part of such an ancient ceremony brought some to tears.
When it was finished, and the arc covered by the thurible was down to 15 or 20 feet, those in the church applauded. Enthusiastically. It was as if everything they had done was somehow vindicated by the practice of this ancient rite, recorded by hundreds of cameras and video recorders.
Soon after, the priest uttered the benediction and the mass was over.
On our way out, we saw dozens of pilgrims weeping. Still recognizable in their hiking clothes, many of them hugged each other, and adult men who had pushed through nearly 500 miles of track in 30 days were sobbing.
Perhaps it was that moment, reinforced by the botafumeiro in the cathedral, that provided us pilgrims with a sense of completion of our walk on the camino.