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Two Races to See the Botafumeiro

June 1st, 2018 · No Comments · Pilgrimage, Spain

The final day of our medium-sized pilgrimage to Santiago featured two threads of action.

One thread was three of us up at dawn, driving our senior/middle-aged bodies as hard as we could to walk 20 kilometers to the cathedral near the northwest corner of Spain, arriving in time to see the special noon pilgrim’s mass.

The other thread concerned our injury-sidelined companion, whose Camino was ended the previous night by a painful and scary looking big toenail (alert the podiatrist!) and her scheming to arrive at the cathedral, via taxi, at the right moment to secure some prime seats at the mass.

Which, yes, of course, could feature one of the highlights of the pilgrimage — the swinging, at astonishing heights, of the renown botafumeiro in the final minutes of the mass.

Readers of this blog must by now think I have a bizarre infatuation with a massive thurible (a censer, except bigger) trailing sweet-smelling smoke: The botafumeiro.

Well, yes. I do.

The first time we attended the pilgrim’s mass, a year ago April, only two of us had pounded the surprisingly difficult final leg in time to get to the church in 3 hours and 45 minutes, half an hour ahead of the start of the mass that overflows a 1,000-capacity cathedral.

The third was walking at her best rate — which was not nearly enough to get her to the church on time.

She missed the botafumeiro.

Here’s the thing about the botafumeiro — it is promised, by Roman Catholic church authorities, to be lit and swung only on a dozen-or-so important days on the church calendar.

The rest of the time firing up Ol’ Smokey is contingent on a believer, or generous soul or a walker who has just finished the Camino, to donate 400 euros (about $480) to the church — enough to pay for the incense and the time and energy of the seven or eight attendants who handle the bota.

(The origin of the botafumeiro is the medieval belief that sweet smoke could protect parishioners from what may well be sick or lice-ridden pilgrims.)

Of late, the botafumeiro has become so closely associated with the completion of the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Saint James, and the daily noon polgrim’s mass, that great disappointment greets the conclusion of a non-swinging service.

The anticipation of seeing the botafumeiro has become something like the sure expectations of fireworks at the conclusion of a Fourth of July ballgame. Enough of a lure to bring people, by itself, to the venue (if we may be so bold to call a cathedral a venue).

To be in the cathedral before the mass is to see hundreds of people, most of them recently arrived pilgrims off the 450-mile-long Camino Frances, looking for places to sit — or stand or perch during the service.

Getting into the cathedral early enough to snag a couple of choice spots … is important, and our limping colleague called a taxi, back in O Pedrouzo and rode it into town and made a bee line to the cathedral.

Meanwhile, the trio on the trail set a blistering (for them) pace, knocking off something like eight miles in the first two hours.

No, the Camino is not a race, as enthusiasts of the walk are quick to point out, but if the trekkers want to start early enough to be, on the same day, in the cathedral at least 30 minutes before the pilgrim’s mass, they cannot dawdle.

Two of us, new to this but aware of the botafumeiro’s fame, and the other eager to see it for a third time (greedy!) … were nearly jogging on the “walk” for the first two hours. Even the slowest of us was not passed by a single person, for the first two hours, while passing hundreds of fellow walkers whose enthusiasm for the special mass was less intense or perhaps unable to maintain such a pace so early in the morning.

We battled up the seemingly endless climb near the start of the walk (and how could anyone who had walked it not recall it?), and on the flat we flew — past the Santiago airport, through the stands of eucalyptus trees, past farms and rural homes, into the city’s outskirts, on and on.

We included a stop at Mount de Gozo (the hill of joy), where we climbed to the highest part of the statue-crowned hill to reenact the moment when the ancient pilgrims could first see the spires of the cathedral. “This is good,” the veteran said. “We are closer than I thought!”

We pushed on, through the commercial zone ringing the city, evading tractors hauling something heavy and commuters driving to work. Cars: What a concept, on the Camino!

Then that moment when one can hear the highway, admittedly not a romantic sound, and cross over the bridge into the city itself, and then following the directional signs — now moved from the pillars of the countryside to seven-foot poles — toward the heart of the old city, suddenly dealing with traffic lights and civilians walking dogs.

And the gentle climb to the cathedral. One of us remembering the speedier route to the entrance of the cathedral. The line of peregrinos, some of them sweat-begrimed like us, others tidied up from arriving the day before, going through a security check … and into the dark stone of the cathedral.

Senora Big Toe had scoped out things in the church, realizing that the best vantage point was on the east side of the building, offering a direct view to the altar area, soon to be busy with priests and nuns.

One sweat-soaked walker sat next to our wounded forerunner; the other two found a place a few rows back. It was 11:30, and none of us was going to budge from his or her place in the pews before noon.

The Padre in Charge delivered a Camino-based homily, telling us (in Spanish) that we soon would, in effect, be hugging Saint James when we hugged our fellow walkers, those who shared our experience. It was a fine sentiment — some of the strongest walkers break out in tears during the mass, especially during the moment in which attendees are invited to shake hands, or hug, those who are around them.

When the distribution of Communion wafers was complete, and the clerics did their tidying up on the altar … it was show time.

Out marched seven men in scarlet robes with images of gold-embroidered scallop shells (the symbol of the Camino) on their shoulders. They bowed toward the altar and advanced.

My companion said, with delight, “How medieval!” The congregants went quiet as hundreds of iPhones were hoisted into position.

At the alter, the enormous thurible, high above, was lowered by ropes attached to the ceiling.

Six men set up a web of ropes to propel and control the botafumeiro. A seventh man set the bota moving with a push. The other six strained at the ropes to make the swinging container sail higher and higher (rather like “pumping” on a swing set), and within 15 or 20 seconds the bota was flying high almost to the lofty ceiling, as the statue of Saint James looked on, and oohs and aahs might have been heard had not a woman been singing throughout.

After all but the most inept iPhone users had plenty of footage from which to choose, the slowed bota was grabbed by one of the users, and the seven men marched away,

The Camino was well (very well) and truly over. A benediction was spoken, and we all beamed and decided again that here was another reason for walking the Camino. And then we dispersed, some limping, most smiling, into the old city — carrying our memories to our far-flung homes.



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