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The Iberian Horseshoe — A Journey

Part I. North West

Christmas in Santiago

Steve Porter
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We might be standing in the middle of nowhere were it not for the power of religious mythology. In the ninth century AD, a local hermit spotted a heavenly star in the sky. He informed the bishop of nearby Iria Flavia. The bishop came to take a look at an illuminated field. Three graves were discovered, one of which was supposedly that of Saint James or Santiago. The legend says that the Apostle had befriended Iberian sailors in Palestine and travelled to Spain with them. Many historians believe that James lived his whole life in Palestine. Somehow, over centuries the former Galilean fisherman was transformed into a crusading knight. Another story says that Saint James appeared on a white horse at Clavijo, where he got stuck into the Moors, killing thousands of them. Alfonso III saw a chance to use legend to his political advantage, and built a large Basilica to replace the church built by the earlier bishops. Compostela became one of the holiest cities of Medieval Christendom; a pilgrim route was created, stretching from Southern France across Northern Spain.

Mary had spent the days before Christmas in the cake shops of Vigo, trying out all sorts of syrups and sickly delicacies. The sweet-toothed Hamish told Mary that the best cakes were to be found in Santiago. So that was Christmas taken care of.

We cheated somewhat, arriving by train from the south. Nevertheless we were from distant northern shores and felt like honorary pilgrims: even though we lacked the pilgrim’s garb complete with scallop shells. One legend claims James used shells to carry out baptisms, another that he was covered in shells, like an old shipwreck, when plucked from the sea by his Iberian sailor friends.

We walked through La herradura, the Horseshoe Park. Only the heavy breath of a jogger and the odd game of football broke the silence. Candles burning in a local cemetery added to the tranquillity of the red glare of sun going down over the cathedral. Feeling sleepy, Hamish went back to the hostel to have a pre-packed turkey sandwich and a siesta. Due to a fear of flying he was catching a bus to Scotland early the next morning. He had enough turkey to keep him fed all the way to Perthshire and time to ponder whether to return to Vigo.

While Mary made a phone call home to wish everybody a Merry Christmas, I stood outside in the crisp afternoon reading a few pages from David Gilmour’s Cities of Spain. It included the surprising statistic that rainfall in Santiago is three times higher than in London. Even if this is so, Galicia is well compensated with regular sunshine and milder temperatures. Gilmour went on to say that “the rain there is a thing of oppression”. Gilmour lives in Edinburgh. Hadn’t he ever stood on Arthur’s Seat with wind and rain crashing in from the North Sea? Surely Santiago wasn’t that bad. The Spanish poet Lorca wrote poems about this raintown. But he was Andalusian. How can anyone from the British Isles be troubled by frequent showers?

Apart from its vast central square, Santiago has a small-town feel. Traffic problems are minimal. The medieval world lurks in the shadows. There is some nightlife thanks mainly to the presence of a university and tourism but the great thing for the visitor is that the Industrial Revolution appears to have passed the town by. Its geographical remoteness had ensured Santiago would never become a large city. The train to Madrid takes around nine hours, and a trip to Barcelona takes the best part of a day. In many ways Santiago seems centuries away.

Among the golden excesses of the cathedral, I was hoping to see the bishops waving around the botafumeiro. This huge incense burner is attached to ropes; creating a pulley system that the churchmen launch towards their heaven. I read somewhere that it was introduced to remove the odour of unwashed pilgrims. But this is a city where the tales are as tall as the cathedral itself.

A large crowd had gathered inside. The bishop announced the beginning of the last cathedral wedding of the twentieth century. The remains of the apostle are said to lie in a small casket nearby. Mary and I held hands and stayed on. It was just another day in the rich history of Santiago de Compostela:

It was a day of black crosses and long sunshine,
a day of soap opera conversation
when the dead slept among the stones
in the Field of Stars.
We climbed out of a slow taxi
as birds explored the blood clouds
navigating without maps in a city so small
it would almost fit on your lap.
We were high on eucalyptus
among joggers and candles
in the Field of Stars.
It was a day of black crosses
on the TV news, a Basque trawler
had escaped over the horizon
and the dead were ready for the party.
Brushing down their sandy bones
they rode through Compostela
on horses made of stone.
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Copyright ©Steve Porter, 2004
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Date of publicationJune 2006
Collection RSSGlobal Fiction
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