“There is no historical reason why Santiago should be a place of historical pilgrimage, why the cunning monks of Cluny should foster its international reputation or why that joyful shrine should exist at all. It is only an illusion; but so long as it has been in the Spanish mind… it has achieved a kind of truth.” Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
In 1998 I won a competition in the Times newspaper for an all expenses paid weekend to a chateaux in Cahors in France. This was the result of answering three simple questions about the Apostle Saint James and the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, which were about pilgrimages and seashells.
I was glad that I knew the answers and ever since had the place on my ‘to visit’ list. This year the Ryanair flight fares were the right price and in my quest to find a part of Spain that actually feels like Spain and not an overspill of Essex this was the perfect opportunity to fulfil that ambition.
In the days before travelling I kept a careful watch on the weather forecast because Galicia, it turns out, on account of its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean and the changeable weather systems, is one of the wettest places in Europe and Santiago de Compostela has an average of a hundred days of rain a year. The weather had been a bit unreliable for a week or so and this led to some indecision about what to pack, but on the day before departure the weather forecast improved dramatically and promised sun and high temperatures so that meant summer holiday clothes and no umbrellas! And that was the right decision because when the plane landed at midday there was a blue sky and bright sunshine to greet it.
I had booked a hire car with Hertz and found the desk and went through the tedious booking in process. The clerk told me that I had a brand new Toyota Yaris with only eight kilometres on the clock and then she tried to sell me the additional insurance, which I consider to be a real rip-off. ‘Only fifteen Euro a day’ she purred, which sounds reasonable until you realise that this is the equivalent of about €5,500 for a year, which, let’s be honest, is a bit steep. I declined and she looked surprised and warned me that new cars always come back scratched and this could cost me €500 or so.
Generally when I have a hire car abroad I drive like Mary Poppins so I was confident that by being excessively cautious in my normal style that I could prove her wrong. I don’t think I will use Hertz again because now they are official partners of Ryanair they seem to have adopted the same cheating tricks to generate additional revenue and this insurance con is just one of them.
When I found the car, guess what? It had a great big scratch on the front and I became convinced that I was being set up for a repair charge. I returned to the desk and was directed to the returns garage for an inspection where a man agreed that this couldn’t possibly be down to me and amended the paperwork accordingly. I was glad that I got that sorted but this little incident made me paranoid about the car for the whole three days and I have resolved in future to never accept a brand new car.
The journey into Santiago de Compostela was only about six kilometres along a motorway and within fifteen minutes I was parking the car in an underground car park. I was worried about it getting damaged down there so I followed my dad’s advice and looked for a new vehicle to park next to on the basis that the owner is liable to be more careful about opening doors and generally manouvering in and out.
Generally what happens to me is that after I have found a perfect spot somebody comes along later in a 4×4 and parks about fifteen centimetres away which makes it difficult for getting in and out of the vehicle without scratching each other. I found a good spot next to a wall which I calculated reduced the chances of damage by 50% and after a final good look around left it and we walked into the city.
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Chrisendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James. Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great and legend holds that his remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where they were buried on the site of what is now the city.
People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and there were many here today who could be identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell. The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travelled, all eventually arriving at a single destination. It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.