Ilivetolearn's Blog

May 3, 2006

weekend of cathedrals

Filed under: on the road,Spain — ilivetolearn @ 11:47 am

We had another four-day weekend, thanks to May 1 being Labor Day (everywhere in the world but Canada and the US) and May 2 being a Madrid holiday to be explained later. So we loaded up the trusty Multipla and headed northwest to Galicia, by way of Leon.

Leon has a really charming Plaza Mayor (which we happened upon by a lucky choice of underground garage…the pedestrian exit gave right out into the plaza, where a huge produce market was going on) and absolutely the most stunning cathedral I have seen so far in Spain. It’s the only one in the more French Gothic style with all available space filled with stained glass. And because the back wall of the choir section is only partial—the center third is glass instead of wood—you can stand at one end of the nave and get the full sense of the scale of the place. Even the girls were impressed. We saw it at its best; there was a wedding, so the main altar had huge floral arrangements (the smell of lilies was everywhere) and extra lighting. And they didn’t even kick out the tourists when the service began, so we got to hear the organ instead of the usual piped-in Gregorian chants.

On to Santiago de Compostela, which has arguably the most famous cathedral in the country. Supposedly housing the remains of the apostle James (Santiago), it’s one of the three most holy sites for Christian pilgrims (after Jerusalem and Rome) and the last stop on the Camino de Santiago, a trail that wends its way here from the border of France in the Pyrenees. In its heyday (11th to 13th centuries) half a million pilgrims a year made the trek, many inspired by the declaration of Pope Calixtus II that going to Santiago in a Holy Year (when St. James’s day falls on a Sunday) gets you plenary indulgence—no Purgatory! Nowadays the total is about 70,000 per year, roughly double in Holy Years.

The Cathedral itself is another of the open-nave types, with the choir stalls up by the altar instead of plunked down in the middle, blocking everyone’s view. I didn’t realize how much I disliked that boxlike structure found in most Spanish cathedrals until I saw a couple without it. This one was full of people milling about (many of them pilgrims, complete with the traditional walking stick with scallop shell attached), mostly ignoring the mass that was taking place. The aisles were lined with confessionals, old-fashioned except for their neon-red numbers and the little light to indicate that the priest was “in”—confessing, attending mass, and giving to charity were conditions of getting the indulgence after making the pilgrimage. If we were going to be here on July 25 I would definitely go back to see the world’s largest incense burner in action…the ropes and pulley structure in the dome are very impressive in and of themselves.

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