Hey, everyone! It looks like I’ve gotten a bit behind on my blogs again. C’est la vie, as the French (according to my friend studying abroad in Lille right now) don’t actually say all that often. During this week, I visited Segovia, a city in the Spanish province of Castilla and León, and afterward Santiago de Compostela, a city and major pilgrimage site in the province of La Coruña and the autonomous community of Galicia.
The week began normally enough. With my weekend home in Toledo, I had Monday free until my internship, so I worked on various tasks for my classes. During my internship shift for the day, I had to explain to the members of the young-adult and youth groups that this Monday, 29 March, would be my penultimate. 10 April was during Semana Santa, so I would be on vacation from classes and work, as would most of the group members. The library would be closed 17 April due to La Pascua (Easter) the previous day. Thus, 18 April would be my last day and last Tuesday at the library, but 3 April would be my last Monday. It took awhile to explain to the groups, but eventually I got my point across. The easiest thing for everyone to understand was that they could bring snacks to the last session if they wanted! We agreed to talk about English and the reasons behind its difficulty and overall weirdness the next week.
Tuesday was another regular day. At my shift at the library that night, the explanation of the coming weeks to the groups went a little more smoothly since we had more time left for our sessions. The day ended on a rather bad note, however, due to stomach pains. I still am not sure what caused them, but I know they started Monday and reached their peak Tuesday. I couldn’t eat much more than a piece of fruit for dinner. Thankfully, my host mother was very understanding and sympathetic, so I didn’t feel totally alone in my pain.
On Wednesday, I woke up feeling better. That was a very good thing given that I had my presentation on Las Moradas (The Interior Castle), the masterpiece of mysticism by Saint Teresa of Ávila, that morning in my theology class. My partner Colin and I were presenting on las séptimas moradas, or the seventh rooms, of the Interior Castle or the soul. These are the final rooms in which God dwells and union with God, the zenith of the mystical journey, takes place. The presentation went very well, and my day after that continued to go well as the pain in my stomach decreased.
Wednesday night, I played volleyball at the Fund for the first time. The Fund owns a small gymnasium just behind its main building. Students can get a key and walk to it during the day to exercise or use sports equipment, and the Fund also hosts different sports in it every week during the night between Monday and Wednesday. Wednesday is volleyball night. Although I had wanted to attend for much of the semester, I didn’t have the chance (or the health, with all the times I was sick!) to attend a game. With the weather being so nice, I went home after the evening session of theology and then took the bus back to the Fund after supper for the game. I had a great time with the other students, and, before I knew it, it was 11 p.m. The walk back home was refreshing and a great end to a good day.
On Thursday, I had another presentation, this one for art with Olivia, one of the other SNC students studying in Toledo this semester. Our discussion of the history, architectural style, and building materials of El Colegio de Infantes (the College of Infants, literally; we had visited it several weeks before) went just as well as my theology presentation the previous day. The school was set up for around 40 male pupils in the 1500s by Cardinal Silíceo of Toledo. Coming from a humble, non-noble family (a rarity for higher-ranking clergy in Spain at the time), Silíceo wanted to give similarly situated boys the chance to advance in society; the way to do so at the time was through education. In return for education and lodging at the school, the boys worked as clerical assistants and choir members in the cathedral, just a five-minutes’ walk from the school building. Most of the students went on from the Colegio to prestigious universities, but a small group called Los Seises (the Sixes) were chosen to become permanent cantors for the cathedral. The group bears its name because six (seis) was the ideal number of cantors for the liturgy of the cathedral, even though this number wasn’t always accomplished. The building was constructed in the classical Renaissance style of Spain, when both the foundational aspects of the Renaissance style and the coherent expression of them were understood by Spanish architects.
The presentation took place in the morning session of the class, when we would usually be on a field trip to some site in the cit. However, we would be having an extended visit in the afternoon this Thursday, because the site for our lesson on the Baroque style was in the cathedral of Toledo. This church is the primate cathedral (catedral primada) of Spain, meaning it is the physical seat of the Catholic Church in the country. It is built on the site of the former principal mosque of Toledo, which in turn was built on the site of a Visigothic church. That’s Toledoan (and Spanish in general) history for you, folks!
The cathedral was begun in 1226, meaning that much of its exterior and interior reflects the Gothic style of architecture, full of pinnacles, buttresses and flying buttresses, and stained glass windows.
I say “much” and not all because modifications and additions in the interior of the space continued well into the 18th century, meaning the cathedral also has elements of Renaissance and Baroque architecture. This last style was our focus for the day and was found in el transparente (literally “transparent”), an altarpiece on the other side of the Gothic retablo (reredos) behind the main altar. Artists cut a hole into one of the domes of the cathedral to let light into the interior and direct it to a circle in the middle of this highly detailed architectural work. The light, a symbol of God and divine grace, entered into a small room between the Gothic reredos and transparente where the Eucharist, the bread and wine consecrated into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, was and is kept. Baroque architects and artists, like those before them, thus made highly immaterial beliefs about God concrete through images. In the Baroque, there were lots of images, often created and posed to suggest movement. You can see the photos of the transparente in the bottom half of the set of photos below; other sections of the cathedral are above.
On Friday, I left with other students from the Fund at 8:30 a.m. for Segovia, a city about 90 kilometers north-northwest of Madrid and 115 kilometers south-southwest of Valladolid, another large Spanish city. Segovia was an important commercial city, especially for textiles, due to its location on several important trade routes. Queen Isabella I of Castilla, the wife of Ferdinand of Aragón who with him united Spain into one kingdom, was crowned as queen in this city in 1474. Our main destination for the day was the city’s Alcázar, a castle-fortress built in the Middle Ages with major additions realized in the 16th century. You’d be right in saying that there’s already an Alcázar in Toledo; alcázar is a general noun for fortresses and castles in Spain with their origins or much of their influence from the Moorish period in the country’s history.
Although there were quite a few clouds in the sky, it did not rain for much of our visit to Segovia. The temperature was very agreeable, too. This may sound rather boring, but this was the first Fund trip I had been on that it hadn’t been raining and/or chilly most of the time. I was beginning to think I brought bad weather wherever I went with the school!
Our guide for our tour of the Alcázar was Eduardo, the professor of my Spanish history class. Everyone in our group was very glad to have him as our guide, as Eduardo is a very friendly and funny person while remaining informative and interesting in his lessons. To use one of his favorite words, I can say with certainty that most of his students think he is very guay (cool)!
We first went down in the Alcázar to the remains of a Roman fort that had been built on the site. What you can see in the upper left photo below is a dungeon into which people were thrown. As Eduardo put it, “This wasn’t a prison. People weren’t put in with the intention of them coming out at any point.” After the remains, we went through a sequence of rooms, almost all of them with ceilings that simply amazed me. The first (below the photo of the dungeon) was a display room for various types of armor, both for humans and for horses. After that, we visited the meeting room for the Cortes, or Parliament, of its time (below the armor photo). It was smaller than I expected, but Eduardo explained that originally parliaments were just representatives of the clergy, royalty, nobility, and common people. After that was the throne room (right of the photos of the three previous rooms), the ceiling of which was particularly fascinating. The next three photos you see are of the following room. It had another beautiful ceiling, but the most notable aspect was a painting on the far wall of Queen Isabella’s coronation. You may notice something slightly…off about the people around her. If you look closely, you’ll see that they do not have eyes, simply black holes where eyes would be. This rather unsettling aspect was intentional. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it had something to do with a patron saint of Isabella who was also a patron of the blind.
We saw more impressively-ceilinged rooms after the grand hall, as well as the private chapel of the complex, with its reredos (upper right) and statue of Santiago Matamoros (lower right). Literally, this is St. James the Moor-Slayer, a racist and anti-Muslim image of the saint very popular in the Reconquista period, when Spanish Christians retook the peninsula from its Muslim rulers.
We then made our way onto a patio of the Alcázar, from which we had a spectacular view (left). Even more stunning was the view from the top of the building’s tower (lower right), from which one can see the cathedral (upper right) and far beyond.
Once our tour of the Alcázar was over, we went on a walk through Segovia, learning about the history of the city and a bit about its famous buildings, like the Iglesia de San Esteban (Church of Saint Esteban) below. The patio you see extends on three sides of the building. As Eduardo explained, the patios of churches were places for conversation and even business in the Middle Ages and early modern period. In the winter, people would meet in the southern walkway (pictured below) to soak up the sun, while in the summer they would remain in the cool shade of the northern section.
The next big stop after the Church of Saint Esteban was the Plaza Mayor of Segovia and the cathedral of the city on one side of it. This church is the last built in the Gothic style in Spain, begun in the mid-1500s when artists in Spain and elsewhere were already following various Renaissance styles. It was an impressive sight from outside, and I was a bit bummed I didn’t have the time to visit the interior.
On another side of the Plaza Mayor stands the building of the Ayuntamiento (town council) of Segovia.
From the Plaza Mayor, we walked to Segovia’s famous Roman aqueduct. On the way, we passed the Iglesia de San Martín (Church of Saint Martin) and a combination of three plazas next to it.
Further down the street, we encountered La Casa de los Picos (the Pointed House), aptly named for its exterior. The side of the house pictured below is covered in over 600 pyramids of granite, giving it a unique (and tourist-attracting) aspect similar to La Casa de las Conchas in Salamanca.
From the Casa de los Picos it was a short walk to the Roman aqueduct, which has remained in the city since the late first or early second century CE. With over 25,000 blocks of granite held together without mortar, the aqueduct is an impressive sight. Even more amazing to me was the fact that it still functions in bringing drinking water to different parts of the city!
After ten minutes at the aqueduct, we went to a delicious lunch at a local restaurant, with a spectacular dessert of homemade vanilla ice cream (can you tell I’m a goloso and from the Dairy State?). Though the food and conversation were both great, I probably shouldn’t have gone to lunch, because I ended up arriving too late at the Segovia train station for what turned out to be the last train to Santiago de Compostela from that city.
I felt awful, to put it simply. I felt like a complete idiot for not having watched my time more responsibly, especially as I was spending the weekend in Santiago not just by myself but with my friend Amanda, another SNC student in Toledo, too. She had not come on the trip to Segovia and was already on her way to Santiago de Compostela. I, on the other hand, would have to take a train back to Madrid and then catch the last train to Santiago de Compostela, which would arrive at midnight. I started beating myself up mentally, breaking my Lenten fast from self-loathing. Eventually, though, I realized that the situation was as it was and that I had to move with it and beyond it. I used the time on the train (almost six hours) to 1) figure this out and stop the self-negativity, 2) work on a paper, and 3) watch the movies shown on the train. The last turned out to be pretty good, actually!
Thankfully, Amanda was completely fine in Santiago de Compostela and even got to check into our hostel early. She was so understanding and completely forgave me for my error when I arrived, making it much easier for me to fall asleep that night. I am so grateful to her for her empathy and to God for the fact that I was able to make it to Santiago de Compostela at all after missing my train.
After and despite its unexpected start, the weekend in Santiago de Compostela went fantastically. Amanda and I went to the cathedral just after it opened at 9 a.m. Apparently, this is two hours or so before most of the pilgrims arrive, so we had the church mainly to ourselves.
Why is Santiago de Compostela such a popular and famous pilgrimage site? Tradition holds that Santiago el Mayor (St. James the Greater), the brother of John and one of the apostles of Jesus who, with his brother and Peter, witnessed the Transfiguration, is buried in the crypt of the cathedral in the city. James is often believed to be the first apostle to have been martyred; before this, it is also believed that he traveled to Spain (then Hispania, a Roman province) to preach the Gospel before returning to Palestine and being killed by Herod Agrippa. After his death, one tradition goes that some of his disciples transported his body from Joppa in Palestine to Hispania, confronted and eventually converted a pagan queen named Lupa, and buried his remains in what is today Santiago de Compostela.
James’ burial site quickly journeyed into obscurity until their rediscovery by a hermit in the 9th century who saw stars shining on an abandoned Roman necropolis – thus compostela, from campo de estrellas, or “field of stars.” The hermit reported the apparition to the bishop of Iria Flavia, Theodomir, who reported the remains in turn to King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia (r. 791-842). Alfonso journeyed to the site, becoming the first pilgrim on el Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, ordering and financially backing the construction of the first church on the site.
Of course, all of the above paragraph up until the building of the church is tradition, not cold hard fact. No one knows for certain if Saint James is really buried in Santiago de Compostela or whether he remains in Palestine or somewhere else. What is beyond doubt is that the supposed place of his remains grew to be the third major pilgrimage sites in Western Christianity behind Rome and Jerusalem. The city of Santiago de Compostela grew along with it, bolstered by the thousands of pilgrims who traveled to the relics every year on various routes that were already established and described in a book, the Codex Calixtino, in the 1100s. The pilgrimage, and the city with it, fell into relative obscurity in the 1800s before regaining its popularity in the second half of the 1900s. The old city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and in 2016 the Pilgrimage Office recorded receiving 277,854 pilgrims (those who walked at least 100 km or biked at least 200 km to the cathedral). Not all the pilgrims are Catholic: some are Christians of other denominations, some are of other or no faiths, some are seeking exercise of the body, some are seeking a general spiritual experience. In any case, the Way of Saint James is a phenomenon and the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela a site of worldwide importance.
The cathedral of Santiago de Compostela retains elements from the Romanesque period but incorporates many other styles into its massive structure, from the Gothic through the Renaissance to the Baroque. The facade is perhaps the most impressive aspect of the complex; unfortunately, when Amanda and I were in the city, it was under restoration. The cathedral’s facade faces a large plaza bordered by the building of the Ayuntamiento and the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, a five-star hotel that was originally built as a hospital and guesthouse for pilgrims by Isabella and Ferdinand, the Catholic Monarchs.
Amanda and I entered the cathedral through its southern entrance, the Silverware Entrance (Pratarías, in Galician), the only Romanesque facade remaining in the cathedral.
From there, we made our way to the central nave, gazed upon the grand and highly gilded high altarpiece, and walked to and behind it to embrace the bust of Saint James that sits in the center of it. You can see the bust from behind in the upper right photo below. Below the high altar is the crypt where the remains of Saint James are believed to rest. A kneeler is placed here for those who wish to pray in front of them.
The ambulatory around the high altar has, like most other cathedrals, many small chapels. Each of these had its own interesting altarpieces, wall paintings, and arrangement.
After exploring the cathedral, Amanda and I visited its museum, incorporated into its southern side. There we saw many tapestries, paintings, architectural elements from the various styles of the church, and books. We also got to look out on the square in front of the main facade and hear bagpipe music! Why bagpipe music? Galicia, in the northwest of Spain, received much Celtic influence in its history, so much so that the gaita (bagpipe) is the traditional instrument of the region. More on Galicia below.
From the cathedral, we walked to the Museo do Pobo Galego (Museum of the Galician People, in Spanish), passing through a square dedicated to Cervantes along the way. I couldn’t help snapping a photo of the pillar with the author’s likeness, especially as a book sale was set up just under it!
As you may have learned, especially if you’ve read my blogs, Spain is hardly a homogeneous country. It contains various regions with distinct histories, cultures, and even, in some cases, languages (or dialects, depending on your definition of the terms), so much so that politically Spain has Autonomous Communities that run most of their own internal affairs (education, health care, policing). Galicia is one of these Autonomous Communities, just above Portugal and directly south of Ireland (though separated by a good bit of ocean) and with over 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) of coastline. It has a climate very similar to that of Ireland: a lot of rain and generally mild temperatures. Through history, its economy was thus mainly based in agriculture and, due to its long coastline, fishing. Galicia is known for its beef and cheese, its pulpo (octopus), and, perhaps most of all, its unique language of Galician (gallego, in Spanish). Galician is a mix between Spanish and Portuguese, meaning it is easy enough to understand when written or spoken if you know either or both languages but definitely distinct from them. Galicia, at least from my perspective, is a fascinating and beautiful mix between Spanish, Portuguese, and Celtic cultures, with stone houses, cow herds, music, and rolling green hills one might expect in Ireland along with a language, cuisine, and sports culture pretty consistent with those of the Iberian Peninsula.
We saw works of art by Galician artists in the museum (above), as well as exhibitions on shipbuilding, an important industry in this maritime region; stone houses raised off the ground to provide grain-drying spaces safe from rain; and traditional holidays and their costumes (all below). Amanda and I also learned about traditional music, dress, crafts (basket-weaving being one of the most important), education, and religious practice in Galicia. The museum is also connected to a still-functioning church, as its building was formerly the Convent of Saint Dominic of Bonaval. This church contains the National Pantheon of Galicia, much like that of Portugal but on a smaller scale and still firmly identified with the Catholic Church.
One of the most beautiful sections of the museum is the set of three spiral staircases that connect its three floors. It made for a fantastic photo from below and had a great view of the city from the top!
The cloister of the former convent was also hermoso (beautiful), especially in the nice weather of the day. From it the church tower rose up majestically.
After the museum, Amanda and I enjoyed a delicious lunch at a local (and, yes, somewhat touristy) restaurant. We got to try pulpo as well as tarta de Santiago (Saint James’ Cake; torta in Galician), a delicious almond cake dedicated to the saint and, clearly, popular in the city dedicated to the same figure.
After lunch, I went on a walk through a park to the south of the old city. I had loved the scenery and greenery of Ireland, so I absolutely adored the similar vegetation and coloration in Santiago de Compostela. Moss covered the trees – and sidewalks, and statues, and most everything. One of the restoration projects of the cathedral is actually removing and keeping off moss, as it weakens and destroys the stones of the building. Though that is a necessary initiative, I have to admit that I like the way moss looks on stone!
It was a beautiful afternoon, warm and sunny with a light refreshing breeze. It was the perfect way to relax.
The park also contained two churches, one (on the right) abandoned and one (on the left) still functioning.
It also had a magnificent view of the old city and the cathedral!
From the park, I made my way back to the cathedral and visited el Museo de Peregrinación (Museum of Pilgrimage), created in 1951 but quite modern in its current interior and very accurate in its translations between Spanish, English, and (I’m assuming here) Galician. It was quite interesting, not to mention free! From it, I learned about the various routes established across Europe and in Spain for the Way of Saint James, more about traditional music of Galicia and general music associated with Saint James, the jet-carving industry the grew around the pilgrimage site (jet, a black gemstone, is found in notable quantities in Galicia), and the various architectural styles of the cathedral.
A few blocks from the pilgrimage museum is a building belonging to the local university, la Universidad Compostelana, with a lovely, small courtyard that had four bushes in full and beautiful bloom.
I walked through the city a bit more and eventually made my way to the cathedral for the pilgrims’ Mass at 8:30 p.m. Much to my surprise, I arrived just as the Mass was ending! The sign I had read in the cathedral apparently was wrong, and the Mass had been celebrated at 7:30 p.m. I was a bit disappointed, but I took this as an opportunity to visit the cathedral again early the next day and participate in a more private Mass in its Eucharistic chapel. After taking another walk through the old section of Santiago de Compostela (it’s a great place for walking!), I arrived back at the hostel. Amanda and I visited a supermarket just across the street and had a delicious (and cheap!) feast of sandwiches, veggies, and fruit for dinner.
Sidenote on our hostel: it was amazing! It was really more of a hotel than a hostel, located on the upper four floors of an apartment building about 15 minutes walking from the cathedral and 10 minutes walking in the other direction from the train station of the city. The rooms had televisions, spacious closets, and full bathrooms (with free soaps!). All of this, along with a quiet atmosphere and helpful front desk, for 21 euros a night was, in my opinion, a steal. If you visit Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrim or a tourist or both in the future, I highly recommend the Hostal R. Mexico.
On Sunday morning, I attended a 7:30 a.m. Mass in the cathedral. Though not an official pilgrims’ Mass, the priest still welcomed any and all pilgrims (he could probably tell I was not a regular Galician parishioner) and the Mass in general was good. After returning from it, I had breakfast with Amanda. We then checked out of our hostel, made our way to the old city, and visited the cathedral one last time. We also stopped in its gift shop. It had products based on medieval manuscripts that were gorgeous (at least for a bibliophile like me), so I bought one happily. I also went through the pilgrimage museum with Amanda, who had not visited it the previous day. From the old city, we walked to the train station and arrived in plenty of time for our journey back to Madrid at 12:10 p.m. – no missed trains for me this time!
I couldn’t see the countryside of Galicia on my way there on Friday given the late hour the train passed through it. Today, however, I was able to view the magnificent pastures, hills, and low mountains of this region, almost all of them covered in spectacular verdure. Also enchanting were purple flowers that covered many of the hillsides we could see from our windows on the train. Amanda and I also got to see the landscape transition into Castilla y León, the large region northwest of Madrid that contains Segovia and other important cities in Spain. Given that the journey was over five hours, I had a lot of time to catch up on my blogs (and then promptly fall behind on them again!) in addition to sight-seeing.
From Madrid Chamartín train station, Amanda and I traveled to the Plaza Elíptica bus station and, from there, to Toledo. I arrived home around 8 p.m., ate supper with my host family, unpacked, did a bit of obsessive organizing of all my souvenirs and gifts thus far (and all the bags I’ve acquired with them!), and went to sleep.
This was a week of ups and downs, from stomach pains and a missed train to a stunning Alcázar and a major pilgrimage site. I had acted very harshly toward myself after losing the train, and over the weekend in Santiago de Compostela I took a bit of time to reflect on this and repent from it. I had made a mistake, to be sure, but, as I have increasingly come to learn, everyone makes mistakes and feels like a major moron sometimes. While this is a pretty basic lesson, it’s taken quite some time for me to figure it out and accept it. Perfection is something I far too often strive for, and this Lent has helped me come to a greater acceptance of myself and others, flawed, certainly, but just as certainly loved by God.
I am immensely grateful to have traveled to Santiago de Compostela, to have seen the enchanting region of Galicia, and to have been a pilgrim of sorts to the supposed burial site of Saint James. It was a beneficial and rejuvenating spiritual experience to be in this city. My time was made even better by spending much of it with my friend Amanda: we have similar personalities and senses of humor, which made it very easy to travel with and sightsee with her. To Amanda, ¡muchas gracias! And to you, reader, thanks! I hope you have a fantastic week and come to a greater knowledge of how much you and all of creation is loved. Hasta luego. ~