Thursday, 31 May 2018

Santiago De Compostela: Faith And The Field Of Stars

As I quietly sat there alone on the ledge overlooking Parque de Belvis, next to a shed outside the doors of Albergue Seminario Menor, I felt the spiritual energy of a city that is a thousand years old and the final stop of a journey of a million pilgrims.

                              (Night falls on Santiago de Compostela)

Dusk slowly turned into night, and the weary tourist turned into a grateful pilgrim. He felt peace, humility, and serenity.

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For some, it’s called fate. Others, serendipity. For me, it was Divine Providence. A divine intervention, an intervention into my travel plans, that is.

My trip to Santiago de Compostela in Spain kicked off right in the middle of a busy intersection in the Yongsan District in Seoul, South Korea, three years before the trip. On that spot, a stranger whom I initially presumed to be an English teacher asked for my help.

“Can you help me?”, he asked.

“Of course!”, I immediately exclaimed. I had always been asked by Koreans for directions because I looked (and probably attired) like a local; and a few times, I was able to help (I spoke a little hangeul). But this time, I was surprised hearing someone asking for help in English!

His name was Kikko, and he was a stranger for the first five minutes – the time it took me to call the information hotline and figure out the exact location of the place he was looking for in the Yongsan District. Since we exchanged business cards before we parted, we managed to get in touch through Facebook.

Three years after that meeting in Seoul, Kikko and I finally met again! In Spain! In another spot thousands of miles away, Kikko met me at San Cristobal Train Station in his hometown, A Coruña, a city 25 minutes by train from Santiago de Compostela, and toured me around his very historic hometown.

Years before that, I only heard about The Way of St. James or the Camino, and Santiago de Compostela from friends. But this time, because I wanted to visit Kikko in Spain, the third most popular Catholic pilgrim site in the world got into my radar, and eventually into my itinerary.

It was past 3 in the afternoon when I arrived in Santiago de Compostela Train Station. I left Barcelona at 10AM and only had jamón boccadillo for lunch on the Renfe train. Before I left for Spain, I made sure I memorized the map around the train station where my hotel was located. I found it after a few minutes by navigating three street corners and after a brief workout since I had to take the stairs leading to the street level and out of the station. I had to lift my luggage all the way up! Step by step!

After dropping off my things at the hotel, I walked towards the Cathedral area with a map provided by the hotel, and made a stopover at a fast food restaurant to guzzle up two orders of a set meal as I was starving!

After crossing the street from Plaza de Galiciá and into the old Santiago de Compostela area, I just let my legs guide me through the narrow, cobblestoned alleys until I ended up in a park with a labyrinth garden, Parque de Belvis.

From the park, I saw a huge, old structure sitting on a hill. I thought this was the back of the Catedrál de Santiágo de Compostéla, so I headed up there and found a small shed. I was wrong; it was the Albergue Seminario Menor, a seminary and a hostel that provides pilgrims a place to wash and sleep for a small fee. 

I was lost!

I always say that getting lost is part of the adventure. But this time, getting lost was not just part of my adventure, it was a blessing!

‘Compostela’ came from the Latin words ‘campus stellae’, meaning ‘field of stars’. And as I sat there on the ledge next to the pilgrim shelter, on that spot I claimed my own, the evening skies above the old city revealed a field of stars that must have witnessed spirituality and journeys of faith for centuries. I doubted that my own journey could even compare to those of the pilgrims of old.

Unlike Madrid or Barcelóna, Santiago de Compostela is not touristy. Since everyone who visits is a pilgrim, its atmosphere is very spiritual. Faith, not sightseeing, has brought everyone to this place. This was not traveling, but a journey in search of one's self, or of one's faith.

                  (A cloudy and rainy morning when I left 
                                   Santiago de Compostela)

I stayed for three days and it was drizzling on the morning I left. I had to drag once more my luggage, this time back to the train station to catch my 8:30AM Renfe train to Barcelona. I got wet but I just accepted it as holy water from the heavens blessing me as I went on to complete my journey around Spain.

Santiago, or Saint James, the Greater, was buried in Galicia by his apostles after bringing his remains back to Spain; he was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 CE. 

According to legend, his remains in the Galician forest were discovered in the 9th century by a hermit after he saw strange lights in the area. The hermit was also guided by a star to the burial grounds, thus giving spiritual meaning to ‘campus stellae’.

Just like the pilgrims who walked the Camino and traveled thousands of miles to visit Saint James’ final resting place, I felt blessed to have completed the journey and even more blessed that on my first night in Santiago de Compostela, the field of stars above this ancient city was revealed to me as I quietly prayed on that dark corner of Parque de Belvis - a spot I found, not because I got lost in the old city I now realize, but a spot my faith guided me to find.🙏

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                             Santiago de Compostela's train station 
                             was just about 200 meters from my hotel.

    Having my breakfast and studying the map at Hotel Rey Fernando.

I took a tour of the Cathedral that included roaming its rooftop; it was in Spanish because the English tour was scheduled on another day.

     Lidira (?), our Spanish tour guide, took this photo on top of the Cathedral.

                     I attended the 12noon pilgrim mass where I witnessed 
               the botafumiero swing over the pilgrims. It was an experience!

        Archbishop Julián Barrio Barrio blessing us after the pilgrim mass.

                                           (Praza de Platerias)

I chatted with these newly arrived pilgrims in the restaurant.  She was South African but lived in England and had taught in Thailand where she had Filipino friends. I told her not to cry a lot when she would finish her journey at Finistere.

My lunch of pulpo a gallega - a popular Galician dish made of octopus that was boiled and cut into pieces, then sprinkled with salt and paprika, and bathed in olive oil. Each bite of the cut tentacles is very soft and tender, with the flavor inexplicably delightful to a pilgrim!

Pilgrims lining up to get their certificate that they have completed the Camino.

The Praza de Obradoiro in front of the Cathedral. Pilgrims sit there to rest after completing the Camino.

The silhouette of a thousand-year-old pilgrimage of faith. I took this photo when I was on the rooftop of the Cathedral.

That's the Seminario Menor which I thought was the back of the Cathedral. On the foreground is the labyrinth on Parque de Belvis. My spot on the shed above the steps on the left side of the photo - a spot to best quietly watch the city and field of stars at night.

It was almost 10PM when I realized I had to make my way from the Parque de Belvis back to my hotel at the other side of the town. Time passed so quickly; I was at the park around 5:30PM and didn't realize it was late. At the shed next to the Seminario Menor, I chatted with Veit who rode his bicycle all the way from Dortmund, Germany; Mihai from Ireland; and Alvaro Medio, a local whose family used to live in Lugo, a nearby city. Alvaro told me (we chatted in Spanish) that he was studying to be a cook.

Walking towards the Cathedral at around 10:30PM, I heard male voices singing. I had to find out where they were coming from. Tuna de Santiago de Compostela is a group of professional male singers who amazed the pilgrims near the Cathedral in the evening with their Spanish music. They also promoted their CDs; I was happy I bought 2 of their CDs.

Even late at night, pilgrims stay around the Cathedral's Praza de Obradoiro to be amazed by the architecture, history, and magnificence of this holy place consecrated to Saint James, the Greater. I passed this place after listening to a few songs by the Tuna de Santiago de Compostela. I was able to find my way back to the Plaza de Galicia after asking for directions from a señorita running a convenience store a few alleys from this spot (I spoke basic Spanish). I felt safe walking around the city late at night as I knew Someone up there was watching over me as I went on with my journey. :-)

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These are the helpful links I used in my journey to Santiago de Compostela:

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