Pages from a Pilgrimage

The story of the Santiago pilgrimage, October 7th - 10th, 2008 as told by daily diaries from four different pilgrims.


It was back in January when a group of potential pilgrims met with Mike from ‘Vapour Trails Direct’ in the upper room of St. Faith’s Church Hall to discuss the feasibility of a pilgrimage to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela.

Santiago has been one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in Europe since the 9th Century.  Its Romanesque Cathedral is reputedly sited over the tomb of St. James, Patron Saint of Spain.

It seemed feasible to me!

The decision made, Mike went away with his team to do the things travel companies do to bring plans and ideas to fruition.  Fr. Neil and Joan were to act as liaison between Mike and us United Benefice Pilgrims.

On Tuesday, 7th October, we pilgrims met together at St. Faith’s Church. After a Pilgrims' Mass and Blessing we loaded and boarded the coach that was to take us to Liverpool John Lennon Airport.  The transfer was uneventful, however, I was a little concerned about the brake warning light constantly flashing on the coach dashboard, the driver didn’t seem bothered, or perhaps, he just hadn’t seen it.

Safely arrived at the airport we went to the desk to check in for ‘Ryanair’ Flight No FR9152 to Santiago de Compostela, passports checked, luggage weighted and boarding cards obtained.  I thought, OK, what do we do for the next two hours? Sue had the answer, lets look at the shops.  I thought my idea was better but I kept it to myself, through security and to the duty free shops we went.  Two hours is a long time in shops, but we did also manage a drink and a snack before the information board informed us that it was time to go to our allocated gate for boarding.

Climbing the steps to our Boeing 737/800 series aircraft I thought I felt pounds lighter than climbing down the steps of the coach a little earlier (that's pounds sterling, not pounds weight).  No designated seating on these budget airlines but everyone was eventually seated, the engines roared, we hared down the runway and we were off.

During the flight I took time to study the paperwork in the folder given by Fr. Neil to all us pilgrims, I also studied the itinerary for the next few days in Northwest Spain.  Yes, this all looks good, I’m going to enjoy the friendship and fellowship of this our United Benefice Pilgrimage.

Less than two hours later we arrived at Santiago de Compostela Airport, through passport control, collected our luggage and waited in the arrivals hall while Mike went to find our guide. A few minutes later we heard for the first time “follow me please”.  Over the next few days we would hear that expression many times.  We loaded and boarded our coach, whilst en route to the hotel, Diego our guide introduced himself and Manuel, our driver.  They were both to be with us each day of our visit.

A short coach ride later we drove into the car park of the ‘Hotel Los Abetos’ our pilgrims' hostel for our four night stay.  The Hotel Los Abetos is not quite a hostel, more a four star mansion house with two double beds, tv, minibar, radio and safe (but ours didn’t work) in each of its 150 bedrooms.  Not really what Sue and I are used to, but we coped.

Bags quickly stored, then back downstairs to meet everyone for a lovely buffet dinner.  After dinner some people went straight to bed; well, it's been a long day.  Others had a quiet nightcap in the bar.  I considered going for a dip in the outdoor pool, perhaps a work out in the gym followed by a sauna, Nah! too tired, so Sue and I opted for a drink and went to bed, after all, it’s an early start tomorrow.

Kevin Walsh


Our first sight of Santiago de Compostela by daylight was of a town shrouded in a pale morning mist. During our brief journey into the town, we met Diego and Manuel, the guide and driver who looked after us for the whole visit and contributed so much to our comfort and enjoyment of our time in Galicia. Manuel was a quiet chap, but Diego was an enthusiastic, well-informed, young man with a wonderful mischievous smile who proved a perfect guide. He was a local man who loved his native land and wanted us to appreciate it too. 

Santiago is the capital of Galicia, the area known as Green Spain. It has its own language, which is nearer to Portuguese than to Spanish and the local people, known as Gallegos, share a Celtic heritage with the Welsh. We drove through crisp, modern areas of the city, then began our walking tour of the old town. It was peaceful and elegant with interesting shops and cafes along arcaded streets. Lots of churches and museums, a couple of theatres, then our first sight of the Cathedral – ornate and very impressive, it towered up into the last shreds of the morning mist.

The Mass was at noon and Diego made sure that we were there in good time to find places with a view of the great thurible. The guide book says “Under the dome is the pulley structure designed in the 16th Century ... for the support and movement of the botafumeiro, a large censer that was used from the 14th Century onwards to perfume the air, redolent with the sweat of the exhausted pilgrims. Watching it swing from one side of the transept naves to the other, hurled and guided by a group of men known as tiraboleiros, is one of the most impressive sights in Compostela.”

Well, yes!!  Suspended in the great space at the centre of the building, the silver vessel looks big but not gigantic. When it is lowered to the ground, though, it stands almost the height of a man. Filled with incense, then lit and billowing scented clouds, it is immensely impressive. When it is raised and begins to swing, higher and higher and faster and faster, the words that come to mind are health and safety, rollercoaster, then guided missile....

It does not swing every day so we were lucky to see the spectacle. There were hundreds of people at the Mass, many of them pilgrims who had walked one of the pilgrims’ ways from France or other places all over the world.  Huge backpacks were piled round the base of the pillars, some of them bearing the cockle shell that is the sign of the Compostela pilgrim. These days, of course, there was no sign of the pong that gave rise to the need for the mega quantities of incense – but it was lovely anyway.

We heard Diego’s catchphrase, which had already become familiar, “Follow me, please” and he led us to an atmospheric local restaurant. At the long table, waiting for us, laid with red and white wine and bottles of water, we had a long and happy lunch. Then we were led back to the Cathedral where, without the crowds of the morning, we were able to appreciate the Romanesque architecture and the Baroque decoration.

Diego showed us some of the many ancient treasures – wonderful representations of the familiar bible stories carved in stone, some still showing traces of the colours they would have had so many centuries ago. Others were the brilliant work of woodcarvers, gilded and painted. The richness and density of the decoration was almost beyond belief.  Amazingly, he then led us round the back of the altar, where we were able to touch, even embrace, the statue of James the Apostle as pilgrims have done through the ages. So many embraces have worn away his shoulders, so he now wears a silver cape for protection!

We saw a little more of the town, then in a welcoming old shop a table was laid for us with samples of the local specialities – almond cakes, nutty little chocolates, sweet liqueur and more wine.  Presents to take home were gathered, then we were returned to the hotel in time for evening prayer in the hotel’s private chapel before dinner.

It was a wonderful day, a perfect introduction to Santiago de Compostela and gave an entirely new view of the concept of pilgrimage. Our Pilgrims’ Progress was no arduous struggle, it was full of happy companionship, interest and warmth – but nonetheless a valuable and rewarding experience.

Hilda Garner


After breakfast we pile on to the coach, greeted by Diego, our Spanish guide and driver, Manuel, who says little but is always pleasant and respectful.

We head off to the Sacred Valle (Ribera Sacra) via the historic city of Ourense.  Here we visit the dark Cathedral (which it is).  This Gothic Cathedral dates from the early 13th Century, not very extraordinary from outside, but once inside every space of ceiling and walls are covered with gilded ornate decoration.  Taking pride of place, of course, is a huge crucifix covered with animal skin and has human hair on the head, which is very dark and hangs down over the shoulders.  It moves in the air, so one can be forgiven for imagining it is living.  I am horrified by this at first but then thought, remember that Jesus was living when they nailed him to that cross.

This is no ordinary crucifix and on closer inspection one can see the pain and agony on the face and very realistic wounds on the skin.  This is not the usual pretty statues I have become used to – sanitised, not to offend or upset.  This had a great impact on me.  In those few minutes I felt the pain and agony, could almost hear the voices and smell the smells.

Outside now in the bright sunshine we walked back to the coach, we saw the hot water springs running from taps in the town and it was really quite hot water.

Back on the coach we travelled up into the mountains and were invited to get out and look down on a magnificent gorge with the river, lush greenery all around us.  The bright sunshine, blue sky, fresh air and the wonderful scenery made me feel I was “nearer to God” than I had been in any of the fine churches and cathedrals we had visited.

On to lunch – a Galician delicacy of huge chunks of mutton on the bone served with waxy boiled potatoes and of course several bottles of good red and white wine from the surrounding area.

During the afternoon we visited what had been a monastery but was now a good hotel, we wandered around the cloisters and enjoyed the peace of the surroundings.  A race up the hill back to the bus was won by Father Neil, with Kevin a close second.

Another stop; our guide regaled us with stories of wolves and witches and took us around a museum where we saw the burial ground of people long since gone from this earth.  Some people climbed up steps of the remains of a tower, to look out over the countryside; this had been the bell tower of an Abbey or church.

We arrived back at the hotel with time to have a quick shower and change before Mass in the small white chapel, with simple stained glass windows, which is situated in the immaculately maintained gardens of this fine hotel, where we are fortunate to be staying.  Although we are only 28 in number we fill this small chapel and when we sing our voices fill the air and it sounds so good.

Then to the dining room for another meal and more chat.  Another good day.  I want to thank everybody who made this trip possible.  I also want to thank all of you who were present for your excellent company (and that is hard to find).

Brenda Cottarel


Starts early, even though you feel a bit groggy (too much laughter last night, perhaps).

After a large breakfast we board the bus and head off to the Coast of Death in the dawn.  There is laughter in the bus, there always is.  Our smiling and enthusiastic guide, Diego,  points out the sights to us.

Our first stop was to see the longest Horreas (corn store) in Galicea.  Off we got and looked around the village and the Church and were amazed to see the graveyard.  No graves but Coffin Cupboards, four high, stacked in rows.  Diego could not understand our fascination.  But he hurried us on to the bus and the next stop was Muros, a pretty fishing village of granite cottages and smiling old ladies dressed in black.  Then on to Finisterre (World's End).  I am getting hungry, I have got used to three large meals a day on my pilgrimage and am looking forward to lunch.  Pilgriming is hungry work.

We arrive at the World's End.  There are a group of pilgrims who are burning their clothes.  This act symbolises the renewal of their life after the pilgrimage.  I walked down to the water’s edge and watched the waves crash against the rocks and felt the spray.  You don’t have to go to church to feel God all round you.

And so to lunch in the town.  We struggled with the phrase book to order, but had a delicious lunch.  Quickly back to the bus and at this point we nearly lost a pilgrim, but at the last moment recovered her.

Once again off we sped through Galicea’s green and pleasant countryside, with our cheerful guide chatting away.  Some nodded off, perhaps because of the warm sun, or the lunchtime wine.

Compline was at 7.00 pm, so we had to hurry to change and refresh.

At St. Faith’s we are used to excellent services and at Santiago there was no change.  After a penetrating homily we sang lustily.  The doors of the Chapel were open and some visitors to the hotel joined us, with evident enjoyment.

Thus fulfilled we went to dinner and lots of laughter.  The day was only marred by one of our party falling and injuring herself.  But the day ended in a buzz, with enjoyment of good company and much to think about.

Thank you to all who accompanied me and I’m sorry if I missed anything important.

Gareth Griffiths

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