Modern Pilgrimage into History; Portugal and Spain Present Many Sites of Enchantment
Byline: Corinna Lothar, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain - The botafumeiro, the 175-pound silver incense burner, swings from side to side across the altar through the transept of the enormous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, almost touching the vaulted ceiling. Far below, the officiating priests distribute the host to the worshippers, and a clear-voiced soprano sings "Jerusalem." It's an exquisite moment in time, a merging of medieval traditions and contemporary faith.
Santiago de Compostela in Spain's northwestern province of Galicia was one of the three great pilgrim shrines of the Roman Catholic Church, third only to Rome and Jerusalem in importance.
According to legend, the Apostle James - Santiago - came to this remote corner of Spain known as Fisterra (land's end) to evangelize the northern part of the Iberian peninsula. He returned to Judea, where he was beheaded.
It is said that two of his disciples placed his body in a stone boat that sailed miraculously without a pilot to the area where he had preached the gospel. In the year 813, a hermit followed a bright star and discovered the grave of the saint in a field. The town that grew around the discovery was called Santiago de Compostela, which may mean St. James of the Star Field or, in a more recent interpretation, St. James of the Cemetery, based on the Latin word "compositum," or cemetery.
Since the ninth century, pilgrims have been arriving in Santiago to pay homage to the saint from what then were far away places such as Poland, Ireland and Turkey. The northern routes merged in France and continued over the Pyrenees across Galicia to Santiago. The southern routes crossed Spain, and one came north through Portugal.
The first pilgrim is said to have been Charlemagne, who died in 814. During the Middle Ages, between 1.5 and 2 million pilgrims crossed the Pyrenees each year to pay homage to St. James. Many carried a long staff and wore the traditional cape and hat adorned with the scallop shell, the symbol of the saint.
Pilgrimages continue to be made on foot, on horseback or by bicycle. Pilgrims receive a document at the beginning of their journey, which is stamped at various points along the road. Once Santiago is reached, the office near the cathedral will issue a certificate attesting to the completion of the 62.4-mile pilgrimage. Along the various paths, government-run hostels offer free lodging, each indicated by the scallop shell.
We followed - in a minivan - the less traveled Portuguese route beginning in Porto, Portugal's second city, through green hills and valleys, across river estuaries and into medieval stone towns. We didn't earn a document, but it was an exciting experience nonetheless.
Porto is on the mouth of the Douro River, which runs from Spain west to the Atlantic Ocean. The Romans built a fort there and called their settlements on either side of the river Portus and Cale, which later became Portucale, hence Portugal.
Porto gave its name to the wine made famous by the British who added brandy to keep the wine from spoiling on its journey from Portugal to England.
Porto's upper town, where the cathedral is located, is a charming combination of 19th-century and art-nouveau buildings with occasional modern structures. The colorful two-story Bolhao market is in this part of town, as is the Sao Bento railway station, with blue and white azulejos - tiles - depicting early modes of transportation.
Many of Porto's buildings are covered with tiles, not only in the traditional blue and white but in other colors and various patterns as well, a craft that was brought to the Iberian peninsula by the Moors and continued after their expulsion. Tiles require little maintenance, and many 20th-century houses were tiled rather than painted.
One of Porto's contemporary buildings is the stunning new Casa da Musica, its multifaceted exterior constructed of brilliant white concrete. …