Once we had dumped our bags, we headed straight for Santiago’s famous cathedral, the supposed burial site of St James, Spain’s patron saint, as well as the finishing point of the pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, 750km in total.
Bagpipes welcomed us as we entered the arch leading to the cathedral square, piping an eerie, ceremonial tune. The province has Gaelic ties, evident in its name. As we lingered near the arch, the music enchanting us, we heard the stampede of feet. We turned to see a group of fifteen or so young pilgrims running through the arch, all arm in arm, their backpacks jangling the attached tin cups and plates. They reached the cathedral’s square, some ten metres ahead of us, jumping and whooping and hugging each other, ecstatic. Motives for pilgrimage aside, it was truly inspiring to witness.
We walked past them, toward the cathedral. Most were removing their shoes, some sitting on backpacks, intermittently posing for group photographs, cheering as the pictures were taken. Their sense of communal achievement was unlike anything I have ever seen, or related to. It seemed that most of the onlookers, like me, envied their euphoria.
Above and beyond them, stood the cathedral, huge and magnificent in the sunlight. Its Romanesque detail was refreshingly different to the countless Gothic cathedrals we had encountered on the trip so far. I was relieved to recognise and appreciate its beauty, never a given in my reception of churches.
We entered the cathedral and were immediately dazzled by the gold and glitz adorning its interior. Inch after inch of wealth engulfed us. As eye catching as the central altar looked, in all its glittering splendour, we did not share the urge of the 100 plus people that lined up around the altar to kiss the statue of St James, which is kept there, encased in gold.
The ancient centre of the city is attractively laid out and well kept, with the winding, narrow streets and pretty squares that Europe had accustomed us to. After wandering around for a while, we went back to our room to enjoy a bottle of Spain’s delicious Navarra region wine, which I bought from a London supermarket for three times the price a year before. A jar of pitted green olives and some pistachios, washed down with the wine, and we realised we had fallen for poor man’s Spain.
A dingy dark wooden pub, Irish seeming, in the small central region, was the most bustling option that evening. We sat down at a table outside, with some cold Estrella Galicias. A young guy, fair hair and skin, introduced himself as Charlie in a strong North England accent, apologising for his boldness, as he’d “had a few beers”. He was eighteen, from Sheffield, and had found his way to Santiago on a holiday with his Spanish girlfriend, who lived there. They had met a few months earlier in Sheffield, where she was an exchange student, learning English. She was dressed in emerald green, from head to toe, and smiling, introduced herself as Lorena. We hung around for another drink, and left, to find supper.
We filled up on bread and patatas fritas and recommenced our search for a busy bar. We circled the central area, in vain, until we arrived back at the Irish pub, which was still the busiest in the vicinity.
The pub is divided into a ground and a basement level, as well as the outside area, where it was a bit cold to sit in the mild Galician climate. We climbed down the stairs, beneath ground level, where the muted light revealed wall side tables and chairs, filled with the moths of Santiago.
We took the only two seats left, sipping our drinks quietly in the way that couples often find themselves doing. Across from us we noticed Charlie and Lorena. A few minutes went by, Iain and I awkwardly trying to decide whether we wanted to be spotted. Just as I was trying to catch their eye, Charlie glanced over, and I waved, feigning surprise. He gestured for us to join them, and our Santiago night began.
Lorena quickly introduced us to her mother, a woman of 35, who was thoroughly enjoying the company of her seventeen year old daughter and Charlie. They hadn’t left the pub since we first met them, and the Estrella Galicias were still flowing at pace. Shouting above the music, we attempted conversation, Lorena translating her mother’s Spanish into English for Charlie, Iain and I.
I had noticed a few differences between the Spanish words I’d seen in Galicia and elsewhere. “H”, for example, was often replaced by “X”. The Galician dialect seemed almost to merge with Portuguese. I chatted to Lorena about language, talking about my observations. She described her own dialect, Galician, as virtually another language. It has been shaped by the province’s proximity to Portugal. Did she speak “ordinary Spanish” too, I asked, intrigued. “Ow yass”, she slurred, “an now Eenglish…an a liddle Fraanch”. She tussled her hair casually.
Lorena’s mother was in the midst of a sketchy interaction with a girl of my own age, sitting next to her on the bench beside our table. The girl got up suddenly and walked away. Lorena looked at her mother, awaiting some response. She nodded, grinning, and flashed a small cube of dark brown hashish in Lorena’s direction. Satisfied, Lorena took it, rolled it with tobacco, and lit up at the table, her olive green eyes hazy beneath the smoke.