It is easy to linger there and sample as many of the delights as hunger demands. Later in the day outside in the plazas surrounding the Cathedral the queues are just beginning to form for entry into the much photographed house of worship.
Because of the numbers of visitors the free access of years past has been discontinued and there is entry thru the door facing the Plaza Platerias, exit thru the door of the Plaza Immaculada and a third entry from the Plaza Quintana to visit the crypt and embrace the sculpture of the Saint. All are guarded by friendly security personnel, yet the feeling of being herded into and out the Cathedral cannot be denied. Fortunately, one is still allowed to graze at will once inside.
At breakfast I asked the pilgrim if they had made their visit to the Cathedral and if it had been everything they had hoped to experience after so many walking miles of trial and joy. Here is the reply in the pilgrim's own words.
"I arrived the day before and was to tired to stand in the long lines I found there. Others in the group I had walked with were stronger and first made their way to the pilgrim office where the lines for compostellas were even longer. Later they would also queue with the many others at the Cathedral.
I was only able to afford the journey after saving credit card miles for 5 years to buy airfare, and my budget for food and lodging was very tight. I found a pilgrimage website that provided reserved lodging and some local transportation which I could afford. There was also assistance on the trail from a volunteer leader.
Others in the group were experienced travelers and much of the discussion was about comparing the Camino with the places all over the world they had toured. This was my first trip abroad and I had nothing to offer to these conversations but I enjoyed listening to a point.
Because of my inexperience I was, perhaps naively, overwhelmed by the simplest of things along the Way. I spent nearly half an hour once just admiring the deep red soil of a freshly ploughed field. I watched hawks circling the royal blue sky and so I often arrived last at our lodgings and missed group meals because I had laundry to do which I did by hand since I could not afford the cost of the machines.
My second morning in Santiago I decided to make my visit to the Cathedral at dawn before coffee or breakfast when there were no people to queue with and you could enter thru any of the many doors. I wanted to go there with the heightened awareness that an empty stomach brings. When one begins the journey to Santiago one never knows for certain if they will make it there, nor if they will ever return again.
First I wanted to embrace the likeness of St. James perched above the high altar since I had been told it was traditional. It was a fine feeling to hold the cool shoulders of the sculpture and rest my head for a moment at the nape of his neck. Since there was no one behind me, I could linger as long as I wanted without causing any inconvenience to another.
Next I walked the worn stone stairs down to the crypt of the Saint. There were two other pilgrims standing again the stone wall that faces the silver tomb holding the remains. A sparkling silver star floats above the small reliquary.
I was surprised to see three priests in red chasubles offering a mass in English there in the tight quarters of the inner crypt. They were making the offertory and I decided to stay for at least the consecration. Three of us pilgrims hugged the stone wall so the occasional others could come and go as they pleased. After the consecration we three joined the priests in exchanging the sign of peace. Then we were happy when the celebrant came to the iron gate separating us from the inner crypt, and offered us the Body of Christ.
After this Mass, I walked around the many chapels where 3 other Masses in Spanish, French and German were being offered. There were only small groups of pilgrims in each chapel and no botofumeiro, but I would not trade my quiet and lonely experience with the two other early risers for the crowded grandeur of the Noon High Mass.
If someone would ask me now, when is the best time of day to visit the Cathedral of Santiago, I would say early in the morning when you are hungry and have the compulsion to lay aside one appetite for another more profound. But my opinion should not influence another since wonder and spirit can be found everywhere at any time. A person should go, when they feel the desire to do so. As they say, there are as many Caminos as there are people who travel it."
Well, Annie and I have heard many marvelous tales of the things to find along the Way, that the "Camino provides". And yes the Camino provides both opportunity and challenge, but we remember mainly the opportunities and give short shrift to the sore feet and shared bathrooms that sometimes constitute the challenges. After this one pilgrim's story of the Mass with The Saint, I wondered what challenges they must have met over the many miles walking. But their tale of the spell of simple glory prevented me from asking. I had no more questions to ask or answer.