As summer covers Spain, Cat fills us in on a special July festival in Galicia. Mark your calendars!
By Cat Gaa
The anticipation was making me nervous. Neck craned, on tip-toe, I could smell the smoke before the ear-piercing crack of the rocket came. Right at midnight, the sky burst with reds, golds and royal purples as the Galicians around me sang an old fisherman’s song.
The eight of us were on an overnight trip to the Santiago the Apostle celebration in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. This region of the country, a back-country corner that seems more Welsh than Spanish, is steeped in local lore and adoration for the patron saint of Spain, San Tiago, whose remains are believed to be in the massive cathedral from where the fireworks had been launched.
Each July 25th, the sleepy city of Santiago plays host to the festivities celebrating Saint James: there are carnival rides, concerts and a fireworks display that runs a bill of 50,000 euros. A belated Fourth of July for eight Americans. Our train from La Coruña arrived just before 10:00 pm, giving us time to walk to the city center, elbowing pilgrims proudly displaying their worn hiking boots and conch shells on their backpacks. This Xacobeo was important, as it was the Año Santo, or Holy Year. When Saint James’s Day falls on a Sunday – which only happens every six, five, six and 11 years – it’s declared an año santo, and money, marketing, and religious fervor come together to honor the pilgrim saint.
While we didn’t arrive in time to do the Holy Trinity of Jacobean activities – visit the crypt, say the Apostle’s Creed, or receive the Holy Sacrament of Communion – we did have time for cotton candy in the green lung of the city, the Alameda, from which the dominating spires of the cathedral can be seen. The façade had rotating pictures of the pilgrimage and the long-faced saint, dizzying displays of religious fervor, and a grueling walk across Northern Spain.
The fireworks cracked open the sky at midnight in an act called the Burning of the Facade. Colors washed over our faces as the rockets burst one after another for 20 minutes, leaving our necks sore. Without a plan, other than to stay up until our train at 6:00 am, we set off in the direction of live music.
Throughout the night, we caught concerts, street performers, kebab stands, and traditional Celtic music. Indeed, the celebration lasts from the opening of the fireworks in Plaza do Obradoiro until July 31st, including cultural programming, giant parades, and concerts. Pilgrims weary from their trip swayed from the bagpipes and exhaustion, as hundreds had planned for the conclusion of their trek to coincide with the apostle’s feast day. Our fiesta was much less religious pilgrimage as much as party pilgrimage, but seeing the pilgrims embrace in the darkness amidst handshakes and whispers of “Buen Camino,” or “have a good hike,” renewed my interest in completing the trip myself.
Our own Camino ended six hours later at the train station. I’ve been to Santiago de Compostela twice since, taking in the cathedral with summer camp students, seeing the immense botafumeiro, an incense holder, swing across the rafters at a Pilgrim’s Mass and piercing the sky with its spire, but nothing compares to the back-lit monstrosity on Galicia’s greatest day.
More on this Festival:
Santiago de Compostela holds an annual festival to honor Saint James, the patron of Spain, in the days surrounding July 25th. For full programming, check out the city’s tourism page.
Where to Sleep:
Accommodation typically doubles in price during this time and the hotels and pilgrim hostels are flooded with the faithful, so it’s advisable to book ahead or consider staying in nearby La Coruña, which can be reached in 38 minutes by train.
Upon receiving an offer to work at a radio news broadcast center in Chicago, Cat Gaa turned it down and turned up at the Consulate of Spain. Five years and daily cravings for Cruzcampo later, she writes at Sunshine and Siestas about Sevilla before escaping the summer heat by heading for the hills of Galicia. She plans to walk the Saint James Way in August 2013 with a friend. Follow her on instagram and twitter at @sunshinesiestas.