Death and taxonomy in Santiago de Compostela

santiago-compostela-cathedral-rooftop-towersIt’s a moody city, Santiago de Compostela, and I say it with a heart full of love and a pair of gently worn soles. Gently, I say, rather than deeply, because while my co-traveler and I did a whole lot of walking, we didn’t walk to Santiago de Compostela. We took a bus, slept through most of the trip, and upon arrival, immediately rolled our trolleys all the way down to the cobblestoned old quarter, where we’d booked a room just a stone’s throw from all the medieval action.

Legend has it the relics of the apostle Saint James (the titular Santiago) rest here, cradled in the 11th century cathedral, and while I’m not ashamed to admit I didn’t know much about the subject when I first walked into the shrine, I’m a bona fide expert now.

(I particularly like the alternate interpretation offered by the Basilica of Saint-Sermin in Toulouse, who claim they are the wardens of the relics of Saint James. But what does it matter? If Saint Valentine is polycephalic, perhaps Saint James is just as well. Anyway.)

We began our exploration the next morning with a climb up a considerable number of stairs to the rooftops of the cathedral, where I was promptly overcome with base desires for a room with that view.

They’re incredible, these rooftops, for their history and relevance to the rituals of the Camiño de Santiago. Having reached their destination, pilgrims used to burn their traveling clothes here, in a stone hearth topped by the proverbial Cruz dos Farrapos (i.e. Cross of Rags). To the joyous pilgrim, this was a celebratory act, symbolical of the exchange of old vices for a new, godlier life. To the higher-ups, it was but a hygienic measure, a means towards the end of containing whatever pests and diseases the travelers had carried into the city. (Hold that thought, we’ll circle back around in a second.)


Back on terra firma, we sprawled in the sun with our second breakfast before setting off towards the Museo do Pobo Galego.

This museum occupies the 13th century Convento de San Domingos de Bonaval, and I must confess it snuck into our itinerary for its architecture rather than its exhibits. I suppose there’s a charm to it if you’re the kind to think a hórreo is a teeny tiny chapel, but where we come from, an elevated granary will never not be an elevated granary. We’d set our sights on greater, more exotic architecture.

You see, as a kid I was a big castle nerd. I’d record late night documentaries about the Loire valley on my trusty VHS and watch them religiously the next day. In time, I developed a fondness for Chambord and its iconic double spiral staircase, rumored (a keyword!) to have been designed by Da Vinci himself.


Well, turns out the Chambord double spiral isn’t all there is–there’s a triple spiral staircase tucked away in Santiago de Compostela and all it took me was 20 years to find out. (If the photo seems confusing, consider: you can see the topmost step of two flights of stairs, and I’m standing on the third.)

Other interesting features of the building include the gothic church, the sun dial in the cloisters, and of course, the surrounding park.


The Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval opened to the public in 1994, after a successful stint as a monastic garden and cemetery. No, really. This oasis of #deathpositive greenery can be found spilling down a hill to the southeast of the old quarter, and while little remains of the actual, well, human remains, the imposing cypresses and tightly packed walls of niches are just right to convey that all-important Romantic ambiance. If there was ever a place to moonbathe atop a mausoleum while history looms all around, this is it.


Had we packed lunch, we would have stayed–alas, we were craving the local offerings of octopus and octopus with a side of octopus, so off we went to drown in the literal best seafood I’ve ever eaten. I didn’t even take pictures, I just ate and cried on the inside. Afterwards, we ambled, window-shopped, snuck into the lovely Claustro de Fonseca, bought the world’s nicest poster by the world’s nicest artist, tried lots of Tartas de Santiago, and eventually decided to take on our #1 travel goal, and the entire reason we’d chosen to come to Santiago de Compostela in the first place.

(I’m so sorry, apostle Saint James the Greater.)


Please behold the Museo de Historia Natural da Universidade de Santiago de Compostela. It opened in 2014, though the collection dates back to the 1840s (because of course it does), when it was first displayed in a cabinet of natural history. It includes something like 25.000 specimens, and I hope you know I specifically went and looked up Galician newspapers to give you this information. I ain’t playing.

We all have an idea of what a natural history museum looks like. Built-in cabinets, specimens from floor to ceiling, perhaps an overhanging whale. Old bones and arsenic-laden taxidermy (for pesticide purposes) and wet preps so neglected they’ve gone black. The whole thing makes selling your firstborn for a good labeling system sound like a good idea. But this is not that.


This is a mix of gorgeous dioramas, pin-accurate labeling, and really one of the most user-friendly museums I’ve ever been to. I could never get into geology, and even I was smitten with the collection of Haüy crystal models. (And there’s a overhanging skeleton too, for the purists, just in case.)

Believe it or not, we eventually left. Next, to further embrace the historical intertwining of science and religion this city’s so good at, we would attend Mass in the cathedral.

santiago-compostela-botafumeiro-thuribleWe went in early, in order to do a little exploring before the crowds came in. After a quick descent to the tomb, where we found Saint James’ alleged remains in a silver reliquary (shout-out to the man kneeling before them in prayer, smartphone recording between his hands, perhaps hoping for some sort of response), we climbed behind the baroque altar to wrap our arms around the gilded figure of the apostle. A strange thing, that–to take part in something so precious to so many, when my thoughts on catholic ritual are so scrambled–, but I vowed to act then and overthink later.

The time came to find seats for Mass–and not just any seats, but transept seats, the finest in the house when the goal is to look up and catch the famous botafumeiro in action. It’s strictly for show nowadays, but it’s likely this colossal thurible had a more pragmatic function when it was brought in during the 11th century. In a time before exhaustive personal grooming, in a room where hundreds and thousands of bodies gathered daily for prayer and shelter, what better way to fumigate than to swing incense over their heads at a whopping 70km/h? Sure, it took eight men and a sophisticated pulley system to operate and it sometimes flew out the window (as it once did in the presence of one Catherine of Aragon), but such is the price to pay for bright ideas.

In the end, we didn’t see it at all. It didn’t fly out the window, or swing out the side doors, or even move from where it was peacefully hanging by the altar. We were later told we’d missed it at noon, which ultimately means we gave up a minute of flashy fumigation for thirty minutes or so of frolicking around a cemetery-turned-park. Ah well. I suppose missed connections with thuribles are as much a part of travel as death and taxes are a part of life.

Take that lesson into 2018, if you take nothing else. I’ll see you then!

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