The 'Botafumeiro'

The ‘Botafumeiro’

A group of men in crimson robes adorned with golden scallop shells emerged from the cathedral sacristy and made their way to the altar. There they unhooked a rope attached to a pulley and hoisted up the huge silver “botafumeiro”, the largest incense burner in the world and a famous symbol of the cathedral for at least six hundred years.

As the ‘tiraboleiros’ pulled on the ropes the botafumeiro rose in swift jerks then they set it swinging until it soared high, so high, over the heads of the crowd, to the upper parts of the cathedral roof, where it almost touched the ceiling.  It swung there, on an enormous arc, for some moments, releasing its sweetly pungent and purifying odours.

As I looked around I saw that I was not the only person with tears on their cheeks. It is an incredibly moving spectacle, whether or not you are a believer yourself.

The botafumeiro ceremony, when the burner can reach  68km/hour on its airborne trajectory, only takes place on special holy days and at the close of the weekly Pilgrim’s Mass to welcome all those who have journeyed to this special place, Santiago de Compostela, next in importance in Christendom only to Jerusalem and Rome.

So this is the place where the Path, all paths, lead. Where over 100,000 official pilgrims a year now walk, cycle or ride on horseback to find whatever it is that they seek on their journeys, be it a religious experience; enlightenment through contemplation; peace and an escape from life’s stressful pace; or simply the beauty of the natural surroundings and the challenge and enjoyment of the hike. In the past pilgrims would have undertaken their pilgrimage to gain absolution for their sins – indulgence. Thus they would have been walking to save their souls.

More pilgrims come when St James’s commemorative day, the 25th July, falls on a Sunday for this makes it a Holy Year when the faithful traditionally received “special graces” or forgiveness. The last Holy Year was 2010 when 272,135 people were recorded as pilgrims, and there would have been many more visitors who did not register themselves.

The dark stone Santiago cathedral seems at first austere, then it becomes a breath-taking homage to glittering gold. Behind the altar six enormous alabaster angels hold up a grandiose golden canopy which houses at its far end a silver-cloaked, bejewelled effigy of Saint James – “San Tiago” in Spanish. This outrageously flamboyant altarpiece is so over-the-top it fills the eye like a bright camera flash.

Angels hold up warrior women, goddesses and a horseman

Altar and botafumeiro

One can climb the staircase behind the canopy and touch, kiss or hug the gleaming statue. I laid my hands on its shoulders and imagined that I felt a fluttering of energy, but I think my emotions were running high. In the crypt beneath the altar lies a silver casket said to hold the saint’s relics.

The crypt and shrine

The crypt and shrine

There is more gold in a prettily frescoed, time-worn side chapel where I craned my neck to stare at its dazzling ceiling.

'Our Lady of the Pillar' chapel complete with scallop shells.

‘Our Lady of the Pillar’ chapel complete with scallop shells.

And the chapel's glittering ceiling

And the chapel’s glittering ceiling

Outside, each aspect of the cathedral is stunning but the main entrance is from the wide and spacious Plaza del Obradoiro, through the magnificent Pórtico de la Gloria gateway, said to be one of the finest works of medieval art in existence. In the doorway an imposing Saint James stands on an intricately fashioned pillar which has been worn away by the thousands of pilgrims and tourists who have placed their fingers in the carved roots of the Tree of Jesse, Christ’s ancestral lineage, on entering this holy place. Above him is a commanding Christ figure surrounded by apostles and prophets, including the cheeky-faced Daniel.

Main cathedral entrance (courtesy of KdeTorres)

Main cathedral entrance with twin bell towers – photo courtesy of KdeTorres

Part of the Pórtico de la Gloria

Part of the Pórtico de la Gloria

Amongst all the solemnity, Daniel's open smile on the right

Amongst all the solemnity, Daniel’s open smile on the right

As one walks into the huge Cathedral a long white and black banded nave is laid out before you, on each side of which are the unique organ pipes extending up and outwards and the golden altar in the distance.

Nave and the one-of-a-kind organ on either side

Nave and the one-of-a-kind organ

I felt the WEIGHT of this place which has been such a significant religious site for so many centuries – since the fabled 9th century hermit Pelayo supposedly saw a vision of lights leading to a hidden tomb, soon afterwards claimed to be the secret burial place of the Saint’s remains. Legend had it that James’s bones had been brought back to this region of Spain, where he used to preach, after his martyrdom in Jerusalem in 43AD. Pilgrims have come in greater or lesser numbers at different periods in time ever since.

Santiago’s history seemed to me to hang tangibly in the air. There was also an atmosphere of gladness and purity that I do not always find in religious buildings, not even in St Peter’s in Rome.

I felt in some inexplicable way that I had come home and that I had arrived at my true destination, even though my trip was not over.

I attended mass in a packed cathedral, with people cramming around all sides. It was a special feast day and before the mass commenced there was a grand procession of priests who paraded around the cathedral to music from ancient oboes and horns, some bearing a bier with a golden statue head in a glass case. I have no photographs of this as we had been asked repeatedly not to take pictures during the offices. I was shocked at the number of people who did so quite blatantly, even holding up intrusive IPAD’s almost in the faces of the clerics.  Instead the cathedral’s two minute video of the botafumeiro ceremony, put to rather dramatic music, is below.

As the service began a kindly priest – wearing a mitre decorated with a golden scallop shell – joyfully welcomed pilgrims in several languages and there was a strong sense of celebration in the air as he congratulated them on the conclusion of their pilgrimages. This priest had smiling eyes, I could feel his warmth and longed to know him better. When he moved into Spanish I was sad to lose the meaning of his words, but I caught “este camino”, this path, and “salvación. This was a calm, peaceful and unhurried service and at various moments a nun or monk sang an unaccompanied solo of such beauty that my throat constricted.

WHY did this place move me so? Is it the stories of the thousands of people who have journeyed here? Can you feel their presence still, like ghosts circulating the aisles? Is it the ritual that makes such a beautiful exhibition in such impressive surroundings? Is it that you have reached a destination that symbolises the culmination of your inner personal journey? Or is that you are witnessing the deep religious devotion of the majority of people around you, even if you do not share it yourself? Maybe they emit vibrations that an unknown sense can detect, or maybe one can feel if not see their auras – for when else would auras shine and glow than when their owners are in a state of grace?

I stayed in the countryside near Santiago in a charmingly rustic ‘casa rural’, a converted farm overlooking the Galician hills, complete with its corn-holding ‘horreo’, from where I caught the local bus into town each day for one euro.

Casa de Torre Branca

Casa de Torre Branca

Our Horreo, the ancient grain containers of the region

Our Horreo, the ancient grain containers of the region

I knew nothing about Santiago beforehand and it was an agreeable surprise to find it so attractive. It is older than medieval cities with half-timbered houses and your eyes see only gracious stone buildings as you wander the cobbled streets.

The streets of Santiago near the Cathedral

The streets of Santiago near the Cathedral

Looking down street

Streets B n W - Copy

The Fuente de los Cabellos fountain at a cathedral side entrance

The Fuente de los Cabellos fountain at a cathedral side entrance

Cathedral shell steps

Cathedral shell steps

Because of its important history there are impressive monuments at every turn – small and large churches; monasteries and convents; town palaces; libraries ; a renowned historic university; the wonderful old market; and the luxurious ‘Parador’, Hostel de los Reyes Catolicos, where you can stay for a couple of hundred euros a night.

Silver shops of Plaza de Platerias

Silversmith shops of Plaza de Platerias

Colegio de Fonesca university cloisters

Colegio de Fonesca university cloisters

The sumptuous Parador Hostel de los Reyes Catolicos

The sumptuous Parador Hostel de los Reyes Catolicos

Though Santiago is a busy, lived-in town, I was once again pleased to be visiting out of season when there was breathing space in the cafés and the many souvenir and religious artefact shops. From spring to late summer it must be teaming with pilgrims holding their walking sticks, bearing their rucksacks and sporting somewhere, around their neck perhaps or tied to their bag, a scallop shell. They make their way to the Pilgrims’ Office to have their ‘Credencial’ stamped for the last time as proof of their completed pilgrimage of at least 100km and receive their ‘Compostela’ certificate if they came for spiritual reasons, a simple ‘certificado’ if not. They will have undertaken this walk for many different reasons and will no doubt be reflecting on what they have experienced upon the way.

Arriving at the Pilgrims' Office

Arriving at the Pilgrims’ Office

Many people say arriving at Santiago can be in fact, the start of one’s pilgrimage, for the true learning continues afterwards, when one reflects on what happened to you and within you.

This was true for me. I had found myself drawn repeatedly to this path since the start of my journey at Vézelay, from where people have started their pilgrimages to the shrine for centuries. I had learned many things travelling it, completely unintentionally and unexpectedly. I had experienced the beauty of silence and the soul’s need for it; learnt that stopping noise allows one to hear and see one’s surroundings with a greater intensity; acquired greater personal independence; learned to be less anxious or fearful in face of the unknown; and received life lessons from strangers, often about their inspirational attitudes to aging. These are gifts that I take home with me after my journey has ended, to practice in my daily life until they have truly been learnt.

So an ending can sometimes  also be a beginning.

The cathedral's St James in traditional pilgrim garb

St James in traditional pilgrim garb

I did not want to leave Santiago and lingered a while. There is an excitement about finally reaching a desired destination but it can be tinged with some anti-climax that the passage to get there is over. I felt as if I had actually finished my journey, what could possibly come next, after Santiago?

The west coast of Spain, and Portugal, that’s what! It had been thrilling and moving to see Santiago de Compostella but I had more places to visit and witness. So off I headed off to my next accommodation in the middle of the Meis vineyards – where they produce the best wine in Spain.

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Click here for a 2 minute YouTube film on the botafumeiro if you wish:


  1. Joan says:

    Thank you for allowing me to share this wonderful experience, it must have been so impressive. And inspiring. Joan x

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