Thursday, May 04, 2006

Santiago de Compostela, Day 1.

Today it was cloudy and cold, so the first thing I did was visit the Museo do Pobo Galego.

It feels a little bit like I haven't left Portugal, what with Galician being such a similar language to Portuguese: all of the notes in the museum were written in Gallego. {shrug}. Anyway, the museum was pretty neat, there's lot of ethnographic info there, including a room dedicated to Gallego architecture, explaining how the houses are built to work with and take advantage of the countours of the hillside, or how these little granaries, that look like small kid's size houses on stilts (or even, in a variant of the imagination, birdhouses for ostriches) are constructed elevated off the ground to better keep the grain dry, free from humidity and rodents. I had seen some of these on the road to Santiago, but hadn't figured out what they were for.

Another cool thing I saw there, since the museum is housed in an old church, was this huge contraption made out of wood called a facistol, and consisting, basically, of a rotating square-based pyramid mounted on a pole, and used for holding the music books for the church choir. The music books were huge in size, as can be attested by the size of the triangular (they're actually trapezoidal, because the "pyramid" peak is cut off at the top, so that the rotating structure is actually a pyramidal frustum, if you want to get technical) faces against which the book is leaned. The reason there are four is very clever. One simply places 4 copies of the same book, turned to one of 4 pages in succession, so that when the choir needs to see the next page, instead of turning the pages of the book, the way one would usually do, one simply rotates the facistol such that the next face of the pyramid, with a copy of the same book turned to the next page, is displayed. Neat huh? Back when I was in music school a fellow student of mine wanted to invent a self page-flipping music stand, and it was said he had achieved this somehow by adapting a foot lever-activated page-turning arm to the top of the stand, but it was finnicky, and wasn´t always able to flip only one page at a time, but most importantly and most infuriating for the test subjects he subjected his invention to, was that the foot pedal and arm turning tended to unbalance the stand, so that it would often topple over, to much racket and annoyance of the musician. How different, if he had simply thought of a mechanized version of this! the page turning would happen less often (once every 4 pages), has more time to be accomplished (can be done while one is reading a different page, and the delay can be adjusted, i.e. done right after the page has been read, or anywhere between two and three "page reads" later), therefore the page turner can be less sensitive, or the book designed to the page turner as well, and furthermore the page turner need not move, like the clumsy foot-activated arm, it can stay stationary as the book moves under it, and the stand is a heavier, more stable design less prone to topple over. Remember what I said of innovation before? Good inventions are hardly ever brand new.

Later in the day I strolled over to the Pilgrim's Museum, where I discovered, quite stupidly, what this "Xacobeo" was, and why I had gotten lost so many times previously, ignoring the signs that said "This way for the Xacobean Way", since I wanted the way of Santiago, not that one of Jacob. Ha ha. Well, it turns out that Santiago and Xacobo are one and the same, and guess what, it is actually James in English. And I thought they were 3 different people! Betcha my Sunday school teachers are really bristling right now. :P.

Anyway, the Pilgrim's museum is really nicely organized, they explain all about the routes to Santiago, and how they came about, and when/by whom they were first documented (it was back in the 12th century, in the Liber Sancti Iacobi, which was added as a chapter to the Codex Calixtinus, a book of stories about the apostles. This book was essentially the first ever tour guide, giving not only descriptions of villages, peoples, and sights along the French Way, but with practical advice on the quality of the drinking water on the various rivers nearby. Eventually, others, too, wrote accounts about the Road, some following slight variations, depending on where they started from: Nopar, lord of Caumont, in 1417 adds distance measures between villages. Herman Küautnig Von Vach, end of the 15th century, writes a guide in German, starting in Switzerland, through the Alps onto Roncesvalles, going through Lugo to avoid the high mountains of O Cebreiro, reporting on coiniage, locations of hospitals and lodging, avoiding pretty narrations and staying short and practical, Cosimo II de Médici, on a tourist plan, in 1668, Domenico Laffi, in 1670, William Manier, 17th century, and so on and so forth. For a more modern, quick look at the various routes, there's a good website with detailed route descriptions and history at: They also tell you about all sorts of legends and symbols associated with the Pilgrim. A huge palm-sized bivalve shell called a vieira, which was given to Pilgrims upon arrival to Santiago (a bit like now, they receive the Compostela, so long as they can prove, through the seals on their Pilgrim's passports, that they have travelled at least 100 kms on foot or on horse or 200 kms by bike, a certificate signed by the Church and where it is witnessed and made official, that you completed the journey with spiritual purpose), supposedly became the symbol for the Pilgrim (and explains the stylized seashel symbol in the modern road indicators). Having this clam displayed somewhere visible (on your coat, hat, pack, for instance) gave you all sorts of privileges, help, and respect: free room and board, immunity from robbers, and the like. Legend has it that the vieira became the symbol because, upon seeing the boat that carried the remains of the apostle Santiago as it passed by the coast of Spain, some faithfuls jumped onto the sea, but instead of drowning, they emerged safe and sound, but covered in these seashells. Whether this is true or not, I didn't really mind too much, but in order to make my own little symbol and tradition the first thing I did that night was I promptly went to the restaurant and ate one. Mostly I was just curious, to see what a clam that size would taste like. It was like eating a tiny seafood steak.

Anyway, didn't I tell you why it is that people flock here in the first place? It is supposedly where the remains of the Apostle Santiago were found. They then built a cathedral around it, several times, and it is rather interesting to see the drawings/models of how the Cathedral developed, even engulfing churches nearby (that now are chapels inside the Cathedral) as it grew. But about that, more tomorrow. For now, I revel in the festive and welcoming atmosphere that permeates the city, with its lively restaurants, lots of young people, and nightlife extending well into the morning hours, that tells the weary pilgrim: "You´ve arrived, and we're happy you are here with us." Whatever the reason, whichever the way.

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