Vigo Santiago de Compostela Excursion Reviews
24 OCT (THU) CRUISE DAY 10: VIGO, SPAIN (8:00AM – 3:30PM)
Most people who visit Vigo (www.turismodevigo.org/en) for the first time use it as the gateway to Santiago De Compostela (www.santiagoturismo.com), a destination for pilgrims since the Middle Ages. These pilgrims (pelegrinos) walk or ride bicycles or horses for hundreds of miles and many weeks (or even years) in order to visit the cathedral that houses the remains of St. James Major (Santiago). We had watched a movie about the pilgrimage (“The Walk,” staring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez) before the trip.
Despite Liza Doolittle's assertion that “The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” the Galicia region is the rainiest part of Spain. Today was no exception as it rained steadily the entire day with only a few breaks –- another challenge for our poor umbrellas. Because of the short port time and the inconvenient train/bus schedules, it was not feasible to take public transportation to Santiago. Renting a car (with gas, parking and tolls) was slightly cheaper than a Princess tour for two. However, we would have had to allow time to pick the car up in downtown Vigo, return it to the rental point and return ourselves to the ship before the all aboard time. We finally decided that a Princess tour would give us the most time in Santiago with the least hassle.
The tour we chose was “Santiago on Your Own,” which is simply transportation to and from Santiago with a little commentary along the way. We left the ship well before sunrise for the 75-minute drive to Santiago. Although it was too dark to see much, our guide, Laura, tried to point out interesting features of the area such as the oyster farms in the estuaries and the old stone storage buildings raised up on stone pillars.
The bus dropped us off in the Juan XXIII parking lot. We followed Laura down Avenida Juan XXIII and Rua de San Francisco into Plaza Obradoiro (~10 min walk). As we walked along, storekeepers were touting their local specialty, almond cookies. Our meeting spot was under the arcade of the Pazo de Raxoi. We would have 3:40 h to explore Santiago on our own before reuniting there to return to the bus.
John and I headed straight across the plaza to the ticket office for the Cathedral Museum, which is in the crypt under the double staircase leading to the main entrance. Admission to the Cathedral itself is free. However, we got the General Individual Ticket (4 euros pp, senior price) that gives admission to the Museum and the temporary exhibitions in the Gelmirez Palace. There is an audioguide available at additional cost that we did not rent.
Laura had told us that if Mass was going on, we would have to enter through the Puerta de las Platerias on the south side of the Cathedral. Otherwise, we would be able to enter through the Obradoiro facade (the main entrance on the west side) and the famous Portico de la Gloria. However, the Portico de la Gloria is currently under renovation and no one is being allowed in through the main entrance; the Portico de la Gloria cannot be viewed without a museum ticket.
John and I sloshed over to the Puerta de las Platerias and started our counterclockwise tour of the Cathedral. We walked past several chapels to the stairs leading to the statue of St. James that is above the high altar. Pilgrims traditionally embrace the statue at the end of their journey. Coming down the other side, we found the stairs down to the crypt where a silver casket contains the saint's remains; climbing up the other side brought us back up to where we started. We continued along the ambulatory behind the high altar, passing chapel after chapel and the Puerta Santa (Holy Door), which is only opened during designated Holy Years. The oldest existing chapel is Santa Maria de la Corticela, which was originally a separate church and is now attached to the transept; it is still a separate parish from the Cathedral.
Under the Cathedral dome is the device for swinging the huge censer or Botafumeiro. The censer is more than 1-1/2 meters high and weighs about 100 kg when it is full of coal and incense. It takes a team of eight men to set the censer swinging until it is almost parallel to the floor at the height of its swing. The Botafumeiro is only used on certain feast days or when a substantial donation is made. Our port lecturer had shown a video of the Botafumeiro swinging and it is indeed an impressive sight (hwww.youtube.com/watch?v=mtxuvtZqOog).
We continued around the Cathedral to the Museum entrance. The Museum has four levels; this level houses the Treasury in the Chapel of San Fernando, with an assortment of precious liturgical items. Across the hall is the Chapel of Relics, with hundreds of reliquaries including a bust containing the skull of St. James Minor. This chapel also contains the tombs of some kings of Leon and Galicia from the 12th and 13th centuries.
Exiting out into the cloister, we found the Sala Capitular (Chapterhouse) with some tapestries and the Biblioteca (Library). The Library contains two Botafumeiros and a Museum worker showed two girls the padded wooden bar that is used to carry it (two men are needed) into the Cathedral. The Library is lined with ancient books and display cases of illuminated manuscripts and hymnals.
From the Treasury level we climbed up to the top level, the Tapestry Museum. It houses a large collection of tapestries including some designed by Rubens and Goya. This level also provides access to a balcony that overlooks the Plaza del Obradeiro.
Now we descended to the level below the Treasury. This level contains the Cathedral's art collection. There are three sections: art from the 13th through the 15th century, art from the 16th through the 18th century and art related to St. James.
The lowest level of the Museum contains exhibits from the archaeological excavations under the Cathedral. The highlight of this level is the partial reconstruction of the elaborate stone choir, carved by Maestro Mateo in the 13th century and destroyed in 1603, replaced by a wooden choir that was removed in 1946. Although huge sections of the choir are missing, it displayed the kind of intricate designs and statues that we would see later in Maestro Mateo's Portico de la Gloria. This level also has an exhibit about Maestro Mateo.
From here we had to go back to the Treasury level of the Museum to cross over to the Gelmirez Palace and view the Portico de la Gloria. The Pilgrim's Mass had started and visitors are not allowed to view the Portico de la Gloria during the Mass. We toured the temporary exhibits in the Gelmiriz Palace and then prayed during the last part of the Mass. When the Mass ended, we were almost the only people around the Portico de la Gloria; we saw many people who wanted to see it turned away because they did not have a Museum ticket. Although scaffolding obscured sections of Maestro Mateo's triple doorway with its 200 Romanesque statues, we could see the famous central column with Jesus on top, St. James below Him and Hercules below St. James; Maestro Mateo is at the bottom on the opposite side of the column. It is traditional for pilgrims to place their fingertips in the five holes worn in the column above Hercules' head and to bump heads with Maestro Mateo. However, there is now a railing to prevent anyone from touching the column and causing further damage to it. We could also see many of the other statues including the only woman, Queen Esther. Legend has it that her stone breasts were originally much larger and local leaders had them filed down to a more respectable size. The townspeople retaliated by creating Galicia's iconic tetilla cheese (titty cheese) in Esther's honor. That's the story anyway!
Our final stop in the Cathedral was the crypt where we originally bought our tickets. The crypt, also built by Maestro Mateo, is dedicated to St. James Minor. The main features of interest are the huge columns supporting the weight of the Portico de la Gloria and the Obradoiro facade and the keystones of the vault that depict two angels bearing the sun and the moon. Today the crypt is the gathering spot for group tours but Museum ticket holders can be admitted on request.
By now we had spent about three hours in the Cathedral and Museum and the rain was much lighter than earlier in the day. We had some time to walk around the old town. We stopped in at the Galicia tourist office to obtain maps and information on the wine routes for our scheduled (but later canceled) visit to Vigo on the next leg of the cruise.
Next we walked over to the Paseo de la Herradura and up to the 12th century church of Santa Susana. The park has several viewpoints that provide classic views of the Cathedral. After that we walked around the Cathedral to see the other facades and met up with the rest of the group, huddled under the arcade of Pazo de Raxoi.
Once back at the Alberto Duran Nunes Cruise Terminal, it was too close to sailing time even to check out briefly the large shopping center right next to the terminal. We did not depart on time though because several of the tours were quite late returning to the ship. I later overheard a person saying that his bus had waited 45 minutes for a couple and finally left without them; maybe they got on the wrong bus. Another woman's name was called repeatedly to report to Passenger Services. I hope no one was left behind in Vigo!
Hint: Soaking wet walking/running shoes will dry overnight if you put them directly on top of the stateroom refrigerator (inside the cabinet).
Our guide made this trip very enjoyable.