In the holiest city in western Europe, I sometimes feel like a sinner.
At 6:00am on Sunday morning in Santiago de Compostela, the cobblestone streets glisten in the lamplight. The street-washing machine hums by, spraying a layer of water and steam into the air, while drunken revelers barely dodge out of the way. A lone man in an orange vest pulls a garbage can and a broom along the sidewalk, sweeping up cigarette butts and broken glass, bottle caps and chewed gum. Metal gates are pulled down over darkened shop windows, and the sound of solitary footsteps is crisp in the silence.
It is at once lonely and comforting. The city is quiet, but very much alive. Even though most of the bars have closed, there are still people everywhere. Faces bowed against the cold night wind, they all head home, occasionally stopping to pull an intoxicated friend out of the middle of the street. There is shouting as friends pass by, and a general feeling of merriment in the air, even though the night is almost over.
Yet the cathedral stands silently over an empty plaza, forgotten for the evening. The cornerstone of this settlement, the holy house of worship, the memory of a saint’s life, this religious sanctuary hidden in the mountains, all fade into the background behind neon lights and the bass beat of the discotheques. In a haze of liquor and smoke, the partiers will stumble home, through alleys where pilgrims once passed after long journeys…but they will not get up for church in the morning.
But the street-washing machine will clear away the vomit and piss that reeks in the streets at these dawn hours, and the man in the orange vest will pick up each remnant of these unholy nights, and tomorrow, on the holiest day of them all, Santiago will gleam in the morning sun, and the city will be blessed once again.