Pilgrims get the stamp of approval for their progress


THE great cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, destination of the most important Christian pilgrimage in Europe, is a jaunty building, unlike many of Spain's dour ecclesiastical monuments. Last week, on Palm Sunday, with the doors flung open on all four sides, there was an air of light-hearted satisfaction when the rain momentarily let up and sun sloshed in.

The faithful here exhibit none of the extravagant fanaticism you associate with Spanish Holy Week. Families stood quietly in the beautiful cathedral square holding branches of palm, laurel, olive, or sprigs of rosemary plucked from their gardens, trying to keep their exquisitely kitted-out children in check. Galicians from this part of Spain's north-west corner are renowned for their even temperament and modest ways.

Then I spotted the pilgrim, walking with discomfort, bent under his rucksack, draped with waterproof layers. He fumbled with a rolled document and his spray of greenery and his pilgrim's staff clattered on the granite flags. As he stooped to retrieve it, the cockleshell of Saint James, tied to his pack with string, swung and pirouetted against him.

Had he come far? He smiled: "No, just 220km. I've only been walking a week. It's difficult for me to get the time off. But this is my third pilgrimage. You talk to people on the road and they keep you going. Once you start you get hooked." He unrolled his "compostela", the certificate proving he had walked the stipulated minimum of 100km. "I'll frame it alongside the others, and I'll be back in 2001 when I'm retired. My granddaughter will be 15 and I'll bring her with me."

Legend has it that St James the Apostle was buried here, I ventured neutrally. His eyes sparkled. "I don't believe Santiago ever came to Spain. But I always climb up behind the altar to embrace the silver statue of the apostle, just to say I'm here. The archbishop who set up this whole business was the greatest entrepreneur in the history of Christendom!"

You'd never hear such a confession in Seville.

THE film The Full Monty - showing in Santiago and at a cinemas across Spain - has become the stock catchphrase tossed to any passing Brit, joining a pantheon that includes Mrs Thatcher, "Lady Di" and Bobby Robson. Thestrippers of Sheffield have achieved such heroic status that Spanish workers have adopted them as a role model.

Some 50 policemen in the Galician port of Vigo assembled in the foyer of the town hall the other day and, to the astonishment of passers-by, stripped off their uniform down to their caps and boxer shorts in a protest against poor working conditions. They have been campaigning for months for waterproof uniforms and new vehicles and walkie-talkies.

Firemen in Catalonia adopted a similar tactic a few weeks back, filing into a management meeting clad only in underpants and helmets, bearing a banner proclaiming "Without better fire protection, you too are naked and defenceless."

In Vigo town hall, the squirming of the assembled suits, caught by television cameras, was bliss to behold, and the stunned city fathers announced they would address the police men's complaints forthwith.

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