A flash of light shot through the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela as the immense Botafumeiro (thurible) began swinging back and forth across the transept, heavily scented incense wafting from within. The 180-pound silver urn swung higher and higher, eventually reaching a speed of approximately 40 miles per hour before slowing, then stopping. Applause rang out.

During the Middle Ages, large thuribles like this were popular in Galicia, a northwestern Spanish region. So when the Santiago Cathedral was constructed in the 12th century, it incorporated one into its design. Countless pilgrims flocking to the cathedral to worship the holy remains of the apostle St. James (Santiago) have seen the incense container.

Nowadays, the Botafumeiro is used only for special occasions, as it’s hard on the swinging mechanism and takes eight experienced men to operate. But this year, visitors will have a good shot at seeing the impressive Botafumeiro in operation because it’s the 800th anniversary of the cathedral’s consecration by Alfonso IX, and numerous celebratory events are planned.

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

The famed cathedral sits regally in Obradoiro Square in Santiago’s old quarter. A masterpiece blend of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture, its facade is stunning, with turrets, spires, statuary and more. Interestingly, and a bit disappointingly, its interior is rather bleak, as most of the vibrant colors that once decorated its walls and pillars have worn away over the centuries.

The cathedral’s most important asset is, of course, the tomb of St. James the Apostle, housed in a silver coffin beneath the altar, along with the remains of his disciples, Sts. Athanasius and Theodore. A statue of the apostle is nearby; pilgrims have an affinity for hugging it. Don’t be daunted if you see long lines stretching out the passageways to these spots, as a security guard and traffic lights ensure you’ll get through in a timely fashion. Visits are allowed daily from 9am to 2pm and 4 to 8:30pm.

Another popular spot, and perhaps the most beautiful, is the Portico de la Gloria. This 12th-century Romanesque group sculpture in the narthex of the church’s western facade depicts biblical history through more than 200 individual sculptures. Behind the portico is a statue of its sculptor, the famed Maestro Mateo; local practice is to bump your head against the statue three times to get a little bit of Mateo’s smarts.

Above and Below

The church’s popular rooftop tour takes you to the cathedral’s second floor, where you’ll enjoy a sweeping view of the church below. You’ll also get a chance to see the “giants and big heads” stored there — immense, puppet-type figures representing local characters that are used in Spanish parades. The ones in the cathedral are used primarily during celebrations of St. James’ July 25 feast day.

The tour’s highlight is stepping outside onto the cathedral’s granite-tiled roof. In addition to stunning views of the surrounding historic squares, you can walk right up to the Cruz dos Farrapos (Cross of Rags), which stands sentinel over a stone font where pilgrims once burned their clothes to signify the discarding of their old life.

Normally, you can’t watch the archeological excavations taking place beneath the cathedral, but during this octocentennial year, you’re welcome to observe. These excavations have been going on for centuries and to date have uncovered everything from St. James’ remains and a complex series of Roman necropolises (cemeteries) to a chapel and cloister.

Museum Treasures

Opened in 1930, the museum was completely refurbished over the past few months. In addition to exhibits related to St. James, the Renaissance-styled cloister space includes a relic chapel; the crypt of the Portico de la Gloria, which contains various sculptures; and the Royal Pantheon and Treasury, where you’ll see the sarcophagi of royals and collections of reliquaries. Look for the stunning processional monstrance in silver gilt.

Prayers and Sweets

Every evening around 7:30pm, visitors can drop in and listen to the cloistered Benedictine nuns at the 10th-century Convent of San Paio de Antealtares sing vespers. Booklets are handed out so you can follow along; photos aren’t allowed. If you’d prefer to hear the nuns sing lauds in the morning (around 8am), you’ll need to ask permission the day before, as the convent isn’t normally open to the public at that time.

The nuns also bake and sell cookies, almond biscuits and tartas de Santiago, aka St. James cakes. The cakes — the traditional local dessert — are created from almonds, eggs and sugar using a 16th-century recipe, then topped with a sugary rendering of the sword of St. James. It was the Benedictines and other religious orders who introduced these desserts to the city hundreds of years ago. The confections are sold through the convent’s revolving window on the other side of the building.

Melanie McManus writes from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.

Special Events

A wide variety of programs relating to the cathedral and Santiago’s heritage will be held this year, including exhibitions on the cathedral’s construction and cathedral concerts incorporating music from past masters. The Contemplative Music Festival and Compostela Organum Festival are also scheduled.

Planning Your Visit

The church’s 1211 consecration will be re-enacted during a solemn liturgy on Saturday, May 7, incorporating the cathedral’s 12 Crosses of the Consecration.

For information on the cathedral, see CatedraldeSantiago.es. For tourist information on Santiago, contact Tour Galicia at http://www.TurGalicia.es