Santiago asks: where are all the pilgrims for pope's visit?

5th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

Dozens of TV crews and massive media trucks outnumbered pilgrims Friday in parts of the medieval centre of Santiago de Compostela, where the pope is to celebrate mass.

The day before Pope Benedict XVI arrives, business owners along the cobblestone streets were looking at racks of unsold papal souvenirs and still-empty hotel rooms, waiting for the faithful to arrive.

"There are still no people, we're very surprised," said Marisol, the co-owner of a local tourist gift shop in a narrow street near the sprawling 12th century cathedral in Santiago, capital of Spain's rugged northwestern Galicia region.

The store, crammed with memorabilia of the Saint James Way pilgrimage route like statues of the Apostle and the scallop shell symbol, is now also selling yellow neckerchiefs, scarves, rosaries, thimbles, key chains and bracelets all bearing Benedict's image.

"We're hoping that tomorrow we can sell some of this merchandise," complained Marisol, as just one customer was browsing in her shop.

A spokesman for the city's hotel association, Aser Alvarez, reported an occupancy rate of about 70 to 80 percent for Friday night, and many of those rooms are held by the thousands of police and journalists there for the pontiff's visit.

"We expected a bit more, but not much more. The tourist who normally comes will not come this weekend because they predict there will be huge crowds and it would be difficult to move around," he said.

Eduardo Perez, who runs the pilgrimage centre, said many people shunned Santiago because of the extra security for the pope and because they feared the hotels would be full or more expensive, while others preferred to see Benedict in Barcelona on Sunday.

"Many of those who are coming to Santiago for the pope will arrive tomorrow for the day," he added.

Special buses on Saturday will bring the faithful for the mass celebrated by Benedict along with some 100 clerics in the Plaza Obradoiro outside the main facade of the cathedral, which is believed to hold the remains of Saint James the Apostle.

Perez said he expected to receive 400 to 500 pilgrims at the centre on Friday to get their certificates for having walked or cycled the Way of Saint James, or Camino de Santiago, up just slightly from the 350 or so he would expect on a November day.

Portuguese couple Nuno Rocha and Luisa Costa, both 31 and veterinarians, walked 185 kilometres (115 miles) from Barcelos in Portugal. "We timed our visit to coincide with the pope," said Luisa.

But Catherine Conroy, an Irish woman who had also just completed the Camino route from Portugal, said she had been unaware of the pontiff's visit before setting off.

"If I'd known I would have planned it differently," said the 36-year-old, who has a flight back to Dublin on Saturday morning.

Italian Paulo Caricato, 47, who walked the Camino with his 12-year-old son, said the pope's visit was "just a coincidence" for them.

The mayor of Santiago, Xose Sanchez Bugallo, said he expects about 200,000 more people on Saturday in the city of some 100,000 inhabitants.

On Thursday, he inaugurated a one-tonne, 98,000-euro (140,000-dollar) bronze statue of Pope Benedict XVI to commemorate his visit which depicts the pontiff with his arms outstretched and carrying a walking stick.

Yellow and white Vatican flags flew from buildings leading into the Plaza Obradoiro, where a massive soundstage has been erected behind rows of purple flowers.

"Welcome Holy Father," said huge one banner.

In the square, bemused tourists and pilgrims mingled with dozens of television crews and journalists under warm sunshine.

But some balconies also displayed banners from a platform of groups opposed to the visit called "I'm not waiting for you". The banners showed a papal mitre surrounded by a red warning triangle.

Some are angry over the cost of the papal visit, which Spanish media has put at around three million euros (4.2 million dollars) for Santiago.

© 2010 AFP

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