The Cathedral

Highly Commended in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

I tried one more time to open the huge wooden door. But it wouldn’t budge. My stomach tightened. I was alone. Locked inside a cathedral.  

I had reached Lugo less than an hour before, whilst walking the ancient Camino de Santiago. And in the late-afternoon of that warm summer’s day, like any good pilgrim, I had headed straight to the city’s magnificent thirteenth century cathedral.  

An old man, sitting in a booth beside the entrance, greeted me. 

“La Catedral cierra en viente minutos,” he said. 

“But I thought it was open all day?” I replied.

He shook his head and shrugged in a matter-of-fact way. The lack of time was my problem, not his. I had twenty minutes and the clock was already ticking.  

I went inside and turned down one of the aisles. In the musty half-light, a priest appeared from a cheerless confession box and glided past me. The building felt cold and subdued.  

Drawn by the distant echo of choral music, I walked on. And gradually, with each new step, the cathedral’s simple, radiant beauty intensified. Around me, tall white pillars pushed high into the shadows and exquisite golden sculptures filled the spaces between floor and ceiling.  

A huge silver star shone high above the altar, where long white candles burned gently, casting their glow over angels and cherubs. A few other visitors stood beside me with cameras in hand.  

I moved to the back of the cathedral and discovered a crescent of five tiny chapels. They were peaceful and intimate and I lingered there for a while.  

But time passed all too quickly and I knew that I had to return to the entrance. Distracted by gilded carvings and age-old oil paintings, I hadn’t noticed that the cathedral had become strangely quiet.  

I realised that I could neither hear, nor see anyone else. Half-heartedly, I reassured myself that “someone has to be the last to leave.”  

Only, I couldn’t leave. Because the door through which I had entered, was firmly locked.  I banged loudly on its heavy oak panels. But there was no response.  

Fighting the urge to panic, I reasoned that the simple solution was to find another way out. So, I walked around the empty building. But all the other doors looked as if they had not been open for centuries. There was no other exit.  

My mind began to race. I wondered what it would feel like to spend the night alone in an eight-hundred-year-old building? With only tombs and human remains for company. For the first time, I felt a cloying sense of fear.  

I walked into the choir stalls and sat on one of the dark polished seats.

Time passed slowly.

But little by little, in the solitude of that contained space, peace and calm began to replace my fear. The silence that had initially unnerved me, now wrapped itself around me like a blanket. I thought about all the people who had sat in these same seats. I wondered who they were and I wondered what their hopes and prayers had been.

Embracing the tranquillity, I walked back through the cathedral and stopped under its frescoed dome. High above me, the early evening light shone through stained-glass windows, warming the limestone walls with abstract patterns of blue, turquoise and red.

In the soft glow, gold leaf glistened on ornate wooden carvings whose delicate details I had not noticed before. Wherever I walked, the faces of saints looked back at me benignly. A faint smell of incense hung in the air.

I returned to the choir stalls and sat down again. But I had a sense that I was no longer alone.

I looked around, and at first saw nobody. But then, in the dim light, I saw an old woman sitting some thirty feet away. Plainly dressed, with a black woollen scarf over her head, she looked at me through luminous brown eyes. A small silver scallop shell hung around her neck. 

I stood with a start.

“You surprised me” I said.

She stared back at me and said nothing.

“Habla Inglés?” I asked her.

Still nothing.

I was both unsettled by her presence and reassured by the fact that I was no longer alone.  

Slowly she rose to her feet and moved from the stalls. Instinctively I followed her.  

She walked into one of the side chapels and opened a tiny door that I had not seen before. I followed her through a maze of passages before she stopped next to a door, dark and weathered with age. By now, I had lost all sense of direction.  

She opened the door and light from the street flooded in. Eagerly, I stepped outside, then turned to thank her. But the old woman was no longer there.