I am standing in a large square. Around me are laughing, singing, dancing and sometimes limping people who are happy that their path ends here in Santiago de Compostela.
Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia, is the destination of many pilgrims. This is where the famous Way of St. James ends.
The name of the city already reveals something about its history. Santiago comes from San-Yago, which is Latin for Sanctus Iacobus, meaning Saint James. Scholars interpret the second part of the city’s name very differently, but it is always connected with Jacob.
History mixed with legends
James the Elder was one of the twelve apostles of Christ, the son of Zebedee and the brother of John. According to legend, he went to the Roman province of Hispania, today’s Spain, shortly after the Ascension to spread Christianity there. However, his missionary work in Hispania was not very successful, so he eventually returned to his homeland of Palestine. Here he was beheaded by order of King Herod Agrippa I of Judea in 44.
The legends surrounding James are many and varied. One says that his body was placed in a boat which was then floated to the coast of Spain. According to another version, his disciples Athanasius and Theodorus brought the body to Spain by sea and buried it in a stone tomb on the territory of the present-day city of Santiago de Compostela.
Another tale from ecclesiastical circles says that the bones were given to the Sinai monastery by Emperor Justinian. The relics were brought to safety in Spain by monks during the turmoil of Islam. When the Muslims also conquered Spain, the relics are said to have been buried at the site where Santiago de Compostela is today.
Between the years 818 and 834, the supposed tomb was discovered. The hermit Pelayo reported an apparition of light that pointed to the grave of an apostle. When a tomb was actually found, the bishop of the time declared that it was the tomb of Saint James. King Alfonso II of Asturias (791-842) then had a church built there, which later became an important pilgrimage centre. A village grew up around the church in the 10th century, which eventually became the city of Santiago.
Over time, the church became too small and a new larger building was erected. Santiago de Compostela developed into one of the most important places of pilgrimage alongside Rome and Jerusalem. The old town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985.
Way of St. James – the end of a pilgrimage route
I am standing in the large Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the impressive cathedral. It is shortly after 11 o’clock in the morning and life is raging here. Not only the babble of languages of tourists from all over the world can be heard, but also loud singing and cheering. Groups pass through an archway on the famous Way of St. James to the centre of the square. There their pilgrimage ends.
Today, around 200,000 pilgrims arrive in the city every year. They have followed the route with the scallop shell. The shell has been the pilgrim’s sign since the early 11th century and just touching it is said to have performed miracles. Business-minded as people are, they then sold shells from the Atlantic coast in front of the cathedral to the pilgrims.
There is no such thing as “the” Way of St. James. Throughout Europe, countless pilgrimage routes marked with the shell lead to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela. In the city, too, paths arrive from various points of the compass, but they all end in front of the cathedral and lead pilgrims to the large seated figure of St. James, who is embraced and kissed as a sign of reverence. One of the reasons for the multitude of routes is certainly the starting point that pilgrims choose. If you ask a Spaniard, it starts in his own house (“El camino comienza en su casa”).
The Way of St. James has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1993 and is protected along the entire Spanish route up to a width of 30 metres next to the path. This zone widens where individual buildings along the way or entire villages are also subject to monument protection. In addition, the World Heritage Site includes a list of over 1800 individual buildings in 166 towns and villages.
Plaza del Obradoiro
As the pilgrims stream into the square, I enjoy the view of the buildings arranged around one of the largest squares in Galicia. The four sides of the square are lined with historic buildings, all of which could not be more different.
On one side stands the city’s most famous building, the 11th century cathedral. On the south side of the square is the Colexio de San Xerome. This was the site of a college attended in the 16th century by students who did not have sufficient financial means to study. On the north side of the square is the Hostal dos Reyes Católicos. Once a place for pilgrims to stay, hospital and convent, it is now a hotel. Finishing off on the western side is what is now the city’s town hall. In the past, aspiring priests lived and worked in the Pazo de Raxoi.
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
From the large square in front of the cathedral, people are drawn to the city’s famous cathedral. For me, I first went around the cathedral to have a look at the interesting building from the outside.
The south portal is one of the oldest parts of the building. It was built in the Romanesque style. Only later did the extensions follow with the baroque west portal, the classicist north façade and the gothic cloisters. Over the years, this led to an increase in floor space from 8,200 m² to 23,000 m².
On the side of the west façade are two 75-metre-high towers. The southern tower is the bell tower. In the central gable is the statue of the Apostle James as a pilgrim. I find the design of the portals particularly beautiful. Here, if you are somewhat Bible-savvy, you can recognise many scenes.
After the service in the church was over, I could visit the nave. I got closer and closer to the entrance door in a long queue and already suspected that the visit would be like a mass event. And so it was. The visitors pushed their way through the cathedral and the lines of sight intended by the builder were blocked. Even for a view of the beautiful altar, one had to queue. It was a pity that the “church feeling” was lost for me and the 100 m long, 8.5 m wide and almost 20 m high central nave did not seem very impressive.
The main altar impressed me after all. It is supposed to stand over the tomb of James. A gilded canopy spans the high altar. The life-size seated figure of St. James and several scallops dominate the view.
Those who then leave the church at the side exit can queue again at a second entrance. This queue leads behind the altar to a figure. Pilgrims from all over the world embrace and kiss it and thank Jacob for completing the journey. Then they follow the waiting people into the crypt, where Jacob’s bones are said to lie in a shrine.
Hospital de los Reyes Católicos (Parador de los Reyes Católicos)
Next to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the building of the Hospital de los Reyes Católicos is certainly the most impressive in the central square of the city.
It was founded by the Catholic Monarchs with the task of accommodating pilgrims to Santiago. From 1512, it was the largest and best-equipped pilgrims’ hostel along the Way of Saint James. It had its own farm, its own doctors, and a pharmacy.
Today, visitors to the town still stay here. A five-star hotel and restaurant has moved in and opened many areas to the public to show off the beauty of the building.
The impressive main portal faces the square. Here you can see numerous figures of biblical characters. Next to the gate are the coats of arms of the Spanish kings Isabella I and Ferdinand II.
The building complex is large and various architects have built it. All the buildings are two-storey and are grouped around four courtyards. Here you can go on a discovery tour at your leisure and discover the simple Renaissance and late Gothic forms. It is also worth looking up. There are some sandstone figures here that you wouldn’t expect to find there. For example, I discover a bagpipe player and learn that the bagpipe is a traditional instrument in the region. Now I also realised why I had been hearing a bagpipe player standing and playing at the edge of the Plaza del Obradoiro all along.
Restaurant tip for Santiago de Compostela
Culinary delights awaited me for lunch at the Restaurant dos Reis in the Parador de Santiago de Compostela. Even the dining room was a surprise. It is located in a beautiful vaulted cellar of the hotel. Even though the room is quite large and many guests were there at the same time for lunch, I felt at ease in the clamour of voices and the multitude of smells.
The cuisine offers traditional Galician dishes at an upscale level. The menu includes, for example, Galician fish and meat, cheese, empanada, mussels, octopus a feira or Galician broth.
A multi-course menu with good wine awaited us, and I was totally convinced by the taste. I particularly liked the octopus pâté, which was prepared in the Galician style. It looked a bit like liver sausage, but tasted all the more intensely of octopus. The baked scallop and the veal loin as the main course rounded off the meal skilfully. A feast for the eyes and the taste highlight for me was the dessert. The almond cake tasted excellent.
Good thing there was a schnapps after the meal.
Tip for hungry pilgrims: The Parador has a custom of offering a free meal to the first 10 pilgrims who pass through its doors and show the Compostelana.
The visit to Santiago de Compostela was an item on the itinerary of the Costa Verde Express.