Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela has been a Christian Pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages.
It was completely rebuilt in the 11th century, after the Reconquista of this holy site from Islamic rule. It is in Santiago that the supposed remains of the Apostle Saint James ‘the Greater’ are revered since the year 813, and the city was named after him.
The town’s romanesque and baroque monuments have influenced art and architecture in the Iberian peninsula. Santiago’s main landmark is the Cathedral, the destination of the medieval pilgrimage route ‘Camino de Santiago’.
Map of Santiago de CompostelaLoad map
Even if I’m not that religious of a person, Santiago de Compostela still has that mythical sound to it, so a visit of the city and its cathedral was on my to-do list. The town didn’t disappoint. It’s nice to roam around the little streets in the historic centre, to come across little squares and to sit at a table with a drink enjoying the surroundings. Driving around in the city was a bit more stressful, though, and I was happy I had my navigation system with me. Be patient and choose your parking garage beforehand and a back-up in case your first choice is full.
I was staying just outside of Santiago, so I was in town every evening for dinner. For the “real” exploration of the World Heritage, I took out one day. I started my day with a visit of the Santa Maria del Conxo Monastery. Nowadays, it’s a psychiatric hospital, so I didn’t venture inside. I just had a look in the church and the cemetery just next to it.
Most of the rest of my day was centred around the Cathedral. Take your time on the Praza do Obradoiro to take in the magnificent façade and the atmosphere of the square. There will always be groups op pilgrims arriving after their long walk. Although it is the main façade, one does not enter the cathedral via this side. If you want to visit the interior of the cathedral, you have to go to the side entrance on the Praza das Praterías. One piece of advice: don’t go just after a mass has finished. Lines will be long with people who want to go in immediately after. If you have the time, do something else and come back later. You will see the line has shortened considerably or there is no more line at all. Also, the interior of the cathedral and the crypt have separate entrances. To visit the Crypt with the reliquary of St. James, there is a different entrance on the Praza da Quintana, where you go through the Porta Santa.
I also bought a ticket for the Cathedral Museum. This will give you access to the cloister and the museum, which houses the cathedral treasure, a reconstruction of the cathedral choir and a nice collection of tapestries, among others. I really liked the cloister, where you can see the cathedral towers from another point of view. Your ticket also gives you access to the crypt at the front of the cathedral and the Pazo de Xelmírez on the left, which houses an exposition on Master Mateo, the architect of the famous Pórtico da Gloria.
Unfortunately, the only part of the cathedral I didn’t see was that famous Pórtico da Gloria, as it wasn’t included in my museum ticket. The website states you can buy a museum ticket with inclusion of the Pórtico, but when I went in the afternoon, all the time slots for a visit of the Pórtico were filled for that day and one could only buy a slot for the next day. Several people before me were also told that they couldn’t view the Pórtico, to their disappointment. Apparently, only a limited number of people per day are allowed to visit the Pórtico. Had I known that, I would have gone earlier in the day to the museum, or I even would have bought my ticket beforehand, because it is a bit of a shame to not have viewed one of the artistic masterpieces of the church.
For those who have the time, I have two more recommendations when you have a walk around the outside of the cathedral. First, visit the San Martiño Pinario monastery situated on the Praza da Inmaculada. It has a beautiful monastery church with a double-sided baroque altar. Unfortunately, the cloisters are not part of the tour, but you can have a glimpse of one of them through the windows on the first floor. Second recommendation is the Museum of Pilgrimage on the Praza das Praterías, where the phenomenon of the pilgrimage in general and the one of St. James specifically is well explained in a modern way.
(Visited in August 2022)
Pilgrim, you have reached journey's end. The paths through the old town suddenly open up onto a plaza marked with walkways in the shape of the scalloped symbol of the Camino de Santiago, and there, at the center of the rays, pilgrims and tourists alike stop in awe and reflection and gaze up at the Baroque façade of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. The cathedral is even larger than it seemed when looking down at the bell towers from the Mount of Joy outside the city. Staffs and backpacks are set down and cell phones and selfie sticks are pulled out. Some kiss the ground in reverance. And then, sometime later, the visitors migrate to the side entrance to the cathedral, and file through the nave and around the altar, mostly in hushed silence. The famed incense burner had been set aside and scaffolding was erected throughout the cathedral when I visited in May 2019; the work in preparation for the next Jubilee Year in 2021, when St. James's Day, 25 July, falls on a Sunday. Still, the rich golden altar is an impressive site, and many pilgrims take a moment of silence as they step into the crypt below the altar, where by tradition the relics of St. James are housed. Like life, Santiago de Compostela is not just about the destination, but about the journey, and it is a fascinating place to experience and observe.
Logistics: There's no better way to appreciate the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela than to walk through the streets to the main plaza, the Praza do Obradoiro.
I visited this WHS in May and June 2016 after more than a month walking the Camino Frances. The cathedral in itself is nothing special aesthetically although quite unique as the sculptures of St James dominate the main facades. The main facade and towers are undergoing extensive restoration works but still the cathedral is huge enough to enjoy a slow walk round its exterior. The clock tower houses the cathedral’s largest bell, the Berenguela. It is said that if there are ever 13 strokes at midnight instead of 12, the devil will have an extra magical hour to roam around the dark streets of Galicia's capital. The former pilgrims' hospital, now a parador, has an exquisite facade. Almost every street hides a chapel, a church or a Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque or a Neoclassic building but still in my opinion the old town should not have been inscribed on its own but only as an important part of the Routes to Santiago in Spain. The Alameda park is worth visiting too for a panoramic view of the old town. Obviously this WHS will still have a special place in my heart but more for religious, spiritual and intangible cultural reasons than for its OUV. I'll surely never forget arriving to this place, hugging the kitsch statue of St James, attending mass as a pilgrim like millions of other pilgrims have done before me since the Middle Ages and smelling the incense in the cathedral while the Botafumeiro was swung by at least 8 people to incredible heights, sometimes way too close to the cathedral's windows or ceiling!
This was my last WHS left ‘to do’ on mainland Spain: the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela. Hidden away in the far west of the country, it’s actually better accessible from Portugal than from the main Spanish airports. I visited the city on a day trip by rental car from Oporto, on Holy Saturday. (I actually wrote ‘Easter Saturday’ at first, but in the English language this seems to be reserved for the Saturday after Easter Sunday).
There’s an hour time difference between Portugal and Spain, so I did not arrive as early as I had wanted. Most of the religious monuments are only open for short hours, with a long lunch break or even no afternoon openings at all. And to make things worse it was raining heavily. I hurried directly to the city’s landmark, the Cathedral. Unfortunately, its main entrance, the Façade of the Obradoiro with the Pórtico da Gloria, is undergoing restoration at the moment. You now have to enter via a side entrance.
The Cathedral is huge and there’s a lot to admire - especially if you’re a lover of over-the-top baroque. For someone like me, not raised with (Iberian) Catholicism, it feels very kitsch. But to those that come here as a pilgrim, it really is their holy site. I saw people praying at several chapels, and lighting candles. I stumbled upon a man in robes inside a wooden box – a fully operational confessional, one of many here. A long queue zigzagged through the church: this consisted of people wanting to enter the narrow passage behind the High Altar, where one can ‘embrace Saint James’ (one of the many pilgrim traditions associated with this Cathedral).
When the clock struck 12, all benches were taken and many congregants were standing to attend Mass. While I whiled away my time as a curious bystander (waiting for the rain to end), I wondered what a high-profile target this place would be for Islamic terrorists. It is one of the prime symbols of Christianity in Europe, and the Cathedral is often packed with people. I noticed no security measures at the door when I entered. Only a few security personnel were moving around inside the Cathedral, observing the crowd. They seemed to be preoccupied though by tourists taking photos with flash, and screaming children disturbing the required silence.
Santiago de Compostela is closely associated with the battle between Moors and Christians in the Middle Ages. It suffered from Moorish raids between the 8th and 10th centuries. One of the (many) legends surrounding Saint James had him miraculously appear during the fictional medieval Battle of Clavijo, where Christians fought Muslims. Nicknamed Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor-slayer), he appeared as a warrior on the battlefield on a white horse. There’s an equestrian statue of him inside the Cathedral, representing this episode.
After Mass I explored the rest of the city center. Santiago isn’t too big. I had not expected to see any pilgrims during this time of the year, but there were many around. Maybe they had hiked a short stretch, I can’t see anyone starting the Camino from the French border in early March. I had lunch at a typical small restaurant enjoying the regional specialty Pulpo a la gallega, and found myself surrounded by female hikers from Northern Europe who could barely get up and walk to the restaurant's toilet.
Santiago almost defeated me. It rained heavily and consistently for the 3 days I was there, the times of masses seemed to never correlate with the information I was given, even the Jamon seemed to be a little less tasty. However I still came away with a somewhat grudging but genuine affection for the city.
Whilst the grey Baroque of the Cathedral may not be to everyone's liking (see below) I was impressed by it. I especially liked that it is covered in patches of moss and twigs, which actually add something to the facade. However the original Romanesque Portico de Gloria which is now inside the cathedral is a really impressive sculptural grouping that rewarded repeat viewings. The interior of the cathedral was perhaps not as spectacular as I had thought however entering through the Holy Door to hug the statue of St James, was a fittingly traditional way for me to end my pilgrimage, and also afforded great views of the ornate gold detailing of the Choir. Having attended the Pilgrim's mass in holy year I also managed to see the famous Botafumeiro (incense burner) being swung. There are magnificent views of the cathedral from the park (Caballeira de Santa Susana) just to the west of the centre.
Aside from the cathedral there are networks of charming streets throughout the centre, and a wealth of churches, academic buildings and other grand edifices. It also has the feel of a university city, which always makes a place more appealing to me. Also there were plenty of Pilgrims out celebrating the end of their pilgrimage, which also added to the fun of the city.
One thing that looks to make the city more interesting is the promising appearance of the City of Culture of Galicia on a hill overlooking the city. It was still being built during my visit (2010) but it did look like a magnificent piece of architecture and will hopefully add more to the already culturally impressive city.
I liked Santiago despite the incessant rain; the cathedral is a very impressive end to the major pilgrimage and the city has a very active cultural life. It is a worthy destination (if you have a good umbrella) and an impressive part of the World Heritage list.
[Rating: Site 7, Experience 5]
For the town at the focus of the Route of Santiago de Compostela (listed 1993) it came as an anticlimax for me. The town had little of historical or cultural interest besides the cathedral.
Arriving at the railway station the consigna was closed and there was little information on how to reach the cathedral. So I took my luggage on a #6 bus to Praza de Galicia and walked to the cathdral from there. The external staircases are fine and the interior embellishments of the altar and chancel well executed, but not of outstanding universal value.
The Pilgrimage to the (supposed) Tomb of Apostle St James the Great at Compostela was of great significance within medieval Europe. Here was one of the world’s first “Tourist journeys” complete with badges, souvenirs and even a guide book! An understanding of those times would be incomplete without an appreciation of the pilgrimage’s place in the medieval consciousness and surely this understanding would be helped by going there oneself?
But I can’t say that we personally were particularly impressed by Santiago. The main Plaza with its Palace, Town Hall and Pilgrims’ Hospice (now a Parador) is certainly enormous/impressive as an ensemble and, in my view, is the “best bit”. But the mainly baroque Cathedral which takes up 1 side of the square is in my eyes a bit ugly (even its much vaunted “Portico de la Gloria” – photo) and its Romanesque interior rather oppressive and overbearing. However, enthusiasts of Baroque, Romanesque and Gothic will no doubt find much to enthuse about and admire. Probably, one’s view of its beauty and significance would be considerably enhanced if backed by the faith which has drawn so many people there over the centuries. The chapels inside containing, as well as the “relics” of the Saint and 2 of his disciples, a “piece of the true cross”, will also be of great importance to some visitors.
Despite my personal misgivings it is clearly still a “must do” European site for its historical importance, its religious significance and its architectural grandeur, whether you possess the faith or not. I tried hard to imagine the pull it has exerted on people throughout the ages, indeed down to the present day, and the struggles and risks they would face in order to reach it, but the buildings themselves didn’t help me.
The inscription in 1985 states “ICOMOS suggests that a number of subsequent proposals be made which will associate various essential sites which are located in several countries under one single heading such as “Paths to Santiago” or “Pilgrimage to Compostela” thereby enhancing the worldwide significance of inscribing Santiago de Compostela on the World Heritage list”. Yet there are now (in 2006) at least 3 more “Compostela” related sites in Spain and France (see my reviews) so this vision never came to pass. I wonder why? Politics and Nationalism no doubt!
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