Santiago de Compostela is Northern Western Spain’s only major tourist attraction. After days of walking paths and visiting towns practically devoid of holidaymakers, it is rather a surprise to enter a city almost wholly devoted to the business of tourism, with its souvenir shops, beggars, and the rest of the baggage that travels in the wake of tourists.
But tourism is certainly no newcomer to Santiago; in fact, the city can lay claim to being the world’s first major tourist destination, (read here for the best things to do in Santiago de Compostela). At the peak of Santiago’s attraction as a place of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages, from the 9th to the 16th century, up to two million people a year (around 5,000 a day) came to worship at what was believed to be the burial place of St James (as a holy place, Santiago was almost the equal of Rome and Jerusalem).
For many pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela was the end of a long and tiring journey; they came not only from Spain but from France, Britain, Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia. Recognized pilgrimage routes grew up from France through Northern Spain. The pilgrims identified themselves by wearing a uniform of a heavy cape, longstave, sandals and a felt hat turned up in front and bearing the scallop-shell emblem of St James. (The scallop shell crops up all over Northern Spain, and its adoption as the emblem of pilgrimage is said to date back to the crusade against the Moorish invaders. The Lord of Pimentel was forced to swim across a ria; he miraculously emerged from the sea on the other side covered in scallop shells, which were taken to be the emblem of St James). On their difficult and sometimes dangerous route, the pilgrims were taken care of by Benedictine and Cistercian monks and the Knights Templar of the Spanish Order of the Red Sword, who undertook to guarantee the safety of pilgrims in Northern Spain. Hospitals and hospices were set up to take care of sick and weary pilgrims.
At the end of the 16th century, the Reformation in Europe and finally Spain’s war with England saw the decline of Santiago as a place of pilgrimage. In 1589 Sir Francis Drake attacked La Coruna, and in a panic, the Bishop of Compostela took the cathedral’s relics away to a place of safe-keeping. He must have been in too much of a panic because the relics got lost and remained lost for the next 300 years; they were rediscovered only in 1879, allowing the pilgrimages to start once more. Pilgrimages reach their peak in those years when the feast day of St James, 25 July, falls on a Sunday.
It matters little whether or not you believe in the legend of St James and the value of pilgrimages: Santiago still remains one of Spain’s finest cities. Emerging from Calle Franco into Santiago’s cathedral square is an incredible sight.
The square is made of golden granite. In front of you there stands euphonious of name and princely of posture, the Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos, founded by Isabel and Ferdinand as a hostel for pilgrims, and now perhaps the most beautiful hotel in Europe.
Santiago cathedral is like nowhere else. At one end of its enormous block, there rises a pyramidal tower of apparently Hindu genesis. In front of its great door, two staircases rise so jauntily from the level of the square that they seem to be leading you to some blithe belvedere. And in the center of the composition the twin west towers of the cathedral soar into the blue in a sensational flourish of Baroque, covered everywhere with balls, bells, stars, crosses, and weathercocks, speckled with green lichens and snapdragons in the crevices, and exuding a delightful air of cheerful satisfaction.
The legend of St James and Santiago de Compostela The legend has it that the Apostle James the Greater came to Spain to convert the country to Christianity and preached for seven years before returning to Judaea, where he was martyred by Herod. Forced to leave the country, his disciples smuggled St James’s body back to Spain and buried it near the spot where they were supposed to have first landed in Spain, near Padron (a few miles from Santiago). The site of this tomb was unknown for many years but according to legend, a star revealed its location to Theodomir, Bishop of Ira Flavia, in 813. (`Compostela’ means literally ‘field of a star’ — from the Latin ‘campus stella’ — and Santiago is the Spanish for St James.) An alternative legend has it that St James appeared on the battlefield at Clavijo near Logrotio, to help the Spaniards in their fight against the Moors; after which time St James became known as `Matamore’ or Slayer of the Moors.
However St James, so all the best scholars seem to agree, never came to Spain at all. He was never a soldier. There is no earthly reason why his body should be brought to Galicia, and nothing of the sort is suggested in the Acts of the Apostles, where his death is recorded. He died several centuries before Islam was conceived, probably never mounted a horse in his life, and certainly, never slew an infidel. There is no historical reason why Santiago should be a place of pilgrimage, though it is.
What to See in Santiago de Compostela
The cathedral without a doubt is one of the great buildings of the world; its façade is a Baroque masterpiece, and there are even greater treasures within. The façade stands in front of the original Romanesque exterior, which can be seen as soon as you step inside the doors. Immediately before you is the Door of Glory, an astonishing doorway carved in the 12th century by Master Mateo. At this point, the exhausted pilgrims knew they had reached their journey’s end; gratefully they reached out and touched the central pillar, which has become quite worn away from centuries of touching. Master Mateo is also represented on the central pillar beneath St James, and those who pass through the Portico de la Gloria sometimes bump heads with Mateo in the hope of absorbing some of his genius!
The focus of attention within the dark interior of the cathedral is the gleaming 13th-century statue of St James; those pilgrims permitted to climb the stairs behind the altar kiss his richly worked mantle.
The cathedral’s museum and treasury are well worth a visit, to see some of the library’s valuable religious works and collection of tapestries. In the library you will see a huge incense burner called a botafumeiro; on feast days this is hung from the transept dome keystone and, with half a dozen men clinging desperately to the other end of the rope, is swung to the eaves — one year, it is said, the men lost control and the incense burner flew into the square outside.
Plaza de Espana This magnificent square is bordered on one side by the Baroque façade of the cathedral and the bishop’s palace, on the opposite side by the impressive 18th-century town hall, formerly Raxoy Palace. On the square’s south side is San Jeronimo College —opposite this, on the north side, is perhaps Santiago’s second greatest asset, the Hotel de Los Reyes Catolicos.
The old streets are one of the great pleasures of Santiago, to walk through the old streets that run up to the cathedral. The best are the Rua del Villar, Rua Nueva and Calle Franco; fashionable clothes shops stand next to ancient grocery shops run by wizened old ladies swathed in black. If you’re planning to do much walking, remember your umbrella; the rain in Spain seems to stay mainly in Santiago!
Cape Finisterre – this is Spain’s Land’s End; it was once significant not only as the westernmost extremity of Spain — it also represented the western edge of the known world, until Columbus discovered America. Unlike our Land’s End, Cabo Finisterra has no souvenir shops or places claiming to be the first and last house in Europe — it is simply a place of wild, unspoiled beauty.