Santiago de Compostela: journey's end

Santiago de Compostela has been attracting pilgrims for more than 1,000 years. But this magical city also boasts a wealth of more secular architectural treasures as well as a dynamic arts scene and vibrant nightlife

Jeremy Lennard,

Obradoiro square and the cathedral in Santiago. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/Getty

Obradoiro square and the cathedral in Santiago. Photograph: Samuel Aranda/Getty

Mist moistens granite and the legato chant of Galician bagpipes wafts on the cool, dawn air. The medieval cornerstones and arches, flagstones and spires of the old city appear softened in the milky light and, while the rest of Santiago de Compostela sleeps, the clack of a bamboo pole on cobbles signals the arrival of the day’s first pilgrim. As he makes his way past the whitewashed walls of Rúa Entreruas, a street so narrow it can only be walked in single file, and the vaulted arcades of Rúa de Vilar, there is little except the lurid colours of his modern outdoor gear to set the scene in our time.

Set amid steep wooded hillsides of blistering green and just a short train or bus ride from some of Europe’s wildest and most beautiful coastal scenery, Santiago is compact and enchanting. It has a population of just 100,000, swollen during term time by more than 40,000 university students, and the old town, declared a Unesco world heritage site in its entirety in 1985, only takes about 15 minutes to cross on foot. But to even start to do justice to its historical significance and architectural splendour – a product of the city’s two golden ages starting in the 12th and 16th centuries – takes days at least.

There is plenty, too, to counterbalance the atmosphere of quiet reverence that pervades the scores of churches, monasteries and colleges that crowd the old town. The cafe and tapas scene is buzzing – you could stay in Santiago for months and not eat in the same restaurant twice (see box) – and the student intake makes for a dusk–to–dawn party scene that must be the envy of cities many times its size. Santiago’s status as capital of Galicia since 1980 has also spawned a new, mini golden age, reflected in the city’s modern art gallery, designed by Álvaro Siza, and the lakeside Auditorio de Galicia, designed by Julio Cano Lasso and home to the province’s royal philharmonic orchestra.

“Yes Santiago is steeped in the past, and it’s probably fair to say that most people who come here are seeking a connection with that side of our city,” said Xosé Iglesias, Santiago’s head of tourism. “But those who visit also find a modern, vibrant city, a city at the vanguard, and these two Santiagos meld together in an effortless and seductive way.”

At the heart of it all is the Praza do Obradoiro, an expansive square named after the workshops set up there during the construction of the cathedral in the 11th century. In the north–east corner, the twin towers of the baroque facade reach 76m into the sky, their sheer scale in keeping with the role religion has played in the establishment and growth of the city.

Arranged around the other three sides are monuments to the lesser driving forces behind Santiago’s development: royal patronage, civic duty and the thirst for knowledge. On the south side of the square stands the Colexio de San Xerome, witness to Santiago’s status as a seat of learning since the late middle ages. To the west, the Paxo de Raxoi – an elegant neoclassical palace and former seminary – is home today to the regional government of Galicia, where civil servants turning up for work are greeted by a bust of Archbishop Bartolomé de Raxoi, and his motto: “Live as if you had to die tonight, work as if you had to remain forever in this world.”

The square is closed on the north side by the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, a Renaissance building commissioned by Isabella and Ferdinand in 1499 as a pilgrims’ sanctuary. Funded by revenue accrued from wresting Granada back from the Moors, it remained as such for over 400 years, until it was converted into a five–star hotel in 1954. It still houses pilgrims of sorts in 2009, though these days they are more likely to be visiting heads of state and A–listers flown in by private jet.

The legend of St James

It all began with a star. Early in the 9th century a hermit called Paio is said to have seen a particularly bright one shining over the spot where the city now stands. He reported his vision to the local bishop, who saw the star for himself and – according to a 12th-century manuscript called the Historia Compostelana – “found among the undergrowth and bushes below a small marble tomb”. The bishop declared it to contain the remains of St James the Apostle, and King Alonso II of neighbouring Asturias, “overflowing with joy at such important news”, commissioned a shrine to be built.

St James’s connections with Iberia are a matter of conjecture but most accounts contain two central tenets – that he preached the gospel on the peninsula as well as in Galilee, and that after he was martyred at the hands of Herod in AD44, his body was carried to Padrón, some 20km from Santiago, where his disciples took it inland for safe burial.

Some claim the tomb does not contain the remains of St James at all, but rather those of Priscillian, an ascetic bishop who mixed his newly learned Christian faith with his traditional Celtic beliefs. He built up a substantial following in the region during his lifetime, until, in 345, he became one of the first Christians to be executed for heresy. Over the next decades and centuries his popularity continued to grow, prompting some to suggest the story of St James was superimposed in an arcane act of spin to counter Priscillian’s influence.

Be that as it may, the legend of St James became a rallying point for Christian Spain. Perhaps conscious of its significance, Abu Amir al–Mansur, the military commander of the caliphate of Córdoba, mounted a devastating raid in 997, razing the city and transporting the church’s bells on the backs of Christian prisoners to be installed as lamps in the Great Mosque. Had his ruthlessness been absolute, Santiago’s story might have been very different. But al–Mansur left the tomb intact and with it the seed of a new city.

At mid–morning, back on the Rúa de Vilar, mist still hangs in the air but the street is awake. Cafes are serving orange juice, toast and coffee and in the shadows of the medieval arches, souvenir and trinket shops have opened up. In the two-tiered Praza da Quintana – the upper tier dedicated to the living, the lower to the dead – a group of giants and bigheads is gathering. Long a tradition at festivals in northern Spain, the gigantes represent the area’s historical grandees, while the cabezudos are grotesque jester–like figures who specialise in scaring children. They are out in force as part of a week of festivities that combine ancient ritual with contemporary concerts and general revelry, culminating on 25 July in the feast of St James, when the saint’s effigy is paraded through the city’s streets.

Late on the eve of the feast day, crowds will pack the Praza do Obradoiro for a lavish fireworks display which, to the growing consternation of conservators, is famous for “setting the main facade of the cathedral alight”. But now, as we approach midday, a steady stream of people are making their way to the daily pilgrims’ mass. As they step inside the cathedral they come face-to-face with one of the city’s most exquisite sights. The Portico da Gloria is the original entrance to the cathedral rebuilt after al-Mansur’s raid. It is a proto-gothic masterpiece completed by Maestro Mateo in 1188 and the depiction of the Last Judgement is breathtaking in its detail. On the central pillar sits the serene figure of St James, and at its base the kneeling figure of Mateo offers up his work. Tradition has it that touching heads with the architect will impart some of his genius, and over the centuries so many visitors have clutched the pillar for support as they bend over to do so that grooves have been worn in it.

The cathedral is packed tight for mass, and the participation of the congregation such that even a non–believer cannot fail to get a sense of the potency of the place. As the service reaches its climax, the botafumeiro is hoisted on to a rope and pulley high in the main dome. Standing 1.6m tall and holding 40kg of charcoal and incense, it is the largest censer in the world, and takes eight crimson-robed tiraboleiros hauling on the rope to set it in motion. At the height of its pendulum swing it flies high into the roof of the transept to gasps and nervous laughter from below, and travelling at speeds of up to 60kph it dispenses thick clouds of incense as it goes. The reason for the scale of the 700-year-old tradition is unknown, though some claim it shielded the high clergy from the unsavoury aroma of hundreds of unwashed pilgrims.

The congregation is led outside by a group of singers, the feathers in their Aztec head-dresses quivering as they recreate a scene from the great Mexican pilgrimage to the basílica of Guadelupe. Blinking in the now brilliant sunshine, its members step through the Romanesque facade of the south transept and into Praza das Praterias, where medieval silversmiths used to ply their trade. The sunlight picks out the lime greens and bright oranges of the lichen that spatters the stonework of the square. At one end a clown blows giant soapy bubbles. At the other a Russian string quartet plays Bach.

Much of what you immediately see in the old town was built between the 16th and 18th centuries, the product of Santiago’s second boom after the Moors had been driven south. But evidence of its first, sparked by the religious zeal of the city’s second bishop, Diego Xelmírez, is never far away. Xelmírez is credited with raising Santiago from the rubble left behind by al–Mansur, and the span of the arches in the banqueting hall of his palace, and the detail in the sculpted scenes on the corbels supporting them, set his power and influence in stone. Standing in front of the great hearth in the kitchen above, it is easy to conjure up images of steaming cauldrons and roasting meat and staff scrambling to meet the culinary demands of the dignitaries downstairs.

Whether strolling around the cloistered courtyards of the monastery of San Martino Piñario, or sipping a coffee in the old gentleman’s casino, such prompts come thick and fast in Santiago. But for those inclined to daydream, there is always something around the next corner – a fire-eater here, a busking opera singer there, raucous laughter at a pavement cafe – to bring you back to the present.

As the sun begins to dip in the sky, the streets of the old town are brimming with life. The sound of church bells and firecrackers fills the air as Santiago prepares to party in the name of St James, and as you make your way through the Mazarelos gateway – the only segment left of the original city walls – and out into the traffic fumes and neon beyond, the words of Pope Callixtus II, who visited the city in the middle of the 12th century, still resonate: “Compostela, the apostolic, most excellent city, richest in all delights, having in its charge the bodily remains of the blessed James, whence it is favoured as more fortunate and more noble than all the other cities of Spain.”
The Camino de Santiago

When the French monk Aymeric Picaud published the fifth chapter of his Liber Sancti Jacobi in 1140, he can scarcely have imagined that his text – widely claimed to be the first travel guide ever written – would still be a point of reference for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, nine centuries later.

The perils of the 800km walk from Saint Jean Pied de Port, just north of the Pyrenees, may have changed; Picaud warns of bears, bandits and commercial skullduggery. But for those driven by their faith to make their way on foot to visit the shrine of St James the Apostle, his recommendations of places to stop, relics to venerate and sanctuaries to visit still form the backbone of their itinerary.

Today pilgrims come from across the planet – an estimated 150,000 were officially recognised last year – and their reasons for doing so are as varied as their nationalities. For many, if not a Christian journey it is nevertheless a spiritual one, often made at a difficult time in life. For others it is more straightforwardly a personal challenge, a chance to walk some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery, or an opportunity to immerse themselves in Spanish culture and history.

“Pilgrims’ motives for setting out may be very different, but for all of them the journey is in some way transcendental. They all arrive here in some way changed,” says José María Díaz, the dean of Santiago’s cathedral. From his wooden throne-like chair in the cathedral’s medieval library, he is keen to emphasise the broad appeal and benefits of the act of pilgrimage itself rather than its Christian significance, and the opportunity it offers for dialogue with those from other walks of life.

“I am from Israel, my girlfriend is from Australia. He is from Italy, from Greece, from France,” says Benji, one of a group of pilgrims sat cross-legged in the Praza do Obradoiro, leaning forward heavily on their staffs and munching voraciously on cereal bars. “We all made promises – to ourselves, or to each other … or to St James. We met at a hostal three weeks ago, and we’ve been walking together ever since.”

The first international pilgrims arrived in Santiago well before Picaud’s time, the earliest coming from France in the middle of the ninth century. They were preceded, say some, by stargazing Celts making a last journey west towards Finisterre, which they believed to be a gateway to the afterlife. The scallop shell was their chosen symbol along the route for its resemblance to the setting sun. But in most European languages the scallop – coquille St Jacques, Jakobsschelp, conchiglia di San Giacomo – is inexorably linked to St James by the legend that he rescued a drowning knight who emerged from the sea covered in them. The symbol of the scallop shell, carved into fence posts and milestones, fashioned in ceramics and stained glass, now marks the way along all four main routes of the most important Christian pilgrimage after Rome and the Holy Land itself. Most pilgrims follow one of two routes that wind their way down through the Pyrenees, the earlier one then hugging the wild, verdant coast of the Basque country and Asturias, while the more recent one cuts inland across the sunbaked hills and plains of La Rioja and Castilla y León. Two others track northwards from Portugal and Seville, and there are many lesser routes besides.

Whichever route they have trodden, “all paths to Santiago are pilgrims’ ways,” says Díaz – they arrive in front of the cathedral in varying degrees of exhaustion and elation. Some still have a spring in their step – they have perhaps walked just the last 100km, the minimum required to earn official recognition – while others hobble or drag their tattered trainers across the flagstones, testament to months on the hoof and a degree of penance suffered whether they had intended it that way or not.

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