EVERYONE from philosopher Paulo Coelho to actress Shirley MacLaine has written about the long, long road to Santiago de Compostela, the 800km Camino which starts in France and ends in northwestern Spain.
Strangely, not that much has been written about Santiago itself. That’s a pity, because as Unesco described it in 1985 when making it a World Heritage Site, it’s one of the most beautiful urban areas in the world.
Santiago first began attracting pilgrims, and catering to their needs, in the 12th century. It quickly became the third-most important Christian pilgrimage destination after Rome and Jerusalem. But although many millions have visited the city over the last nine centuries, they have marked it lightly.
SO WHAT IS THERE TO SEE?
First call for the tourist or the pilgrim must be the massive cathedral. Begun in the 12th century to cater to the crowds drawn by the miraculous rediscovery of the body of St James, the huge building was given an elaborate new façade in the mid-1700s. It’s an awesome sight; what it must be like to enter its soaring space after a month or more of blisters and sunstroke can only be imagined. In a crypt below the altar is the silver sarcophagus holding what are believed to be the saint’s remains.
The cathedral makes up one side of a square, with the Palace of Raxol, the Colegio de Fonseca and the immense former inn and hospital for pilgrims, the Hotel of the Catholic Kings, making up the others. Best vantage point for an overview, and a coffee, is the outdoor terrace of the hotel.
Investigate the narrow streets and alleys leading from the cathedral. Under the low, stone arcades you’ll discover shops selling pilgrim’s staves, traditional broad brimmed brown hats, water gourds and of course the ubiquitous scallop shell (worn as a symbol of pilgrimage) plus tiny jewellery shops, art galleries and oldfashioned clothing stores. On a side street you’ll spot the Museum of Pilgrimage. Call in for a fascinating exhibition outlining the history of this spiritual migration.
In the evening you’ll have your pick of restaurants, from simple to serious. Best local specialities include seafood from the rivers and nearby Atlantic ocean and some hand-crafted cheeses.
To finish your meal, be sure to try a glass or two of Santiago’s agua ardiente.
WHAT ABOUT ACCOMMODATION?
There are two, five-star hotels in Santiago including the historic and ancient Hotel of the Catholic Kings, now part of the Parador chain; http://www.parador.es/en/parador-de-santiago-de-compostela tel: 0034 981 582200.
More secluded and less expensive is the AC Palacio del Carmen, a former convent that’s a short stroll from the cathedral. www.palaciodelcarmen.com/ Telephone 0034 981 552 444.
Check for special offers whichever hotel you choose.
This article first appeared in the Sunday Tribune