The ancient pilgrimage centre of SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA ranks among the most beautiful cities in all Spain. A superb ensemble of twisting stone lanes, majestic squares and ancient churches, interspersed with countless hidden nooks and crannies, its medieval core remains a remarkably integrated whole, all the better for being very largely pedestrianized. Hewn from time-weathered granite, splashed with gold and silver lichen and sprouting vegetation from the unlikeliest crevices, the buildings and plazas, arcades and flagstones seem to blend imperceptibly into the next. Warrens of honey-coloured streets wind their way past a succession of beautiful monasteries and convents, culminating in the approach to the immense Praza do Obradoiro, flanked by the magnificent Catedral, the supposed resting place of the remains of St James. To enjoy an overall impression of the whole ensemble, take a walk along the promenade of the Paseo da Ferradura (Paseo de la Herradura), in the spacious Alameda just southwest of the old quarter.
To this day, locals and visitors alike continue to flock to the old quarter for its round-the-clock sense of life and vibrancy, making it far more than a mere historical curiosity. Modern tourists are as likely to be attracted by its food, drink and history as by religion, but pilgrims still arrive in large numbers, sporting their vieira (scallop shell) symbol. Each year at the Festival of St James on July 25, a ceremony at his shrine re-dedicates the country and government to the saint. Those years in which the saint’s day falls on a Sunday are designated “Holy Years”, and the activity becomes even more intense. The next will be in 2021.
For all its fame, however, Santiago remains surprisingly small. Its total population is estimated at 116,000, of whom 33,000 are students at its venerable university. Almost everything of interest to visitors is contained within the densely packed historic core, known as the zona monumental, which takes roughly fifteen minutes to cross on foot but several days to explore thoroughly. Most of the commercial activities and infrastructure lie a short distance downhill to the south, in the less appealing modern quarter, which is also where the students tend to live. A high hillside 2km southeast of the city is topped by an unfinished 400-million-euro extravaganza known as the City of Culture (www.cidadedacultura.org), which will at some point hold a museum and performance centre. Wander away from the zona monumental in most other directions, however, and you can quickly reach open countryside.
Uniquely, Santiago is a city that’s at its best in the rain; situated in the wettest fold of the Galego hills, it suffers brief but frequent showers. Water glistens on the facades, gushes from the innumerable gargoyles and flows down the streets.