Santiago de Compostela

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 (, 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.

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The Catedral

All roads in Santiago lead to the Catedral. You first appreciate the sheer grandeur of the cathedral upon venturing into the vast expanse of the Praza do Obradoiro. Directly ahead stands a fantastic Baroque pyramid of granite, flanked by immense bell towers and everywhere adorned with statues of St James in his familiar pilgrim guise with staff, broad hat and scallop-shell badge. This is the famous Obradoiro facade, built between 1738 and 1750 in the efflorescent style known as Churrigueresque by an obscure Santiago-born architect, Fernando de Casas. No other work of Spanish Baroque can compare with it, nor with what Edwin Mullins sublimely called its “hat-in-the-air exuberance”.

Behind the facade, the main body of the cathedral is Romanesque, rebuilt in the eleventh and twelfth centuries after a devastating raid by the Muslim vizier of Córdoba, al-Mansur, in 977. Although, perhaps not surprisingly, he failed to find the body of the saint, he forced the citizens to carry the bells of the tower to the mosque at Córdoba – a coup that was later dramatically reversed.

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Pórtico de Gloria

The acknowledged highlight of Santiago’s cathedral – indeed, one of the great triumphs of medieval art – is the Pórtico de Gloria, the original west front, which now stands just inside the main doors, immediately behind the Obradoiro facade. As this guide was researched, it was undergoing extensive renovation, which may not be complete by the time you read this.

Completed in 1188 under the supervision of Maestro Mateo, the Pórtico represented both the culmination of all Romanesque sculpture and a precursor of the new Gothic realism, each of its host of figures being strikingly relaxed and quietly humanized. The real mastery is in the assured marshalling of the ensemble. Above the side doors are representations of Purgatory and the Last Judgement, while Christ presides in glory over the main door, flanked by his Apostles, and surrounded by the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse playing celestial music. St James sits on the central column, beneath Christ and just above eye level. To either side are the Prophets of the Old Testament.

So many millions of pilgrims have given thanks at journey’s end, by praying with the fingers of one hand pressed into the roots of the Tree of Jesse below the saint, that five deep and shiny holes have been worn into the solid marble. Finally, for wisdom, they would lower their heads to touch the brow of Maestro Mateo, the humble squatting figure on the other side.

The High Altar

The spiritual climax of each pilgrimage to Santiago comes when pilgrims climb the steps that lead up behind the High Altar – an extraordinary gilded riot of eighteenth-century Churrigueresque – embrace the Most Sacred Image of Santiago, and kiss his bejewelled cape. The whole process is rounded off by the pilgrims making their confession and attending a High Mass.

The Botafumeiro

An elaborate pulley system in front of the altar serves to move the immense “Botafumeiro” (incense burner), which, operated by eight priests (tiraboleiros), is swung in a vast thirty-metre ceiling-to-ceiling arc across the transept. Originally designed to fumigate bedraggled pilgrims, the Botafumeiro is now used only at certain services – ask whether there’s one during your visit.

The crypt

The saint’s bones, kept in a crypt beneath the altar, are also visited by a steady procession of pilgrims. Lost for a second time in 1700, after being hidden before an English invasion, they were rediscovered during building work in 1879. In fact, the workers found three skeletons, which were naturally held to be those of St James and his two followers. The only problem was identifying which one was the Apostle. This was fortuitously resolved as a church in Tuscany possessed a piece of Santiago’s skull that exactly fitted a gap in one of those here.

The cathedral museum

Santiago’s cathedral museum comprises several distinct sections, which you can visit in any order; each sells the combined admission ticket. The museum proper has its own entrance to the right of the main cathedral facade. Its ground floor holds archeological displays, while upstairs you’ll find assorted relics of the cathedral’s history, including the Botafumeiro itself when it’s not in use. From there you can walk into the late Gothic cloisters, the courtyard of which offers a wonderful prospect of the riotous mixture of the exterior. Back inside, the tapestry rooms on the topmost floor include pieces based on Goya paintings, and open onto a long open-air gallery with similarly good views over the Praza do Obradoiro.

Doors from both the cloisters and the cathedral itself lead into the Treasury, where the highlight is a huge carved altarpiece depicting the legend of St James. The final component of the museum is Mateo’s beautiful Crypt of the Portico, accessed beneath the cathedral’s main entry staircase (and distinct from the crypt that holds James’ relics). That, however, is currently undergoing a long-term restoration, so only a virtual version is on display.

Las Cubiertas and the Pazo de Xelmírez

A unique attraction of Santiago’s cathedral is that it’s possible to take a guided tour of its roof, known as Las Cubiertas. It’s an experience not to be missed; the climb up leads through the upper floors of the cathedral interior (when no service is taking place), while the roof itself, which consists of shallow granite steps, offers superb views over the rest of the city, as well, of course, as the cathedral’s own towers and embellishments. Every way you turn, it’s crawling with pagodas, pawns, domes, obelisks, battlements, scallop shells and cornucopias.

The tours start by visiting the Pazo de Xelmírez (Palacio Arzobispal Gelmírez), which adjoins the cathedral to the north and is entered to the left of the main stairs. Archbishop Xelmírez was a seminal figure in Santiago’s development. He rebuilt the cathedral in the twelfth century, raised the see to an archbishopric and “discovered” a ninth-century deed that gave annual dues to St James’ shrine of one bushel of corn from each acre of Spain reconquered from the Moors – a decree that was repealed only in 1834. His appropriately opulent palace features a vaulted twelfth-century kitchen and a thirteenth-century synodal hall, along with plenty of ancient statues.

Note that the standard tour features a quick-fire Spanish commentary that may well leave you floundering; to arrange an English-language tour, at no extra charge, call five days in advance in summer, or two days in low season.

The history of the pilgrimage to Santiago

The great medieval pilgrimage to Santiago was arguably Europe’s first exercise in mass tourism. Home to the supposed shrine of St James the Apostle (Santiago to the Spanish, Saint Jacques to the French), the city became the third holiest site in Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome. Following in the footsteps of Godescale of Puy, who arrived in 951, an estimated half-million pilgrims turned up each year during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Although the shrine was visited by the great – Fernando and Isabel, Carlos V, Francis of Assisi – you didn’t have to be rich to come. The various roads through France and northern Spain that led here, collectively known as El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James, or the Pilgrim Route), were lined with monasteries and charitable hospices. Villages sprang up along the route, and an order of knights was founded for the pilgrims’ protection. There was even a guidebook – the world’s first – written by a French monk called Aymery Picaud, which recorded, along with water sources and places to stay, such facts as the bizarre sexual habits of the Navarrese Basques (said to expose themselves when excited, and protect their mules from their neighbours with chastity belts). It was an extraordinary phenomenon in an age when most people never ventured beyond their own town or village.

Why did they come? Some, like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who had “been in Galicia at Seynt Jame”, had their own private reasons: social fashion, adventure, the opportunities for marriage or even for crime. But for most pilgrims, it was a question of faith. Thanks to the miraculous power of St James, they knew the journey guaranteed a remission of half their time in Purgatory. Few doubted that the tomb beneath Santiago’s high cathedral altar held the mortal remains of James, son of Zebedee and Salome and first cousin of Jesus Christ. It seems scarcely credible that the whole business was an immense ecclesiastical fraud.

Yet the legend, at each point of its development, has no apparent basis in fact. It begins with the claim, unsubstantiated by the Bible, that St James visited Spain after the Crucifixion, to spread the gospel. He is said, for example, to have had a vision of the Virgin in Zaragoza. He then returned to Jerusalem, where he was undoubtedly beheaded by Herod Agrippa. But the legend relates that two of James’ followers removed his corpse to Jaffa, where a boat appeared, without sails or crew, and whisked them in just seven days to Padrón, 20km downstream from Santiago.

The body was then buried, lost and forgotten for 750 years, before being rediscovered at Compostela in 813, at a time of great significance for the Spanish Church. Over the preceding century, the Moors had swept across the Iberian Peninsula, gaining control over all but the northern mountain kingdom of Asturias. They drew great strength from the inspiration of their champion, the Prophet Muhammad, whose death (in 632) still lay within popular memory, and a bone from whose arm was preserved in La Mesquita in Córdoba. Thus the discovery of the bones of St James, under a buried altar on a site traditionally linked with his name, was singularly opportune. It occurred after a hermit was attracted to a hillside by visions of stars; the hill was known thereafter as Compostela, meaning “field of stars”. Alfonso II, king of Asturias, came to pay his respects and built a chapel, and the saint was adopted as the champion of Christian Spain against the infidel.

Within decades, the saint had appeared on the battlefield. Ramiro I, Alfonso’s successor, swore that James had fought alongside him at the Battle of Clavijo (844), and that the saint had personally slaughtered 60,000 Moors. Over the next six centuries Santiago Matamoros (Moor-killer) manifested himself at some forty battles, assisting, for example, in the massacre of the Inca armies in Peru. While that may seem an odd role for the fisherman-evangelist, it presented no problems to the Christian propagandists who portrayed him most frequently as a knight on horseback in the act of dispatching whole clutches of swarthy, bearded Arabs with a single thrust of his long sword. (With consummate irony, when Franco brought his crack Moroccan troops to Compostela to dedicate themselves to the overthrow of the Spanish Republic, all such statues were discreetly hidden under sheets.)

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updated 27.04.2021

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