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Santiago de Compostella - Galicia - Spain

 

Chaucer's wife of Bath went on a package tour to "Galicia at Seynt Jame" around 1380, except then it was called a pilgrimage. These journeys started in the year 813 as the result of a brilliant ecclesiastical marketing ploy by a Spanish monk, and were attracting half a million pilgrims a year at its peak in the 11th century.

The monk had discovered a tomb which he declared to be that of Saint James the apostle; had this verified by the Pope and Santiago or Saint James was established as the third holy city of Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome. What brought these hardy travelers from all over Europe was a sure belief that the indulgences they gained would wipe out some of their time in purgatory - a sort of insurance policy for the hereafter.

Cathedral of St James Santiago De Compostela

Cathedral of St James
Santiago De Compostela
© Hugh Taylor

 

Twenty-first century Christians still make the pligrimage, like Hans and Dieter from Munich, whom I met, as they staggered into the Praza de Obradoira after their 650 kilometre hike from the French border. They came as a sign of their Christian faith, to feel themselves part of a Christian heritage stretching back 2000 years. It didn't matter whether the bones below the high altar of the cathedral were really those of Saint James, it was the faith of all those pilgrims trudging through the centuries which moved them.

 

Travel Facts

 

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TRAVEL FACTS

Ryanair, the low cost carrier has some incredibly cheap deals from London Stanstead to Santiago de Compostela. Booking well enough in advance can often result in a fair considerably less than the cost of the bus to the airport.

Entry Requirements:

EU residents require only a valid passport to visit Spain.

The official website of Galicia tourism has comprehensive information on getting there, entry requirements attractions and accommodation. 


 


 

Soaring above the pilgrims and dominating the square is the immensely high and richly ornate Baroque facade of the cathedral; the towers and central portico are richly encrusted with decorative patterns, exuberant pillars, coats of arms and statues of Saint James with his pilgrim staff. But as I climbed the steep steps with Hans and Dieter, I was unprepared for the impact of the Portico de Gloria, the original mediaeval entrance to the Romanesque cathedral which lies behind the Baroque façade. Around the gate of heaven cluster the great and good, the events of the bible, saints and devils, heaven and hell, animals, tools, musical instruments, carved in loving and lively detail by mediaeval stonemasons with facial expressions and bodily movement so real that you recognise them as the living, breathing humanity of their day, immortalised in stone. Above the main door, Christ is at the centre of the heavenly host with Saint James as supplicant at his feet and below the saint the tree of Jesse forms the central column with spreading roots at the base. I put my fingers in the marble roots of the tree, in the five indentations, made by thousands of pilgrim fingers over hundreds of years, and experienced an eerie shiver, cold but not unpleasant.

Pilgrims received a compostela, a certificate that they had completed the pilgrimage which entitled them to food and accommodation on their way home along the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim way to Santiago. Nowadays the compostela apparently still entitles pilgrims to a free meal at the Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos.

Originally built for the pilgrims in 1498 by Ferdinand and Isabella, the hotel is one of the oldest in the world and dominates the northern side of the Praza de Obradoira. It operated as a hospital for the poor until 1954, when it was converted into the most luxurious of the Paradors, historic buildings converted into hotels, run by the Spanish government. Unfortunately the meal for pilgrims, according to Bettina Selby whose pilgrimage in 1993 was filmed for Channel 4, is not a tradition which has been cherished. Certainly, pilgrims will get a meal, but not luxury hotel food or even good peasant fare; slops and leftovers in the basement are judged appropriate for pilgrims.

Staying in Los Reyes is like sleeping in a museum; I lay in a four poster bed, surveying the vaulted ceiling and was to scared to sit on the fragile antique chairs. It is expensive by Spanish standards, but worth it, just to wander in the cool peace of the four courtyards in the centre of the building, which no sound disturbs save birdsong and running water.

Outside Los Reyes there is music everywhere; buskers play Celtic music on Galician pipes or wind out tinny mechanical tunes on the hurdy gurdy; elaborately dressed troubadours from the university sing harmonies to a mandolin and one night I encountered a troop of scouts from Madrid singing pop songs. There is an infectious gaiety which captures you as you explore the squares and alleys around the cathedral. The Praza de Quintana, surrounded by high walls, cannot be reached by car. Access is either through a narrow alleyway or by the stairs at the side of the cathedral. The Puerta Santa in the square, is the back door to the cathedral which is opened only in holy years when the feast of Saint James, July 25th, falls on a Sunday. There is an indolent careless air about the square, children play in the echoing empty space, pigeons gather expectantly around the cafe tables which sprawl out into the sun and tourists, seeming to have stumbled upon the place accidentally, wander aimlessly across such an unexpected expanse. Close by is the smaller Praza de las Platerias, the silversmiths' square, with an ornate Baroque fountain at the centre. The silversmiths were one of the main guilds of mediaeval Santiago whose workshops were to be found in the arches under the cathedral. In the shops around the square there is still an abundance of silverware ranging from mass produced statues of the saint and scallop shell motifs to exquisite and unique modern pieces. The ancient alleyways, pillared terraces and sudden squares inside the mediaeval city walls are a joy to discover with architecture mediaeval, renaissance and baroque not to mention abundant markets and specialist shops and you could happily spend a month exploring it without exhausting its treasures.

All roads in Galicia lead to Santiago along the pilgrim route of Saint James but Santiago also makes a good base from which to visit the rest of Galicia. I watched the Palm Sunday celebrations in Pontevedra, another small mediaeval town near Santiago. The life-size statue of Jesus on the donkey headed the procession of pipers and drummers, while children in their Sunday best waved giant fronds of plaited palms. Afterwards families lingered by the fountain among the roses and camelias or under the orange trees in the square. I wandered off into tiny lanes, full of cafés and bars where I ate seafood and drank white wine by the jug. The white creamy rings of squid in batter, the octopus in salty tomato sauce and the spicy prawns soaked in garlic and chilli were a delight, but the ubiquitous hake is best avoided unless you like boiled fish in watery tomato sauce. Galician seafood is reputed to be the best in Spain, which is unsurprising, given the extent of its coastline and fishing industry.

The daily life of rural Galicia follows a peasant pattern centuries old. I saw oxen pulling carts, a woman guiding a hand plough pulled by an ancient tractor, men and women scything in the fields and bundling hay, traditional horreos or grain stores raised on smooth granite legs to deter rats and topped with a cross as double insurance.

It is a country, proud of its Celtic roots with a strong tradition of pipe music, miles of deserted beaches, small mediaeval towns, a rural countryside 50 years in the past by our standards but perhaps practising a more sustainable way of life. Galicia is well named Green Spain, reminiscent of Ireland with its patchwork of tiny fields, slow pace, wayside religious shrines and rainy weather, although when I was there in April, the sun shone unceasingly and the temperature reached 70ºF every day.

 


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