Santiago de Compostela, Galicia’s capital, is only a short drive away and we’re quickly settled in the outskirts of the city. The throng of pilgrims becomes thicker the closer we get – there’s a sense of elation amongst the walkers. The culmination of their efforts is for many, mere hours away.
The short walk into town reflects the size of the city with bakeries, supermarkets and hospitals dotted along the way. All have been scarce in a our journey so far. Not mention inumerable churches – no chance of being in need of confession and not finding a convenient spot to download then.
Most buildings are stone, a stern grey granite, but the softer sandstone colours appear on the more formal structures. The twin spires of the cathedral overlook the city from afar.
At the edge of town a large group of pilgrims have arrived and are getting ready to make their charge into the square, excitedly chatting, one girl sobbing in relief. We pass them, only to hear the roar of their running past, cheering, chanting, thundering down the narrow street. It’s very emotional and easy to get caught up in the moment. Bagpipes, a traditional Galician instrument, pipe them in. Once there, many drop in exhaustion, others too worked up to be still, overcome by their achievement. These scenes are played out over and over again as groups arrive. Individuals lumber and limp in on their own, their success a private moment. Just as well it’s an enormous square.
The cathedral itself however, is largely blocked from view by a major restoration project that’s been underway since 2006.
Much of it is scaffolded and under cover. It’s a bit disappointing not to see it in all its glory, but it’s necessary work to ensure its future over centuries. The rest of the buildings in the square, the Praza do Obradoiro, are quite spectacular, so there’s plenty to see including the Hostal de los Reyes Catholicos,
built as an inn and hospital for pilgrims and the enormous palace, Pazo de Xelmirez, built in 1120 – 1149.
I’ve booked tickets for the tower and museum – the tower tour is our first stop. Our guide is of course, Spanish, so it all goes over our heads, but as we’re going up and I’m happily congratulating myself on not freaking out going up the stairs, we step out into the open…to find WE’RE ON THE ROOF. See the stone gable below. On it. On the point of it. Really.
Not a nice flat roof either, but a pointy, stone tiled gable. At this point I’m not sure if I’m going to freeze in fear, pass out or throw up. Perhaps all three.
Our guide drones on in what I’m sure is a very interesting presentation. I clutch on to Chris for dear life and take photos as best I can.
All around us, building works are in progress with bits of tower and roof in numbered pieces. And it doesn’t stop there.
Not content with one…we traverse to ANOTHER GABLE where we get another incomprehensible lecture, then another on the base of a tower, eventually traversing back to the first gable, for you guessed it, another lecture we don’t understand.
We’re up there for over an hour and whilst the views are excellent and the guide is clearly knowledgeable, given how many international visitors come here, they really should consider the language options.
We descend eventually and have lunch, calamaras y pimenton padron, which are superb, then it’s off to tour the cathedral musuem with its ancient stone carvings, sarsophegous and beautiful tapestries. No photos allowed unfortunately but we do find a beautiful convent square nearby.
The interior of the cathedral is largely unchanged since the 11th century with an arch of private chapels and a central gilt extravaganza high altar. More gold and cherubs then you could poke a stick at. There’s a queue a mile long to visit the crypt of St James, but I’m sure he’ll forgive us if we give him a miss.
Late afternoon sees us walking the streets of Santiago, taking it all in. The old city is quite touristy with souvenirs, lots of scallop shell motifs, and street performers. There are many pretty squares, especially the Praza de Praterias, the side entrance to the cathedral.
A highlight is a fabulous street of restaurants with their displays enormous racks of rib eye, huge octopus and seafood.
Particularly odd looking are the percebes, a goose necked barnacle. They look quite alien but are a prized local delicacy, collected at great risk from rocky cliffs beaten by tidal waves.
By this stage we’ve been in our feet for ages, walking for over 7 hours. The plan was to walk home and head out for a nearby dinner but by the time we trek up the hill, we’re done and it’s a quiet night in.
I do some research on the cathedral and learn that it was built during the 11th to 13th centuries, standing on an original 9th century basilica. It’s a monument to St James, the patron saint of Spain, whose body was brought here along the path that now forms the pilgrims’ walk, the Camino de Santiago. The converging lines on scallop shells are representative of the all the paths that pilgrims take to arrive in Santiago de Compostela and date back to the 1100s when pilgrims walked or rode from their homes to the city. In those days, if you made the pilgrimage you were buried with a scallop shell motif on your grave. These days, pilgrims recognise each other by carrying a scallop shell, the paths are marked with them as are inns and services supporting the crowds that converge on the city daily.
We didn’t walk the hundreds of miles that the pilgrims did, but I’m still very glad we came.