• Santiago de Compostela (Old Town)

Visit: 30th April 2016

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The weekend straddling April and May 2016 was the first bank holiday weekend of the summer season. I often take advantage of the chance to go away for three days without taking any time off work and this time around I chose Galicia, in north-west Spain.

There are three World Heritage Sites that happen to form a triangle in Galicia, each site about 50 miles apart. These are the Roman Walls of Lugo, the Tower of Hercules in La Coruña and our first destination, the old town of Santiago de Compostela.

Although Natalie lives near Heathrow (and I live in Bristol) we have found that every trip we have planned from now onwards ended up being out of Gatwick. The flight to Santiago departed at the ungodly time of 6.30am, so we stayed the night before in an airport hotel. It was a clear morning when we departed, giving a clear view of Southampton and the Isle of Wight from 20,000 feet.

Santiago de Compostela is a site of special significance in Christianity, for it is the destination of one of the three most important pilgrimages. Santiago translates into English as ‘St James’, and the pilgrimage route is named the Way of St James because it is traditionally held that the remains of St James – one of Jesus’s Twelve Apostles – are buried within the city’s cathedral. There is no single route for the pilgrims who come on foot from all over Europe, but instead a huge network of routes beginning in countries like Germany and Italy, heading through France and then converging at the Pyrenees into a single route through northern Spain to Santiago. UNESCO loves the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and has inscribed it no less than three times on the list:

  • once for the city itself
  • again as the single route through Spain
  • and finally as the disparate set of routes and churches that supported the pilgrims in France (which I have been to a few parts of but have much yet still to see).

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The symbol of the pilgrimage is the clamshell. Seeing it on a signpost lets pilgrims know that they are on the right route, and if a building displays it that means it welcomes pilgrims to shelter (eg. in churches or private houses). Pilgrims carry clamshells about their person, often mounted on a special wide-brimmed hat. We saw quite a few of them on our trip, including a couple on the flight (skipping the hard part, I thought!) but also many pacing along the roads between Santiago and Lugo. Britain is a source of pilgrims – one of the ways it used to be done was to walk through Cornwall to St Michael’s Mount near Penzance and then take a boat across the Channel to Mont St Michel in Brittany before continuing the journey on foot to Spain. My parents’ house is on the route itself, so we are well used to seeing the clamshell on our Cornish walks. At Easter this year we walked a section of the Cornish route (where it is known as St Michael’s Way) – as you can see from the signpost below.

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Upon arriving at Santiago’s Lavacolla airport we rode a bus to the city. The centre point is naturally the cathedral, which is a grand Gothic building very much in the Spanish style. It was a beautiful bright day, but windy, meaning it was still overall not very warm. They had a no-bag rule in the cathedral (because of the number of backpackers who turn up there) so Natalie and I took turns to go inside whilst the other watched the bags.

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The interior features much gold and finery within the nave and choir. The altar, below, is of course the focal point, and within it is a statue of Christ which pilgrims and regular visitors alike queue up to touch. The pilgrims also wish to touch the left foot of a statue of St James, which signifies that they have finally reached their destination. The stereoscopic effect on the floor of one of the chapels put me in mind of the Silk Market in Valencia.

The medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela date from the tenth century, when they were rebuilt after having been destroyed by the Muslim invaders of the Iberian peninsular. It is said that the discovery of the remains of St James in Santiago around that time gave the Christians the motivation to push the invaders out over the following centuries.

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There is a local almond cake that holds EU protected geographical indication status, known as a Tarta de Santiago. Although this one has been knocked slightly askew, you can make out the cross of the Order of Santiago in icing sugar.

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Convent of St Pelagius of Antealtares

We spent a few hours in Santiago before catching a coach to our next destination: the relatively remote city of Lugo, two hours to the east. This was the first time we had travelled long distance by coach, and I was relieved to find that Natalie didn’t hate it as much as she had feared!

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4 thoughts on “• Santiago de Compostela (Old Town)

  1. Pingback: • Roman Walls of Lugo | Tom's World Heritage Site travel blog

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