The man walking across the Plaza de Obradoiro is dressed in an outfit quite unlike anything else my wife and I have ever seen before.
His broad-brimmed felt hat, which is turned up at the front, is decorated with a bright scallop shell. He is holding onto an eight-foot-long stave. The stave also has a scallop shell attached—plus a gourd tied to it at the top. He is wearing extraordinarily thick sandals. He is also wearing a long-hooded cloak that is decorated with three more scallop shells.
We are in northern Spain, in Santiago de Compostela. Long ago, this city was a top destination in Europe, one of the most famous places in the world, considered one of the three great pilgrimage sites of Christianity, after Jerusalem and Rome. Here, says Spanish lore, Christianity’s first martyr, the Apostle St. James, was buried and later appeared to rally Christians for their reconquest of Spain.
That man we are watching walking across the square is dressed as one of the pilgrims who used to trek across Europe along the Way of St. James, destined for Santiago de Compostela. He has thick sandals because of the long walk; a long cloak to use as both raincoat and night blanket; the stave and gourd for carrying water; and the scallop shells are symbolic badges of honor, marking one who has made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
While very few dress the ancient way, many still make the pilgrimage today—rarely on foot but often by bicycle and sometimes even on horseback. It’s an experience that combines adventure and spirituality.
The focal point of the city, whose historic area has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is the Cathedral of Santiago (St. James), dating to the ninth century and built to house the remains of the apostle. Its main entrance looks out on the vast Plaza de Obradoiro, one of Spain and Europe’s most imposing squares.
Each of the four sides of the cathedral is of a different façade and faces out on a plaza of its own. This enormous structure is renowned for its “Door of Glory.” Decorated with its more than 200 smiling and laughing holy figures and standing 60 feet high, 13 feet wide, and 51 feet deep, the highly unconventional work by Maestro Mateo is considered a masterpiece of Romanesque sculpture.
Build just above the tomb of St. James, which was discovered in 819 AD, construction began in 1060 and wasn’t completed until 1211. As different elements were added over time, this led to such dramatic change that in the architectural design of the exterior portion you get to see Baroque style while the interior still retains its Romanesque art form and is considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque art in Spain.
You can choose from guide-conducted tours of various lengths given in a half-dozen different languages or a self-guided audiotape, also available in a half-dozen different languages.
After touring the inside of the cathedral, we checked out the surrounding area, including Praza Da Quintana. Also known as Quintana Square, it’s considered emblematic of this delightful city.
Praza Da Quintana has two levels, divided by a few steps. The upper level is known as Quintana of the Dead and the lower level is known as Quintana Alive. It was a cemetery in the 16th century until a local council decided to convert it into a grand public square. Now a popular place for holding concerts and shows, it’s considered a particularly pleasant place to be at dusk to listen to the chimes of the Cathedral of Santiago.
Another spot we enjoyed was Plaza de las Platerias, a square whose centerpiece is a large fountain with a sculpture of four horses with webbed feet, known as La Fuente de los Caballos. Locals also call this area “the silversmith’s plaza.”
Plaza de las Platerias is a popular area for tourists to shop, especially for silver goods but also for trinkets and other souvenirs.
Santiago de Compostela is the capital city of the autonomous region of Galicia, which is part of northern Spain nicknamed “Green Spain.” Contrary to the musical “My Fair Lady” melody, “the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain,” truth is, the rain in Spain falls mainly in its north coastal areas, making them lush and green.
An intense green pervades the city and its surrounding area. The city has plenty of parks and gardens, and our favorite was one of its oldest and most beloved parks, Parque de la Alameda, with lots of green spaces, beautiful monuments, and some of the best views of the historic old town center, a great spot from which to take a photo of the cathedral towering over the city.
Santiago de Compostela’s Zona Vella or Old Town is one of the most beautiful historic districts in Europe. It’s anchored by the Plaza del Obradoiro and its historic buildings, which include the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and the Reyes Catolicos hotel, the best place to stay. As you wander away from the great plaza and stroll winding streets, you will come across smaller squares and parks, walk under arches, and see impressive Baroque and Romanesque churches. You will also find a number of cozy cafes. Zona Vella is also the area for nightlife.
As we were taking a walk along Zona Vella’s narrow arcaded cobbled streets and among its small squares early in the evening the first time we visited Santiago de Compostela, we were surprised by a pleasant soft sound falling gently on our ears. It was the hauntingly evocative sound of flutes. Then every so often we came across some male students from the local university decked out in medieval capes. These strolling minstrels, we learned, are a university ritual in Spain called “La Tuna.”
The city has a reputation for having a festive spirit. Consider yourself lucky if you happen to visit during one of its traditional festivals. Streets and squares come alive with music and dance as citizens, many in colorful traditional dress, celebrate Galician customs and folklore.
The most elaborate festival, the one in honor of the Apostle Santiago (Saint James) occurs in July and draws visitors from far and wide. Spain’s Tourism Ministry names it one of 30 festivals in the country that foreign visitors should try to experience.
With 33,000 students attending the University of Santiago de Compostela, one of the world’s oldest continuing universities, dating back to 1495, the city has quite an array of nightspots, terrace bars, and restaurants. One can eat well—and plenty—here. The regional specialties of seafood and beef are especially good.
So is the chocolate. The hot chocolate we drank one cool evening at a local restaurant was the best we’ve ever tasted. And chocolate candy we tasted at a shop called Pasteleria La Perla just steps away from Plaza de Obradoiro was so incredibly good that we stocked up on as much as we could reasonably carry back home with us. Unfortunately, they don’t have a website or we’d be ordering regular shipments from them.
Spain is one of the favorite travel destinations for both my wife and me, and we have returned often and traveled throughout the country. This capital city of Galicia is an especially appealing place in a country we love visiting. Whenever anyone asks either one of us to name the place in Spain that we find most appealing we each unhesitatingly answer: Santiago de Compostela.
If You Go
Accommodations: The Parador Hostal Dos Reis Catolicos, located in the heart of the city on Plaza del Obradoiro, is by far the best place to stay. Built in 1499 as a hospital and temporary lodging for traveling pilgrims and refurbished inside often over the years, it’s a delightful combination of modern and luxurious amenities in a building that is more than 500 years old.
When to Go: Because they are warm and dry, and everything is open, the months of April, May, June, and September are considered the best months to visit.
Guidebooks: DK Eyewitness’s travel guide to Spain is a good choice.