“You approach Compostela the way you would a miracle.”
Álvaro Cunqueiro, ‘Las geografías imaginarias’
Santiago de Compostela
Located in the Galicia region, Santiago de Compostela has been one of Christiandom’s most important sites since the 9th century when King Alfonso II recognized it as the burial place of James the Apostle. Construction of the cathedral began in 1075. Routes were developed (Camino de Santiago) for pilgrimages in the 10-12th centuries, when hundreds of thousands of Christians would make the annual journey to Santiago. The pilgrimage’s popularity waned in subsequent centuries due to religious wars and the plague. Although the Camino has been traveled by important figures from Saint Francis of Assisi to Stephen Hawking, it is only in the last 40 years that the pilgrimage has renewed popularity.
The scallop shell is the most famous symbol of the Camino, guiding pilgrims toward Santiago de Compostela. There are many legends explaining why the shell symbolizes the camino; it is said that the many grooves of the shell represent the many routes to Santiago de Compostela.The shells were used by early pilgrims as bowls to hold food and drinks. Most pilgrims wear the shell during their journey – often around their neck or attached to their backpacks.
With its narrow and winding streets built over the last 1200 years, Santiago de Compostela conjures all the feelings of an ancient Spanish town. Surprisingly, its charm and enchantment are not lost amongst the thousands that gather there every weekend. It is one of the must visit destinations in Spain.
Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St. James)
The Camino de Santiago has many routes. Pilgrims can choose to walk, bike, or even ride horses or donkeys the way the original pilgrims did. The most famous route is Camino Francés (the French Way) which begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France. The route is 780km (~500 mi) and usually takes 4 weeks to complete. Importantly, the Camino is not only for the religious – anyone is welcome. There are many traditions that have developed over the years, ending with a visit to the shrine of Saint James and a prayer to him.
The Camino is busiest during Holy Years, when St. James’ name day (July 25) falls on a Sunday. The last Holy Year was 2010 and the next is 2021.
Certificate of Completion
Pilgrims will receive a Compostela (or a certificate if they are non-religious) at the end of their journey signifying completion. In order to receive a Compostela, pilgrims must meet certain requirements, such as getting their Pilgrim Record stamped daily along the route. Hikers must complete at least a 100km journey and bicyclers must complete at least 200km
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is almost 1,000 years old. Construction began in 1075 AD but the Basilica was not consecrated until 1211 AD. The initial structure of the church reflected its medieval origins, with renovations and additions during the Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical periods, with architecture that reflects those periods.
Hours: 7:00am – 8:30pm
Hostal dos Reis Católicos
Paradores are historical buildings (palaces, monasteries, etc.) in Spain that have been renovated and operate as luxury hotels. The Hostal dos Reis Católicos in Santiago de Compostela is one of the most popular paradores. Commissioned by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1486 after their pilgrimage to Santiago, it is considered one of the oldest continuously operating hotels in the world. Some of the paradores offer special rates to pilgrims. The restaurante Libredon in the Hostal is one of the best in Spain.
Popular belief is that Saint James preached in Spain during his life time, later returning to Jerusalem before he was martyred. It is said that his followers put his remains on a boat which eventually arrived in Spain. A local queen put his body in a tomb which was forgotten and rediscovered in the 9th century by a hermit. Inside the Catedral is a shrine to Saint James, behind the altar. Visitors are able to climb steps up behind the statue, put their hands on a scallop shell and say a prayer to Saint James. It is said that whatever you ask for, you will receive. For many who journey to Santiago de Compostela to pray to Saint James, it is a very emotional experience. Pope John Paul II prayed before Saint James in 1989; you can read his prayer here.
To Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela has a small airport with direct flights from Madrid, Barcelona and the UK. Several European airlines operate flights to Santiago. Buses from the airport to the city (13 km away) run every half hour and cost €3.
The train station connects Santiago de Compostela to cities all over Spain. You can also connect to other European cities by train, traveling through Barcelona or San Sebastian.
And of course, you can always walk!
Around Santiago de Compostela
The town is quite small and walkable. The old town is a maze of narrow streets and alleys, many on whom are closed to automobiles. It is easy to get lost, but the town is small enough you can usually reorient yourself by looking up for the towers of the Cathedral, as I did.
When to Visit
The Church is open year round, but you should take into consideration the weather and whether you want to avoid peak tourism times. Of course, you might want to go at the busiest times if a date has special religious significance for you.
The weather in Santiago de Compostela is relatively minor compared to New York or Washington, DC. It is in the 40-50s Fahrenheit in Jan-Feb and in the 80-90s in Jul-Aug. If you are doing a journey on the Camino, however, snow and rain are possibilities so plan in advance.
The most crowded times are around Easter, during Summer (Jul-Aug), St. James’ name day July 25 and during Holy Years (see above). Of course, Santiago de Compostela
Visiting Santiago de Compostela is a unique experience, the enormous significance of which is felt by most who visit. I hope you will get a chance to visit. In the meantime, the Cathedral invites you to light a candle, for free, through its website: Catedral de Santiago.