Santiago de Compostela, Spain

pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela, spain

Pilgrims entering Santiago de Compostela on the last kilometre of the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James).

Why visit Santiago de Compostela?

Santiago is small, cheerful city full of thankful pilgrims, odd churches and massive monasteries. It’s a bit out of the way but a brilliant tourist destination whatever your religion. is Galicia’s most important city but also one of Spain’s cultural jewels and a place of international religious significance. Santiago is a World Heritage site with around fourteen ancient churches crammed into the fairly small and pedestrianised old town (there is a considerably larger new town), along with at least six vast monasteries/ nunneries. And it all began with St James.

Why is Santiago de Compostela such an important religious destination?

First theory

St. James (the Elder) was one of Jesus’ disciples and after the crucifixion traveled to Spain (known as Hispania then) to spread the Christian word. After some years James returned to Palestine where he was executed by the Romans (under the orders of Herod Agrippa) for his faith in 44 AD.

His followers brought his decapitated body back to the Spanish port of Padron in Galicia, and from there took him by horse-cart to an unknown location where they buried him.

Times were turbulent in Spain for hundreds of years after this and St James entered folklore in 813 AD when a hermit/shepherd told the local bishop that he had seen strange lights/stars and heard unusual noises in a certain area where legend had it that St James was buried.

The local Bishop, Theodomir, set off with a few sturdy assistants and searching the vicinity, found a small, old building with three bodies in it. He concluded that the more prominent bodily remains were of St James while the two lesser skeletons belonged to the two acolytes who had brought his body from Palestine.

Theodomir informed King Alfonso II who promptly commanded a Catholic basilica to be built on the site. And that was the genesis of Santiago de Compostela.

One more thing. . . a 1950’s excavation under the cathedral revealed the tomb of Bishop Theodomir, who had asked to be buried near St James. The engraved date on the tomb was 847.

Second theory

All of the above was concocted by Catholic church authorities in order to raise funds and emotions to fight against the Arabic Moors who were spreading north through Hispania and doing very well for themselves. Just look at Seville, Granada and Cordoba, grand cities still dominated by Moorish architecture.

If so, the campaign to revive Christianity in Spain was a great success as:

a) Santiago de Compostela became the most popular Catholic pilgrimage destination in western Europe during the middle ages (Rome was the biggest loser).

b) St James the Moorslayer, aka Santiago Matomoro, led Christians against the Moors in 844, and won a great battle. You can see Santiago Matomoro on his white charger at the top of the dazzling ornamentation above the altar in Santiago Cathedral.

However, even if the second theory is true, that the Church misrepresented the site (for the best of reasons), and millions of pilgrims have been inspired by Santiago de Compostela.  They arrive there with love, determination and devotion which can still be felt in this wonderful, joyous, peaceful city. And we don’t say that about many cities!

What’s the meaning of the scallop shell?

Pilgrims and a scallop shell set into the road surface, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

Visitors to Santiago de Compostela will soon notice the ubiquitous scallop shell, always pointing towards Praza do Obradoiro, the end of the line, or more precisely the end of many lines.

The scallop is both the pilgrim’s traditional symbol as well as being a Camino de Santiago route mark and can be seen on walls, signposts and inset into streets all over north Spain, as well as all over souvenirs in local shops.

There seem to be differing opinions of the origin of this mark.

Some say that the scallop shell was a useful, simple tool when pilgrims travelled very light as it could be used for drinking from a fountain or pool of water and could also function as a dish for accepting gifts of food from strangers.

Others claim that the scallop represented a successful arrival in Santiago – not the journey – and pilgrims would eat a scallop on entering the city, then fix the shell to their hats in celebration. Santiago is just 30 kms from the Galician coast where scallops are commonplace – or were commonplace before the market for them exploded!

In addition broad lines converge at a single point on a scallop shell, exactly what happens (albeit on a different scale) when various Camino de Santiago trails converge on Obradoiro square in front of Santiago Cathedral.

Pilgrims also traditionally carried a walking stick and a gourd flask containing water or wine.

Apparently there used to be a tradition that pilgrims would burn their stinking clothes on arrival and would be given a new set of clothing by the church.

Praza do Obradoiro in front of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Pilgrims taking selfie photos in Praza do Obradoiro in front of Santiago Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

Homebase for pilgrims is the city’s main square, Praza do Obradoiro in front of Santiago Cathedral.

Praza do Obradoiro, bordered by the town hall, the College of San Xerome and the magnificent Parador Hostal dos Reis Catolicas as well as the cathedral, is the ultimate destination for pilgrims.

This is where they collapse, cry, laugh, hug, celebrate wildly or praise the Lord quietly (or any combination thereof).  Also, this being the decade of the selfie, the younger pilgrims love to be photographed on the unlovely metal cube in front of the elegant, engraved scallop shell in the centre of the square.

There are also plenty of arrivals on bicycles these days, though they can hardly be called pilgrims and presumably don’t earn an indulgence from the church, i. e. time off from Hell.

Santiago Cathedral's central header, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

Santiago Cathedral’s central 12thC facade facing west, being renovated.

The cathedral’s two towers on either side of this centre-piece were undergoing renovation when we were there in 2014; work is scheduled to finish in summer 2015. It was unfortunate and disappointing but didn’t matter in the long run as there are so many spectacular sights in Santiago de Compostela, not least the incredible decor inside the cathedral and around the other two magnificent entrances, east and west.

On the elaborate cathedral header locals are seen welcoming arriving pilgrims (in fact the topmost figure is apparently St James the Elder).  The figures are carrying walking sticks (albeit ancient crooks, unlike today’s high-tech aluminium jobbies) and wearing traditional hats with scallop shells on the brim.

Strange sculpture on Colexio de San Xerome balcony, Praza do Obradoiro, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

On the east side of Praza do Obradoiro is Colexio de San Xerome, aka Colegio de San Jerónimo, where priests learned different languages in order to hear international confessions, now embellished with a couple of bizarre statues.

Pilgrimage Museum in Santiago de Compostela

Museo das Perigrinacións  is a quiet, relaxed and free museum dedicated to the cult of St James, the development of Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrimage centre and the history of pilgrimages around the world. It’s larger than it looks initially, with seven sizeable rooms located in Casa Gótica near Praza Cervantes.

A portrait of Saint James as a pilgrim, while his companion blesses some kind of monstrous slug, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

A portrait of Saint James as a pilgrim; meanwhile his companion blesses some kind of monstrous slug with wings.

What does Santiago de Compostela mean?

Santiago de Compostela probably means ‘The burial place of Sant Iago’.  Composita Tella means ‘Burial Ground’ in Latin while Iago is a Gallician version of James).

Though the legend suggests that the hermit who found St. James’ original burial place was led there by strange noises and lights/stars – maybe dinner that night was a handful of Psilocybin mushrooms? !
Campus Stellae means ‘Field of Stars’ in Latin, which is a rather more romantic name for a nice town than ‘Burial Ground’!

The lovely courtyard of Colexio de San Xerome, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

And just around the backside of the Colexio de San Xerome is this lovely, free-to-wander courtyard with some outstanding reliefs.

Best season to be there

The best time to visit Santiago de Compostela are the three driest, sunniest months of June, July and August, when a little rain can still be expected (the least rainfall is statistically in July), high temperatures will range between 22C/72F – 24C/75F with lows around 12C/54F.
Santiago has a breezy, wet climate with neither too much heat (almost never over 30C/86F) in the summer nor too much cold in the winter; generally lows are about 4C/40F. November to January months are very wet, probably windy and best avoided.

Local People, cool and cheerful

Santiago de Compostela People statues in Alameda park, Galicia, Spain

The local government has a sense of humour, in addition to reverence towards St James and the Catholic church. Alameda park, west of the old town.

Santiago de Compostela people enjoying seafood, wine and selfies in el Mercado, Galicia, Spain

Enjoying seafood, wine and selfies with lunch in Santiago’s market, el Mercado.

Wine tasting in the Mercado, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

Well, perhaps a little too much wine.

La Tuna

La Tuna, traditional Spanish musicians playing in the Town Hall, Pazo de Raxoi, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

La Tuna, traditional Spanish musicians.

La Tuna college musicians wear badges indicating locations – national and international – where they have played. They specialise not only in a variety of stringed instruments but more importantly in close harmonies of traditional Spanish folk songs. They are fundamentally buskers and pass the hat round in a quite determined way.

Santiago de Compostela accommodation

Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

Hostal de los Reyes (Reis) Católicos on the third side of Praza do Obradoiro is a stunning 15thC pilgrim hospital that is now an equally superb hotel.

If you cannot stay at the Reyes Catolicos but would like to check the place out, dress up a bit and walk in as if you are staying there, or maybe ask for the café. Then wander around the salons and four grand courtyards. Apparently the chapel is a fine sight too but it was locked when we strolled by.

Accommodation: prices in Santiago are not ridiculous. We rented a very modern, sophisticated apartment on Rua San Francisco, just 50m from the Cathedral/Obradoiro Square, for 80 euros a night in peak season.

Underground parking nearby cost 10. 50 euros for 24 hours. There are places to park for free (avoid any spaces with blue or yellow lines) downhill south of Obradoiro, but they’re not easy to find at peak times.

Getting there from Santander

Driving time from Santander is about 5 hours. We stopped at incredible – and appropriate – Cathedral Beach on the north coast of Galicia on the way, after a pleasant 2. 5 hour drive, had a long sandy walk and lunch, then took another 2. 5 hours to get to Santiago de Compostela.
The road, a mostly free-of-charge Autopista, was the best highway I’ve ever been on, so new, smooth and uncrowded that it was cruise-control all the way, with bonus mountains – Picos de Europa – on one side for much of the time.