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.
Praza do Obradoiro in front of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
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 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.
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.
Santiago de Compostela accommodation
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.