Santiago de Compostela
Let the journey begin
Santiago de Compostela is the cultural heartbeat of the beautiful province of Galicia. A medieval city that remains small in size, grand in its heart and busy in its beat, mixing modern life with antique heritage like no other Spanish city.
At its centre is the omnipresent cathedral. To the pilgrims who visit, it is a symbolic end of their spiritual journey. Though, with reflection, and the passage of time, it may prove to be a place from where their true journey in life began.
Santiago stands 260 meters above sea level and the cathedral stretches its monumental towers to the heavens a further 70 meters. Situated just 35km from the incredible Atlantic coastline, Santiago is the perfect base for exploring Galicia and its culture from both an urban and a rural perspective.
Greeted by the massive doors of the main entrance, we enter the cathedral to be welcomed by the Porch of Glory - the most famous work of art in Santiago; completed by the much-lauded craftsman Master Mateo in 1188. (+ info)
Santiago’s sheer wealth of important sites and priceless artifacts can sometimes seem overwhelming and guided tours and historical guidebooks are readily available to help you appreciate these.
Our desire is to lead you on a slightly different journey, one that will reveal the hidden heartbeat of this gentle city and leave you with an insider’s knowledge of its activities and charms.
Grab your bearings
The impressive facade of the cathedral faces due west, worth bearing in mind when trying to orientate in Santiago. Whatever your spiritual allegiance, a visit to the cathedral is a must and a performance of mass is well worth experiencing. This is especially true on festival days when 8 men heave on ropes, setting an enormous 50 kg Botafumeiro (incense burner - + info) into full swing high above the congregation.
It is an old ritual dating back to the 14th century when the less pleasant odors of travelling pilgrims required a subtle yet sweet smelling disguise.
The cathedral has a traditional Latin cross floor plan, with the nave running a full 100 meters from the west sided main entrance to the high altar at the east end. The transept offers additional exits to the north and south sides of the building.
Gently make your way round and you will discover chapels and treasures at every turn but what makes this cathedral so extra special is its enduring ability to bring together people of all ages, races, countries and religions under one spiritual roof. Breathing in this essential essence is a truly uplifting experience.
The four main squares
Plaza del Obradoiro
The cathedral’s main square, it once housed the workshops (Obradoiros) of those who built the cathedral. The former palace, Pazo de Raxoi (now the city council building) has an impressive history and sits opposite the cathedral. The former pilgrim hospital (now an exclusive hotel) resides to the north side.
The square is massive and retains a constant, contemplative buzz, as visitors move around, admiring the cathedral from every conceivable vantage point. Doing so is enjoyable but to truly appreciate the intricate detail of the facade, you must see it illuminated at sunset. Head towards the cafes opposite the cathedral late in the afternoon and watch as the sun gently bathes the stonework in golden light.
To witness the square in all its pomp and glory, visit it on the festival evening of 24th July, when packed crowds delight in fireworks and spectacular light shows projected against the cathedral’s facades.
Alternatively see if there are any concerts being held in the square during your stay. These are normally ticket-only affairs, so you get to experience the square in all its naked glory, away from the maddening crowds.
Plaza de la Inmaculada
A small, tunneled passageway leads from Obradoiro to the north square, Plaza de la Inmaculada. You may well find the way by following the sound of a street musician. The traditional Galician Bagpipes being a favourite for this acoustically enriched spot.
Inmaculada is a small square made famous by the north-facing cathedral facade; named the Azabacheria Façade after the jet-craftsmen of Santiago who fashioned delightful jewellery and desirable objects from hardened pieces of coal. Such craftsmen still exist, though no longer in this square, but you will find many of their items available in the ubiquitous souvenir shops. These make delightful “unique to the region” gifts.
Opposite the cathedral is the former monastery of San Martin Pinario, a massive complex measuring some 20,000 square meters and holding within its cloisters the beautiful Church of San Martin.
The complex, nowadays, is multi-functional. One part is a hotel, other parts hold cultural exhibitions while some quarters are used by the students at the university. The square itself has a student vibe throughout the day.
Plaza de la Quintana
Is the second largest square in the city and a favourite place to sit down, take the weight off your feet and watch the world pass by. It is a wonderfully social square with outside cafeterias and buzzing restaurants at either end of its courtyard.
The square sits on the east side of the cathedral, flanked by the imposing Monasterio de Antealtares. This amazing monastery, now a convent, is the second oldest building in the city, founded as the first basilica of St James was being built. It was instructed to remain plain in its appearance so as not to overshadow the first church of St James. By default its muted, almost prison-like facade has enclosed the square perfectly and formed a marvelous natural auditorium where the wide flight of steps that links the two levels of the square becomes the seating area for an audience.
Magical nights occur spontaneously in Quintana. The warm glow of its arena invites crowds to mingle and have pre-entertainment drinks while awaiting a dance or a concert laid on by the local council. The building remains in use today with nuns permanently residing behind grilled windows. One can only imagine what kind of emotions run through their hearts when they hear the music begin to play.
Plaza de las Platerías
The final square adjacent to the cathedral is Plaza de Platerías, so called in recognition of the Silversmiths who used to ply their trade there. Souvenir shops line the cathedral’s facade and ensure their work is still being purchased and their craftsmanship sustained.
Plaza de Platerías, like many of the squares in Santiago, often becomes an informal gathering place for street performers and musicians who congregate on the cathedral stairs.
In the centre of this square is the most famous fountain in Santiago; Fuente de los Caballos (Fountain of the Horses). Constructed in 1759, it shows an angel sat upon the coffin of St James holding his star to the heavens above. Four aquatic horses hold her and St James aloft.
There is a quaint old custom associated with the fountain for those who have just arrived in Santiago: whilst admiring the fountain and the water spouting horses, feel free to encourage your friends to find the back legs of the horses. If they fall for this, (as there are no back legs,) you can splash them with water from the fountain, and declare that they will have been officially baptized by the city of Santiago!
Bird´s eye views
Before exploring the medieval maze of cobbled streets, hidden alleyways, old world churches, beautiful boutiques, tucked away taverns, and peaceful parks that become the city, there are two absolute musts for your agenda.
Make your way back to the front of the cathedral. Situated on the right hand side of the main entrance is the cathedral museum, which is well worth a visit.
The museum has three floors and exhibits a wide range of artifacts that have contributed to the cathedrals history. There are additional works by Master Mateo, historical wooden altars that chronicle Santiago’s past, a library, a chapter house and one of the largest cloisters in Spain to explore.
On the third floor you can exit out onto the gallery that overlooks the city’s main square - Plaza do Obradoiro.
Suddenly, you are above the hustle and bustle of the square, away from the crowds, the mass of pilgrims, the students and the tour groups. You are simply a witness to the action below you. It makes fascinating viewing and a great place to watch the sun set as the shadows envelope this historic quadrangle.
By walking to the end of the Gallery you also get a bird’s eye view of the red roofed south side of the city, where the three principle Ruas feed the foot traffic into the cathedral’s welcoming arms: Rúa do Franco, Rúa do Vilar and just out of sight Rúa Nova.
It is a great vantage point for taking a little time out, watching the world go by and creating your own memorable photographic moments.
The gallery experience is a fun one, but just an appetizer for what is perhaps the best excursion that you can undertake during your stay in the Galician capital.
Just to the left of the main entrance to the cathedral is the booking office for the rooftop tours. This truly is an incredible experience, where you get to feel the enormity of the structure beneath your feet and get to see the city in its entirety from every conceivable angle. Breathtaking...
Santiago de Compostela
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