Santiago de Compostela: Discovering the Historic City and the Pilgrimage Routes
Located in Northern Spain, Santiago de Compostela is renowned for being the end point of the Way of St. James (also known as the Camino de Santiago), the medieval pilgrimage route of the 9th century. Indeed, the Capital of Galicia is said to house the tomb of the Apostle Saint James and is therefore an important Catholic destination.
Despite the sometimes rainy weather in Santiago de Compostela, the city attracts 4.5 million visitors each year. Whether you are religious or not, the historic city of Santiago de Compostela has a lot to offer.
Ever wanted to know more about Santiago de Compostela? Let’s take a closer look at this holy Spanish city.
- The city’s Old Town (Casco Antiguo): Included on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1985, the Old Town is the most beautiful part of Santiago de Compostela.
- The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (Catedral de Santiago de Compostela): Located in the city’s Old Town, this Roman Catholic cathedral is absolutely breath-taking. Built between 1075 and 1122, this impressive structure features numerous architectural wonders. Between the two Baroque-style towers, which respectively show a statue of St. James’ father and a statue of St. James’ mother, stands a statue of Saint James the Great, one of Jesus Christ’s apostles. The Eastern façade houses two portals: the Royal Door and the Holy Door. The latter only opens during Holy Years, when St. James day (July 25th) falls on a Sunday. You can discover this Spanish architectural masterpiece for free (admission to the museum is €5) and enjoy the views of the city from its roofs.
- The Pilgrimage museum (El museo de las peregrinaciones): This museum is dedicated to the history of this pilgrimage route and explains the role played by the Camino in the development of the city through sculptures and iconographies.
- The Galician Center of Contemporary Art (El Centro Gallego de Arte Contemporáneo): The Galician Center of Contemporary Art is a must-see attraction for every art lover. It houses exhibitions from national and international artists and even features a terrace that hosts open-air exhibitions so that you can enjoy art masterpieces while taking a glance at the panoramic view of the city’s Old Town.
- The Plaza da Obradoiro: Located in the city’s Old Town, this square, which faces the Cathedral, hosts the Saint James’ Day celebrations as well as other interesting events, such as open-air concerts. The Plaza da Obradoiro, whose name literarily means “Work of Art”, is the largest square of Galicia.
- The Palace of Gelmírez (Palacio de Gelmírez): Built in the 12th century for the archbishop Gelmírez, this palace sits in front of the Cathedral and is a good example of Spanish Romanesque architecture.
- The Hostel of the Catholic Monarchs (Hostal de los Reyes Católicos): Located next to the Santiago Cathedral, this impressive building was originally a hospice for pilgrims and poor people. It has now become a luxurious hotel that can be visited. Make sure to take a look at the breath-taking doorway, the Baroque-style patios and the chapel.
Walking to Santiago de Compostela: a closer look at the Pilgrimage routes
If you love hiking, walking to Santiago de Compostela can be an inexpensive way to spend your vacation. Taking one of the pilgrimage routes can become a wonderful experience and is a nice way to meet people and enjoy nature.
The Pilgrimage routes cover all of Europe with Santiago as the final destination. The main route is called Camino Francés (French Way) and starts from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France. This route connects major cities such as Pamplona, Burgos and León. The whole route is 780 kilometers but lots of pilgrims walk smaller portions or start from a point closer to Santiago, depending on their physical condition. Along the way, many hostels welcome pilgrims at a very reasonable price (€3 to €30 per night).
Another popular route is the 825 km Northern or Coastal Route, the Camino del Norte, that takes pilgrims along Spain’s northern coast past San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón, and Avilés. There is also an option to divert at Oviedo and walk the Camino Primitivo, (the original route) and to reconnect with the Camino Francés at Melide. This route offers phenomenal sceneries and is much less crowded and quite a bit hillier than the Camino Francés. It also has fewer pilgrims’ accommodations but offers a great wealth of monasteries and churches along the way.
The Via de la Plata takes pilgrims from Seville past Caceres, Salamanca and Zomara and either connects with the Camino Francés further north or takes a more direct route west towards Santiago de Compostela. Either route has a length of about 1000 km, takes about six weeks to walk and features a good number of pilgrims’ hostels (refugios).
Many pilgrims start their journey even farther away in places such as Paris, Arles or Cluny and there is also a Portuguese route that starts in Porto. Every year thousands of people walk on the St. James Way, for personal or religious reasons. For many it is also a very unique travel experience that offers tough physical challenges amid stunning sceneries. Because of its plentiful opportunities for introspection on this long journey, many pilgrims regard their experience on the Camino as a life-changing event.
Useful Tips for pilgrims
Considered a cheap holiday by some people, the Pilgrimage can be hard if you don’t take the right equipment with you. Here are some tips that can be useful if you are thinking of walking to Santiago.
- Your backpack should equal 10% or less of your body weight.
- Take a good pair of shoes (waterproof hiking boots).
- Take as little as possible. The more things you take, the more difficult it would be to walk long distances.
- Don’t forget to bring sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat.
- Take clothes that can dry easily.
- Bring a Swiss army knife, a sleeping bag, mosquito spray, rain gear and a small flashlight.
- Walk at your own pace.
With its interesting history and architecture, Santiago de Compostela has a lot to offer, even if you are not a pilgrim. The city, which is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is one of Spain’s must-see destinations and should not be missed.
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