Since the early Middle Ages, countless devoted pilgrims from all over Europe walked all the way from the Franco-Spanish border at the Pyrennes to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia to pay homage to the relics of St. James the Great, housed in the magnificent Cathedral in the centre of Santiago's old town. These pilgrims will stop en route at Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, before finally arriving at the steps of the Cathedral after a long and ardous route. They will carry in their possession a staff, with a Galician scallop shell (the symbol of St. James) and a document known as 'credencial' (Pilgrim's Passport), to be stamped at every town on the route where they had stayed overnight. The stamps collected in this document serve as proof that the said pilgrim has indeed completed the pilgrimage according to an officially approved route (i.e. Camino de Santiago or St. James' Way) and is entitled to an official certificate of pilgrimage upon arrival at Santiago de Compostela.
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
There are several official ways, depending on where the pilgrims embark on their journey. The most common one is the Pyrennes - Pamplona - Burgos - Leon - Santiago way. Since we did not walk to Santiago (we drove there with a rental car), we were not considered true pilgrims (driving is not an approved method of completing a pilgrimage), just ordinary tourists.
It does not matter whether you are pilgrims or tourists: Santiago de Compostela is a nice Medieval town with lots of tradition and history, it is certainly worth a visit. This is my second trip to Santiago and Galicia; the first time I visited this Holy site was way back in 1996.
For the simple reason that we are tourists who want to see as much of Spanish countryside as possible, we decided to drive to Santiago via the northern coast, passing through scenic towns including Oviedo, Gijon, Lugo and finally, Santiago. On that day the weather was however atrocious: heavy downpours and cloudy grey sky all the way till Lugo. As a result of which we could not take any photos along the way.
In spite of such horrendous weather, you still see pilgrims walking in pouring rain on the side of the road. They kind of stood out thanks to their backpack, staff and the big Galician scallop shell which hangs from the bags or the staff. Many of them also carry a flag to indicate their country of origin.
When we finally got into Santiago, it was already late afternoon but at least the rain had stopped and the sky was clear. We stayed overnight at Sol Melia Hotel on the outskirt of the town. It is a brand new building with lots of free parking spaces, very friendly service personnels and a wonderful buffet breakfast which serves excellent extra-virgin olive oil, breads, Serrano hams and freshly made bread and fried eggs.
Being a UNESCO World Heritage site, the old centre of Santiago itself has retained its old world charm in spite of the arrival of budget flights in this part of Spain. The atmosphere did not change much since my previous visit, except that this time round, there were so many tourists and pilgrims all over the place as they all congregate in the city to celebrate the Easter. Outside of the Old Town, however, you can see that Galicia has indeed experienced rapid economic development in the last decade. 10 years ago, the countryside around Santiago looked like a slight better-off version of rural Ireland . This time round, the roads into Santiago have all been expanded, widen and re-paved, with numerous new buildings on what was previously farmlands on both sides of the new roads. Modern apartment blocks and traditional Galician stone houses that had undergone a complete face-lift now exist side by side, gone are the days when old houses were left to rot in the wild while the younger generation left for other cities or countries for employment.
A side street in the Old Town of Santiago leading out from the Cathedral to the lush countryside.
Beautiful garden inside the Hostal dos Reis catolicos. The complex was originally a pilgrims' hospice built by Queen Isabella of Castille and Ferdinard of Aragon in 1492; it is now a 5 star Parador for rich tourists and affluent pilgrims. The coffe at the bistro-restaurant at the cellar of the Parador was somewhat disappointing though, it was lukewarm and lacking in aroma.
Santiago's streets are lined with fish and seafood restaurants, cafes, bistros and shops selling all kinds of souvenirs and memorabilia for pilgrims from home and abroad. Mugs, pins, caps, flags, staffs curved from olive wood, cheeky T-shirts, commerative plates, umbrellas, and scallop shells fill the shelves of these stores. There is even a confectionary selling mint chocolates specially made for the Easter. For some serious shopping, head to the little shops that clustered around the little plazas and arcades in the Old Town, as well as boutiques in the modern part of the city.
Copyrights 2009. All Rights Reserved. All text and photos by YC Cheng.