By choice, we left some extra time in our schedule on our roving retirement tour of the Iberian peninsula. By the time we got to Lisbon, we realized that we needed to decide how to use our extra time. I convinced Mike that we should go straight north from Porto back into Spain, specifically Galicia. Neither of us had been to Galicia and our research told us that we should definitely visit Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia. In addition, we had heard from friends about the pilgrimage made to Santiago from Portugal, Spain, and France, but we didn’t know more than that. Now was our chance to see what the pilgrimage was all about.
History of the Pilgrimage
The Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, dates back to the 8th Century when the remains of St. James the Apostle were first discovered in Northern Spain. It is believed that St. James preached the Gospel in present-day Galicia and was beheaded by King Herod on return to Jerusalem in 44AD. The story about St. James says that when he died, his disciples put his body in a boat and took him back to northern Spain. There are other theories, too. Regardless of the origin of the remains of St. James in Spain, King Alfonso II ordered the relics to be buried in a specially built chapel, which would later become the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, attracting pilgrims from across Europe.
The Camino is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, the Camino would start from wherever you lived, although nowadays, many consider the official route to begin in the town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, just across the French border. This route stretches more than 790km (490mi) across northern Spain. But there are long routes from Portugal and elsewhere in France. We actually saw pilgrimage medallions in the street in Montpellier, France.
The Camino grew in popularity in the Middle Ages, with more than 250,000 pilgrims visiting every year, and it became one of the three most popular Christian pilgrimages – the other two being to Jerusalem and Rome. The modern Camino was created in the 1980s by a priest from the Galician village of O Cebreiro, Father Elías Valiña Sampedro, who marked the ancient route with yellow arrows so pilgrims could easily find the way.
Today, many people walk or bike the Camino as part of a tour that allows you to follow in the footsteps of pilgrims since the Middle Ages. During the trip, you can soak up regional Spanish culture and visit historic cities. Along the way dine on tapas, fresh seafood, and regional classics all washed down with some local wines.
There seemed to be pilgrims arriving at the large square in front of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral continually during the day. You could recognize them by their packs, walking sticks, and a special clamshell that most people had hanging on their backpacks. Many also seemed to have other papers acknowledging their achievement. It was very clear that walking the Camino is a rewarding experience, everyone seemed very happy and excited. We saw more than one group dance into the square and sit down right in the middle and stare at the Cathedral.
Our first stop on the first morning was the Cathedral museum because we were told it would be crowded. We had no trouble getting in and we decided to buy a ticket that included the Museum, the bishop’s palace, and the Crypt of the Portico. All three are accessed only the from side facing the huge square in front of the Cathedral. The museum has an extensive collection of statues and reliefs from prior incarnations of the Cathedral. Like all ancient churches in Spain, lots of remodeling has occurred over the centuries. However, in the case of Santiago de Compostela, much of the previous art and craftsmanship has been preserved. They also have a cloister and an extensive tapestry collection, including some by Goya.
After the museum, we went to the Crypt of the Portico facing the square. It is a large space under the Cathedral. While it was recently restored, the arched space is completely empty, leaving us a little confused. The one ticket we didn’t get was to see the Portico of Glory, which requires a special ticket. The Portico of Glory is the western entrance to the Romanesque cathedral. It was designed by the genius of Master Mateo, whose atelier of stonemasons interpreted the passages of the Apocalypse in stone. It is considered a masterpiece of universal art. While we didn’t visit, we were able to see some of it from inside the Cathedral and some pictures of the statuary inside the museum.
Then we proceeded to the Palace of Gelmírez, named after the first Archbishop of Compostela. It is a splendid example of medieval architecture with a Hall of Arms, other rooms, and a kitchen. It also houses an exhibit about Master Mateo, the architect of the modern Romanesque cathedral.
The first thing to say is that the Cathedral is magnificent. We saw it our first night all lit up and pilgrims were amassing in the huge square in front and music was playing. It was a very festive atmosphere and quite moving for me. During the day, there were people dressed up like St. James and another follower and you could get your picture taken with them. It was a little kitschy, but special just the same.
The inside of the Cathedral is as impressive as the outside, including our glimpse of the Portico of Glory. I’ll let the pictures describe the inside. I don’t usually get choked up in or around a Cathedral but all of the pilgrims out front and in the Cathedral are really inspiring. We were even able to hear the mass from the neighboring Palace.
The Crypt of Saint James is underneath the alter. You actually have to go back out of the Cathedral and in another door to view the remains, which is really a marble crypt set in a small alcove underground. You climb down some stairs, walk through, and back out the other side. Really similar to viewing the birthplace of Christ in the church in Bethlehem.
We decided to stay close to the old town but not in the pedestrian section so we could park the car. Hotel Virxe da Cerca by Pousadas de Compostela is built on a hill and is a composite of a number of buildings. Sections of the building are really old, like several hundred years old. One section looked like a basement with interesting alcoves and channels and holes carved into the rock. The hotel had a nice garden where we had breakfast. Our room had a view of the garden all the way across to a convent on another hill. The hotel was fully booked for the next 2 months.
There were a number of towns in Galicia, near Santiago de Compostela, that we decided to visit. The first town in Spain just past the Portuguese border south of Santiago is Vigo. We visited on our way from Porto to Santiago. Vigo is a traditional seafaring, marina, and shipyard town. It was at various times invaded by Vikings, occupied by Sir Francis Drake, used to launch the Spanish fleet to support the Jacobites, and occupied by the French under Napoleon. However, in the 20th century, it became an important industrial center and port.
The harbor is large and filled with fish/shellfish cultivation areas. The Spanish are very fond of their shellfish. There are shipyards, a small old town, some preserved fortified walls, and a Maritime Museum.
A Coruña is the most populated city in Galicia and has also served as the political capital of the Kingdom of Galicia from the 16th to the 19th centuries. This northern Spanish town is very densely populated and is famous for its textiles. The main tourist site is the Roman Tower of Hercules, a lighthouse that has been in continuous operation since possibly the 2nd century AD. The tower is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and sits on a hill on a peninsula right in town. The town also has a nice long beach area that you can imagine being packed at the height of summer.
Fisterra is on Cape Finisterre, an alternative ending destination for many pilgrims on the Way of St. James. The rugged cape is the westernmost part of Spain and is called the Costa del Morte (coast of death). The coastline in this area of Spain looks a lot like the rocky part of the California coast and caused many shipwrecks. There is also a small fishing port but most people visit either as pilgrims or to hike the beautiful coast.
Mike enjoyed a statue near Fisterra of an inspired pilgrim, trodding the long, historic route with only a robe, sandals, hat, walking stick, and coin purse. The dedication to their faith to make this journey in such a manner was especially moving.
The food in Santiago was definitely better than expected. There are a number of places mentioned in the Michelin Guide as well as lots of places to eat pinchos. Most people have a drink and a pincho around 5 pm but we have made several dinners of the tasty morsels. Pinchos are finger food that always starts with a diagonally cut piece of baguette. After that, all bets are off. You can find Russian salad, peppers, cheese, and other meat stacked on top of the bread in interesting combinations. We made it a point, especially in Northern Spain, to explore as many pincho bars as possible.
In addition to the Pinchos, we had a number of other good meals in Santiago de Compostela.
Are you interested in walking the Camino de Santiago?