Visiting Santiago de Compostela [And My Must-Do’s for a More Meaningful Revisit (Hopefully)]

Just when I thought that Andalucia would be my last outside-Madrid trip and I would simply wait for the cooler months to arrive before I ever join any group tour again, here comes another irresistible invitation – a single-day visit of Santiago de Compostela. The trip was made to coincide with Feast day of the beloved saint – St. James.
imageTo be honest, it’s just now that I learned about the place and so I was wary about going. But after having been told that the spectacular sight of the cathedral alone is worth the long and arduous travel (and the summer heat woes), I was pretty much convinced eventually. I got curious, and so I checked it online. What I saw were all magestic images.

It did remind me of another great cathedral, or basilica — La Sagrada Familia, and strongly believed that both belong to the same league. Likewise, my interest in Santiago got piqued by the stories about the brave and amorous adventures of the peregrinos (pilgrims) and their quest to conquer the El Camino trail.

Off to the Feast of Saint James, Santiago de Compostela

Some 500 or so miles from the city of Madrid, in the Northwestern portion of the Iberian peninsula, is the third most popular and spiritual Christian site in the world (after Jerusalem and Rome) – Galicia’s Santiago de compostela.

To the determined pilgrim and serious devotee to the saint, the most revered cathedral in all of Galicia is the ultimate destination. To finally stand before it and appreciate its utter grandeur is the sweetest reward for any pilgrim’s immeasurable effort; a laborious trek of numerous roads, highway sides, and trails, all of which comprise the St. James Way, a seemingly endless journey that spans several hundreds of miles.

Such a journey is the supreme religious sacrifice known as the Camino de Santiago.

Let’s get it straight. While named after him, St. James didn’t do the camino himself. After his death, his body was transported to Spain and the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral became his remain’s resting place.

It took us more or less eight hours of bus travel (plus two stops along the way) to reach the site. After surrendering our bags at a designated warehouse for safekeeping, we immediately headed for the Praza Obradoiro. It is the main square, and the most popular in the area, being the location of the cathedral. It is presumably the center of the Old Town.

The following comprised my Santiago adventure:

Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

I joined this trip mainly for one thing – Galicia’s pride which is the Cathedral. So you can imagine my surprise when I laid my eyes on the holy edifice, and discovered much to my dismay that a significant portion of its facade is blocked by heavy scaffolding and boards.  I was so disappointed that I didn’t bother to inquire about how to gain entry to the roof top, where they say scenic images of the town can be shot.

The rest of our activities:

Witness the ceremonies at the Praza Obradoiro

imageA musical band marches towards the direction of Praza Obradoiro, as part of the feast day celebration

imageA glass enclosure with the statue of Saint James inside is carried by procession participants
imageA priest, obviously of high ranking because of the cap that he wears, carries a cane. I take this as a symbolism of the church recognizing the Compostela Pilgrimage as a highly-valued Christian tradition

imagePeople gather on both sides of the path that connects the church to the Palacio de Raxoi to watch the Feast Day ceremonies

Explore the main squares, edifices, and the surrounding streets

The portion within the perimeter of the main Santiago church is where most of the cultural, religious and scenic spots are found. We didn’t do much walking since most sites are in close proximity to each other. Although we had to walk the cobbled or stone-paved streets like Roa Nova and Roa Vilar when we finally had to look for a place to have our lunch. Many of the museums and lesser churches are free, while others you need to pay in order to enter. A few hours is enough to tour this part of the Town
imageThe building on tbe background is the Monastery of San Martiño Pinario, located at Praza de Inmaculada
imageBars Charra and O’Barazal, and Restaurante San Jaime are just three of the many options of would-be diners along Calle Raina
imageFronting the Praza das Praterias is the Torre da Berenguela, which dwarfs everyone below. People wait in line to enter the cathedral and attend the 12:30PM mass
imageRua Nova is one of the Old Town’s major streets. Connected to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, its length hosts a number of popular Galician cafes and restaurantes
imageConvento de San Francisco del Valle de Dios is a 13th century stone monastery built under the supervision and ownership of the Franciscans friars. It is declared as one of Santiago’s major historical monuments
imagePraza das Praterias, literally means Plaza of the Silversmiths, and is one of the major squares around the cathedral of Santiago

Attend the mass

imageGigantes walk in a single file. Their entry to the Cathedral is part of the ceremony that signals the start of the midday mass honoring Galicia’s Patron Saint

Savor Galician Food

1. Empanada Gallega – one of the typical foods this part of Spain. Also known as the Galician pie, I had this at Paradiso Cafeteria, Rua do Vilar, 29. Upon tasting, I knew my empanada had atun (tuna meat flakes) as the main filling.

2. Torta de  Santiago (Tarta de Santiago in Spanish) – Galicia’s staple postre (dessert), it literally means cake of Saint James. It is a soft, spongy cake made of almonds the recipe of which originated way back in the Middle Ages. I had my delicious plate at Cafe Bar Pico Sacro, along Rua de San Francisco.

image3. Caldo Gallego – the popular hot and tasty broth soup of Galicia. It contains simple ingredients like cabbage, leafy greens, potatoes, and beans. I enjoyed it also at Paradiso Gallega, together with my empanada.


4. Lasena Gallega – Santiago’s meatier version of the Italian lasagna. I had this for lunch at Cafe O Paris, Rua dos Bautizados.


5. Polbo a Feira (Pulpo a la Gallega) – The octopus dish must be the most Galician of them all. I’d trade all the dishes above, except for this one. It’s quite a simple food fare, with the meat cooked by boiling just right. The pulpo, along with unpeeled boiled or roasted potatoes, is drenched in oil, and sprinkled with sea salt and paprika before it is served in a wooden plate. This dish at O Paris restaurant afforded me the most delectable Gallega lunch.  

Must-do’s for a more meaningful Santiago de Compostela tour:

Don’t get me wrong. Sheer joy and exhilaration is what I found after my visit to Santiago de Compostela. But I admit to being less contented with the tour, after witnessing the current state of the cathedral and not having seen the place enough.

I felt there was so much to do that could have made the trip more meaningful. As a reaction, I drew out a list of things that I want to do next time  I visit Santiago again (God-permitting). As a pilgrim? Well, nothing is impossible — this saying I always believe in.

1. Return to the site with the cathedral devoid of scaffolding

Perhaps, in a few years’ time, they will have brought down the obstructions, which I thought should not be there in the first place. By then, with nary a hint of scaffolding, it will have been restored to its original state, and dripping in immense beauty and grandeur like what’s shown in the succeeding photo. Source of Image below: Carlos Miguel Solis Seco

(2007) (059)

2. Attend the pre-midday mass (10:30AM)

We attended the mass that was scheduled at past noon, which was much like any ordinary mass I hear in Madrid, except for several mention of the patron saint. I realized that I should have attended the much earlier mass since it was the one being wholly dedicated to the way of St. James. That mass, which lasted for almost two hours, was also dedicated to the peregrinos (pilgrims) who completed the Camino de Santiago. Ideally, my next visit will be on a Holy Year, the year when the Feast of St. James falls on a Sunday. This allows for rare rituals to be performed – like when the Botafumeiro (thurible) is swung while giving off an aromatic smoke. The 10:30AM mass is the best time to embrace the urn that contains St. James’ ashes image

3. Have my own pilgrim’s cane, scallop shell, and meja (witch) doll as souvenirs

Mejas are benevolent witches. They bring good luck when brought along during one’s pilgrimage. The bordon or cane is considered as a third leg of the pilgrim, and is supposed to provide safe guidance along the way. Scallop shells are worn on the chest to identity the wearer as a pilgrim; this gives him access to lodgings. Large shells are also used to hold food or water for drinking.  These three items are said to influence a pilgrim’s camino, turning it into a safe and successful one. image

4. Book a room at Parador de Santiago

Located within Praza Obradoiro is the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos (or Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos), rated as one of Europe’s most beautiful hotels. It is popularly known as the Parador de Santiago. Book here and you have the bragging right of having stayed at the world’s oldest operating hotel. If you’re a pilgrim, consider yourself lucky if you are picked to enjoy a free accommodation at the hotel — the hostal offers this privilege to a limited number of Way of Saint James peregrinos. It was once a refuge for pilgrims of ancient times, but today, it normally charges no less than 100euros for a single room. I thought it’s quite prohibitive considering I’m a self-confessed budget traveler. But I’d say I’ll go for it if I have the money — there’s no shame in aiming high. image

5. Own a pilgrim’s passport (complete with stamps) and certificate

The pilgrim’s passport, the certificate that you completed the camino, and the religious renewal that goes with the experience are good enough reasons to add the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in my bucket list. Still, much of me is hesitant knowing the difficulty of this goal. To think about 500 or so miles of camino de santiago trail that you must accomplish is exasperating already, to begin with. Although I read somewhere that walking a minimum of 100 miles is enough to merit the certificate. You must, however, make sure that your passport has the necessary number of stamps, which is at least three, to be issued the certificate. The pilgrim’s ultimate destination? The Old Town, specifically its main cathedral, where the bones of St. James are buried.  Hopefully, it too will serve as my final destination, even if I have to choose the easiest and shortest of the Camino de Santiago routes, once I decide to be a peregrino. Our pilgrim shell, passport and certificateImage source: Courtesy of Student Christian Movement

Bound for Madrid

image Going home. We left at 4PM, and arrived at Moncloa Metro area in Centro Madrid at 12 Midnight)

Do I really have plans of pursuing a second visit? Shall I find myself walking the camino as a pilgrim this time? To be frank, revisiting Santiago is extremely difficult due to the distance, time and financial constraints. But then, if given the chance, I’d be there in a heart beat. I would love to go back – whether as a peregrino or as an ordinary tourist. For now, I’ll cherish this visit of Santiago de Compostela. It’s definitely an experience that’s not only exhilarating but  spiritual as well.