Europe, Spain

Weekend in Santiago de Compostela

March 19-21, 2021

This weekend’s trip was to Santiago de Compostela, which is the capital of Galicia. I was actually not feeling in the mood to get up and do anything. I knew that going on an adventure was important, and I’d regret it. I was debating going to Lugo, Santiago, or Ourense. I decided on Santiago as I wanted to see the cathedral and a few museums I had heard about.

I left mid-afternoon for a 3:30 PM train to Santiago. When I arrived, I walked about 30 minutes to get to my hostal and settled in. The train station is a couple kilometers outside of downtown, but the hostal was right in the center.

The old town of Santiago de Compostela is actually a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most famous site in the city is the Cathedral of Santiago, which is the ending point of El Camino de Santiago (known in English as the Way of St. James). There are dozens of routes, below are the main ones. The longest and most common is the French Way, which is about 790 kilometers (500 miles) across the top of Spain. There are also routes from other parts of Spain, Portugal, and other countries.

The scallop shell is the symbol of el camino as it represents many paths converging towards the same end point (there are other theories about its symbolism as well related to St. James’ death). As you can see on the left side of the map, a couple of the routes coming from Portugal go through Pontevedra. The shell is on many buildings, roads, and signs to guide the pilgrims to the Cathedral of Santiago, where it is believed that the remains of St. James are.

After taking an afternoon nap, I went to walk around. The old town is relatively small and a lot of history and old architecture to enjoy. I wanted to see the cathedral at night, so I headed there first. Unfortunately, much of it is under construction due to it being off-season and a low travel time due to COVID, but it was still remarkable. It was still open for visitors, so I was able to go inside. Although, I didn’t take any photos because I wasn’t sure if I could, and I wanted to enjoy the moment. The architecture and design was unbelievable. It was built in 1075 and is only one of three cathedrals that are built upon an Apostle’s remains.

Next, I went to the Parque da Alameda, which is a very large park and was quite lively late at night. I walked around just a small portion of it and enjoyed seeing the active nightlife at restaurants along the outside of the park. After that, I headed back to my hostal to get a good night’s rest.

The next morning I walked around, got coffee, and walked around some of the plazas. There are lots of them in the city, and four big ones surrounding the sides of the cathedral. I spent time in Praza da Quintana and Praza do Obradoiro in particular.

I wanted to go to the local univeristy’s Museo de Historia Natural, and I started making my way there. Per usual, I had a variety of bus issues and confusion, so I started the walk. I ended up getting lost and going down the wrong streets, so I decided to find something to do close to where I was and make the best of it. Here are just a few of the buildings I unsuccessfully tried to visit.

I was trying to find some of the monestaries to visit, but a couple were closed and a couple I got confused trying to find. I saw an open door to this church thinking it was one of the monasteries. I ended up at the Convento de San Francisco but it was also labeled Museo de Terra Santa. I think I just went into the church part, but I’m really not sure. Anyway, it was still pretty, and I took a few photos and then headed on my way.

Next, I went to a site I had been dying to see: Museum of Pilgrimage and Santiago. The museum was built in 1951 with the main goal of protecting, preserving, documenting, researching and promoting the material and immaterial assets of Santiago and El Camino de Cantiago, as well as pilgramages as a whole. The different exhibits cover El Camino from its origins to modern times and explains it from varying points of view. Many walk El Camino for religious or spiritual reasons, but there are countless other ones as well.

DISCLAIMER: Research is summarized from outside sources. Apologies for any mistakes.

The cathedral was built in 1075. During the Middle Ages, 250,000+ pilgrims took the pilgrimage each year, the third most popular pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome. There’s lots of debated history about how it came to be, but it is generally agreed upon that people started taking the journey 1000 years ago. Before that, it is suspected it was a Roman trade route. Due to a variety of political, public health, and religious factors, the pilgrimage saw a major decline from the 14th century onwards, with only a few hundred people walking it each year. In the 1980s, Father Elias Valiña Sampedro helped promote it in Europe, lead to its world heritage site status, and mark the route with arrows and scallop shells. Now, in 2019, it saw 350,000 visitors. During Holy Years (when the Feast of St. James on July 25th falls on a Sunday), there is an exponential increase in the number of pilgrims.

Santiago de Compostela and the pilgrimage also represent the fight against Islam. As I talked about in my posts about visiting Andalusia, Spain has been through tumultuous religious conflict and shifts. This is very visible in the southern parts of Spain, where architecture from Visigothic times to the Moors era to post-Reconquista is everywhere. Yet, it is still apparent in other parts of Spain. Santiago de Compostela was destroyed during the Islam era in Spain and was rebuilt in the 10th century and became a significant site in Christianity.

The exact number of pilgrims is not known, although many are counted by the pilgrim office. This is where pilgrims can get a certificate after showing their passport with a certain number of stamps per day along the route. Much of the city and development along el camino came from the needs of the travelers, such as hostals (albergues) and hospitals. It’s a very communal journey with people helping each other along the way.

From the top level of the museum, there is a glass ceiling where you have close views of the cathedral.

While I had been inside the Cathedral the night before, I only had about 10 minutes, and it was a quick walk through. Of course, I wanted to return. Unfortunately, most of the cathedral was closed. The internal museum. The library. Access to view the tomb of St. James. Typically, one mass is held each day where of the pilgrims who have completed the journey attend, and the names of everyone who’s finished over the last 24 hours are read. To avoid overcrowding, these masses were split into different times and spread to other churches. The city is usually full of pilgrims, and I honestly saw just a few. I’m sure during a non-pandemic or during the summer or during a Holy Year, it looks vastly different.

The inside (and outside) of the Cathedral is remarkable. Truly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been to. It’s one of those places that photos really don’t capture, although I took a few and tried.

Next, I went to the Museo del Pueblo Gallego (Museum of the Galician People). I primarily went here to see this cool staircase they have. It was quite a large museum and had endless content about culture – past and present – in Galicia. Understandably, most of it was in the Galician language (Gallego) which I don’t understand most of. The museum opened in 1977 in the Convent of Santo Domingo de Bonaval which was built back in the 13th century.

Right across from this museum was the the Galician Centre of Contemporary Art. There were some intruiging and unique exhibits, and it was worth stopping in.

I didn’t stay for too long because I was getting quite tired, so I started walking back to the hostal, stopping for a drink and tapas along the way. I called it a night.

The next day was my last day, and I had an afternoon train back to Santiago. I woke up and walked through some of the streets and found a place for a light breakfast.

I spent about an hour here and then headed back to the Parque da Alameda as I had only seen a little bit of it. I enjoyed walking around, enjoying the weather, and seeing all the different statues, fountains, and greenery.

Then, it was time to head back to Pontevedra!

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