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Santiago de Compostela
Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrHome to the Catholic pilgrimage site of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, that houses the remains of Saint James the Great, this city in Galicia, Spain is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its beautiful Old Town overflowing with architectural grandeur.
HistoryThe area where Santiago de Compostela now stands was recorded as being a Roman cemetery from as early as the 4th century. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century, it was occupied by the Suebi , and the settlement annexed with the rest of the Suebi Kingdom by Leovigild in 585 to become the sixth province of the Visigothic Kingdom of Spain.
From 711 to 739, the city was raided by the Arabs and finally conquered by the Visigothic King of Asturias in 754. Around 60 years later, the remains of Saint James the Great were identified in the nearby town of Iria Flavia and accepted to be valid by the Pope and Charlemagne. They were moved to Santiago for political and religious reasons, transforming the city into a Holy City and a center for Christian pilgrimage. This city’s religious significance was recorded by the author, Usuard, in 865, and by the 10th century, was referred to as ‘Compostella’.
During the 10th and 11th centuries, the cult of Saint James of Compostela emerged, along with other cults in northern Iberia, as encouraged by ruling leaders. The city’s political relevance increased when the center of Asturian power moved from Oviedo to León in 910, and several kings and noblemen were anointed at the Cathedral.
In the 10th century, the city came under assault from Viking raiders and the Andalusian commander, Ibn Abi Aamir (also known as ‘al-Mansur’), accompanied by looting Christian lords. While the remains of Saint James the Great were left intact, the battles led Bishop Cresconio to fortify the entire town with defensive towers and walls in the mid-11th century.
By this time, Santiago was the capital city of the Kingdom of Galicia that was later united with the Kingdom of León into the Kingdom of Castile.
During this time, Santiago developed into a main Catholic shrine, similar to that of Rome and Jerusalem and designated an archbishopric in the 12th century by Bishop Diego Gelmirez, further expanding the population.
During the Napoleonic Wars , Santiago de Compostela was captured by the French and the remains of Saint James were lost for nearly a century when they were hidden under a cist in the crypt of the city’s cathedral. Spanish partisans fought hard to recapture the city, believing that Saint James would destroy the French if they managed to evict them from the holy city.
From 1936 to 1939, Santiago was under the control of the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. While suffering a brutal repression during these years, after the Spanish Transition and restoration of democracy, it was declared the capital city of Galicia.
Today, Santiago de Compostela thrives on tourism with thousands of visitors every year coming to witness the ancient and religious history of the city and pay their tributes to Saint James the Great. It remains a major university city with more than 40,000 students at the University of Santiago de Compostela, one of Spain’s oldest universities.
Sightseeing in Santiago de CompostelaThe heart of the city is the Praza do Obradoiro, named after the workshop (‘obradoiro’) used by the stonemasons during the Cathedral’s construction. The square is flanked by the Cathedral and museum to the right, the Gelmirez Palace to the left, the Rajoy Palace to the west, the Catholic Kings Hostal to the north, and the San Jerónimo College to the south. The center of the square marks the 0 km point of the Camino de Santiago, and is the arrival point of thousands of pilgrims each year.
The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is the major pilgrimage site of the city, believed to hold the remains of Saint James the Great. It is also a significant center of art and architecture, housing works of significance and blending many different architectural styles as the building was developed over the centuries. The Cathedral is open daily for visitors who wish to marvel at its interior and pay their respects to Saint James.
Gelmirez PalaceThe Gelmirez Palace is a grand example of Romanesque civil architecture, built in the 12th and 13th centuries and currently home to the Archbishop of Santiago.
The Rajoy Palace was built in the 18th century to host the city council, a jail, a seminary and serve as a residence for the children of the choir. It noted for its sculpture of Saint James fighting the Arabs on horseback and is currently the City Hall.
Hostal dos Reis CatólicosThe Hostal dos Reis Católicos (Catholic Kings Hostal) is a Plateresque style structure, originally built as a hospital in 1492 by Catholic Monarchs, Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon, to assist pilgrims in need. It was later transformed into a large hostel with money earned through the conquest of Granada, and is today home to a luxury hotel.
San Jerónimo CollegeSan Jerónimo College is built in Romanesque style and was founded by Archbishop Alonso III de Fonseca to house poor students. Today, it is home to the head office of the University of Santiago de Compostela. The university itself was established in the 16th century and can be best viewed from an alcove in the large municipal park in the city’s center.
Praza da QuintanaPraza da Quintana on the other side of the Cathedral is divided into an upper and lower level and previously served as a cemetery and market. Today, the Praza de Abastos is a lively Galician market where you can buy seafood, meat, and vegetables. A beautiful view of the Cathedral can be found from Praza de Praterias (Silversmith’s Square) with its iconic fountain.
Monasterio de San Martiño PinarioThe baroque Monasterio de San Martiño Pinario (San Martín Pinario Monastery) is an 11th century Benedictine monastery on the Praza da Immaculada worth visiting for its stunning architecture.
Cathedral MuseumSantiago is home to a number of museums of note, including the Cathedral Museum that showcases the Cathedral’s history and artworks of significance. Visitors can view the archaeological remains, the work of Master Mateo , sculptures from the 13th to 18th centuries, an impressive tapestry collection, and views across the city from the continuous balcony that dominates Plaza del Obradoiro. The museum is open daily and costs around € €6 ($6.90).
The Pilgrimage Museum details the importance of Saint James and the pilgrimage route while the Museum of the Galician People in the former Convent of Santo Domingo de Bonaval, just outside the walls of the city, displays the cultural history of Galicia. It comprises of displays on archaeology, art, costumes, coastal life, and trades. It is open daily (except Mondays) and entrance is free.
Galician Center of Contemporary ArtThe Galician Center of Contemporary Art, located within the Old Town, was designed by Portuguese architect, Álvaro Siza, and houses an extensive collection of modern art. It is open daily (except Mondays) and entrance is also free.
Exploring the Old Town on foot is the best way to appreciate this historic city with narrow, winding streets full of stunning architecture. The City Hall organizes daily guided tours (times depend on the day and season) with English speaking guides or you can board a small train that takes in the major city sites accompanied by English commentary. It departs from the Praza do Obradoiro and costs € €5 ($5.75) for adults and € €3 ($3.45) for children.
AccommodationMany pilgrims stop just outside Santiago, before entering the city itself, at the town of ‘Monte de Gozo’, where there are a large number of cheap beds available. This is a good option, particularly during Holy Years when pilgrim numbers soar. For those who seek a bit of historical luxury, the former medieval pilgrim hostel, Hotel Dos Reis Catolicos, now offers luxury accommodation on the same square as the Cathedral. Alternatively, the nearby Hesperia Gelmirez offers 3-star accommodation or, for those on a small budget, Hostal R Mexico and Hostal Pazo de Agra are also within relatively close proximity to the Cathedral.
DiningThe Mercado de Abastos is a lively place to pick up fresh produce sourced locally. Just inside the main entrance is Mariscomania, a unique eatery that allows patrons to bring their own meat and seafood from the market and have it cooked the way they like it.
Santiago is famous for its cooked octopus and a variety of local cheeses that should not be missed. A number of stylish tapas bars line the streets of the Old Town, allowing you to sample small bites of local specialties.
Cheaper pilgrim eateries are also abundant but expect to wait as long queues are common.
ShoppingThe Old Town has plenty of stores selling Camino souvenirs, such as walking sticks, typical water bottles, and shells. Sargadelos on Rua Nova is famed for its modern ceramics that are produced in a well-known factory in Lugo Province, while a number of jewelry stores selling silver and jet typical of the region are also found in the Old Town.
For the latest fashion head to the Zona Nova where many big brands are represented or, for a Galician flavour, Rei Zentolo on Rua Santiago de Chile sells its own humorously designed t-shirts.
EconomyWhile cultural tourism and higher learning play a significant role in the city’s economy, it also serves as the headquarters of the autonomous government of Galicia. New industries are also evolving, including timber transformation, the automotive industry and telecommunications and electronics.
During Holy Compostelan Years (when 25 July is on a Sunday), tourist numbers soar as pilgrims traverse the Camino de Santiago with more than 272,000 making the journey in the Holy Year of 2010.
ClimateSantiago de Compostela has a mild climate throughout the year with an average temperature of 19ºC. From September to June, rain is common and temperatures drop to about 8ºC in January. Summers are drier and are a popular time for pilgrims to walk the Camino de Santiago and visit the city when skies are sunny and temperatures are often over 30ºC.
Getting There and AroundA number of bus companies, such as Arriva, Monbus, and Alsa, offer transport from major Spanish cities to Santiago. While the bus station is located on the outskirts of town, there are frequent public buses and taxis available to the city center. The train station is closer to the city center and routes operated by RENFE link Santiago with the rest of Spain.
The closest airport is Lavacolla, twenty minutes from the city center, with flights to a number of major European cities. Taxis are available from the airport at a fixed rate of around € €20 ($23).
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Author: Pip23. Last updated: Oct 10, 2014