Eight centuries later, a beardy hermit bloke is guided to the same spot by a star (campus stellae, field of the star, leading to ‘Compostela’) and a church is built on top. Jimmy’s story becomes an inspiration for Christians across Spain and, through dubious rumours, religious fervour and an elaborate game of Chinese Whispers, a city is born.
Walk this way
There are many ways to get to Santiago de Compostela – especially since the budget airlines put it on their radar (leading to some initial confusion as people rushed to try and buy tickets to Santiago, Chile). For the past millennium or so, however, the most popular means of arrival has been on foot all the way. The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, which first began to peak in popularity in the 11th century, could be considered one of the earliest backpacker trails, and to this day hundreds of thousands of people take part each year.
These days you don’t have to be a believer – many do it just for the experience, beautiful rural surroundings and rumours that romance abounds en-route – but doing it in the ‘Christian manner’ (ie on foot or horseback, essentially) means you can overnight in special pilgrims’ hostels along the way. These simple establishments cost as little as a couple of Euro but book up quickly.
Room at the inn?
Umpteen centuries’ worth of pilgrims means that Santiago isn’t short on a bed or two for visitors. There are ads for rooms (habitaciones), beds (camas) and hostels (hospedajes) all over town, particularly around the Praza de Galicia. Booking ahead is still worthwhile though, particularly in peak summer months. There’s also a campsite (www.campingascancelas.com) a couple of kilometres out of town.
All those pounds shed by the long hard slog of walking across Spain can be piled back on in style here. Galicia, the lush, green, rainy region of northern Spain where Santiago is found, is renowned for incredible seafood (particularly octopus) and crisp white wine. Specialities of Santiago de Compostela itself include the tarta de Santiago, almondy cakes with the symbol of a cross on top, and also cheese shaped like a tit.
Worth a look
Catedral del Apóstol
In a town with more than its fair share of architectural gems, this is undeniably the daddy. Situated on Praza do Obradoiro, the bulk of the cathedral was built in the 11th and 12th centuries. The Romanesque Pórtico de la Gloria forms the original facade, with the ornate baroque western facade added in the 18th century. Inside, pilgrims queue for an audience with the 13th century statue of Santiago before heading down to see the alleged tomb of Santiago himself. If you’re lucky enough to catch a special Mass, you’ll also see the gigantic botafumeiro incense burner being swung the length of the transept over the heads of a nervous-looking congregation.
The old city centre is an enchanting little maze of alleys, squares, churches and photo-worthy old buildings. The streets are also home to enough shops, cafés and bars to keep you busy for a while – trinket- seekers will be particularly interested in the jet-and-silver jewellery that’s a local speciality. It may be a relatively small city, but a large student population and increasing numbers of young city-breakers from elsewhere in Europe ensures the nightlife is kept lively. The steeliest of livers can attempt the famed Paris-Dakar pub crawl, which starts at Bar Paris on Rua do Franco and ends, 48 stops later, at the Bar Dakar on Rua da Raina.
Heavenly because: It’s the end of the trail!
Shame about: It being such a long way to get there
Additional information supplied by Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com). The fifth edition of Lonely Planet Spain is out now.