For centuries pilgrims have been walking the “Way of St. James” route across Europe to arrive at the cathedral where it is said the remains of the saint are buried. From what I read, this city near the Atlantic coastline of northern Spain to which we took a 4-hour train ride from Madrid, was in the Middle Ages a pilgrimage site as important as Jerusalem and Rome. The purpose of our visit, however, was for different reasons: it was the starting point of a week-long train tour of the España Verde region of the country (next week’s blog post) and because the historic center of town has been selected as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Since our hotel was located within a block from this city’s most famous attraction it made sense to start our visit at the Catedral de Santiago. Construction began in 1075 and by 1188 the doorway called Portico de la Gloria and decorated with 200 figures from the story of the apocalypse, was leading visitors towards the tomb of St. James plus those of Spanish kings and queens up to the 15th century.
Sharing the huge Plaza do Obradoiro with the cathedral are two other impressive buildings that have found alternative but similar uses from their original intention. The Hostal de los Reyes Católicos (photo in 1st paragraph) was a hostel built in 1499 to welcome weary pilgrims of modest means. I suppose that even today it fulfills part of that purpose since it still provides accommodation to travelers, however, as a 5-star luxury property it might now appeal to a different clientele. The 18th century Palacio de Rajoy was constructed for the powerful archbishop of the time and today serves as City Hall, retaining its link to the ruling authorities.
We were now in the heart of old town Santiago de Compostela known as Casco Antiguo that gives this city its status as a World Heritage site. To get a feel for the area, the guide we were using suggested wandering down two streets, Rúa Nueva and Rúa del Villar, both pedestrianized and arcaded. We can confirm that they do live up to what you might picture as the charming ambiance of “Old World” Europe.
Whenever we visit a city it’s always nice to seek out the park that might be the favorite with local residents and here we believe that’s Parque de La Alameda (featured photo above). I say that because in addition to having 3 separate garden areas within the 8-hectare (20 acre) green space there’s a statue of 2 sisters who, beginning in the 1950s, took a daily stroll through the park at 2 PM. Often dressed in colorful outfits, they would chat, sing, and sometimes flirt with passersby. Some call the piece “Las Dos Marias” since they were both named “Mary” while others know it as “Las Dos en Punto” with a nod to their 2 o’clock promptness.
On the walk back to our hotel we passed behind the cathedral through Plaza de las Platerías to see an example of Baroque architecture from 1758. The Casa del Cabildo, at less than 4 meters (13 feet) deep, seemed to us to be more of a theater backdrop than a house, and that’s exactly what the tourist brochure says. Architect Fernández Sarela wanted to close off the square and in doing so he provided an appropriate setting for the beautiful Fuente de los Caballos (Fountain of the Horses) that was added in 1825. Front and side comparison photos of the Casa are here:
What a pleasant surprise Santiago de Compostela turned out to be. We knew the city’s name since one of the routes of the “Way of St. James” passes through Carcassonne but now we know so much more about its history, architecture, culture, and beauty.