Santiago de Compostela: Pilgrims' City

Insight Guide (Northern Spain)  London-Singapore, 1998, 4,000 words; extract  

Galicia was the first place in Spain that I visited as a thinking adult. Friends from Lugo invited me. Their love for the region and culture was so palpable and big-hearted that it rubbed off on me. Everyone told me I needed to see Santiago de Compostela in the rain. Twenty years later I went back for Insight Guides and the rain came.

Also see: Cliffhanger: Percebes Hunting / Nadal: Galician Christmas

Santiago de Compostela has granite-paved streets that gleam softly in the winter's frequent fine drizzle. Locals say that theirs is the city where rain is art.

The first medieval town grew around the supposed discovery in 813 of St James's tomb, an event now debunked by historians as a myth and political manoeuvre. But Santiago grew, giving life to the myth and became a pilgrimage city, a Renaissance university town and, in our own time, in 1981, Galicia’s administrative capital. That curious history has given it a chameleon-like character, at times cosmopolitan and free-spirited, at others marked by a traditional spiritual heartbeat.

The original burner was stolen by Napoleon’s troops, but a replica still swings dramatically at daily mass in Holy Years, reaching speeds of up to 70 kph (44 mph).


Within the cathedral's golden Baroque shell the interior is shadowy and medieval too. Designed by French Benedictine architects to meet pilgrims' needs, its architecture was functional as well as decorative.

Wide unbroken aisles, an innovation at the time, eased the flow of visitors and upper galleries provided sleeping space. Incense from a gigantic 70-kilo burner, or botafumeiro, helped to smother the whiff of unwashed travellers' bodies. The original burner was stolen by Napoleon's troops, but a replica still swings dramatically at daily mass in Holy Years, reaching speeds of up to 70 kph (44 mph).


Among the cathedral's treasures the original Romanesque doorway, or Pórtico de la Gloria (Gateway to Heaven), is a masterpiece of human detail. A glutton in hell snacks on a pie and musicians in the heavenly choir doze on medieval instruments. A crowd of over 200 figures leap out of the stone. Step inside the doorway and you will find pilgrims still tapping their foreheads against a statue of Maestro Mateo, who carved the door, in the hope that they will carry away a smattering of his genius.

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