Santiago de Compostela, Spain – November 2013
The year I sat my written and clinical physician exams was a particularly taxing one, as anyone who has prepared for them will no doubt know. Thankfully I passed them, and as both respite and reward, I booked a trip to Spain and Portugal, beginning in Madrid and doing a sort of clockwise loop around the Iberian Peninsula, ending in Barcelona.
In the middle of this loop was the capital of Galicia in the northwestern corner of Spain, a town with the lengthy name of Santiago de Compostela (Santiago being the Galician evolution of the Latin Sanctus Iacobus, meaning Saint James).
This place isn’t always on visitors’ itineraries, but some may know it as the final destination on El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James). The Camino, as it’s often referred to, is a Catholic pilgrimage route that has been popular with the faithful since the 9th century AD when the tomb of the apostle James was discovered. Rather than being one road, it is in fact a large network of pilgrim routes stretching across southwestern Europe. The route networks grew during the Middle Ages when people just departed from their homes and set off for Santiago from whatever town they inhabited.
(I took a photo of this map in a restaurant that illustrates the various routes.)
To this day, hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino de Santiago each year. Not all of them are devout Catholics; some people set out on the Camino for spiritual reasons, but just as many are keen on the hike itself, or to sightsee along the way. Some walk the Camino as a retreat from the chaos and noise of modern life. It has inspired films, documentaries and books. The walk itself is not too difficult (or so I’ve read), just long – it takes weeks to complete. The contemporary resurgence in walkers taking up the pilgrimage route really picked up during the 20th century. The fascist government of Francisco Franco (himself a Galician) even supported the Camino’s revival to promote a sense of patriotic pride in Spain’s Catholic history.
The scallop shell, often found on the shores of Galicia, has been worn by pilgrims since medieval times as the emblem of St James, and even now it remains the symbol of the Camino. The reason for this was a little mysterious to me but there is apparently some story about how the apostle’s body was lost in the ocean during a shipwreck (as it was being ferried to Spain after his beheading in Jerusalem), then washed ashore covered in scallop shells. Sounds a bit ghoulish to me, but sure. I’ll go with it. However it came to be, the scallop shell became associated with the Camino. It is frequently seen along the routes on signs and engraved into footpaths, pointing the way towards Santiago. In France, Spain, and Portugal, pilgrimage hostels displaying the scallop shell symbol provide overnight accommodation to pilgrims who carry a pilgrim’s passport (credencial).
In any case, I had made my way to Santiago not on my own two feet over hundreds of kilometres but by coach travelling north from Porto, crossing the border between Portugal and Spain. However, it was apparent that many visitors had indeed come here at the end of long peregrinations on the Camino, some with hiking poles in hand.
I felt a sense of respect for these pilgrims who had walked across an entire country, and perhaps a little sheepish embarrassment that I myself had just been plonked here by a bus. Silly of course, but I somehow felt like a fraud, even though I wasn’t claiming to be a pilgrim in any shape or form. It was humbling though, to witness the culmination of an act of pilgrimage, even if it wasn’t of great spiritual significance to me, and to understand how people of faith had been drawn to this place for over a thousand years.
The main plaza of the city, dominated on one side by the grand Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, was a great spot to people-watch. I could see the triumphant faces of the walkers as they stood in groups or pairs, taking in the facade of the cathedral.
The cathedral is the reputed burial site of the apostle James, and his remains were authenticated by the Pope and placed in a reliquary at the end of the 19th century. A visit to the crypt affords a view of the relics. Santiago Cathedral is one of three Catholic churches built on the tomb of an apostle (allegedly), the others being St Thomas Cathedral in Chennai (the doubting disciple traditionally believed to have ministered in India) and St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
According to legend, St James brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula; after he was martyred in Jerusalem, his remains were brought to Galicia. In 813 AD, a shepherd watching his flock by night saw a bright star in the sky (sound familiar?) and it guided him to the burial site of St James in Santiago de Compostela. He reported the discovery to the bishop and it was declared a miracle. The bishop told the king, the king ordered a chapel to be built on the site, and when word spread throughout Christendom, the Way of St James was born.
We were at the cathedral in time to attend a mass. After the opening rituals and some sacred music, the priest welcomed the pilgrims who had arrived that day, people from all walks of life. Together we all sat in the cavernous space: pilgrims, tourists, locals. Some people were crying with emotion. I am not Catholic, but it was difficult not to feel the reverence of the pilgrims as they worshiped.
After the mass had concluded, we explored the cloisters, then stepped back out into the main plaza.
Santiago de Compostela’s historic centre is well-preserved and full of impressively beautiful palaces, churches, and monastaries. The weather was wet for much of the afternoon but rather than dampen the atmosphere it somehow accentuated and enhanced the Gothic architecture and quaint cobblestone streets. The largely pedestrian-only old city was gorgeous, with its greenery-lined balconies, intricate fountains, and stone archways reflected in slick pavement stones and puddles.
An essential stop in Santiago is the Museo de las Peregrinaciones y de Santiago (Museum of Santiago and the Pilgrimages), which tells you all about the history and significance of the Camino de Santiago through the ages. The exhibits were very interesting and gave a lot of context to the town and the Camino (much of which has informed what I write in this post).
Another interesting museum was the Museo do Pobo Gallego (Museum of Galician People), located in a former Dominican convent in the old town. The museum displayed a whole range of items from Galician life, art, and culture, providing some insights on the complex history of Galicia and the roots of the Galician people.
Galicia is an autonomous community of Spain, like Catalonia or Basque Country, although far less often featured in the news for separatist terrorist attacks or illegal acts of secession. It’s fishing country, with the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Cantabrian Sea to the north, and it has a temperate and often rainy climate, in contrast to the usual perception of Spain (in most people’s minds more commonly associated with say, the sun-kissed summers of Andalusia).
The Galician people (galegos) have Celtic-Romance origins, so besides fishing vessels the museum also showcased Galician bagpipes. The Galician language is closely related to Portuguese, and since the establishment of Galicia’s autonomy, it has experienced a comeback of sorts after four centuries of domination by castellano (Castillian, what we outside of Spain call Spanish). During both the time of the Catholic Monarchs and, much later, the Franco era, the native Galician tongue was prohibited, but now over 99% of the Galician population can understand the language, and about 80% speak it, according to census data. There has been a high level of migration from Galicia to places such as Latin America since the 19th century. (According to the internet, famous people of Galician descent include Fidel Castro and Martin Sheen, born Ramón Estévez. And I suppose Martin Sheen’s children, a few of whom are famous in their own right.)
Inside the convent I also found this remarkable triple helical staircase, which made for one of the coolest architecture shots I’ve ever taken, I think. Although it’s much more extraordinary in real life.
Once we had seen enough of historic buildings and museums, we also paid a visit to the local market, which was housed in an old stone building; however, business seemed to be winding down as it was getting late in the day.
It goes without saying that I had to try the local food. Galicia has its own distinct cuisine, of which the undisputed champion is the delicious mollusc lovingly known to many cuisines around the world – octopus! (In España we say pulpo.) The Galician style of octopus is boiled in a copper pot, then served seasoned with olive oil, sea salt and Spanish paprika. You can find pulpo a la Gallega on pretty much every menu in the city, and indeed it has long been a quintessential Spanish dish – but the best (so every restaurant seemed to claim) is still to be found in Galicia. Most of the other local specialties are also of the marine persuasion: razor clams are a particular favourite fruit of the sea here, whether on their own as tapas or in flavoursome dishes, and of course, scallops feature heavily as well. But also prawns, mussels, crabs – you name it. And all ocean fresh!
Galician tortillas de patatas (Spanish omelettes) are also amazing.
There are also local cheeses, such as queso tetilla. Tetilla in Galician means “small breast”, although another translation might be nipple cheese, due to the uncomplicated fact that the cheeses are shaped like a sort of pear-shaped cone topped by a nipple. The cow’s milk cheese is a common ingredient in Galician cooking and is often eaten as a dessert. They were frequently displayed in shop windows, on sale everywhere. (One sign even had the English translation: “cheese titty”. I didn’t make this up, I swear.)
The signature dessert of the region is the tarta de Santiago (or torta in Galician, meaning cake of St James), which originated in Galicia during the Middle Ages. It’s a moist, citrusy cake made with almonds, eggs, and sugar, and flavoured with lemon zest (gluten-free for you celiacs). The top of the tarta is decorated with powdered icing sugar with the imprint of the cruz de Santiago (cross of St James), giving the pastry its name. According to the EU, it has to be made in Galicia and contain no less than 33% almonds to officially be a tarta de Santiago. Anything else is a pretender.
By the time we had finished gorging on shellfish and pulpo, dusk had come and the city had taken on a glossy yellow hue as the electric lights reflected off the wet stone. We weren’t staying in the historic centre, but chose to go for one more late stroll through the cobbled lanes to try and find a bar before calling it a night.
Even after all these years, my visit to Santiago de Compostela remains a brilliant, vivid memory. I couldn’t tell you exactly why now, but it probably had something to do with the enchantment of the pilgrimage and the stories of the Camino.
A part of me does want to walk the Camino one day. Maybe when I retire (if I have the privilege of getting old). There’s something magnetic to me about walking a route that millions of people have trodden upon over twelve centuries.
In my imagination, I see the nods of the townsfolk and hear the calls of “buen camino!”, as I set off bright and early in the morning through the verdant countryside, the path marked by scallop shells. I enjoy the camaraderie of my fellow pilgrims, and look forward to what the next town might bring.
If anyone wants to join me, feel free to drop me a line in 30 years or so.