Santiago de Compostela
The north western Galician city of Santiago de Compostela is perhaps little known to the swathes of tourists heading to Spain’s beaches and larger cities further south. And yet, this World Heritage City has much to offer and certainly worth a stay if culture and history is high on your agenda.
Many people arrive in Santiago having completed or part-completed the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The longest of these routes is the 750km Camino Francés, that heads west over the Pyrenees from Roncesvalles. In the city you will see these hikers replete with walking staffs and rain capes nursing sore feet but in ebullient mood having reached their destination. Many of them have personal reasons, which are not always religious, for undertaking the routes leading into Santiago.
In a showery and beautifully verdant area of Spain, and with its spectacular and historic architecture, Santiago is a feast for the eyes and a photographer’s dream. The central areas are a fairytale of winding stone streets leading to picturesque medieval churches and monuments. The towering and dramatic Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in the expansive Praza da Obradoiro is focal point of the city where tourists can get their bearings and plan how they can possibly cover all of the extensive sites of historical interest.
There are plenty of cafes and eateries, and for a city some distance from the coastline, there is an incredible variety of seafood restaurants to choose from. Many of these are situated in the old town area and compete side by side to offer the best in Galician seafood: shellfish, zarzuela (seafood stew), paella, muscles, clams, lobster, and goose-barnacles retrieved by daring fisherman clambering over rocks of the nearby Costa de Morte (Coast of Death). But as well as the obvious restaurants, with their prominent window displays and friendly staff offering samples to passers-by, there is a more discrete scene of local establishments tucked away in the backstreets. A fine example of this is O Gato Negro, The Black Cat, a seemingly ordinary-looking place with not much other than a green door for a greeting and rather stark interior. The food, however, is traditional, unfussy and authentically Galician at good prices. The empanades, savory pies, are a good choice to kick off with as well as the local Galician wine.
The city is very much influenced by the university, and is one of the most prestigious in Spain. As well as supporting 42,000 students in many faculties including law, science, and medicine, there is a strong body of students and tutors upholding the traditional music (Música en Compostela), and if you’re lucky you can catch these incredible musicians and singers performing in the streets around Praza da Obradoiro. The music, with its strong male choruses and folklore, is stirring and creates a jovial atmosphere amongst the tourists gathered around – definitely something you should try to see when visiting the city.
As one of the most beautiful cities in Spain, Santiago de Compostela is relatively unspoiled and devoid of some of the traffic and hassle you might experience in the larger, better known cities. It is mostly pedestrianised and a joy to stroll around, with perhaps a raincoat or umbrella in hand to deal with the frequent showers. Prices in cafes and restaurants are reasonable as there is strong local competition from owners who take huge pride in the quality and presentation of the food and wine.
Santiago de Compostela has so much history, awe-inspiring architecture, tradition and understated charm, that it’s remarkable it has not been ruined by tourism. Indeed, the splendour of the place seems to rise above such modern distractions and rests comfortably in its position as possibly the envy of all European cities.