Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela is a city that has called out to something deep within the human soul for centuries. Millions of people across history have made their way across hundreds or sometimes thousands of kilometers to enter this city as a pilgrim, each seeking something undefinable; it is different for each person who arrives to the steps of the magnificent cathedral. But what is certain is that the experience is unlike anything else on this earth. Overflowing with legends and beauty, with history and transcendence, Santiago de Compostela is a city of saints, of kings and knights and religious opulence. Yet it is all at once a humble city that is there above all for regular pilgrims. People come on foot, by bike, on horses and even camels. Whether you arrive after crossing Spain or if you take on the last 100 kilometers needed to get the pilgrim certification, Santiago de Compostela will make you feel like you are coming home. Ever full of this grace, the tiny medieval streets are laden with joy, celebration and a spark of something mysterious, something utterly beautiful.
Santiago de Compostela is almost as far west as you can go in Spain, just below the northern tip of the Iberian peninsula, where the land curves in a 90 degree angle. It is very close to the northern border of Portugal, and less than an hour’s drive from the western coast. It is about a three hour drive straight west from León.
Santiago de Compostela is in Galicia, where the landscape has more in common with Ireland or Wales than with the rest of Spain. Green, mild, rainy with rolling hills and green mountains, it is beautiful in a way that is totally unique in Spain.
The history of this Galician town can start with the meaning of its name. Santiago is ‘Sant Iago’ – Iago is the apostle James the Great (brother of John the Baptist), from Hebrew Ya’qob, or Latin Iacomus. Santiago is the patron saint of Spain and is said to be buried at this site. His remains were said to have been discovered by a hermit following a star, thus, we get Campus Stellae, The Field of the Star – or Compostela. So the name can be translated to English as ‘St. James of the Field of the Star’. There are other starry legends associated with the name, one being that before it was the destination of the Christian faithful, even further back, it was a route that followed the Milky Way to the End of the Earth (Galicia’s coast).
How St. James ended up back in Galicia after being beheaded in Jerusalem required a series of miracles, and has been endlessly argued about. There is no direct evidence he was in Spain, but he is said to have wanted to preach in the farthest backwaters of Europe at the time. He is then said to have returned to Jerusalem where he was eventually martyred. There are definitely bones in the crypt, and other theories have been put forth about whose they really might be, but it is impossible to know.
Regardless, the symbolic meaning the saint’s remains hold for millions of Catholics cannot be disputed, and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was once and is now again one of the most famous and most popular pilgrimages in the entire world. The psychic energy of this spot cannot be disputed as thousands, including skeptics, describe feeling something transcendent and otherworldly as they complete the pilgrimage at the crypt of Saint James.
Because this city is so meaningful to the faithful Catholics of the world, it has a long and eventful history. The area was thought to be a settlement as far back as pre-Roman times, and was perhaps the site of a Roman villa. There was supposedly a mausoleum then built to hold the remains of Saint James, who according to oral tradition had preached in the finis terrae – end of the earth – before his beheading in Palestine, and the return of his remains to this location.
Then in the 9th century, a hermit saw some lights, or a star, which guided him to the location of the saintly remains. He reported this to a local Bishop, Theodormir, who examined the body and decided it was indeed the Apostle Saint James. He in turn told the king of Asturias and Galicia, Alfonso II who made the first pilgrimage out to see the remains for himself. This path became the Primitive Way, which still exists as an alternate route coming from more north of the Camino Frances. He arrived at the location where he founded a church and a monastery, San Paio, which still exists to this day, and houses a community of nuns near the main cathedral.
In the centuries that followed, the site attracted more and more pilgrims who flocked there to pay homage to the saint. As a result, the first small church only lasted about 40 years before the next king had a larger one built instead. The city continued to expand and was finally fortified in the 11th century and plans to build the Romanesque cathedral we see today began. By the 12th century, Santiago was in full splendor. Thousands of pilgrims were coming now on the Camino Frances, and the first guide book of sorts was written about it. The cathedral was finally consecrated 1211.
The fervently religious started flocking there from all over Europe. This in turn created commercial successes and the building up of the city, with guilds popping up to cater to the pilgrims. This is when the concheiros began selling scallop shells, now the iconic symbol of the Camino de Santiago, as proof that the pilgrims had made it all the way.
Most of the buildings we now see in Santiago, were built in the 17th century. By then the pilgrimage was actually in decline, and almost abandoned, though Santiago remained a vibrant city. The Camino would not be revived until the late 19th century when the remains of the saint were rediscovered in the chapel of Magdalena where they had been hidden three centuries earlier from the English buccaneer, Sir Francis Drake.
But it was not until the 20th century that the Camino de Santiago really took off again as a pilgrimage and in the 1980s began drawing more and more attention from travel books, articles and even films. Today, more than 200,000 people complete the route each year, and Santiago de Compostela is once again a world-renowned destination.
Without overstating the obvious, whether you arrive as a pilgrim or as guest for a day or two, the cathedral is the number one destination, with the crypt containing the remains. The cathedral itself has enough history for a whole book to be written, so a thorough visit is absolutely essential. Check out the newly renovated Poritco de Gloria. You can also visit the roof of the cathedral where the pilgrims used to burn their clothing, filthy, one would imagine from their journey. This has a great view of Santiago. There is also a large cathedral museum, where all things related to the building and history of the cathedral can be explored.
Go to see the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos Parador, which was built in the 16th century by Queen Isabella to accommodate the needs of pilgrims who were piling up in other places in miserable conditions. It has one of the most beautiful hotel doorways in the world, decorated with stone carvings and figures, including a pretty Adam and Eve. There were gardens with medicinal plants, a chemist’s and a doctor to heal the sick and aching pilgrims. Even today, they will feed 10 pilgrims for free for three days.
Santiago is full of smaller churches ranging in size and age and style. They are peppered around the city center and can be a delightful sort of scavenger hunt. Walking around the Old Quarter in general admiring the variety of stunning architecture is one of the great pleasures of this city.
The old cemetery of Santo Domingo is a beautiful and refreshingly green spot to meander around in, as are the several parks surrounding the city itself.
And there is the pilgrimage museum which has a goal to protect, preserve, document and research all materials related to the pilgrimage. It’s permanent exhibition is devoted to different aspects related to Santiago, as well as archeological excavations from the area. It is located near the cathedral.
Again, it goes without saying, the raison d’être of the entire city is for visiting the remains of Saint James. Pilgrims will come into town and still have not had a direct view of the cathedral. They walk in through the arch leading into the Plaza de Obradoiro where a bagpiper plays the solemn welcoming music. Once in the Plaza, they turn and behold their first complete view of the cathedral, an experience in and of itself. They complete the rituals involved with the end of their pilgrimage, including hugging the shoulders of the ornate statue of Saint James on the main altar, and visiting the crypt before exiting the cathedral and completing their pilgrimage.
There is a mass held in the cathedral where they swing the botafumeiro, the largest thurible in the world, containing 40 kilos of burning incense and charcoal. It is suspended from the ceiling with an elaborate pulley-system, and eight men in red robes pull on the ropes causing the botafumeiro to swing in a 65 meter arc, 21 meters overhead, dispensing thick clouds of smoke through the air. It is said to reach speeds of 65km/hour. There was a famous mishap once in 1499 when Catherine of Aragon stopped there on her way to England to marry the heir to the English throne (she married the notorious King Henry VIII in the end, unhappily for her). While she was at the mass, the botafumeiro flew off the hook it was on, and sailed overhead at full speed before smashing through the Platerias high window, and out onto the street. No one was injured.
Visit the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos Parador, which was built in the 16th century by Queen Isabel to accommodate the needs of pilgrims who were piling up in other places in miserable conditions. It has one of the most beautiful hotel doorways in the world, decorated with stone carvings and figures, including a pretty Adam and Eve. There were gardens with medicinal plants, a chemist’s and a doctor to heal the sick and aching pilgrims. Even today, they will feed 10 pilgrims for free for three days.
Drink a queimada: a truly unique Galician tradition performed in bars and restaurants. In an earthenware pot, (traditionally it was in an empty pumpkin) they mix orujo, a local distilled spirit, like a clear brandy, with herbs, coffee, sugar, cinnamon and lemon (depending on recipe). Then, they set it on fire. As the flames rise higher, they recite a special, specific incantation over it, thought to ward off evil. Sometimes the whole thing is accompanied by a bagpipe. The origins are disputed but the best guess is it was a leftover Celtic tradition. It is said the best night to perform a queimada is on Samhain, or as we know it, Halloween, when the boundary between the Otherworld and this world grows thin and the spirits may walk among us.
Another fun activity is to follow a tuna, a kind of remnant of the troubadours – usually university students dressed in elaborate 16th century clothing, with puffy breeches, tights, doublets and capes. They will play traditional music and serenades while moving from place to place and people follow them around listening to the music and having a few drinks.
And finally, of course, the drift along with the other travelers who fill the town and go from bar to bar drinking the local white albariño wine and eating tapas. The atmosphere is very special in these tiny winding streets as so many people are celebrating the end of their Camino and are in very high spirits. The seafood is extraordinary in Galicia– especially pulpo, the octopus. Tiny black sea snails are also popular which you pick out with a little needle, but if you don’t enjoy seafood, the steak in Galicia is also famed for being of amazing quality. In these streets, the gritty authentic hole-in-the-walls stand side by side with the fancy.
If you want to enjoy the beauty of the Camino de Santiago, Santiago de Compostela is the final destination to the well-known and most travelled of all Camino pathways in Spain. Santiago is a welcoming city for pilgrims full of fabulous lunch and dinner options, and cultural visits and opportunities to view the traditions through their festivities. Learn more about our NST walking journeys.
For those who are crazy about mountain biking – no matter what your level of cycling is – the Camino pathway has many MBT trails and if what yu enjoy is road biking, look no further, we are experts in road biking the Camino de Santiago. Learn more about our NST cycling journeys.
For those who are crazy about road biking – get ready to experience the breathtaking beauty of northern Spain with a fabulous theme. Get the best of all worlds; fabulous rides, the most appropriate overnight stops with unbeatable accommodation, and out-of-this-world gastronomy all the while peddling towards Santiago de Compostela. Learn more about our NST cycling journeys.
Make your stay in Santiago unforgettable and discover its essence with us.
This hotel is located within the majestic Palace-Castle of Olite, declared a national monument. The interior offers beautiful stained glass windows, arcades and other characteristic medieval features. The palace is the most significant example of Gothic non-ecclesiastical architecture in Navarra, and one of the most outstanding examples in Europe.
This hotel is located in the cinco villas region, surrounded by valleys and mountains, it is nestled in one of Navarra’s prettiest landscapes. Their mantra is Water, Nature and Silence, making this hotel the perfect reward after a morning of exercise. Its natural springs contain with the highest salinity in Europe and the thermal circuit and massage hit the spot.
At the gates of the Irati forest, the second largest beech tree forest in Europe, this quaint pre Pyrenee hotel is in the heart of the commencement of the Camino de Santiago. It is a charming oasis from the cities and town and an excellent base from which to visit numerous attractions in the Orreaga-Roncesvalles valley.
This pretty Navarra Palace Hotel is an emblematic building, cataloged by the Prince of Viana Institute as an Historic Heritage Building. Maintaining its characteristic red stone, this hotel has an air of holding within its stately walls rich stories of the past.
This active travel friendly hotel is modern and avant-garde, has its own personality, which seeks to surprise. This quiet enclave is where we luxuriate in the Spa and Treatment center, and chill at the gastro bar after a morning of activity.
AC Hotel Ciudad de Tudela is in part an 18th century historic building once called Casa de Beneficencia. This hotel is in the historic quarter of charming Tudela. We are in walking distance to the Muñoz Sola Modern Art Museum and a visit to the Marqués de San Adrián Palace. After a great ride, the sauna and Turkish bath hits the stop.
This exquisite and very unique hotel is within the National Park Bardenas Reales which is Navarra’s wonderland desert. This is an oasis from the desert terrain with a chance to lean back, relax and watch a zillion stars, a brighter moon and the spectacular Architecture of this outstanding hotel.
One of the most prominent and emblematic buildings in Pamplona, this regal palace takes back to the 18th century, yet offers the comforts of a modern luxury hotel. Built by a the viceroy of New Granada and visited by Queen Isabel II, this hotel still holds the relics of their royal past with a collection of 18th century carriages. It is in the heart of the city on a quiet street.
This four star hotel + spa personalized and sophisticated for maximum comfort, making this hotel the quiet oasis from the city of Pamplona. A decorative symphony of elegance and exclusivity. The fusion of stone, wood, velvet, works of art and furniture of exclusive design create a warm unique atmosphere. At the foothills of the Pyrenees, we can begin to peddle from the moment we step out the door.
This quaint palace combines the historical building charm of the 16th century and the comfort of a modern hotel. It is located within the town of Viana (Navarre), at the foot of the Camino de Santiago pilgrim route in the historical part of the town.
This majestic castle hotel in the heart of the Salamanca province, right by the Camino de la Plata and a true luxury in all senses. Castillo de Buen Amor is both a boutique hotel and a magnificent castle for the Medieval Ages. The proximity to the city center of Salamanca allows our guests to enjoy the myriad of charms of the historic city of Salamanca while relaxing in an oasis from the traffic and busy streets of a city. This castle is one of the jewels of the Salamanca province.