St James and Santiago de Compostela

Sir Walter Raleigh wrote:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet;
My staff of faith to walk upon;
My scrip of joy, immortal diet;
My bottle of salvation;
My gown of glory (hope’s true gage);
And then I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is located in the most northwest region of Spain in the Province of A Coruña and it was the European City of Culture for the year 2000.

I didn’t know this but after Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Christendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been thoughout history, of the important 9th  century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James.  Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great (Santiago means saint James) and legend holds that St. James’s remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where they were buried on the site of what is now the city.

People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and there were many here today who could be identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell.   The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travelled, all eventually arriving at a single destination.  It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.

Way of St James Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim's Trail

There was certainly no mistaking that this is a very holy city indeed and the route to the Cathedral was lined with churches, monasteries and seminaries and finally we emerged into the central square, the Praza de Obradoiro, where the Cathedral, which is depicted on Spanish eurocent coins, loomed high above in a most spectacular and impressive way.  Inside, the Cathedral is nearly a hundred metres long and over twenty metres high and is the largest Romanesque church in Spain as well as being one of the biggest in Europe.

The twin towers soared into the sky as though waiting for take off at Cape Kennedy Space Centre in a sensational flourish of Baroque architecture with stone carvings of St James in pilgrim clothes, crowned in a bric-a-brac sort of way with balls, bells, stars, crosses and weathercocks, decorated with golden lichen and stubborn flowers and bits of grass that had grown improbably from the crevices between the stones where the wind had blown the seeds.

We went inside and had an inquisitive look around but it was a approaching lunch time and so we declined to join the long line of pilgrims and visitors who were waiting in line to visit the crypt and see the box that supposedly contains the bones and relics of St James and left by a side door that opened onto another remarkable courtyard that was surrounded by huge medieval buildings and magnificent statues.

We walked for a while through the ancient streets and through a quaint little green open space and then our thoughts turned to food so we returned to the city and went to the Restaurante de Buen Pulpo for a tapas lunch.

Disappointingly there were no sardines but we chose instead calamari, clams, Galician cod, tortilla and salad and some Estrella Galicia of course.   The food was reasonably priced and tasted divine and afterwards we left the little restaurant and continued to explore some more of the old city and after a couple of hours I felt confident enough to declare to myself that this one of the nicest places that I have ever visited.

Because of its Celtic roots Galicia doesn’t have sombreros or flamenco or even bull fighting and in a side street adjacent to the cathedral there was a man squeezing the life out of some bagpipes that sounded as though he was castrating an extremely uncooperative cat.  It was excruciatingly painful so we moved on and walked around the streets for a second time.

It is an interesting fact that Galicia has a culture, which is both unique and distinct from the rest of Spain, and the core of this difference is centred upon Galicia’s identity as a Celtic, rather than a Latin or Hispanic sub nation.  Galicia along with Andalusia, Catalonia and the Basque Country are acknowledged as independent historical nationalities under the Spanish Constitution and as a consequence enjoy special rights and privileges.

One of the really good things about Santiago de Compostella was that it felt like being in Spain and not like the little England of the south and east coast costas.  Galicia is a popular holiday choice with Spanish people living in the south and central cities of the country because they like to holiday in the north to escape the oppressive heat and enjoy Galicia’s famous seafood.  In August alone, eight million Spaniards travel north from cities like Madrid and Barcelona to the more temperate climate of Galicia with its green scenery and spectacular beaches.

The Galician climate though is changeable and the region is often referred to in Spain as the wet or rainy region.  Despite this, it is those in the south and central cities of Spain that flee to Galicia in July and August to enjoy the hot, but not oppressive, summer weather.  The local geography is also dramatically different from that of the central and southern regions with meadows, hills and mountains and is known affectionately in Iberia as green Spain.

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