Hola from Spain. Last week we made our way from Portugal through Galicia to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela. This week we've arrived at our final destination. Boy, did I learn a lot -- for example, I had no idea Santiago de Compostela is regarded as one of the three most religious cities in the Christian world (after Rome and Jerusalem). If you want to find out why people trek to here from all over the globe, and see lots of pictures, then hop on -- our ride is leaving.
We are in the Galicia region of Spain, located in the northwest part of the country. I wrote about this area last week -- including the language, the food, and some memorable cities that few Americans know about. This week we have made our way to the capital of Galicia: Santiago de Compostela. As you are about to learn, there's much more to this place than just the region's capital.
Background on Santiago de Compostela
For centuries people from all over the world have been flocking here to enjoy this historic and holy city. Let's start with the basics: The Spanish word "Santiago" translates as "St. James," while "Compostela" comes from the Latin "campus stellae" which means "field of the stars" St. James the Great was one of Jesus' apostles (his brother was John). Legend has it that St James made his way to Galicia to preach Jesus' good word. Nine hundred years later his bones were found in what is now Lebanon, and supposedly brought to Santiago Compostela later that same century (9th). St. James was buried directly below where a shepherd spotted a star; later, a cathedral was built over that very spot (it opened in 1075). This city is regarded as the final resting place of St. James; his remains are believed to lie beneath the altar in the crypt of the cathedral.
Fact: The population of Santiago de Compostela in 2004) was 92,298 -- and that doesn't include the 30,000 students who attend the famous Santiago University.
Who Comes Here
Over the past 1,000 years people have made pilgrimages here (originally using the Milky Way as their compass). They came for a number of reasons -- most often to rid themselves of their sins, or to journey toward God. This is one of three pilgrimages in the world that believers believers think will cause sins to be forgiven (the others are Via Francigena to Rome, and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem). The Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage is known as "The Way of St. James." Over 100,000 pilgrims travel to the city every year, on five major European routes. The most popular, from France, takes 30 days by foot. Yes, many people walk. An official pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela requires that the last 100 km (62 miles) be walked, or the last 200 km (124 miles) biked. Pilgrims are required to get official credentials, known as the Pilgrim's Passport. This allows them to get free or very inexpensive rooms (a few euros) for one night only at each refugio (similar to a hostel) along the way. The passports are stamped at each stop. When pilgrims arrive in Santiago de Compestella they receive a certificate -- and of course something much more important than paper. The pilgrims and their routes are well protected by the police and government -- in fact, the pilgrimage routes have been declared European Cultural Routes by the Council of Europe, and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I didn't do an official trek myself -- although I might have to go back and do it to rid myself of my sins. Instead I drove (the Portuguese way, via Tui), like the majority of Santiago's 6 million annual visitors. But in 2004 179,944 people made the pilgrimage, and it seems to get more popular every year. That's almost 500 pilgrims arriving a day. The most popular countries for pilgrims are Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, the United States, England and Canada. But I met people from Brazil, Israel -- even Australia.
Saint James Cathedral
When I first pulled up to the outskirts of the city I didn't think it was anything special. It looked like a typical European city (which is special in itself). But the moment I laid eyes on the Plaza do Obradoiro, the historic square where the famous St. James Cathedral is located (the end of the pilgrimage), and I learned the history and witnessed pilgrims celebrating as they hugged one another with tears in their eyes, I got goose bumps. Wow! What a special place. And it's not just because I'm Catholic. I was with a Jewish friend, and he had the same warm and fuzzy feeling. St. James Cathedral is clearly the focal point, and a beautiful structure, but it's not the most beautiful cathedral I've ever seen. However, what this place of worship has inside -- besides stunning Romanesque art -- is spirit.
The moment I walked through the doors of the cathedral, heard the organ and choir, and saw the line of pilgrims kissing a scallop shell (and bowing their heads three times as signs of homage) with such emotion, I could not NOT think there is some higher being. The signs of scallop shells are all over the area. Pilgrims have them on their backpacks, or on top of their staffs; all the souvenir shops sell them, the restaurants serve them, and the cathedral has sculptures of the mollusk inside and out -- including the famous golden one on the altar. The scallop shell is the universal symbol of St James in the Christian world; some people say it's also the symbol of fertility. (Some pilgrims make their way here as a fertility pilgrimage.) Whatever the reason or however you get here, you won't be disappointed.
Inside the Cathedral
Another notable cathedral sight is a gold crucifix, dating back to 874. The cathedral also contains a piece alleged to be from the True Cross (the cross Jesus was crucified on). There is also a swinging "botafumeiro," a huge incense urn that swings across the lateral naves of the church every day during the pilgrims' mass in a Jubilee year. Pilgrims' masses are daily at 12 noon. A Jubilee year occurs when July 25th (the Apostle's Feast Day) lands on a Sunday (the next one is in 2010). During non-Jubilee years the urn requires a donation of 240€ ($306) to make it fly. I'm told it's usually let loose twice a week. Here's a video of the flying urn.
Interesting Fact: The baroque-style façade of the cathedral is so famous that it is depicted on the Spanish .01€, .02€, and .05€ euro coins.
I was excited to learn that the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela offers roof tours. I was even more delighted to learn that getting there does not require any tight, claustrophobic travel. This one-hour tour is for everyone -- even those who are afraid of heights or claustrophobic. It's only 84 steps, up a wide, well-lit stairwell. The highest point is 30 meters (90 feet), and there are no scary ledges. Besides the architecture and history lessons -- did you know that in the Middle Ages pilgrims came up here to do the ritual burning of their old clothes they wore on the pilgrimage? -- you can relax and take in the beautiful views. Roof tours are available from Tuesday to Sunday, every hour between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and from 4 to 8 p.m. Tickets cost 10€ ($12.75) and are limited, so be sure to make reservations. Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela; tel. 34- 981-552-985.
Hotel NH Obradoiro
I stayed at the 5-star, 159-room Hotel NH Obradoiro. It had the same trendy feel as a "W." The lobby and rooms were all designed with modern furniture and dark wood. My room was very comfortable and the bed was cozy. What I didn't like were the thin walls, the 22€ ($28) a day fee for wireless internet, and most of all the fact that my window did not open. I had to keep the air conditioning on at night, even though the temperature outside was perfect for sleeping and it was raining, which would have made the atmosphere that much better. Don't you love falling asleep to the rain? The nightly rate of 112€ ($142) includes a large breakfast buffet (with the best apple kiwi juice), and access to a small fitness center and pool to work it off. Hotel NH Obradoiro, Av. do Burgo das Nacións, sn -- 15705 Santiago de Compostela; tel. 34-981-558-070.
The Oldest Hotel in the World
Because Hotel NH Obradoiro is not located in the city center (it's a 10-minute walk away), and because it has an international feel rather than a local one, next time I would stay at the Parador de Santiago de Compostela. This 5-star hotel is not only centrally located, but it's elegant -- and it has a ton of history. Did you know that it is considered too be the oldest hotel in the world? It began in 1499 as the Royal Hospital, giving shelter to travelers making their way to Santiago. It opened as a full-service hotel in 1959. Although I didn't get to stay there, I peeked at the rooms and ate in the luxurious dining room. Parador de Santiago de Compostela, Pza. Do Obradoiro, 1. 15705. Rates start at 200€ ($255). Santiago de Compostela , A Coruña; tel. 34-981-58-22-00.
Interesting Fact: Did you know that Spain has banned smoking in bars and restaurants? Another reason to visit.
There are plenty of restaurants. Besides the two hotel restaurants, I also dined at Restaurante Carretas (Rúa das Carretas, 21; tel. 34-981-563-11) and Restaurante O 42 (Rua do Franco 42; tel. 34-981-57-06-65). Both serve excellent local Galician cuisine. Note: In Galicia they don't serve tapas, but "raciones" -- dishes with bigger portions than tapas, but still not entrees. Here's more info on tapas.
Garden Side Trip
If you want to get out of town and see a remarkable garden located behind a traditional Galician manor house, drive 20 km (12 miles) to Santa Cruz de Rivadulla y Pazo de Oca. Here you will find a marvelous haven that is practically all your own. I saw three other people walking around the perfectly manicured Versailles-like gardens, enjoying a wide variety of plants, trees and designs. There's even a walking maze, but I was too busy admiring the Galician vases, giant sequoia tree and kiwi fruit, and sampling the ripe grapes. I wish they had a place like this in L.A., because it's the perfect date place. Three kilometers (six minutes) away is another garden, Paza de Santa Cruz -- but this one has a totally different feel. These are traditional Galician gardens, which means they were not really manicured (or supposed to be). Certain areas felt like a jungle. Not a great place to go on a date -- but if you're a garden lover, it might be worth your time. The highlights for me were the waterfall and the 200-300-year-old olive trees forming the shape of a cross. Entry to both costs 3€ ($4); reservations are required, and there are no public bathrooms. They are open between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. (and 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the summer).
Here's a 2-minute Johnny Jet Video of my trip to Santiago de Compostela.
Next week we fly to . . . Stay tuned.
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John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet), is the founder of www.johnnyjet.com, the ultimate travel website and weekly newsletter. He logs over 150,000 miles a year, has been featured in over 850 articles (including Frommers.com, USA Today, Time, Fortune, the New York Times, CNBC and MSNBC), and has published the book, You Are Here Traveling With JohnnyJet.com.
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