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Begun in the 11th century, this cathedral is the crowning achievement of Spanish Romanesque architecture, even though it actually reflects a number of styles. Maestro Mateo’s Pórtico de la Gloria, carved in 1188, ranks among the finest produced in Europe at that time. The three arches of the portico are adorned with figures from the Last Judgment. In the center, Christ is flanked by apostles and the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse. Below the Christ figure is a depiction of St. James himself. He crowns a carved column that includes a self-portrait statue of Mateo at the bottom. If you observe this column, you will see that five deep indentations have been worn into it by pilgrims. Even today, they line up here to lean forward, place their hands on the pillar, and touch foreheads with Mateo. Mothers bring their infants here to do the same thing: bump foreheads with one of Europe’s greatest artistic masters in hopes some of the genius will rub off.

The cathedral has three naves in cruciform shape and several chapels and cloisters. The altar, with its blend of Gothic simplicity and baroque decor, is extraordinary. In the crypt, a silver urn contains what the faithful accept as the remains of the apostle St. James. A cathedral museum, Museo de Catedral, displays tapestries, archaeological fragments, and the ruins of a circa-1200 a.d. masterpiece, a stone choir carved by Maestro Mateo. Next door, Palacio de Gelmírez (tel. 98-157-23-00), an archbishop’s palace built during the 12th century, is an outstanding example of Romanesque architecture.

A number of guided tours are available, but the real thrill of visiting here is seeing the relief and joy of pilgrims as they reach their destination.