Santiago De Compostela
Ages 4 & up
All roads in Spain once led to the northwestern city of Santiago de Compostela, where the Catholic faithful flocked to visit the tomb of St. James, hoping thereby to win a spot in heaven. The pilgrimage route ran from Paris over the Pyrenees and along Spain's northern coast -- an enormous distance even by car. (Some hardy souls still make the trek on foot.) Even if you only drive the last section, from Pamplona through León to Santiago de Compostela, you can imagine the joy of weary pilgrims arriving at last in front of this glorious Romanesque cathedral.
It all began in A.D. 813, when priests unearthed what were said to be the remains of St. James (Santiago, in Spanish), the patron saint of Spain. In the 11th century, this huge cathedral was built over his tomb, and a trickle of local pilgrims grew into an international flood. From the Plaza del Obradoiro, admire its three ornate towers and the wrought-iron enclosed staircase; in an arch inside the middle tower is a statue of St. James, dressed in traditional pilgrim garb (wide-brimmed hat and walking staff), because he traveled widely around western Europe spreading the gospel. Show the kids the rounded arches, thick walls, and small windows, different from the more familiar pointy Gothic architecture. The west door's triple-arched front portico is famous, with sculpted biblical figures representing the Last Judgment. Look for St. James, in the center beneath Christ. The carved column under him bears five grooves worn into the stone by centuries of pilgrims, leaning forward to place their hands on the pillar and knock foreheads with the carved face at the bottom -- the likeness of the portico's designer, Maestro Mateo. It's nicknamed -- what else? -- Santo dos Croques (Saint of the Bumps).
Inside, notice how wide the barrel-vaulted aisles are, built to accommodate hordes of pilgrims. On the altar is a huge golden mollusk shell that pilgrims traditionally kissed, as well as a great silver incense burner -- the botufumiero -- which purified the air at night while hundreds of pilgrims slept in the cathedral.
The remains of St. James are in a silver urn in the crypt. Hard as it is to believe, they went missing for almost 300 years, when, in the 16th century, with Sir Francis Drake raiding the coast, the church fathers hid them so well that they weren't found again until 1879. To verify their authenticity, a sliver of the skull of St. James was fetched from Italy -- and it fit perfectly into the recently discovered skeleton.
Information: Catedral de Santiago, Plaza del Obradoiro (tel. 34/981/58-35-48; www.catedraldesantiago.es).
Nearest Airport: Santiago de Compostela.
Accommodations: Hotel Real, Caldereria 49 (tel. 34/981/56-92-90; www.hotelreal.com). Los Abetos Hotel, San Lázaro (tel. 34/981/55-70-26; www.hotellosabetos.com).