Having finished my last blog about the end of the Camino de Santiago, it only makes sense to write the next one about the iconic Galician capital in more detail. There’s always a risk that your destination for any long sporting trip may be a bit of an anticlimax, but Santiago is not one of them. Even though I was destroyed from my cycling, seeing the city after a sneak preview on the bike gave me and friend a lot of energy to see as much of it as we could in the short time we were there.
Santiago may be the capital of Galicia, but it’s not even in the top 3 of cities by size in this autonomous region (all the provincial capitals minus Pontevedra are bigger). The city is however, extremely well-connected with the rest of the region and the country, though it doesn’t have the AVE directly connected to Madrid. You can fly to other parts of the country very easily and even to several destinations in Europe including London via Easy Jet or Ryanair. Buses can connect you to other parts of Galicia as well as Asturias, León and Madrid. There are also many international connections by bus and train to Portugal often with a connection with Vigo, so there’s no excuse not to visit.
One characteristic that is typical with a lot of the west of Galicia is that it is a rather wet city. I didn’t see the sun while I was there, only rain and mild temperatures. It is pot luck whether you get a dry day or not, but it is usually drier in summer compared to winter there and I went in April. If you don’t like excessively hot weather, Santiago may be the place for you as throughout the year its only a few degrees warmer than London. Sorry to disappoint anyone looking for a taste of the Med, this ain’t it. However, You are rewarded by plenty of lush, green, hilly countryside and are only about 30 minutes or so from the rugged Atlantic coast, so you can enjoy the great outdoors, but bring an umbrella or poncho.
Santiago has so many sights that are not like anything else in Mediterranean Spain. The architecture doesn’t bear anything that is white, red or yellow, and features a lot of Romanesque and baroque influences. Many buildings feature weathered dark grey stone which have a similar tone as in England. When you are walking along the narrow streets of the old quarter, you find a few monasteries such as San Martiño and San Francisco which are huge places just around the corner from the cathedral. A little out of the way, you find the monasteries of San Domingos de Bonaval and Santa Maria Do Sar (which is one of the most important and not so well known monastery in the city.). All of these places are usually open to the public and also have exhibitions or museums practically next door.
Despite the old buildings all over town, many of the museums are recent, showing modern art galleries and futuristic buildings, the most notable is the Ciudad de Cultura on the outskirts of town. I was told it was worth a visit, but I didn’t have time to check it out unfortunately, but it has had decent reviews and many of my friends have recommended it, so it must be good. This mixture between old and new is testament to why this city was named as a European Capital of Culture in 2000.
Santiago is also home to one of the most famous universities in Spain and there a number of historical buildings that can been seen by the public in both the north and south campuses. From the Parque de la Alameda where the Igrexa de Santa Susana is, there’s an impressive view of the south campus, and I would highly recommend checking the park and campus out. It’s one of the oldest universities in the world, and they really do love telling you about its 500 year+ history. It reminded me a little of the historic University buildings of Oxford when I was there.
The place that most people visit first is obviously the cathedral which is spectacular from most sides, but especially from the Praza do Obradoiro. Like many cathedrals in spain, there are often newer additions from various styles over the eras, but the façade on Praza do Obradoiro is the most iconic and is opposite the Galician parliament building, the Pazo de Raxoi (which is not named after former primeminster Mariano Rajoy, though ironically, he is from Santiago.). From every angle of the cathderal there is either a really iconic building, museum or street, such as Rua de Villares which is where the Oficina Do Peregrino or pilgrim’s office used to be (now on Rua San Francisco). This is the place where tired pilgrims collect their iconic Compostela or certificate after completing the Camino de Santiago.
Speaking of the Compostela, it comes as no surprise how important Santiago is religiously. Since the city is named after St James and his tomb is reportedly in the location of the cathedral, making it one of only three religious buildings in the world that supposedly bear one of the apostles, Santiago is a destination for Christian pilgrims all over the world. St James is also the patron saint of Spain and it’s no surprise to see the iconic shell and yellow arrows all over the country leading to this city with the Camino de Santiago.
Even in other countries in Europe, including England, trails and routes can be found heading in that very direction. This pilgrimage is the most popular in Europe today, Which means you see hundreds of people completing the journey every day. The number of souvenir shops with trinkets of the Camino are ever present and there’s even a museum dedicated to it. Most pilgrims will take the time to rest here for a couple of days here to celebrate, and it’s no surprise to see a huge number of bars and restaurant on offer for them.
Santiago has a lot of local produce on offer and it’s no surprise to see pulpo gallego (octopus) and empanadas everywhere, a local variant is with lamprea, a type of eel. But there’s a lot more than that, though they are amazing, fish and pork in particular dominate the scene. Aside from the typical cured ham, you can also find lacón a boiled version, and Jamón asado, a roasted version that I tried in a sandwich, and what a memorable sandwich it was. Other notable local dishes include pimientos de padrón, a Russian roulette of mild and spicy green peppers found all over Spain, but from this region, queso de tetilla with its notable breast shape and one of the most iconic cheeses of Spain, and for pudding, tarta de Santiago, a fluffy almond cake.
Despite the historically unfortunate name, Rua de Franco and the adjacent streets is the most iconic area for eating out, and there are loads of bars and restaurants of all price ranges there, many of which specialise in seafood and octopus. Rua Nova and Rua San Pedro, which is on the iconic Camino francés are also noteworthy areas for eating out. The vast majority of the bars here serve free tapas for every drink you buy and it’s hit or miss if you get a choice or not. On my second day here, I received a variety of things when I had a couple of beers before leaving town, including tortilla, lacón and cured meat, couldn’t complain.
Accommodation in Santiago is a little complicated unless you’re a pilgrim. Many of the places listed on comparison sites are designed specifically for them and don’t provide proper bedsheets. You need to make sure your hostel is not like that. The price is usually a bit of a giveaway it must be said, and you’re usually safe if Albergue isn’t in the title, and that you’re paying about 20€ a night. The Hospital de los Reyes Católicos on the Praza do Obradoiro has been convirted into a hotel of the Parador chain, making it one of the most luxurious places to stay in the city. Private single rooms or double rooms are minimum 20€ for the night and are notably cheaper than places on the Mediterranean. I did the Camino de Santiago and if you’re a pilgrim, you would want to stay outside the immediate city centre if you want a rate similar to what you’re used to paying for.
You may be aware when you arrive that Galician culture has it’s differences compared to other parts of Spain, and one of those is the language, Gallego. Here you will see and hear the language used in the city, and most signs display both. People are not expecting you to know the language and don’t throw it in your face, even if you live there. Many Galicians don’t use it on a regular basis and some, don’t at all. If you have survival knowledge of Spanish in Santiago you will get far, and there are a lot of people in the service sector who can speak English to some extent, but they appreciate any effort you make.
There you have it, Santiago de Compostela. A city full of history and character that has it’s Galician charm through and through. It is more than just a destination for pilgrims around the world, it should be the destination for anyone looking for a different experience of Spain and tour the north. Make sure you’re well equipped for some wet weather and expand your understanding of a part of Spain that is on signposts around the country, but rarely explored by brits. Whichever way you decide to get there, by train, plane, walking or cycling, it’s a different experience which I’m sure you won’t regret.