Santiago de Compostella
Santiago de Compostella was on our itinerary in autumn 2007 as we had known about the place for some years and enjoyed the CD, Road to Santiago! A trip to Portugal via Northern Spain would not involve going via Santiago so this was a detour from the direct route.
The drive there was quite spectacular as the area is very mountainous and it is clear that the area around Galicia is well worth a further visit in its own right. We met a couple at our last stop who were going to spend more time in Galicia on the coast of death – so called because of the dangerous coast and the number of shipwrecks.
What is amazing about the city is just how big a town can get on the basis of some peasants seeing lights in the bushes and concluding that this was where St James had been buried. St James was one of the disciples and for some reason could not get buried anywhere else. It is a huge place and the pilgrimage industry is obviously very big but there is also an enormous university and a large commercial centre.
The pilgrimage ends for everybody at the door of the cathedral and there were a lot of people in the church for a service when we looked in. Inside was pretty spectacular with a lot of gold decoration; the service involved a nun leading the singing and the priest conducting the service was a man we had seen having a quick bevy in the bar next door earlier in the day. Also a lot of the congregation had rucksacks – people doing the pilgrimage in part or in whole. I understand that it is possible to get a certificate confirming that you have done the pilgrimage you have to get your book stamped along the way to qualify for a certificate at the end of the trip.
We normally try to find the tourist information office to pick up a local map and self guide but this was quite a challenge in Santiago as the signposting was not particularly good. Eventually we got to a tourist info office only to be told that this specialised in info for Galicia and not the city itself and so we were directed to another tourist info office especially for the city. I am not sure now whether we bothered to find it – Spanish tourist offices can be quite sparse places with maps and brochures well hidden behind the counter.
The whole pilgrimage thing was very interesting and at our campsite we got talking to a German who had cycled from Germany to Santiago in 30 days some years ago. We also spoke to an English woman whose Swiss husband had been doing the walk in bits over the last 12 years and who was about to finish the following day. What was interesting about both was that neither seemed to be doing it for “religious” reasons but because they saw it as some sort of personal achievement to do so. The route of the pilgrims is marked out by ceramic scallop shells, not only in town but also across northern Spain and indeed the traditional pilgrim had a real scallop shell on his walking stick for reasons I can no longer remember.
The main cathedral was very imposing as were a number of other churches squares and buildings but generally Gilroy felt that the place was a bit of a disappointment in that it was not pretty – as Santillana del Mar had been but perhaps our trip was marred somewhat by the poor weather .
We spent a couple of days at the campsite in Santiago which was quite well located before being chased off by the cold weather and heading for Portugal. The site was close to the town centre and one particular thing of note was that, despite it being the end of October the crocus flowers were out.
On the pitch next door was an English couple who had a parrot with them – this is obviously pretty unusual and so we spotted them easily enough some weeks later when we camped at Alvor in Portugal. We also came across the Oddles whom we had met the previous week in Santillana, and whom we met again some weeks later in Armaçao de Pera in Portugal.
The picture below is of a very smart hotel which was once a hospital - apparently if you have completed the camino ( ie the pilgrimage) you can go into this place and have a free lunch.
We we were subsequently recommended to read a humerous and entertaining account of a walk along the pilgrim route - Spanish Steps by Tim Moore.
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