Throughout life people are seeking something. They may seek to fulfil their dreams and find happiness. Or they seek true love and a purpose in life. Some of them will seek a spiritual connection to a superior being. And a fraction of these people will do so by embarking on a pilgrimage to a holy city.
Santiago de Compostela is such a place that manages to attract many thousands of pilgrims each year. Many of them will follow the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James. Oftentimes they will do so on foot to show their true devotion.
I am not a spiritual person. A pilgrimage is not what brought me to Santiago. I decided that I wanted to discover the city in a different way. I wanted to explore the very essence of the place, come in with a fresh perspective and experience Santiago as a normal tourist.
As I was soon to find out, Santiago de Compostela is not just the end to a pilgrimage. It is a place that welcomes everyone, no matter what they seek to find.
The captivating old-town with a medieval flair
Santiago’s old town is more than just an old town as you would find it in any other Spanish town. Yes, it is traffic free, and yes it is charming. But there is much more to it that makes us instantly feel at home. Maybe it is the timber frames that are bending under the century old burden of overreaching upper floors.
Or maybe it is the feminine touch to the arched arcades that line the streets. Cafes and restaurants have placed their chairs here, welcoming guests for cool drinks and delicious snacks.
We also notice the elaborate stone carvings on some of the columns, the old-fashioned lanterns and the wrought iron shop signs.
As we walk the city’s streets with the kids, we marvel over the glazed balconies, old and new, so typical of the Galicia region. The worn-out stone thresholds of tiny shops. House walls that seem to defy gravity, as they lean into the streets at an dangerous angle. We sigh at the sight of pretty garden squares and pause to take in the empty side roads where time is standing still.
A pilgrim’s destination that is open for all
I never thought that I would walk the Way of St. James myself. But all ways in Santiago seem to lead to the enormous cathedral, so in the end we take the children up the stairs and through the massive portal.
Inside, it is quiet and solemn, the light is dim. There is a mass service in progress, the pews are packed with pilgrims and the devout. TV screens transport the message to the very last row. It is a surprisingly sober church with not a lot of ornament – it is as if the word is the most important thing to the people who come here rather than ecclesiastic splendour.
Outside again, we look over the big square which is surrounded by beautiful baroque buildings. Santiago de Compostela is an old city, but outside the cathedral it is also a rather worldly city. Pilgrims have brought wealth to the city, and there are many ways how you can spend your money in the shops around in the city centre.
Everyone seems to discover something here
We return to the city’s streets to mingle with the crowd. It is a curious mix of people. Pilgrims, yes, but also rowdy student groups, buskers, beggers, and hippies. On the palatial balconies of the Parador, the oldest hotel in the city, we make out guests in bathrobes sipping champagne.
Just one square further, a traditional music group plays medieval tunes for visitors. They wear bobble hats, vests, shawls.
Santiago de Compostela is a surprisingly young city. The university is as much part of the city’s fabric as are the cathedral and the pilgrims. Young people can be seen everywhere. They meet up with friends, queue to get into the cinema, chat near the fountains. They add a youthful, progressive atmosphere to the city which suits us very well.
The shell of Saint James can be found everywhere – engraved in stone, as metal ornament in the pavers, along house walls and on t-shirts. It is the symbol of those pilgrims that have walked the Way of St James. You can see proud owners of these symbols walking the streets, the shells dangle from their walking sticks and make clicking sounds as they walk.
To entertain the children we ask them to find all the shells around town, it keeps them busy for a while.
Finding culinary pleasures
As the day draws to a close we go on the lookout for some culinary experiences. Again, Santiago doesn’t cease to surprise us.
The streets of the city are packed with restaurants, each one of them offering more tempting specialities than the next. Don’t bother looking for anything other than Galician food. When you come to Santiago you need to follow the lead and indulge in dishes that have been perfected over centuries by local cooks.
Do try the pulpo gallego, octopus served with paprika and potatoes. And don’t hesitate tasting some of the marvellous hams and cheeses. Nibble away on slices of bread topped with delicacies such as fried sausage, prawn or pickled fish. Santiago is a paradise for culinary pleasure seekers.
Santiago is a place where you can find if you dare to seek
Did we find what we were looking for? We were hoping to see a city that offered far more than just a pilgrim infrastructure.
We sought atmosphere and history but also experiences unrelated to the pilgrim route. As it turned out, Santiago offers something for everyone – it is a very satisfying place to visit. No matter what you seek in a great trip, Santiago de Compostela seems to have it covered.