For hundreds of years, pilgrims have made their way along ancient pilgrimage routes known as the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James). This large network of trails stretches for 500 miles across Europe, starting at Saint Jean Pied de Port in France and culminating at the tomb of the apostle Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.
Located in the autonomous region of Galicia in northwestern Spain, Santiago de Compostela carries the aura of centuries long past. In the Middle Ages, it was considered the third holiest city in the whole of Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome. In fact, Galicia was known as Jakobsland in the Nordic sagas.
The streets of Santiago de Compostela’s old town still echo from the many dusty footsteps of pilgrims. Nearly 300,000 Camino pilgrims and many more tourists travel to Santiago de Compostela every year, making it one of the largest religious destinations in the world.
Known for its UNESCO recognized outstanding architecture depicting Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque genres, the prized jewel on Santiago de Compostela’s crown is its cathedral. It isn’t very hard to locate the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Everyone who travels to Santiago de Compostela comes primarily to see the cathedral. All you have to do is to make your way to the main square of Santiago de Compostela, Praza do Obradoiro.
Praza do Obradoiro means “Square of the Workshop” in the local tongue Galician. The square, like most of Santiago de Compostela’s old town, is largely pedestrian. A plaque marks the final stop of the Camino de Santiago, celebrating the journey of the Camino pilgrims.
The Praza do Obradoiro is surrounded by some of the oldest monuments in Santiago de Compostela. They include:
- Pazo de Raxoi: The neoclassical palace now the seat of Santiago de Compostela’s city council.
- Hostal dos Reis Catolicos: The oldest hostel in the world.
- Colexio de San Xerome: One of the colleges in Santiago de Compostela.
But the most important building lies to the east of the Praza do Obradoiro. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the heartbeat of the city. Soaring high above the rooftops, the cathedral is a majestic homage to stone architecture. Built over many centuries, the building was originally constructed in the Romanesque style, with Gothic and Baroque touches added later.
According to legend, Saint James brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula. He was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD, whereupon which his remains were brought to Galicia, Spain. Due to increased persecutions of Spanish Christians by the Romans in the 3rd century, his tomb was abandoned and forgotten.
The tomb was rediscovered by the hermit Pelagius after he witnessed strange lights in the night sky. Soon after, King Alfonso II of Asturias and Galicia ordered a chapel to be built on the site, thus becoming the first pilgrim to visit the shrine. Further construction under King Alfonso III of Leon ensured that Santiago de Compostela evolved into a major place of pilgrimage.
Destroyed at the end of the 10th century by the Moors, Santiago de Compostela was completely rebuilt in the following century. Thus, it became a symbol of the Spanish Christians’ struggle against Islamic rule.
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela’s great artisanry is best viewed in the extraordinary Pórtico de la Gloria. Featuring 200 exquisitely carved Romanesque sculptures, this artistic vision was the brainchild of Maestro Mateo in the 12th century. The sculptures are remarkably life-like, and invoke major characters from the Bible, such as the apostles from the Old and New Testaments.
At the time of my visit, this beautiful section of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was still under restoration. But once reopened to the public, the artistic grandeur of this place must not be missed.
One of the rituals of pilgrims visiting the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is to kiss or embrace the statue of Saint James. A small walkway is present towards the back of the Altar Mayor (High Altar) on the right side. If you follow the walkway and climb up a few steps, you will find yourself behind the statue of Saint James. From the statue you emerge out on the left side.
If you walk on, you will reach a tiny side passage, the Cripta Apostólica. Located beneath the Altar Mayor, you may have to duck as you descend down the steps into the 9th century crypt housing the relics of Saint James (known as Santiago in Spanish).
Understandably, you cannot approach the relics. You can only view them from afar. The silver casket you will see is a reliquary. It was placed in the crypt after the authentication of the relics by Pope Leo XIII in 1884. The crypt is the final destination for Camino pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela.
Tourists are discouraged during Mass. But I would suggest attending one to get a sense of the spiritual atmosphere of Santiago de Compostela. The swinging of the frankincense, the sombre tones of the priest, the congregational singing of the worshippers, all add to the value of your journey to one of the holiest places in Christendom.
In fact, one of the most unique elements of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the Botafumeiro, the large censer that spreads incense during Mass. Measuring 1.5 meters and weighing up to 53 kilograms, this Botafumeiro is one of the largest censers in the world. It was perhaps introduced to “perfume” the odor of travel-weary pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela!