Ten pilgrim routes, spiritual and lay, converge in the capital of Galicia, the ancient community of Spain. That said, there’s much more to this place than just tradition and religion. The cathedral is the epicentre, where paths of the past meet the streets of the future.
Field of stars
History, legends and faith inevitably combine. Narratives about the city hail from various origins, producing a vast array of chronicles, tales and references. The name Compostela derives from the Latin “campus stellae” (“field of stars”), which refers to the hermit Pelayo’s vision in 813, when shooting stars showed him the location of the tomb of the apostle James the Great and his disciples Theodore and Athanasius. However, there are also other explanations, such as the inspiration of a woman called Compostella, or the expression “composita tella” (“burial ground”).
The impressive cathedral plays a major role in the city’s history. Construction began on the temple in 1075 and was completed in 1211, the date of consecration.
What became the world’s first “tourist itinerary” was written around the year 1140. Credited to the Benedictine monk and French pilgrim Aymeric Picaud, who dedicates the fifth book of the Codex Calixtinus to the “Pilgrim’s Guide”, gathering advice for walkers, detailing routes, works of art and the customs of local people along the way. There are ten itineraries for the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James), and the most traditional is the French Way. These ten routes are exclusively Galician, with extensions originating elsewhere in Spain, Portugal, France and Eastern Europe.
Before the date that marked the discovery of the apostle’s tomb, Compostela was a little-known Roman settlement. After the discovery, as well as increasing political and religious importance, the city was destroyed by the Arab governor Almançor in the 10th century. Once reconquered, Santiago witnessed rebellions, epidemics and wars, in addition to regaining its status, not only as a global focus of Christian pilgrimage, but also as a student city (the university was founded in the 15th century) and as the capital of Galicia, after the Statute of Autonomy was published in 1981 and the declaration of World Heritage by UNESCO in 1985.
Compostela is not just about the intensely spiritual. In the Bairro de San Pedro neighbourhood, you can sense a move away from traditional religious tourism. There are celebrations a month after the city’s festive July. On Rua San Pedro (the first place you glimpse the cathedral when arriving on the French Way), you can hear Galician in the taverns, in the “pulperias” – where they serve octopus -, in the more traditional shops and establishments, which coexist with art galleries, restaurants run by young chefs, modern barber’s and cultural centres. Close by, the Sarela, a tributary of the Sar River, runs along the banks outside the city, with its small bridges, canals, mills and what’s left of old tanneries. There are allotments, where vegetables, fruit and herbs grow. Alongside the Sarela River, Galeras Park stretches over mostly flat terrain, dividing Compostela from the neighbouring rural landscapes.
All over the place, but particularly in the historic centre, we spy something odd. Bas-relief shells, pine trees and crosses sit above building doors, indicating that they belonged to the archdiocese, the Benedictine monks or royal governor. In wealthier homes, it’s common to see coats of arms with a crown (links to the royal family) or helmets (if “only” noblemen). If a helmet is turned to the left, it indicates that the owner was a bastard son, but legitimate if turned to the right.
Behind the cathedral, leading from Praza de Cervantes, we encounter the streets that used to be part of the old Jewish neighbourhood. The old quarter was located between Rua dos Truques, Ruela de Jerusalém, Rua da Troia, the Capela de Ánimas (Chapel of Souls) to the south, and the alleys and small squares around the San Miguel dos Agros church. Scholars say that, in certain streets, the buildings were taller, so Catholics didn’t see Jewish customs. Most of the Jewish population was involved in the silver and jet trade, mainly around the Praza das Praterías.
Meandering past the historic Café Derby, in the Ensanche district, we find most international brands and those of Inditex, the powerful Galician conglomerate that’s home to Zara, Pull&Bear, Massimo Dutti, Bershka, Stradivarius, Oysho, Zara Home and Uterqüe. Nearby, not far from the train station, there are nightclubs designed for youngsters.
In Compostela, the sacred and profane are not polar opposites, sometimes existing alongside one another. At night, in Praza da Quintana, a streetlamp casts a shadow on the cathedral wall, creating the phantasmagorical illusion of a pilgrim-like figure with cape, hat and stick. It evokes two legends. One is the sombre tale of Leonard du Revenant, a Parisian nobleman who killed his father to inherit his fortune. After being tried and condemned to death, the Duke of Burgundy intervened, and the sentence was commuted to walking the Camino de Santiago. On the journey, he fell in love with an engaged woman, but, after his advances were rejected, he killed the couple. Dressed as a monk, he walked to the cathedral, which was closed when he arrived. During the night, the ghost of his father appeared and forgave him, while condemning him to wait for the young couple’s forgiveness for eternity. The other story tells of a priest who fell in love with a cloistered nun. Every night, the priest would skulk through a secret passage connecting the convent to the cathedral, beneath the steps of Praza de Quintana. One day, he agreed to meet his beloved at midnight so they could elope. Not to arouse suspicion, he disguised himself as a pilgrim, but the nun never appeared. Every night, the priest’s ghost still waits for her, supposedly.
American architect Peter Eisenman symbolically reproduces Santiago’s historic centre in the complex of buildings he designed for Monte Gaiás, just outside the city. This is home to the City of Culture, which was created in 1999 for cultural events and multifunctional purposes. Still in the completion phase, almost every building welcomes visitors and it also houses the Galicia library and archive, exhibition rooms, a museum and a cultural innovation and creative enterprise centre, among other facilities. This set of deconstructivist buildings boasts large areas and curved lines, with squares, gardens, pedestrian zones and a panoramic view of Compostela.
Another example of advanced thinking is the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea, which was designed by the Portuguese architect, Álvaro Siza Vieira. The director, Santiago Olmo García, explains that there are no permanent exhibitions, despite the museum having its own collection (created in 1995), which focusses on Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American artists. Close to the historic centre, also created by Álvaro Siza, is the surprising Faculty of Communication Sciences.
There are unexpected cultural spots in and around the city, like the Café Derby, open since 1929 and home to important gatherings of artists and intellectuals. The more recent Pub Momo combines live music with board games, theme parties with competitions, and exhibitions with conversations with students of different nationalities. And if you want to explore traditional culture, especially on Rua Nova, keep an eye out for the handicraft in the narrow streets, as well as establishments such as Sergadelos, which sells Galician ceramics, the Iglesias hat shop, Boles and Colmado (gastronomy), and the numerous jeweller’s selling the city’s famous jet.
A fistful of trout
In Santiago, we can see the importance of ancient and contemporary gastronomy. Amongst dozens of narratives regarding the city’s chronology, in 1214 St. Francis of Assisi is supposed to have walked the Camino de Santiago, which made him want to build a monastery. The land available, which is now part of the city centre, next to the San Martín Pinario Benedictine monastery, belonged to one of the most powerful and wealthiest orders in Compostela. The land was ceded – but with the promise that, every year, the Franciscans would deliver a basket of trout to the Benedictine monks. Unsurprisingly, the fish is an important part of the region’s gastronomy.
Traditional dishes are celebrated throughout the city, among them octopus. There are many places dedicated to cooking the mollusc (“pulpeiros”), which is an important element of Galician identity. Another story: in the cathedral itself, the Pórtico da Glória is said to be the inspiration for one of the region’s most popular cheeses. It’s said that the archbishop asked the builder Master Mateo to reduce the size of the breasts on the statue of Queen Sheba. When the local people found out, they reacted by creating the breast-shaped tetilla, which remains one of the four famous cheeses in Galicia, in addition to Arzúa-Ulloa, San Simon and Cebreiro.
After the cathedral, the Mercado de Abastos is the most popular spot.
Inside, there’s a food court where one of the restaurants, Mariscomania, cooks what customers buy at the market. Visitors can also enjoy the traditional torta de Santiago, which is made with eggs, sugar and almonds. Even today, the “foundling wheel” (where babies were left for adoption) of the San Paio de Antealtares Monastery is used to buy the torta from the nuns. The youngest of the 15 cloistered nuns, who is about 80 years old, is authorised to sell them.
by Augusto Freitas de Sousa /// photos Enric Vives-Rubio
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