During the one hour flight towards Santiago de Compostela from Madrid, the landscape changes from dusty squares to chartreuse fields and jagged-edged mountains; however, it’s only upon landing that the difference between the Spanish capital and Santiago de Compostela, located in the Autonomous region of Galicia in Spain’s far northwest corner, really shows.
Galicia might officially be a part of Spain, but with its own language, proud Celtic culture and weather to match, this is a far cry from the image of the Spanish costas sold by the travel brochures.
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and the final destination of the pilgrimage following the “Way of St. James” with various routes running from France along the northern Spanish coast, and from Portugal and Andalucía in the south. However, there is more to Santiago than its holy and religious associations. Galicia is a region rich in music, art and gastronomy, with Santiago de Compostela at its heart. The local culture is predominantly Celtic, with Galicia making the list of Celtic nations alongside Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany.
The locals in Santiago de Compostela speak Castilian Spanish with a slight lilt, since Gallego, their own language, is flowing and musical, and while it retains a Latin base, it’s softer and closer to Portuguese than Spanish.
The granite streets of Santiago coil about ecclesiastical buildings and cloistered passages, but Santiago’s lifeblood revolves around the historic campus of its university, which was established in the 16th century.
With a mix of students and pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela is an ancient city with a youthful spirit, offering a range of budget to high-class choices in both restaurants and accommodation.
The sights of Santiago de Compostela
The University’s South Campus opens out onto a park abundant in botanical species, carrying the perfume of pines, rosemary and flowers in the air.
From the stone Halls of Residence of the university, I took the granite-winged staircase that climbed up to Alameda Park. From the neo-classical colonnade and sculpted shrubs, the route followed a graveled path towards the Paseo da Ferradura. From behind the shrubberies and tree-covered walkway, the dark grey buildings of the old university campus, convents and churches spread out among terracotta roofs with the spiked towers of the Cathedral dominating the sloping cityscape.
The historic core of Santiago de Compostela splits into three main roads: Rúa do Franco, Rúa do Vilar and Rúa Nova.
Rúa do Franco is perhaps the busiest of the three, since it’s a direct route to Praza do Obradoiro, the city’s most famous square, and also crosses the renaissance façade of the Colegio Fonseca belonging to the University of Santiago de Compostela.
Rúa do Vilar leads into the south entrance of the Cathedral at Praza das Praterias. The clock tower of the cathedral sprouts up from the stone step, set against the humble southern entrance. This is the Cathedral’s only remaining Romanesque façade and dates from 1078 to 1103. Among the echoing footsteps, the trickle of water accents the background, spouting from the mouth of four horses in the circular Fountain of Horses.
The cloistered walkways of Rúa Nova lead into Praza de la Quintana. This square split into two levels overlooks the backside of the Cathedral, with the Monastery of San Paio de Antealares to the east. Founded in the 9th century, this monastery is now home to Benedictine cloistered nuns.
Cervantes Square offers a respite from Santiago’s ecclesiastical architecture. This 12th century plaza was once known as the Forum, and was the city’s central meeting place for centuries. Plaza de Cervantes is now a busy shopping area, with the old 17th century Town Hall marking the small, stone square. This building is also the only baroque municipal building in the region that’s still intact and in use. Other nearby sites worth visiting include Casa da Troia, a former student boarding house and the Convent of San Francisco.
Galician cuisine and wine
I’ve always managed to eat well in Spain, but after seven years living on the Iberian Peninsula, nothing has beaten Santiago de Compostela in the gastronomy category for me.
Galicia is located on the Atlantic coast, so the local cuisine is abundant in fresh fish and seafood. Restaurants serve up a number of fish dishes, such as cod, hake and sea bass, but it’s the shellfish that’s always gets me in Santiago de Compostela.
The scallop is the symbol for the pilgrims, and scallops are a local delicacy found all over the city. They’re often served up baked in a creamy, tomato sauce and served on theirs shell, and I always find them succulent and juicy. Many bars and restaurants offer a ración, a portion, of razor clams or the local specialty, Pulpo a la Gallega, boiled octopus served up with olive oil and paprika, which has a buttery texture. The tapas bars on Rúa Franco are a great best place to sample fish and shellfish. Many of these historic taverns were set up to cater to pilgrims, and nowadays tempt their customers in with tanks of fish, shellfish and glistening meat cuts in the windows.
Just off the Praza das Praterías, the small street of Rúa da Reina offers more bars, taverns and traditional Galician restaurants. This is a great place to try some local wine. Many of the surrounding bars still offer up bowls of local wine accompanied by generous tapas, small savory snacks.
Galicia is one of the great regions in Europe for white wines. Wine experts dub the wine from the “albariño” grape hailing from the nearby Rías Baixas as “one of the best whites in the world”. Other Galician wines worth trying are Valdeorras wines made from the “godello” grape, and even the local reds are gaining a reputation like the Ribeira Sacra wines made from the “mencía” grape. If you’re looking for a lighter wine that packs less of a punch, then try the Ribeiro or Monterrel wines from Ourense.
With all that wine, there’s, of, course, some cheese to go with it. Despite an odd name, breast cheese, a curved cheese with a pointed top and a strong nutty taste, if a favorite. Other local cheeses to try include the greasy queso de O Ceberiro, the smoky San Simon da Costa and Arzúa-Ulloa, which is best served with quince and bread. A great place to get a Galician cheese tasting experience is at the Casa dos Queixos on Rúa de Bautizados.
To truly sample Galician gastronomy, it’s worth paying a visit to the Mercado de Abastos on the Praza de Santo Agostiño. The granite stones of Romanesque proportion fit the religious architecture around the city, but this housed the former gardens once belonging to the Count of Altamira, and is now a huge food market. The colors of the fresh fruits and vegetables and the smell of cheeses, cold cuts and fish are a sensory feast.
One local delicacy worth trying is the Pimientos de Padrón. These little green peppers might look innocent at first glance, but eating these is akin to a culinary Russian roulette, a select few are very spicy.
To round things off with something sweet, head off to Rúa do Vilar to Casa Mora. They have the reputation for making the best Tarta de Santiago, a local cake made out of ground almonds, sugar and eggs, dusted with icing sugar forming the stenciled the emblem of the Saint on top. It’s a moist cake with a strong marzipan taste that just crumbles succulently in the mouth. You’ll find these cakes all over the city, and if you’re looking for a special tarta de Santiago to take home, then you can pass by the Convent of San Paio de Antealtares and buy these from the cloistered nuns through a revolving window at the convent.
Santiago de Compostela may be more than just its Cathedral, but it still remains the cultural heart of the city. The Praza do Obradoiro is often filled with local performers, including the “tuna,” a group of minstrels in traditional dress from the University of Santiago de Compostela. This tradition has spread all over Spain ever since the 13th century, but the group from the University of Santiago de Compostela is one of the most famous.
Exploring the Cathedral interior is free. The proportions inside the Cathedral are vast with towering arches and small chapels and naves branching off to the side, with the golden, baroque high altar at the focal. I was very lucky during my second visit to Santiago, to sit through mass when the Botafumerio, a large giant censer filled with incense that swings through the aisles, was used. There is also Cathedral where you can learn about its history, but in my opinion it’s worth a visit for its cloisters on the upper floor of the structure and the carvings of the Portico de la Gloria.
Santiago’s secular cultural attractions include the Galician Center of Modern Art (CGAC). This is an active space showcasing not only the best in local art, but also hosts lecture series and workshops. There is also the 6600 square meter Museo Centro Gaiás, which houses large-scale temporary installations. Not to mention the city is full of private galleries dotted all over the old town.
As a student city, there is always something to do after dark in Santiago, whether it’s just enjoying a few drinks or getting down to party. The streets come alive at night and they never empty even on weeknights. Instead of looking for a specific club, it’s just better to follow the crowds round the narrow streets of the old city.