In 1998 I won a competition in the Times newspaper for an all expenses paid weekend to a chateaux in Cahors in France. This was the result of answering three simple questions about the Apostle Saint James and the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, which were about pilgrimages and seashells. I was glad that I knew the answers and ever since had the place on my ‘to visit’ list.
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of autonomous region of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is located in the most northwest region of Spain in the Province of A Coruña and was the European City of Culture for the year 2000. After Jerusalem and Rome it is the third most holy city in Chrisendom and the cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important ninth century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James. Santiago is such an important pilgrimage destination because it is considered the burial site of the apostle, James the Great and legend holds that St. James’s remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where they were buried on the site of what is now the city.
People continue to take the Pilgrim trail and there were many here today who could be identified by the pilgrim staff and the symbol of the scallop shell. The shell is the traditional symbol of the pilgrimage because the grooves in the shell, which come together at a single point, represent the various routes that pilgrims travelled, all eventually arriving at a single destination. It is also symbolic of the pilgrim because just as the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up on the shores of Galicia, God’s hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela.
There was certainly no mistaking that this is a very holy city indeed and the route to the Cathedral was lined with churches, monasteries and seminaries and finally we emerged into the central square, Praza de Obradoiro, where the Cathedral (which is depicted on Spanish eurocent coins) loomed high above in a most spectacular and impressive way. Inside, the Cathedral is nearly a hundred metres long and over twenty metres high and is the largest Romanesque church in Spain as well as being one of the biggest in Europe.
We had a good look around but it was a approaching lunch time and so we declined to join the long queue of pilgrims and visitors who were waiting in line to visit the crypt and see the box that contains the bones and relics of St James and left by a side door that opened onto another remarkable courtyard that was surrounded by huge medieval buildings and magnificent statues. It was hot now and time for a beer so we found a place in the shade and enjoyed a first glass of Estrella Galicia, a local brew from the city of A Coruña on the north coast and then we moved on and disappeared inside the narrow side streets surrounding the cathedral to find somewhere traditional to eat and almost immediately came across the Restaurante de Buen Pulpo that had a tempting tapas menu on the wall outside.
This was what I had been looking for unsuccessfully on my last visit to Spain and we hung around until an outside table became available and when one did occupied it immediately and began the difficult task of menu selection. We decided upon sardines, calamari, tortilla and salad and some more Estrella Galicia of course. The food was reasonably priced and tasted divine and afterwards we left the little restaurant and continued to explore some more of the old city and after a couple of hours I felt confident to declare this one of the nicest places that I have ever visited.