Santiago’s Golden Legend

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Santiago de Compostela has been a lodestar for visitors for more than a thousand years. The world’s first guidebook was written in 1130 by Aimeri Picaud, a French monk, to give information to travelers on their way there. In the early Middle Ages, between 500,000 and 2 million people came each year. They came, however, not for the sun or the architecture, but to visit the sacred relics of the body of St. James.

As a center of Christian pilgrimage, Santiago rivaled Rome and the Holy Land. The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, originated in towns all over Europe – in England, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia and, of course, France. Pilgrims set out alone, in small groups, or in large gatherings. For the most part, their paths converged in France, where the routes were organized by the Benedictines and Cistercians of Cluny and Citeaux and the Knights Templars of the Spanish Order of the Red Sword. By the time the pilgrims crossed the Pyrenees and entered Spain, they continued on two routes only – the northern coastal road, called the Asturian, and the more popular Camino Frances, or French Way. Along the latter, so much traveled over hundreds of years, and still used today, were built some of the most spiritual and magnificent of Spanish buildings. Yet nothing prepares one for the wonder of Santiago de Compostela itself.

In Spain it is often impossible to separate tradition and history. But there’s no doubt that a visit to this northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula is made far more exciting by some knowledge of the extraordinary events that did (or didn’t) happen there. St. James the Apostle, brother of St. John the Evangelist, brought Christianity to Spain and then returned to the Holy Land, where he was beheaded; his body was conveyed to Spain by his disciples in a rudderless boat that found its way to a little inland port now known as Padron.

About 15 miles southeast of Santiago, Padron is a good introduction to the marvelous mysteries. If you’re lucky enough to find the priest to let you in, enter the little 17th-century parish church of Santiago by the River Sar, which flows through the town; under the altar you can actually see the granite stone to which the apostle’s boat was tied. Thus the name Padron, taken from ”piedra,” meaning stone.

After St. James’s body reached Spain, it disappeared for 800 years until Pelayo, a hermit, saw a brilliant star flashing over a woodland (hence, perhaps, Compostela, from ”campo de la estrella,” or ”field of the star”). An ancient burial place was unearthed and on July 25, A.D. 813, the holy remains were drawn triumphantly in an ox cart into the center of Santiago. On the busy Calle de Franco, there’s a little shrine to mark the spot where the journey ended, and near the city walls, by the fine stone market, there stands the Romanesque church of San Felix de Solovia, built near the cave in which the hermit Pelayo lived; the church is notable for a 12th-century tympanum of the Adoration of the Magi.

On the top of the Bishop’s Palace, facing the great Cathedral of St. James, there is a huge statue of a knight on horseback carrying a banner. Not much, you might think, to do with the James who watched with his brother at Gethsemane. But this is his reincarnation, Santiago Matamoros, the Moorslayer, who appeared miraculously to inspire the Christians in their battles against the infidels. His banner bore an ornamental red cross and it is still the city’s symbol, marking souvenir ashtrays, key chains and decals.

A third St. James was created by the pilgrims themselves. He is dressed as one of them, with a wide-brimmed hat and a heavy cloak adorned with the scallop shell that was – and remains – the pilgrims’ emblem. He carries a stout staff with a drinking gourd attached. This St. James appears above the Holy Door in the cathedral’s east facade, overlooking the Plaza de la Quintana.

The pilgrims usually entered the cathedral by the Puerta de Azabacheria, where the jet workers made and sold their wares. Jet and silver are still the two crafts of Santiago, and the silvermakers cluster round their own door, the Platerias, with its superbly carved Romanesque entrance and 17th-century clock tower.

There is an argument for never leaving the cathedral and the four great squares that surround it. The extraordinary many-layered building embraces, in its crypt, an 11th-century barrel-vaulted church; its gigantic Gothic cloister has a dazzling filigree trellis, and its Treasury Tower recalls a Thai temple.


The 18th-century Baroque Obradoiro (west) facade, with its double staircase, is the most ornate. Within is an older facade, decorated with a parade of stone figures carved by Master Mateo in the 12th century: the Door of Glory. The master carved a self-portrait on the back of the pillar on which St. James and, above him, Christ in Glory look out into the narthex. Here, St. James and, indeed, all the more than 200 figures, particularly the mysteriously smiling Daniel, have a warmth and gentleness that belie their granite material.

Inside, at the heart of the cathedral, yet another St. James, resplendent in golden cloak studded with jewels, dominates the center aisle from above the main altar. Steps leading upward allow pilgrims to walk behind the statue, kiss its mantle and embrace its shoulders. Steps leading downward uncover a small shrine where an ornate silver chest contains the bones of the saint.

Hidden from the buccaneering Sir Francis Drake in 1589, these relics were lost again for three centuries until a historian, Antonio Lopez Ferreiro, found them in 1879. An elaborate plaque commemorating him can be seen opposite the old university buildings now housing the geography and history faculties.

The quest for St. James leads into every corner of the city; the problem is to unravel fact from fiction. Indisputably real, because it stands four-square at the northwest corner of the cathedral in the Plaza de Espana, is the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, built by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand at the turn of the 16th century to house and nurse the pilgrims who were pouring into the city. Forgetting for a moment Isabella’s terrible legacy of the Inquisition, her hotel/hospital is a tranquil and glorious monument to religious belief. It is built round four courtyards and displays the most beautiful hotel doorway in the world, ornamented with a profusion of carved figures, beginning with Adam and Eve. Since 1954, the Hostal has been run as part of the Spanish national chain of paradors. Yet it is still a charitable foundation: each day, up to 10 certified pilgrims can claim three free meals a day for up to three days. These contemporary pilgrims eat with the staff, the manager explains.

It is perfectly possible to visit Santiago and see it only as another splendid European city. Its Plaza de Espana rivals in magnificence the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo in Siena or the Piazza San Marco in Venice. The stone-paved streets have a multitude of cafes and bars that, in term time, are thronged with some of the 47,000 students who fill the thriving University of Santiago. Yet among the tourists you will spot the pilgrims: one morning two white-haired men with backpacks entered through Mateo’s Door of Glory and pressed their fingers into the holes made in the stone by their forerunners over eight centuries.


Inside the offices of the cathedral sits a representative of the secretariat whose one job is to certify the true pilgrims, those who have walked, bicycled or ridden (on horseback) over at least 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) to get to Santiago. They bring a card stamped in the town halls along the route and sign in at a registry. Under the heading ”motives for pilgrimage,” someone has written ”une promesse” and someone else ”100 percent por Dios” and a third ”religieux et sportifs.” A very ”sportif” Frenchman bounds in while I am there; he has bicycled from the Rue St. Jacques in Paris, the traditional start of the route, to Santiago in 10 days. The secretary tells me that the number of pilgrims has more than doubled in the past 10 years.

BUT IF COMPOSTELA IS called the spiritual center of Spain, it is also the center of the strange wild country of Galicia. Down every street you can see the steep wooded mountains and lower gorse-clad hills that rise up from every river valley. Galicia has its own traditions, founded not just on Christian religions but on those of its earlier Celtic and Roman invaders. The music that is played on most street corners and in every square often features the gaiti, a bagpipe, smaller than its Scottish cousin but indisputably the same instrument. On feast days and holy days the town is filled with students dressed in medieval costume, usually black velvet slashed with scarlet or yellow or blue. The three oldest college foundations have their own musical groups and their own positions in the town. Often they process round, making the narrow streets echo with drums and pipes.

July 25, the feast of St. James, is the greatest fiesta day. There is a noisy fireworks display and the Paseo de la Herradura, which covers a woody hill near the city, is used as an overspill for less spiritual celebrations. For the four days of my most recent visit, a huge fun fair rose on its slopes. In the morning, the Plaza de Espana was filled with children holding balloons. They were joined by local dignitaries, soldiers in helmets with plumes and a band with full choir. To the strains of the European anthem, Beethoven’s ”Ode to Joy,” the children loosed the balloons and up they sailed, over the stone banner of St. James the Moorslayer and into a clear blue sky.

ENTRY INTO THE EURO-pean community has not altered much in the city of Santiago. But once you leave the city to head, perhaps, eastward along the pilgrim road, anyone used to old Spain will be amazed by the new four-lane highway. Gone are the days of bone-shaking potholes. Now you can quite easily visit some of the towns and villages up to 60 miles or so from Santiago and still be back for a peaceful dinner in town. The countryside inland from Santiago is exceedingly beautiful, forests of pine and eucalyptus, smelling coolly medicinal. In the autumn, the soft pinks and mauves of heather undulate across the moorlands, all against a background of rich green. (On one drive into Santiago a bee entered the car, reminding me of the old tradition that no bee or ant must be killed on the route to the city for it might contain the soul of a pilgrim forever making his way to the apostle.) Unlike the rest of Spain, Galicia never loses its color to a long dry summer, for it rains the year round; the local people boast they have rain all but 30 days of the year. Despite this, the rocky, mountainous terrain makes it unprofitable farming land, not helped by the ancient division of land into strips and the still antiquated methods of farming. Symbols of the old ways, still in use, are the little horroes, or grain barns, that stand on stilts, usually with a cross on one end of their pink tiled roofs.

About 15 miles southeast of Santiago there is a small manor house called Pazo de Oca, which has the most romantic garden outside Ireland. Trees of camellia, avocado, yew and ilex, rows of semiclipped hedges, lead you by overgrown pathways to a still and shady lake. At its center, a boat constructed of stone, with stone sailors at prow and stern, masquerades as an island. Its only inhabitants are a wild exuberance of hydrangeas and some disdainful swans. There seems to be no record of whether pilgrims were received in this mysterious paradise, although there is a chapel within its walls.

In a small village just beyond Palas de Rei is Vilar de Donas, Place of the Ladies, a powerful Romanesque church with strong pilgrim links. It was attached to a monastery of the Knights of the Order of St. James, which was founded in 1184. There was also a hospital where great and presumably holy ladies came to tend pilgrims in need. Behind the altar the curved wall of the apse is painted with still colorful portraits of some of the ladies. They are elaborately dressed and coifed in medieval finery and one of them, with a clever, animated face, has thick loops of corn-colored plaits. The sun makes the wildflowers decorating the altar shine brightly, but deep green stains on the walls suggest that in winter it’s a different story.

The Galician Spaniards are not much given to showing their feelings, which makes them seem dour at first. General Franco came from Galicia, but when he was in power he did everything possible to bring the region under the central Government. It has always been one of the poorest areas of Spain and emigration, often to the United States, has been very high. (One family called Castro ended up in Cuba.) Now Galicia has become an autonomous region of Spain, and signs are written in two languages. T HE STRANGEST EX-ample of modern development in Galicia is the village of Portomarin, where the fine Romanesque Church of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, an important stopping-point on the Camino Frances, used to stand by the River Mino. In 1963 a dam was built, the village flooded and the church removed, stone by numbered stone (you can see the numbers on them still), to a higher point where a new Portomarin was constructed around it. Above the portal, Christ sits in glory, surrounded by the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse, who seem remarkably unsurprised by their new setting.

It is tempting to continue on to the ancient Roman town of Lugo. A one-mile walk around its broad stone walls offers views of churches and countryside. In the 12th century, the city possessed five hospitals and a leper hospital for pilgrims. The sleepy old square has a thick band of shady trees on one side, beyond which yet another great Romanesque church sits in granite dignity. R ETURNING TO SAN-tiago along the Camino Frances, you see some of the same landmarks that the medieval pilgrims knew. Not far from where the airport stands now, a few miles outside the town, rises the hill known as Monte Gaudi, or Mountjoy, where pilgrims caught their first glimpse of Santiago and cried out, ”Mon Joie! Mon Joie!” Nearer the city stands the 12th-century Romanesque church of Santa Maria del Sar. It is so buttressed that from the outside it looks more like a fortification than a church. Inside, the reason is clear; the row of giant pillars down the center aisle have a severe list outward, defying gravity. It would be a somber place were it not for those crazily drunken pillars and – the day I saw it – streamers of white satin decorating the pews.

From Santa Maria del Sar it is only about 15 minutes on foot to the Puerta del Camino, through which the pilgrims entered the city walls. In later years they would have seen nearby one of the loveliest small churches, Santa Maria del Camino, its facade decorated with a huge stone wreath of flowers. They would continue inward, washing at one of the fountains, perhaps the one in the Plaza del Toral or in the Plaza Fonseca, which faces the ancient university. At last, after many months – or even years – of traveling, of overcoming the dangers of extreme heat, cold, wet, of brigands, of sickness, perhaps of loss of faith, they would see rising up in front of them the vast spread of the cathedral. It is not difficult to imagine their relief and excitement as they realized that this was their journey’s end.

Today, even for those with no religious beliefs, Santiago still sets up some indefinable longing. Sir Walter Raleigh wrote for his age: Give me my scallop- shell of quiet, My staff of faith to walk upon, My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation, My gown of glory, hope’s true gage, And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

Now, modern travelers, we have a chance to wonder at the physical realities of that eternal dream. Or we can take up the pilgrim’s challenge. FOR PILGRIMS AND SOJOURNERS Selected Lodgings

Prices listed below are computed at a rate of 120 pesetas to $1. In most cases, low season denotes the period from Nov. 1 to March 15.

The Hotel de los Reyes Catolicos (Plaza del Obradoiro 1; telephone: 582200) has double rooms – many overlooking one of the hotel’s four cloistered courtyards -for $100 (low season) and $133 (high). Though sections of the hotel are undergoing renovation (to be completed early next year), nearly 100 rooms are now available for occupancy. The hotel’s subterranean restaurant serves such Galician fare as scallops with Serrano ham, and tarta de Santiago, a dessert made with ground almonds. The prix fixe dinner, with wine, is about $55 for two. In New York, reservations for Spain’s paradors, of which the Reyes Catolicos is one, can be made through Marketing Ahead (433 Fifth Avenue, New York 10016; 686-9213), which adds a surcharge of $3 a night for each double room.

The modern Araguaney (Calle Alfredo Branas 5; 595900) has a swimming pool, discotheque and cocktail lounge. Doubles are $110 (low season) and $128 (high). The restaurant’s international menu features sole meuniere and solomillo, steak prepared in the Spanish style. The menu of the day, which includes wine, is about $30 for two.

The Compostela (Fuente de San Antonio 1; 585700), a short walk from the old town, offers comfortable, modern accommodations. Doubles are $48 (low season) and $65 (high).

The Suso (Rua del Villar 65; 586611), in the heart of the old quarter, is small, friendly and inexpensive. Double rooms are $18 (low season) and $24 (high). Sustenance

Don Gaiferos (Rua Nova 23; 583894), regional in both decor and cuisine, specializes in fish pates and estofado de carne (a local stew). Dinner for two, with wine, costs about $85.

Vilas (Calle Rosalia de Castro 88; 591000) and Anexo Vilas (Avenida de Villagarcia 21; 598387), operated by the same family, offer such traditional dishes as scallops sauteed with ham, and xarrete (marinated beef hock). Desserts include filloas (pancake-like pastries) and leche frita (fried blancmange). Dinner for two, with wine, ranges from $65 to $135.

At Alameda (Avenida de Figueroa 15; 584796), specialties include empanada de salmon (salmon pie) and fresh fish, grilled, poached or sauteed. Menus of the day, for two, range from $30 to $40, including wine.

in The New York Times

 Third photo (c) 2004, Luis de Matos


One thought on “Santiago’s Golden Legend

    Bob said:
    October 14, 2007 at 10:29 am

    Can anyone translate into English the inscription over the door of the hostel? Even to a nonbeliever the visit to Santiago de Compostella was very spiritual. Your site gives an excellent summary.

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