While writing this guidebook I realized that although I had been to Santiago de Compostela numerous times I have little to say about its monuments except for the cathedral. Just like many other pilgrims, I spent my time in the cathedral and the old city directly surrounding it. Therefore, to give an honest personal description of Santiago’s monuments I had to come back to the city with the intention of proper sightseeing. All this only partially surprised me; I visited my beloved cathedral in Burgos, a masterpiece of art and architecture, only on my third visit to the city, because on my previous visits I was spiritually touched so deeply that even Constable’s Chapel gave a lame performance. I can only add as an excuse that my 12th-century role model devotes half a page to monuments in Santiago, simply naming them while another 19 pages to describe the cathedral. So, at the finish line of your journey, you might feel like touring or… not. Just go with your feelings because anyway, the heart of Santiago de Compostela is the cathedral.
The Romans occupied Santiago de Compostela proven by the numerous remains from their era. Historians agree that name Santiago (Saint James) derives from Sanctu Iacobu, the name of the saint in Latin. In the meantime, views on the derivation of the word Compostela are divided, one theory says that the name of the city comes from Campus Stellae (field of stars), referring to the miracle of the discovery of the Apostle’s grave, while the other more likely one derives from Latin, Composita Tella (burial ground). Then Santiago de Compostela would mean Saint James’ burial ground.
The modern history of the city starts in A.D. 813 when Apostle James’ grave was miraculously discovered. Soon after the discovery, Santiago de Compostela started to attract pilgrims and intruders. Normans invaded the city in the 10th century and in 997 Almanzor pillaged the city and stole the cathedral’s bells. The real leader of the Al-Andalus didn’t, however, dare to kill Bishop Pedro de Mezonzo, whom he found praying in the cathedral. When Almanzor and his troops left, the city and cathedral were in ruins. The rebuilding of the city after the ravages of this war started before the dust settled after Almanzor’s invasion. The indomitable bishop ordered the building of a new cathedral, which with the financial help of all Christendom, was finished in the 13th century. The bells also found their way back at the beginning of 13th century, recovered by Fernando III who forced Cordoba’s captives to carry them back to the place where they belonged.
The author of the 12th-century prosperity of Santiago de Compostela was Archbishop Diego Gelmirez (1069-1149), a man who had the cathedral under his care at the time when the guidebook was written. He played a prominent part in the promotion of the Camino, which reached its peak in the 12th century. During his time the city expanded, several churches were built, the building works on the cathedral progressed quickly and the archbishop’s palace was finished. Diego Gelmirez equally took care of the development of the city’s sacral and civil architecture. He ordered fresh water to be brought to the city and public fountains to be installed; he was the author of a defence system on the coast and initiator of creation of a navy. During this time Santiago de Compostela became an archdiocese, not without the active participation of Diego Gelmirez who spared no effort to make it happen.
Although the city thrived, it was also an arena of never-ending dynastic and social conflicts. In the 15th and beginning of 16th centuries, the Fonseca family ruled the city, trying to bring an end to the wars and rebellions. In the 16th and 17th centuries, pilgrims continued to come to Santiago, but the situation wasn’t stable, as one war succeeded another. In the 17th and 18th centuries during the peak of Baroque, many beautiful palaces were built, and the cathedral was given a new appearance. With the beginning of Napoleonic wars, hard times came to Santiago; the city was destroyed and the increasing secularization damaged monastery life and emptied churches. Not for long, however, as in 1878 during an excavation in the cathedral the bones of Saint James were dug out and an all attention was again focused on the city. In the 20th century Galicia backed its compatriot Francesco Franco during the Civil Wars and later on, the dictator gave money for restoration of the run-down Santiago de Compostela. The city started to rise and today, thanks to years of wise investments and the renaissance of the pilgrimage it is again the showpiece of the province. Income is invested in the renovation of monuments – at the moment the cathedral is undergoing conservation work. The old city area is well preserved and well maintained, buzzing with tourists and pilgrims. And although the city is lively, it is quite easy to find peaceful and quiet places less than 5 minutes walking distance from the cathedral.
Welcome to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia.
The Cathedral of Saint James together with the old city area is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. A first chapel was built over the grave of Saint James soon after its discovery in the 9th century, but the genuine church was not erected until 896, by the heroic bishop Pedro de Mezonzo. The newly-built church was ruined a year later by Almanazor, but only 6 years later bishop Mezonzo consecrated the next one. In the second half of the 11th century another bishop decided to build a new church, with the intention to enrapture Europe. And it did. Building work progressed quickly, an ambulatory was finished in 1077 and the church was consecrated as a cathedral in 1105.
Diego Gelmirez the propagator of the 12th-century economic boom of the city, ordered the building of a chapter house and cloister; the majestic Portico de la Gloria was finished at the end of the century. Different chapels were successively added over the next centuries and the cloister was rebuilt in the 16th century. The main façade of the cathedral is an 18th-century addition.
The Main cathedral façade (Obradoiro façade) was executed by Fernando de Casas Novoa between 1738 and 1750 and is considered a crowning achievement of Barque in Galicia. Saying that I have to admit that it took me 7 years and a visit to a monastery in Villanueva on the Camino Norte, another Baroque work from the same architect, to finally appreciate the Obradoiro façade. Fernando de Casas didn’t have an easy job. The new façade had to be placed on an earlier Romanesque one, without damaging Portico de la Gloria. The two Romanesque towers flanking the entrance were converted in the second half of 17th century, while at the beginning of the century a monumental staircase, called imperial in Spain was built. Casas Novoa had to unite all of these elements into a harmonious whole. The façade is 56 meters high and is crowned with the figure of Saint James as a pilgrim, flanked by two kneeling Spanish Kings, while below carved in stone is his reliquary and the figures of Athanasius and Theodore, his two friends and disciples whose graves were found by his. The two statues placed on the towers represent James’ parents, Zebedee and Salome. Casas Novoa also positioned on the façade figures of St John, James’s brother as well as Saint Barbara and Susanna, loved in Santiago and whose relics are kept in the cathedral. Two huge windows designed by the architect, and apparently the biggest ones before the technical revolution, reflect the Galician sky. Casas Novoa completed the work of his 17th-century predecessors, adding decorative cupolas and pinnacles to the towers.
The North tower, originally the lower one in the manner typical for the Middle Ages, is called the Ratchet Tower (ratchet is a kind of rattle, an instrument used during the liturgy of Good Friday when using t bells is forbidden) and the South one is the Bell Tower. They are 74 meters high. The massive building on the right, adjusted to the cathedral, is a 16th-century cloister, which replaced the earlier Romanesque one.
Now turn right, go around the cathedral’s cloister and stop in front of the Southern portal (with the 19th century Fountain of the Horses) called Puerta de las Platerias (Gate of the Silversmiths). You have just moved 600 years back in time. This is the entrance that our favourite author of the 12th-century guidebook saw and described in great detail. The entrance today looks a bit different from then, due to damage during the wars and later additions of elements from different parts of the cathedral, however, a lot of the original sculptures are still in place. The left tympanum represents the Temptation of the Lord with a deception of Adulterous Woman that delighted Aymeric –
Nor must we omit to mention the woman depicted beside the Temptation of Christ, holding in her hands the stinking head of her seducer, cut off by her own husband, which compelled by her husband, she must kiss twice every day. O what terrible and admirable punishment for the adulterous woman, to be known to all!
Above the tympanum, there are two rows of sculptured figures with the most interesting being God expelling the first people from the Garden of Eden. This one was originally placed in the Northern portal, just like the neighbouring sculpture with Sagittarius representing November, originally part of a series with the months of the year. Both of them are mentioned in the 12th-century guidebook. Pay attention to the four stone monsters, “fierce lions” according to Aymeric, flanking the left entrance. The right tympanum has the Betrayal and Passion of Christ in the lower part, in the upper, Mary with Child and the Three Wise Men. Our favourite Apostle is placed above the left tympanum, between two cypresses. Aymeric:
Above and below, the right and left, the wall is beautifully carved with flowers and man and saints and animals and birds and fish and other figures which we cannot describe in detail.
By the way, if you enter the cathedral by Puerta de las Platerias beware not to be bitten by the stone lion on the left.
Take a look at the harmonious Treasury Façade with its arches and galleries adjoining the cathedral from the left. Built in the first half of the 16th century it is the work of Rodrigo Gil de Hontanon. The Renaissance medallions with biblical and Jacobean characters deserve attention. The tower with the pyramidal roof is called the Treasury Tower; while the massive tower on the right is the Clock Tower, built in the 15th century to carry the bell given by the French King. In the 17th century, the architect Domingo de Andrade rebuilt it in Baroque style. Its cupola with a lantern is lit only during the Holy Years.
Continue going around the cathedral; the first doorway is the Baroque Royal Door, while the second one facing Plaza de La Quintana is the Puerta Santa (Holy Doorway), opened only in the Jacobean year that is, a year when the Saint James’ feast day (25 July) falls on a Sunday. It is not the original one, the one described by Aymeric is between the chapels of St Bartholomew and St Nicolas. The Puerta Santa is opened on 31st of December and closed on the last day of the Jacobean Year. The ceremony is very solemn, concelebrated by the Archbishop who smashes the brick wall built behind the doorway, then prays and is the first to walk through the door, followed by the clergy and pilgrims. The Puerta Santa was constructed between 1611 and 1616. The statues above it represent Saint James as a pilgrim and his two disciples also in pilgrim’s outfits. The three rows of saints and prophets to the left and to the right originate from the beautiful stone choir executed by the author of the Portico de la Gloria, Master Mateo and demolished centuries ago.
The Plaza Quintana was originally the cathedral’s cemetery, converted into a square in the 17th century. It is divided into two parts by the stairs. The long façade on Plaza Quintana was the idea of Jose Vaga y Verdugo, a Canon who wanted to give the cathedral’s west façade uniform enclosure. The Baroque Plaza Quintana façade is in actual fact a screen that hides a semi-circular apse surrounded by numerous semi-circular apsidioles; without the screen, it would look similar to the backs of the cathedrals in Leon, Astorga or Burgos. The façade is finished with balustrade decorated with pinnacles.
Continue going around the cathedral. The Puerta de la Azabacheria is the Northern entrance, which takes its name from the shops selling jewellery made from jet (azabache), just as the name Puerta de las Platerias derives from the silversmiths’ shops that surround its square. The original Puerta de la Azabacheria portal described by Aymeric was called Paradise Doorway because of the Expelling from Paradise relief but this was dismantled in the 18th century, whereas the best sculptures were moved to the Southern portal. The new classical cathedral entrance is executed in Baroque style and topped with a sculpture of Saint James flanked by two Spanish Kings, Alfonso III of Asturias and Ordono II of Leon.
The roofs just like the rest of the cathedral are made out of granite but in the 16th century, they were meticulously covered with tiles. It was not until the sixties when the true presence and function of the roof was rediscovered. That roof was made for walking on! The long granite plaques form stairways that are comfortable and safe to walk along (probably not up to British Health and Safety standards), not to mention great views. They were commonly used by the pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Today’s pilgrim is not as fortunate as his medieval ancestor although he might have a small walk on cathedral’s roof as part of a visit to the museum.
Now enter the cathedral by the main entrance and soon you will stand in front of a masterpiece of Romanesque art the Portico de la Gloria. This triple portico is the work of Maestro Mateo, an outstanding sculptor who curved portico in granite over 20 years. In the cathedral’s archive, there is a document signed by King Fernando II of Leon, commissioning Maestro Mateo to execute the portal for a very generous annual salary. The document is dated 23 of February 1168 and that’s when the works started. It took artist 20 years to complete the task and the royal money spent on the portico was surely the best-spent money in the history of art. Not only is the Portico a marvellous project from an artistic point of view, but also it is very technically complicated. The land drops just where the Portico is, so in order to build it, Master Mateo constructed the Crypt first with columns strong enough to carry the weight of the Portico and the gallery with the rose window above it. The technical solution was unprecedented in Galician architecture at that time. The crypt itself is rather elegant with keystones holding beautiful images of angels with symbols of the Sun and Moon. The capitals are decorated with floral ornamentation; some of them hold different images of evil and symbols of a fight between good and evil. The decoration of the crypt refers to the terrestrial world, while the decoration of the Portico above depicts the Kingdom of Heaven. The crypt, also called ‘the old cathedral”, is accessible from street level at Obradoiro square and today forms part of the cathedral’s museum.
The tympanum of the Portico de la Gloria depicts Christ in Glory surrounded by the four Evangelists; the depiction looks similar to the ones you saw before in Carrion de los Condes or San Isidoro in Leon. It looks similar but is not the same. Around Christ are angels with symbols of his passion; he lifts his hands to show that they are pierced. The Christ who meets pilgrims in Santiago is not a stern judge, but one who has suffered, just like him and for him.
Above Christ on the archivolt are twenty-four crowned elders with musical instruments carved with such reverence that they became a source of knowledge on the topic of early medieval music for modern musicologists. Copies of the instruments modelled on Maestro Mateo’s sculptures are in the cathedral museum. The sculpture in the centre is Saint James. He is portrayed with Christ on the trumeau just below the tympanum. James is waiting for the pilgrim and is the first the pilgrim sees when he/she enters the cathedral. In one hand he holds a scroll with the inscription “Misit me Dominus” (God has sent me) and in the other a pilgrim’s stick. Under his feet is the Tree of Jesse and handprints, which naturally came into existence by the hands of pilgrims constantly touching the column since the 12th century.
At the feet of the portico on the other side is a kneeling figure looking towards the altar. It is Maestro Mateo himself who devoted his life to working on the cathedral and in the end obtained permission from the cathedral to portray himself eternally worshipping God and his Apostle.
The central entrance is flanked by the Old and New Testament. On the left Isaiah, Moses, Jeremiah and smiling Daniel. On the right – Peter with the keys, Paul and James carved with exactly the same faces as in the mullion chatting with his brother John. The sons of Thunder are not the only ones in deep conversation. Each figure is in conversation or is about to strike one up. Except for the figure of Saint James in the centre, perhaps because he is a bit far away from everybody else.
The figures on the jambs represent idealistic naturalism and are a crowning achievement of Romanesque sculpture. The left and right portals don’t have a tympanum, just richly decorated archivolts. The left portal is decorated with Old Testament figures – Adam, Eve, Moses, Aaron, Isaac and Salomon among others. In the centre there is Christ the Saviour. On the right portal God, the Father, and Son are surrounded by saved and condemned souls; as usual, the part with the sinners’ punishment is very entertaining.
Originally the Portico de la Gloria was polychromed. Now it is undergoing major restoration work and it is not clear when it will be finished. A date wasn’t set; my guess is that the portico will be ready for the Jacobean Holy Year 2021. The good news is that all the restored parts are uncovered so at least you can see the portal partly. In the museum you can visit it virtually – the presentation is really well prepared.
I have to admit that there’s another reason I love the Portico de la Gloria for. Every single time I am in Spanish church and I hear people chatting loudly (never mind the shoving and pushing) I get annoyed. No, not annoyed, it gets my goat. Then I think about Portico de la Gloria and it immediately calms me down. Since even the marble statues in Spanish churches never stop talking, how can I nurse a grudge against living people?
The cathedral of Saint James is a pilgrimage church, a type of Romanesque temple that was formed in the 11th century along the routes to Santiago de Compostela. There are four other main churches representing this type – Saint-Sernin in Toulouse on Via Tolosana (Southern route from Arles), Sainte-Foy in Conques on Via Podensis (route from Le Puy-en-Velay), Saint-Martial in Limoges on Via Lemovicensis (route that starts in Vézelay) and Saint Martin in Tours, the starting point for the Via Turonensis. All of these churches have very long main naves covered with a barrel vault and lateral naves covered with a cross vault. Above the lateral naves are matronea, inside galleries used for processions but also serving as a construction element to shift the weight of the vault to the exterior walls. Positioned at 12 meters above, the naves are rather spacious. The long and wide transept (transverse nave) serves almost as a second church and in Santiago and Toulouse, it is also encircled by matronea.
There are additional entrances at each end of the transept. Behind the main altar is an inventive architectonic addition called the ambulatory, which is a circular walkway that enabled pilgrims to visit the reliquary without interrupting the liturgy. It should be emphasized that pilgrimage churches were vast, much bigger than anything else built in that time. It made a huge impression on pilgrims in the Middle Ages as Aymeric starts his descriptions of cathedral dimensions using the height of man as a unit of measurement. And he got it almost correct – the church is 97 meters long and transept measures 65. Such a huge church enabled the free flow of the mass of pilgrims. The model was conceived in parallel in Santiago de Compostela and Toulouse and used earlier novel architectural solutions already applied in Conques but the Cathedral of Saint James is the most outstanding example of this model.
Looking at the cathedral’s interior and seeing all the Baroque additions it is hard to remember that you are inside a Romanesque church. Naturally, you have the vivid memory of the two marvellous Gothic cathedrals in Burgos and Leon, but before you compare them to Santiago have in mind that they were started in the 13th century, while the cathedral of Saint James was virtually finished in the 12th. Talking about Baroque additions – the organs were added in the early 18th century and the main altar with baldachin dripping with gold and silver was executed between 1658 and 1667. It has three different deceptions of Saint James, on the top as a Santiago Matamoros, below as a pilgrim and in the centre, he is a seated figure. The last one unlike the rest of the altar is a Romanesque sculpture, another work of Master Mateo, which is why it doesn’t blend in with the rest of the altar.
Under the main altar, there is the burial chamber of Roman origin where Saint James and his two friends and disciples are buried. This area, closed since the 12th century, was reopened in the 19th century to find the mortal remains of the Apostle hidden in the 16th century from Sir Francis Drake, who wanted to bring them to England. When they were found the burial chamber was refurbished to make it look like the Roman mausoleum it originally was. The bones of Saint James and his two disciples were placed in a silver reliquary.
Up to the 16th century, the choir obliterated the view over the nave. The original beautiful one carved by Maestro Mateo was demolished and some of the statues were moved to the Puerta de Perdon. The choir was recently reconstructed in the museum and is definitely worth visiting. The subsequent wooden one with a proud deception of Santiago Matamoros is now in the Monastery of Saint Martin Pinario.
While continuing the tour around the cathedral, turn right to the North transept entrance and soon you will find yourself in front of the Capilla de la Corticela. Today’s chapel was originally a 9th-century church, built during the reign of Alfons III and rebuilt in the 13th century, and later incorporated into the cathedral in Aymeric’s times, which is clearly visible if you take a look at it from the outside. The masterly portal depicts the Adoration of the Magi. In the tympanum, one of the Three Wise Men is kneeling in front of the Holy Family, while the other two decorate the archivolt. The moving deception of horses proves Maestro Mateo’s workshop authorship.
Next to the Capilla de la Corticela is the Chapel of Holy Spirit, with a 17th-century image of Our Lady of Sorrow. The chapel of medieval origin was rebuilt in the 18th century by Casas y Novoa, the author of the main façade. Today mass in English is said daily in the chapel.
Opposite these two are the chapels of Christ of Burgos with an 18th-century image of Christ dying on the cross and the small chapel with Santiago Matamoros. Now go around the ambulatory and you will find yourself behind the main altar. Pay attention to the star on the floor which points to the place where St James’ grave was found.
The chapel with a blue and gold Plateresque altarpiece and a figure of Christ showing his wounds is dedicated to Christ the Saviour (Capilla del Salvador) and dates back to the 11th century; it is quite possibly the first chapel built in the cathedral. The chapel adjoins the Puerta Santa, open only in the Jacobean Holy Years. The two figures flanking the Holy Doors are St Juda the Apostle and Prophet Ezequiel. They are the work of Master Mateo’s workshop and were originally part of the stone choir. The statues are covered with polychrome and looking at them bear in mind that the Portico de la Gloria originally looked like that. Above the door is the cathedral’s Cross of Consecration inscribed within a circle with symbols of Alfa and Omega and sun and the moon above. You will find this cross in a few other places inside and outside the cathedral. The bronze door was designed in 2003 and represents scenes from St James’ life.
Pass the adjoining Chapel of Saint Peter and stop in the front of the next chapel called Capilla de Mondragon. Built between 1521 and 1526 it has beautiful Gothic vaulting and a Mannerist terracotta altar with the Descent from the Cross. Next to it is the Capilla del Pilar (Chapel of Our Lady of the Pillar with an image of Mary standing on the said object), the 18th-century work of Casas y Novoa, author of the main façade. The chapel crowned with a cupola is very richly decorated and has massive scallops with St James’ crosses in its corners. In the centre of the altar, there is a humble sculpture of Mary on the pillar. It is not here by accident. This most worshipped image of the Virgin Mary in Spain is closely connected to the person of Saint James. According to tradition James, discouraged by unsuccessful preaching in Saragossa, was praying by the bank of river Ebro when Mary appeared before him and made a promise that the faith of the Spanish people would be as strong as the pillar she was standing on.
In the South transept leading to the Platerias Square take a look at the Plateresque portal with statues of Saint James and Saint Ildefons over the door leading to the sacristy and the 11th-century tympanum over the walled-in door with a scene from the Battle of Clavijo, considered to be the oldest existing image of Santiago Matamoros. In the South transept, I always stop at the humble sarcophagus of bishop Theodemir, discoverer of Saint James’ tomb in the year 818.
If you want some peace and quiet, which is quite challenging at times, you can stop a moment in the Baroque Chapel of the Communion in the lateral nave, on the right. In this chapel, silence is requested, very clearly explained on the boards at the entrance. So, if anybody disturbs your peace of mind by chatting or taking photos, feel free to turn the person out of the chapel.
Above the crossing of the main nave and transept is a cupola held by statues of 8 Atlases and with The Eye of Providence covering a small rosette. The cupola dates back to the mid-15th century and holds a mechanism that suspends one of the cathedral’s biggest attractions – Botafumeiro.
Botafumeiro is a huge censer, one of the largest in the world. It measures 94 cm and weights 53 kg. Its suspension mechanism was actually created in the 16th century. The original 16th-century silver censer funded by the French King Louis XI, the same King who gave the cathedral bell, was stolen at the beginning of the 19th century by Napoleon’s troops. It was replaced in 1851 by the present silver-plated one. Eight men are required to make the Botafumeiro swing above the transept. It holds 40 kilograms of charcoal and incense, so altogether a very costly operation. As a consequence, the cathedral can only afford to use it strictly on special occasions like feast days or Jacobean Holy Years. However, as most pilgrims regardless of whether they walked or came by bus want to see the Botafumeiro when they get to Santiago, the cathedral provides an option of paying 250 Euros for the censer to be used during one of the masses. Practically there is always one well off pilgrim to be found or a group of pilgrims combine their money to pay for the great censer. So, if you stay in Santiago for three days or so you might see it once or if you are lucky even three times. The Botafumeiro is usually used at pilgrim’s midday masses but might be used for evening mass as well. The best view is from the transept.
The Botufameiro swings above it with a maximum speed of 68 kilometres per hour filling the cathedral with white smoke and the subtle smell of incense while a glorious song is sung below. This short show is so moving and impressive that the whole cathedral claps their hands after. I saw it many times and I still find it an unforgettable experience. And I promised myself that the day I feel like celebrating something special I will be that pilgrim who pays for the great censer to swing above the nave of the Cathedral of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.
Let Aymeric speak again:
In this church, there is no fissure, no defect. It is admirably built, large and spacious, clear, of fitting size, harmoniously proportioned in breadth, length, and height; and it is of two storeys, like a royal palace. A man who goes up the galleries, if he is sorrowful when he goes up, will be happy and comforted after contemplating its perfect beauty.
The Cathedral Museum faces Plaza Obradoiro and as soon as you enter you find yourself in Master Mateo’s crypt under the Portico de la Gloria. One of the first reliefs you see is the one of the Three Horses originally from the Procession of the Magi of the original retro-choir. This masterly craved sculpture, the work of Master Mateo himself is by itself worth visiting the museum. As I mentioned above the 12th century stone choir, again the work of Master Mateo was dismantled, and the sculptures moved to different places in the cathedral. In the crypt, the choir has been reconstructed and the effect is impressive.
Also, various architectonical elements removed during the various conversions of the cathedral are on display such as Adam and Eve and the depiction of February from the Paradise Façade or the tympanum with Epiphany that was originally above the entrance to the now non-existent chapel of Lady Leonor. The angels in this 14th-century relief are swinging two botafumeiros over Baby Jesus’ head.
The museum’s art collection is also made up by pilgrims’ gifts to the cathedral – altarpieces, tapestries, paintings, and sculptures. There is amongst others a beautiful altarpiece with scenes from Saint James’ life, given in the 15th century by John Goodyear, a parish priest from the Isle of Wight. The museum has an impressive collection of tapestries with a series based on cartoons from Rubens and Goya. As part of your visit to the museum, you will see the cathedral’s cloister, the work of various 16th-century artists, notably, Rodrigo Gil de Hontanon. In the middle of the cloister, there is the basin of a Romanesque fountain, originally next to the Paradise Façade (today’s Puerta de la Azabacheria)
which has not its like anywhere in the world
praised Aymeric. Originally it had a bronze column at the centre with sculptures of four lions
from whose jaws flow four streams of water for the use of pilgrims and the people of the town.
The fountain was erected by Bernard, treasurer of Saint James in AD 1122 for, according to the inscription under the lion’s paws, ‘salvation of my soul and the souls of my parents’.
In the cloister’s courtyard, there are the cathedral’s bells with a famous 18th century almost 6. 5-ton bell called Berenguela, after the beautiful queen whose grave is in the Chapel of Reliquary.
Around the cloisters, various rooms used in the past by the canons of the cathedral are situated. The Rococo chapterhouse with an altar dedicated to Saint James and walls decorated with Flemish tapestries was designed as a meeting place for the cannons. Next to it is the marvellous library with a collection of priceless books and facsimiles of Codex Calixtinus on display. In the other wing of the cloister is the chapel of Saint Fernando, now a treasury that holds a precious collection of gold with a priceless 11th-century Crucifix of Ordono II. In the same wing, there is Capilla de las Reliquias, originally a chapterhouse that contains reliquaries of over 140 saints mostly donated by pilgrims. Its Gothic vault was designed by Juan de Alava, one of the architects working on the cloister. The chapel also serves as a royal pantheon; the tomb of Fernando II of Leon especially stands out, work of Maestro Mateo as well as a statue of Berenguela, the beautiful wife of Alfonso VII.
As part of the Cathedral Museum tour, you might also want to visit the Palace of Archbishop Gelmirez, the building that is adjoined to the cathedral’s main façade (on the right). Diego Gelmirez, a rather colourful character in the history of Santiago de Compostela greatly contributed to the development of the city in the 12th century. Santiago was thriving during this archbishop’s years. His original palace was damaged in one of the uprisings and a new one was started a few years after. The palace was finished 150 years later, long after the archbishop’s death. It is considered as one of the best civil Romanesque buildings in the country. Originally two-storeyed it was extended in the 18th century and its façade was changed. The palace has its own entrance from Plaza de Obradoiro. Its main attraction is the marvellous hall covered with a Romanesque vault that leans on 13 decorated corbels with impressive scenes from the royal wedding.
The Cathedral Museum is open every day from April to October from 9 am to 8 pm and from November to March from 10 am to 8 pm. Cathedral rooftops – guided tours every hour (10 am -7 pm); Cathedral’s matronea – Monday to Friday at 6 pm and weekends at 5 pm; Excavations under the Cathedral – Monday to Friday at 4 pm. As a pilgrim you are entitled to a discount, so have your credencial with you. Entrance to the museum (with everything described above except for the Palace of Archbishop Gelmirez) costs 4 Euros; a tour over the roofs 10 Euros (with entry to the museum – 12 Euros), a guided tour of the cathedral’s matronea plus entrance to the museum is 8 Euros. A guided tour to excavations under the Cathedral costs 8 Euros.
The Praza do Obradoiro takes its name from the workshops (obradoiros) of the stonemasons who built the cathedral. Always packed with pilgrims it is surrounded by four monuments. The Palace of Archbishop Gelmirez on the right and the cloister façade on the left flank the main cathedral façade. The 16th-century building called Pazo de San Xerome on the left houses the University’s vice-chancellor’s Office. Its 15th-century marvellous portal comes from a former pilgrim’s hospital. Opposite the cathedral, there is the 18th century Neoclassical Palace de Rajoy (city hall) with a sculpture of Santiago Matamoros on the top. The building at the right is the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, today a luxury Parador.
The Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos is a former pilgrim’s hostel and in my opinion besides the Monastery of San Martino Pinario is one of two Santiago de Compostela’s must-sees. The hostel was the brainchild of the 15th century, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon known under the joint title of the Catholic Monarchs (Reyes Católicos). Both had set off on a pilgrimage to Santiago in AD 1486 and as real pilgrims, they experienced dangers and several problems on the road. When they finally arrived in Santiago they were truly shocked by the fact that the pilgrims slept in the cathedral, as the old hostel run by the cathedral for pilgrims had burned down and there were not enough funds to erect a new one. A pertaining royal document is full of authentic, sincere concern and respect for the poor pilgrims, which is rather impressive if taken into consideration that is written by the king and queen. The said document promises the building and running of a new hostel at royal expenses. The building started in the year 1501 under the close supervision of Enrique Egas. The architect didn’t have an easy task, as the royal couple had plenty of their own ideas about what the hospice should look like. Enrique Egas managed to avoid a nervous breakdown and 8 years later, although still unfinished the hospice opened its doors to the first pilgrims and the sick (it played a double role of hostel and hospital for the poor).
Diego de Muros III took on the administration and for the first years, the hospice flourished. However later on some of the employees turned out not to be as straight as a die and the place fell into debt. Throughout the next centuries the hospital had its financial ups and downs, but regardless of circumstances, it offered medical help at a high standard and lodging for pilgrims. Everything was free of charge. According to the funding status of the hostel, a pilgrim had the right to stay for 3 days in the summertime and 5 in the winter. It didn’t apply to the sick that were kept in hospital as long as needed.
The Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos was a state within a state, employing an army of people. On duty were not only doctors, nurses and chaplains obliged to speak several foreign languages to be able to help foreign pilgrims, but also their very own jurisdiction system. According to the royal will, the hostel was totally independent, and its administrator answered only to the King and Pope. The big posts connected by chains that you see outside the hospice outlined the area for its jurisdiction and only the administrator of the hostel could judge and decide whether or not to grant any fugitive who hid behind them asylum. From the beginning, the hostel had its own herb garden with a gardener who produced herbs used for preparing medicaments.
The Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos is a fascinating place, built on a grand royal scale. Its magnificent Plateresque façade has sculptures of Adam and Eve on the lower level and various saints (St Catharine and Saint Lucy among others) on the higher one. On the top frieze, there is Christ and Mary accompanied by Saint James, John, Peter, and Paul. In the place where the window is now, there was originally a depiction of God the Father. Just above the entrance, there are two medallions with the Catholic Monarchs and an inscription in Latin that says that the building of the hospital started in the year 1501 by royal order and was completed in one decade. Original or shall I say obscene gargoyles are a later addition just like the two balconies.
Inside there are four courtyards that bear the names of the four Evangelists. Each of them is the work of a different architect. The hidden gem of the hospital is the marvellous 16th century Royal Chapel, work of Enrique Egas, the architect with nerves of iron. The chapel is centrally located between all four patios. It has balconies with filigree balustrade on its upper floor made with the sick in mind to enable them to hear Mass from their beds. The original but now non-existent double altarpiece was supported by two wooden platforms with two altars. On the lower one Mass was said for the pilgrims and staff, while on the higher one it was celebrated for the bedridden lying on the balconies. The chapel has four marvellous white stone columns with masterly carved statues representing Saint Mary Magdalene, Catherine, Lucy, Saint James, and John among others. All the statues of women are especially striking. One of them is Mary Salome, the mother of Saint James a woman who witnessed the Resurrection when she went with the others to the grave on the third day. She is buried in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, just 20 kilometres from Via Tolosana (route to Santiago from Arles).
Today the hostel is a luxury Parador, which continues the tradition of taking care of pilgrims. Every day in the morning, at midday and in the evening the first 10 pilgrims with a credential have the right to a free breakfast, lunch or dinner for up to three days since arrival in Santiago. The meeting point is below the stairs and you usually have to arrive about an hour early. I went to the hostel once for breakfast and although I have to honestly say that I was disappointed because I expected something better from the luxury hotel – still the experience was unforgettable as I spent the morning in the excellent company of fellow pilgrims. So, if you happen to be around there and you see 9 pilgrims queuing, you can give it a go.
To visit Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos you can buy a ticket at the main reception (3 Euros, free on Mondays; the tour takes half an hour). The hostel is open to visitors from 10 am to 2 pm and from 4 to 6 pm, now apparently between June and October Parador is open for groups with guides only. Spain is Spain, so smile and ask at the reception if you can visit it individually.
The Monastery of San Martin Pinario faces the Cathedral’s Puerta de la Azabacheria but to get inside the church you have to go around the monastery through a passage on the right. The passage will lead you to the most beautiful church besides the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
The first Benedictine monks arrived in Santiago de Compostela in the 9th century soon after the discovery of Saint James’ tomb. They built their chapel in the 11th century near the Church of Corticela (now a chapel in the Northern transept of the cathedral), which at the time was a place where pines were growing. The trees gave the monastery its name in the end even though the cloister was quite possibly built long after they were cut down. Diego Gelmirez consecrated the first building in the 12th century but three centuries later it turned out to be far too small. The prominent architect Mateo Lopez designed a new one. The façade of the monastery was started by him at the end of the 16th century but was not finished until the second quarter of the 18th century, which explains the elegant mixture of Renaissance and Baroque elements. The monastery consists of two cloisters with the main one being the work of Bartolomé Fernández Lechuga, also the author of the church’s magnificent dome. Mateo Lopez started the church and designed its façade and although it was finished in 1652, the church was not completed until the middle of the 18th century when the sacristy was added. The monastery and church have sets of imposing stairs dating back to the 18th century. After the cathedral, it is the biggest building in Santiago and over the centuries had the best architects working on it such as Fernando de Casas y Novoa, the author of the Obradoiro façade. At one point the Chapter of Santiago forbade continuing work on the monastery when another great architect, José Peña de Toro was about to build its towers higher than those of the cathedral.
The Church inside is covered by a barrel vault and has an impressive dome. Its interior is light and spacious; the altars represent first-class Baroque work. The main altar is the joint work of Casas y Novoa and Miguel de Romay. There are two marvellous choirs inside San Martin de Pinario, one that is made in walnut by 17th century Mateo de Prado is behind the main altar, while upstairs is the second one, recently renovated the cathedral choir. The former monastery rooms adjoining the church now house a small, pretty interesting museum with an art collection, science and pharmacy laboratories on display dating back to the 16th to 19th centuries.
The tour around the Church of San Martin Pinario takes about half an hour and costs 3 Euros with the pilgrim’s discount. To visit one of the monastery cloisters you have to walk through the doors facing the cathedral with ‘Seminario Menor’ written on them. The cloister is lined with glass because this part of the monastery now serves as a hotel. As monks ran the pilgrim’s hostel in the past, the Monastery of San Martin Pinario continues the tradition by having a few single rooms ready for pilgrims.
The old town area of Santiago de Compostela is a UNESCO Heritage site. The narrow Rua de Franco whose name derives from Franks, a word used for foreign pilgrims, radiates from Obradorio Square and since the 10th century is the gastronomical base for pilgrims. In the past it was lined with inns, today they have been taken over by good seafood restaurants, worth at least one visit. The first building on Rua de Franco is Colegio de Fonseca, the 16th-century university building founded by Archbishop Alfonso de Fonseca. The college combines Plateresque and Renaissance styles, its cloister is elegant, and the former refectory has a magnificent Mudejar ceiling. Today it houses the University library and can be visited free of charge.
Rua de Vilar runs parallel to Rua de Franco and in my opinion, is the prettiest street in the old town area. It also dates back to the 10th century. The houses and town mansions bear the coats of arms of Galician noble families and represent all styles from Renaissance, through Baroque until the 19th century. The former Pilgrim’s office and Tourist Office – representing the city of Santiago occupy houses along this lovely street.
Parallel to Rua de Vilar is the youngest street, 12th century Rua Nova with Iglesia de Santa Maria Salome, apparently the only one in the whole of Spain dedicated to Saint James’ mother. The church was remodelled in the 18th century but has a 13th-century Romanesque façade.
There are many more interesting convents and churches in Santiago – Monasterio de San Francisco de Valdedios, founded by Saint Francis of Assisi during his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in AD 1214, the church is monumental Baroque and the cloister is Neoclassical, the chapter house is late Gothic.
Similarly, Monasterio de Santa Maria del Sar the 12th century Templar complex whose cloister is the work of Master Mateo’s workshop. Ticket costs 2 Euros, however if you buy any ticket to the Cathedral, you can visit Santa Maria del Sar for free. The first is at the end of Rua de San Francisco, a street that radiates from Obradoiro Square; the second is a bit outside on the banks of the river Sar.
If you have a time for a lot of sightseeing the Tourist Office will provide you with a map and suggest a route that will take you around the most interesting city monuments. But perhaps you might prefer to walk around one of the city’s parks. Alameda is my favourite and it has spectacular views of the cathedral. All the streets in the old city will lead you there. Below the Seminario Menor is the terraced Parque de Belvis and behind the former Dominican Monastery (today the ethnographic museum, by the Porta do Camino) there is Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval an old Dominican garden with an oak grove; both have excellent views of the city.
Just below Praza do Obradorio, going down the stairs by the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos you will find a small green labyrinth with benches, so quiet it is hard to believe that you are just a minute away from the cathedral. Opposite the labyrinth by the police station, there are city toilets, open whole day long.
The centre of Santiago has plenty of cafes and restaurants, most of them with prices intended for tourists.
There are exceptions like Casa Manolo, a pilgrim’s restaurant by the Plaza de Cervantez. In the past it had good food but bad service (meaning the main course put on the table while you are still eating the starter; I exploded when I received ice-creams while I still had a half-eaten plate of ribs); now it still has good food and the service is still bad. A three-course menu costs 10 Euros and you can choose from a long list of starters, mains, and desserts. Restaurant in the beautiful Monastery of San Martin Pinario serves tasty and non-expensive breakfast (buffet), lunch and dinner. Ask at the reception. Café Casino on Rua Villar offers a good deal for paella. The paella is tasty and the restaurant itself has an interesting interior as it occupies the old casino building. As I mentioned above, good seafood is served on Rua de Franco, but that comes with a price. In general, as soon as you move away from the centre of Santiago prices will drop, so if you stay in Santiago for a while it is worth checking out places a bit further away from the cathedral.
There are plenty of cafes with outdoor tables that might be very refreshing in the summertime. A problem is professional beggars who prey on tourists and can sometimes spoil a pleasant afternoon by the cathedral. Spanish people are fed up with them as well. Even though it’s difficult it is better to ignore them and not to give money.