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September 11, 2011

A Day in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

by Anne Paddock

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia  one of 17 autonomous regions (similar to states in the US) – located in the northwest corner of Spain. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Santiago de Compostela (below in red) is most famous for being the destination of “pilgrims” that complete El Camino de Santiago which means The Way of St. James or simply The Way.  In addition, the town is famous for a cathedral called “Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

By way of background, James, one of the twelve apostles was supposedly beheaded in Jerusalem in about 44 AD after which his body was transported to northern Spain and allegedly buried in Santiago de Compostela. About 900 years later, remains attributed to St. James (the Patron Saint of Spain) were found thus drawing pilgrimages from around the world to the town and the shrine that was eventually built in the cathedral.

There are many routes or “ways” to Santiago de Compostela but  the most popular “way” originates in St. Jean, France and is a 769 kilometer (462 miles) walk to Santiago de CompostelaEl Camino De Santiago or The Way of St. James is a very popular route for walkers, backpackers, and tourists who do the walk for the challenge, experience, or spiritual enlightement. The walk usually takes about six weeks although there is no set timeframe in which the walk must be completed. Along the way are a variety of small towns that offer accommodations although many walkers opt to camp outside seeking a more authentic experience.

caminofrances3A visitor doesn’t have to walk “the way” to appreciate Santiago de Compostela though. An overnight stay at the parador (hotel), a tour of the cathedral (and hopefully the witness of the special mass), a walk around the old city streets, and good food at local restaurants are available to all visitors.

canstockphoto13191461In the “plaza mayor” of the old town is the Catedral de Santiago, which was built 800 years ago in what is described as a Roman Baroque Gothic style. Capable of holding 1,200 people, the cathedral is constructed mostly of granite and has a nave in the shape of a cross. At the cross point near the altar , there is a dome that contains a pulley to swing the “Botafumeiro” (smoke ball):  a large canister of charcoal and incense that is swung from side to side by eight robed “tiraboleiros” (incense carriers) who pull ropes in sync.  This is an amazing site to see as the ball is emitting smoke and swinging from one side to another nearly hitting the ceiling, so sit as close to the altar as possible to have the best view.

canstockphoto7712453The original purpose of the botafumeiro was to mask the smell of the pilgrims who had not bathed and would come to the cathedral after their long walk, during the Middle Ages.Now though, the botafumeiro is merely symbolic and only swung on religious holidays, during services that are paid for by patrons, and when the spirit moves them. Most pilgrims view their attendance at the botafumeiro mass as the final stage of their pilgrimage and consequently stay in town until a special mass is offered.

1015px-Santiago_Catedral_BotafumeiroDuring our visit, there was no scheduled botafumeiro mass although everyone on the streets, including the pilgrims who just finished the walk seemed to be chattering about the possibility. My husband comically pointed out the irony in the pilgrims walking hundreds of miles and then not knowing when they can complete their pilgrimage because no one seemed to know if the mass would happen today, tomorrow, or next week.  My daughter simply said “that’s so Spanish.”

The office of tourism (next to the cathedral) didn’t know when the service would occur and no one in the cathedral could tell us.  My husband happened upon a nun and she advised him that the service would be later that afternoon so we went and were lucky enough to witness it. To find out about services and other tourist information, go to  or

90836286_2410200784015On the same square as the cathedral (pictured above at left) is the Parador de los Reis Catalicos:  one of the government operated hotels throughout Spain known as paradores. Years ago, large historic buildings were abandoned throughout Spain and then converted to hotels called paradors.  The parador in Santiago de Compostela is a 15th century building that was once used as a hospital and is in an ideal location for tourists, next to the cathedral and in the central square.  A large imposing building, the parador has lovely, large rooms and a restaurant.

Parador de Santiago de Compostela
Praza Obradoiro 1
15705 Santiago
34 98 156 3094

Reservations can be made on the parador website listed above. Rates vary depending on the room, time of year, and number of persons staying in the room.

There are several restaurants in Santiago de Compostela and we zeroed in on two:

Ana Restaurant
Rua Olvido 22
15703 Santiago de Compostela

34 98 157 07 92

Ana Restaurant was a hit with our daughter who started off her meal with consummé and ended with a cheese platter. The restaurant is located about 7-8 blocks (depending on the route) from the parador, which makes for a nice after dinner walk.

Casa Marcelo
Rue Hortas 1
15705 Santiago de Compostela

34 98 155 85 80

Casa Marcelo has a Michelin star and the chef (Marcelo) offers a set menu every night that changes and  may contain five to ten courses.  Located very close to the cathedral, Casa Marcelo requires dinner reservations by phone.

canstockphoto6356124Don’t leave Santiago de Compostela without purchasing a Tarta de Santiago – a famous relatively flat almond cake made from ground almonds, eggs, and sugar. Easily identifiable with a powdered sugar top that has the Cross of the Order of Santiago in honor of St. James, this dense and rich dessert is delicious.

This classic Galician dessert is imported and available in the US through

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