Joanna Moorhead gets a step ahead of the medieval pilgrims on the way to northern Spain
IT'S hard not to feel just a bit guilty about jetting off to Santiago de Compostela for a luxury long weekend. After all, centuries of pilgrims spent long weeks crossing Europe on blistered feet to get there, so why should we — sinners just the same — have it so easy?
Still, unless like me you're terrified of flying, there was probably a greater sense of achievement in entering Santiago two months out of Paris than there is two hours out of Heathrow. Not that today's traveller will be disappointed, all the same: the first sign of the cathedral's Baroque towers rising above the orange-red roofs of the town is a fine one
And it is to the cathedral that you must go first, for it is the life force of Santiago. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say it has even been the life force of this part of _ Spain, in the past — for when Santiago's, or St James', tomb was discovered here at the start of the 9th century, the surge of interest in the area was responsible for a massive cultural and economic regeneration.
Christians across the western world cottoned onto the cult-like enthusiasm for protecting the apostle's remains from Moslem infidels, and towns across the route to Santiago, as well as the place itself, became homes to glorious cathedrals where the pilgrims could worship, and hotels where they could stay.
In Santiago the cathedral and hotel stand next to one another in the magnificent Plaza Obradoiro. For just as there is only one cathedral, there is really only one hotel, too, in Santiago de Compostela. The Hotel de los Reyes Catolicos, which provided bed and breakfast for Europe's crowned heads when they came to visit, stands serenely along one side of the huge square.
Considering its reputation as perhaps the best place to stay in the whole of Spain, its external facade is surprisingly unassuming. It is a long, low building with tiny windows and a nlain. railed balcony which runs doorway, for the elaborate details of the stone surround are worth a look.
If you can at all afford to do so, the Reyes Catolicos is far and away the best place to stay. And if you go in low season when the crowds are thinner — as I did— it need not be prohibitively expensive; perhaps £70 or so for a double room.
But even if you are not spending the night there, do visit the hotel for a coffee or meal and soak up the atmosphere. Antiques abound, mostly of the heavy wooden variety, and there are rugs on the flagstoned floor. The building encloses four whitewalled quadrangles, each with a fountain at its centre and two adorned with miniature shrubs.
Bedrooms (mine at least) are heavy and pannelled, the SO1 t of place you could imagine a
fourteenth century bishop or
even cardinal making himself at home. Heavy pink brocade curtains matched the bed covers, prints of the surrounding region, Galicia, hung on the walls.
My room overlooked the plaza. By the time I opened my shutters on the first morning there were already small groups of visitors and pilgrims gathering in the square below, though the cathedral had not yet opened its doors. People tend to stand in the very centre of the square and spend several minutes gazing in turn at each of the wonderful facades — the cathedral first; then the San Jeronimo College, now the university rectory; then the Rajoy Palace, now the town hall; and finally the hotel.
The Obradoiro door is the best by which to enter the cathedral for the first time, for beyond it you will find the exquisite Portico de la Gloria, the twelfth century doorway sculptured under the direction of M.ateo. It is impossrtble to take in the beauty and intricacy of the stonework in Just one visit, so you will have to return — preferably at another time of day, when the carved figures will be bathed in a different light.
The central column of the Portico represents Christ's pilgrims placing their fingers in holes at the bottom of the pillar to emphasise their own place in the universal family tree.
Round the other side of the column, at its base, kneels its creator Mateo. He is facing in the direction of what is without question the cathedral's main attraction, the Baroque high altar. Go there for Mass and you will see the altar at its most breathtaking, with spotlights emphasising the extraordinary intricacies of the gold and silver canopied edifice.
Before the altar, on great feast days like that of St James
himself, the cathedral's huge incensory is swung. This object, which stands about five feet high, needs eight strong men to keep it swinging across the nave.
Atop the altar sits St James himself, his halo and shoulders encased in rubies with emeralds. You can climb up a small staircase behind him: devout pilgrims sometimes embrace the back of his head. Below the altar is the crypt containing the tiny tomb wherein St James' body reputedly lies.
Worth a wander around are the Treasury, where you can view the wedding cake-like gold
monstrance constructed by Arfe in 1546, and the Chapel of the Relics with its ancient Royal tombs. Go to see the valuable Goya tapestries, too, which are housed on the third floor of the cathedral musuem. and which include the especially. touching representation of the blind guitarist.
After spending a morning inside the cathedral you must walk around its outer walls to see the four plazas surrounding it. Most important is the Silversmith's Square, Las Platerias, in which can be seen the only remaining original facade of the cathedral itself (elsewhere the Romanesque has been replaced or covered over by the Baroque).
Many of those who come to Santiago as modern-day pilgrims visit the town only fleetingly and, believing that there is little beside the cathedral to sec, leave without investigating further. But there is plenty more to do here. Churches, of course, abound. Amongst those worth seeing are the former monastery church of San Martin Pinario, its main altar piece an alarmingly elaborate Baroque construction with Mateo's Prado choir behind, and the San Francisco convent church. Go, too, to the Convent° de Belvi — the route, you will discover, is a pleasant country lane, though the convent stands only a 15-minute walk from the main square.
On your way back into town from the Belvi convent, visit the market place or Plaza de Abastos where you can soak up the smells and sights of modern-day Santiago. Further on along the Calle Virgen de la Cerca is Santo Domingo's Convent, now a museum with collections of regional arts and crafts. Go there to see the intruiging triple spiral staircase which you can climb for a view of the cathedral. Restaurants, many of them excellent, are plentiful in Santiago. Try seeking out a place for lunch on the Calle de Franco and you will find lots to choose from. Or try Vilas, on the Rosalia de Castro, where milk pudding fans will enjoy the dessert of Leche Frita, an egg custard deep fried and doused in sugar and nutmeg.
For shops go north of the main plaza to the Calle Caldereria where the jewellery and leather shops are pleasant places to browse, and the Rua Nueva which has picturesque stone arcades and lace-draped balcony windows above its stores.
Stroll along these streets in the early evening, for Spaniards shop between about 5pm and 8pm, and wend your way back to your hotel via the Plaza Obradoiro and the cathedral.
Even at night, you will find the great church is busy with visitors, and the glorious St James shines out against the surrounding darkness in a blaze
of golden light.
I travelled to Santiago de Compostela with Iberia Airlines. During the winter months Iberia operates flights to and from Santiago four times a week. Return fares cost horn £89 return per person travelling on a Monday or Wednesday between January 2-18 to £139 per person for a flight out on a Friday or Sunday between February 9 and March 25. Summer prices start at £129 return travelling out any weekday except Friday between April 16-May 17 and May 28-June 14 up to 192 for a flight in midsummer departing on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Iberia is currently operating a "Citysaver" special offer which can cut the cost by up to 50 per cent on a second Moneysaver ticket. The offer is valid on specific dates — for more information on this and other flights and offers contact your travel agent or nearest Iberia office.
I stayed at the Hotel de los Reyes Catolicos, where a double room with bath costs from 14,000 etas in low season, or 21,600 ptas with half board. In high season prices are 17,000 ptas for a double room with bath and 24,600 pies with half board.