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Santiago de Compostela: Another Angle
Even though a centenary route, the last two decades have represented a real boom for the
Camino de Santiago, which has consolidated Santiago de Compostela as a tourist destination
and its Cathedral as its most visible and visited attraction. Nevertheless, the city’s tourist offer
encompasses much more than the Cathedral, with least known activities that can be of great
interest to the increasing number of US visitors arriving in Santiago de Compostela.

 

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The landscape of Santiago de Compostela hypnotizes pilgrims who reach the top of the Monte do Gozo. Situated just a couple kilometers away from the historical city center, the arrival to this hill of joy is the single most evident testimony of a pilgrim’s proximity to Compostela, its Cathedral, and the tomb of the Apostle Saint James. 

Nothing can outshine the view of the Cathedral’s towers, the tallest structures of a city defined by this centuries’ old temple. The city’s insignia, the Cathedral was built as an altar of respect to a close friend of Jesus Christ whose corpse legend says was taken on a boat to Galicia. Over time the Apostle and his temple began to be worshiped, attracting to the city pilgrims from all over the world. 

The Cathedral, one of the most visited monuments in Spain, became the cornerstone of Santiago de Compostela, the capital city of Galicia which beats at the rhythm of the Apostle and of everything that surrounds his cult. Since the Middle Age faith has been a magnet driving pilgrims to Santiago, most through the Camino, or Way of Saint James, a route that remains vibrant and is more popular and traveled than ever.

Santiago is the culmination of the pilgrims’ journey and of the expeditions many others complete for business or leisure. Regardless of their motivation of the extent of their stay, when in the city all fulfill the ritual of visiting the Cathedral, embracing the Apostle, attending the pilgrim’s mass,  praying before the Apostle’s grave, and, if lucky, watch the amazing dance of the botafumeiro, a gigantic incense burner that flies from one side of the Cathedral to another.

Even though the Cathedral and Saint James will remain Compostela’s main attraction, this ancient world heritage city has many other least known points of interest that add a new angle to the experience of visiting and enjoying a place that transpires a 19th century flair, but is as contemporary as ever. 

Joining those thousands of pilgrims are thousands of Spanish and international students, a floating population that seasons Compostela with a fresh vibe all-year long. Education and religion are two equally important driving forces as one can attest every morning when students cross the Praza do Obradoiro, the city’s main square in front of the Cathedral, to attend their daily lessons at the various buildings the University of Santiago de Compostela has throughout the historic city center. 

With humble school origins dating back to 1495, it was in 1504 when the initial academy began a path towards becoming a real University, a consolidation accomplished a couple years later with the designation of Alonso de Fonseca, a very erudite Renaissance man, as Archbishop of Compostela. The old Pilgrim’s Hospital was purchased and transformed into a university college, and some new buildings, as Fonseca College, were built to become an epicenter of the University, which became a cultural, intellectual, and economic keystone of the city, and one of the most respected higher learning centers in Spain. 

Many of the University’s oldest buildings are located within the historic city center, thus offering a fantastic opportunity to enjoy their stunning architecture and revive the past in the 21st century, blending wisdom, beauty and history. The best is that many of these structures are open to the public.

In Fonseca College, close to the Obradoiro, tourists can initiate a voyage through time while visiting its garden, secluded within a granite cloister, and its old America library, which protects a publication dating back to the 11th century, the oldest book in Compostela.  

Libraries are precisely one of the most fascinating spaces of the University and a reading room not to be missed is that of the library of the Faculty of History and Geography, a 18th century building crowned by this mind-blowing old-fashioned space that lets people travel in time with its cracking hardwood floor, windows with vitrals that open to views of the old city and the Cathedral and, most marvelous, its grand book shelves where old books are alive, just like the vintage reading room, used by students on a regular basis.  

One floor underneath this library visitors can also discover the Paraninfo, the large auditorium that serves as scenario for the University’s official celebrations and many artistic performances. The Paraninfo boasts admirable ceilings with colorful romantic paintings, and decorations plethoric of antique inspiration. 

To discover this heritage the University has designed tours that allow participants to travel into another era through the magic of these old buildings. Not included in these excursions is the Faculty of Medicine, very close to the Cathedral and the Pilgrim’s Welcome Center, which has an informal museum of old medical equipment that could be visited free of charge when the Faculty is open.

Academic tales don’t end there. Not far away from the Cathedral one can find La Casa de la Troya, the House of Troy, a 19th century boarding house that inspired a well-known eponymous novel by writer Alejandro Pérez Lugín, and also several films that recreate the lifestyle of the University of Santiago de Compostela’s student body in those ancient days. Now a museum, La Casa de la Troya opens several months a year during which visitors can observe its very well preserved rooms and furniture, a collection of medical instruments, and a gorgeous view of the Cathedral that allows them to discover many more secrets of that bygone romantic era.

Even though granite stone predominates throughout the University’s colleges and the city’s old buildings, Santiago de Compostela also praises nature with a series of pedestrian routes through the city’s greenest spots and most important parks, such as the Alameda, full of botanical highlights as centenary eucalyptus trees with a healing aroma, or camellias, an acclaimed winter flower with cosmetic properties that even has its route within the Park, where visitors can also admire some of the most striking views of the Cathedral. 

As pilgrimages to Compostela became popular in ancient times, many services and products were needed for visitors and the institutions dealing with them. This fostered the advent of many professional guilds, foremost among which were master silversmiths and artisans of jet stone. Their excellent work gave prestige to the city, and even defined the Cathedral’s two side entrances: Platerías, devoted to silver works, and Azabachería, named just like the contiguous street featuring stores with art pieces created with the black gemstone. Today, the prominence of that craftsman tradition is depicted in a very small jet stone museum located in Azabachería street, and survives in the courses some master artisans conduct to teach their career secrets and share their art talents with anyone who wants to learn.

If gastronomy has an irresistible allure for travelers, Santiago de Compostela is a food lovers’ paradise. The city, with a remarkable chocolatier past, features an extensive bar and restaurant offer, from small taverns to a Michelin-starred restaurant, all with a diverse gastronomic offer founded on the rich and premium Galician food pantry. The food cornucopia can be admired in its purity and splendor at the Praza de Abastos, one of the best food markets in Spain and the second most visited destination in the city. A parade of fresh seafood, meat, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and other Galician products with quality indication or origin as wines or cheeses is available within the market, where visitors can buy them and enjoy them right in situ, at designated locales that cook them for tourists to eat right in the Praza.

Compostela also has a musical spirit, with a surplus of musical events all-year long. More recently, ancient organs, many of which have been restored, have become the spotlight of special tours available at certain times of the year, like Holy Week. During the expeditions, visitors learn how organs work, their different formats, the historical context in which they were constructed, and the churches and monasteries in which they are located, such as the San Martín Pinario Monastery, a magnificent museum in the old city. 

There even are different approaches to the Cathedral. If you enjoy the altar, the botafumeiro and the museum in the inside, take your visit to Compostela to new heights with the Cathedral’s rooftops tour. From the top of the Cathedral, you will be able to see not only this monument and its Baroque towers from another angle, but also the entire historic center of the city, making your visit to Compostela even more memorable. 

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Rosa Maria Gonzalez Lamas. Images: Viajes & Vinos (C)