It was a little after noon that Marian, a Galician as blue-eyed as they come, picked me up for lunch from the Santiago de Compostela airport. Our meal at Solleiros, chef Ana Portals’ suave take on Galician food, was the first of many excellent ones, a propitious start to a trip that proved to be fulsome in every way.
A bit earlier we had parked our car a distance away and ambled into Santiago’s pedestrians-only old town. My first sight and enduring memory of Santiago de Compostela will always be of its historic grand square, the Praza do Obradoiro, and the impressive buildings enclosing it. To the north lay the Hostal dos Reis CatÃ³licos, constructed in 1486 as a religious work by Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel and considered to be the oldest continuously running hotel in the world; the Pazo de Raxoi (the seat of government in medieval times, now the city council’s office) to the west; the Colexio de San Xerome (the university) to the south; and, rising in the east, the reason for all of this to exist: the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the culminating point of the second holiest Christian pilgrimage in Europe, next only to the journey to Rome.
They call it the Camino, or ‘the way’. Only philistines like me fly into Santiago; the devout walk. There are over 20 routes but the most prominent ones are Camino FrancÃ©s (French Way), Camino Primitivo (Original Way), Camino PortuguÃ©s (Portuguese Way), and Camino del Norte (Northern Way). The baroque faÃ§ade we were admiring–although somewhat concealed by scaffolding from the restoration work underway–belonged to the 18th century, but a church came up here as early as the 9th century, when the remains of St James, it is believed, were discovered here. Even in an increasingly faithless world, the pilgrimage, which originated about then, is going strong, as could be evidenced by the scores of tired but happy pilgrims sprawled in the square, taking a well deserved rest after walking hundreds of kilometres to reach Santiago. Construction of the present cathedral began in 1075 and it was consecrated in 1211. Originally a Romanesque structure, Gothic and baroque elements were added over the centuries.
All of this information came from Marian, the last word on all things Galician, and I was glad that, over the next few days, she would be my guide, philosopher and friend as we whizzed around this ancient land, a glass of wine never far from reach. Apart from working as a tour guide, Marian also taught English and, like me, had studied literature in college. In fact, her alma mater was the University of Santiago de Compostela, and she got me a peek into her department library. Established in 1495, it is one of the oldest universities in the world in continuous operation. With departments spread across the old town, we were always surrounded by the infectious energy of the young.
Later, we worked off that sumptuous meal with a tour of the cathedral’s rooftop, a rather unusual way to begin one’s acquaintance with a building; the interior I would see only much later. Marian was a believer, vivacious and full of hope, and served as a healthy counterpoint to my bottomless cynicism about the world. When I retired for the night, I found my room appropriately monastic, although entirely comfortable. The hotel offered a 24-hour breakfast buffet–you never knew when a hungry pilgrim would land up–the highlight of which was the delectable Santiago tart, made with almonds traditionally brought by the pilgrims as an offering.
Galicia still lives in its laidback villages and, next morning, we sped past lush vineyards, sprawling farms and sturdy stone houses to explore its rural heart. Our destination was the Pazo de Rubianes, a manor house belonging to Spanish nobility. It happened to have a massive vineyard attached to it, where they made wine from Galicia’s distinctive albariÃ±o grape and offered generous tastings. The grounds were a botanical wonderland bursting with camellias from around the world, and old -growth camphor and eucalyptus trees. There was a friendly dog. And a hedge maze. The family was away and they let us have a look at the plush interiors.
We headed off to explore a string of sleepy coastal towns, laid like pearls along Galicia’s Atlantic coast. At O Grove there wasn’t a single foreign tourist in sight, just Spaniards who had come to Galicia for its good value and legendary hospitality. We were going on a small cruise around the bay to inspect the mussel farms. While we waited for our ferry, we ordered cafÃ© con leche, which in Spain can be had hot, cold or warm. There were little witches on keychains for sale. Across a bridge was the Isla de la Toja, with the prettiest church I ever saw, covered with scallop shells from head to toe. The scallop is a symbol of the camino, possibly because pilgrims collected them as souvenirs in the early days. Today, the many paths can be easily identified by the scallop symbol.
The ferry tooted off to the mussel platforms in the bay. Once we’d admired them, trays of the steamed crustaceans began to appear. I readily polished off mine. This was a grievous error, for it was their cue to bring in another tray. And then another. And another. Eventually, they took pity on my turgid condition and produced a bottle of liqueur. Well lubricated, we lurched into the village of Combarro, noted for its traditional seaside homes, the casas marineras, and the striking hÃ³rreos, raised granaries, lining the waterfront.
More historical immersion awaited at Pontevedra, our stop for the night. Literally ‘old bridge’, it references a Roman bridge across the LÃ©rez which had existed near the still extant 12th-century Burgo Bridge. Pontevedra was once the leading city in Galicia and has a beautiful old town to prove it. We stayed in a parador, part of a chain of state-run luxury heritage hotels, where sallow-skinned staff ushered American tourists to their hard beds.
Occupying Spain’s northwest coast, Galicia is an ancient land, inhabited since the Stone Age. The Galicians believe they are Celtic in origin. The soulful music played by the buskers in the archways of Santiago will put any doubts to rest. Faith runs strong here, Christianity melding with older, pagan beliefs. There’s much talk of supernatural stuff and miracles. At Pontevedra, I found myself inside the chapel of a Dorothean convent where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared as an apparition before Sister Lucy several times between 1925 and 1926. My faithlessness was beginning to crumble.
Next morning, we drove away from the coast and into the mountains. Galicia is devastatingly beautiful, and now it was showing off quite shamelessly. We stopped at a lookout. The BalcÃ³ns de Madrid offers a jaw-dropping view of the Sil Canyon, the river meandering at the bottom of the gorge. We didn’t miss the socalcos either, the steep terraced vineyards distinctive of this area which is called the Ribeira Sacra. That’s ‘sacred shore’, and here you’ll find, ranged along the rivers, the largest concentration of Romanesque churches and monasteries in all of Europe. We took in several over the course of the day. Even lunch was at Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, a former monastery, now lovingly restored and run as a parador.
By evening, we were back in the familiar comforts of Santiago de Compostela, just in time for my epiphany. I suspect Marian was unsure if I should attend Mass at the cathedral. But she made a choice and I, deemed worthy, found myself inside the cathedral, in the warm embrace of a ceremony that was underway. This was the swinging of the botafumeiro (‘smoke expeller’ in Galician), a metal incense burner hung from a pulley mechanism installed in 1604. It is swung with precision by eight men in red robes, called tiraboleiros, who raise it higher and higher, and further and further, spreading the fumes across the cathedral. On occasion, it has been swung enthusiastically enough to fly right out of the cathedral.
Marian whisked me away and into the crypt, the still centre of the holy storm. There was a metal casket, the reliquary. That’s when it hit me. The tidal waves of love that wash over Santiago de Compostela cosset it from any disbelief, so whether the remains of St James are indeed interred here is no longer relevant. I’m an easy convert, I guess. More importantly, thank you, Marian, for believing.
As I left for the airport in the predawn darkness the next morning, I was caught in a sea of students, drunk and lively, just starting to return from their nightly bacchanals. The holiest of holy cathedrals was only steps away. Nothing was out of place. Galicia has it figured, this fine balance between pleasure and prayer. And, for that, it will always be one of my favourite destinations.
Getting There: I flew Turkish Airlines to Madrid via Istanbul. The connections were extremely convenient. From Madrid, I flew Iberia to Santiago de Compostela. Air India flies non-stop thrice-weekly to Madrid.
Where to Stay: In Santiago de Compostela there are many options to choose from. I highly recommend the three-star Hotel Praza da Quintana (from â‚¬105 per night; Rua da Conga, 9, praza-quintana.santiagodecompostelahotels.net). It’s just steps away from the cathedral. But the most coveted hotel in Santiago has to be the Parador de Santiago de Compostela, historically the Hostal dos Reis CatÃ³licos (from â‚¬200, but pilgrims with official credentials get a discount; Prazado Obradoiro, 1). In fact, all across Spain, you can experience history by staying in a parador, a state-run heritage hotel. In Pontevedra, there’s the distinguished Parador de Pontevedra (from â‚¬100, Ruado Baron, 19), occupying a former palace of the Counts of Maceda. In the middle of the Ribeira Sacra, there’s the Parador Santo Estevo, a Benedictine monastery dating from the 6th century (from â‚¬133). See paradoresofspain.com.
Where to Eat: It’s easy to eat well in Galicia. Here’s a very small list of recommendations based on personal experience:
Solleiros Praza de San Miguel dos Agros, 9 Santiago de Compostela
A Horta do Obradoiro Rua das Hortas, 16Santiago de Compostela
A Maceta RÃºa San Pedro, 120 Santiago de Compostela
Ribadomar Rua Valle Inclan, 17Cambados (Pontevedra)
Taperia Loaira Plaza da LeÃ±a, 2 Pontevedra
Monasterio de Santo Estevo Nogueira de Ramuin
What to See & Do
Santiago de Compostela: Apart from the cathedral, which also has a museum, there are numerous beautiful churches and parks across town. Advance booking for the roof visit is recommended.
Pazo de Rubianes: This Galician manor house and vineyard is a must-visit (Rua do Pazo, 7, Rubianes, Pontevedra, pazoderubianes.com/en).
Coastal Towns: Visit sleepy fishing towns like Combarro, Cambados and O Grove.
Ribeira Sacra: For vineyards and monasteries in a dramatic setting. Monasteries include Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil and San Pedro de Rocas. Don’t miss BalcÃ³ns de Madrid, the most emblematic viewpoint of the Ribeira Sacra, at an altitude of 500m on the Sil canyon.
Pontevedra: For the old town.
Galicia by Train: Several tourists trains ply all over Galicia. These include the Lighthouse Route Train, several wine trains as well as the Historic Pazos and Gardens of Galicia train.
A CoruÃ±a: The only major destination in Galicia I couldn’t cover. Besides being home to Zara (and Marian!), and boasting an Indian restaurant or two, it has the Tower of Hercules, an ancient Roman lighthouse.
Visit turismo.gal for more information.