An annual rainfall three times that of London should not deter you from a trip to the misty and melancholic northwest, one of the highlights of which would undoubtedly be a visit to one of the most beautiful cities in Spain and home to the regional government of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela. Standing at some 260 metres above sea level, the city is surrounded by beautiful, fertile countryside.
With average July temperatures of 25ºC, Galicia is extremely popular with Madrid residents escaping from the infernally high temperatures which affect the capital during the summer months, and Santiago itself can get quite crowded, especially around the 25th July for the festival of the Apostle St. James (Santiago).
Legend would have it that the city stands on the site where the body of St. James was buried after being brought to Iberia by his disciples after he was tortured to death by Herodes Agrippa in Palestine in the year 44 AD. Landing at the Roman provincial capital of Iria Flavia, they buried the marble sarcophagus containing the saint´s remains at a secret place in a wood.
Centuries later, in 813, the hermit Pelayo reported hearing music and seeing a shining light at the burial site, prompting Bishop Teodomiro to launch an investigation during which the saint´s tomb was discovered. When King Alfonso III the Great became aware of the news in 1075, he ordered a chapel to be built at the site and adopted St. James as the patron saint of his kingdom. With Spain´s monarchs embroiled in a centuries-long battle to reconquer lands lost to Moorish invaders from north Africa, "Santiago the Muslim slayer" is accredited with many miracles, including one where he fought alongside King Ramiro I in a decisive battle against the infidel.
There are a number of different theories concerning the origin of Compostela with some claiming that the name of Compostela does not come from the words "Campus Stellae" (Star field), as thought some time ago, but from the Latin word "Compositum" (Cemetery) although some suggest that it was originally known as "Campus Apostoli" (Apostle's field).
Very soon the city became an important pilgrimage centre and was declared a Holy Town by Pope Alexander III. Pope Calixto II dictated that pilgrims visiting the city during a Xacobean (Holy) Year, would be absolved of all their sins. A Holy Year occurs every time St. James´s Day falls on a Sunday, last year being the most recent. Bishops Gelmírez, Pedro Gudesteiz and Pedro Suárez de Deza enlarged the city and encouraged work on the cathedral, which was consecrated in the 13th century, after the original chapel was razed to the ground by the Muslim Al-Mansur.
The cathedral´s most treasured possession is the Glory Door (Portal de la Gloria), an extraordinary piece of Romanesque artwork attributed to Master Mateo although the Silversmith´s Door and the Baroque Obradoira façade are also impressive. The most interesting features of the Romanesque interior are the chancel, and the chapels of Pilar, Mondragón, Nuestra Señora de la Azucerena, Salvador, San Bartolomé and Reliquías. Another attraction is the enormous "Botafumeiro" censer which swings up and down the nave to welcome pilgrims on important religious festivals. The tomb of St. James lies beneath the high altar in a silver coffin. Local customs include banging your head against the statue of its creator, which apparently confers wisdom and patience, and kissing the saint´s statue.
Of the civil monuments, among the most outstanding is the Hospital of the Catholic Monarchs, an old inn and pilgrim hospital which is now a five star Parador situated next to the cathedral in the Obradoira square itself.
Its five hundred-year-old university has over 35.000 students, something which gives the city its own very special atmosphere; a mixture of a centre of learning with its attendant hustle and bustle along medieval city-centre streets, such as the calle de Franco, and a pulsating night life with innumerable cultural events organised throughout the calendar, Holy Year or otherwise.
Santiago de Compostela has been the political and administrative capital of the Autonomous Community of Galicia, a historical community that possesses its own language, Galician, and a thriving culture, since 1980. An average of 3.5 million people visit the city a year, although as many as twice that amount can be expected during a Holy Year. A meeting place for conference delegates from all over the world, it has very good communications including an international airport, and modern and varied hotel facilities.
Due to its unparalleled cultural and architectural heritage, the city of Santiago de Compostela was declared Historical-Artistic Ensemble and National Monument in 1940. It was declared World Heritage of Mankind by the UNESCO in 1984, and has been awarded numerous prizes and honours that recognize its work in the field of conservation of its rich patrimony: European Prize and Flag and Medal of the Parliamentary Assembly (Council of Europe), Premio Firenze (Commune di Firenze), Premio Real Fundación de Toledo, Premio Gubbio, Premio Europa Nostra, Europe Prize of Urbanism (European Commission), Premio Manuel de la Dehesa, European City of Culture, 2000 and Premio Nazionale Torre Guinigi (Italy). Besides, the pilgrims' Road to Santiago was declared First European Cultural Itinerary by the Council of Europe, and Cultural Heritage of Mankind by UNESCO.