Santiago de Compostela – A City of Culture & Connection

September 2022 brought me and my fiancé to Lugo, Spain, for my friend’s wedding. We decided to make a trip out of this occasion by first exploring some of the other highlights of the north-western region called Galicia. I knew of the Camino de Santiago hike, a historic pilgrimage route that ends at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where Saint James the Great is said to be buried. While we wouldn’t have time to complete the trek, I jumped at the chance to visit the revered old town that is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Our flight landed at Santiago’s small airport late on a Tuesday evening. A cab driver drove us to the heart of the city in 15 minutes, at a fixed rate of 21 Euros. I was impressed by how well he knew the location – many taxi drivers these days end up asking their customer for directions!

We had booked three nights at Hotel Oxford Suites on Calle de San Francisco. Its close location to the Cathedral and photos of the traditional stone walls in its rooms had caught my interest. The website had said check-in was open until 11pm. It was almost midnight when we arrived. I had emailed earlier in the day to ask if there were special instructions for arriving late, but received no response. We approached the front door only to find it was locked. A sign translated to English said to WhatsApp call the number provided to gain access. We had our Canadian phones with us and no data. Uh oh.

Fortunately, the street was still quite busy with locals returning from the bars (or more likely, making their way to them!). I spotted a man who seemed similar to our age and asked him in my best Spanish if he spoke English. Thankfully he did, and he kindly called the number for us and told us the code to the hotel, our room number, and room code. The kindness of strangers strikes again!

When I went down to reception the next morning to pay, it became clear that English is less spoken in this autonomous region of Spain, but I liked this. It made the experience feel more authentic and was an incentive to practise the language. Galician is a language of its own here, and I would later be told by a native that many people from other parts of Spain can’t understand it. Probably the easiest thing for foreigners to remember is that in this region, “thank you” is pronounced “grath-ias” and not “gras-ias.”

Hotel Oxford Suites was more like a hostel, with a café bar downstairs that sold coffee for 2 Euros. My fiancé had pledged to have less coffee during this trip but he couldn’t resist the cheap prices! The room was comfortable but it was a little loud (inside and outside the hotel) so I would probably book a different place to stay if returning again. (Hotel Costa Vella looked lovely but was fully booked on our dates!)

The forecast had said there would be showers for the duration of our stay. Cloudy skies looked down on us as we walked towards the Cathedral, from where an instrument that sounded like a mix of the clarinet and bagpipes played throughout the day. Throngs of people filled the main square (Praza do Obradoiro), many of them hikers that had just finished the long trek. Cheering in celebration, they lay on the ground with their legs in the air in what seemed like both a demonstration of their fatigue and a sign of their respect to the symbolic building that stood before them. I’m not religious myself, but you don’t have to be to appreciate the beauty and significance of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

We walked down the cobbled streets of Rúa do Franco, passing restaurant windows with small octopus on display (a Galician tradition I didn’t feel compelled to try!) Other windows showed lobsters in tanks, awaiting their fate. On the more commercial street of Rúa da Caldeirería, we came across a small, unpretentious bakery called Pastelaría Tentación that sold empanadas, sandwiches, and pastries. The lady listened patiently as I tried to pronounce our choices. We would end up coming here again the next day.

We next made our way to Rúa das Ameas and passed through the Mercado de Abastos where various vendor stalls sold fruit, cheese, meats, and seafood. We bought some fresh peaches for 2 Euros and wandered back to the square, where even more hikers were celebrating the completion of their hike.

By now, the sun had broken through the clouds. We walked down Rúa das Hortas before taking a left up Rúa do Pombal and entering Parque da Alameda. And what a lovely park this was! People jogged along the tree-lined promenade while others sat reading or chatting on benches beside pretty flowerbeds. A calming sound of trickling water came from a fountain, in front of which there was a beautiful vista of orange roofs, church spires, and the Cathedral towers.

As we stood having a cuddle in front of this view, a same-sex couple came behind us and showed us a photo they’d taken of the town, with us included in the image. We offered to take their photo in return. We were amazed (but glad!) that there weren’t many other tourists in the park. It definitely provided what I would imagine are some of the best views in Santiago de Compostela. Looking outwards from the city, we saw rolling green hills in the distance.

As we made our way back to our hotel for a siesta, the sun decided to do the same. We felt even more lucky that we went to Paque da Alameda when we did!

My friend had recommended a tapas bar called El Papatorio for dinner. Evening meals are eaten later in Spain, with many restaurants not opening until 8 p.m. We sat in the Praza do Obradoiro trying to guess what all the different flags on surrounding buildings symbolized before making our way down Rúa do Franco again. A group of women who looked to be in their early twenties were walking up the street, smiling and cheering as they neared the end of the Camino hike. Upon hearing them, a group of elderly ladies that were sat on a restaurant terrace proceeded to applaud them.

There was a line-up outside El Papatorio, and of course, the view in front of me of the opposite restaurant included the window of lobsters in the tank. As we waited, one of the kitchen staff proceeded to pluck a lobster from the water. The lobster’s comrades proceeded to rush towards the other side of the tank, frantically climbing over each other in an attempt to hide themselves. It was actually quite uncomfortable to witness this behaviour and realize how aware they were of what was happening to their friend…and what would eventually happen to them!

As I pulled my eyes away with a newfound sympathy for lobsters, the couple next to us made a joke about the scene. They were an Australian couple in their 60s and had just finished the Camino hike. We ended up sitting next to them in the restaurant. They said they did the hike every year, but this was their first one since the pandemic began, now that they were finally allowed to leave Australia. This year was the busiest hike they’d ever experienced, with thousands more participants than usual. The couple’s kids were of similar age to us, and they shared empathy about the challenges our generation faces with rising inflation and house prices. The man advised us to plan financially for the future “so that in 30 years you can come back to lovely places like this.”

It was 50 Euros for two drinks and a large and delicious selection of tapas. As we paid our bill, I was reminded how nice it is not to have a tipping culture in Europe. The waiter brought back our exact change; there was no question of “Would you like change?” as I’ve noticed happen in some restaurants in Canada. His approach actually made me more inclined to leave a tip.

We walked back to our hotel with full bellies and warm hearts. The Cathedral stood luminous under a dark sky, like a lighthouse to the hikers seeking its welcome.

The next day, we took a day trip by train to the coastal town of Pontevedra, known for its charming medieval squares and many bridges. The journey took around 30 minutes and it was only 20 Euros for both return tickets. Views from the window showed lush green land. Galicia truly seems to be like the British Columbia of Spain!

On return to our hotel in Santiago de Compostela that evening, we would learn that the Queen had passed away. I suppose I felt a little more indifferent to this news than some Brits, but what’s for sure is that we will always think of Santiago de Compostela whenever we remember hearing this historic news!

We had dinner on the leafy terrace of a laid-back restaurant inside Casa Felisa hostel on Rúa da Porta da Pena. It was 40 Euros for two drinks and two meals that included sea bass and beef. The downside for people that aren’t used to eating dinner so late is that it’s hard to fall asleep when it feels like your stomach is still full to the brim…

On the Friday, we were leaving for Lugo in the afternoon. We spent the morning sitting in the square with our luggage, relaxing under the sun. For breakfast we chose to dine at Café Carrilana on Rúa de San Paio de Antealtares. A more modern and youthful café, it served yummy eggs bennies and fresh orange juice that was actually freshly juiced and not from a carton. A large group of people comprising of individuals from all around the world were sat at a table nearby. It seemed that they had met during the hike and, having formed strong bonds, were having a final meal together before everyone went their separate ways. After a German man said his goodbyes to everyone, an Irish woman quietly left the table to walk out of sight with him and say a more personal goodbye. Maybe they will see each other again, maybe not.

There was something truly joyful and uplifting about our time in Santiago de Compostela. We encountered so many friendly people – locals and fellow tourists. With all the hostile events going on around the world, we all need some amiable connections to remind us of the goodness in others. If you’re interested in visiting Spain and experiencing authentic culture, choose Santiago!

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