Santiago de Compostela is not just home to thousands of pilgrims who come here each year. It is also home to captivating landscapes, old churches, charming cafes and restaurants and one of Spain’s oldest academic institutions, the University of Santiago de Compostela. Kenneth Subillaga shares his favorite spots in the famous pilgrims’ haven.
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is said to be the burial place of the apostle St. James the Greater. Its construction began in the 11th century under the reign of Alfonso VI of Castile. Extensions were later added in the 17th and 18th centuries. Measuring 97 meters long and 22 meters high, this is the largest Romanesque cathedral in Spain and one of the largest in Europe.
Not to be missed here is the Portico da Gloria, a Romanesque sculpture that is said to represent various symbols derived from the Book of Revelation, and the famous Botafumeiro (or smoke expeller in Galician), a huge thurible that is being swung by eight men in red robes. The Botafumeiro is suspended from a pulley mechanism in the dome on the roof of the church.
The Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago)
Legend has it that the apostle St. James the Greater brought Christianity to the Celts in the Iberian Peninsula. After he was beheaded in Jerusalem in 44 AD, his remains were later brought back to Galicia, Spain until it was abandoned in the 3rd century following Roman persecutions of Spanish Christians. The construction of a chapel was ordered by King Alfonso II after witnessing a strange light in the night sky deemed miraculous by Bishop TheodomirusofIria. The said King was the first pilgrim to this site.
Santiago de Compostela attracts thousands of pilgrims from different parts of the world –all have come to participate in the famous Way of St. James (Camino de Santiago). There are five main pilgrimage routes to choose from: the Camino Frances, the Via de la Plata, the Northern Routes, the English Road, and the Portuguese Road.
Pilgrims are required to carry with them their “pilgrims passport” which entitles them a place in an Albergue or pilgrims only hostel. At each stage of the journey, the passport is stamped and dated, signifying that the pilgrim has traveled –by foot, on a horse or bicycle – for at least 100 kilometers to get to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrim must declare a spiritual or religious motivation to get the compostela, the certificate of completion in Latin given to pilgrims. Otherwise, a certificate in Spanish is given. On the average, around 150 to 300 thousand pilgrims visit Santiago de Compostela each year. Their reason can either be religious or for personal fulfillment.
Tortilla de patatas
Among the best things about living in Santiago de Compostela (as well as in some parts of Spain) are the free tapas or appetizers. Tapas are normally priced from one to three euros a piece. They may vary from a simple plate of peanuts or olives to the most elaborately prepared canapés.
One of the famous tapas in the country is the tortilla española or sometimes called tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette or potato omelette). This is perhaps one of my favorites especially the one from Bar La Tita, an unassuming bar that’s always jam-packed with both locals and tourists alike. This 17-year-old watering hole was named after the owner’s favorite dog Tita. Two years ago, Moha Azibou took over the place and started serving tortillas as tapas for free. Since then, people have been coming in droves.
Bar La Tita’s famous egg and potato mixture is fried using extra-virgin olive oil, cooked to perfection. Despite its notable thickness, the omelette is evenly cooked inside and outside leaving that flavorful, velvety texture that slowly melts in your mouth with every bite.
As Azibou would say ,“There is no tortilla like Bar La Tita ́s.” A visit to this bar is a must once you set foot in this Galician capital. Bar La Tita is located along Rua Nova 46 and opens from 9 am to 12 midnight.
Churros con chocolate
How churros began is unclear: Some say that churros were introduced to Spain by the Portuguese who brought with them new culinary techniques from the Orient hundreds of years ago. Churros are made with a special type of dough. The modified dough similar to a choux pastry is piped through a star-shaped nozzle and deep-fried. When they ́re ready to serve, they are sprinkled with sugar.
Churros are a breakfast staple for the Spanish. In Santiago de Compostela, there is a churreria (or churros café) where one can feast and enjoy churros all throughout the day. The Churreria de San Pedro, for instance, is always packed with locals trying to get their hands on these yummy Spanish delicacies since it opened eight years ago. Owned by Daniel Liste, the churros here are to-die-for. They are crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside- perfect combination. They are made even more delectable when paired with a steaming cup of homemade chocolate drink available at the restaurant.
According to Liste, they are serving almost 300 clients everyday. That figure reaches almost 500 on weekends. The Churreria de San Pedro is located at Rua de San Pedro 12 and it opens daily from 6 am to 11 pm.
Cuidad de Cultura
Left unfinished, the imposing City of Culture in Santiago de Compostela stands on top of the hill of Monte Gaiás like a king waging war against time. The whole building is made up of a stony crust reminiscent of an archeological site divided by natural breaks that resemble scallops, the famous symbol of Santiago de Compostela.
Top: Plaza de Abastos. Below: Cuidad de Cultura.
The City of Culture was supposed to have six original centers: A library, a newspaper archive, a 2,000-seater theater, a museum of Galician history, an international arts center and a building which houses services for the other five. The construction of the theatre and the arts center has halted this year due to heavy costs.
Plaza de Abastos
This 5,000-sqm market is the town ́s second most visited place in Santiago de Compostela, next to the cathedral. Here you can find fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, meat and other local products. Check out Rua des Ameas if you are looking to mingle with both locals and tourists drinking wine and eating tapas at nearby stalls.
Pulpo a la feria
Pulpo a la feria literally means “fair-style octopus.” It used to be served during fairs only. Today, it is a regular staple at Galician restaurants. A traditional Galician dish, pulpo a la feria is prepared by repeatedly dipping the octopus
in and out of boiling water to curl the tips of the tentacles before boiling it for at least 30 minutes more. When it’s cooked, the tentacles are snipped with a pair of scissors and sprinkled with olive oil, salt and paprika. This dish is usually served on wooden plates together with bread. Tradition dictates that this local delicacy be paired with a glass of young red wine.
The whole of Santiago de Compostela is brimming with restaurants serving pulpos. However, there is a special place frequented by both locals and tourists for their incredibly delicious pulpo a la feria. The Meson do Polbo (Meson de Pulpo in Castellano) is such restaurant located along Vista Alegre. I ́ve been to a lot of restaurants serving pulpo but this place is where I often go back for more. Their pulpo is neither rubbery nor very soft –just the perfect texture and flavor.
Kenneth Subillaga is finishing his PhD studies at the University of Santiago de Compostela.. He is known in Facebook as the Pinoy Backpacker in Europe, Ken Subillaga is a photographer, a teacher, a baker, and a writer. Ken decided to quit his job in 2009 and started to embark on a journey around the world visiting 38 countries and counting.