Santiago de Compostela, in the Spanish province of Galicia, is one of Catholicism’s most holy sites - but the area has a lot more to offer than prayer
I got nervous when the couple next to me started crossing themselves and praying. As the Ryanair aircraft was on its final approach into Santiago de Compostela, I wondered if they knew something that I didn’t. But, glancing around, I realised that I was one of the few on board who was not calling upon a higher authority to aid the pilot towards terra firma. The moment became even more bizarre when the landing (no doubt done completely automatically by computer) drew a warm round of applause from the passengers.
In a way, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Santiago de Compostela is one of the holiest places in Catholicism, so the majority of my fellow travellers would regard their safe arrival as another step in their journey of belief.
As a city, I do love Santiago, and have been drawn there many times. The historic centre is beautifully preserved and, out of season, delightful and charming. During religious festivals and summer time, I hate it. It’s almost impossible to move in the narrow streets. A plethora of vendors try to thrust tourist tat at you, and you can’t get a seat in a decent restaurant.
Having said that, I have learned from the locals where to park close to the centre (almost impossible if you are not in the know), where and when to go to find a good meal and where to find the best tapas at the most reasonable price. Santiago is a university town, so the latter point can be achieved using one simple rule: follow the students!
While you can spend hours just exploring the very walkable and compact central area, by far the biggest draw is the impressive cathedral. The devout make a beeline to the sepulchre of St James whose remains are, supposedly, contained therein.
While the historic centre of Santiago can easily be done in a day, it’s a great base from which to explore one of Spain’s loveliest regions. As such, it boasts a wealth of hotels, from the historic (and pricey) parador to two of my favourite small hotels in Spain. The Hotel As Artes only has seven rooms, but is just a short stroll from the cathedral. A little further away is the Costa Vella, which I adore; try to book the galleried rooms overlooking the delightful garden, if you can.
The locals know a good spot, and the Costa Vella is a popular meeting place during the day for a coffee and a slice of the ubiquitous ‘Tarta de Santiago’, a delicious almond tart. In the summer, the garden, with its many trees, is a delightfully shady spot to enjoy a drink.
Just up the hill from the hotel is my top tip for a truly Galician lunch or dinner. Downstairs in the typically Spanish-smoky atmosphere of the Bodeguilla de San Roque you can enjoy a drink and wonderful tapas, while in the tiny (but thankfully smoke-free) upstairs restaurant, you’ll be able to find delicious local specialities at a very reasonable price. You can’t book, so turn up on the dot of 1.30 for lunch, before the locals arrive, or you will be disappointed.
One real benefit for me is the ease with which you can reach some of Galicia’s other towns by train from Santiago. A modern, comfortable Spanish Railways diesel train shuttles back and forth between A Coruna and Vigo, calling at Santiago and Pontevedra on the way. Whichever direction you choose, the journey will take you under an hour and cost about £10 return. Just make sure you get the faster (and more modern) R598 train, rather than the slower (older) regional one.
There’s not enough space here to go into detail about the three towns; but each is well worth a visit. Pontevedra has a charming historic centre; A Coruna has great beaches, enough history to be of interest, plus a superb aquarium. Vigo is more industrial, but you’ll not be disappointed with the choice of shops and restaurants!
On the train back to Santiago, three nuns sat across the aisle from me. As we approached our destination, I watched them closely for signs of prayer. There were none. Maybe it’s just Ryanair.