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Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia, Spain. The city’s Cathedral is the destination today, as it has been throughout history, of the important 9th century medieval pilgrimage route, the Way of St. James. In 1985 the city’s Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Pilgrimage Routes

El Camino de Santiago, in English “The Way of Saint James,” is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where legend has it that the remains of Jesus’s apostle Saint James the Elder lie. Discover different Pilgrimage routes to Santiago

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Santiago de Compostela Map

The City

The cathedral borders the main plaza of the old and well-preserved city. Legend has it that the remains of the apostle James were brought to Galicia for burial. In 813, according to medieval legend, the light of a bright star guided a shepherd who was watching his flock at night to the burial site in Santiago de Compostela. The shepherd quickly reported his discovery to the bishop of Iria, Bishop Teodomiro. The bishop declared that the remains were those of the apostle James and immediately notified King Alfonso II in Oviedo. To honor St. James, the cathedral was built on the spot where his remains were said to have been found. Thelegend, which included numerous miraculous events, enabled the Catholic faithful to not only maintain their stronghold in northern Spain during the Christian crusades against the Moors, but also led to the growth and development of the city.

Across the square is the Pazo de Raxoi (Raxoi’s Palace), the town hall and seat of the Galician Xunta, and on the right from the cathedral steps is the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, founded in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand II of Aragon, as a pilgrim’s hospice (now a parador). The Obradoiro façade of the cathedral, the best known, is depicted on the Spanish euro coins of 1 cent, 2 cents, and 5 cents (€0.01, €0.02, and €0.05). Santiago is the site of the University of Santiago de Compostela, established in the early 16th century. The main campus can be seen best from an alcove in the large municipal park in the centre of the city. Within the old town there are many narrow winding streets full of historic buildings. The new town all around it has less character though some of the older parts of the new town have some big apartments in them.

Santiago de Compostela has a substantial nightlife. Divided between the new town (a zona nova in Galician, la zona nueva in Spanish or ensanche) and the old town (a zona vella in Galician or la zona vieja inSpanish, trade-branded as zona monumental), a mix of middle-aged residents and younger students running throughout the city until the early hours of the morning can often be found. Radiating from the center of the city, the historic cathedral is surrounded by paved granite streets, tucked away in the old town, and separated from the newer part of the city by the largest of many parks throughout the city, Parque da Alameda. Whether in the old town or the new town, party-goers will often find themselves following their tapas by dancing the night away.Santiago gives its name to one of the four military orders of Spain: Santiago, Calatrava, Alcantara and Montesa.

The prevailing wind from the Atlantic and the surrounding mountains combine to give Santiago some of Europe’s highest rainfall: about 1,900 mm (75 inches) annually. One of the most important economic centers in Galicia, Santiago is the seat for organizations like Association for Equal and Fair Trade Pangaea.

Way of St. James

The legend that St James found his way to the Iberian peninsula, and had preached there is one of a number of early traditions concerning the missionary activities and final resting places of the apostles of Jesus. Although the 1884 Bull of Pope Leo XIII Omnipotens Deus accepted the authenticity of the relics at Compostela, the Vatican remains uncommitted as to whether the relics are those of Saint James the Great, while continuing to promote the more general benefits of pilgrimage to the site. According to a tradition that can be traced before the 12th century, the relics were said to have been discovered in 814 by Theodomir, bishop of Iria Flavia in the west of Galicia. Theodomir was guided to the spot by a star, the legend affirmed, drawing upon a familiar myth-element, hence “Compostela” was given an etymology as a corruption of Campus Stellae, “Field of Stars.”

The establishment of the shrine

As suggested already, it is probably impossible to know whose bones were actually found, and precisely when and how. Perhaps it does not matter. What the history of the pilgrimage requires, but what the meagre sources fail to reveal, is how the local Galician cult associated with the saint was transformed into an international cult drawing pilgrims from distant parts of the world.

The 1000 year old pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is known in English as the Way of St. James and in Spanish as the Camino de Santiago. Over 100,000 pilgrims travel to the city each year from points all over Europe and other parts of the world. The pilgrimage has been the subject of many books and television programmes, notably Brian Sewell’s The Naked Pilgrim produced for UK’sFive. The pilgrimage has also been the subject of several paintings by the artist Brian Whelan.

Pre-Christian legends

As the lowest-lying land on that stretch of coast, the city’s site took on added significance. Legends supposed of Celtic origin made it the place where the souls of the dead gathered to follow the Sun across the sea. Those unworthy of going to the Land of the Dead haunted Galicia as the Santa Compaña or Estadea.

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