Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Short Breaks In Santiago de Compostela

 Short Breaks In Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela cathedral is said to be the final resting place of the apostle James

The Imposing Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Spain's Galicia region on the rugged Northwest coast in an of outstanding natural beauty. Galicia is about as far removed from the baking Costas featured in the holiday brochures as you can get. 

Regarded by long distance walker's as the Holy Grail, Santiago de Compostela's medieval Cathedral is believed by many to be the final resting place of the apostle James and has been a place of pilgrimage since the middle ages. 

Ancient  trails dating back to medieval times meander across the countryside of northern Spain and beyond. These well trodden paths were created over the years by  thousands of devout Christians  making the gruelling pilgrimage to Santiago Cathedral. Some of  these pilgrim trails or "caminos" originated as far away as France and Portugal and many are still used by modern day pilgrims who arrive in Galicia from all over the world to follow in the footsteps of the original walkers.

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Once their final destination had been reached, medieval pilgrims flocked into the cathedral to pay their respects at the shrine of St James.  Mostly unwashed and after  weeks or months of walking, the pilgrims were less than fragrant. To counteract the unsavoury odour inside the cathedral, a large incense holder known as a botafumeiro, suspended from the ornate ceiling, was swung over the heads of the congregation gathered below by a group of eight men known as tirabeleiros. This ritual is still carried out today albeit as a  tourist attraction

Modern day pilgrims travel in relative comfort compared to the harsh times endured in the past. In medieval Spain, it wasn't uncommon for pilgrims to fall ill or even die during the arduous trek. Charitable places of rest were set up on the popular routes offering food and somewhere to sleep. 

Santaigo de Compostela pilgrim's museum has lots of interesting information and artefacts

Statue Of  A Medieval Pilgrim In Santiago de Compostela Pilgrim Museum

Modern Day Pilgrim's Paraphernalia In Santiago de Compostela 

Walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela has grown in popularity over the past twenty years.  From a handful of enthusiasts who walked the ancient Camino Frances footpath from France back in the 70's and 80's, pilgrims walks today have become big business with specialised holiday companies offering walking holidays on a variety of routes.   

The most popular walk is still the Camino Frances which originates in the French Pyrenees and is 780kms long.   Obviously, it would be impossible to walk the whole route during a fortnight's holiday so specialist walking companies provide a number of other starting points  which allow walkers to  reach Santiago in the time available . 

A growing number of accomplished walkers wanting to travel the full length of the Camino Frances (which takes approximately six weeks) but who only have limited time available, travel to Galicia every year starting off where they finished the year before until the entire length of the walk has been completed.  Walkers with plenty time on their hands, can undertake the whole journey in one go, an experience they are unlikely to forget.. 

It is quite common for proficient walkers to plan their own journey by calculating a moderate distance to  walk each day and booking hotels or hostels along the route but the majority of today's would be pilgrims choose an organised walking holiday.  If you want to plan your own route, the Confraternity of Saint James website has lots of information on everything you need.

Santiago de Compostela City Breaks

In 2014 my wife and I were fortunate enough to spend a few days in Santiago de Compostela. We  weren't walking the pilgrim's route and just decided to have a short break after spotting a cheap Ryannair flight from Valencia airport.  If you're planning to visit Santiago de Compostela from the UK, Ryanair fly from Stanstead airport and easyjet from Gatwick. Based on our experience, I've listed a few tips below to help anybody planning to visit.

We didn't know it at the time but Santiago is on two levels, the busy new town which incorporates the university campus is on the lower level and the old historic part is on the upper level. The modern town isn't particularly interesting and you're likely to spend most of your time exploring the historic centre. The walk from the new town to the old town is very steep and not recommended for anybody with walking difficulties or heart problems.  

We made the mistake of booking a hotel in the new part without doing our research and although not young we aren't past it yet but found the walk to the old city very strenuous, the hotel also had extremely thin walls but I'll leave it at that.  If we were going again, I'd definitely book somewhere in the old part.

Booking.com have well over a hundred hotels and guest houses listed in Santiago de Compostela  you can view them here

Don't  plan to stay longer than about three days in Santiago itself, the historic centre and the cathedral are fantastic but  three days is more than enough time to see just about everything.  If you wanted to spend more than a few days or have a holiday exploring Galicia or other areas of northern Spain, I would seriously consider renting a house or an apartment rather than booking a hotel, this  works out much cheaper and offers a greater sense of independence.  

Galician Seafood

Santiago de Compostela market has a fantastic fish section

Fresh Seafood In Santiago de Compostela Market 

Galicia is famous throughout Spain for the quality of its seafood. There are some excellent seafood restaurants in Santiago's old town.  Prices aren't for the faint hearted but your paying for the privilege of eating what is some of the best seafood  in the world.  

The small market in the historic centre has a seafood section where you can spend a good hour inspecting the variety and freshness of the daily catch.

When in Santiago de Compostela do as the Galician's do and try a plate of pulpo washed down with a glass of wine.

Pulpo And A Glass Of Wine

In a UK or U.S  city, we might pick up a hot-dog from a street vendor  to snack on as we window shop but in Galician cities, you're more likely to find vendor's dispensing a plate of octopus!! Octopus ("pulpo") is a Galician speciality which can be found in most tapas bars and seafood restaurants. The street vendors boil the octopus in large drums, then pulverise them until tender, cut the strips into small pieces with a large pair of scissors and sprinkle with smoked paprika, don't let the appearance put you off, it's delicious.   

Percebes or goose neck barnacles are a Galician speciality

Goose Neck Barnacles Or "Percebes" In The Fish Market

Another famous Galician  seafood speciality are goose neck barnacles or "percebes" . These strange looking delicacies are harvested from the rocks around the rugged coastline, a dangerous and time consuming occupation which results in a high price in the restaurants and markets.  

Holidays In Northern Spain

If you enjoy the great outdoors and want to try somewhere a bit different, the north of Spain is a   paradise for walkers and cyclists. There are secluded bays with beautiful beaches, quiet country roads, historic monuments and of course, wonderful seafood restaurants.  Galicia is one of the four regions which make up the green north and would provide an ideal base for exploring this unspoilt part of Spain.

If your picture of Spain is crowded beaches, wall to wall sunshine, jugs of sangria and tea like mother makes,  the north of Spain will come as something of a shock.  The scenery is the polar opposite of what most people conjure up when they visualise a holiday in Spain. 

The Picos de Europa mountain range separates the lush north and the baking south and if you were parachuted into this mountainous area without knowing where you had landed, you'd probably guess  Switzerland.  There are stone chalets with ornate wooden balconies bedecked with geraniums and surrounded by acres of green pastures dotted with grazing sheep and cows.  

I mentioned earlier that it would be worth considering a self catering apartment or house if you plan to spend some time exploring Galicia.  This site  lists literally hundreds of properties across northern Spain including Galicia, The Basque Country, Asturias  and Cantabria 

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