A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit Santiago de Compostela. Friends had told me repeatedly what a beautiful city it is, so I was thrilled at the thought of finally getting to see it for myself.
Unfortunately, I had less than two days and to top that misfortune it was raining cats and dogs all the time I was there. But what can I say? I loved every single minute of it!
It took quite some effort to actually get there, but I have mostly myself to blame for that: I was way too cheap to spend an enormous amount of money on the flight and therefore didn’t get a direct connection. However, I’m told that Santiago really is a difficult place to get to in any case. Once there, I was happy to find out there is a handy shuttle bus service from the airport into town. It only costs peanuts as well, which is always nice. Finding out that my hotel was right next to a bus stop was also a big plus.
When I finally made it into the town centre, I was instantly enchanted. It was the late afternoon of a grey, rainy day and the town was veiled in an indescribably eerie atmosphere – the blurry softness that comes with a drizzle, the fuzzy yellow lights of a street lamp here and there and that certain something that can only be radiated by medieval buildings.
Walking through some narrow road, which was lined by charming arcades, I happened across the cathedral. Having done no previous reading on the town, I also hadn’t bothered looking at a map and therefore didn’t actually know where I was going; you may call that careless or stupid, but I just love ambling around and happening upon buildings, things or people I didn’t expect to encounter.
For that very reason, I didn’t realise I had found the cathedral until I stepped inside. In my defence I have to say that I came towards the cathedral from the South, and that – despite it looking like a church entrance – you don’t realise it is one of the biggest cathedrals you could find. From that perspective, it really looked like any old church squeezed into an old town, not being able to see properly where one building stops and the next one starts. (Never mind you don’t usually squeeze a church into a town as it is rather that a town huddles around a church – but I hope you get the picture in any case).
So here I was, suddenly standing inside one of Christianity’s most treasured places. After all, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is home to the remains of St. James and the destination of one of the most prestigious pilgrimages – the Pilgrimage (or Camino) of St. James. Believers have undertaken that pilgrimage for hundreds of years and endured unbelievable hardships while doing so. I’m told the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was second only to a pilgrimage to the Holy Land – quite an important place, therefore.
Despite not being a religious person at all, I was absolutely gobsmacked when I stepped inside the cathedral. I believe I actually blocked the entrance, because I just couldn’t take it all in and stopped dead. After recovering, I dare say I wandered around with my eyes and mouth wide open, looking as ridiculous as you please. I tried very hard to behave myself and put forward my best Sunday behaviour. Yet you (or I at least) can’t help craning your neck in surroundings such as these and staring at all the priceless paintings and statues, at the glittering gems and all that gold and silver. It really is too much to take in.
Personally though, I have to say I’m much more taken with the cathedral’s exterior. Somehow I vastly prefer the actual building to its overladen décor inside. Don’t get me wrong, the interior is amazing and contains so many artefacts it makes your head spin. But possibly this is just the point for me: being inside the cathedral, I didn’t find the peace I had expected to find in such a sacred place (despite not being a religious person, I still appreciate being in places of worship sometimes). Being outside, I found the presence of the cathedral highly soothing, though.
Although in all honesty that is an effect a lot of ancient buildings have on me. I absolutely love visiting medieval castles and I have that annoying tick of having to touch the old stones, sort of an attempt to convince myself of the fact that they’re actually there. The knowledge that something has been in existence for hundreds or even thousands of years and has seen so many different eras, events and people and that I possibly am in the exact same spot as someone a thousand years ago is quite breathtaking to me.
Continuing my walk around town I had another superb experience. In a little archway between the cathedral and another building there was a bloke playing his bagpipes. It sounded absolutely wonderful and the resonance of the music from that little archway out into the courtyard in front of the cathedral was spectacular. The music in combination with that eerie, drizzly atmosphere and the dusky view of the cathedral was breathtaking and I felt transported back in time. Unbelievably, I came across another person playing the bagpipes the next evening – so possibly this is a regular occurrence and you’ll have a chance to see and hear it, as well.
As I didn’t have a lot of time to spend in Santiago de Compostela, I didn’t visit any museums – rather than being indoors I spent my time walking all around town and soaking up the atmosphere (and the rain). I am pretty sure I’ll come back with more time, though. What I also want to do is to visit the surrounding countryside. I left Santiago by train and caught so many lovely glimpses of Galicia (the sun had come out!) that I am convinced it is a superb holiday destination. Go see this place!
Please note that this blog post was first published on January 13th, 2013 on my previous blog ‘Inside Chrissies Mind’.