Travel northwest from Madrid, about an hour by Iberian Airlines, and you’ll find the wonderful stone city of Santiago de Compostela, an epicenter of Catholicism, and most famous for the tired and hungry pilgrims who trek for days, weeks, or months to reach the city’s famous cathedral, approximating the route the apostle, Saint James took.
The city gets its name from Saint James, with James being a derivative of the Hebrew Jacob, by way of the long ago Spanish pronunciation of Iago or Yago. But to get back to the story, the bones of Saint James the Greater, brother of Saint John, were found by a shepherd boy while tending his flock…this story has a familiar ring and it gets better. A star led the shepherd back to the city, where the boy gave the bones to the bishop. This happened about 813, when genetics and DNA sampling were less common than virgin births. Anyway, the bishop pronounced the bones authentic, which settled the question. The Vatican remains silent on the subject. Over the centuries miracles followed and it soon became popular to make pilgrimages (frequently call The Way of Saint James) to the city . Hotels, hostels, inns, and boisterous drinking establishments abounded to house, feed, and slake the thirst of the faithful.
Today, pilgrim or not, Santiago is a wonderful city to visit, with its winding, cobbled streets, sidewalk cafés and eateries providing an abundance of seafood and huge charcoal grilled steaks. The citizens are very friendly and helpful, the wine is delicious and Catholic or not (many of the pilgrims are not) the old city is a feast for the senses. In the spring and summer, flowers bloom from pots in every doorway and on every balcony. If you are accustomed to the burnt brown country of central Spain, you’ll feel as if you stepped into a green paradise of rolling hills, overflowing with a deep green blanket of never ending forests, This is the region of Galicia, of which Santiago is the capitol.
But, let’s step back a moment and talk about Spain. Spain is an almost universally Catholic country. Los Reyes Catholicos, Ferdinand and Isabella, are revered. Before the Catholic kings, Moslems ruled much of the Iberian Peninsula. Ferdinand and Isabelle, chased them out. They also chased out the Jews, although the Jews never ruled anything except the Holy Land. Now the Moslems are trying to chase them out of even that small dot of territory.
We humans seem to always be either chased or chasing. The same year the Jews were chased out of Spain, 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella bankrolled Christopher Columbus for his voyage across the ocean, which eventually led to more chasing. But, that’s a different story on another continent.
|Outdoor cafe at the Parador|
Let’s wander through Santiago, while I tell you what I enjoyed. Not only good wine, but great wine! Fabulous whites. For a refreshing stop, I recommend the outdoor parlor beside the Parador. While you sip your libation, you’ll be overlooking the main square, alive with activity. Joggers, trails of arriving pilgrims, hawkers, the flow of humanity.
A word about the Parador system. Back in the late 1920s, the Spanish government purchased many old monasteries, castles and other ancient buildings of note to turn them into luxurious hotels, where Spaniards and tourists alike can relax and dine in the cool comfort of stone walls and antique furnishings.
|Dining room at the Parador|
Be sure to savor a meal under the curved stone ceiling of the parador’s dining room. You’ll feast like royalty, with service to match. Don’t worry that among other things, the building was once a hospital for pilgrims and the dining room was once the morgue.
By all means visit the cathedral and wander the warren of narrow streets, the perfect place to order a drink, nosh on tapas, and order some perfectly prepared fish and shellfish. Myself, I favor crisply tender fried calamari, with just salt and a squeeze of fresh lemon.
|Shrimp in garlic oil|
And speaking of seafood and such, the city’s central market is a place of wonder. Every local culinary delight is on view, from fresh ocean fare to vegetables that burst with flavor. It’s a happy place to visit once or twice, or in my case, four times in a five-day period.
|Tarte de Santiago|
Santiago’s famous dessert, Tarte de Santiago, is available and best when savoring some rich Galician coffee. But, where do you find the best Tarte de Santiago? Easy, but not so easy. Near the market is a Monastery where the nuns bake it daily. Finding this nunnery is another matter. No signs. You could walk right past. I know this, because I did. Finally, I went back to the market twice to get directions, until a kind woman from one of the stalls said, “Follow me!” She led me up the stairs and around the corner. Voila! Wrong door. But gallantly and swearing not to go back to the market a third time, I waited and followed another customer to yet another door in the same building. Still no sign or indication, but he knew where he was going. At my heels, several nuns followed me in.
You go to a window and ring a bell. A nun in habit appears. She smiles. You give her your order of large or small size. She disappears and reappears. You pay only a few Euros and walk away proud and happy.
So, how was the Tarte de Santiago? Delicious! Stunning! Well worth treading the cobblestones.
|Band concert outside the cathedral|