WARNING: This post is little more than shameless self-promotion.
A friend from Oxford who is working for a chain of luxury hotels for the Spanish part of her year abroad recently asked whether any other year abroad-ers would be interested in writing a post for the company’s blog. The brief was that the post should focus on the positive aspects of living in any given city (given that the company is trying to get people to stay in their hotels, negatives should be skimmed over…) meaning that I couldn’t say anything about Santiago’s constant rainfall. However, whilst writing the article yesterday (yay for free Friday mornings) I realised – not for the first time – that there is actually a lot to like about the city. Here’s what I managed to produce – apologies if the overall tone is nauseatingly positive…
Why I love…Santiago de Compostela
Nestled in Spain’s top left-hand corner, in the region of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela is best known for being the final destination of world-famous pilgrimage route Saint James’s Way, or el camino de Santiago. The discovery of the remains of apostle St. James at the beginning of the 9th century transformed the city into one of the Christian world’s most important holy sites. Hoards of pilgrims continue to visit the city today: according to Santiago’s Oficina de Peregrinaciones, more than 11,000 arrived last month alone. However, this seemingly unassuming city has far more to offer than some travel guides may have you believe….
1. The Cathedral
…which is not to say that you should disregard them completely. The Cathedral, located in the enormous Plaza do Obradoiro, is not to be missed. Incidentally, directly opposite is the Hostal dos Reis Católicos, which was constructed in 1486 by Spain’s Catholic Monarchs, Isabel and Fernando. The Cathedral is free to go in if you’re happy to wander around by yourself; additionally, guided tours of the building’s excavations, roofs, and galleries are available for a cost. The Cathedral’s gem, the tomb of St. James, is included in the free part, and photography is allowed. If you’re interested in historical specifics, consider a paid tour; if all you’re looking for is an overview, the free version is more than sufficient.
2. Tarta de Santiago
Originating in the Middle Ages, tarta de Santiago is a simple cake comprising of just three ingredients – ground almonds, eggs, and sugar – and its protected status means that anything labelled as such must be produced in Galicia. Desserts don’t always do it for me, but I was instantly seduced by the nutty sweetness and dense, melt-in-the-mouth texture of tarta de Santiago. Whole tarts, available in two sizes, can be found in most bakeries; cafés and bars also tend to offer it as a merienda, or afternoon snack. Bar La Tita (Rúa Nova) does an especially good one, served in large slices and to be enjoyed after the free portion of tortilla española served with every drink.
3. Its perfect size
A sprawling metropolis Santiago is not; with a population of fewer than 100,000 and a centre that takes about 45 minutes to cross by foot, its size is ideal for long weekend breaks. The city’s extensive bus network is largely unnecessary but may be appreciated by those averse to hilly terrain and frequent rain. Despite Santiago’s compact size, you’re unlikely to run out of things to do: the old town is packed full of museums (with theMuseo do Pobo Galego (the Museum of the Galician People) reputedly being amongst the best), historical squares, cafés perfect for people watching, and independent shops stocking everything from jewellery to gastronomic specialities of the region.
4. Student Life
The University of Santiago de Compostela welcomes 500 Erasmus exchange students every year and has a student body totalling more than 42,000; indeed, the city probably owes much of its buzzing ambience to the students’ omnipresence. Needless to say, then, that bars and cafés cater to the needs of the students and so life in Santiago is inexpensive. Expect to pay up to €15 (at the very top end) for a three-course lunch with bread and coffee or, alternatively, take advantage of the free tapas (with a drink) served at almost every bar in the city. Notable establishments for enjoying the latter include La Tita (mentioned earlier), O Piorno (Rúa da Caldeireria) and A Taboa de Picar (Rúa do Pombal). Want to get a taste of the nightlife? Thursday and Saturday are the student nights out and the drinks offers are ludicrously good value, but be aware that nobody in Spain heads out before about 1am. If you have a few hours to kill, grab a map from the tourism office (Rúa do Vilar) and take a self-guided walking tour around the University buildings; some of them date from 1495 and are well worth seeing.
Finally, a boring but important consideration to take into account when travelling: getting to and from your chosen destination. Thankfully, Santiago de Compostela has its own airport about 11km away, with a bus leaving for the city centre every half hour. Ryanair and Easyjet both offer inexpensive flights to and from London; Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris are all easily accessible too. If you’re keen to explore further afield without the faff of a flight, Spain’s bus network is exemplary. ALSA runs daily buses to and from Porto; several companies go between Santiago and Galicia’s other towns and cities, including Vigo and A Coruña. And don’t forgo the opportunity to visit Playa de Rodas, named a few years ago as the world’s best beach by The Guardian.
Santiago de Compostela is so much more than a one-trick pony; whilst being the home of the remains of an apostle is an undeniably impressive accolade and, for some people, the only reason to visit, venturing away from the (literally) well-trodden path is the best way to go about discovering the city. Santiago is easy to overlook but it is brimming with cultural, historical, and gastronomical wealth. I’m yet to speak to anyone who has visited who doesn’t rave about it, and I am unashamed to say that I wholeheartedly count myself amongst their number.
The original post is on Splendia’s blog; it can be viewed here.