Culture on the Camino: Santiago de Compostela, the city of the pilgrim (part 1)

Counting the days until the end of 2014 and the beginning of a 2015 full of hope and illusions, we thought it would be interesting to dedicate a series of articles to the city that is also the goal and object of hopes of thousands of pilgrims who visit it every year: Santiago de Compostela.

Few cities have the charm of this one, because just a few hours after walking its streets, nobody feels strange in it: its people, its streets, its monuments and its squares are the object of admiration of pilgrims, occasional tourists or congressmen who visit it every day. Strolling through its narrow streets on rainy nights, hearing one’s own footsteps under the arcades enveloped by the faint light of the lanterns, is a sensation that can only be felt here.

Santiago is a city that lets out its light little by little, that treasures secrets of a splendid past and emanates a climate of everlasting peace and harmony that is difficult to describe.

If we want to get a little closer and get to the soul of what was and is one of the greatest spiritual centers of Europe, we must understand something of its history, its traditions, its art and its people, its climate and its culture… We invite you, in short, to discover or at least to create a mental image of what Santiago de Compostela, the goal of our tour, is like.

1) The city

Few cities hold as many titles and awards as Santiago de Compostela. In 1982 the European Council designated the Way of St. James as the first European cultural itinerary. In 1985 it was named a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site. It also received the Europa Prize (1985), the Firenze Prize (1992) and the Royal Foundation of Toledo Prize (1993).

As a center of pilgrimages, since ancient times, it only competed in importance and magnitude with Rome and Jerusalem.

If there is something special about this city is that almost everyone knows something about it, but hardly anyone knows absolutely everything; Santiago always keeps some story or mystery to unveil. In our today’s article we will give you some hints that we hope will be of your interest and thus be able to continue deepening a little more on the subject in future articles.

1.1) Location and geography

Santiago de Compostela is located in the province of A Coruña, almost in the center of Galicia. It is bordered to the north by the municipalities of Trazo and Oroso, to the northwest by Val do Dubra, to the south by Vedra, to the southwest by Teo, to the east by O Pino, to the southeast by Boqueixón and to the west by Ames.

It has an area of 223 square kilometers and is located 260 meters above sea level. It reaches its highest peak on Mount Espiñeira at 531 meters and the lowest in the Valley of Santa Lucia. It is not difficult to find places from where you can enjoy a beautiful panoramic view of the city (for example from Mount Pedroso).


Santiago has no sea, but it does not lack water. The rivers Sar and Sarela, and also Sionlla (a tributary of the Tambre) bathe its lands.

Observing the streets of the historic center, we will see that all were drawn from the Middle Ages with a clear north-south orientation, and that all of them converge towards the Cathedral as the nerve center. All this area, being pedestrian, contributes to the walk of tourists and pilgrims as well as Compostelans.

Let’s learn a little more about the origins and foundation of this beautiful city.

1.2) A walk through its history

The birth of the city of Compostela is closely linked to the discovery of the remains of the Apostle of Santiago.

In the year 830 a hermit named Pelayo was praying near the church of San Fiz de Solovio, when he saw some lights and heard some unknown chants coming from a nearby forest called Libredón. Amazed by the phenomenon, he reported the fact to the bishop of the diocese, Teodomiro, who was in nearby Iria Flavia, near Padrón. The bishop went to the indicated place, and after a few days of fasting, he went into the forest, discovering a small tomb where three bodies were buried. Teodomiro did not hesitate to identify them as the Apostle Santiago and his two disciples Teodoro and Atanasio. Amazed by the discovery, he informed the Asturian king Alfonso II the Chaste, who moved to Compostela and ordered that a small temple dedicated to the Apostle be erected there. The news spread quickly, and people came to the city from all over to pray before the body of St. James. This is how the pilgrimages began.

Teodomiro ante la tumba del Apóstol Santiago

For Christians, the tomb of St. James the Apostle was of vital importance, not only because he was one of Christ’s followers but also because he was the first of them to die a martyr (he was beheaded in Jerusalem and his disciples moved his remains to the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula where it is known that he dedicated his last years to preach the Gospel).

However, did Compostela arise from nothing? What was there before the pilgrimages?

In 1984 the University of Santiago carried out a series of archaeological studies in the city and catalogued the following sites:

* 50 megalithic tumuli (mámoas) of which six have been destroyed.

* Several petroglyphs with motifs of weapons, spirals and crosses in Pedroso, Codesedas, Correxíns, Tras Igrexa, O Castriño…

* Two open-air sites: O Castro in the parish of San Pedro de Marantes and O Cargadoiro.

* 27 catalogued forts (although not all of them are preserved). One of them was located in the vicinity of the current Faculty of Geography and History, next to Castro Street. The historian Manuel Murguía affirmed that: “Santiago presents in the street of the Castro, and in those that surround him, unequivocal signs that before the discovery of the body of the Apostle, yes there was population, it was to the shelter of a great castro, that dominates the plain in which the city settles and the valleys that surround it”.

To better understand the past and origins of Compostela, it was necessary to resort to archaeological excavations near the Cathedral. The first were carried out in 1878 authorized by Cardinal Payá, and the second between 1946-1959 by Chamoso Lamas, near the walls and pillars of the basilica. As a result of these excavations, more than a hundred medieval tombs were found on the north and south sides of the basilica built around the 9th century.

After what we have seen we can affirm that it was an inhabited area and of certain importance during the time of the Lower Roman Empire and after the Swabian occupation. This period was followed by an abandonment of the place that recovered its splendor in the ninth century with the arrival of pilgrimages.

When did Santiago de Compostela begin to be considered a city?

At the beginning of the 10th century it began to be described as a “urbe” in some writings. The formation of the urban nucleus of the city followed an evolutionary process and is considered an example of pre-Romanesque urban planning.

In 960, faced with the threat of a Norman attack, Bishop Sisnando II ordered the city to be walled. Later, in 997, Bishop Cresconio built a new wall. Then the years went by and the danger of invasions disappeared. The walls no longer had any important function and were abandoned. Today only one of its gates remains standing, next to the Faculty of Geography and History: the Mazarelos gate, through which wine entered the city. Although the wall and its seven gates disappeared, in the toponymy of the place there are street names that constantly remind us of them: Porta Faxeiras, Porta da Mámoa, Entremuros, Entremurallas, Atalaia, Porta do Camiño

Puerta Mazarelos

A historical character of great relevance for the city of Santiago de Compostela is the bishop Diego Xelmirez. He was appointed by Doña Urraca as administrator of the diocese of Santiago in 1093, taking care of resuming the works of the Cathedral. In 1100 Pope Pascual II named him bishop of Santiago and King Alfonso VII granted him permission to install a mint and mint coins. Twenty years later, he was named archbishop. Under his mandate, new streets and water channels were opened, fountains and churches were built and many hospitals were opened to house pilgrims.

The centuries passed and Santiago became the main city of Galicia despite the decline in pilgrimages. The Church and the University were the main driving forces behind its development.

The population was divided into classes: an upper class formed by the high clergy, nobles and noblemen, a middle class in which we can include bureaucrats, merchants, liberal professionals and the lower clergy, and a lower class that represented 70% of the population and were mainly farmers, shopkeepers, innkeepers or artisans. The latter sector constituted one of the most numerous layers of the city and was organized in guilds. They usually carried out traditional trades that they inherited from fathers to sons: shoemakers, tailors, bakers, carpenters… two of the most representative of the city of Compostela were those of azabachero and estañero. The “estañeros” were called “picheleiros” and this affectionate nickname is still used today to refer to the inhabitants of Santiago.

From the late eighteenth century until the Second Republic, the city lived a period of economic and social decline. It lost its status as provincial capital and the Church was affected by the disentailment of Mendizábal and the exclaustration of the monks. On the other hand, the University recovered thanks to the increase in the number of students (in 1914 women were admitted to university studies). The facilities of the faculties were expanded and new ones were built, such as the Faculty of Medicine. As a result of this expansion, new professors trained in foreign universities were also incorporated, bringing with them a new air of modernization. In the 80’s new faculties were created on the outskirts of the city (what is now called the south campus of the university), leaving only Medicine, Geography and History and Information Sciences in the historic center.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the city rose up against the French troops. The Compostela Literary Battalion was formed by professors and university students, in whose memory there is a commemorative plaque in the Plaza de A Quintana, on the wall of the monastery of San Paio. Absolutism dominated political life and with the Restoration and the victory over the French, stability returned to a certain extent. The II Republic also had its supporters but had a short period of life, drowned by Franco’s uprising.

Today, the city is living a new era marked by plurality, democracy (the first democratic Galician Parliament was constituted in Compostela and the Xunta de Galicia was created) and the importance of culture. In addition, Santiago de Compostela regained its status as the capital of Galicia.

1.3) Compostelan art

Santiago is a city that has been forging its artistic legacy for centuries. It is difficult to calculate the value of the architectural treasures that its stones hold. Samples of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Modernist and contemporary art combine harmoniously in a small city, a sample of what was and still is a bridge of exchange of cultures: the Camino de Santiago.

* Romanesque art: coincides with one of the most brilliant periods in the history of Galicia (XI-XII centuries). The Cathedral, built around 1075, stands out among all of them. Of all the facades of the building, only that of Platerías retains its Romanesque appearance.

The phenomenon of pilgrimages at this time brings with it the construction of new churches such as Santa María Real de Sar or Corticela, and civil buildings such as the Pazo de Xelmírez.

We also preserve samples of Romanesque sculptural art in many portals and capitals of ancient buildings, although the most important example is undoubtedly the Portico de la Gloria, the work of the master Mateo and the culmination of the universal Romanesque.


* Gothic art: it is introduced in the city by the Franciscans and Dominicans. There are hardly any remains of this period except for some minor works inside the Cathedral, such as the dome or the base of the Clock Tower and the chevet of the church of San Domingos de Bonaval.

Torre del reloj

* Renaissance: it came from the hand of the Catholic Monarchs who introduced it not only in Santiago but in all Galicia. They ordered the construction of the Royal Hospital in 1499. The Fonseca family also exercised their patronage being promoters of numerous architectural works (palace of Fonseca, San Martiño Pinario, hospital of San Roque).

During this period the Cathedral was enlarged and renovated (sacristy, cloister, façade of the Treasury), the Archbishop’s Palace was remodeled and the University of Compostela was created.


* Baroque: many samples of this type of art are preserved in the city although the best known is the facade of the Obradoiro with its two towers, the Carraca and the Bells. Other buildings that preserve in their walls samples of baroque art are: San Martiño Pinario, Santa Clara, San Domingos… some urban buildings and squares like the house of the Parra, that of the Pomas, that of the Conga, that of the Deán or the pazo of Bedaña are already part of the physiognomy and the spirit of the city.

Fachada de Obradoiro

* Neoclassical: it arrives in Santiago under the auspices of the Enlightenment and the school of San Fernando. Some works that correspond to this style are: the north façade of the Cathedral, the City Hall and the churches of Santa María do Camiño, San Bieito and San Miguel dos Agros.


* Contemporary: the 20th century brought new airs of modernism to the city. Examples of contemporary architecture are the buildings of the Ensanche, the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporáneo (work of the Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza), the sports pavilion or the Auditorio de Galicia. We can also enjoy in the squares and parks of Santiago the sculptures of renowned Galician artists such as Asorey, Camilo Otero, Sanmartín, Granell and other foreign artists such as Chillida, Miyawaky or Benlliure.

Auditorio de Galicia

If you are interested in knowing Santiago de Compostela a little better, we invite you to continue visiting the blog and in the remaining parts of this article we will talk about how the city is nowadays, the places of tourist value, leisure and shows that we can enjoy during our tour-Camino de Santiago, and of course we will make a virtual tour of the Cathedral!

Please contact us for more detailed information about our tours.

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