Pilgrim’s Destination

300,000+ pilgrims walk each year to worship the relics of St. James, buried in Santiago de Compostela.

Story of James, the Apostle

James was one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus in the New Testament. According to Bible stories, Jesus instructed his Apostles, upon his death, to disperse to the four corners of the known world and preach the Gospel. The Apostle James traveled to present day Spain – at that time it was known as Hispania. 

When the Apostle James returned to Jerusalem, he was apprehended in Palestine in 44 CE and beheaded. His devoted followers gathered up his body and brought it back across the Mediterranean, through the Strait of Gibraltar and up the coast of the Iberian Peninsula to a coastal town called Iría Flavia – near Padrón today, in Galicia. From there they took the body inland and laid the saint’s remains to rest in a funerary structure built in a place called Libredón. Two disciples stayed to guard the site and when they died, they were buried alongside the apostle.

The Cross of Saint James

Due to Roman’s persecutions of Christians in the 1st-3rd centuries, barbarian invasions from the north in the 5th century followed by the Moors over running the region in the 8th century, the tomb of St. James faded into oblivion.  But the memory and story of Christ’s Apostle Santiago (Spanish for Saint James) and the existence of his relics resting in Galicia at a place called Libredón was passed down through the generations. In 813 CE, a hermit, named Pelagius, who was living in a church in Libredón, saw on multiple nights, mysterious lights shining in a nearby wood. Knowing the story of St James’s tomb and believing the lights to be a miraculous sign, Pelagius went to Bishop Theodomir to describe the strange events. The Bishop had the land cleared and a two-level small building was unearthed. A small altar in the upper level was found and a crypt with three bodies was discovered in the lower level.

According to the legend, in the photo of the fountain below, the figure holds up the star that lead to the discovery of the tomb of St. James the Apostle.

Fountain of the Horses in the Silversmith’s Plaza

When King, Alfonso II learned of the discovery, he ordered a small basilica to be built on the site. On adjacent lands he had a monastery built where 12 Benedictine monks would live to care and watch over the relics of Santiago, the Apostle. Thus with these first two structures, a town was born and named Compostela meaning ‘field of stars’ in memory of the miraculous lights that revealed the location of the tomb.

During the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela was equal to Jerusalem and Rome as a pilgrimage destination. Thousands of pilgrims carrying the symbol of the scallop and the pilgrim’s staff have walked to the Galician sanctuary following the many pathways of the Camino de Santiago. (Camino de Santiago is the generic name of the pilgrimage trails to Santiago de Compostela.) Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela began in the 9th century, was at its height between the 11th and 15th centuries, waned for the next 400 years and was revived after Walter Starkie’s book, The Road to Santiago: Pilgrims of St. James was published in 1957.

The harsh conditions on the pilgrimage to Santiago were so difficult there was a saying that it was preferable to “go 5 times to Rome than just once to Santiago”. So the spiritual travellers would join up in groups to assist and protect each other. When they finally arrived at the end of their journey they were required to change clothes at a stone basin nearby, before entering the basilica to visit the relics of Santiago. They also would make two purchases. The first would be to buy the concha de vieira or scallop shell which was sewed onto their hats, clothes or bags and the second purchase was a document called the Compostela, a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims on completing the Way. Today to earn the compostela one needs to provide proof you have walked a minimum of 62 miles (100 km) or cycled at least 120 miles (200 km) and state that your motivation was at least partially religious, and then you are eligible to receive the compostela from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago.

A pilgrim with his shell and walking stick

Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela

The 9th century church was destroyed in 997 by a Moorish army and the current building was constructed between 1075 and 1211 on the same site. Today the historic center of Santiago de Compostela is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago is said to be one Spain’s most outstanding monuments. Much of it, during our visit, sadly looked like a construction site. The exterior was partially shrouded beneath tarps and scaffolding and multiple cranes competed with the views of the towers as renovations were in full swing. Inside the cathedral major portions were closed to the public as well and we definitely saw more green vested tradesmen than tourists. We were told renovations are meant to be completed by the end of the year and we would like to return once everything is finished, especially so we could see the interior.

Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela

The Cathedral’s main entrance and the famous Pórtico da Gloria was finished and installed in 1188. Unfortunately photos of the portico were not permitted. However the Cathedral of Ourense that we recently visited has the Pórtico del Paraíso that is nearly identical and we have photos of it here.

The Cathedral of Ourense

The major difference is that the portico in Ourense was built a few years later than the portico in Santiago de Compostela and the portico in Ourense was renovated in the 19th century. The figures were recolored at that time and we feel that you are able to see the myriad of details better in Ourense than on the monochromatic figures on the Portico of Glory in Santiago de Compostela. 

Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela

Museo das Peregrinacions e de Santiago

The three floors of the Museum of Pilgrimages, created in 1951, are well presented and very interesting. This museum is a tribute to Saint James the Apostle and to the millions of pilgrims who have come to visit his relics.

The permanent exhibition displays images, objects, documents, the beginnings and evolution of the pilgrimages, how the different routes and the town of Santiago de Compostela gradually took shape and the importance of Saint James’ relics to the pilgrims.

Museo das Peregrinacions e de Santiago

The Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares 

This was the original monastery founded by Alfonso II for the 12 Benedictine monks who were asked to look after and worship the recently discovered tomb of the Apostle James. That original building was demolished and almost entirely rebuilt in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Inside the church, through a beautiful wooden door at the back, we entered into a small museum called the Museum of Sacred Art, which houses the original altar that accompanied the apostolic sarcophagus.

Outside the main entrance and along one side is a small entrance that takes you into an inner plain courtyard. There is a set of small doors at shoulder height and a doorbell. We rang the doorbell and a few minutes later a nun appeared at the window. We were able to buy their specialty, freshly made, small donut shaped, crunchy, almond based pastries. How perfect with our morning coffee. These delicious pastries are said to be one of the current King of Spain’s favorite treats and orders are shipped directly to him.

The Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares

San Francisco del Valle de Dios 

This striking Franciscan monastery was built in the first part of the 13th century in a place called Valle de Dios (the Valley of God).

In 2015 San Francisco was added to the UNESCO Heritage of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It is said that Saint Francis of Assisi, on a pilgrimage to Compostela in 1214, asked a local man, his host where he was staying, to build a monastery. When his host said he had no funds to build with, Saint Francis of Assisi showed him a treasure in a nearby hermitage he could use to build the monastery. Valle de Dios was a piece of land owned by the Benedictine monastery of San Martín Pinario, who gave it in exchange for an annual basket of fish, which continued to be delivered until the end of the 18th century.

The Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares

This church was just a block down the hill from where we stayed and we always love visiting a Saint Francis church. They each seem to offer a peacefulness we don’t often detect in other churches.

There is also a not-to-miss, multi-sided magnificent stone statue of Saint Francis of Assisi in the courtyard.  

The Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares

Plaza del Obradoiro

The largest plaza in Santiago de Compostela, it is surrounded by the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela, the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos-a parador hotel since 1953, Rajoy Palace (currently City Hall) and the University Vice-Chancellors Offices. This is the perfect place to capture the immense size of the Cathedral. Next door, in front of the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, marked off by pillars and chains right out front of the doors, was once the “right of asylum” area – a place where a criminal could take refuge from the law and could not be apprehended by the law without prior permission of the person in charge of the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos.

2021 is a Camino de Santiago Holy Year.  A Holy Year happens whenever July 25, the feastday of St James, falls on a Sunday and because St. James is the patron saint of the Camino and of pilgrims, it is cause for celebration. The Cathedral’s renovations are targeted for completion before this key event. It would be fantastic to join in the celebrations in Santiago de Compostela in July 2021 or really, during any Holy Year.

Boa saúde from these Santiagan,

Ted + Julia

View the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela photo album here

View the Convent of San Domingos de Bonaval photo album here

View the Convent of San Francisco photo album here

View the Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares photo album here

View the Museum of Pilgrimage photo album here

View the Museum of the Galician People photo album here

View the Rest of Santiago de Compostela photo album here
…… includes Mercado de Abastos de Santiago
…… includes Garden of the School of Fonseca
…… includes Monastery of San Martiño Pinario
…… includes Palace de Raxoi (City hall)

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