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Santiago de Compostela

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ABOVE: A pilgrim touches the cathedral's central pillar, where finger marks are worn deep into the granite. INSET BELOW: In Tui, just inside Galicia's border with Portugal, an arrow on a city street directs pilgrims toward Santiago.

A holy city for pilgrims

photoSantiago de Compostela is one of three holy cities in the world where Catholics can earn absolution of their sins by making a pilgrimage. (The other two holy cities are Rome and Jerusalem.)

Why Santiago? You can thank St. James, the apostle, who--according to legend--did missionary work in Galicia after the Crucifixion. James ("Santiago" in Spanish) was later beheaded in the Holy Land, but disciples took his remains back to Galicia for burial, and his bones were undisturbed until a Christian hermit dug them up and supposedly authenticated them in 813.

King Alphonso II (a.k.a. Alphonso the Chaste) soon had a church built on the site of the discovery, and the dead apostle's mojo has attracted pilgrims ever since.

The Pilgrimage Way of St. James consists of half a dozen major routes:

  • The French Way, which enters Spain via the Pyrenees.

  • The Northern Route, which comes from Spain's Basque country.

  • The Silver Route, from Andalusía in Southern Spain.

  • The Portuguese Way, from Oporto and the Galician city of Tui (see inset photo).

  • The Maritime Routes for pilgrims from Northern Europe, including The English Way (via the Galician ports of Ferrol and A Coruña).

Ambitious pilgrims and walking enthusiasts often hike the entire distance from cities in other parts of Europe, and why not? The Pilgrimage Way of St. James could be described as a European predecessor to the Appalachian Trail, with absolution as a bonus.

Still, you needn't be that energetic to earn full credit: To qualify as a religious or religious-cultural pilgrim, you merely need to cover the last 100 km of your journey on foot, the last 200 km by horse or bicycle, or at least 40 nautical miles by small boat plus a walk from the port of Pontecesures.

At the conclusion of your pilgrimage to Santiago, you'll follow a ritual that involves entering the cathedral (usually from the Praza do Obradoiro, touching a marble pillar, bumping heads with a sculptured figure, facing the altar's image of St. James, embracing the sculptured apostle from behind the altar, and descending to the crypt to view the silver box with the saint's remains.

When you've accomplished these tasks, you can head for the Pilgrimage Office to obtain the Latin certificate known as "La Campostela."

Freebies for the faithful: If you're one of the day's first 10 religious or religious-cultural pilgrims to receive the Compostela certificate, you'll be entitled to three meals that day at the Hostal dos Reis Católicos on the Praza do Obradoiro, across from the Cathedral. Just enter the parador and ask for the Pilgrims' Room. (This gesture honors the parador's former role as a hostel for Catholic pilgrims.)

Fun facts: On a typical day, about 600 pilgrims arrive in Santiago de Compostela on foot or horseback. The daily average jumps to more than 2,700 in a Holy Year, which is declared whenever July 25--the Feast Day of St. James--falls on a Sunday.

  • Tip: The summer months attract the most pilgrims; spring and fall are good times to visit if you prefer to avoid crowds and don't mind shorter days or damp weather.

Next page: Sightseeing and excursions

Santiago de Compostela travel guide:
A holy city for pilgrims
Sightseeing, excursions
Tourist information

Also see:
Santiago de Compostela photos - Praza do Obradoiro and Cathedral
The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago (book review)
Galician Palace Gardens (Pazo de Oca, Pazo Santa Cruz de Rivadulla)