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Spain> Pilgrimage to Santiago


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Pilgrimage to Santiago

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This itinerary takes you to a hallowed spot that was once the most popular destination in Spain: Santiago de Compostela, site of the tomb of Saint James the Apostle and the goal of countless, religious pilgrims for a millennium. You will even be staying in one of the places they stayed in (modernized a bit since then, of course, and rather more expensive now). Most of the destinations described are in the region of Galicia, which is basically, that part of Spain directly north of Portugal: the provinces of Lugo, Pontevedra, La Coruña, and Orense. It was at one time part of Portugal, but (as a result of some royal intrigues) was separated from that kingdom in 1128. Although everyone speaks Spanish, Galicia has its own special language (somewhat a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish). Because of this, you will notice some spelling variations in town names, depending on whether the Galician or the Castilian spelling is used. The area is separated from the rest of the country by several mountain ranges. Perhaps for that reason, Galicia seems to have kept its face turned to the sea and has developed a strong, seafaring tradition and economy. It is also the region that has maintained the strongest Celtic influence since the Celts invaded the peninsula around 3,000 years ago. Galician folk music still has the sound of bagpipes (called here the gaita), and the name Galicia is from the same root as Gaul and Wales. Galician cuisine, like that of Portugal, puts a lot of emphasis on cod (bacalao) prepared in many ways. Empanadas (folded meat or fish pies) are a typical dish, as is lacón con grelos, consisting of smoked pork shoulder and turnip greens. Shellfish are also commonly available. Be sure to try vieira (scallops), a regional specialty prepared in many delicious ways.

RECOMMENDED PACING: This itinerary is our suggested route for those who prefer to drive between two of Spain's spectacular destinations-Madrid and Santiago de Compostela. Leaving Madrid, make Zamora your first overnight. The sights of this characterful walled town can easily be seen in a few hours. The next suggested stop, Verín, is chosen not for its charm, but for its convenience in breaking the journey, so one night is all you need. When you reach Baiona, one night will suffice. Allow at least two nights in Santiago de Compostela.

This itinerary begins in Madrid, a most convenient starting point, and a city worthy of more visits, time and again. Be sure to spend a few days enjoying the many museums (exhibits are constantly changing) and taking advantage of fine dining before heading off to northwestern Spain. For more in-depth suggestions on sightseeing in and around Madrid, see Madrid and More. This part of the country is all too often foregone by the traveler (considering it relatively inaccessible and with time only for the better-known tourist attractions), but this region has its share of the best sights in the country and a flavor all its own.

Leave Madrid, heading northwest on the A6 freeway until it turns into NVI and continue north towards Zamora. After a few kilometers, you pass Arévalo, one of the oldest towns in Castile; where, in a 14th-century castle, Isabella spent her early years. She was born in nearby Madrigal De Las Altas Torres, whose lovely Plaza de la Villa is typical of Spain and is dominated by the Church of Saint Martin's two Mudéjar towers. The Convent of Saint Francis was founded by the saint himself in 1214. If church architecture is your interest, you should see the beautiful Our Lady of the Lugareta Nunnery, 2 kilometers south of town. It constitutes one of the major Romanesque structures in Spain.

Next you come to Medina Del Campo, historically a very important Castilian market town, but now not really worth a stop. However, the historic market town of Tordesillas, where you cross the Duero, one of Spain's major rivers, does make an interesting stop. Juana the Mad (Ferdinand and Isabella's daughter) locked herself away in the Santa Clara Convent here for 44 years after the death of her husband, Phillip the Fair in 1506. The convent has a beautiful patio, and the nearby church has a fabulous artesonado ceiling, which you should not miss. This is also the place where the Spanish and Portuguese signed a treaty in 1494 that divided the world between them. Setting a line some 1,620 kilometers west of the Cape Verde Islands, it resulted in Spain's ownership of all of South America except Brazil.

From Tordesillas, turn west through the small fortified town of Toro, picturesquely situated above the Duero and well known for its wines; and then to Zamora, which figured prominently in El Cid and has been a point of contention between various warring factions since the time of the Visigoths. Castile and Portugal battled for possession of the strategic town. It was occupied first by one and then by the other in a chaotic point of the struggle. The fortified town seems to be wall-to-wall churches; but if you can see only one, visit the impressive 12th-century Cathedral, whose tower dome ringed by arched windows should not be missed. Its museum has a stunning collection of 15th- and 16th-century Flemish tapestries. The town, with its many beautifully preserved Romanesque monuments, is a great place for simply strolling and poking down narrow streets and alleyways. Its wealth of beautiful mansions and quaint little plazas add greatly to the charm and atmosphere.

When you are ready to continue the pilgrimage, head north from Zamora on the N630 then bear left after onto the N631, which takes you through the Sierra de la Culebra National Reserve (snake). At Mombuey, watch for the lovely 13th-century church-now a national monument. Several mountain ranges converge in the area you pass through, forming a gloriously scenic setting. Rustic, stone houses with slate roofs and iron or wood balconies are characteristic of this region.

The landscape grows increasingly rugged as you near Puebla De Sanabria. If time allows, stop to see this fine example of a small, Castilian hill town that dominates the countryside. Visit the plaza at the tiptop of town, ranking among the most remarkable we have seen. It perfectly preserves a medieval atmosphere, flanked by hunkering whitewashed houses, the old city hall with its wooden gallery, and a reddish 12th-century granite church. The plaza can be reached by car by crossing the river and bearing left, or, for the hardier among you, on foot from the east side. Either way, you will love the atmosphere and panoramic views from the top.

Join the A52 freeway heading west. Unless you are staying at the parador, bypass Verín (a modern metropolis), passing over numerous viaducts with views of the surrounding countryside. You officially enter Galicia, characterized by rocky landscape and equally rocky buildings constructed from the native stone. Continue on toward Orense, passing between green hillsides dotted with stone houses.

The provincial capital of Orense, a large town spread along the river, is famed for its sulfur springs. Beyond its large urban area, it has an enchanting old quarter with twisting, stepped streets overhung by old houses, delightfully punctuated with picturesque plazas. This was an important capital of the pre-Visigoth Suevi in the 6th and 7th centuries. An old bridge (near newer ones), across the Miño, was constructed on the foundations of a 13th-century Roman bridge. Take time out to stop here to see the Plaza Mayor and its Romanesque Bishop's palace. Park in one of the plazas and walk around the old quarter to visit the shops.

Continue in the direction of Vigo. The A52 freeway whisks you through the beautiful Miño Valley. (Legend has it that gold existed here, thus the name of Orense from the Spanish oro, meaning gold.) The highway borders a landscape carpeted with vineyards, and parallels the River Miño as far as Ventosela. Then the landscape turns into scrubby green hills with the occasional isolated farm. Take the A52 almost to Vigo, where the AP9 freeway leads you to Baiona, whose former inhabitants were the first to hear the news of the discovery of the New World when the Pinta moored here in 1493 (the Santa María sought refuge in Lisbon after a storm). Subsequently, it continued to be a major port for the many gold- and silver-laden ships that followed thereafter from America. Thoughts similar to these will likely come to mind as you stroll the perfectly preserved seaside battlements encircling the Parador de Baiona, the premier tourist attraction in town (non-guests of the parador pay for visiting privileges). The castle ramparts are 3 kilometers long and some parts date from the 2nd century B.C. (other parts are as recent as the 17th century). The walk around them affords bird's-eye views of the crashing sea, the port, and the coastline stretching into the horizon. If you crave more, you can visit Baiona's 12th-century collegiate church or drive the 30 kilometers down the coast to the Portuguese border. About halfway, you pass the little fishing village of Oya. At the end of the road is the port of La Guardia.

From Baiona, follow the AP9, around Vigo and Pontevedra, to Santiago de Compostela. According to legend, Saint James (in Spanish, Santiago or Sant Yago) the Apostle came to Galicia and spent seven years preaching there. After he was beheaded in Jerusalem, his disciples brought his remains back to Spain by boat, mooring in Padrón, and (after some difficulty), he was finally buried. Seven centuries later, in the year 813, mysterious stars appeared in the sky above his grave and led the Bishop Teodomiro to the spot. The traditional explanation for the name Compostela is that it comes from the Latin Campus Stellae or field of stars. The city that grew up around the area was named Santiago de Compostela, and Saint James became the patron saint of all Spain. From that time, pilgrimages began and continue (although not quite so numerous as in those times) to the present day. Most pilgrims from Europe took the Way of Saint James through modern-day Vitoria, Burgos, and León. Another route, considered dangerous because of highwaymen, ran closer to the northern coast. As many as two million pilgrims per year made the exhausting journey in the Middle Ages.

Santiago de Compostela is justifiably one of Spain's most famous cities. Begin your sightseeing at the magnificent Plaza de España, bordered on the north side by the Parador Hotel Dos Reis Católicos, built (at the order of Ferdinand and Isabella as a hospice for the pilgrims) on the east by the baroque cathedral, on the south by the Romanesque College of San Jerónimo, and on the west by the neoclassical city hall.

The cathedral dates from the 11th to 13th centuries and was built on the site of Saint James's tomb (and several earlier churches). An unusual feature of the building is the existence of plazas on all sides, which allow encompassing views of the cathedral from the plazas and vice versa. Be sure to take a stroll around the cathedral through the Plaza Inmaculada on the north, the Plaza de la Quintana on the east, and the beautiful Plaza de las Platerías (Silversmiths) on the south side. Probably the most impressive artistic element of the cathedral is the Pórtico de la Gloria (sculptured doorway). As millions of pilgrims have before you, touch the central pillar Santos dos Croques (Saint of Bumps), said to impart luck and wisdom. The high altar is magnificent, and there's often a line of devout pilgrims waiting to go behind the altar to embrace the mantle of the 13th-century statue of Saint James.

You will also see modern-day pilgrims throughout Spain, walking to Santiago along the Way of Saint James, following the same roads that have been trod by millions before them. As might be imagined, the journey used to be a treacherous one with bandits and various fiefdoms at war along the route. Pilgrims wore a hat adorned with three scallop shells and carried a tall staff. These symbols identified them as pilgrims on a religious journey and were supposed to guarantee them safe passage through dangerous lands. The pilgrims today usually carry a tall staff and frequently wear a badge of scallop shells.

As for the rest of Santiago, most of it can be seen by walking across the plaza and on Calle del Franco in the streets to the south. These narrow, cobbled, pedestrian streets are full of old, stone buildings, many small plazas, shops of all kinds. Numerous restaurants and cafés line the narrow streets, which should be explored at leisure for a taste of northern-Spanish atmosphere. Be sure to include a morning walk round the colorful market (every day but Sunday).

SIDE TRIPS: If you need an excuse to extend your stay in the area there are some interesting side trips. If quaint, fishing villages and gorgeous scenery appeal, get some bread, some smooth Galician San Simön cheese, and slightly sparkling, white ribeiro wine and head west on C543 to Noya, turning north on C550 to explore the coastal road along the rías. If more history of the Way of Saint James intrigues you, drive east on N547 to Arzúa, then on to Melide-both stops on the medieval pilgrims' route. If large cities attract you, the major city in Galicia, La Coruña, is only an hour away via the A9 freeway. This was Generalissimo Franco's hometown, which (understandably) became an important industrial center during his regime.

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