I arrived to Santiago de Compostela airport late on a Friday night. Having come straight from Madrid, I didn’t need to go through passport control and was out of the airport and into a taxi within 10 minutes of landing. Not bad! I went straight to my hotel and to sleep so my first glimpse of Santiago was not until the next morning….
I woke up hungry so was up and out of my hotel around 10am, to wander into the centre of the old town and look for somewhere for breakfast. I love Spanish towns on weekend mornings – they are so empty, and so quiet until at least 12pm. I was the only one walking through the narrow, cobbled streets, clear blue sky up above me, all the shops closed.
Even the square outside the cathedral was empty aside from a few weary pilgrims sat on stone steps, rucksacks leant against the wall beside them, the long journey over.
Santiago de Compostela is not only the capital of Galicia, but home to the supposed shrine of St James in its cathedral – the legend is that the remains of the apostle, James, were brought to Galicia for burial and the old town is now a UNESCO world heritage site.
The camino de santiago is a 1,000 year old pilgrim route that every year sees over 100,000 pilgrims travelling to Santiago from all points of the world. It’s gradually becoming a lot less of a religious pilgrimage and more of a spiritual, peaceful, escape-from-modern-life challenge.
I found a quiet cafe with a terrace and sat down for breakfast – tostada con tomate and a cafe con leche as is standard. Santiago is a rainy city, among those with the highest rainfall in Spain, and the very design of the city seems set up for this, with long stretches of the pedestrianised streets covered by arched walkways to protect visitors from the rain.
I was exhausted, so after breakfast I walked back to my hotel for a little rest and to use the wifi before setting out again to pick up my rental bike! On the way I stopped at the mercado de abastos – the food market of Galicia. For around €5 I picked up some fresh, warm bread rolls, a few slices of jamón and some hard queso to take with me on my cycle. I already blogged about this here but I feel I have to emphasise again just how stunningly beautiful the Galician countryside is! Anyway, this is not a post about cycling, but instead about the city itself….
So after my cycle and a quick shower I headed out into the old town for dinner, at the wonderfully Spanish time of 10pm. The town was bustling – a complete contrast to its quietness at 10am. One particular street – the Rua do Franco – was lined with restaurants and cafes selling pulpo, pulpo and more pulpo.
I wanted to find a restaurant with a terrace and wifi and so wandered back and forth, trying to pick one that didn’t look too touristy, especially as most of the restaurants didn’t have outdoor seating. Eventually I decided on one, sat down and immediately ordered a glass of Albanil. I ordered patatas con alioli (potatoes in garlic mayonnaise), pulpo Gallego (Galician-style octopus) and scallops. The food was delicious, the octopus especially. If you don’t think you like octopus I would really recommend trying some in Galicia, delicate, juicy, spicy from paprika. Yum. I had another glass of Albanil while I finished up my dinner. Afterwards I decided I wanted a tiny glass more but the bottle was almost finished and so the waiter, with whom I’d made friends by this point, topped my glass up to the brim and didn’t charge me a penny for it. Very friendly but resulted in a bit of a hangover the next day!
I woke up at 9.30am when the cleaners tried to come into my room, despite the fact I was checking out that day AND had hung a “do-not-disturb” sign on the door. I was not impressed. After some more dosing and FaceTiming James, I checked out of the hotel and went for breakfast.
First, I picked Cafe Bar Derby as it had looked really bustling and traditionally Spanish. I discovered it didn’t have wifi – when travelling alone I like to eat in places with wifi as then I can pass the time more slowly in talking to friends and family and catching up with blogs while I watch the world go by – but I decided to eat there anyway. I ordered a bizcocho, my favourite breakfast dish back in Madrid, but it was dry and crumbly and not particularly tasty. The waiters were unfriendly beyond even Spanish standards, rushing around ridiculously quickly only to stand chatting to their mates behind the bar. I ate quickly and then left, heading to another restaurant on a square where I sat on a terrace in the sun and enjoyed a much more leisurely second breakfast. So leisurely in fact I was there until lunch time!
By 2pm the town was extremely busy, filled with tourists and pilgrims, and the main plaza in front of the cathedral was a bustling hub of groups of people celebrating the end of their long journey, and men with slightly too much facial/head hair sat in the shade, nursing their sandalled feet.
There was so much Camino de Santiago memorabilia you could buy, I felt almost left out that I hadn’t walked into the town and therefore couldn’t justifiably buy any. I resolved to walk the camino just so I could buy a pair of silver scallop-shell earrings and a postcard.
There was a huge queue for the cathedral so I decided to leave it for later and went for lunch first.
I ate lunch in the wonderful Casa Felisa, a restaurant set in a beautiful secluded garden, surrounded by trees and flowers. The food was delicious and the ambience was lovely – I would really recommend it.
Back to the centre of Santiago and there was no queue for the cathedral, so in I went, marvelling at its beauty and coolness. I saw the supposed tomb of St James and was amused by the modern-day religiosity of it – people snapping pictures on their camera phones and taking selfies with selfie sticks, before bending on their knees and crossing themselves.
I felt very moved by this cathedral in particular, thinking about what a huge thing and how important it was for all of the pilgrims that had come so far to reach this moment, to finally step into its cool interior, to rest their feet and to gaze upon St James. I am not religious in the slightest but it really felt like a place of pilgrimage.
From there, I continued my backwards tour of Santiago de Compostela and the Camino by setting out on a 9 mile run FROM the city centre, out along the camino route, passing by a lot of pilgrims with huge rucksacks and walking boots along the way. I had to run up a HUGE hill (I pretended I was training for an ultra-marathon and walked up it) but then I did get to run down it again on the way back. Cue my fastest ever half mile.
There was some great graffiti on the road urging people on and a monument dedicated to the pilgrims.
HOWEVER, I could completely agree with the author of the article “10 reasons why the Camino el Santiago sucks“.
About half the time you’re on a paved road or on a dirt path right next to a paved road. Some of the paved roads have little traffic, but others are quite busy.
(NB: I completely disagreed with him when he gave this as a reason: Many non-Spanish speaking pilgrims were stunned and frustrated that despite attracting pilgrims from all over the world, the locals have made hardly any effort to learn the international language: English. ERRRRRRM WHAT?! I can’t actually believe anyone would be annoyed by this – YOU ARE ON A PILGRIMAGE THROUGH A FOREIGN COUNTRY!!! Maybe you should have made the effort to learn a bit of Spanish?!)
My entire run was on the road, firstly through the outskirts of the city and then on a quiet country road – but a road nonetheless. And no fantastic views. I think if I were to travel the route I would do it by mountain bike as at least the road sections would be over sooner and actually would be quite enjoyable. I much preferred my cycling route from the previous day.
Back to Santiago de Compostela with just enough time to shower, get changed, and head into town for an ice cream before catching the bus to the airport and the plane home!
Hotel: Hotel Gelmirez – modern, contemporary but slightly soulless, with very friendly and helpful staff, free wifi and a gym, very close to the centre of town.
Transport: the taxi from the airport cost €21. I caught a bus back on Sunday which took 45 minutes, leaving from Plaza Galicia (very near the old town and the hotel) for around €3.50.
Food: Don’t go to the Cafe Bar Derby. DO have lunch at Casa Felisa, dinner at any one of the restaurants along the Rua do Franco, and breakfast at any place with a terrace in the centre of the old town where you can sit and watch the world go by.