TOUCHING THE SKY WITH A HUG
Santiago de Compostela is a city full of mysticism that awaits patiently for our arrival to fill us with spirituality. It is one of the main pilgrimage destinations in the world as it is home of the body of the Apostle St. James, who rests at the city cathedral. Everybody has heard about the pilgrimage route known as “el Camino de Santiago”, whose culmination is the visit of the Apostle’s tomb.
Towards the end of the route, known as the “French Way”, we will find the spot where we can get the most glorious views of Santiago de Compostela. It is a place at the top of a hill, conveniently named “the Hill of Joy”. And precisely from this point almost at the end of the Camino, the pilgrim -exhausted after many miles and vicissitudes- can see for the first time the towers of St. James Cathedral, filling his or her soul with infinite joy. This is the reason why the name is so appropriate.
The Hill of Joy is placed just seven kilometers away from Santiago de Compostela city center. Since it is so close, the best way to arrive is by taxi or Uber/Cabify. The approximate cost is 10 euro (12 at most) each way. It is not an expensive way to feel St. James glory, is it?
This point, at the top of a hill, 380 meters high, has a strong emotional charge so intense, you can almost breath it and it can become contagious. It is really moving to think about the thousands of pilgrims that all throughout its history, cried with joy in this place, finally contemplating the longed-for city and the cathedral towers. Such was the pilgrims’ joy when they arrived here and realized they had managed to complete their Camino or the Way, they jumped, hugged each other and threw their hats to the air. A huge sculpture in bronze of two joyful pilgrims symbolizes the happiness of that moment. After this point, many pilgrims walked the last kilometers of the Way barefoot as a sign of respect and gratitude to the Apostle.
The grand finale in the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago is something everybody who visits the city can achieve. It consists in visiting the Apostle St. James’ tomb, which is waiting for us in the cathedral. At this point, it is also customary to “hug the Saint”. In this rite, we go up to a little chamber where the Apostle is waiting for us as a Baroque sculpture. We can hug him from behind, then ask him for a wish. When doing so, we may not have the best views in town, but believe me when I tell you that at that moment, you can feel you are in Heaven.
Galician cuisine is famous for its variety and the extraordinary quality of its raw materials. Galicia has many miles of coast, so it’s natural that seafood is one of its main attractions, valued as much for its quality as for its price. Local white wines -ideal blend with seafood- and cheese also share a good reputation.
But the real highlight in the local popular cuisine is the famous Galician empanada, always present in family meetings and popular pilgrimages and festivals. This dish can be served warm or cold and consists in a stuffed dough made out of wheat flour, lard and water. Its shape can be rectangular or round and the stuffings has a great variety. You can find empanadasstuffed with tuna fish, meat and peppers, cod, vegetables, chicken, seafood and many other ingredients previously cooked.
It is not easy to trace the origins of the Galician empanada, as the ancient Greeks already baked stuffed cereal doughs. Later in history, many other cultures enjoyed this culinary practice: Arabs, Suebi or Goths also did the same. Many historians believe the Galician empanada is a descendant of the Visigoths’ recipe and it has evolved to its current form thanks to the peak of fame the St. James Way had between the 11th and 13th centuries.
The medieval pilgrim was really ingenious and discovered the covering of food with crumbled bread was an excellent way of transporting it during long trips as it helped to preserve it and protected it from falling and from roads dust. This is the origin of the first Tupperware in history and an edible one! It must be said that the connection of the Galician empanadawith the Camino de Santiago has been proven definitively thanks to Master Mateo. This important architect and sculptor from the Middle Ages wanted this delicacy preserved in stone, as he depicted an empanadain the sublime Portico of Glory in the Santiago Cathedral.
In this masterpiece, the empanada is shown as an object of temptation, gluttony and sin, as a daring man tries to bite it while a rope lingers on his neck. A terrible dilemma for this unfortunate man! If he falls into temptation and eats the empanada, he will die by hanging. However, as he already has half of it inside his mouth, we can know for sure of his decision. It’s almost impossible to resist the charms of the Galician empanada.
BLACK AND POWERFUL JET
During its history, Galicia has shown a millenary connection with esotericism and magic. For centuries, in these lands several occult beliefs and practices have shared its space with religious mysticism. Jet is a good proof of it. This enigmatic stone, easily found nowadays in many shops and jewelries in Santiago de Compostela, has been a silent witness of the peculiar coexistence of religion and superstition in these lands.
Jet is a mineral given to us by the earth and that derives from carbon. Its color is deep black and it is very fragile, and once carved, it becomes a very shiny semiprecious gem. The depth of its blackness contrasts with the brightness of its surface, in the most beautiful mineral contradiction. Light and darkness coexisting in one material in the same way magic and religion coexist in Galicia.
From immemorial times, jet has been linked to esotericism and is supposed to have magic and therapeutic properties. It is used as well in fortune-telling and as an amulet. As a matter of fact, even its Spanish name calls our attention to its supernatural properties, as the word azabacheis derived from the Arab az-zabag, meaning “strength” or “power”.
The esoteric fame of jet reached its peak in the High Middle Ages, when it became a talisman against the evil eye. It was a stone much appreciated by alchemists as well. Later on, thanks to the social phenomenon of the Camino de Santiago, jet’s fame extended to the Lower Middle Ages. It is believed that pilgrims found pieces of jet while crossing Asturian lands and took them to Santiago de Compostela, where it was cut by artisans who transformed them in beautiful objects, kept as souvenirs by the pilgrims. That’s how the azabacherosmasters came to existence, developing a cutting technique that comes from the 11th century to the present days.
This artisan guild worked with the greatest ability and century after century, its main clients have always been the pilgrims, who acquired pieces of the black stone at their arrival to the city and kept them as a souvenir or as an amulet.
The popularity of the cutting of jets in the city was so important that one of the entrances to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral holds the name of Façade of the Azabachería, honoring the guild. Around the city cathedral, many artisan shops exhibit in their windows jet stones that, combined with silver, create jewelries, earrings, pendants or also religious objects such as rosaries. But, undoubtedly, among the most wanted jet pieces, the higaor figastands out. It is a protecting amulet in the shape of a fist that mothers used to give their children as a protection against the evil eye.
It is usually sold as a pendant, so the bearer can feel the protection of the mysterious black stone. This is just another way to feel spiritually close to those courageous pilgrims from the Middle Ages, who have left us such a rich heritage!
THE TREE OF SCIENCE
Santiago de Compostela is home to an important and ancient university and many young people come here every year for their studies. So many that nowadays, they are considered to be a third of the city population.
I am pretty sure we can all agree that those who, early in their lives (not mattering if it is a calling or has a biographical explanation) decide what their studies will be, are lucky people. Most of us don’t know for sure and when the terrible moment arrives, we experience doubts and fear and unanswered questions arise.
Close to the city cathedral, at the beginning of Rua do Franco, we can find the Pazo de Fonseca. It is a distinguished palace built in the 16th century and is part of the University of Santiago de Compostela. Throughout its history, this gracious building has been used for different purposes: it has been home to a college and to the faculties of Medicine and Pharmacy. Nowadays, we can find the Library of the University of Santiago de Compostela there.
One of the sides of this building is linked with San Xerome College, in the façade where we will find our photographic tip. The Tree of Science is a formidable companion for a picture that maybe can decide our future.
It is a little tree made of iron inserted in the wall. From its branches hang the names of thirteen academic subjects, like Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Astronomy or History... According to tradition, this tree helps the undecided students to choose their future major. In order to do that, he must spin around himself three times and after that go backwards and by chance, to point of one of the tree branches. The parchment in the chosen branch will inform the undecided young fellow the specialty he must study.This tree is a tribute to a book by Pío Baroja, named precisely The Tree of Science. There, we can find the following quote: “It is possible to experience the anxiety, the despair of not knowing what to do in life, of not having a plan, of feeling lost”. As a way to clear these doubts for everyone in need, we advise you to visit this tree, to comply with the ritual and make immortal the moment we choose our destiny in a picture.
The Tree of Life can help us to choose our true calling and who knows if once we are back home, it will change our lives. The Tree of Science can be found at San Xerome College, in the Rúa do Franco façade.
The exact address is:
Rúa do Franco, 215704 Santiago de Compostela
Don’t forget to visit it! The Tree of Science may change your future!
THE CHURCH OF THE FOUR JACKS
The iconic Plaza del Obradoiro creates a rectangle and in its four sides, we can find the most symbolic buildings of the city. On the north side of the square, we will find the Parador Nacional de Santiago de Compostela, an elegant upend hotel, also known as Hostal de los Reyes Católicos. We will walk to its main entrance to discover the “secret” monument we are talking about here.
If we walk down the stone ramp to the front of the entrance of the hotel, we will arrive to the hidden treasure waiting for us in the Rúa da Trinidade. It’s a charming but imposing parish with the formal name of Iglesia de las Angustias de Abajo, but known by everybody as Church of the Four Jacks. And if you look at the higher part of its façade, you will know why.
The apex of this baroque church is guarded by four magnificent sculptures representing the four cardinal virtues: Fortitude, Prudence, Justice and Temperance. At least, that’s what its author wanted to represent when they were created in the 18th century. But their likeness with the jacks holding the symbols of the four suits of the Spanish deck of cards have caused a popular “change of name”. From left to right we can find Fortitude (the Jack of Clubs), Prudence (the Jack of Coins), Justice (the Jack of Swords) and Temperance (the Jack of Cups).
The building was erected honoring San Fructuoso, bishop of Tarragona, who died as a martyr championing Christianity during the second century. That’s the reason why the church is also known as Church of San Fructuoso. This church has almost as many names as the suits of a deck of cards!
But we must continue to unveil the secret hidden in this church. In order to do so, we have to reach its southern façade where we will find a chilling skull with a hair-raising message under it in Latin: “Ut video, vidi. Sicut me videtis, videtis”. The English translation would be: “As you see yourself, I saw myself. As you see me now, you will be seen one day.” A charming skull, isn’t it?
Iglesia de las Angustias de Abajo (o de las Cuatro Sotas o de San Fructuoso)
Rúa da Trinidade,
1215705, Santiago de Compostela
We will end our list of tips with a proposal for a game. All through our visit of the city of Santiago de Compostela, we have found out that religion and occultism coexist peacefully here. Driven by their faith, pilgrims arrive here to visit the Apostle’s tomb, but when they reach these lands, they fall under the spell of enigmatic black stones, mysterious legends, dark secrets and cheeky gargoyles. But this is not the end of it. There is still another secret to be revealed. A secret that even many locals ignore...
Fellow travelers, this city is full of game boards cut in stone. They can be found in the most iconic places of Santiago and they were cut during the 17th and 18th centuries. The origin of these game boards isn’t mysterious at all. It is rather earthly, indeed. They were cut in stones by the locals in order to be able to play three-in-a-row.
Our game will consist in looking for them and finding as many as we can. There are more than 160 game boards. We can find them hidden mainly around the cathedral, in Plaza del Obradoiro, or in the Monastery of San Martín Pinario, or even in the Torre de la Berenguela. Each one of them has different shapes and dimensions. No two boards are the same, as each one was cut by a different local. Even if they were made during the Baroque period, they were not made by artists, but by common people, who killed their time in this sort of street casino.
We will give you a clue. Local players used mainly stairs, stone benches, the pillars of the cruceiros and the façades as ideal place for their boards. Let’s see how many of them we are able to find! These square figures with nine lines have been hiding in plain sight for centuries. The perfect camouflage!
Above Plaza de Platerías, walking around the cathedral, we will find two terraces divided by wide stairs. This area is known as Plaza de la Quintana. This stairs surprisingly are not just stairs, they are the divide between life and death.
So, are they dangerous? No, it has nothing to do with their shape nor construction. They are rather safe, indeed. The stairs have become the border between two worlds because of the name of the two terraces it divides. The lower terrace is known as Quintana de Mortos (of the Dead) and the upper one, Quintana de Vivos (of the Living).
The spacious Quintana de Mortos is indeed full of life, as it is a pleasant square thriving with bars and people walking. One of its sides is home to the Convent of San Paio de Antealtares and its wall has a very long stone bench inviting us to sit and rest and enjoy the atmosphere of the cathedral quarter. From there, we can also enjoy a gorgeous view of the Torre de la Berenguela. So, despite its name, Quintana de Mortos is really full of life. Its name comes from the fact that right until 1780, it was a cemetery.
Upstairs, we will find Quintana de Vivos, a smaller square that is home to the most longed-for treasure among pilgrims: la Puerta Santa (Holy Gate) o Puerta del Perdón (Gate of Forgiveness), which is only open during Jubilee Years.
The stairs that divide both Quintanas is a place frequented by tourists and pilgrims who want to enjoy its atmosphere, but also by the locals during popular festivals, as very often concerts are held here thanks to the square’s excellent acoustics.
But the steps that divide “both worlds” hold a most surprising secret under its stones... According to a legend, there is a secret tunnel under the steps. A corridor connecting both, the cathedral and the convent, and back then, priests would crosse it to visit the nuns living in the convent. Whatever happened during those meetings must remain in the reader’s imagination.
ROUTE OF THE GARGOYLES
Before starting our tour, it would be convenient that those who chose follow me, do some warm-up exercises for the cervical. In our tour we will meet those strange characters living on the roofs of the city, so we will need to look upwards a lot. So, let’s warm up our neck muscles for a while and then we are ready to start!
Many of the most iconic buildings in Santiago de Compostela, including religious buildings, have stone guardians decorating the upper part of their façades. They usually have either a mocking or a terrifying look. They watch the city from above and defy us with a cheeky attitude, knowing that, having survived the passage of time, nobody can defeat them. They are eternal and invincible, so we have to accept their mockeries and their challenges. We are talking about the gargoyles.
There are hundreds of gargoyles all throughout the historic buildings of Santiago de Compostela. Their surprising forms remind us of monsters, mythological or fantastic creatures, animals and even erotic and lecherous beings. Actually, they were sculpted by the stonemasons to channel the water on the roofs and expel it so it didn’t damage the stone in the building. According to magical beliefs, they also custode it and chase away the evil spirits.
We begin our route with one of the most elegant buildings in town: the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos in the Plaza del Obradoiro, former accommodation for the pilgrims and current Parador Nacional. It is quite ironic that such a chic and distinguished hotel has, among its gargoyles, one of the most brazen in Santiago, a man showing us his buttocks while defecating. On the same building, we can find a contortionist, a woman in an impossible position.
The city cathedral is full of gargoyles, many of them facing the Plaza del Obradoiro. A good amount of them are hidden to the visitor’s eye, as they are now behind the stone curtain built in the 18th century. In spite of being in a religious building, stonemasons sculpted all kinds of figures, including some explicitly erotic.
Behind the cathedral, we can find the Monastery of San Martín Pinaro. Among its many gargoyles, there is one known as Donald Duck, as his mouth is rather similar to the beak of the famous character created by Walt Disney. The true story is rather different, as this apparently funny figure is really a killer viper. On the same building, we can find another gargoyle with a human face, the body of a lion and a scorpion tail. It is said that if you make eye contact with him, you won’t live to tell it. So let’s stick to Donald Duck.
To look for these figures and try to understand their meaning is a wonderful entertainment, just as it is important to remember the cervical exercises.
Monasterio de San Martín Pinario
Plaza de la Inmaculada,
515704 Santiago de Compostela
STEPS AT PLAZA DE PLATERÍAS
Santiago de Compostela is a place so charged with cultural and spiritual significance that it’s worth it to take a break at some point during our visit in order to become fully aware of the place where we are and savor the moment. The city deserves it and we deserve it as well.
One of the best places to fall under the spells of Santiago’s essence is Plaza de Platerías, whose magnificent steps are ideal to act as a break in our busy tourist activities allowing us to slow down in a frame heavily charged of St. James tradition.
We can find this historic square in the south side of the cathedral; whose name remembers the numerous silver workshops created in the area during the Middle Ages. The artisans sold their silver objects to the pilgrims. The place was so crowded with wanderers that many other artisans working with leather, jet or shells opened their workshops there. Many of these places have survived until today, even if they have adapted themselves to the new times by selling not only their handmade crafts, but a huge variety of souvenirs as well.
The stone benches placed by this square wide steps were built during the 16th century and are an ideal option to get some rest and immerse ourselves in the city atmosphere. This place is a real symbol for any pilgrim, as Plaza de Platerías is the arrival point for pilgrims arriving to the city from the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula, either through the Silver Way or the Portuguese Way. All these things, make these steps the ideal spot for the pilgrims to take a picture which will serve as a souvenir of their pilgrimage. We must add the fact that in this square we can find the Pilgrim Office as well, the place where the walker will get the document that certifies his or her pilgrimage. All these factors explain the significance of the square for the tradition of St. James Way. From these steps we can also enjoy a view of the most beautiful fountain in the city. It is known as the Fountain of the Horses, as four horses hurl water from their open mouths.
From among the horse a female figure rises symbolizing the city of Santiago. She is holding the star of Compostela.
It is impossible not to mention the only remaining Romanesque façade of the cathedral, built in the 11th century, which acts as a setting placed in the higher end of the square. A wonder of wonders.
So, as you can see, just by taking a break by the steps of this square made of dark stone, you will be able to enjoy the atmosphere, the history and the art of this city of pilgrims. And if you are lucky, your break will be enlivened with music
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