The Oldest Tourist Route in Europe
Follow in the footsteps of El Cid, Louis VII of France, and St. Francis of Assisi along the 1,000-year-old Way of St. James (also called the Road to Santiago). Along with Rome and the Holy Land, the city of Santiago de Compostela is one of Christendom’s three principal pilgrimage destinations.
Since the 9th century, millions have come from all over Europe and the British Isles to the cathedral, said to house the relics of Sant Iago (St. James, the Apostle), Jesus’ cousin (St. John the Divine), and Santiago Matamoros (Slayer of the Moors).
As with their medieval predecessors, the motives of those making the “route of forgiveness” today can be spiritual or not, but all say it is a trip that stays with them for life.
Modem pilgrims can pick up the Camino de Santiago at Roncesvalles, in the Spanish foothills of the Pyrenees, the most popular of the eight routes that make up the Way of St. James. They travel 500 miles through the vineyards of the Rioja and the former kingdoms of northern Spain.
Those who don’t have the time or stamina for the four-plus-week journey by foot walk the final 90 miles through the green and enchanting region of Galicia. Tired but elated travelers typically get their first glimpse of Santiago’s cathedral and its twin towers from Monte de Gozo, 2 miles from the finish line.
Construction of the extravagant Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was begun in 1078 on the site of a 9th-century basilica that had been destroyed by the infidels (who took the bells back to Cordoba as a souvenir).
The cathedral’s elaborate, two-towered Baroque facade was added in the 18th century, covering and protecting the original Door of Glory, which becomes visible as you enter; pilgrims press their fingers into the holes made in the stone by a millennium of their predecessors.
The impact of the cavernous interior, as plain and simple as the facade is ornate, is heightened by the golden-cloaked, bejeweled statue of St. James in its place of honor above the main altar.
Outside, the spacious Plaza del Obradoiro (“work of gold”) and the magnificent 16th-to 18th-century buildings that flank it evolved around the cathedral. The plaza is also home to the Hotel Reyes Catolicos—allegedly the oldest hotel in the world—with what must be the world’s most beautiful hotel doorway.
In 1499 King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella founded the Royal Hospice in Santiago to serve as a respite for the countless pilgrims who were pouring in from all corners of Europe. The hotel is the oldest building on the square, and if you’re lucky enough to get a room overlooking the cathedral, you’ll feel like one of the reyes catolicos yourself.
If not, console yourself with a lovely view over one of the four cloistered courtyards, with original fountains and open loggias, formed by the building’s cross-shape design. The Reyes is one of Spain’s most glorious paradores (historical sites transformed into government-owned hotels). If it’s all too grand in proportion and price for the pilgrim in you, you can still drop in for a simple but excellent dinner.