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Santiago de Compostela (about 90,000 inhabitants), is the capital of Galicia and one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. The city is located just 30 km from the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, in the geographical center of Galicia, which is the most north-western region of Spain.
Santiago is a famous pilgrimage center, which became the symbol of Spanish Christianity against Islam. It was destroyed by Muslims in the late 10th century, and then completely rebuilt in the following century. The old town of Santiago de Compostela with its Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque buildings is one of the most beautiful urban areas in the world.
The oldest monuments are grouped around the tomb of St. James (Santiago) and the cathedral which contains the wonderful Pórtico de la Gloria.
Santiago de Compostela was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site in 1985, thanks to the beauty and integrity of its monuments, the importance of its apostolic sanctuary, the arrival point of the most important spiritual journey of the Middle Ages.
The city is in fact also the final destination of the medieval pilgrimage route called Camino de Santiago, which was proclaimed, in 1987, by the Council of Europe, the first cultural itinerary of Europe and in 1993, by the UNESCO Cultural Heritage of the humanity.
This itinerary played a fundamental role in encouraging cultural exchanges between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages.
THE HISTORY OF SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
The city of Santiago de Compostela originated in the 9th century, when the bishop of Iria Flavia, today’s Padrón about 20 km south of Santiago, on the indication of a hermit recognized the tomb of the apostle St. James (Santiago) in a Roman mausoleum.
Shortly thereafter, the king of Asturias, Alfonso II, also visited the tomb and declared Santiago the patron saint of Asturias. Since then the place became a place of worship and pilgrimage, a symbol of Christianity defending itself from the advance of Islam. The date generally recognized for the foundation of the city is 830 AD. In 997 the town was destroyed by the Arabs commanded by Almanzor, who however respected the sepulcher. Later the Christians rebuilt the city by surrounding it with walls, which enclosed the perimeter of today’s historic center.
From 1075 the construction of the Cathedral began, in Romanesque forms, which will be completed in 1125 by Maestro Esteban. During this phase, thanks to the bishop Diego Xelmírez, in addition to the cathedral, the city also developed. Other palaces were built including the archiepiscopal palace (palacio Arzobispal) and several churches that house some new relics recovered by the bishop, including those of Saint Susanna.
Since 1168, a new phase of construction work has involved the Cathedral, under the orders of Maestro Mateo, an artist of the time. The monumental parts of the cathedral, including the Choir Pétreo and the Pórtico de la Gloria (one of the most important works of European Romanesque) are realized.
THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
The Camino de Santiago became the most important medieval pilgrimage route. To reach the city the pilgrims used different itineraries. Among these, those who came from Italy used the via Francigena (from Italy) and then the Arles Way, which was also used by German pilgrims. Via Turonensis, on the other hand, was used by pilgrims from England, the Netherlands and northern Germany. Other pilgrimage routes leading to the Camino de Santiago were Via Podiensis and Vézelay route.
Convents of the mendicant orders (the convents of San Francisco, Santo Domingo, Santa Clara and Belvís) were built to welcome pilgrims at the gates of the city, which formed the historic city outside the walls. The famous university was founded in 1525 and the Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos was also built in the same period. Later in the seventeenth century, in the middle of the Baroque period, the facade of the Obradoiro was built and many buildings in the city were renovated.
WHAT TO SEE: THE MAIN ATTRACTIONS OF SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
The visit of the city can undoubtedly start from the main square, the Plaza del Obradoiro. The most important buildings in the city overlook this square: the Cathedral, the Pazo de Raxoi, the Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos and the Collegio de San Xerome.
The cathedral has a Latin cross plan and three naves with nine bell towers, two of which for each facade, and three in the transept. Each of the three facades open in different squares and form beautiful architectural ensembles of different styles. The beautiful baroque facade of the Obradoiro, on the west side, built by Fernando Casas y Novoa in 1740. Also on the north side, the baroque facade is the Azabachería, by Ferro Caaveiro and Fernández Sarela. Finally, on the south side, the oldest of all, the Romanesque facade of Platerías, probably built in 1103 by Maestro Mateo.
The west entrance of the cathedral is completed by one of the main works of European Romanesque architecture, the Pórtico de la Gloria. This masterpiece was completed in 1188 after a 20-year work by Maestro Mateo. It is the atrium of the cathedral, consisting of three arches with over 200 figures carved on granite which represent the theme of salvation.
The interior of the Cathedral has a Latin cross plan, preserves the Romanesque style. The central nave measures 97 meters in length and 24 meters in height, in the lateral naves there are 4 of the 16 chapels in the cathedral. Above the high altar there is a baroque-style canopy, nearby is the ancient Roman mausoleum which preserves the remains of St. James (Santiago).
THE CATHEDRAL SQUARE
The Hostal de los Reyes Católicos also overlooks the Plaza del Obradoiro. An early 16th century palace, in the Plateresque Renaissance style, built as a building to house pilgrims. On another side of the square overlooks the Pazo de Raxoi, an 18th century building, built as a seminary of confessors, a consistorial house and residence for the children of the cathedral choir. On the opposite side of the square from the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos is the Collegio de San Xerome now the seat of the Rectorate, it was founded in the 16th century to house poor students. To the right of the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, there is the Pazo de Xelmírez, a Romanesque-style episcopal palace from the 12th and 13th centuries.
From the steps of the Immaculada square, which overlooks the facade of the Azabachería and the Monastery of San Martín Pinario, you can admire a beautiful perspective on the cathedral. You reach the Plaza de la Quintana, a two-level square, overlooked by the Casa de la Parra (17th century) and the Monastery of San Paio de Antealtares. The Casa del Cabildo overlooks the Plaza de Platerías, a splendid 18th century Baroque building. It is then advisable to continue the visit of the city walking in the streets of the historic center around the Cathedral. Follow along Rúa do Franco, Plazuela de Fonseca with the Colegio Mayor de Fonseca, the Praza do Toural, with the 18th century Palazzo de los Marqueses de Bendaña, and the arcade Rúa do Vilar.
TO SEE IN THE SURROUNDINGS
In the vicinity of Santiago de Compostela, the Galician coast, with the Cabo Finisterre and the Costa de La Muerte, is worth a visit. For lovers of Roman antiquities a stop not to be missed is the city of Lugo, about 100 km from Santiago. Here the Roman walls of the late third century of the city of Lucus are almost intact. The entire circuit of the walls is the most beautiful example of Roman fortification in western Europe that has come down to us. Since 2000 UNESCO has declared them a world heritage site.
HOW TO GET TO SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
The Santiago de Compostela airport is the Santiago de Compostela-Lavacolla Airport (IATA: SCQ). This airport is located about 16 km away from the city center. There are flights that connect it with numerous Spanish cities and with some European countries. These include the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, France, Belgium and Italy.
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