There's something grandiose about the convoluted name of this Galician city, flung out in the far north west of Spain's peninsula. In fact, it refers to St James (‘Sant Iago’) and ‘the field of a star’ so there is a poetic element which reflects both the literature and the magic that Galicians specialise in.
Remote in place and in spirit, the character of this regional capital with its strong Celtic and Portuguese links is quite distinct from the rest of Spain. Not so long ago it took a week to get here from Madrid. Yet, for more than 1,000 years the city has opened its arms to a steady flow of pilgrims, on foot or on horseback, coming from all over Europe.
After a long lull in popularity, the tradition resumed a couple of decades ago, bringing dozens of nationalities kitted out in walking boots, clutching staffs and with symbolic scallop shells dangling from backpacks. Some Lycra-clad followers of the Camino now arrive on bicycles. It is this foreign cultural input that has helped make Santiago unique.
Beside the cathedral stands the world’s oldest hotel, opened in 1500 as a hospital for pilgrims and now top of Spain’s chain of national paradors. There are glorious patios, halls, galleries and grand staircases, making it all too easy to be bewitched by the time-travel atmosphere of this city. There are sober granite houses, narrow winding streets, leafy squares, stone arcades, glassed-in balconies (typical of windy Galicia) and magnificent religious buildings.
Galicians are also increasingly fine-tuned to sharp design. In the arcaded rua do Vilar, upmarket designer Katuxa Plateros (http://katuxaplatero.com) transforms gold, silver and semi-precious stones into dreamy shapes and, a few doors away, tiny Baraka (www.barakajoyas.com) stocks imaginative pieces by an array of local designers.
Food is of course a priority in this land of verdant pastures, cattle, smallholdings and two coastlines whipped by the waves of the Atlantic. A dazzling range of products are now wrapped in chic packaging for specialist delicatessens. In the streets behind the cathedral there is Mestre Mateo, rua Nova 3, a delicatessen which stocks unusual black Galician pottery beside conserves, chocolates, rare Galician olive oil and wine.
Even the wine is looking up, as dusty old labels are replaced by clean modern fonts. Galicia's white Albariño wine from the Rias Baixas has shot up the oenological hit parade, and sprightly red Mencía from the Ribeira Sacra is following fast behind – even if production dates from the Roman era.
Out & about in the rias:
One of Santiago’s great assets is its easy access to the crazily indented coast that harbours Galicia’s famous rias, or inlets. Here you can teeter over the crashing surf beside the lighthouse at Cabo Fisterra, about 90km from Santiago on the Costa da Morte, and observe the rocky source of all those delicious percebes (goose barnacles).
For hedonism, though, head south of here to Galicia’s longest beach at Carnota – seven blissful kilometres of blinding white sand where you might come across cockle-gathers or surfers.
Finally, the beautiful dunes of Corrubedo, which are protected as a natural park, offer an idyllic escape from other sun-bathers, while plenty of wind-surfers dot the waves. Any of these destinations make an easy day outing by rental car from Santiago.
Where to stay:
- Hotel Gastronomico San Miguel http://sanmiguelsantiago.com/ from 74€ / double with breakfast.
- Hotel Casa de la Troya http://www.carrishoteles.com/en/hotels/hotel-casa-de-la-troya-santiago/ from 60€ / double, room only.
- A Quinta da Auga http://www.aquintadaauga.com/en Elegant country hotel just outside Santiago, double from 134€ with breakfast
- Costa Vella www.costavella.com, small, peaceful hotel with a lovely garden, doubles from 70€
Where to eat:
- O Curro da Parra www.ocurrodaparra.com. A charming rustic restaurant near the food market serving exquisite Galician specialities prepared with a light, modern touch. A la carte about 35€.
- Sexto II, http://www.restaurantesexto.com Near the Cathedral off the Rua da Franco, an old-fashioned temple to seafood, graciously served on white linen tablecloths. A la carte about 40€.
Images and article written by Fiona Dunlop, brought to you by SPN