"What is this Santiago pilgrimage about, in our frenetically busy and consumption-driven 21st century? What drives hundreds of thousands of people of all nationalities and creeds to take time out from their normal lives to walk long, exhausting and not particularly scenic routes across the cold mountains and hot tablelands of Spain, in order finally to celebrate a medieval Christian liturgy of spiritual renewal and reconciliation with God?"
Former Australian diplomat-turned-author Tony Kevin poses this question in the introductory chapter to his book, Walking the Camino, a record of the 12,000-kilometre pilgrimage he made in 2006, walking between 20 and 35 kilometres a day for four weeks. He set out from Granada in the south-east of Spain, not far from the shores of the Mediterranean, and ended his walk at Santiago de Compostela in the far north-west of the country, close to the Atlantic coast.
Of all the places of Christian pilgrimage, this is the one that holds maximum mystery and allure for contemporary visitors. Some three and a half million fetch up here each year, five million in a Compostelan year, when the feast day of Saint James, 25 July, falls on a Sunday. And the flow is constant except in the icy months of December and January.
The goal of the pilgrims and the physical epicentre of the old town is its mighty cathedral. To better stir the soul and instil awe and wonder in the heart of the visitor, it is situated on the highest point in the city, its towers soaring 70 metres heavenwards, the mightiest of spiritual landmarks. In truth, it is not a beautiful building, rather a mongrel agglomeration of churches, the earliest dating from the 9th century. At that time, the see of Santiago was the most important on the Iberian Peninsula and the authority of its bishop second only to that of the Pope in Rome. And, as a place of pilgrimage, it was the third most important in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome.
This great building grew progressively over centuries, the original small church giving way in 1075 to a Gothic cathedral that was re-cased in the 17th and 18th centuries to its present high-baroque form. It is a masterpiece of the Churrigueresque style, named after the Churriguera family of architects who favoured the ornate and overcharged. They smothered the west front, the Fachada del Obradoiro, with sumptuous carved stone decoration, curves, crockets, scrolls, urns, vases, balls, niches and twisted columns stacked into pyramids, the tumult of ornament reminiscent of the ornate façades found in Cuzco, Peru. It's impressive not so much for its beauty as for its mind-boggling size and complexity.
Inside is a kind of city in miniature, with all manner of side altars and niches ranged around the perimeter. There is also a central high altar, overwhelmingly rich in detail. It is as though a river of gold from Spain's empire in South America had flowed through the building, leaving a shimmering residue on pillars, sanctuary lamps, statues and crosses.
The focus of this display of wealth is a jewel-encrusted silver shrine to the eponymous patron saint, whose body is thought to be buried under the altar. True believers queue to ascend the stairs behind the altar to kiss the hem of the effigy's image, but the Vatican is ambiguous on the matter of authenticity, declaring Santiago a significant holy site rather than the definitive resting place of the apostle Saint James the Greater, who is patron saint not only of the city but of all Spain. Saint James was decapitated in Judea in 44AD. How his headless body ended up here is a matter for both conjecture and healthy scepticism.
Another celebrated feature of the cathedral is the enormous Botafumeiro. The original vast censer was made in 1602 from 80 kilos of silver from the New World. Today's version, cast in 1851, requires eight people to get it moving, swinging on ropes in a to-and-fro movement above the heads of the devout below, and filling the air with the heady scent of incense.
And there are a couple of curiosities. Saint James was also known as the slayer of the Moors and there is an old statue of him mounted on a white charger smiting the infidel with his sword. These days, such an image is considered politically incorrect and the authorities have discreetly hidden the hapless Muslim victims of the Christian saint's wrath under a mound of white blossoms so the horseman seems to be deadheading a flowerbed. And tucked away in a corner by a side altar is a collection of cabezudos, giant papier- mâché heads worn by participants in processions of gigantes y cabezudos (giants and bigheads) during festivals, high religiosity side by side with gaudy carnival accoutrements.
In the huge open square outside the cathedral, dusty tanned pilgrims of all shapes, sizes and complexions arrive, each clutching his or her wooden staff with gourd and scallop shell, emblems of the pilgrim, some climbing the steps of the cathedral on their knees. Many, like Tony Kevin, have walked vast distances, from within Spain or from France, Portugal or, like Chaucer's pilgrims, from England. Others have walked the minimum distance of 100 kilometres (or, if on bicycle, 200 kilometres) and, for all, this is journey's end. After visiting the cathedral they will repair to the official pilgrim office to collect their certificate which will be framed and hung with other memorabilia in den or drawing room.
In front of the cathedral is the spacious Plaza del Obradoiro. To the right is the huge Hospital Real, built at the beginning of the 16th century by order of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella as a hostelry for pilgrims but now converted into a luxury hotel called Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos. Evidence of its past use lingers in the form of two beautiful cloisters, one Renaissance and the other baroque, and a quantity of religious art that has been incorporated into the décor. By way of a pointer to the type of well-heeled client the place now attracts, a showcase stuffed with Rolex watches stands in a corner, a symbol of Mammon. Your average pilgrim in shorts would never make it past the security guards at the door, but the well turned-out visitor may gain access to the bar for a glass of wine. Opposite the cathedral is the imposing Archbishop's palace.
Although it is the focus of attention and action, and the ceremonial heart of the city, there is life beyond this great ecclesiastical square and architectural ensemble. The city has just under 100,000 inhabitants, but because it is also a university town, the second oldest in Spain after Salamanca, 30,000 of them are students, so it is alive with young people who, as is the general habit in Spain, seem not to eat before 11 at night and party on until the early hours of the morning, animating the city by their presence and their singing.
Up and down the winding arcaded streets of the old town are hundreds of historic buildings, all painted white as no bright colour is permitted. Some of the modest, centuries-old dwellings on the uphill streets leading to the main square have shells impressed or carved into the lintels above the doors, which mark the ancient routes to be taken by pilgrims as they approached the Holy Grail of the cathedral. The paths to be taken by today's pilgrims, however, are usually marked with yellow arrows.
In the old town, larger dwellings (some of palace proportions in which the nobility lived), now house cafés, bars and tapas restaurants that contribute substantially to the night-life, while on summer evenings in Alameda Park a grand promenade takes place as the Galicians enjoy their routine stroll. Slap-bang in the central walkway of these leafy gardens is a most curious memorial. To the uninitiated, this monument could seem like a couple of drag queens beckoning to passers-by, and in a kind of way it is. It commemorates two of the city's most famous citizens. Known as Las Dos Marías (the two Marias), the subjects are the sisters Maruya and Coralia. Every day they would apply white face powder, a gash of scarlet lipstick and thick mascara. Dressed in equally bizarre clothing, they would position themselves daily exactly where their statue now stands, and flirt with students during their lunch break. Local lore has it that they were victims of suffering and political persecution and either lost their lovers in the Spanish Civil War or were orphaned by that conflict.
This park, with its neoclassical lion-topped stone gates that mark the division between the historic old town and the new, is also home to local fairs and festivals. While the main events of 25 July take place in the square in front of the cathedral, where some 150,000 people gather for an outdoor concert, the mood continues the following week in Alameda Park, transformed temporarily into a sprawling fun fair. In less festive weeks the city still has much to offer the visitor. Bookshops, bars and boutiques lurk under the colonnaded streets, such as the Rúa do Franco and Rúa Nova, and every second business seems to be a tapas bar.
Not every city attracting the overwhelming number of visitors that Santiago de Compostela does retains a grip on reality, but this one seems relatively unaffected by the annual influx of French, Germans, Italians, English, Austrians, Portuguese, Australians and fellow Spaniards. Indeed, there appears to be two parallel streams of life here. As in Rome, the locals go about their routine, seemingly oblivious or indifferent to the invading hordes. They shop at the local branch of El Corte Inglés, the great Madrid-based department store, and frequent cafés that don't cater, at least not overtly,to the tourists. The students have a separate life too, with their own quarter and their favourite haunts. That said, there is in this cosmopolitan city a slew of good eating and drinking establishments where the non-Spanish speaking visitor can sit and integrate immediately. However, it requires a tolerance of local customs, such as beer not quite as icy as one is used to at home or service that is almost assertively slow.
And unlike many tourist cities, where the mega has trumped the intimate, there are many quiet corners and pocket-handkerchief squares away from the torrent of promenaders, each with one or two modest cafés, where one can flop after traversing hectares of uneven cobblestones and sip a local beer and snack on deep-fried baby green peppers.
Santiago de Compostela is also favoured as far as more conventional restaurants are concerned, with atmospheric, traditional ones, such as El Asesino, a restaurant that's been in business since 1873, or the charming Restaurante Ana on the Rúa do Olvido. It does take a visiting stomach a little while to chime with Spanish eating time: lunch only begins at 2pm and dinner before 9.30pm is considered infra dig.
What will definitely whet your appetite at any hour is a visit to the city's local markets. These are exceptional. Covered and with long nave-like spaces,each dedicated to specific produce - meat, fruit and vegetables and a spruce area for fresh fish - the architecture is Neo-Fascist with appropriate low-relief sculptures badging each section.
And, as with all markets, there are cafés nearby where early birds can take a coffee or a sustaining pastry to tide one through until that eagerly anticipated 2pm lunch seem less remote.