Is Santiago de Compostela really a city? As late as the 1950s, the Galician writer Ramón Otero Pedrayo defined it as a ‘large village’. Of course today Santiago is officially a city, but it is not in the least a typical city. What makes Santiago a large village is the existence of several centres of population that were around in ancient times; these radiate out from the historical quarter. The life style of the people living in these areas retains many characteristics of village life.
District 1: Historical Quarter
There is no doubt that the heart of the city has always been the historical quarter. Though it has been changing since the Middle Ages, it has not lost its essential character or its feeling of antiquity. This atmosphere is doubtless due to the stone: the granite that paves the streets, that forms the pillars, that windows and doors open out of, that adopts the form of saints, gargoyles and plants, and that achieves its maximum expression in the Catedral (Cathedral), the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos (Hostelry of the Catholic Monarchs), the many churches… Rain falls upon the granite. It is said of Compostela that rain is an art form, and it is easy to see why in the columns of the Rúa Do Vilar, in the Quintana, or in the narrow streets surrounding the Mercado de Abastos (Abastos Market).
District 2: Hortas and San Lourenzo
Leaving the Obradoiro area by walking down the hill near the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, we find ourselves in a small downward winding street, paved with tiny stones, flanked by one- or two-storey traditional style homes with a garden in the back yard. The gardens are what give the street its Galician name, Rúa das Hortas (Street of the Gardens). Here we find small shops and typical bars, neighbours who know one another by name, greet one another in the street, and live as if their home was some small village, not a city. The same is true of the area found if we continue downward along Pombal, San Lourenzo, A Rúa do Carmo de Abaixo…
District 3: San Pedro and Basquiños
Surrounding the historical quarter are similar barrios (districts) all exuding the same enchantment: Castrón D’Ouro, San Pedro y Belvís, Basquiños… In all these areas you find the same traditional style homes and the same type of people. And then there’s the sky; the marvellous vista of wide-open sky with roofs and chimneys outlined against it.
District 4: Los ensanches and Conxo
El Ensanche is the area where Compostela is perhaps least typically Compostela. Built in the middle of the 20th century, the buildings retain their typically reticular structure and are of medium height so that the sun still reaches the streets. Continuing southwards we come to an area of new development, the district of Pontepedriña, bordering on the district of Conxo but in complete contrast to it. If in Conxo we find ourselves in a place similar to the small districts described before, Pontepedriña is all tall, modern buildings facing up to the future. The Hipercor and the Hotel Melià Confort, are recent inaugurations that typify Pontepedriña. The district of Fontiñas, where the third expansion of the city took place, went the same way as Pontepedriña in the 1980s. Many similar-looking buildings were constructed and green spaces developed in the heart of the business centre of Area Central.
District 5: The campuses and the far north
The Campus Sur (South Campus) is the oldest. You can tell by the large twisted and gnarled trees, and the buildings, many of which date back to the beginning of the 20th century. Of note are the Colegios Mayores (Halls of Residence), the Observatorio Astronómico (Observatory) and the Auditorio de la Universidad (University Auditorium).
The North Campus is much more modern. It grew up around the Parque de la Música and the faculties between this and Xoán XXIII Avenue. Beside the Parque de la Música and its lake, you cannot help but be staggered by the stony bulk of the Auditorio de Galicia (Galician Auditorium). A little to the north we come upon the wide-open spaces of Vite and Vistalegre. Here the feeling of being in an authentic village is sharpened, as we are on the very edge of the city’s boundaries.
The historical quarter is the nucleus of Santiago. All these other places, different from one another but similar in some ways, revolve around it, making Santiago a city that feels like a village and attracts so many people precisely for that reason.
History of Santiago De Compostela
Santiago de Compostela, oddly enough for a European city, came into existence because of a cemetery, and its glory, monuments and streets are all indebted to to one deceased personage: the Apostle Santiago (St James).
But let’s take this point by point. The city has been inhabited since time immemorial. The builders of its dolmens (prehistoric stone sepulchral chambers) and the Celts chose the Alameda as the location for their settlements. The Romans and the Suevos (Germanic race who invaded parts of Spain in the 5th century) lived side by side with them, and also left behind other cemeteries beneath the site where the Catedral (Cathedral) would later be built. It is often said that Galicia is the country of the dead, and its capital, Santiago, is the personification of the adage.
It all began after a hermit in the 9th century discovery of the tomb of Santiago in a forest. The news spread like wildfire throughout Europe, and within a very short time the King of Galicia and Asturias arrived to pay his respects to the apostle. From then on everything started happening in whirlwind fashion. Alfonso IX erected a basilica upon the site of the discovery. The basilica was to be extensively enlarged in the early Middle Ages to accommodate the growing numbers of pilgrims who travelled to Santiago de Compostela from all over the continent. The number of pilgrims travelling the Camino de Santiago (the road to Santiago) increased from the 17th century, when Pope Calixto II inaugurated the Compostela Jubilee. Counts, kings, saints, beggars, criminals, bourgeois and Vikings all travelled to Compostela, fascinated.
Some of the best and most important artistic works grew out of this cosmopolitan atmosphere, including the Portico to the Glory of Master Matthew (1188), the Cathedral, and the 18th century façade of the Cathedral designed by the brilliant architect Casas y Novoa.
Home to men and women of letters, writers, artists, warriors and scientists, Compostela is a turbulent city that typifies Galicia’s long history. In the 12th century, the Archbishop Xelmírez, one of the great men associated with the city, combined the creation of schools of higher education with battles against other great Galician gentlemen. During that century and the next, Santiago welcomed many troubadours and poets like Joam Airas, Bernal de Bonaval and Airas Nunes, whose poems celebrated love, life and grief. In the 15th century, the city was witness to the ‘irmandiño’ movement, a powerful popular uprising that caused the warring factions of Galicia to be expelled from the city for a couple of years. The University was established at the same time, and thanks to the Archbishop Alonso de Fonseca it would leave an indelible impression on the city. University students today still comprise a significant portion of the city’s population.
In the 16th and especially the 17th centuries, Santiago de Compostela experienced a resurgence in monastic communities while at the same time suffering a considerable decrease in the number of pilgrims. The churches, convents and monasteries took advantage of their agricultural wealth by raising significant monuments known as ‘Compostela Barroque’. Examples include the Casa del Cabildo (Chapter House), the Convento de Santa Clara (Convent of Santa Clara), the Pazo de Bendaña (Bendaña Palace) and Casa da Parra (Grapevine House).
In the 19th century, the rumblings of the Rexurdimento gallego – Renaissance of Galician language and culture ‘ began in Santiago de Compostela. This incorporated a rejection of the politics of assimilation imposed by the Castilian monarchy from the 15th century, and embraced all things Galician. Figures such as Antolín Faraldo, Manuel Murguía and the great poetess Rosalía de Castro initiated a cultural, social and political movement in Santiago de Compostela that formed the antecedent to current Galician culture. Those following in their footsteps laboured for approval of the Estatuto de Autonomía para Galicia (Statute of Galician Autonomy) during the second Republic (1931-1936), which was supported by such distinguished figures as Alfonso Rodríguez Castelao, possibly the most important pro-Galician thinker.
The Spanish Civil War buried Santiago de Compostela in a secular sleep until the final years of the Franco dictatorship. After the approval by the Spanish democratic government of the new Estatuto de Autonomía in 1981, proclaiming Santiago de Compostela the capital of Galicia, Santiago experienced a revival. The traveller can appreciate this in the new concept of space and architecture visible in the city, and the opening of new cultural, financial and leisure centres.