The Camino's Santiago de Compostela not just for walkers

The Camino’s endpoint, Santiago de Compostela is also a great weekend break, says Michelle Darmody.            

Santiago de Compostela is a beautiful, imposing city in the northern Galician region of Spain.

It is best known as the final destination for pilgrims who walk one of the many paths of the Camino de Santiago.

The scallop shell is the emblem used to represent the network of walking trails, it symbolises all of these routes converging on the ancient city.

As the lines in the shell all come to one point so too do the paths of the Camino.

They all lead to a point in the centre of the square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago.

This Cathedral is deemed of such importance in Europe that it adorns every euro, copper coin in your pocket.

Santiago de Compostela may be associated as the place where you collapse after long weeks of walking, but it is also a great weekend destination in itself.

The flight from Ireland is not taxing and the trip from the airport to the city centre is easy to navigate. When there you have Galician food markets, ancient architecture, top Spanish restaurants and some of the tastiest wine in Europe at your disposal.

Santiago de Compostela is situated just South of the Alberieno, Rías Baixas wine region which produces world-class white wines which are the ideal accompaniment to the local seafood.

The old town has recently received Unesco heritage status, after a romantic stroll through the colonnaded medieval streets and through the nooks and crannies, steps and archways of the historic buildings you quickly realise why.

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There are no cars in the old town and the many tapas bars and restaurants make use of the pedestrian streets and pull their tables outside.

You can while away the hours sipping coffee in the sunshine and eating a slice of the local almond tart watching the diversity of walkers and locals passing by under the majestic buildings.

Casa Marcelo is a great place to start a weekend of eating, it is a bustling restaurant with no sign over the door, so you will have to keep your eyes peeled for it as you stroll up Rúa das Hortas.

Inside is a riot of warm colours and even warmer smells, coming from the open kitchen.

They do not take bookings and can get quite busy so it is worth arriving before you are hungry, put your name down, and get a glass of wine or bubbles nearby.

Casa Marcelo has been awarded one Michelin star but it does not have any of the trappings that are usually associated with the star system; there are no white table cloths or French influences here, the food is a light mix of local Galician flavours with a touch of influence from Japanese and Peruvian cooking.

While these cuisines may seem worlds apart they are not so different when you think of the light raw fish dishes of ceviche in comparison to sashimi and the raw seafood of Galicia.

They make for a surprisingly good combination and when paired with the grassy, fresh flavours of the local wines, make for a delicious meal.

The Parador overlooking the main square, where the main cathedral sits, is a living, breathing museum.

Paradors are a uniquely Spanish experience, they are hotels housed in National Monuments — such as adapted castles, palaces, fortresses, convents or monasteries — which the government runs and upkeeps.

Most people’s budgets will not stretch to a night or two in their expensive rooms, but it is well worth having a cup of tea in the elegant downstairs spaces of the Parador in Santiago de Compostela.

While there, wander through the arabesque gardens and beautifully accentuated corridors of this grand old building.

It is also perfectly located on the main square so is central to everything, it is a great place to sit outside and watch the usually joyous emotions of those finishing their walk outside its doors.

On the corner of Rúa da Acibechería with Rúa da Troia there is a little wine bar, called O’filandon, that looks like it was built in medieval times — it probably was.

They have an open charcoal fire where they heat snacks for you to enjoy with your wine and it is embedded almost under-ground, in a thin cellar-like space that is hidden behind a cheese shop, you can see the footsteps of those walking outside through the grates beside your head.

If you arrive at the right time you will be served very generous free tapeo or tapas as they are better known.

Another medieval enclosure, but one to enjoy late music and a drink, is Fuco Lois around the corner.

There is a large student population in Santiago de Compostela and with that brings many good value bars and cafés, the area of the old town nearest Plaza de Galicia houses many of these.

You can order a slice of tortilla and a glass of beer for very little money if you are willing to put up with the hustle and bustle.

You can enquire at your hotel to find out if the epic, swinging of the chalice is taking place during your visit, it is called the botafumeiro.

Inside the vast, cavernous main hall of the cathedral a cohort of robed men start the momentum going by pulling on a huge rope with all of their combined might, it takes several minutes before the full arch is achieved to the background sounds of chanting and choirs singing.

As the huge chalice reaches great heights a cloud of incense spreads out with every swing, dissipating over the heads below.

The locals will tell you that the incense was first used to mask the stench of unwashed, weary pilgrims — whatever the reason it is quite a sight to see.

An afternoon is well spent in the food market, known as Mercado de Abastos.

The Pulpería Sanjurjo is located at its edge.

You can purchase a wooden plate of tender, tasty octopus and stroll around the market adding bread or cheese to your plate, or order some wine from the vast selection in A Vinoteca Do Mercado.

This is an excellent wine shop with a few high tables to stand at.

Knowledgeable staff will talk you through what is available and bring you a wine to match the food you have chosen from the other market stalls.

The most beautiful place I came across in Santiago de Compostela to lazy on a sunny day was Cafe-Jardin in the Costa Vella Hotel.

The hotel has beautiful, clean and modern rooms overlooking the garden.

The garden itself is overgrown with gnarled old fruit trees, pots of vibrant plants and little birds darting about. Tables are dotted among the shafts of dappled sunlight.

A few nibbles are served but it is mainly a cafe, with table service, serving a selection of teas and coffee, local wines, liqueurs and soft drinks.

Alameda Park is a stroll away and another nice place to sit under dappled light.

A tapeo dinner is an excellent way to get a feel for the historical Old Town at night.

The restaurants along Rúa do Franco all cater for a quick, tasty bite at the bar and then on to the next inviting looking establishment.

Restaurant A Barrola is in this area as well and is great for a more old-school, sit down, seafood experience.

I had the joy of eating a plateful of the alien like precebes (goose barnacles ) for the first time here.

These are barnacles that grow on precipices of the jagged Galician coastline.

These rocks get hammered by the ocean waves and fishermen have to pick their time for savaging carefully.

Do not be put off by how utterly strange these barnacles look, the taste is amazing, soft and sweet, yet full and salty.

Dungeness crab is the nearest thing I can compare them too but it is not quite right, these are meatier with far denser, fuller flavour.

It is magical to walk through the old town at night, the Gothic and medieval buildings take on epic proportions when the shadows are cast from the gargoyles and statues onto the streets below.

On returning home through the quiet streets on our last evening we came across a large band of cloaked men, with a selection of string instruments, they proceeded to serenade us as we wandered home through the arches and colonnades — all in an evening in Santiago de Compostela.

Getting There ... 

Flights:

Aer Lingus fly Dublin to Santiago de Compostella.

Ryanair fly to the nearby Vigo airport.

Places to stay:

¦ Costa Vella: Modern rooms in a beautiful old building, some look over the enclosed garden. See www.costavella.com/en/hoteles

¦ Casa da Troia: Clean, central, and with very friendly staff. www.carrishoteles.com/hoteles/hotel-casa-de-la-troya-santiago 

¦ Hotel Altamira: Trendy with a nice café downstairs that over looks the food market. www.pazodealtamira.com/en/ 

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