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Santiago de Compostela, Galicia's capital in the northwestern corner of Spain, is mainly known as a pilgrimage town. Supposedly, the tomb of the apostle James was found here. An impressive cathedral was built over the tomb and it became surrounded by the town of Santiago. Pilgrims carry a scallop shell, the symbol for the Holy James. Unlike the logo of oil company Shell, pilgrims carry the shell with the latch facing upwards. The animal is cultivated along the Galician coast and is a highly sought delicacy under the name of vieira.
Santiago de Compostela is not only of interest to pilgrims though. It is one of Spain's most beautiful cities that has many attractions. The streets in the old center are paved with a gold-colored granite that glitters in the sun (or rain, which is abundant in this region). The center is formed by the Praza do Obradoiro with the impressive cathedral with its Baroque façade. The façade carries the same name as the square: Obradoiro, which means 'golden work'. The Baroque façade hides the church' oldest parts (from 1075), which are in Romanesque style.
This is something that can be seen in more places in Santiago. The El Pazo de Xelmírez manor (next to the cloister) also has a Baroque façade with behind it a Romanesque interior from the twelfth century. On the north side of the square lies Spain's oldest hotel, Hostal dos Reis Católicos, built by the royal couple Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile in 1492. Although it is called a 'hostel', this is a five-star hotel.
When the pilgrims arrived in Santiago after their long pilgrimage, they first washed themselves in a river east of the city. Over time, that place was named Lavacolla, which means as much as 'wash your clothes'. According to some it even means more specifically 'wash your pubic area' as pilgrims did not always behave very saintly during the pilgrimage... In any case, once they arrived at the cathedral, the pilgrims place their right hand on the Portico de Gloria with the Tree of Jesse, which dates back to 1188. The abrasions show that pilgrims have touched the pillar for over 800 years. The Mass that takes place every day at noon is a tourist attraction, especially because of the swinging of the world's largest thurible, the Botafumeiro. The Museo das Pereginacións (Pilgrimage Museum) on the Rúa de San Miguel is dedicated to the millennial history of pilgrimages to Santiago de Compostela.
Opposite the cathedral lies the Convento de San Paio de Antealtares, one of the city's oldest buildings. The oldest part of this originally Benedictine convent dates back to the ninth century. In the Praza das Praterías (Silversmith's Square) you'll find a strange fountain, the Fuente de los Caballos, of four horses with flippers. Around the square you can still find shops specialized in silverware.
Although religion plays a major role in the city's tourism, there are also other things to see in Santiago de Compostela. For example the Museo Eugenio Granell with works by Picasso, Miró, Bretón and Duchamp. The Centro Galego de Arte Contemporáneo is also a museum for modern art. Next to it lies a convent dating back to the fourteenth century, which houses the Museo do Pobo Galego (Museum of the Galician People). Through archeological finds, it describes in a fascinating way the ethnicity of Galicians, since their Celtic origin.
At about 50 kilometers west of Santiago lies the Cabo Finisterre, 'the end of the world' for medieval pilgrims. South of the cape lies the Costa da Morte (Coast of Death) with rugged cliffs and sandy beaches. Near the harbor you can buy fresh sardines, which are grilled on charcoal. This dramatic rocky coastline can be reached from Santiago via the C-543 road.
North of Santiago lies the vibrant port town of A Coruña (in Spanish La Coruña). This city also has a beautiful historic center with for example the Torre de Hércules, a Romanesque lighthouse, which still serves as such. Another beautiful old town is Pontevedra at 117 kilometers southwest of Santiago de Compostela.
Santiago de Compostela's city center is largely pedestrianized. The city is used to receiving large number of tourists and so there are plenty of parking facilities.
Santiago de Compostela Airport is located in Lavacolla (where the pilgrims washed themselves before entering the holy city), at about 13 kilometers east of the city. You can easily reach the airport by rental car via the Autovia A-54. The route and exit to the airport are clearly signposted.