Music and the sound of celebration swells up from the square below as pilgrims, who have travelled thousands of miles to reach the resting place of St James, gather to mark the end of their journey.
Standing on the rooftop of Santiago de Compostela’s 9th century cathedral it’s impossible not to be enchanted by the moment.
From this height the city, the capital of Galicia in northwest Spain, is a mismatch of rustic terracotta rooftops and ancient stonework buildings which span out below me and finally give way to a horizon of hazy blue mountains.
As well as the majestic view the roof is also a great vantage point to study the church’s masonry which among its many statues features a carved bottom reportedly etched into the stone after the old archbishop refused to pay his stone mason.
It has taken me over 100 heart pumping steps to reach the cathedral’s rooftop and thankfully, as a vertigo sufferer, the view that greets me is not a stomach lurching one.
Instead, the roof has a gentle slant and the peaks and troughs of rustic concrete walls comfortingly encase it.
The cathedral is the end point for thousands of pilgrims who travel on seven World Heritage routes to visit the place where tradition has it that the remains of Jesus’ apostle Saint James, the patron saint of Spain, are buried.
For centuries the journey has been considered a symbol of rebirth, offering a new start cleansed of sin, for the men and women who undertake it. And as the hotel I’m staying in is within the cathedral square (Plaza do Obradoiro) I am greeted on a daily basis by a procession of jubilant pilgrims, faces flushed with relief and happiness making their final steps to take mass, run everyday at 12, at the church.
In order to earn the Compostela (certificate of accomplishment) the pilgrims must walk at least 100km and during my stay I get the chance to try out a 5k stretch of what can only be described as one of the most scenic walks I have ever been on.
In baking heat and under an azure blue sky, our group, an eclectic mix of British journalists, take a meandering route from Melide to Boente, through the area’s lush green land; it is an incredible way to see Galicia and there is so much to drink in and admire as the landscape continues to change, from crop fields to village scenes, forest trails to open roads.
The path is guided by a series of stone shells and crosses, which crop up every now and then and pilgrims are also greeted by the occasional friendly wave from the locals living nearby as well as honesty stalls, no doubt a welcome sight after a long walk.
In the evenings, a variety of hostels on route provide sanctuary for them, including the Ribadiso Hostel, which on first viewing looks more like a pub.
The hostel is situated next to a cooling stream, and under the dry Spanish sun, which beats down on us until a barmy 10pm, we see pilgrims of all ages sunbathing at the water’s edge.
After a warm day it’s a relief to return to our five star hotel, Parador’s de Santiago de Compostela. Reported to be the oldest hotel in the world it is considered the jewel in the crown of Paradores portfolio. The former 15th century hospital is neighboured next door to Santiago’s magnificent cathedral and rightly earns its place in the city’s old quarter.
Its rooms are spacious and full of character with stone walls, rich wood floorboards and ornate four poster beds; they ooze class and culture and if you don’t mind the fact that the hotel is rumoured to be haunted then it’s well worth a visit – plus they go the extra mile for their guests and as it was my birthday while I was out in sunny Spain, I was treated to a stunning glazed cake over dinner, which was even engraved with my name in swirling chocolate lettering.
Gastronomically, Santiago is big on seafood, a staggering 188,130 kilos of it is sold annually in the city and there are 80 kinds of sea fish to try and 50 types of molluscs.
The city is 30km from the coast and fresh fish is guaranteed at its markets everyday. Octopus appears to be top of the menu and we were regularly served up tapas dishes of it smothered in paprika. Santiago is also the place to try barnacles which are collected direct from Galicia’s dangerous cliffs.
Evenings appear to be relatively quite in the city, during weekdays at least, but if your willing to put in the leg work and do a bit of hunting around you can stumble across some great bars which open till late.
We were lucky enough to come across a gem of a bar, Cerveceria A Liga, not far from the hotel which attracted us with its live brass band.
Inside the air was heavy with heat, and the sound of Spanish music and clapping enticed us onto the dance floor. Under rustic oak beams and with tables pushed out to the sides to make space, the floor was flooded with people dancing side by side with the band. We didn’t waste much time in getting into the spirit of the place and were soon joining in.
As well as being a cultural hot-spot and a feast for the eyes the city is also incredibly friendly and we didn’t struggle to strike up conversations with the locals especially in the evenings, who despite the language barrier were more than happy to muddle through a conversation with a Brit.
Although it might not be the most obvious place to party the city, which has a population of 100,000, attracts about 30,000 students a year, and the great thing about it is that although the bars do fill up, the atmosphere is relatively relaxed and you don’t find yourself struggling for space as you might at some of Spain’s more common tourist destinations.
To end our trip we visited the seaside village of Baiona, situated about an hour’s drive from Santiago.
From Baiona you can take a 40 minute boat trip to the remote Cies Islands, a national park which boasts fantastic beaches – rated among the finest in the world.
There is no accommodation on the island so it’s a relatively remote location although you can request a permit to camp at the beauty spot for up to 15 days.
It’s a magical place and well worth the visit if you can drag yourself away from a city steeped in history and culture for an afternoon of sand, sun and clear rippling sea – a truly peaceful paradise.
How to get there
Easyjet launched its first flight from London Gatwick to Santiago de Compostela in June and now offers three flights a week, all year round.
The five-star Parador de Santiago de Compostela costs from £330 per person for three nights bed and breakfast when you depart from London Gatwick on October 19, 2013.
To book with EasyJet Holidays visit the website www.easyJet.com/holidays or call 0843 104 1000.