Santiago de Compostela — Callejar, Cuisine and Pilgrims

Nov. 21, 2022

Hikers had arrived on foot at the center of the Plaza do Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela where six paths converge at a stone embossed with a scallop. Some who had hiked the historic Camino de Santiago pilgrim’s route appeared beleaguered and in need of a shave. A few rested on their packs and changed into fresh socks. Others gathered to embrace with fellow hikers and snap commemorative selfies in front of the iconic Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

I arrived by train, refreshed after a night’s rest in my hotel and seeking a less spiritual objective. I wanted to see a verdant part of Spain I hadn’t visited before, sample some tasty Galician seafood cuisine and seek a better understanding why for centuries people have journeyed from afar to visit Santiago.

I first learned about the Camino de Santiago route from the 2010 film, The Way. Being an occasional backpacker, the film inspired me to consider the Camino for my backpacking bucket list.

Legend says that the remains of the apostle St. James (Santiago in Spanish) the Great had been brought to the Galicia region of Spain after he was beheaded in 44 A.D. The location of those remains went unknown for centuries until a monk was directed by the stars and discovered James’ remains in 813. A church was built to house St. James’ remains and named the Catedral Santiago (St. James) de Compostela (campo de estrellas or field of stars)*.

The Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James became a popular pilgrimage route for Christians seeking their moment in the aura of St. James. Many also come in search of a plenary indulgence which is granted after meeting certain criteria. This “indulgence is the full remission of all temporal punishment (time spent in purgatory) up to that point in a person’s life,” according to the Catedral de Santiago website.

There are dozens of pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela, with the French Way being the most popular today.

The Camino has become a popular bucket list trek, and the number of pilgrims completing the journey has grown considerably over the past three decades. The archives of Santiago de Compostela reports that 690 travelers had completed a pilgrimage in 1985 and almost 348,000 completed one in 2019 (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic).

The number of pilgrims completing the journey has grown considerably over the past three decades — 348,000 in 2019.

Seeing Galicia’s verdant countryside — check. Seeing the Catedral de Santiago — check. Next on my list was to sample some local cuisine.

I love all types of Spanish food and Galicia has a reputation for exceptional regional seafood dishes. Local specialties include octopus (pulpo a feira), crabs, oysters, scallops, mussels, langostinos, shrimp, razor clams and barnacles (mariscada). Other tasty bites include finger-sized grilled peppers (Pimientos De Padrón), breads stuffed with tomatoes and meats or seafood (empanada galega), cheese in the shape of a droplet (queixo de tetilla), galician bread and an almond flour cake (tarta de Santiago).

Unfortunately for me, some of the recommended restaurants on my list were closed on Sunday and Monday. Something to keep in mind when visiting Spain. This left me with just the evening of my Saturday arrival to try a couple of the better spots. See the photo gallery for a sampling of the dishes I had.

Pulpo a feira is my favorite Galician dish. The octopus tentacles are boiled to tenderize the meat then topped with olive oil, pimentón powder and salt. The dish is simple yet tasty. The tarta de Santiago was a pleasant new find — a cake that’s not too dense nor exceptionally flaky and is mildly sweet.

During my stay, Galicia was characteristically rainy with dark skies and almost constant rainfall that alternated from heavy mist to short and abrupt downpours. The splatter of raindrops, gurgling of gutter spouts and occasional whooshes of wind echoed in a clamor through the narrow passageways of the city center.

Weekend diners were silhouetted in rainy reflections from streetlamps, and appeared and disappeared as they scurried from restaurants and bars. Medieval warriors, clergy, angels and gargoyles kept watch from stony perches overhead. Glancing down like security cameras from a different era, their watchful eyes made me uneasy. The setting was surreal.

By day three I was satiated and had enjoyed the callejar (wandering narrow alleyways). I was ready to stash my umbrella and return to the drier plains of Soria. Perhaps someday I’ll return for a more spiritual journey with a pack on my back, but if I do, I’ll plan for a time with more favorable weather and restaurant times.

*Rick Steves’ Spain 2012, p. 297-298

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