|The passageway leading into Praza do Obradoiro|
The tour starts at Praza do Obradoiro, the largest and grandest square in Santiago, just west of the cathedral. Go down a tunnel-like passageway, where there are often bagpipe players performing traditional Galician music, and head for the center of the plaza.
Praza do Obradoiro (west façade)
|Praza do Obradoiro|
Architect Fernando de Casas y Novoa was commissioned to beautify the medieval westwork in the 1700s, and he went about creating a Baroque façade full of swooping curves, swirling flowers and vines, and in general way too much ornamentation. This was not only to get with the times (the Baroque style was “in” then), but also to finish the work begun a century earlier that had raised the height of the towers; to enclose the Pórtico da Gloria, a medieval sculpture ensemble that had been left to deteriorate in the humid air; and to emphasize the veneration of St. James. As the cathedral (and the city) were built on a bluff between two rivers, a lovely double staircase takes you from the plaza up to “ground level” where the main doors are.
To the left sits the Pazo de Xelmírez, the archbishop’s palace and one of the few remaining examples of civil Romanesque architecture. The outside is rather boring, but when the cathedral museum puts on temporary exhibitions, you can go inside and explore kitchens and dining halls with sculptures that depict medieval food and cooking.
|Hostal dos Reis Católicos|
|Pazo de Raxoi|
|Colexio de San Xerome|
Now, let’s begin our counter-clockwise circuit around the cathedral, leaving the Praza do Obradoiro at the south end and turning left along Rúa de Fonseca.
Praza das Praterías (south façade)
|Praza das Praterías|
Pass over the cloister walls and silver shops and turn south to the Casa do Cabido, the cathedral’s chapter house that was built in 1759 for the sole purpose of beautifying the plaza. This building with pretty red doors and windows is only three meters deep—pure façade. Gotta love the Baroque era!
|Praza das Praterías|
On the square’s east edge you can visit the Museo das Peregrinacións e de Santiago, a fresh, new museum with a scale model of the entire cathedral plus a model of what the walled city of Santiago would have looked like in the Middle Ages.
Go up the stairs and follow the clock tower northeast, where a huge square opens up.
Praza da Quintana (east façade)
|Praza da Quintana|
Praza da Quintana is dominated by the huge western wall of the Convent of San Paio de Antealtares, broken up by windows that, although covered in wrought-iron grating, hold flower planters that add color to an otherwise ascetic façade. Founded a thousand years ago as a monastery to look after St. James’ tomb (hence the name Antealtares or “behind the altar”), Benedictine nuns moved in after their Benedictine brothers moved out in 1499.
Domingo de Andrade, the same architect responsible for designing the cathedral’s clock tower, was also the main man who shaped the other three sides of this grand city square. The three walls that zig-zag across the cathedral’s east façade were put together to give a uniform look and feel to this side of the church, since it had become a helter-skelter collection of side-chapels bubbling out from the transept and apse.
|Praza da Quintana|
On the southern end of the plaza there’s the Casa da Conga, originally intended to be a residence for cathedral canons (the name conga doesn’t refer to the conga dance), is a quartet of stately Baroque houses that cafés, bars, and restaurants call home today.
The Casa da Parra closes out the plaza to the north. Called the “Vine House” because of the sculptures that decorate the exterior, its lower and upper doors are framed by heavy bunches of stone grapes.
To continue the tour, walk up the stairs to the “Quintana de Vivos” and head to the left of the Casa da Parra down a narrow walkway to get to the next square.
Praza da Inmaculada (north façade)
|Praza da Inmaculada|
The north entrance is also called the Azibechería façade because shops nearby sell jewelry made from azibeche or jet, a black gemstone.
As the doors to the church in Praza do Obradoiro are usually closed, enter the cathedral here now.
The insideOnce you step inside the cathedral, you’ll most likely be shocked at how very different the interior is from the outside; that’s because most of the façades were reworked seven centuries after the church’s construction. When ground was first broken in 1075, the Romanesque style was all the rage in medieval Europe: drawing on the ruins and memories of the now-fallen Roman Empire, architects made palaces and churches that weren’t quite Roman, but Roman-esque. Semicircular arches are everywhere, and barrel-vaulted ceilings (supported by such arches) required the load-bearing walls to be thick and heavy. Because of this, Romanesque churches are often dark and gloomy as the windows could only be “punched-out” small slivers, lest the walls buckle and fall.
Santiago’s cathedral was also designed with pilgrims in mind, already numbering in the thousands back then and who made for a very crowded Mass. Following the layout of similar pilgrimage churches, architects extended the aisles on either side of the main nave where worshippers gather and wrapped them all the way around the apse, the east end behind the altar. In this way pilgrims could (and still do) freely walk around the entire church without interrupting religious services.
|The botafumeiro in action|
Now, turn right and head down the north aisle of the cathedral, passing the round, Parthenon-style Comunión Chapel and the smaller Santo Cristo de Burgos Chapel.
|(Source: Eduardo Rodríguez Recio)|
|Barrel vaulting in the main nave|
The interior may appear dark and shadowy, even depressingly so, but this would not have been the case right after the cathedral was finished. Eight centuries ago the church would have been filled with light streaming in from tall windows that lined both sides of the main nave. Unfortunately, the Gothic cloisters required the windows on the south side to be bricked up, and the two chapels on the north side naturally blocked out a few windows each. Thankfully we have electrical lighting today, and windows in the upper level continue to let in some sunlight.
|Stonemason mark on a pillar|
|Sculpted column capitals|
|Chapel of Nosa Señora do Pilar|
|Statue of St. James|
Exit the crypt on the other side and make your away around the apse, which is packed to the brim with side-chapels. Only five would have originally budded out from the apse, with two more on each arm of the transept for a total of nine side-chapels. Over the years some were torn down to make way for bigger chapels, some were expanded and re-decorated, and even the empty space between them was filled in. You can see the other side of the Holy Door here, a 2003 bronze sculpture that depicts the life and death of St. James, and which was last opened in 2010, the most recent Holy Year.
|Church of Santa María a Antiga da Corticela|
The tour ends outside in the Praza da Inmaculada; to get back to the main Obradoiro square just head down the tunnel to the left where there are probably street performers playing bagpipes or singing opera.
More things to explore
Most of the guided tours include access to the cathedral museum, which contains cool artifacts and religious art as well as a reproduction of the original stone choir stalls that would have stood in the central nave. As part of the museum you can check out the Gothic-era cloisters that guard the Fons Mirabilis, a huge Romanesque fountain that would have stood in the modern Praza da Inmaculada and served as a ritual bathing site for stinky pilgrims.
|The cubiertas or roof|
|View of the transept from the tribuna|
Have you ever been to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela? Which did you like better, the Baroque façades or the Romanesque interior? Tell me your experiences below in the comments!
For more pictures, check out my albums on Flickr here and here.