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Santiago de Compostela History

Santiago de Compostela is the subject of probably the first guidebook in history, the early-12th-century Codex Calixtinus, part of which details the famous pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James). The city's importance in the history of Christianity is such that it is the third holiest site in Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome.

The city started life as a Roman cemetery in the 4th century, though as the Empire crumbled it is thought to have hosted a settlement of Suebi, a Germanic tribe.

In the early 9th century, the remains of the Apostle Saint James were found here, and the King of Asturias, Alfonso II, erected a basilica. The Galician tomb then became a pilgrimage site, as well as a focal point for Spanish Christian resistance against Islamic rule, which then dominated the peninsula.

In 997, the Arab leader of Andalusia, Almanzor, attacked and looted the town, but left the tomb untouched. In the 11th century, the city gained fortifications including defensive towers.

The first incarnation of the cathedral emerged in this era, and was consecrated in 1211. It’s one of the most extraordinary churches in Christendom, with its baroque façade, Romanesque interior and gothic elements. The historic centre itself benefited from beautiful architecture during this period.

Things settled down after the completion of the Reconquista in the 15th century. Notable buildings were erected in the 17th and 18th centuries, but in the 19th century the city saw fierce fighting as Galicia rose up against Napoleon’s armies. Some say that it was during this time that the remains of St James were hidden; others point to English invasions in the 16th and early 18th centuries.

In 1879, during restoration of the church, a workman found the hidden or lost remains by chance. Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1982 greatly boosted the profile of the pilgrimage, which is today as popular as ever.

Did you know?
• The veracity of the rediscovered remains from 1879 was confirmed by Pope Leo XIII, when the fragment found in Santiago de Compostela fitted exactly into a hole in a skull in a Tuscany church.
• When Galicia became an autonomous community shortly after the death of Franco in 1975, Santiago de Compostela was named capital.
• It is believed that after the destruction of Santiago de Compostela, Almanzor ordered the townspeople to carry the bells of the tower to the mosque in Cordoba.

Featured Hotels

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Hostal Alfonso

Close to Santiago de Compostela's city centre, this small hostal makes a big impression. Run by a husband and wife team, Alfonso has a quaint family atmosphere, with cosy rooms and friendly service. The proprietors have even written their own fantastic guide to sights and anecdotes of the Old Town that the guidebooks have missed (sadly in Spanish only). There are only six rooms here (all en suite and with TV) so book well in advance. Ask for the top floor room with the cathedral view, it's remarkable, especially at night. Breakfast is included.

Hotel Virxe da Cerca

Set in two buildings next to Plaza de Abastos Market and close to the Cathedral, this characterful hotel has an intimate, classy feel. Rooms in the modern building overlook a private courtyard garden, and upgraded rooms set in an 18th century building feature exposed stone walls and traditional furnishings. The restaurant serves traditional Galician cuisine.

Hotel Costa Vella

Located in a quiet street above the Convento de San Francisco, close to one of the seven doors leading into the old medieval city, this small, charming hotel in Santiago boasts comfy, cosy bedrooms and a peaceful garden. A real Galician home from home, you will feel warmly welcomed here. Costa Vella represents excellent value for money and is thoroughly recommended.

Hotel Parador dos Reis Católicos

This magnificent Santiago hotel, one of the best in the country, is located in the heart of the city, right on the Praza do Obradoiro, between Santiago's splendid cathedral and the Galician president's headquarters. Beautiful rooms (each individually decorated with period furniture and fine fabrics), great facilities and exquisite service will make you feel you're being treated like royalty.

Carris Casa da Troya

Although it's set in a beautifully restored historic building in the old town, the rooms at this hotel have a modern simplicity, and the high ceilings and thick walls provide a spacious and private feel. Superior rooms overlook the Cathedral. The staff is excellent and on hand to offer local advice and guidance on where to eat and visit. The hotel also has its own café attached.

Hostal Suso

This popular old-town spot sees budget travellers delighted with its hospitable management and cheap, great-value en-suite rooms with plenty of space. Downstairs is a lively café where pilgrims rest their Camino-weary legs.