Santiago: At the Camino's end
Walker or weekender, Nicola Brady discovers that the Galician capital and pilgrim city Santiago has something to offer everyone
For the pilgrims walking the Camino, the city of Santiago is the final destination after a long journey. In the centre of the city, the cathedral, with its gothic spires and baroque facade, marks the finish line. In front of the main entrance, the open square is often scattered with those who complete the trek, their worn backpacks and walking sticks marking them out among tourists and residents.
Even if you haven't walked hundreds of miles to reach it, the cathedral is an impressive sight to behold. The interior is as wondrous and opulent as you would expect, but no visit is complete without a tour of the rooftop. As you balance on the sloping tiles, the whole of the city is laid out before you, providing a unique view of the buildings below.
A short drive from Santiago is the Costa de Morte, or Coast of Death. Despite the ominous name, the stretch of coastline makes for a spectacular drive, with plenty of pretty beach towns to explore along the way.
The final point of the journey is Cape Finisterre, also known as The End of the World. For pilgrims continuing on the French Way after Santiago, this is their endpoint, and you'll often see the remains of burnt clothing and boots as they mark their journey's end.
There are many roads that lead to Santiago, all part of El Camino, guiding pilgrims to the remains of the apostle of St James in the cathedral. What was once a pilgrimage purely for Catholics is now travelled by a variety of people. Some come for religious reasons, some for a period of reflection and others simply to enjoy the scenery.
The most popular route is the French Way, a stretch of almost 800km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which takes most pilgrims around five weeks to complete.
But you don't have to be undertaking a hardcore pilgrimage to walk the Camino. The clearly marked pathways frequently pass through villages and towns, where you can join the walk for a leisurely stroll. Follow the yellow trail markers and you can't get lost.
A good starting point is Melide, at the Church of Santa Maria. An hour of easy walking will take you through rapidly changing scenery along the path of the river, from dense woodland to farming villages, finishing in Boente. It's easy to organise a taxi to get back to your starting point, as local drivers are used to transporting pilgrims and baggage along the way.
If walking isn't for you, you can join the increasing numbers cycling the route, or even travelling on horseback.
To get the most out of Santiago, choose a hotel in the rambling old town. Here you'll be close to the best restaurants, with picturesque buildings on your doorstep. Hotel Altair (0034 981 554 712; altairhotel.net) is a short walk from the Praza de Cervantes, but on a quiet street. Inside, the rooms are earthy and stylish, with exposed brick walls and huge windows, some of which lead to a private courtyard.
Come evening, you can grab an aperitif from the small bar and relax on the plump sofas in the lobby before hitting the town. Double rooms start at €95.
For pilgrims wanting to finish the Camino in style, the Parador Santiago (0034 902 547 979; parador.es) fits the bill. Located in the shadows of the cathedral, the hotel was originally a hospital for pilgrims, built in the late 15th century.
Inside, the hotel opens up into four courtyards, where you can stroll through gothic archways and immaculate gardens. Rooms start at €151.
TAKE THE KIDS
Children will love running through the tiny streets of the old town, spotting gargoyles lurking on the old buildings, but the architecture of Santiago might not keep them entertained for long. Instead, head to some of the towns along the coast. You can paddle in the crystal clear waters, or watch the kite-surfers when the weather gets windy.
The town of Muros has waterfront cafés to entertain the parents while the kids go wild in the waterfront playground. There are also plenty of sweetshops hidden along the boardwalk.
Nearby are the impressive waterfalls at O Pindo. A wooden platform leads directly to the base of the thundering falls, which will thrill the kids. If you can brave the white knuckle drive further up the mountain, head to the Viewpoint of O Ezaro for views that will wow the whole family.
As is the case in most Spanish towns, the market in Santiago is the vibrant heart of the community. The stalls outside are set up in the early hours, displaying an array of fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers. Older women call out to each other from their tables, banter with customers and chatter rapidly.
Inside the arches, the selection of meats, fish and cheeses is dazzling. Luckily, all the stallholders will shrink-wrap cured meats or cheeses for tourists, so you can be confident transporting them home.
There are plenty of tiny shops lining the streets around the cathedral, many specialising in the local black gem known as azabache. Antique shops cluster on the edge of the old town, leading down to Rua da Republica, where you'll find Spanish chains such as Mango and Zara, which was founded in Galicia.
There is no shortage of excellent places to eat in the region. Sit down for a beer in the early evening and, most likely, small plates of empanadas and croquettes will be laid out before you. When dinnertime rolls around, restaurants will be filled with locals enjoying the best the region has to offer.
Seafood is bountiful, with the local specialty being octopus, or pulpo. Padron peppers are perfect with a chilled beer – cooked in olive oil with plenty of salt, most are mild, but occasionally you'll be hit with a burst of heat.
In Santiago, head to Abastos 2.0 for experimental Galician tapas. The menu changes each day according to what's on offer in the market, which is just steps away from the restaurant itself. Dishes such as trout carpaccio and chard tempura are served with local wines, and finished with sublime chocolate desserts.
Nearby in the pretty town of Cambados, Michelin-starred restaurant Yayo Daporta is well worth a lunch visit. Be prepared to spend a good few hours enjoying the many courses on their set menu – scallops with Galician sauce, sardines on cornbread and roast kid. Mini creme brulees and chocolate truffle lollypops finish off the feast, and you can work it all off with a stroll.
Throughout Galicia, you'll find an abundance of the local white wine, Albarino. The good news is that many of the vineyards in the region open their doors to tourists. At Pazo de Galegos (pazodegalegos.com), eccentric owner Manuel Garcia will take you through the vines before plying you with his finest wines in the bar. If you overindulge, then spend the night in one of the newly refurbished bedrooms overlooking the vineyard.
It's a larger scale operation at Martin Codax (martincodax.com), the largest wine producer in Galicia. After taking a tour of the cellar and testing your nose in the laboratory, you can opt for a formal tasting or just relax on the chic terrace with a chilled glass or two.
In the city, there are plenty of wine bars to choose from. Texturas Galegas (texturas galegas.com) has a great selection of wines, all at around €2.20 a glass. Later in the evening, there's a great buzz as locals meet up for a few drinks and delicious tapas.
For a similar vibe in the newer part of town, A Tafona Casa de Xantar (restaurante atafona.com) is a great spot to spend the evening.
Aer Lingus (0818 365044; aerlingus.com) flies three times a week from Dublin to Santiago. Fares start from €59.99 one-way, including taxes and charges. For more information on Santiago, Galicia and the Camino, visit xacobeo.es.