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Santiago de Compostela, living heritage

By Adela Nieto Cerrada from callejeandoporelplaneta.com

Santiago de Compostela is a city that enchants pilgrims and travellers alike since, on arriving after your journey, its streets and squares start to come alive, bustling with life. After travelling hundreds of kilometres, some joyful, some painful, we finally get to rest in Plaza del Obradoiro square, having fulfilled our duty by visiting the Apostle who was anxiously waiting to welcome us in the cathedral. This is when, exhausted and excited, we begin our discovery of what lies in the city of Santiago with its hostels, restaurants and shops hidden away on side streets. Now we can start to soak up and experience the city's mix of tourism, student life and pilgrim destination.

Santiago de Compostela is home to major cultural heritage and even more important hidden gems that make it a unique city:

Plaza del Obradoiro square 

A social and institutional symbol, it is not only the final stop on Saint James' Way but also where the different state powers are represented through the marvellous architectural combination. The imposing cathedral was begun in the 11th century in a Romanesque style but was later extended with Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance features including the Gloria Portico and the cloister. The Archbishop's Palace is a must-see, right next to the cathedral, with its different rooms, courtyards and vaults. The Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, the former pilgrim's hospice which, like the rest of the city, gradually transformed over time is today a National Parador Hotel. San Xerome College, a precursor to today's university, was originally built by Bishop Fonseca to house poor students. The Neoclassical-style Town Hall, the last building to be constructed in the square and enclose the space definitively, is home to the President's Office of the Galician Regional Government.

The University

Santiago de Compostela is inherently linked to pilgrims and students, both having transformed the city into an essential stop for any traveller. In turn, the history of the university is intimately linked to the city's history where, at the end of the 15th century, a small college was founded to provide language classes to children from poor backgrounds. The initiative was successful over the years and the facilities were extended until 1504 when Diego III de Muros won a papal bull to offer higher education courses. Since then, and for over 500 years, the USC has been a prestigious institution, renowned around the world. In addition to its undeniable academic excellence, it also populates the streets with students and 'Tuna' period music troupes.

The Old Town

The maze-like centre of Santiago overflows with life day and night: cobbled streets, historical buildings, aristocratic palaces, hidden monasteries, hostels for pilgrims, shops, restaurants, leisure spots, markets and bazaars all comprise the beating heart of a city that goes to bed in the early hours and rises with the first rays illuminating the Apostle. Aimlessly wandering the old town is akin to travelling back in time - close your eyes for a second and when you open them again, you soon realise that life continues as it has over the ages. Strolling the streets is a unique experience where we all end up finding our own special place and where a bustling routine has continued every day since mediaeval times.

The Vantage Points

Experiencing the real Santiago means wandering the streets although for one of the best views over the centre, you need to head beyond the walls of the old town towards one of the parks that surround the city. La Alameda Park is in the east end where the benches immortalise the best sunsets over the cathedral. Belvís Park is in the west, next to the Albergue del Seminario Menor hostel, and offers views over the old town in all its splendour. Mount Gaiás lies to the south and is home to the immense Galician City of Culture. One of the best vantage points in the centre is from the terrace at the Faculty of History and Geography, offering astounding panoramic views over the surrounding area of Santiago.

The Locals

The city's old town is a World Heritage Site although its true value lies in its local people who, over the years, have spread the city's renown across the globe. Originally farm labourers and dedicated to country life, the city's people have changed over time, opening shops, setting up businesses but always remaining modest folk, ready to help others without asking for anything in return. Throughout the ages, Santiago de Compostela has been the birthplace of illustrious figures such as the great poetess Rosalía de Castro, Archbishop Fonseca, a precursor in establishing the university, or the surgeon Gómez Ulla, Chair of the Professional Medical Association; nonetheless, it is the unknown locals who continue to be the true heart of the city and its best heritage.

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