Once in Santiago, many pilgrims feel intense and conflicting emotions pass through them, from relief, sadness, joy, disappointment, and elation to spurts of excitement and then fatigue, or vice versa.
Most first go straight to the official pilgrim office with their stamped pilgrim’s passports showing all the places they stopped to gather their certificate, their Compostela, that states they fulfilled their pilgrimage, are forgiven their sins, and can enter heaven when they die. (To earn this certificate, a pilgrim must have walked a minimum of 100 kilometers, so, those coming from the Pyrenees or beyond must be motivated by other things!)
Some pilgrims bypass getting the Compostela and go straightto the cathedral. Some then get their Compostela, others never do, for to them, the pilgrimage is complete without needing official recognition.
In all this excitement, be sure to take time simply to wander in the old stone pedestrian streets and arches of the medieval town that radiate around the cathedral. They are a sheer delight and like no other medieval place. They are works of air, color, light, and stone, shimmering different spectrums and moods every moment of the day, never becoming ordinary or predictable. Sounds echo off of them melodiously, something the pilgrim gets to hear through a child’s laugh, a bar’s clinking of glasses from an outdoor table, or a musician’s plucked notes bouncing off and ricocheting pleasingly down the arcades and cobbled streets.
The cathedral’s west gate is off of the Praza de Obradoiro, an immense square with tour buses and souvenir stands. Stepping inside and away from all this is a sudden and great contrast.
Quiet and timelessness loom with the towering and protected Romanesque stone universe built by one Master Mateo and called el Portico de la Gloria, the Gate of Glory. He began it in 1168 and finished in 1188, after the rest of the Romanesque cathedral was completed. We know the master sculptor because he left his signature—Master Mateo—in the lintel stone on the central arch of the Portico.
This same signature is found on Romanesque structures throughout Galicia and implies that Master Mateo was most likely Iberian and working largely in the northwest. This is his Santiago from the 12th century. It reveals its human, celestial, and vibrant personalities as if they are still dancing on the arches, pillars, and tympanum as they did the first day they were carved.
To delve more deeply into the cathedral, follow here.
After all those days, weeks, and perhaps months, of walking, you are now here, in Santiago de Compostela, a magical, gracious city worth taking time to get to know. Explore beyond the cathedral and the cobblestone streets around it, soaking up its cafés, parks, other churches, and shops.
Enjoy running into other pilgrims and talking to welcoming locals. Notice also the many stores maximizing the folkloric ideas of Galicia selling sculptures of witches, jewelry with swirling Celtic designs, and orujo, that herb-infused fire water fortified with local medicinal herbs.
There is an attraction and mystery that may entice you to stay longer or to return. And perhaps you will be among the smaller handful of pilgrims who decide that Santiago de Compostela isn’t quite the end, that they have to walk to the ocean. If this is you, continue exploring on the Camino de Finisterre, leaving Santiago and ending in Finisterre via Muxía.