In the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, was the third most important religious pilgrimage site after Jerusalem and Rome (according to legend, the apostle James is buried there). Today, it recalls its glory with the Fiesta de Santiago (held every year on 25 July) and the Holy Year Jubilees, celebrated every year that the fiesta falls on a Sunday. Santiago de Compostela lies 300 mi/485 km northwest of Madrid.
Bordering the city's main square is an 11th-century Romanesque- and baroque-style cathedral (which contains the tomb of the apostle). Also on the square is the town hall and the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, a great parador dating from the time of Ferdinand and Isabella. The granite streets of the center and the city's monuments together are a UNESCO World Heritage site. Be sure to see the view of the city from Herradura Park.
Those interested in following part of the old pilgrimage route, the Camino de Santiago (St. James' Way), can do so by car, bicycle or on horseback. The 443-mi/709-km trail to Santiago de Compostela begins on the French border at Roncesvalles, in the northeast of the country, or Somport pass in the Pyrenees, and spans northern Spain. It's been tramped (along with many subsidiary trails) by thousands of pilgrims—from the early ninth century to today.
Along the route, there are stone villages, medieval bridges, some cobbled stretches and wonderful towns, including Burgos, one of the great old cities of the north. A medieval Gothic cathedral has been drawing pilgrims and visitors to the city since 1221. We've seen few examples of Gothic architecture in Spain as good as this. The city also has a well-preserved Gothic quarter near the cathedral.
After walking through the neighborhood's streets, stroll the beautiful riverside promenade—the way is lined with outdoor cafes and shaded by sycamore trees. Be sure to see the larger-than-life equestrian statue of El Cid, the Spanish national hero who was born near Burgos. Allow a half-day in the city.
Also a former capital, Leon should be visited, if only for the incredible stained-glass windows of the Gothic cathedral. Also see the Romanesque wall paintings in the Pantheon. Smaller places of note include Puente la Reina (old walls, medieval bridge), Fromista (Romanesque church), Astorga (walled town, cathedral) and Villafranca del Bierzo (highland town with Romanesque church).
Santiago makes a great base for exploring Galicia, the surrounding region. Galicia could be mistaken for Scotland or Ireland. Bagpipes, misty fields, rocky cliffs, stone villages, a different language (Gallego, akin to Portuguese) and a strong Gaelic/Celtic influence are the more obvious similarities. Those and the rain, said to fall 300 days of the year.
Specific destinations include Pontevedra (unspoiled town of ancient cobblestoned streets and stone houses), Vigo (historic port town) and La Coruna, 45 mi/75 km to the north—a modern coastal town that has the Hercules Tower, the only operating Roman lighthouse left in the world (it dates from the Celtic period).
Visitors should know that Galicia is known for the quality and variety of its excellent seafood dishes, especially pulpo (octopus). The entire Galicia area is charming, feels authentic and is seldom visited by North Americans.