48 hours in Santiago de Compostela

It has a rich cultural history, stunning architecture, torrid coastlines - and rain


Why go now? Tucked into the north-west corner of Spain, Santiago de Compostela is a popular destination at any time of the year as, unlike other parts of Spain, the one thing you do not come for is the sun - it is nearly always raining. The city is currently celebrating the end of its reign as one of this year's European Cities of Culture. There are activities and celebrations from 23 December to 4 January. For further details, consult the website www.compostela2000.org, or ring the City Hall on 0034 981 555129. Next year looks as though it will be fun, too, as the Galicians continue to assert their identity and culture. Already, the street names have been changed from Spanish.

Why go now? Tucked into the north-west corner of Spain, Santiago de Compostela is a popular destination at any time of the year as, unlike other parts of Spain, the one thing you do not come for is the sun - it is nearly always raining. The city is currently celebrating the end of its reign as one of this year's European Cities of Culture. There are activities and celebrations from 23 December to 4 January. For further details, consult the website www.compostela2000.org, or ring the City Hall on 0034 981 555129. Next year looks as though it will be fun, too, as the Galicians continue to assert their identity and culture. Already, the street names have been changed from Spanish.

The icing on the cake In the evening you will be unable to avoid students dressed up in medieval costumes (tunas) in Prazo do Obradorio, and in the cloisters of the Pazo de Raxoi opposite the cathedral, playing traditional celtic instruments, including the gaitas, a cousin of the bagpipes. All very cheery. Buy the tape if you have hired a car to accompany your drive along the rugged coastline of the costa del morte.

A walk in the park For a view of the city, go to the Carballeira de Santa Susana at the end of Rua do Franco, and walk along Paseo da Ferradura which runs through the park. Or take a walk around the public Parque de Bonabal, which was once the grounds of Convent Santo Domingo de Bonaval, the Galician People's Museum (see Cultural Afternoon).

Bracing brunch Head to Noia on the coast, and then along the route north, to the lighthouse at Finisterra. Marvel at the beauty of the white-sand, secluded beaches. After a dip, you'll realise why they'll probably remain deserted for years to come - the Atlantic Ocean is cold, and the coastline to the north is called the costa del morte due to its bleak nature. Try Hs Ceboleio in Noia for lunch, on Avda Galicia 14 (0034 981 82 05 31).

Beam down Iberia (0845 601 2854 www.iberia.com/ingles) has a daily flight at 11.35am from London Heathrow, costing from £150, return as well as flights from other cities in Spain, including Madrid and Barcelona. The airport is 11km south-east of Santiago, with buses to the city centre. To get the train, contact RENFE (00 34 981 52 02 02). There are daily trains from Madrid (The Talgo and the Express Rias Altas), Ourense, A Coruna, Vigo and Bilbao. Santiago de Compostela is on the A9, the main road from A Coruna (which used to be La Coruna) in the north, and to Vigo in the south. For information on buses call 0034 981 58 77 00. Otherwise, walk there - see Take a Serious Hike.

Get your bearings

Santiago's old city is pedestrianised, so a pleasure to wander around. The cathedral, Catedral de Santiago, and Prazo do Obradoio, the main square, are to the north-east corner, with the rest of the old city spreading out from there. The best places to eat and stay in the old town are on Rua Nova, Rua do Vilar and Rua do Franco. The tourist office is on Rua do Vilar 43 (00 34 981 58 40 81). If you arrive at the main bus terminal, the number 10 bus takes you to Praza de Galicia, just to the south of the old city.

Check in The Hotel de los Reyes Catolicos (00 34 981 58 22 00) is the best hotel in town. All double rooms are the same price (£106 for a double, and about £85 for a single) so if you find the first one a bit disappointing, try charming the front desk into giving you another. Room 124 has a four-poster bed and is in a converted chapel off one of the four cloistered squares which make up the former hospital (it was one until 1953). For cheaper options, wander up Rua Nova, Rua do Vilar and Rua do Franco. Hospedage Santa Cruz on Rua do Vilar 42 (00 34 981 582 815) has double rooms for £13. The Hostal Barbantes at Rua do Franco 1, has balconies overlooking the square below (00 34 981 581 077) and charges £20 for a double.

Take a hike To get a feel of the city, walk around the squares close to the cathedral: Praza da Quintana, originally a Roman cemetery, Praza das Platerias, the silversmiths square, and Praza da Azabacheria, where pilgrims used to buy souvenirs made from jet. Remember to take your umbrella, but don't let the threat of rain put you off. The rain actually enhances the beauty of the granite buildings, making them glisten, and because it is so abundant many of the buildings are covered in moss which softens their appearance. To check out the action (and weather) on the squares in advance, you can take a virtual hike to their webcams on www.crtvg.es/ingles/CamWeb/menucam.htm.

Window shopping The main shops are found in the new part of town, to the south of the old town, along Rua do Horreo. Head for Zara and Mango, where you'll find the clothes cheaper than in the UK due to the strength of sterling. If you're after food, go to the market situated off Rua de Santo Agostino for a great selection of local produce. The main market day is Thursday.

Lunch on the run Enjoy the local favourites - pulpo a la gallega is chopped up slices of octopus tentacles covered in paprika and eaten with toothpicks. The other speciality is pimientos de Padron - small, grilled green peppers which you eat whole. Or try the empanadas, pastry parcels with a variety of fillings. Bar-Restaurante Entreruas, on Ruela de Entreruas, which runs between Rua Nova and Rua do Vilar has a selection of these dishes and more. Santiago is a student town, so the bars and cafés around the university's faculty of geography and history are also lively and worth a try.

Take a serious hike Santiago de Compostela is the third holiest city in the Christian league, after Rome and Jerusalem. Pilgrims have been coming here since the arrival of St James, many on foot along the Camino de Santiago. They start from points all around Europe, armed with large walking sticks. Traditionally, pilgrims used to buy a scallop as soon as they arrived, and stick the shell in the brim of their hat to prove they had succeeded. The selling of scallops was banned, however, along the main routes and now pilgrims can buy silver versions in gift shops all around the city. To find maps of the routes, go to www.xacobeo.es. To get your certificate confirming that you have completed the pilgrim's trail, go to the Offina de Acogida del Peregrino, at Casa del Dean, Rua do Vilar 1 (0034 981 56 24 19).

Cultural afternoon The Galician Centre of Contemporary Art (0034 981 546629, www.cgac.org), has a good selection of local art, and is currently running an exhibition of photographs and videos by British artist Sarah Dobai (until January 7). The building itself was designed by the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza and its straight lines add a stark contrast to the baroque style of many of Santiago's other monuments. You can get a great view of the city from the terrace. Next door to it is the Convent Santo Domingo de Bonaval which is now the Galician People's Museum, with exhibitions on local crafts and traditions.

An aperitif For a drink in smart surroundings, and a chance to nose around one of Santiago's finest monuments, head to Hotel de los Reyes Catolicos for a cocktail. For a more lively start to the evening, visit El Franco, at 28 Rua Franco, and move on to the bars near by. Make sure you try the local white wine, Albarino, which is delicious, or the popular house red - El Coto.

Demure dinner For the best in local Gallego food, head to Casa Vilas in the west of the city, at Rosalia de Castro 88 (0034 981 59 10 00). Their specialities include octopus with potatoes, lamprey in red wine, and the local delicacy, the tarta de Santiago, a moist almond cake. Or, on the same street, try Toni Vicente at number 24. Wander down Rua do Franco for fish restaurants, and pick your dinner, which may still be alive, from the window at, for instance, Bodegon de Xulio at number 24.

Sunday morning, go to church Santiago de Compostela centres around the cathedral where Spain's patron saint St James was buried in 817. The 18th century baroque entrance masks a 12th century Romanesque doorway, Portico de la Gloria, built by Maestro Mateo. Once in the church, touch the statue of Maestro Mateo to gain wisdom. Pay your respects to St James and kiss his bejewelled cape, and get your certificate. For special masses throughout the year, a huge incense burner, the botafumeiro, is used which takes a team of eight to control as it is swung the length of the transept. St James's day is July 25, when the whole city celebrates.

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