The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela looms over a large square, looking like a sooty wedding cake. Dark lichens cling to scrolled stone echoing the curves of the elaborate ironwork fence.

The Hostal de los Reyes Catholicos, quite possibly the world’s oldest hotel, stretches along the north side of the square, the Plaza de Obridoiro.

These two structures are part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and the destination of thousands of tourists. The cathedral, housing the sepulcher of Saint James, has been the destination for faithful pilgrims for more than a thousand years.

According to tradition, the Apostle James traveled to Spain to evangelize. Later martyred in Judea, his body was returned to Spain for burial.

A popular Spanish legend tells of the discovery of his tomb in the early 800s by a peasant named Pelayo. The story i more involved than this — including heavenly phenomena leading to one of the explanations of the city’s name as Sant Iago (Saint James) de (of) Campus Stellae (Field of Stars). The local bishop confirmed the discovery and the King of Asturias (a region in northern Spain), Alfonso II, had a simple church built there.

The story then spread through Spain, Portugal, France and beyond. The present cathedral was begun in 1075. In the Middle Ages, Santiago de Compostela became a major pilgrimage destination, along with Rome and Jerusalem, one of the three holiest sites in Christendom.

Today, pilgrims still come to the sepulcher of Saint James with the numbers peaking in Holy Years — any year in which the Festival of Saint James, July 25, falls on a Sunday.

This year is a Holy Year — a year of celebrations and the opening of the Holy Door, a special door to the cathedral. This door is sealed at the end of the Holy Year, not to be unsealed again until Jan. 1 of the next Holy Year.

Plenary indulgences are granted during Holy Years upon completion of several requirements including visiting the Cathedral and the tomb of the Apostle, making confession, attending mass and praying certain prayers.

Those with more stamina or desiring a meditative experience may choose to follow in the paths of centuries of pilgrims and arrive by the El Camino de Santiago of Way of Saint James, a network of routes which converge on the cathedral.

While traditional pilgrims and some modern “perigrinos” walked hundreds of miles, most of today’s travelers trek only the last 60 miles by foot or horseback or 124 miles by bicycles — the minimum requirement for the “compostela” or certification of pilgrimage.

Some carry belongings on their backs and stay in group hostels along the way. Others arrange to have their luggage transported from one stop to the next, walking unencumbered and staying in guest houses or hotels along the route.

A Pilgrims’ Mass is hosted at noon daily, where the names of pilgrims holding a compostela are read.

A stunning moment in the Mass comes when a large silver censer is raised high above the congregation. Swinging from one transept to the other, trailing smoke and sparks, this three-foot-tall Botafumiero (smoke-thrower) weighs about 137 pounds and reaches a speed of 42 mph.

In addition to being a significant spiritual experience, a visit to the city of Santiago de Compostela is a traveler’s treat. Narrow, stone-paved streets lead past interesting shops and tempting eateries.

Santiago is the capital of the autonomous region of Galicia, an area wedded to the sea and steeped in Celtic tradition. Fish and seafood make up a large component of the Galician diet, and you are as likely to hear bagpipes as guitars.

A tour of the Bishop’s Palace and the cathedral are “musts,” especially if you’re interested in architecture. The buildings span a wide range of ages and styles from Romanesque through Gothic to Baroque.

The Hostal de los Catolicos, a hostelry with a long and illustrious history is the ideal headquarters for exploring the area. In 1499, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella commissioned the building of a structure to serve as an inn and hospital for pilgrims coming to the cathedral.

Today, the Hostal is one of Spain’s 96 government-owned paradors — buildings having historic significance or being located in an area of particular beauty and which have been converted to luxury accommodations. These properties offer first-class amenities at a portion of the price of a conventional hotel. Any year is a great time to visit Santiago de Compostela, but a Holy Year is truly special for the spiritual traveler. Because of COVID-19, the 2021 Holy Year will extend through 2022, so you have more time to plan.

I recommend watching the movie “The Way,” with Martin Sheen — a story of a pilgrimage — and Googling “Rick Steves Northern Spain and Santiago de Compostela for a 25-minute video tour. Helpful, yes, but as I can attest, nothing beats being there.

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