The ancient pilgrimage centre of SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA ranks among Spain's most stunningly beautiful cities. A superb ensemble of twisting stone lanes, majestic squares and ancient churches, interspersed with hidden nooks and crannies, its medieval core remains a remarkably integrated whole, all the better for being almost entirely pedestrianized. Hewn from time-weathered granite, splashed with gold and silver lichen and sprouting vegetation from the unlikeliest crevices, the buildings and plazas, arcades and flagstones blend imperceptibly each into the next. Warrens of honey-coloured streets wind past beautiful monasteries and convents, culminating in the approach to the immense Praza do Obradoiro, flanked by the magnificent Catedral.
The pilgrimage to Santiago, which peaked during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, captured the imagination of Christian Europe. People of all classes came to visit the supposed shrine of St James the Apostle (Santiago to the Spanish, Saint Jacques to the French), making this the third holiest site in Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome.
These days, tourists are as likely to be attracted by its art and history as by religion, but pilgrims still arrive in large numbers, sporting their vieira (scallop shell) symbol. Each year the Festival of St James is celebrated on July 25; in "Holy Years", when it falls on a Sunday, the activity becomes even more intense.
For all its fame, however, Santiago remains small. Its total population is 116,000, of whom 33,000 are students at its venerable university. Everything of interest lies within the densely packed historic core – the zona monumental – which takes fifteen minutes to cross on foot but several days to explore thoroughly. Most commercial activity is a short way south, in the less appealing modern quarter, which is also where the students tend to live. Wander away in most other directions, and you quickly reach wide-open countryside.
Uniquely, Santiago is at its best in the rain; situated in the wettest fold of the Galego hills, it suffers brief but frequent showers. Water glistens on the facades, gushes from the innumerable gargoyles and flows down the streets.