Saints and sustenance in Santiago de Compostela

The north-west of Spain offers a different feel, as well as delicious food, writes Rick Steves.

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Whenever I’m in Santiago de Compostela, in the far north-west of Spain, I have a three-part agenda: watch the pilgrims arrive at their destination in front of the cathedral, explore the market and buy some barnacles in their seafood section; then, eat. They cooked me, on the spot, in a cafe.

I aim to be in the town square in front of the imposing Cathedral of Santiago around 11 in the morning. That’s when dozens of worn-out pilgrims begin to gather for the daily Pilgrim’s Mass, a triumphant celebration marking the completion of the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile walk from the French border.

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Since the Middle Ages, humble hikers have walked these kilometers to pay tribute to the remains of Santiago in the city that gives it its name. Their traditional equipment included a cape; a pointed, floppy hat; a walking stick; and a gourd (to drink from wells). The path is marked with yellow arrows or scallop shells (symbol of the saint) at each junction. Making the complete journey from the border to Santiago takes between four and six weeks. I have never met a pilgrim who didn’t think the hike was a life-changing experience and worth the effort.

At the end of the route, hikers complete their pilgrimage by stepping on the metal shell embedded in the pavement at the foot of the cathedral. I love seeing how different pilgrims handle the joy.

Being in front of the majestic façade of the cathedral is every hiker’s dream. Pilgrims routinely ask me to take a photo and email it to them. Then they say, “I have to go meet Santiago” and, as has been the routine for centuries, they head to the cathedral.

Santiago is a city built with local granite. Most people imagine Spain as a hot, arid land, but Spain’s northwest Atlantic enjoys much more rainfall than the interior (the northwest corner of Spain is home to a temperate rainforest, an hour north of Santiago). The rain from the Atlantic has dyed the granite of Santiago moss green.

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barnyard
Freshly cooked barnacles are a specialty of northwest Spain. Photo by Rick Steves

Two blocks from the cathedral, Santiago’s public market thrives, oblivious to the personal triumphs unfolding at Santiago’s tomb. There’s something basic about strolling through an early-morning farmers’ market anywhere in the world: salt-of-the-earth people pull food out of the ground, take it to town, and sell what they’ve harvested to people who don’t have gardens. .

Grandmas of dried apples line up like a babushka cancan. Each sits on a stool so small that it disappears under her work dress. At the women’s feet are brown woven baskets filled like cornucopias: eggs still dirty in one; in the next, the vegetables clearly uprooted this morning, the dirt clinging to their roots. A woman hopes to earn a few extra euros with homemade beers (golden bottles with beat-up corks), one labeled liqueur café (coffee liqueur) and the other with homemade pomace (homemade grappa).

I see rickety card tables filled with yellow cheeses shaped like giant Hershey’s kisses… or, for the locals, briskets. This local cheese is called tetilla in revenge for a prudish priest who, seven centuries ago, told a cathedral sculptor to remake a statue he considered too plump. Since then, the townspeople make their cheese exactly the way the priest didn’t want it to look carved in stone. You can’t go anywhere in Santiago without seeing her soft and creamy nipple.

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As I walk deeper into the market, I notice spicy red chorizo—sausages on chains framing the faces of the merchants. Chickens, plucked and looking as rubbery as can be, fill display cases. Fisherwomen in rubber aprons and matching gloves sort folded money.

There is a stir in the best positions. Short ladies with dusty, blue-checkered wheeled carts fight over the best deals. A selection of pig ears mixed with hooves that aren’t going anywhere fills a shoebox. The neat rows of ears, translucent in the low rays of the morning sun, look as if someone had systematically and carefully flattened a basket of conch shells.

I buy barnacles (barnacles) from a vendor at a third of the price I would pay in a bar. I grab a little less than half a pound and take my bag to the market cafe. There, Ramón and Julia boil them for a modest price. Feeling like a local, drinking my beer so early in the morning, I anxiously wait for my barnacles to cook.

Then comes the climax of my morning: Julia brings my barnacles, stacked steaming on a stainless steel plate, along with bread and another beer. I’m ready. Twist, tear, bite. It is the generosity of the sea condensed in each small bite… edible joy in Santiago.
This article is used with permission from Rick Steves’ Europe (www.ricksteves.com). Rick Steves writes European travel guides, hosts travel shows on public radio and television, and organizes European tours.

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