The incredible ambiance of the Hotel Parador de Santiago de Compostela is almost palpable, while its breathtaking history makes it a unique part of the pilgrimage experience
My longing for known territories, experiences and the holy city is becoming stronger. I decide to visit Santiago de Compostela in the middle of winter, the wettest party of the year, a time when the streets are practically empty, when the Pilgrim’s Reception Office is visited by a handful of pilgrims who have decided to walk the route during this strange time; when the energy of this old and sacred town is overwhelmingly peaceful.
I arrive at my beloved destination around midnight. A bus takes me from the airport to the very edge of the historical centre of the town. I carry my things in a backpack, walking the wet cobbled streets and watching the lights reflected in the cobbles mix with the silvery light of an almost full moon – creating the impression that everything around me is bathed in molten silver.
A hotel with an incredible history
I arrive at the Hotel Parador de Santiago de Compostela, Dos reis Catolicos, the former hospice and Royal Hospital for exhausted pilgrims reaching the end of their long and arduous journey towards Santiago – and forgiveness. The length of the building is vertical to the cathedral, so that the two majestic buildings dedicated to Saint Jacob form the right angle of the Praza de Obradoiro.
Upon arriving at the hotel, I immediately ask for a room with a view of the square and the cathedral. I spend the better part of the night looking through my window at the glittering square, largely empty but for a young couple, here and there, and at the cathedral’s rich façade with its elevated entrance and spires interspersed with two statues of Saint Jacob: Saint Jacob the apostle and saint Jacob the pilgrim.
In front of me lies the pilgrimage research centre, while the back of the rectangular square is occupied by the town hall. A geometrical square with an incredibly rich history stretches before me. At the time when the cathedral was built and reconstructed – it has undergone several reconstructions throughout history – the square was full of artisan shops where one could find masons, stonemasons, artists, sculptors, carpenters, gold- and silversmiths, blacksmiths and other craftsmen necessary for the construction and maintenance of such a magnificent structure.
The room I’m staying in is full of antique furniture. The spacious bed is made of quality wood, as well as the round table and dresser. The floor is covered by a soft thick rug. The bathroom, though, is completely modern and equipped with all the amenities a traveller might need.
However, I am not writing this to describe one of the oldest, most beautiful hotels in Europe. The story has a completely different origin.
Reconquista – the process of liberation
During 1490, the queen Dona Isabella and her husband Don Fernando came to bow before Jacob’s grave. Reigning over the country where one of Jesus’s favourite apostles is buried is no small thing! Especially since it is precisely this fact that strengthened the people’s resolve during the long battle against Islamic conquerors, a 700-year long struggle that culminated with the native Catholics’ victory and their dominance over the entire territory of contemporary Spain.
The liberation process was called the Reconquista. According to legends, Saint Jacob himself would appear to help win key battles, dressed as a knight, wielding a deadly sword and conquering vicious enemies. The outcome of the Reconquista showed which side believed in the true God.
The Reconquista ended during Dona Isabella and Don Fernando’s reign, so on this occasion the royal couple had the opportunity to witness the enormous inflow of pilgrims who often couldn’t find accomodation or adequate medical care – which some of them desperately needed, having walked for years to reach the holy site. Several religious orders offered shelter, but it was painfully obvious that this wasn’t enough to satisfy the pilgrims’ needs. The king and queen decided that they would finance the construction of a hospital and a place for the pilgrims to stay.
While the building was being constructed, Isabella secured 100 camp beds for the exhausted travellers, so that they would at least have somewhere to lay down upon arriving at their destination. A hundred camp beds meant two hundred pilgrims could get some sleep. However, they could not pick their bed mates, and they were not allowed to complain – if they did, they immediately lost their half of the bed.
Soon, big changes took place in the sacred town: the hospital was built according to strict criteria, the court took over the financial burden. The liberation of the country and the discovery of new continents and their wealth of ore, jewels, spices and food, all of which were warmly welcomed and accepted by Europe, kept the court’s coffers full.
The new hospital – a sanctuary for exhausted pilgrims
The new hospital took in all those in need. At the time, 40% of its patients died – exhausted, sick, wounded. The hospital’s role was to take care of the sick, but also the exhausted and poor pilgrims, who would be offered accomodation and a place to get better. During peak periods of pilgrimage, the hospital would only open its doors for pilgrims, while the local inhabitants could come for consultations and advice.
In addition to the main gate, the hospital had a smaller gate where people left unwanted children and babies. The guards would bring the babies inside, feed them and organize a baptism. Once the babies were baptized, it appears that not much attention was paid to them and their lives. After all, the baptism was seen as the most important thing – because if the children died, their souls could go to heaven and thus be saved.
An institution unto itself, with its own legal structure
With time, human life became more valuable, as evidenced by the organization of space and care for the infants, helping them grow and live. The royal institution had a multiple role: offering hospitality to weary pilgrims, treating sick pilgrims who managed to reach their destination (or organizing their funerals if they passed away) and taking care of abandoned children. The institution’s spiritual and religious role endured for centuries in the magnificent chapel space.
The hospital’s legal structure was different from the town’s. Its employees and guests answered to royal regulations, not town rules. This meant, for example, that a criminal who managed to escape the town authorities and reach the hospital would evade the death punishment (the town had the death punishment, while the hospital did not). The thick chains surrounding the hospital’s domain can be seen as physical manifestation of this different regime.
The chains also served as the boundary behind which different laws applied. The hospital had its own prison for those who transgressed within the royal domain. The hospital was active for almost 500 years (until the very day it was turned into the luxury Hotel Parador). With time it became widely known as the best hospital in the land and beyond. Even non-pilgrims came there for treatment. A large inflow of patients and their diversity enabled the doctors, pharmacists and other employees to gain experience that was not obtainable elsewhere.
From hospital to luxury hotel
The hospital has strict royally imposed rules regarding nursing care. The meals were abundant, but carefully calculated. The principle of using food as support in the treatment of patients was brought to perfection. In good times, every patient received a big portion of meat, bread made from real wheat flour, a quarter litre of wine and a small glass of brandy, also known as the ”water of life” – every day! The staff kept chickens, which roamed freely around the rooms.
The basement was occupied by the morgue. Today this space is reserved for formal banquets under the old stone arches. The administration and record-keeping were thorough and serious, so that today we have clear evidence of the way the entire structure functioned. The administrator was also responsible for the functioning of the entire system.
Then, in the middle of the last century, the building went from pilgrim hospital to luxury hotel. Another floor was added, the space was reconstructed to suit its new purpose…all within a year. The Pope, who had announced his arrival for the jubilee year (when a far greater number of people embark on the journey), was supposed to be the first guest. The hospital furniture was removed to the new hospital, while the magnificent building was refurbished with luxury historical furniture, rugs, thick curtains and artworks.
Before breakfast the following morning, I walked around the space which had been turned into a museum that attracts the viewer like a magnet, transporting them into an incredible world from times long gone, which somehow still remain alive and present within the space of the building. The deep and rich history of the place merges with the present day and fights for the viewer’s affection. I was completely won over by the past.
A mixture of admiration, recognition and belonging
I walked the light hallways in a haze, my attention caught by the four inner courtyards, each named after an evangelist, similar yet each with its own particular charm. There is a fountain in the middle, surrounded by tidy shrubbery and pathways. I come across a small door, unobtrusive and almost completely hidden. I go through the door and start crying, unexpectedly and from the bottom of my heart.
A mixture of recognition, admiration, wonder, belonging…but also a connection with the pain of all those who had used this space. This was where the dying dwelled. They could listen peacefully to the mass that was held in the magnificent chapel, a floor below them, without endangering other patients. The room was connected to the chapel using an open wall, constructed as a balcony, which offered a view of the altar and enabled the patients to hear the preacher’s words.
Once mass was over, the priest would climb the narrow spiral stone steps to visit the gravely ill and bless them, so that they may ”step over” into eternal life with more ease and feeling as if they had completed the most important task in their lives: the pilgrimage to the beloved apostle’s grave. I spent a week in this wondrous place, and my fascination with its beauty and the presence of its past never waned. I found new hidden corners, rediscovered the amazing atmosphere, unusual pieces of furniture or finely carved stone pillars in the chapel.
If you ever find yourself in Santiago de Compostela, whether as a weary pilgrim or a curious tourist, make sure to spend at least one night in this mystical place and dive into its secrets…or at least come and have breakfast here, then walk the hallways of this hotel museum and soak in the uniqueness of its history.
Learn more about the unique Hotel Parador de Santiago de Compostela: click here!