The 5 squares of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is often referred to as a large village built around a beautiful Cathedral. When walking around the Old Walled Town and arriving into any of the 5 squares of the Cathedral you will see this is true. Each one of these 5 squares shows the Cathedral in a different way, always grandiose, and allows an entrance or exit to this sacred site. They all have a different spiritual meaning and reason for being.
The Cathedral of Santiago from the Air

In this article, we would like to describe what we think El Obradoiro, La Quintana de los Vivos y de los Muertos, Platerias y la Azabachería means.

The Cathedral of Santiago

Santiago de Compostela is the Capital of Galicia and the final point of the Camino de Santiago. It is a city built around the discovery of the remains of the Apostle Saint James and an important religious centre. It is also a thriving University Campus with one in three citizen being a student.

The Cathedral and the University are the main attractions to Santiago but no visitor should miss its wonderful and unique squares. The Cathedral itself has five main squares surrounding it and each one has a different purpose, architecture and feel.

The Obradoiro Square

We will start from the most imposing of them all, the Obradoiro where the Cathedral finally presents itself whole which is and has been for twelve hundred years the realisation of the dream of every pilgrim that has walked the Camino de Santiago.

Whether you have just walked, cycled or rode the Camino de Santiago on a horse or even arrived by plane and taxi, you will still get the same feeling as those pilgrims a thousand years ago. The pleasant shiver running up and down your spine as you look up to the Majestic Cathedral surrounded by hundreds of pilgrim will no doubt tell you that this is no ordinary square and certainly one the most striking you will ever visit.

The Obradoiro Square and the Parador in Santiago
The Obradoiro Square and the Parador in Santiago

From the worn down flagstones smoothed by the millions of pilgrims over the centuries to the impressive facade of the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos (the Parador), to the neoclassic town hall to the perfectly planned wind that purifies the air and the unique atmosphere you have a lot to take in. And whether you are aware of it or not at the precise moment you arrive in the Plaza del Obradoiro, you are also forming part of an ancient and sacred religious rite; a rite that has remained practically unaltered for more than eleven centuries thanks to people like yourself.

The Obradoiro Square is said to be named after the workshops (“obradoiros” in Galician) that were set up here during the building of the cathedral. Though to some it comes from “obra de biro” (work of gold) from the Gold jewellery stands that used to sell Golden tokens from Santiago to pilgrims.

The artistic and historic value of the buildings that enclose it on its four sides surely makes it one of the most beautiful squares in all of Spain. But it would only be just another of many beautiful squares were it not for the religious and symbolic significance of its cathedral, wherein lie the remains of Saint James.

Along with Rome and Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela is one of the most charismatic and emblematic centres in the eyes of Christians worldwide, but unlike these other two great capitals, it is a relatively small city with less than 100,000 inhabitants. At the same time though, it is still one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.

To confirm this fact, look around you. Simply observe the hustle and bustle of this square, the mixture of nationalities and religions. In 2014 alone, pilgrims from 130 nationalities completed the Camino de Santiago. Observe their clothes, see the dirty and bedraggled pilgrims mix with the wealthy guest of the luxurious Parador. Notice the dusty bicycles next to the luxurious cars of a visiting government official and the air-conditioned vans parked in front of the Parador. Where else can you see such a unique mix of different people just happy to be here.

As you make it to the Obradoiro, don’t rush to visit the most important monuments of Santiago, simply relax a while and just enjoy this engaging atmosphere

Immerse yourself in this microcosm that vibrates, that is alive around you. Observe the pilgrims that have come from every corner of the planet full of raw emotions, the many young people setting on the ground, the souvenir sellers, the street musicians, the mime artists and each and every one of the ever-present array of fascinating personages.

Pilgrims arriving to the Obradoiro after walking the Camino de Santiago
Pilgrims arriving to the Obradoiro after walking the Camino de Santiago

Many years ago, the large squares were the heart and soul of the community where everybody came to pass time. They were somewhere in between a meeting point and a large market, somewhere to stop for a while rather than just to pass through.

The Obradoiro Square has always been like that. And still is to this day!

The Platerías square

The second square of the Cathedral is called the Platerías, because it is where the silversmiths shops thrived. As long as Compostela can remember the silversmiths’ skilful hands with barely any changes in their craft have created and sold authentic works of art as good fortune for the way home.

The sounds of the small hammers beating and shaping this precious metal are exactly the same as those you would have heard a thousand years ago. The smells and the reflections that dance off the beautiful objects being created when daylight filters through the windows have not changed either.

The building on the right with its balustrade adorned with Jacobean motifs is the “Casa del Cabildo” built in the 18th century.

Platerías Square fountain in Santiago de Compostela
Platerías Square fountain in Santiago de Compostela

The fountain erected in 1759 is the most beautiful and famous in Santiago. It consist of four horses, that seem to be more aquatic than land creatures, supporting an angel who while sitting upon the tomb of the Apostle triumphantly holds the star of Saint James. On sunny days the waters of the fountain shine brilliantly in the sun-rays like silver and mingle with the rain on rainy days.

The Platerías Square gives onto the Cathedrals oldest facade and the only one that retains the original 12th century Romanesque style. The famous “Codice Calixtino” (the first guidebook in history which detailed the Camino de Santiago via the French Way in the 12th century) detailed the facade’s original appearance and it has hardly changed at all over the centuries with the exception of the repositioning of a number of statues. The scenes of the Old and New Testaments though remain the same.

The Old and New Testaments on the facade of the Cathedral from the Platerías
The Old and New Testaments on the facade of the Cathedral from the Platerías

If you look closely between them you will see a very unusual and interesting high relief of a woman sat with a breast bared, nursing a skull in her hands. There are various interpretations but the main agreement is she symbolises either Maria Magdalena or Eve. However, we prefer the Codice more sinister interpretation. It relates that a man once discovered his wife with her lover. He killed the lover by cutting off his head and obliged his wife to kiss the skull twice a day.

The view of the “Torre del Reloj” (the watch tower) popularly known as the “Berenguela” from the Platerías Square is the finest and most recent of the Cathedral three Tower. It is popularly named after the Archbishop Berengual de Landoira who completed the tower in the 19th century.

It was built in two stages, one of top of the other and many years apart: the lower half of the tower being Medieval and the upper Baroque. The Baroque section was built by Domingo de Andrade. The clock, which only has one hand, dates back from the year 1831.

The Cathedral Cloister dates from the year 1540 and is better known as the treasure (“el tesoro”). Its tower which at its highest point is in the form of a stepped pyramid is very original. Some say that this decoration was used to symbolise the universe. Some that it is a geometrical representation of the Camino de Santiago. Other that is was inspired by the pyramids of the pre-Columbian period.

The Quintana Square

“Fita aquel branco galán olla se transido corpo
É a lúa que baila
na Quintana dos mortos.
Fita seu corpo transido
negro de somas e lobos.
Nai, a lúa está bailando
na Quintana dos mortos.
Quén fire port de pedlar na mesma porta do sono?
É a lúa
É a lúa
na Quintana dos mortos.”

The Quintana de Muerto Square in Santiago
The Quintana de Muerto Square in Santiago

In one of the powerful and beautiful “Six Galician Poems”, the immortal poet Federico Garcia Lorca sang the praise of this square which are actually two squares separated by a set of steps. The lower half is known as Quintana de Muertos (Fifth of the dead) as it was a cemetery until the 14th century and the upper half as Quintana de Vivos (Fifth of the living).

Like so many parts of Santiago, it seems to close in around you, as if offering shelter. Here, in the Quintana de Muerto in the building the “Casa de la Conga” is where our office is based.

The Square is also host to many events, concerts, one of Santiago’s favourite nightclub and several popular bars. Also if you pass this Square at night time, make sure to check out the right hand-side of the Puerta Real. Here, every night after dawn the shadow of a pilgrim or Santiago himself (?!) appears onto the Cathedral wall.

El Peregrino Escondido - the hidden pilgrim in Santiago de Compostela
El Peregrino Escondido – the hidden pilgrim in Santiago de Compostela

The imposing wall, with many grill covered windows – 48 in total – is the side wall of the monastery of San Payo de Antealtares. To visit it you will have to climb a set of steps and go along a narrow street called the Via Sacra. Inside, you will see a splendid Baroque altarpiece and the first altar built by the disciples of Saint James.

The facade of the cathedral that faces the Quintana Square is the most sacred. The entrance into the Cathedral from the Quintana is known as the Holy Door (the “Puerta Santa”) and dates from the beginning of the 17th century.  The door is only opened on Holy Years and will be exceptionally opened by order of the Pope Francis in 2016 in honour of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.

Holy Years happen only on years where the 25th of July (Saint James Day) falls on a Sunday and are known as “Años Santos Compostelanos”.

The Holy Door - Entrance to the Cathedral of Santiago only opened on Jubilee year
The Holy Door – Entrance to the Cathedral of Santiago only opened on Jubilee year

The figures around the door represent character from the Old Testament and the Apostles. Above the door you will find a statue of Saint James and his two disciples Theodore and Athanasius.

To the left had side of the Puerta Santa, just beneath the Torre del Reloj, is the Puerta Real. Built in the middle of the 17th century this is possibly the first example of Baroque architecture in the Cathedral.

Through this door at twelve o’clock midday on the 24th of July will pass the famous “Coco” and “Coca” followed by the rest of the giants, the enormous figures that characterise these celebrations. They circle the square three times and then continue afterwards in a procession made up of “gaiteros” (pipers) and group of dancers, through the narrow streets and alleyways of the oldest parts of the city.

Plaza de la Inmaculada or de la Azabachería

Climbing the beautiful set of steps from the Quintana de Muertos, you will reach the Quintana de Vivos, enclosed by the Casa de la Parra, built at the end of the 17th century. Around the corner you will find the last square of the Cathedral, the Plaza de la Inmaculada.

This used to be called the Plaza de la Azabachería, because the guild of the azabacheros (the artisans that worked with jet) had their shops in this Square.

Similarly to the art of working and selling Silver in the Platerías, for centuries skilful artisans have been transforming into pieces of art a variety of lignite (jet) called Azabache, a hard and brilliant black minor gemstone derived from decaying wood under extreme pressure.

A popular token is to bring back from those shops is a mano fico or figa in jet to offer to someone for good luck and take away the evil eye.

Here, in the Plaza de la Inmaculada, you will see the facade of San Martín Pinario, one of the most important buildings of the city and one of the largest complexes in Spain with over 20.000 square meters floor area.

The facade of San Martín Pinario from the Plaza de la Inmaculada
The facade of San Martín Pinario from the Plaza de la Inmaculada

In 912, the bishop Sisnando built an oratory here, which he dedicated to Saint Martin, the Bishop of Tours in France known for using a military sword to cut his cloak in two to share with a scantily clad beggar. After its consecration as a church in 1102, by the archbishop Xelmírez it became an important religious centre.

The beautiful Baroque fountain in the centre of the plaza was built by Pedro de Magaña in the 18th century.

Opposite Saint Martin you will see the last completed and most modern of the Cathedral’s facades, although the least interesting  as far as artistic quality.

As most pilgrim walk the Camino Frances, this is the first facade of the cathedral that most people would see and it is through this main door also called del Paraíso (of Paradise) that pilgrim would first enter the Cathedral after removing their dusty outer garments and leaving them in the Cruz dos Forrapos.

“Oh, Cruz dos farrapos,
vella e ferruxenta,
agocha a miña alma,
escura e desfeita”.
(José María Máiz Togores)

The Cruz dos Ferrapos is a cross located on the rooftop of the Cathedral of Compostela and can be visited as part of the Rooftop tour. At its base is a stone open oven where pilgrims flocked to burn their old clothes used during the Camino after buying new ones in one of the many stands of the Obradoiro Square. Somewhere in between a spiritual ritual and hygienic measure, the tradition could be linked to ending your old life to start a new purer life.

The Paraíso entrance to the Cathedral of Santiago
The Paraíso entrance to the Cathedral of Santiago

In a similar way, the names of the Squares are important and have a spiritual meaning. Pilgrim would enter through the Plaza de la Azabachería – black door – to exit through the Platerías – Silver door. The link between the purification of the pilgrim after accomplishing their pilgrimage is easy to find. Enter with a black soul, leave purified!

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Ultreya Tours

Ultreya Tours is a incoming Tour Operator specialized in organizing comprehensive and highly personalized walking tours for groups and solo travelers on the Camino de Santiago. Founded and based in Santiago de Compostela, we know the region of Galicia and the secrets of the Camino by heart. Let us introduce you to our vision of the Camino.