I am a lazy pilgrim. I love comfort and luxury and good food and fine wine. Still, if I can combine these small necessities of life with a visit to a Holy Place, then on pilgrimage I will go. And so I have been to Northern Spain – to fulfil two promises I made to myself in my youth: to venerate the relics of St James, the Apostle, and to stay at one of the most famous hostelries in the world, the Hotel de Los Reyes Católicos.
Proper pilgrims make their way to Santiago de Compostela from all over the place by foot. I flew to the airport and then jumped into a taxi. Yet I still experienced a thrill as the Cathedral’s towers first came into view. They grace one of the great buildings of Europe – a swirling, heady mixture of architectural styles, in which the Romanesque, the Gothic and the Baroque co-exist in strident harmony. And right next door was my hotel.
The location is no accident, for this huge stone pile was founded in 1492 by the Catholic Monarchs (hence its present name) precisely for the pilgrims who were visiting its ecclesiastical neighbour. It claims to be the oldest hotel in the world, and is certainly one of the most beautiful. Built around four spacious cloisters, it has an air of timeless serenity and calm, which I found a marvellous restorative after a day of sightseeing in the town. Be sure to visit the hotel chapel, which is the size of a small cathedral and which is now used for weddings and functions.
That the Reyes Católicos still offers hospitality is due to the system of paradors, begun in 1928. Under this civilized arrangement, the Spanish government operates some of Spain’s grandest old buildings as hotels – thereby not only helping to preserve the country’s heritage, but also allowing fortunate persons like myself to stay in surroundings of remarkable interest. It also means that the prices charged are very reasonable. This particular parador achieves the highest possible rating of ‘five-star grand-luxe’, but a standard double room costs a modest 240 euros per night for two, including breakfast and tax. (And those who book in the U.K. can obtain various special offers – see details at the end of the article.)
My own room – number 210, on the 2 nd floor – was designated a ‘superior’ and was therefore 287 euros a night, bed and breakfast for two. I like a proper hallway, and here was one – with fitted wardrobes and a safe. My air-conditioned bedroom was large, about 18 feet square, with ample space for a sofa and three chairs. Dark polished wood abounded: for the floors, for the doors, for the furniture, for the canopies over the beds – even for the radiator, which was enclosed in a case of carved oak. Light blue walls and draperies of gold and dark blue added to the feeling of a comfortable and thoroughly traditional apartment. I noted with approval the attention to detail. The coat hangers were covered with red velvet, a small card gave me the name of the chambermaid who had serviced the room and, among all the usual toiletries in the bathroom, was a phial of eau-de-Cologne.
Walking from one’s room and waiting by lifts are not usually my idea of fun. But here there was real pleasure to be had from these mundane activities. For through the windows were some charming views onto one of the four cloisters and its central fountain. Once down on the ground floor, I made it my custom to go out of the main entrance to gaze for a moment at the mighty cathedral and its square, before continuing to the handsome sitting room (pictured). Here, I would sink into a sofa of dark red plush and order coffee and almond tart and think that the lot of this particular pilgrim was a happy one.
My dinners were had in the more formal of the two dining rooms. The Restaurant Dos Reis, with its seven stone arches, has the atmosphere of a baronial hall. The lighting is bright, the tablecloths are white and the waiters wear bow ties and short brown jackets. As the pianist played ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ and other popular melodies, I ordered from the set menu (30 euros for three courses). I thus enjoyed flavoursome and straightforward dishes like green asparagus with smoked bacon and tomato, marinated chicken with a bean salad, roast veal with aubergine fritters, ice creams and crèpes with apple and cream. From the section of the carte dedicated to the local Galician cuisine, I noted the ‘Caldeirada dos Reis’ – roasted turbot, scallops and lobster with creamed potato and sautéed turnips – for 39 euros.
The wine list is short and Spanish and runs in price from the house wine at 10 euros to 1995 Valbuena (the second wine of Vega Sicilia) at 136 euros. From my own drinking, I would recommend a white and a red: the 2004 Penedes, Viña Sol, Bodegas Torres (13.25 euros) was fresh and bright, with hints of honeydew melon, and the Beronia Reserva was a lovely, old-fashioned red rioja, full of vanilla-laden elegance (25.40 euros).
Breakfasting has its own large room on the first floor. Here I encountered two tastes from my childhood – fried eggs atop fried bread and Sugar Puffs. Neither of them exactly ‘healthy options’, but jolly enjoyable, nevertheless. I also tucked into some lovely cheeses, tasty bacon and proper orange juice. These were good starts to my days in Santiago.
And those days included, of course, visits to the cathedral to venerate the relics of St James. I also attended the noon Pilgrims’ Mass, at which a triumphant finale is provided by the operation of the Botafumeiro (the giant thurible, which swings in huge and alarming arcs across the transepts, billowing its incense over the faithful). So I did count myself a pilgrim – albeit one who enjoyed the comfort and luxury of the wonderful Hotel de Los Reyes Católicos.
Plaza do Obradoiro 1, 15705 Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Telephone +34 981 58 22 00
Fax +34 981 56 30 94
Double rooms from 240 euros, including breakfast and tax
For English-speaking bookings:
Telephone (U.K.) +44 (0)20 7616 0300
Fax +44 (0)20 7616 0317
Double rooms from £169, including breakfast and tax
Ask about special offers