Spanish town in seventh heaven over Holy Year festival

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SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain -- This year, Santiago de Compostela will celebrate a Holy Year jubilee. The jubilee is a celebration that occurs every seven years, whenever July 25 -- the feast day of Santiago (Saint James), the patron saint of Spain -- falls on a Sunday.

Sandiago de CompostelaClients who drive to this northern city may wish to follow the Way of St. James, one of the oldest European tourist routes. As drivers make their pilgrimages, they will follow the road signs marked "Camino de Santiago" that lead through such lovely regions as Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y Leon and finally Galicia.

Throughout the year-long celebration in Santiago de Compostela, visitors will hear the strains of the gaita (Spanish bagpipes) and the thump of the tamboril (a type of drum), as parades of local people in traditional dress move through the streets.

Roving tunas, groups of guitar- and mandolin-strumming students from the university, who are dressed in knee breeches and capes, also keep up people's spirits.

This jubilee is an occasion for pageantry, but this year also will bring a cast of performing artists to Santiago. These will include the Academy and Chorus of Saint-Martin-in-the-Fields; the London Symphony Orchestra; the Rolling Stones; violist Rostropovich, performing with the Galicia Symphony Orchestra; the Munich Symphony, performing Mozart's "Requiem"; the Scottish Ballet Company, and the National Ballet of Spain.

Located 390 miles northwest of Madrid in the region of Galicia, Santiago is surrounded by countryside more reminiscent of Ireland than what is normally associated with Spain. The coastline to the north and west zigzags with deep fjords, and the green valleys leading to the city are laced with streams and rivers.

Santiago is believed to be the final resting place of St. James, whose tomb was discovered in A.D. 813. According to tradition, he christianized Spain, and during the Middle Ages, the city was a unifying spiritual center for the Christian world at a time when its foundations were being shaken by Moslem expansion.

Santiago may have been the subject of the first travel guide, the Calixtine Codex, written for pilgrims by Cluny monastery monks in the 12th century. Thus the city was among the first destinations on the European continent prepared for mass travel.

The jubilee, actually a yearlong celebration, officially began last December 31 with the opening of the Holy Door on the east face of Santiago's cathedral. During the summer months, the cathedral will be illuminated. The cathedral, started in the 11th century and finished in the 13th, was built atop Saint James' tomb and is a mixture of Baroque, Neoclassical and Romanesque architecture. Its main entrance, the Portico de la Gloria, is said to be the finest example of Romanesque masonry in the world.

The old city of Santiago de Compostela has changed little over the centuries.

Walking through narrow, winding alleyways -- all of which seem to lead back to the cathedral -- it is easy to picture the thousands of pilgrims who have piously worked their way to the shrine from all corners of Spain as well as from other countries in Europe.

Those pilgrims coming from neighboring France, for instance, have threaded their way to Santiago over the Pyrenees mountains and traveled the Camino along the 500-mile route through Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon and Villa Franca del Bierzo.

The finest hotel in town, the Parador Hostal Los Reyes Catolicos, was once a hospice built by the Catholic monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand as free lodgings for weary pilgrims. Rooms are no longer free in this five-star, luxury property, but the charge of about $243 per night for two (including taxes, service and breakfast) is worth it for a stay in one of Spain's most famous hotels.

Hung with oil paintings, sumptuously furnished and built around four patios (named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), it is located diagonally across from the cathedral on Plaza de Espana. The hotel has its own chapel, in which concerts and exhibitions are held.

For additional information, contact the Tourist Office of Spain in New York, Beverly Hills, Chicago and Miami. The tourist office Web site is at http://www.okspain.org. The Holy Year event is also covered on the Web at www.xacobeo.es.

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