Culture Pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela

Culture Pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela, By INGRID K. WILLIAMS

ON a cloudy June afternoon after midday Mass in the ornate granite cathedral in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, the adjacent plaza heaved with tourists, many toting walking sticks and bulging backpacks. For centuries, self-proclaimed pilgrims have trekked dozens and sometimes hundreds of miles to get here, having travelled the ancient Christian pilgrimage routes collectively known as the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James, as it is believed that the cathedral houses the remains of the apostle St. James. Culture Pilgrims in Santiago de Compostela

While many walkers are religious, a growing number (attracted perhaps by the route’s epic appeal) are making the trek to the city, in Spain’s sparsely populated northwestern region of Galicia, for secular reasons. Lara Steinbiss and Irene Arbeiter-Sanchez, two teenagers from Germany, had arrived at the cathedral after hiking for nine days as part of a school project. Jon Cope, a 30-year-old organic gardener from England, reclined barefoot in the plaza, his blackened toenails proof of the arduous 86-day, 1,400-mile-long journey that he described as “religious in the sense of worship of life, instead of worship of God.”

Whatever the motive, they are arriving in a place eager to expand its appeal beyond the devoutly religious. So this year, while the city observes the 800th anniversary of the consecration of the cathedral with a series of festivals and cultural events that celebrate the city’s religion-rich heritage, it is also proudly crowing about a new and decidedly modern draw: a spectacular structure called the City of Culture of Galicia.

The cultural center, which was officially inaugurated in January, is less than a mile from the city’s historic old town. Although not fully completed, the ambitious project is already being heralded as a 21st-century beacon of culture in a city that since the Middle Ages has relied on its renown as a religious destination.

In January, visitors got a first glimpse inside the City of Culture, a sprawling complex designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman that has been under construction for 10 years, at a cost of approximately 400 million euros (about $557 million). Mr. Eisenman’s design, a granite-heavy campus of buildings nestled together to form giant rolling waves of stone and glass, was modeled on the historical old town of Santiago, and bested plans from such top-shelf architects as Rem Koolhaas, Ricardo Bofill, Jean Nouvel and Daniel Libeskind in an international competition sponsored by the regional government in 1999.

A dozen years later, Crown Prince Felipe and his wife, Princess Letizia, helped inaugurate the first two completed buildings, now open to the public: a library and an archive stocked with cultural and historical documents. Two more structures — a museum, which will host rotating exhibitions, and a building housing administrative offices — are scheduled to open later this year, while the final components of the project, including a multistory music and performing arts center, remain under construction.

The project has not been without complications, having begun in the years after the success of the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in the Spanish city of Bilbao, but built in an era of greater austerity.
Roberto Varela, the regional minister of culture and tourism, likens the City of Culture to some widely acclaimed, big-league buildings. “For the first time, we have a structure that is really new and modern and can compete with other structures in Spain which are similar,” he said, specifically citing the Bilbao museum and the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, comparisons that underscore the enormous size and ambitious scope of the City of Culture — if calling it a “city” wasn’t sufficiently suggestive.

The idea for the City of Culture was conceived, Mr. Varela explained, before his tenure, during another political party’s administration. In the tailwind of Bilbao’s success story, regional governments across Spain raced to plan their own architectural attractions — the bigger, the better. But when the economy crashed, so too did public enthusiasm for plowing money into showy attractions. In Santiago de Compostela, criticism intensified as construction dragged on for years.

Still, Mr. Varela said he was confident that the City of Culture would win over its critics. “It is true that it was a polemic project, because of its dimension and because of its cost,” he said. “But the more people know about it, the more they like it.”

That sentiment can largely be attributed to the project’s intriguing design. The City of Culture was planned like a richly layered novel, with historical echoes embedded in the undulating stone-and-glass structures and in the pedestrian streets that connect its expansive plazas. From above, the structures’ giant waves of stone evoke the shape of a scallop shell — the symbol of St. James and of the Camino de Santiago.

While the City of Culture is now the grandest flash of contemporary culture in the area, other sparks of innovation are igniting in the city’s cutting-edge restaurants nestled in the historic center.

A block from the cathedral, in the cozy, stone-walled dining room at Casa Marcelo, the first sign of an innovative approach arrives with the menu, which is presented on a glowing iPad. Marcelo Tejedor, the chef, trained with the Basque chef Juan Mari Arzak, a pioneer of modernist, avant-garde cooking, and the ever-changing set menu reflects that influence.

A recent version featured a warm “cappuccino” of beet soup topped with beet foam, savory quail legs paired with sweet strawberries, an airy pea purée with chunks of yuzu and tart lemon sorbet, and fresh sardines rolled like sushi with ribbons of tempura-fried asparagus.

Those looking for a second dessert might duck into the minimalist, white-walled Casal Cotón Chocolat, set among the traditional tapas bars that line Rúa Franco. The tiny, year-old chocolate shop offers sweets like orange-flavored white chocolate discs studded with pistachios, as well as its own velvety caramel liqueur.

A few blocks away at the bustling Mercado de Abastos, whole octopuses simmer in caldrons, and wheels of homemade cheese top linen-covered benches. But even this traditional market has recently received a modern upgrade of sorts. Nestled into a stone wall beside the market is Abastos 2.0, a creative tapas joint, opened in 2009, that relies on the market’s daily specialties.

“We have no fixed menu because we have no refrigerators,” explained Iago Pazos, an owner, in an e-mail, “though we always say we have the world’s largest fridge, the market behind us.” A computer screen takes the place of a chalkboard menu, continually updating with offerings like alien-like percebes (goose barnacles) and flaky Galician-style empanadas.

Last month, Abastos 2.0 introduced its market-fresh cuisine to the City of Culture as part of an event that married food, wine, music and culture.

“The City of Culture is breathtaking,” Mr. Pazos wrote. “Eventually, it will be an engine for the city.”

Published: August 19, 2011

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