The splendid state hotel which now stands on one side of Santiago’s beautiful Cathedral Square was originally built in 1499 as a Hospital for pilgrims who travelled from all corners of Europe to pay homage to St James at the neighbouring Cathedral.
When they reached the end of their long journeys dirty, hungry and exhausted they were given food, drink, a bed for three days and – if they needed it – medical help. That tradition endured over the centuries but in the 1950s the hospital was converted to the swanky hotel that now attracts a prestigious clientele and fosters an air of indulgence and superiority.
Yet the custom of helping pilgrims who arrive in the city has been honoured in a token way by giving the frst 10 peregrinos who turn up each day a free breakfast, lunch or dinner. The rule is that you line up with your compostella as proof of your pilgrimage (but minus your backpack) at the stable door and wait to be led inside and manoeuvred swiftly through the smart quarters to a staff door which leads up a flight of stairs to the kitchens.
We stood in a humble line beside stacks of plates and trays of semi-prepared food as waiters whisked past balancing trays and contemptuous sneers. I can’t imagine a British hotel kitchen allowing half a dozen random people to hang around near uncovered food, but it was a fascinating insight into continental hygiene standards.
It was also an insight into how it must feel to be on the receiving end of charity. We could all have afforded to go into the old town to buy our breakfasts at a cafe but chose to experience the medieval tradition as part of our camino. Maybe the staff are overworked or just tired of people turning up in their kitchens three times a day, but sadly the token “charity” wasn’t dispensed with speed, grace or even a smile.
Yet nothing was lost. The pastries and coffee were good and, as always on the camino, it was the multilingual conversation between strangers that was the memorable part of the half hour we spent in the Pilgrim’s Dining Room at the top of the back stairs of Santiago’s posh Parador.