Santiago de Compostela, the capital city of this erroneous region, is famous first for the pilgrimage to its cathedral, and second for its university. And so, despite not being of the devout sort, I came here in September 2010 to do Erasmus Study.
University LifeThe University has acquired a prestigious name, mainly due to the fact that it was founded in the 15th century, but apart from some grandiose buildings – a visit to the beautiful library in the history faculty is a must – you are unlikely to feel inadequate as a foreign student speaking far from perfect Spanish. Be aware though that some lectures, especially in History, are given in the regional language of Gallego, a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. However, I didn’t find it too hard to understand and there are loads of Erasmus students in the same boat. In general, all the lecturers were really friendly, although don’t expect to get less work than your Spanish classmates just because you’re foreign!
University life does differ though and, because Santiago lies within such a rural region, students tend to live in the city during the week and return to their pueblos on a Friday evening, possibly dramatically depleting your social circle on the weekends. Also, students’ unions don’t exist in Spain so I found joining a yoga class at the university a good way of getting involved, and 66 euros for a whole term of classes definitely isn’t a bad deal.
The CitySantiago de Compostela is a small city and you can get everywhere on foot if you don’t mind the odd hill or two. But despite its size, there is hardly what you might (pretentiously) call architectural harmony between the historic and modern quarters; one of my friends even jokes that you have to take your passport to cross between them. The majestic baroque towers of the cathedral look down upon the historic quarter’s narrow streets paved with flagstones, which are best seen glistening in the all-too-frequent rain. By the time you reach the Alameda, a park that’s nice for a walk when your parents come to visit, you see the tower blocks of the new quarter looming. Built in the economic boom of the 1960s and 70s, this is where most students live and is great for supermarkets (about five on every street) and bars with cheesy music. I ended up getting a flat in the historic quarter because it was closer to my faculty, and well, really pretty, but expect to pay more like 170-220€ (per month) compared to 120-170€ in the new town. Also, definitely try to live with Spanish people, it makes such a difference to your fluency when you have to make conversation bleary-eyed and tired over breakfast every day.
Eating outSantiago is a UNESCO world heritage site, thus a tourist filled city, which can raise prices for eating out extraordinarily. Two ways to eat out on the cheap: firstly, stay away from Rua do Franco, it’s full of tourists and you’re bound to get ripped off, and secondly, order a drink before you order food because almost every bar in Santiago gives you free tapas. You can often eat very handsomely just by buying beer and getting given a little free food, the best student bars for this are: O Cabalo Branco (Praza da Pescadería Vella 5), Cañahueca (Praza da Universidade 8) and Casa Pepe (Cantón de San Bieito 5).
Going outThe 30,000 students (out of a total population of 95,000) make Santiago’s nightlife cheap and well for lack of a better word, student-y. If you want a truly Galician experience then head to the historic quarter where you’ll find anything from live gaita (bagpipe) gigs to nationalist rock music served up with a big glass of licor café, the region’s favourite drink, know for being a lethal mixture of strong spirits, coffee and sugar. The best bars are closed behind plain doors by day and still hard to find if you don’t know the little alleyways by night, but so you know, the best are: El Avante (Cantón de San Bieito 4), Tarasca (Entremuros 13) and Atlántico (Rúa da Fonte de San Miguel 9).
Getting outSantiago is small and, although there are loads of parks to lie in when it’s warm (Parque de Bonaval is my favourite), I found it a relief to get out of town every so often. There are two ways to go: downscale to the countryside or upscale to another city. Galicia’s landscape is staggeringly beautiful, pretty much everywhere you look. Take a trip to Finisterre, whose name means the end of the world, and was indeed thought to be just that by the Romans (although it actually turned out to be near Lisbon and that’s not counting all of the Americas nor the fact that the earth is round…). Nevertheless, when you’re there you would be fooled into thinking so when sitting on the dark, craggy rocks that jut out into the vast unknown of the Atlantic Ocean. The city lights of Vigo and A Coruña are great for shopping and clubbing, both easily accessible by train. However, my favourite city nearby has to be Porto, in the north of Portugal, for its enchantingly dilapidated buildings and its arts scene, and just two hours over the border from Santiago.
My Erasmus year in Santiago was definitely worth it. Its small size makes getting to know people very easy, its university is of a good standard and the culture is vastly different (and more interesting) than the flamenco dancing Spanish stereotype.