Santiago de Compostela is a fascinating city that blends ancient Celtic tradition with centuries of religious history (as the final destination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage), and still manages to exude a contemporaneity from its storied, stone streets. Tucked in the north-west corner of Spain, in the verdant and rain-lashed region of Galicia, it’s a small city by today’s standards, but a trailblazing one. Much of Spain’s infrastructure owes a debt to the Camino, the pilgrimage routes that lead to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. Entire towns owe their creation, and Santiago itself benefitted greatly: from its spectacular centrepiece cathedral, to its Hostal dos Reis Católicos (one of the oldest hotels in the world, which is now a Parador), and its university (one of the earliest in continual operation).
Between museums, engravings and plaques (the Parador itself has over 40 dotted throughout its cloisters), this history presents itself at every twist and turn of the city. But one stream of history that is harder to read is that of women. While Santiago de Compostela made early societal advances during the Middle Ages, subjugation of women remained rife.
Straw vendors, Santiago de Compostela, 1924. Photo courtesy of Desirée Vidal Juncal.
Through her creative enterprise, Offmuseum, art historian Desirée Vidal Juncal seeks to reconcile this hidden history by leading walking tours of the city that shed light on these issues. The itinerary, Antitour: Compostela Femme, tells of how women in this religious and devoted capital of the Camino were controlled for centuries under the interest of a dogma.
This can be seen as Romanesque bas-reliefs above the doors of the cathedral depict—in an almost comically grotesque fashion—women as the original sin; the beginning of mankind’s problems. Just outside of the old town—sites including Casa de Galeras, Oblatos and Casa de Diaz Baliño—tell dark histories: here once stood a jail for women; a convent for dishonoured women; and, in the 16th and 17th centuries, a brothel managed by the city council.
Vidal Juncal’s itinerary includes a visit to the university’s history of art faculty in the Old Town as a reminder that, although the university was founded in 1495, it wasn’t until 1913 that women could undertake study alongside men. Vidal Juncal reads excerpts of legal documents and essays to provide context—including a local 18th century law disallowing women from walking the streets alone.
Fortunately, some things have changed in Santiago de Compostela and the bookshop Lila de Lilith is an emblem of that: a dynamic cultural hub that specialises in feminist literature. Vidal Juncal’s walk often concludes with a tasting of wines by a female winemaker, such as Cristina Yague at Moraima. Female subjugation in the name of religious devotion is a universal issue that has not been resolved. But with passionate voices casting light on dark corners of history and contributing to the conversation, we see signs of progress. In Santiago de Compostela, we can raise a glass to small victories.