Santiago hidden treasures (I): Belvís Convent and neighbourhood

Ok, so you’ve walked the Camino or arrived by train or plane and just have spent a couple of days visiting the old town, going to the Cathedral and to a museum or two, probably trying to see the Botafumeiro, walking around the small squares and having coffee in many different places. But you’d like to know more about the city. You just walked around enough to notice that the old quarter is not very large, but you begin to think there should be much more than the tourist area in Santiago. And it is true.

Santiago’s old town is charming and most of the monuments are there, inside what was in the Middle Ages the walled town. But there is much more to see if you take a walk to other historical neighbourhoods. Santiago is a small town, so nothing is more than 20 minutes walking from the city centre. And most times it will take you even less to get to some of the town’s hidden gems.

Belvís convent Santiago de Compostela Galicia
The convent , as seen from the park

That’s why we are starting this Santiago Hidden Treasures section, to show you some of our favourite places around town and to help you discover the end of the Camino in a different way, beyond what most tourist guides would reccommend. And the perfect place to start is Belvis quarter, just 5 minutes from the old town.

During the middle ages Santiago was a walled town surrounded by valleys, and in those valleys there were several villages. Some of the quarters of the contemporary Santiago such as Conxo, San Lourenzo, Pontepedriña, Cornes or Sar were, in those times, separated villages. This was also the case of Belvís, a small town on the top of a hill, facing Santiago from its East. It was just another village until the 14th Century, when some peasants found a sculpture of the Virgin Mary there, in the middle of the fields. It was considered a miracle, so a wealthy woman, Teresa Rodríguez, founded a convent in that place. And that is how Belvis became an important part of Santiago.

Belvís convent Santiago de Compostela Galicia
The view from the archway (what you see is the Faculty of History)

In the following decades the valley between Santiago and Belvís was occupied by leather factories around the small river, close enough to serve the town but far enough to avoid the annoyance of bad smells and polluted water. And slowly a new neighbourhood grew around those factories and the road between Belvís and Santiago, linking the former village to the town.

Soon many bakers and blacksmiths moved their workrooms to this quarter. The risk of a fire in the old towns was a constant concern, so these less populated neighbourhoods, with open fields, backyards and more distance between buildings  were the perfect place for these risky occupations. If you take a walk around Belvis you will still find streets as Campo do Forno (Bakery Field) o Corredoira da Fragua (Forge Road).

Belvís convent Santiago de Compostela Galicia Catedral
The magnificent view from the convent – you can see Santiago’s Cathedral

With more families moving to these new quarter, the convent became more and more important, so in the 18th Century it was completely rebuilt by none other than Fernando de Casas y Novoa, the author of the main façade of the Cathedral, becoming one of the baroque masterpieces in town.

Almond cakes by the Convent's nuns
Almond cakes by the Convent’s nuns

During the 19th and the 20th Century Belvís was a poor quarter, but in the last decade a number of works recovered its relation with more central quarters. The valley full of abandoned leather factories is nowadays a nice park with an enviromental hall, a small maze, some restored ruins and contemporary sculptures. Overlooking the park, Belvís Convent offers amazing views of the old town. And, if you have a sweet tooth, the enclosed nuns sell handmade cookies through a turnstile.

In less than ten minutes from the old town you can walk across the park, reach the top of the hill and start a walk around the quarter to enjoy one of the quietest neighbourhoods in town, discovering places like the old nun’s courtyard, with its impressive views through its archway and the streets linking Belvís with one of the most vibrant neighbourhoods in Santiago: San Pedro.

Belvís convent Santiago de Compostela Galicia
The convent of Belvís
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