The Camino de Santiago is one of Christendom’s most sacred pilgrimage routes,
ranking third after Jerusalem and Rome. In effect, it comprises several
itineraries, with take-off points scattered across Spain, Portugal, France,
Italy and northern Europe. Each has its name, its own pathways and
characteristic scenery, all converging on Santiago de Compostela, the ancient
city of St. James the Apostle, in the far northwestern corner of
In the past two decades this medieval pilgrim trail has undergone
an amazing revival, making it one of Spain’s biggest tourist
Legend has it that the body of St. James – Santiago in
Spanish – was beheaded in 44 CE by King Herod and brought by boat from Palestine
to the Iberian peninsular, to be buried there and then forgotten. The cult of
the saint dates from the mid-ninth century, when he made a miraculous appearance
and defeated the Moors in the battle that led to the Reconquista of Spain by the
Christians. The great cathedral in his name was erected and his remains reburied
in the crypt.
For the next three centuries, the flow of pilgrims grew
ever greater. To serve them were built the fine Romanesque edifices that can be
seen to this day across Spain – churches, cathedrals, hospices, inns and
mansions – culminating in the magnificent walled city of Santiago de
Our journey to Santiago began in Bilbao, on the edge of the
Pyrenees in the Basque country. We continued westward across Spain’s northern
coast, following the Camino de la Costa, which originates in France. Everywhere
along the 780-km. route there are reminders that you are following in the
footsteps of devout pilgrims who for centuries have been trudging this way to
worship at the tomb of the saint and acquire absolution of their
Full disclosure obliges me to reveal that (like many others whom we
met en route) we journeyed as tourists and onlookers rather than footsore
pilgrims, with bus and train as our main means of transport. We traveled on the
small branch-line FEVE trains, whose primrosecolored carriages chug slowly along
the wild Atlantic coast bordering the Bay of Biscay, connecting its rocky inlets
and estuaries, its sandy beaches and towering cliffs, its small fishing villages
An outstanding attraction of the region is the wealth of
sites, many of them on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, where prehistoric cave
paintings can be viewed. At some caves, access and visitor numbers are strictly
limited in order to control changes in temperature and humidity that can affect
the precious artwork, created between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago. Altamira, the
most famous of the caves, is currently closed, and visitors instead can view an
air-conditioned replica and see the museum. A more authentic experience was our
visit to the Tito Bustillo cave, and there are many more caves worth exploring,
of varying size and with varying ease of access.
Our journey across Spain
was broken at small seaside villages where simple hotel accommodation was easy
to find. A particularly delightful stopover was the small town of Santillana del
Mar, a medieval gem, perfectly preserved and within walking distance of the
From our start in the Basque country, we continued
westward through Cantabria and Asturias to Galicia.
coast has little in common with the Mediterranean coast and mercifully has
escaped the runaway development of the Costa del Sol or the Costa Brava. Each
region has its own character, its culinary specialities, and Galicia even has
its own language, Galega. The rainfall here is twice the national average
(visitors should come prepared for wet weather) and the countryside is
correspondingly green and lush. Inland from the coast, the horizon is dominated
by the Picos de Europa mountain range, containing Spain’s most spectacular
scenery and walking country.
The FEVE railway terminates at Ferrol, on
the far northwestern tip of the country. From here we took the mainline RENFE
train to our destination, via La Corunna, an attractive historic port city with
much to offer the visitor.
ARRIVING AT Santiago, the pilgrim, staff in
hand, the shell emblem dangling from his backpack, enters the old city
(traffic-free) through the Porta do Camina.
From there, he follows the
traditional route to the cathedral, through the narrow streets, guided by the
glittering metal shell emblems embedded in the flagstones.
At the square
fronting the great edifice, the traveler drops his backpack and hugs his
companions, a celebratory moment of achievement and spiritual uplift, for the
secular no less than for the devout. In order to be awarded the Pilgrim’s
Certificate, he must have covered the final 100 km. of the Camino on foot, with
his Pilgrim’s Passport stamped as proof. On the way, there are numerous simple
hostals and refugios where he can stay the night.
Santiago itself has an
abundance of accommodation options, ranging from inexpensive inns to fivestar
hotels. Top of the list is the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, in the square next
to the cathedral, built in the 16th century for the pilgrim trade and now
renovated as an up-market parador hotel to serve the wellheeled traveler. A less
expensive but more authentic atmosphere can be found at the Hospederia Seminario
Mayor, also near the cathedral, situated in a huge Benedictine monastery with an
elegant cloister, echoing stone flagged corridors, simple rooms and a refectory
dining room where monks serve up a decent meal.
The streets in the
vicinity of the cathedral are abuzz with eating places, tapas bars and cafes
where the footweary can rest and watch the world go by.
are tourist shops selling souvenirs decorated with the omnipresent shell motif
of the pilgrim. And the scallop shell reappears in the many Galician restaurants
serving seafood specialities to tempt the adventurous gourmand – crab, octopus,
clams, lobster and of course Coquilles St. Jacques, named after the
The student population alongside the tourist influx gives Santiago
a bustling, lively air, and there is plenty to see and do. Walking through the
maze of arcaded streets, one finds an architectural gem at every turn, and at
night the alleys are crowded, with buskers, music and dance breaking out in the
squares and under the arches.
The cathedral itself is the ultimate
destination for every visitor. A dazzling mix of Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic
styles, it dominates the city, majestically chiming the hours from its bell
The flamboyant double stairway rises from the square to the main
entrance and to the richly sculptured Portico of Glory just inside – currently
being restored and under scaffolding. The cathedral museum, spread over four
floors, contains a wealth of historic and artistic treasures, and offers a
magnificent view of the entire city from the roof.
Mass is celebrated
daily at noon, and, depending on the pilgrim groups present, prayers may be
recited in several languages. Unlike many European cathedrals, all comers are
welcomed and invited to participate – muddy boots, backpacks and dripping
rain-gear notwithstanding. The atmosphere is one of joyous anticipation, and if
you are lucky, as we were, you might just be rewarded with a sighting of the
Botafumeiro in action (if you miss it, YouTube has a number of good video
Translated as the “smoke spitter,” this enormous censer, made of
silver and weighing 167 kg., swings over the central aisle like a giant
pendulum, soaring to the vaulted roof, emitting clouds of fragrant incense and
missing the stonework pillars by a hairsbreadth.
The performance of the
Santiago smoke spitter and the monks pulling the ropes brought the assembled
congregation to its feet, applauding, cheering and taking photos. The organ
thundered, the sun glowed through the stained-glass windows, and there was no
doubt in anyone’s mind that getting to Santiago had been well worth the effort.