For pilgrims in Spain, all roads lead to Santiago de Compostela. Ignore the crowded Camino Frances, take the "Primitivo" and tramp Spain's green provinces of Asturias and Galicia. Tough, but rewarding
With great ceremony and a wide grin, the lady behind the grocery counter individually wraps three chunky chorizo sausages in wax paper and presents one to each of us. A gratuitous act that cements this rural part of Spain further into my already-captured heart. Outside, my two German walking companions laugh and hand me their chorizos. They're both vegetarians, so my backpack is now heavier by a kilo of spicy sausage.
Camino Primitivo - what's that?
Spain's alternative pilgrim route, the Camino Primitivo, wends its way from Oviedo across western Asturias and Galicia before depositing its walkers some 320 kilometres later in Santiago. The oldest route mentioned in Santiago's pilgrim history, it can be walked in two challenging weeks, unlike the better known, longer-and very crowded- Camino Frances, which starts way back at the Pyrenees.
When to go?
Maximise your chance of good weather and avoid the crowds, by starting in late April/early May, or in September at the other end of the summer. But these are Spain's green provinces for a reason, and that reason is rain. It can be relentless at any time of year. Pack clothes for all seasons, as you may experience them all in one day.
Do I need to be fit?
Make no mistake. The mountain passes top a dizzy 1200 metres, and to walk 25 kilometres per day, you'll need to be in shape. This is no Sunday pub-walk.
Fly to Oviedo (Asturias airport) (www.easyjet.com) and enjoy a couple of days in this unsung, charming city with its live bagpipe music on Saturday mornings and boisterous "Boulevard of Cider", the Calle de Gascona at night. At number 20, La Bodega de Gascona (www.labodegadegascona.com) does a daily menu for around 11 euros, but for a few euros more, sample the Asturian menu, with traditional fabada (bean stew).
Take a rest - before you start
Relax in the Hotel Vetusta (2, Calle Covadonga), recommended for its central location, friendly staff and its proud boast of "breakfast served at any time of day". Doubles are around 50 euros, at most times of the year. But don't get too comfortable: remember all that walking? Get your credencial (Pilgrim's Passport) from the Oviedo Tourist Office (4, Calle Cimadevilla, tel 0034985213385) as you need this to stay in the albergues - see below. You can also pick up a basic one-euro guide to the route from here, but for more detail, print off the information from the best website - available in six languages - www.mundicamino.com
The walk itself starts out through Oviedo's suburbs, but soon you're in rural Asturias, sidestepping cows and greeting wooden-clogged farmers. The entire route is well-waymarked, so you shouldn't get lost.
Where will I stay?
Accommodation along the way is traditionally in albergues, municipal hostels which cost a paltry 3 to 10 euros per night. Some provide evening meals for an extra 10 euros or so, some have kitchens for the avid self-catering pilgrims. Albergues are similar to youth hostels, and are not pre-bookable, so if you don't fancy dormitory accommodation with shared showering and snoring, use the website above to plan to sleep in pre-bookable pensiones (bed and breakfasts). These are available for about 20/35 euros (single/double), breakfast extra. The Mundi Camino website (above) tells all on accommodation, and breaks down the walk into do-able stages. Advance planning is a must.
Pack light, keeping your backpack to ten percent of body weight if possible. Leave space for water and snacks. Break your boots in, and take a walking-pole.
What about food?
Cuisine here is rustic rather than fancy, but there can be little better at the end of a day's walk than an Asturian fabada or a Galician caldo, heavy hearty bean-based stews laced with ham, black pudding and sausage. 'Pilgrim's menus' are available at restaurants and hotels, and at 9 or 10 euros - including wine and bread - they represent great value. Top tip: stuff yourself with the starter, as the second course can be fairly basic. Unfortunately, vegetarians may struggle to find variety here, as the concept of vegetarianism is almost unknown!
Who will I meet?
English is not widely spoken in 'real' Spain. Most fellow walkers are likely to be Spanish or German, with a pot-pourri of others. Fellow walkers and the locals are friendly and trusting. Sharing common living and sleeping space really brings you all together, and you may well end up dining out or even cooking together with total strangers. Buy two bottles of wine for your evening meal, and be prepared to share one.
Take another rest - and grapple with an octopus!
As the walk approaches Lugo, the countryside just gets better. The hardship of ascent and descent is offset by views of snow-capped mountains, dense eucalyptus forests and colourful flowers. Take a break at Lugo, and enjoy the Roman walls that surround the city. Sample the pulpo gallego, the octopus for which the Galician province is famous. A meagre 4 euros will get you a tentacle or two at the Cafe-Bar Miraz in the lively Rua Nova.
Octopus is strong enough to handle a robust red wine, which is cheap, but trade up and drink Rioja. (Note that red wine here is often served cold. By requesting it al tiempo, you will get something nearer room temperature.)
Refreshed? Get walking again.
After Lugo the weather stabilises and the countryside becomes flatter. You'll walk a fair bit on tarmac, though on almost traffic-free roads. At Melide, you will finally join up with the crowds of the Camino Frances, as the two pilgrim routes merge. Don't worry - you've only two days to go.
OK, I've done it - where's my reward?
On arrival at Santiago, visit the Pilgrims' Office, show them your fully-stamped credencial and they will reward your efforts with a Compostellae, a Latin scroll that confirms that you are now a pilgrim.
What about some luxury?
If your body needs a bit of pampering by now, try the country-house style Hotel A Quinta da Auga (23B Paseo da Amaia). Although not right in the city centre, it has more spa treatments and luxuries than you can shake a well-walked leg at. Doubles around 120 euros.
And a celebration?
Well, now you have an arguably more difficult and undoubtedly less spiritual walk to undertake. Santiago's very own Paris-Dakar has nothing to do with cars. Rather, starting in the Bar Paris and finishing in the Cafeteria Dakar, the 46 bar -pubcrawl on Rua Franco and Rua Raina will test the endurance of even the hardiest of pilgrims (or stag party). Take it easy, choose the ones you like the look of and eat some tapas at each one you visit. A great selection of fine seafood is on offer, so there's another chance of tasting octopus, in case it's unique taste has caught you in its tentacles. If not.... well, Spain's fine variety of hams is also well-represented. As is chorizo.
There's no Compostellae at the end of the pubcrawl. Maybe just a headache and a craving for paracetomol.
Pack your backpack for the last time and head for Santiago airport, and let Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) take you back to London, Rome, Frankfurt or wherever.
You'll be clutching your compostellae, nursing a hangover. And feeling a huge, huge sense of achievement at completing this beautiful walk.