You don't have to have religion to 'walk the walk' to Santiago de Compostela. Food, wine, history or interesting company might be your motivation. Or there could be something else....
Staring at the petite raven–haired beauty in front of me, I tried but failed to keep my jaw from hitting the pavement.
“You play rugby for Spain!” It was meant to be a question, but it left my lips with too much incredulity to sound like one.
“Yes. My name is “Maite.” It means “I love you” in the Basque language.”
I told her my name was Murray. I wanted to add that it was Scottish for “I love you too.”
One thing’s certain: a walk on the Camino de Santiago, the 500 mile Pilgrim’s route from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain will expose you to some pretty interesting characters.
Pilgrims of varying degrees of faith have been making the walk for nearly 900 years, since the bones of St James were apparently discovered in a field near Santiago. In medieval times this walk ranked in importance only behind Jerusalem and Rome in the ‘Pilgrimage Hit Parade’.
But this walk is no longer the preserve of the religious. The motivations of those who walk all or part of the route every year are many and varied. And basing a holiday on the Pilgrim’s Route could give you an exhilarating, healthy break without unduly troubling your bank account - though the odd bit of luxury is also available.
You’ll get to the starting point with the budget airlines and then local bus. After that the mode of transport – walking – is free, and (it gets better) the entire route is furnished with refugios – basic hostels run by local councils or religious organisations. These will let you stay in a dormitory for ten euros, usually less. All you need is the easily-obtainable Pilgrim’s Passport and you’ll be welcome. (See www.csj.org.uk for useful route and hostel information).
The only catch is that you need to like walking. You can start anywhere along the route, depending how much time you have. Five weeks at 15 miles a day would allow you to begin at the most common jumping-off point in St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees, and comfortably make it to Santiago.
If you have less time, you can choose starting points further westwards, flying to Santander, Bilbao or Valladolid with a bus connection to the camino starting town of your choice.
Assuming that you start at St Jean, a steep climb over the Pyrenees will take you first into the province of Navarra (red wine), the Basque Country (female rugby players) and then Rioja (more red wine).
One local producer ('Bodegas Irache', near Estella) has even been decent enough to attach a wine tap to the outside wall of his bodega. Tempting, but think hard before you fill your water bottle with the free alcohol. Another hour’s walking in the sun will have you pining for your discarded H 2 O.
For those thirsty for history, Spain’s turbulent past drips from the mouth of every church gargoyle. Whether your interest is the Spanish Civil War, the Gothic period or earlier eras, something somewhere along the route will take your breath away. The sheer majesty of Burgos and Leon cathedrals can drop the jaws of even non-believers: they certainly dropped mine.
The walking itself is not physically difficult, and clear way-marking ensures that you can’t get lost. Follow the yellow markings painted on walls and trees. No compass required.
Not many refugios provide nourishment, but eating out provides an opportunity to dine with your fellow pilgrims and to try the regional cuisines. A day’s walking deserves a big restaurant meal.
You’ll pass through little-known Logrono in your first week of walking. Head straight for the town’s L-shaped street, the Calle Laurel which teems with tapas bars. As each one specialises in only one type of tapa, you’re forced to do a pub crawl. And as virtually all the bars are in this one street, you can gorge yourself on breaded mushrooms, prawns in garlic and other delicacies without too much….walking. Bar Pata Negra (24, Calle Laurel) specialises in ham-based tapas - and has a massive wine selection for the discerning pilgrim.
Next, the hearty, meat-based dishes of the provinces of Castile and Leon beckon – try Cocinandos restaurant (Calle las Campanillas 1; 987 071 378; www.cocinandos.com) in Leon for a 50 euro, top-end, Michelin-starred splurge. The delicious grilled seabass did it for me, though the menu changes weekly. Enter the last province, Galicia, to taste the ubiquitous pulpo gallego - octopus chopped with garlic, and fried in front of you, in pans the size of dustbins, by smiling grandmothers.
Dormitory accommodation and the novelty of snoring pilgrims may wear thin (do take some earplugs). If your budget is flexible, there are plenty of cheap hotels along the way. If you fancy somewhere to stay in Burgos, the Meson del Cid Hotel Burgos (Plaza de Santa Maria) is centrally located, with good breakfasts and local cuisine.
When you do finally reach Santiago, however, pamper yourself and stay in the luxurious Parador Dos Reis Catolicos Santiago de Compostela (Plaza del Obradoiro 1). It ain't cheap, but after 500 miles, you've earned it. The sheer elegance will transform you from pilgrim to royalty as you step over the threshold: fine wine and food complete the picture here.
But the main attractions are your fellow pilgrims. They come in all shapes and sizes, each with a story to tell and time in abundance to tell it. And they come from all over the globe. It’s as if the United Nations has been evicted and sent on a march of penance. Even better, everyone looks out for each other, making this a safe, ideal alternative to the ‘Singles’ holiday. As the song says “You’ll never walk alone” – unless you want to.
Apart from Maite, my favourite pilgrims from memory were Wingfried – dressed in full Bavarian leather britches, feather cap and with an accordion strapped to his back, and Rudolf, a middle-aged Swiss who used a minimum of three languages in every sentence.
Every pilgrim has a slightly different reason for embarking on the camino. Some find God, some find spiritual fulfilment, some people “find themselves”, and some people, it would appear, find someone else.
As you get closer to Santiago, you may notice that previously solo travellers can increasingly be spotted as cosy couples in the dimly-lit corners of restaurants. Could there possibly be another motivation for people doing this so-called ‘spiritual’ walk?
But if all you find on the Pilgrim’s Route is a healthy, cultural and inexpensive holiday and some interesting companions, then surely that’s enough?