to Travel Guide / Galicia
If the idea of exploring
Europe is met by a "been there, done that" response, think again. There's
a unique option whose concept started long before the advent of those whirlwind
package tours. You can walk all or part of the Camino de Santiago across
northern Spain for an intimate, at-your-own-pace exploration of a country
steeped in magnificent beauty, art, history and faith.
Traveling the Way of St.
James had its origins over a thousand years ago when pilgrims or "peregrinos"
from throughout Europe journeyed across Spain to Santiago de Compostela
in search of miracles, as a penance, or to honor St. James the Apostle
who is entombed in the Cathedral. In those days, early pilgrims, which
included even royalty and popes, had to risk bandits, extreme illness,
wolves, difficult river crossings and dangerous encounters with the Moors.
Today those challenges no longer exist, allowing millions to make this
trek with somewhat less hardship.
begin their journey in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the rugged Pyrenees just
across the French border, or in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. Most
frequent connections to Roncesvalles are through Madrid. Take the bus to
Pamplona, then a bus next day (only 1 daily) to Roncesvalles. Bus connections
also available though Barcelona. To St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, take the train
from Paris to Bayonne, then a local train.
In Roncesvalles you can register
and obtain a Pilgrim's "Credencial" which identifies you as a peregrino
and allows you to stay in "refugios", small inns along this 500 mile path.
Each day you set out either alone, in couples, or a group, depending on
your inclination. This is no tour. Everyone sets their own pace shepherded
by well-marked arrows, signposts, or guidebooks from home.
This well-worn path wends
its way through vineyards overflowing with grapes ready for harvest, among
apple and pear orchards, across fields thickly scented with thyme, past
a mosaic checkered with fresh vegetables, over the desolate, windswept
meseta or plateau. Climbing thousands of feet to secluded mountain villages,
such as El Cebreiro featuring traditional Celtic round stone houses, it
descends to tree-lined Galician pastures with hórreos, elaborate
brick grain storage bins on stilts with crosses on the roofs.
The refugios are located
in unusual settings, from historic 16th century convents to hospitals run
today by the Knights of Malta to modern prefab complexes. While all provide
basic dormitory-style bunk bed accommodations and showers, some may include
common kitchens, pay phones, laundry facilities or internet-connected computers.
They hold 20-800 travelers each night. Charges are modest, from $4-6 a
night to a simple donation. Bedding is usually not provided, so it's a
good idea to bring a sleeping bag.
People trek the Camino year
round. Summers are crowded at the refugios and are very hot, with little
or no shade in many sections of the trail. Spring or fall treks are best.
The weather is better and the crowds are fewer. Fall temperatures range
from 80 to 40 degrees (F) and winters can be quite cold with snow. Plan
on rain any time of year, but especially in verdant Galicia, Spain's equivalent
to America's Pacific Northwest.
So who walks the Camino de
Santiago today? Thousands of travelers of every age from around the world.
In just one typical year, there were over 25,000 pilgrims from 72 countries.
But what attracts folks to
the Camino? For many it is the solitude and chance to shut out the distractions
of a busy world, to meditate, to reaffirm their faith, to search for answers,
to find inspiration. This is the perfect venue, since it can be a walking
meditation, not a marathon.
For others it is the chance
to discover precious, little-seen art and architecture, such as Astorga's
magnificent Bishop's Palace built by renowned architect Antonio Gaudi.
It's a chance to stroll ancient Roman roads and appreciate twenty-arch
stone bridges like the Paso Honroso, commemorating a month-long jousting
tournament in 1434. Or you might explore castles built by the Knights Templar,
elaborate fountains, frescoes, sculpture and relics sequestered in tiny
romanesque churches along the way.
For some, it is simply the
opportunity to take part in a rich tradition of wandering the same path
in the same spirit (and earning the same aching muscles and blisters) as
millions of peregrinos over the past millennium. Certainly a highlight
is savoring Spain's rich culture. If you're lucky, you might arrive in
a village during their version of the running of the bulls, or during a
Saint's Day festival, complete with memorable local cuisine, traditional
costumes, lively games and parades. Or just revel in the exploration of
traditional delicacies, from the wonderful selection of rustic chorizo
(sausage) and hearty sheep cheeses of the distinctive Basque region to
Portomarin's enormous almond pastries, Torta de Santiago, decorated with
sword and shepherd's staff, to the tapas, pulpo (octopus) and other fresh
seafood delights of Galicia. Sip delicious viño tinto wines across
Rioja, Burgos and the Mesa and delicate white wines poured at arm's length
into pottery saucers in Galicia, most of which you'll never find at home.
Whatever your motivation,
villagers will often surprise you with a "Buena Camino!" from their modest
doorstep or second floor window, or may graciously fill your water bottle.
Peregrinos have trod this path for a thousand years and these towns have
a long tradition of hosting travelers. You'll still see bags of water hanging
over the doorways of some inns, symbolic of the days when innkeepers washed
the feet of pilgrim guests.
Walking the Camino can take
as little as 26-30 days if you plan to do it in one stretch. Or can take
as long as you wish. Many hike two weeks one year and two the next. Bicyclists
typically spend two weeks on the trail.
When you finally arrive in
the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, an emotionally charged finale
is to attend the Peregrino Mass, featuring the world's largest incense
burner, the Botafumeiro, swung nearly at ceiling level by eight men, back
and forth across the transept. Then join the throngs in paying a reverent
visit to the apostle St. James' tomb. Later, with your Pilgrim's Credential
filled with stamps from all of your refugio stays and church visits in
hand, go to the Office of Peregrinos to receive your official Compostela,
certificate, as proof of your pilgrimage.
As always, it is the journey
that matters, not the destination. Remember this and with any luck you'll
find whatever answers you seek on this or any journey.
to Travel Guide / Galicia