These days do people really believe that the apostle James, a fisherman from the Holy Land, was buried at Santiago? Get the polygraph out and not many will pass. But this rainy, glorious, granite town in Spain’s northwest is today a bigger draw than ever. The medieval pilgrim trail, the Camino de Santiago, has been revitalised by a new generation of voyagers – on foot, bike, or horseback – who, for as many reasons as you care to count, are taking on what is a substantial physical challenge.
Why the pilgrimage?
The devout and the atheist march abreast here. Time to think is often cited as a motivating factor. And time there is: although many opt for shorter sections, the full path from the French border is a good five week walk or a fortnight by bike. Friendships forged along the way are another life-enhancing aspect of the journey.
Yet it is the interaction with Spain itself that draws many. Interaction of a slow-paced kind: if you really wish to know a country, walk it. The principal route across Northern Spain, the Camino Francés, is the most popular, and tracks through the noble cathedral cities of Burgos and León, as well as a slice of the Pyrenees and Rioja wine country. It’s an inspiring route, but it’s far from the only path. There are several waymarked caminos to Santiago across Spain – and indeed from all over Europe – allowing you to choose the path that most interests you. Cider and green hillscapes, for example, are features of the Camino del Norte along the verdant northern coast, as are handsome beaches whose bracing waters are sweet relief between hill trudges.
After any stirring journey, the destination, when reached, can often be a disappointment. While in some ways the Camino is merely an excuse for testing yourself on a damn long walk or ride, Santiago itself is a place to make the soul sing. Its cathedral, whose fittingly-named Portico of Glory is covered by a soaring, mossy Baroque façade, is an icon of Galicia and the pilgrim’s reward on arrival.
Xacobeo 2010 – a Holy Year
The high point of Santiago’s year is the feast day of St James, the 25th of July. This is Galicia’s national day and a bouncing fiesta at any time, but when it falls on a Sunday it’s designated a Holy Year. In the cathedral, the midday mass features the alarming botafumeiro, a chunky incense burner swung in a long arc above the heads of the faithful, gathering seemingly suicidal speed as it dispenses its holy perfumes.
This year, 2010, is a Holy Year – the next won’t be until 2021 – and things are gearing up. Xacobeo 2010 is a full cultural program which includes a high-profile series of concerts scheduled across the region all summer long, from high priests and priestesses of world rock and jazz to homegrown Galician folk music. Celtic heritage predominates in the latter which features bagpipes and mournful tones suggestive of a tribe with backs to land and a searching gaze into the misty northern seas.
Seafood and Albariño: the walker’s reward
Traditionally, after the long slog across the agricultural heartlands of northern Spain with bread, soup and stews all the way, the pilgrim munched local scallops once they arrived in Santiago. Not only is it the symbol of St James - possession of a shell was once proof of having completed the pilgrimage - but Galicia lives and breathes seafood. Boiled octopus, salty barnacles and razor clams: succulent walkers’ rewards available in any of Santiago’s numerous taverns.
Northern European monks spread new architectural ideas along the length of the Camino de Santiago, but hats off too to the order that brought Alsatian grapes to plant on the Galician coast. A happy coincidence, Albariño is one of the world’s great seafood wines.
In the Obradoiro square in Santiago, walkers lean against the pillars, blistered feet bared and sun-browned faces gazing up at the cathedral’s majesty. Now at the journey’s end some will yearn to do it all over again, but for now they have one major advantage over their medieval forebears: they don’t have to turn around and walk back home again.