THE Camino Way has existed for centuries and one of its routes, The Way of St James, was one of the world’s most important Christian pilgrimages in medieval times.
In less than a decade the number of Irish pilgrims walking the Way of St James — or Camino de Santiago in Spanish — has increased almost ten-fold, from 563 pilgrims in 2004 to 5012 last year.
And it is easy to see why.
I recently travelled to Galicia in north-western Spain at the invitation of CaminoWays.com — an agency that specialises in walking, cycling and horse riding holidays along the Way of St James.
I discovered that not only is The Way of St James of spiritual significance as an apostolic sanctuary and the destination of the Middle Ages’ greatest religious and cultural movement; but it also boasts an urban beauty, monumental integrity and a vast stretch of breathtaking coast and scenery.
I packed so much in during my short trip; I walked part of the Camino, toured the cathedral, wined and dined, visited the market and explored the countryside and coast.
Of all of the places I saw, Finisterre was a favourite.
Also top of my list was walking part of the French Way, from Palas de Rei-O Coto and although it was just a short 5-km journey, it gave me an understanding of why people walk the Camino.
As we passed small hamlets, yellow and green fields dotted with trees and shrubbery and narrow streams, we were alone with our thoughts and surrounded by nature but also in like-minded company if we wanted to chat.
Even though it rained the whole way, there was something magical about walking the Camino.
Of all of the Camino routes, the French Way, which starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, 800km from Santiago, is the most popular.
The Finisterre Way however is the only route to start in Santiago.
Finisterre means ‘the end of the world’. I travelled there by bus, along a rugged coastline, past rolling hills, green lands, fertile soils, vegetable gardens, farmyards, quaint houses and small seaside villages and on arrival I was met by a vast blue sea, merged with an equally vast blue horizon.
As I stood on the cliff-top, with Cape Finisterre lighthouse towering behind me, I overlooked the beautiful ocean and suddenly felt so insignificant. I paused to think of the pilgrims who had stood in that very place before me, believing they had actually reached land’s end.
In keeping with an ancient tradition, that supposedly symbolises rebirth, pilgrims’ clothes were lying blackened and burnt after being set on fire on the cliffside.
Another symbol that’s taken on the same meaning is the seashell. At their journeys’ end, pilgrims would take a shell from the Atlantic Ocean and bring it homes to represent a new start.
Nowadays pilgrims carry shells as they’ve become a symbol of the Camino.
After seeing ‘the end of the world’ I set off to Muxía, where the sea was a vivid turquoise and where, according to legend, the remains of a stone boat belonging to the Virgin Mary lie along the coastline. It’s believed her boat crashed when she was travelling there to spread the word of God, at the request of St James.
While I was there, I had a go at an age-old tradition, said to get rid back pain. It involved ducking and diving in to a narrowing opening between two rocks, nine times. I can safely say it didn’t work and I think I came out with more war wounds than when I went in, but it was fun trying.
After each day’s outing I returned to my hotel, Hotel San Francisco in Santiago de Compostela, just 150ms from the famous Santiago de Compostela Cathedral where there’s a shrine to the apostle St James.
Supposedly the saint’s remains are buried in a tomb within the cathedral grounds.
The discovery was made in the 9th century and once King Alfonso II saw the tomb, he declared James the patron saint of his kingdom.
Rooftop tours of the cathedral are available and the views from the top are magnificent.
In 1985, Santiago de Compostela was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO.
The old town is incredibly beautiful and you could easily spend hours roaming the streets, taking it all in.
Tobacconists and cafes are plentiful and taking time to sit and people watch is a must.
Seeking out the opera singers who frequent the old town and serenade passers-by with traditional Spanish music is also worthwhile.
There are four town squares in the old town, alongside them are cobblestone streets lined with shops selling holy medals, shells, trinkets and jewellery; at some shopfronts, women offer traditional cakes to coax people in.
Six days a week the market — Mercado de Abastos — operates from one of the squares, selling fresh local meat, fish and vegetables.
During my stay I feasted on local produce at restaurants including Altamira, Cape Finisterre lighthouse, Don Quijote, A Tafona and Casa Somoza.
Menus featured osso bucco, meatballs, pig trotters and fish such as hake, squid and octopus; the vegetarian options included beet with leaves, a tartan of freshly chopped tomatoes, bean casserole, roast peppers stuffed with rice, soup, cheeses and vegetarian paella.
And there was plenty of beer and wine. A bottle of Heineken cost about €2.50 but local beers were just €1.70 a glass and all very palatable.
We also dined at Hotel San Francisco, where I was lucky enough to be staying.
A UNESCO building, the four-star hotel is a former monastery that dates back to 1214.
For anyone looking for a little luxury at the end of a very long Camino, this would be a good choice. Many of the hotel’s beautiful bedrooms overlook a stunning courtyard, there’s a pool and Jacuzzi with a view of the city’s outskirts, friendly staff and good food.
The hotel is also home to the fascinating Holy Land Museum which exhibits more than 700 items from Jerusalem and surrounds; many of which are from the Palaeolithic Age. The Holy Land Museum is the only museum of its kind in the world.
Aer Lingus operates three weekly direct flights from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, from April to October. There is an additional flight on Wednesday during July and August. www.aerlingus.com
CaminoWays.com specialises in Camino de Santiago walking and cycling holidays, including the Fisterra and Muxía Way.
A classic 7-day Camino de Santiago experience covers the last 100km of the French Way to Santiago de Compostela, starting in Sarria.
Prices for this classic Camino walking holiday start at €565 per person sharing (high season April to October).
Request a quote online at www.caminoways.com or contact the CaminoWays.com team on 01 5252886 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
www.santiagoturismo.com for local information, what to see and do, events coming up in Santiago de Compostela.
For tourist information about Spain: www.spain.info/www.facebook.com/spaininireland /@spaininireland