Pilgrimage across Spanish countryside is heaven-sent
AT lunchtime on day five of our walk in Spain, we were feeling the effects of rain and several steep climbs.
We weren't about to give up, but we were struggling.
By the side of the road was a very ordinary building that seemed like a café and bar.
It was the chance to get under cover that attracted us more than the thought of food or drink.
We walked in to be greeted by a scene that might have been from a cheap Western movie - a few tables and chairs, a bar along one wall that would not survive if too many drinkers leaned on it at once, with a very basic kitchen behind, and in the corner to the right of the entrance two rough toilets, one with the door missing.
It was difficult to know what colour the walls and ceiling had been painted originally, since they were covered in writing which I soon realised was the names with their countries left by hundreds of visitors - pilgrims on the legendary el Camino Santiago (Way of St James) in Spain.
We were in A Casa Verde and greeted warmly by a voluptuous hostess and group of young pilgrims who it turned out were from Spain and Mexico.
The wild experience in the bar, helped by a bocadillo (sandwich) and wine, revived us for the penultimate leg of our 116km Galician journey from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela and the finale in the cathedral of that name.
Several pilgrimage routes exist from different areas of Spain and beyond, but we were on the last "section" of the most famous, Camino Frances, which starts from Saint Jean de Pied de Port in France, nearly 800km from Santiago de Compostela.
Our trip to Spain began in Madrid, a truly wonderful city historically and culturally where we had no safety and security issues despite warnings and anecdotes of theft and harassment.
Gastronomically, the ham, bread and beer delights of a Museo del Jamón make a wonderful memory as did the tapas at the Estado Puro restaurant opposite one of the cultural highlights, the Museo Nacional del Prado, and within the walking distance of another, Reina Sofia Museum, which houses Picasso's Guernica and works by Dali.
Finally, there was the huge celebrated sculpture on Mont de Gozo (Hill of Joy) overlooking Santiago.
The sculpture marks a visit by the Pope in 1989.
Down the hill into Santiago, at least the more modern part of the city, with a huge storm engulfing us like a final curtain before clearing for the last few kilometres into the historic part of the city and along Vina San Pedro, eventually reaching the vast, historic Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela which dates back to 1075.
There we had our Pilgrim's Passport verified and received a Compostela certificate as well as celebrating with attendance at the daily Pilgrim's Mass.
The finale of the mass is the blessing with the huge historic Botafumeiro, a centuries-old 1.6m incense burner weighing 80kg, which swings over a 65m arc with the aid of a pulley system and the strength of eight tiraboleiros (church assistants).
Legend has it that the incense was to counter the odour of sweaty, unwashed pilgrims.
While for many of the 100,000 who do it annually the walk is a religious experience, perhaps for most in an increasingly secular world it is as much if not more of historical, cultural and spiritual significance.
For others, it is just another tick on the list. But hopefully for all it is a special experience to follow the UNESCO-listed Way of St James where thousands on thousands have gone before over centuries.
- For the 116km final leg from Sarria alone, a reasonably good level of fitness is required with a walk of up to 22km a day; the route has some reasonable ups and downs.
- The trail covers dirt and gravel paths, stone footpaths, quieter country roads and some walking along the side of main roads.
- Training is recommended covering walking in your neighbourhood, parks, hilly areas, national parks and the like.
- Comfortable and sturdy walking shoes with good walking socks (better than day-to-day walking shoes and socks).
- Good-quality wind and waterproof jacket essential.
- Many websites have information and blogs about The Camino including http://www.santiago-compostela.net/.