Pilgrims' Progress: Santiago de Compostela
You see them the moment you leave the airport. Young pilgrims. Old pilgrims. Solitary figures and tightly-knit groups, walking sticks in hand, plodding with weary feet and scallop shells tied to their backpacks.
They're entering the final stages of the Camino de Santiago, a spiritual trail dating from the Middle Ages. But where exactly are they going? And what will they do when they get there?
The destination, of course, is Santiago de Compostela. The capital of Galicia has been the goal for countless pilgrims over the centuries, most of whom make a beeline for its Romanesque centrepiece: the Cathedral of St James. You can't miss it. Anchoring Praza Obradoiro, the building is like a Gothic spaceship, entrancing tourists and walkers alike - many simply collapsing on to the ground in front of it.
A pilgrims' mass takes place at 12pm daily, with gigantic incense boats floated across the cathedral's crossing. The queues to see St James's tomb can be long (as can those for the rooftop tour), but don't miss the central column of the Portico de Gloria - worn to a texture resembling candlewax by the hands of passing pilgrims. Touching is off-limits today, but it's an oddly beautiful sight.
As is the case in old towns all over the globe, eateries can be hit and miss around central Santiago. However, I loved stumbling into the wonderful old-world sanctum of Café Casino (www.cafecasino.es).
The café is deep-set, with chestnut wood panels and chandeliers depicting allegorical scenes and fabric-upholstered chairs that wouldn't be out of place in Vienna. I wolfed down a bowl of Galician stew for €5, and sat soaking up the atmosphere.
LIKE A LOCAL
Santiago is a small city and it sometimes struggles to absorb tourists in the summer months. Tight streets like Rua dó Franco and Rua dó Vilar seem ready to burst at the seams, with pilgrims, students, visitors and the inevitable human statues mashed-up in the narrowness.
You can get a flavour of local lifestyles by dipping into the Mercado de Abastos, however (www.mercadodeabastosdesantiago.com), where ancient architecture combines with the slap and squelch of meat, fish and vegetables in a symphony of everyday living.
With an octopus (pulpo) or chunky loaf of Galician sourdough under your arm, you'll blend right in.
Praza Obradoiro dominates the city, but there are several smaller squares worth exploring. Carbaleira de Santa Susana hums with street stalls and old men sitting on benches. At Praza das Praterías, pilgrims pile out of mass past a fountain of rearing horses. The Pilgrims' Museum (www.mdperegrinacions.com) is worth a nose, or you could push on to Finisterre, the rocky peninsula where medieval pilgrims reached the 'end of the earth'. It's a 100km bus ride (or walk).
The Hostal dos Reis Católicos (www.parador.es; from €190 per room) is the quintessential Santiago de Compostela hotel, a luxurious parador overlooking Praza Obradoiro like an elegant lady watching the opera. Nearby Hospedería San Martin Pinario (www.sanmartinpinario.eu; from €63 per room) has been hosting pilgrims since the 1600s. Both are classic choices.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela. Camino Ways (01 525 886; caminoways.com) offers walking and cycling packages on the Camino, with six nights on the French Way starting from €489pp in low season. The price includes rooms, dinners and luggage transfers, but not flights. Cycling starts from €633pp.