Travel: A glorious Galician odyssey
Camino de Santiago de Compostela
Left foot. Right foot. Glug of water and lean on stick. There they are. The twin towers of Santiago de Compostela's cathedral. An apparition piercing the gloom on a misty Galician afternoon. Only another kilometre to go, through streets that welcome me with cockle-shell emblems (the pilgrim's signpost) on doorways and steepening inclines, just to be sure I'm getting a last workout before I'm allowed to come to a stop.
I've wondered all week about Santiago de Compostela. I pictured hordes of arriving pilgrims that have been drawn there from across Europe, eyes bedazzled and their euphoria-ridden brains reassessing the man upstairs. I had conjured the city of St James's resting place in my mind as my eyes made brief excursions up the map to the big patch denoting this grail.
With Ourense in the far north-west of Spain as my starting point, my journey is upon the Via de la Plata, one of several routes through the Iberian Peninsula that are collectively known as The Way of St James. It is less subscribed than the comparatively bustling French Way that begins in the Pyrenees and runs all along the top of Spain. Instead, the Via de la Plata traces quietly from south to north, parallel to the Portuguese border, with "plata" (silver) referring to the Sevillian merchants who used the pathway as a trade route.
The idea to eschew more well-trodden approaches was given to me by Camino Ways, a walking-holiday company which has understood that there are many out there who want to experience the Camino de Santiago de Compostela without taking six weeks off work.
Instead, Camino Ways arrange treks that take in the final 100km of the Unesco-stamped pilgrimage, the minimum amount required to earn the "Compostela", an official certificate of recognition that has been issued to holy wayfarers by the Cathedral de Santiago since the Middle Ages.
With the spires now in touching distance, it's funny to think how hard such a vista was to contemplate when I set off. The point had come during my five days of walking when Santiago was no longer a place full of people, streets and bus routes, but an idea, an airy concept sucking me towards it for some reason and helping me ignore complaining hamstrings.
No, the real magic of this undertaking is not its destination or any religious bent that others try to place upon it. Spells were instead cast in small moments of pastoral isolation among the luscious, rolling beauty of the ultra-green Galician countryside. Small freeholds and stony rural villages in various states of lucidity crawling past. Oak forests as mossy and cool as anything in Connemara giving way to vineyards and corn crops so compact you wonder who could subsist off such a yield. You rest on a coniferous hilltop that looks out across the land to bluer relatives on the horizon.
As yellow arrows and cockle-shell plaques point the way, you also become very mindful of what is under foot as well. Your stick taps down on paving stones as old as time, then grit tracks, dry brook beds and asphalt. A medieval bridge in a river forest is the stuff of Tolkien, while a stormy night turns the forest path out of Cea into cascading torrents that require some careful negotiating.
And there was no-one around for long stretches of it. A plinth by a fountain was the perfect place to soothe hot feet and eat an orange, with only dragonflies to share the sunshine. My first day ended in the silent town square of Cea with the most refreshing bottle of beer I've ever earned a right to gulp, letting endorphins course through tired limbs.
In a forest stretch between the small city of Silleda and Ponte Ulla, I found myself stopping to savour the early morning sun being split by boughs and trunks, illuminating fine shrouds of gossamer on the ferns. Jays flitted about collecting acorns and I couldn't remember experiencing before such utter and blissful solitude.
A week of travelling should not be thought of as an exile from the rest of mankind, however. I encountered a small but friendly handful of fellow pilgrims during the week, some with more to say than others. Locals inevitably provide most of the human colouring and offer a variety of connections unseen. Uphill from the Eco-esque monastery at Oseira, to where a Galician farmer with blood on his face walked his dogs in apparel straight out of 1970s Cleggan. Another in blue overalls herded his cows towards me on a quiet lane. I made way for them by a stile as he stopped for the kind of friendly, effortless chat that makes you thankful you don't have the iPod. He's probably been chatting to pilgrims like me for decades.
The evenings are another time to become reacquainted with fellow humans, and wash the day's exertions off. Helpfully, Camino Ways sources a superb collection of owner-run guesthouses that collect and deposit you at stages on your trip. Luggage is forwarded on to your next accommodation and is awaiting you when you get there.
This was all very pleasing, and that's before matters of hot baths and hearty Galician cuisine are taken into account. So good were the ingredients of the Camino experience that this atheist had a hard time keeping his godlessness intact. Casa Casarellos placed a bottle of peppery local Valderroa before me and served veal so tender it collapsed off its shank bone beside sweet grilled peppers and roast spuds. It was my first night on an ancient pilgrimage and I was already sighing the Lord's name in gratitude. Similarly, Casa Goris, run by a sturdy Spaniard called Antonio, set a quiet table by their huge open hearth fire. Flames licked Spanish logs and divine food caused the atheist to once again proclaim His name.
The heavy rain is now hammering down on the clean granite streets of Santiago as I sit eating Spanish ham and ornate pinchos. German trekkers hug each other and locals roll their eyes ever so slightly. My mind is not there with them right now, though. I'm still back out on the Camino, putting one foot in front of the other.
CaminoWays.com specialises in Camino de Santiago walking and cycling holidays. An eight-day Camino de Santiago experience walking the last section of the Via de la Plata route from the city of Ourense to Santiago de Compostela starts from €599pps. www.caminoways.com, contacting the CaminoWays.com team on 01 525 2886 or by email – firstname.lastname@example.org