Last spring, I fulfilled a long held dream of doing part of the world-famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela and, along with one of my daughters, completed 115 exhausting but exhilarating kilometres along the popular French route, ending up in Santiago.
While, like all pilgrims, we paid homage at the cathedral, we were too wrecked to do much except relax, congratulate ourselves, eat tapas and drink beer, and indulge in a little light shopping. In short, we barely scratched the surface of this magnificent city. So, invited to revisit this entrancing tip of northwestern Spain, and explore Galicia, I jumped at the chance.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon in early April and the beautiful university city was bathed in spring sunshine. We checked in at our hotel; housed in the 18th Century convent of San Francisco, it had all 4-star comforts including jacuzzi, pool and Wi-Fi as well as an impressive museum devoted to the history of the Holy Land, and was located in the historic centre, where we had our first appointment – an evening rooftop tour of the cathedral. This was a stunning experience. Even one of our group, who suffered from a fear of heights, overcame her phobia to step out on to the sloping slates and learn the history of the extraordinary edifice.
When the remains of St James were discovered in the 9th Century, a sanctuary was erected on this spot in 1075 and many Gothic, Renaissance and baroque additions have resulted in today's monumental cathedral. We were shown the gallery where the giant puppets were being prepared for Easter celebrations, and the Portico da Gloria. The Portico is a magnificent Romanesque entrance commissioned by King Ferdinand of Leon, and touched by many pilgrims in the hope of reaching heaven. Behind it is the statue of its creator, Master Mateo, where tradition had it, if you butted your forehead against his, you would absorb some of his genius. Preservation orders though have stopped these practices.
Our guide explained how the city was essentially a huge cemetery but the only tomb I was interested in seeing was the silver casket (massive queues put me off the last time) containing the relics of St James. We went down to the crypt underneath the altar and I said a prayer for a young acquaintance who had died a couple of days earlier.
All roads lead to Santiago: there are 12 different ways – or caminos – French, Northern, English, Portugese, but there's just one camino out of Santiago and some chose to continue their pilgrimage onwards. This is the 90 kilometres to Fisterra, 'the end of the world'. Apart from a little spot in Portugal, this is the most westerly tip of mainland Europe, located on the Costa de la Muerte, or 'coast of death', so called for the many shipwrecks which occurred here and because, according to myth, it represented where the land of the living met the land of the dead.
After lunch and a visit to Cape Finisterre's famous lighthouse, we headed up the coast to Muxia, a dramatically beautiful stretch of coastline, rich in lore. According to legend, St James, having difficulty spreading the word of God in these parts, asked the Virgin Mary for help. She arrived in a stone boat which crashed on the jagged edges of the shoreline and some of the stones remain to this day.
Amongst them is the rocking stone which was used once upon a time as a lie detector. If you were suspected of having committed a crime, you were brought to the rocking stone and questioned. If the stone rocked, you were in trouble.
Returning to Santiago, we visited the university's Bilblioteca America, its ancient walls and artefacts in dramatic contrast to the hi tech minimalist library we viewed earlier in the City of Culture. Designed by the renowned American architect Peter Eisenman and situated on Mount Gaias which overlooks Santiago, this is a modern complex of buildings comprising library, museum, archive and exhibition spaces. Vastly ambitious in purpose, sadly it has fallen victim to the recession which has swept through Spain, but the parts that have been constructed offer a tantalising, if frustrating, clue of what might have been. And, indeed, might yet be.
Our sampling of Galician culture included its gastronomic delights – among the highlights, an unusual beetroot cappuccino, scallops cured in sea water, foie gras mi-cuit, mackerel cured in sea salt and, of course, the famous Tarta de Santiago – a luscious almond confection commemorating their beloved saint. We also visited the Mercado de Abastos, the city's famous food market which operates six days a week and offers a vast array of sea and farm products; our gang stocked up on olive oil, cheese and garlic.
The raison d'etre of Galicia though for me (as for so many others) is the camino. My favourite moment of a memorable trip took in a short five kilometre walk of it, aptly in the company of a guide called Jesus. It's one of the prettiest sections through forests and a gently meandering dried out river bed. The camino has a tremendous pull. As I walked it, I had the strongest feeling that I must return soon. Back in my hotel room that evening, a text from a friend arrived: 'Let's do the Camino next year'.
How to get there
CaminoWays.com specialises in Camino de Santiago walking and cycling holidays, including the Fisterra and Muxía Way.
A classic seven-day Camino de Santiago experience covers the last 100km of the French Way to Santiago de Compostela, starting in Sarria. Prices for this 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 by phone 01 525 2886 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Aer Lingus operate three weekly direct flights from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, from April to October. For more information www.aerlingus.com
Turismo de Santiago
www.santiagoturismo.com for local information, what to see and do, events coming up in Santiago de Compostela, to book guided tours of the city and more.
Spanish Tourist Board
For tourist information about Spain: www.spain.info / www.facebook.com/spaininireland / @spaininireland