Pilgrimages don't have to be punitive, says Lizzie Enfield. Why not take the path of the pampered instead?
If you think pilgrimages are meant to be all about hair shirts, shrift and suffering, think again.
The Camino de Santiago is one of the world's best known walking routes, ending at the magnificent Romanesque cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It takes in historic cities, bustling towns and picturesque fishing ports. It passes through dense forests, beneath vines and alongside rivers. Yes, walking is the main point of it, but a new emerging breed of pilgrims need not necessarily shoulder a large backpack or stay in bunkhouses.
Instead, luggage is transported, hotels are luxury paradors or boutique country boltholes, food is fine and you can relax at the end of a day with massages and spa treatments.
Take a break from the trail in Espagat, a spa complex in Santiago with a series of saunas, steam rooms, Turkish baths, jet pools, contrast showers and stellaris (an area of warm marbles with music therapy).
With prices from €24.90, it's the perfect place for pummeling weary limbs and giving sore feet a little TLC. There's also a cold gel massage treatment for tired legs (€20), a rehydrating chocolate body wrap (€30) or a foot-polishing pedicure that restores pilgrims' feet (medieval pilgrims walked with stones in their shoes) back to respectable, every-day feet). It costs €20.50.
Illustrative of the trend towards less punitive pilgrimages, the Oblatas Convent, once home to an order of nuns, is now the five-star Hotel Palacio del Carmen (palaciodelcarmen.com).
Set in the old centre of Santiago where sisters once lived in simple cells, rooms are spacious and suites look out directly on to the golden granite spires of the cathedral, stretching high above the UNESCO heritage city.
The cathedral attracts thousands of visitors, especially between April and October. During peak months in July and August, the Pilgrim Office can receive up to 1,500 pilgrims a day and crowds of visitors all around the cathedral can spoil your visit. Head there early at 7am or before it closes at 8.30pm.
Walking! Blister plasters excepted, walking is free and there's lots to take in: pretty churches, ornate hórreos (raised grain stores), quirky sculptures (my favourite is a Gormleyesque wire figure of a man filled with discarded mineral water bottles) and shrines, like the one to San Telmo beside the 'bridge of fevers,' where the saint died of a fever on his way home from Santiago in 1251. Plus roadside stalls selling the famous pulpo a la Gallega (octopus boiled in a large copper pan and served with olive oil and herbs).
Getting lost! There are no detailed OS-style maps, although the Camino is well marked with yellow arrows and the emblematic scallop shell. Locals will also help, pointing you back in the right direction with a friendly 'Camino'.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela in summer (it also flies to Bilbao this winter).
Camino Ways (caminoways.com) has a 'Pampering Package' available on selected routes. A seven-night Superior Collection package walking from Tui to Santiago (104km) starts from €995pps without flights, but including half-board accommodation, luggage transfers and holiday pack with practical route information (including pilgrim passport and route notes). It also includes a complimentary spa treatment in Santiago.