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Taste of a pilgrimage the camino-lite way

It had been a tough enough climb; a solid trek up a twisting path carved into the mountain conducted in silence as we saved our breath for the final ascent.

The only sound was the "flit-flit" of finger-sized lizards disturbed as they bathed in the sun and fleeing into the cover of wild fennel that grows in such abundance in this part of northern Spain.

We reached the high point and got our reward. The Bay of Biscay or "Bizkaiko golkoa" in Basque, lay before us, flat calm and a stunning azure blue beneath a cloudless sky.

We were only a few miles outside Bilbao, and when we had started our five-day walk to the port city of Santander just a few hours earlier we had donned rain jackets as a furious squall whipped into the city and left the Guggenheim museum shimmering.

Now it was brilliantly bright and we were in T-shirts and stout hiking boots.

There are various routes across Europe which end in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, where the bones of St James the Apostle are allegedly buried.

Ostensibly our task was to complete just one section (about one fifth) of the northern route of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St James), a pilgrimage trail more than 1,000 years old.

The camino is a pilgrimage whose time has come. As I write, The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen, has hit the cinema screens. It tells the story of an American doctor whose son is killed on the camino. When he goes to the French-Spanish border to have his son's body cremated, the doctor, played by Sheen, decides to walk the route himself, taking the ashes with him.

In the movie Sheen does the whole shebang, walking hundreds of miles over six weeks and staying in humble albergues (hostels) on his voyage of self-discovery.

We, on the other hand, were enjoying "camino-lite", staying in chic boutique hotels in Bilbao and Santander and quaint agriturismo hotels in small seaside towns between the cities. The best we stayed in was La Rivera de Escalante a reclaimed 18th-Century farmhouse in Escalante (www.posadalarivera.com).

Our luggage was transported from hotel to hotel. All we had to carry was a day pack, which included delicious bread, cheese and cured meats filched from the hotel breakfast buffet and enjoyed mid-morning. Real pilgrims carry enormous rucksacks with all the gear and food they need for a six-week trek. It was no wonder we were passing them with ease.

So even though, according to the rules, we were entitled to get our camino passport stamped at each stopover, we declined. To our minds, ours was simply a walking holiday rather than a pilgrimage -- though we followed the yellow arrows and scallop symbols that point the way on the camino.

Not that it wasn't a physical challenge. The two longest days were each 27km hikes and the northern route, though undoubtedly beautiful because of its coastal aspect, is also fairly hilly. As a regular runner myself, I would suggest a decent level of fitness is required.

We rose early and after three hours were more than ready for a picnic. At noon it was into a village for cafe con leche and two generous measures of Veterano -- good Spanish brandy from Jerez. The whole lot for just €6.

Sometimes Deirdre and I split up for an hour or so and followed our own pace, taking in the stunning scenery and wildlife. Buzzards wheeled above us, tilting their massive wings to make the most of the warm air radiating off the hillsides, and crystal-clear streams were alive with trout. A word of advice -- don't mess with the prickly pear -- a fiendish cactus that I examined outside Laredo. You can see the inch-long thorns that form its first defence but this plant has another trick -- tiny razor sharp barbs that I spent two days removing from my hands.

And so the days went by. Yes, we were walking, but this was a lazy holiday, taken at our own pace. We spent most of our days in relative solitude.

Usually, we made our next destination by late afternoon, checked in, rested a while, and then explored the locality until dinner which starts late (8.30pm) in these parts. Generally, hunger got the better of me and a cold beer and some pinchos of crusty bread and a slice of flavoursome Iberian ham kept the wolf from the door. Dinner always came with a complimentary bottle of wine and breads.

In this part of Spain they have two main courses of equal size -- perhaps a substantial mixed salad with tuna and asparagus, followed by pan-fried fish or meat served with a small garnish of salad leaves. Coffee and perhaps membrillo con queso (a sweet, dense quince jelly served with a cream cheese) to finish.

By day three, we had left the Basque country behind and entered Cantabria. It's lush and green and rather beautiful. Almost everyone here has a vegetable garden, growing scallions, lettuce, and all sorts of greens (including cucumbers) beneath the shade of walnut trees.

The gardeners gave us a friendly wave and shouted "buen camino!" We felt a little fraudulent taking the salutation that should be the preserve of real pilgrims.

Our final destination was Somo, a small seaside town across the bay from Santander. We took the ferry in bright sunshine into the elegant port city, where we spent Friday evening and Saturday before flying home, utterly relaxed.


Jerome travelled with Dublin-based CaminoWays.com. The package includes six nights' accommodation on a half-board basis from €474. It includes luggage transfer, holiday pack with walking notes and maps and 24/7 on-the-ground assistance. The website is: www.caminoways.com and the address is 6-9 Trinity Street, Dublin 2. Tel: (01) 525 28 86 or email: info@caminoways.com

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