BY ALEN MCMAHON
The Camino Francés is the most popular of the pilgrimage routes. It starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and finishes about 780km later in Santiago de Compostela, where, according to tradition, the tomb of Saint James is located.
Historically pilgrims would have made the long walk to Santiago de Compostela for religious reasons, but these days the majority hit the trail to get away from their daily life and connect with the great outdoors. Or people looking for a new challenge, walkers wanting to test themselves physically and mentally along the way. One man I met along the way, Jürgen from Germany, had recently lost his job, his marriage broke up, so he decided what better time to do it.
St Jean Pied de Port is the traditional starting point for Camino Francés, but we start at the Somport Pass visiting the ruins of the Santa Cristina Pilgrims Hospital which is estimated to date back to the 11th century. When the pilgrims reached the hospital, tired and hungry, they were welcomed free of charge for a maximum period of three days. Here they had the opportunity to rest from the long and arduous journey in a building reserved for them and they were offered abundant food. Our guides, Aragon Adventures (www.aragonaventura.es) then take us to Jaca, an important stop along the Camino. There we visit the citadel, a great example of 16th-century military architecture, which was declared a National Monument. Construction work for the citadel began in 1592.
Another highlight is Saint Peter’s Cathedral, the first Romanesque cathedral built in Aragon and one of the oldest in the Iberian peninsula.
The next day we head for the mountains for a very special sight along the Camino Francés that you should definitely visit. Hidden in the Pyrenees, near to Jaca is the spectacular Monastery of San Juan de la Peña – one of the jewels of the medieval age and one of the most important monuments in the area. The monastery was built below the great rock (peña) that gives its name. The carvings throughout the monastery are superb and well preserved. Many of these were not just for decoration but intended to teach the Bible to local Christians who during these times weren’t able to read.
Passing into the Navarre region, we are led to the Monastery of Leire which contains magnificent treasures such as an 11th-century crypt, a Gothic church vault and the Porta Speciosa, a beautiful Romanesque portico from the 12th century. However, it’s the moving Gregorian chants that stay in your mind after a visit. Every evening at seven o’clock, the Benedictine monks gather and fill the church with Gregorian chant.
Our next port of call is Pamplona, the city is famous worldwide for the San Fermín festival, in which the running of the bulls is one of the main attractions. This fiesta was first brought to widespread attention by Ernest Hemingway in his novel, The Sun Also Rises. That evening we dined at the Café Iruña which was once the favourite café of Hemingway. Leaning on its bar is a life-size sculpture of Hemingway, which welcomes the visitor. The next morning we enjoyed a walk along the city’s ramparts which yields some magnificent views.
Next is the jewel of the city, Pamplona’s cathedral, a visit is a must. The cathedral has a neoclassical façade, while the interior and the 14th-century cloister are Gothic. The real joy is the Gothic cloister with delicate stonework.
Another impressive sight along the Camino Francés is the town of Puente la Reina. Outstanding among its legacy of historic buildings is the Church of the Crucifix, which was originally built by the Knights Templar as a single nave church with an apse starting in 1146. Inside, out of the darkness, we hear the beautiful sounds of a troubadour singing and playing a lute. Afterwards Emilio comes outside to the light where he exchanges his lute for a hurdy-gurdy and continues the medieval tradition of singing in churches along the caminos.
The next day, we get to Logroño. Logroño is ideal for spending a day or more to discover its picturesque squares and historical churches. The Church of San Bartolomé and Santa María de la Redonda cathedral are the main attractions here. Beyond these landmarks, the city is also famous for its cuisine, with pintxo (Basque tapas) bars waiting to welcome you in every corner.
As the sun sets José from www.eleducadorenvinos.com, a company specialised in wine tourism services for individuals or companies, takes us to Laurel street, pintxos heaven. It’s packed with tiny bars, many of which are standing room only. Often enjoyed with family and friends, pintxos have a strong social component and are considered an important part of local culture.
Twenty minutes from Logroño is the town of Navarrete which is home to an outstanding religious building. The Church of Our Lady of the Assumption contains a Baroque altarpiece from the end of the 17th century. From the floor to the ceiling of the apse, the main altar is covered with golden reliefs and polychrome figures. This altarpiece is a truely amazing sight.
The city of Burgos beckons next. We leave La Rioja behind and enter into Castilla y León, the largest of Spain’s autonomous communities. The city’s main attractions lean heavily towards the religious as this is an important step on the Camino. The historical importance of the city where Spanish hero El Cid was born can be seen throughout the landmarks that dot its Old Town. Burgos boasts a masterpiece of Spanish Gothic architecture: the cathedral of Burgos, declared World Heritage. It features an extraordinary assemblage of Gothic art artifacts – starting from the architecture itself and going through the numerous paintings, choir stalls, tombs, and stained-glass windows. The cathedral is also the burial place of the Spanish national hero El Cid and his widow.
Besides the many landmarks, you’ll find everything that makes Spain so attractive in Burgos: good local food and wines and a laid-back atmosphere. The restaurants are generally very affordable and for a small city there is a lot of variety. The signature dish of this region is roasted lamb cooked over a wood fire.
Leon and the Castile-León region is next, but along the way we stop for a sightseeing tour by boat along the only navigable stage of the Camino de Santiago and the Canal de Castilla. The boat trip is 3km long and provides a welcome change of colors from the tans and browns of the previous parts of the camino.
With its many attractions, León is really a city to rest from fatigue for at least a day or two.
The most prominent attraction here is the Gothic cathedral, but there are many more historical buildings to discover, including the Basílica de San Isidoro or the striking Casa Botines designed by Gaudí.
The cathedral boasts more than 250 remarkable stained-glass windows including a large rose window. In total there is over 1800 square metres of glass.
The cathedral museum is also worthy of a visit and has a wide array of exhibits. At night, the city comes alive with locals flocking to the tapas bars around the historic neighbourhood of Barrio Húmedo.
The closing stages of the Camino Francés pass through the Galicia region. The following day we visit the charming mountain village of O Cebreiro. Nestled, at 1,300 metres the village is home to traditional mountain dwellings of pre-Roman origin, called ‘pallozas’. These unique homes can only be found in this region of Galicia. At the museum, you can see a typical ‘palloza’, divided in three parts: a sleeping area for the heads of the family, a bigger area for general use focused around the hearth and a third space for the livestock. The village has a pilgrims’ hostel and various rural tourism houses.
Half way to Sarria, where our bed for the night awaits, in the midst of a lush valley we find the Benedictine Abbey of Samos, which is still an operating monastery. The abbey was founded in the 6th century and although it is not part of the usual route taken by today’s pilgrims, increasing numbers of them take the detour via this spectacular building, with its long history of offering hospitality to those following the French Camino.
Those looking for the classic Camino experience, the last 100km, start from the buzzing town Sarria. Sarria is a pleasant little town with many cafes and terraces, where you can relax and sample a glass of Albarino. This is the most popular Camino de Santiago stage and it’s a grat option for those seeking a social Camino or if it’s your first time walking the Camino.
The next day we start with a visit to the Church of Vilar de Donas, which lies just over a mile off the Camino. A former priest over 90 is our proud guide and he shows us the church’s treasures which include frescoes, a tomb of a Knight Templar and beautifully carved stonework. It’s an extra special visit for me when he explains that Irish monks helped to build the structure in the 7th century.
About an hour away lies Pambre Castle. This castle is considered to be Galicia’s best example of medieval architecture. It was built in around 1375. This castle is a must see set in stunning scenery with breathtaking views from the top.
Lunch beckons in the town of Melide as we stop at Pulperia A Garnacha for the local speciality Pulpo alla galega. This huge restaurant is packed full of pilgrims every day and the owner tells us that he goes through several hundred kilos of squid every day. We then depart to Ribadiso hostel, to interact with the pilgrims and see its facilities and learn about its history. It’s an idyllic setting by a river and the perfect place to cool one’s feet after a day of hard surface on the Camino.
Our penultimate stop brings us to Monte do Gozo where we enjoy the views of Santiago de Compostela for the very first time. From here pilgrims know that only a few kilometres separate them from a visit to this iconic city.
When you arrive in the city you can explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s architecture and delight in the wonderful atmosphere of this spiritual and cultural mecca.
At the Plaza do Obradoiro we witness the arrival of the pilgrims, it has a very deep symbolism as it is the end of the Camino de Santiago for most. Inside the cathedral, in a crypt beneath the main altar, pilgrims can visit the Tomb of the Apostle St James. As well as being one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in the world, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is a magnificent work of art and religious architecture.
The Pilgrim Reception Office of Santiago de Compostela is just a few minutes walk from Plaza Obradoiro and it’s here that they can request their Compostela certificate.
If you want to get the certificate the required minimum is to walk at least the last 100 km to Santiago de Compostela or to cycle 200 km, not any 100 km on the Camino but the last 100km.
Santiago de Compostela is very much a living city, with other attractions for travellers, pilgrim or not: countless restaurants and bars where you can enjoy the delicious seafood of Galicia. There’s plenty to do in this city which combines history with a younger modern side.
The Camino is a magnificent opportunity to discover some of the most special cities and towns in Spain.
By walking, visitors become much more in touch with everything around them and get to see places that otherwise would be unexplored. From cobblestone villages, breath-taking landscapes, historic churches or visits to pint sized tapas bars and restaurants, the Camino is dotted with thousands of discoveries that could only be made on foot!
On this journey we met pilgrims from all across the globe and the common theme was that doing the Camino is a lifetime experience.
Some talked about how it changed their sense of the world. How every single day was different.
How people they met for just a day or two, were going to be friends for life.
I came away from this magical experience with an overwhelming desire to experience my own Camino which I plan to do in the very near future.
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