A fierce sun beats down against your back. Your bag is heavy, your feet are sore and you’ve walked for two weeks through northern Spain, with two more to go before you reach Santiago de Compostela.
You tread the same route that Christian pilgrims have taken for more than a millennium. Once, it was only the truly pious who set off on the holy route, but now the Camino de Santiago has become a spiritual journey that transcends religion, attracting more than 250,000 pilgrims each year.
The Camino de Santiago – or the Way of St James – was first taken in the Middle Ages, when King Alfonso II heard that the holy remains of the apostle St James had been discovered, and travelled west from his court in Oviedo to Galicia to confirm it. He ordered a basilica to be built to house the remains in Santiago de Compostela, and that cathedral became a shrine, with Catholics flocking from across Europe to pay their respects – and to cut down on the time they’d spend in purgatory after death.
For believers and non-believers alike, it’s a contemplative journey. Some choose to travel traditionally by walking the whole way (you can cycle or go on horseback, too) and find cheap shelter in refugios and albergues – hostels for pilgrims – run by churches and local councils.
At each point on the trail there’s a stamp for your pilgrim passport, and when you reach the end – provided you’ve walked the last 100km – there’s a certificate to prove it. Others take the Camino to discover a Spain of aqueducts, castles, cathedrals and monasteries – many transformed into luxurious hotels.
This week a group of celebrities – including Neil Morrissey, Debbie McGee, the Reverend Kate Bottley and Ed Byrne – will set out on the Camino to reflect on their own relationship with spirituality and faith in The Pilgrimage on BBC2.
There are hundreds of routes, but the most popular is the Camino Francés – the French Way. It starts in the idyllic town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees and passes through the Spanish cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León, before continuing into the region of Galicia.
Discover old Hemingway haunts in Pamplona, the medieval six-arched bridge in Puente la Reina, and Spain’s finest wine in La Rioja. Burgos’s cathedral is a marvel of intricate Gothic architecture – and while there, be sure to try Ribera del Duero wine and morcilla (blood sausage). León’s cathedral boasts breathtaking stained-glass windows, while Astorga is home to Gaudí’s fairy-tale Palacio Episcopal. When you reach Galicia you enter Celtic Spain – the town of O Cebreiro is one of the first stops and is full of round, pre-Roman mountain dwellings called pallozas.
The Camino del Norte – the Northern Way – is the road less travelled, but more picturesque. It favours the coast over cathedrals, and runs parallel to the sea. Starting in the Basque town of Irún, it passes through Spain’s foodie capital of San Sebastián; the historic town of Guernica, bombed by Hitler during the Spanish Civil War and immortalised in Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece, Guernica; and Bilbao, where the Guggenheim Museum houses cultural treasures and is an architectural marvel in its own right. The walk is tougher-going, but it’s worth it for the rich landscapes – this is lush, green Spain, a world away from the costas of the south.
Santiago de Compostela is a vibrant city where Romanesque, Baroque and Renaissance architecture come together. The cathedral is its centre, and a Pilgrim’s Mass is held every day at noon to greet the weary walkers. Visit the Alameda Park, the sprawling Plaza del Obradoiro and the Convent of San Francisco, and buy Galician delicacies at the Mercado de Abastos – Padrón peppers, traditional tetilla cheese and the best seafood in Spain.
The Hostal dos Reis Católicos opposite the cathedral was built as a hospital for pilgrims in 1486; now, it is a five-star Parador hotel – considered the oldest hotel in the world and one of the most beautiful. It’s the perfect place to celebrate completing the Camino – and to contemplate your journey, spiritual and physical, with a glass of Albariño wine.
Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago begins on Friday 16 March on BBC2