El Camino de Santiago – or The Way of St James – has been a mainstay of European pilgrimage since the Late Middle Ages. St James the Great was martyred in Jerusalem in AD 44, and the apostle’s relics made their way unattended (?) to the shores of Galicia. They were then enveloped in a large rock and finally laid to rest in Santiago de Compostela. Santiago is Spain’s patron saint, known by some as matamoros (‘the Moor Slayer’) for revealing himself at clinch points of the Reconquista. His most famous apparition perhaps was in Charlemagne’s dream, causing the Frankish King to call on Christendom to beat back the Saracen advance and forge a way to St James’ tomb.
The Camino is not one contiguous route, but a sprawling network which traverses the Iberian Peninsula and beyond. We even met pilgrims who’d come from as far away as Czechia. The most popular Camino begins at Roncesvalles on the French border, covering about 500 miles and lasting around a month. Pilgrims are required to walk 100km or cycle 200km to receive the Compostela certificate in Santiago. Budget and time-poor, we decided upon the Camino Inglés. The English Way owes its name to those who would sail from Plymouth and Southampton, resuming their pilgrimages in A Coruña or Ferrol. It seemed nothing more than a leisurely 5 days in the Galician countryside. 116km from Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela.
We must have been among the younger pilgrims on the Camino. If you do think of the average pilgrim at all, think of a fifty-something Irish American woman. We shall call her ‘Patricia O’Callaghan’; she is kitted head to toe in Gore-Tex and determined to show her suburban Boston Church the true meaning of Carpe Diem. Being none of these things, but rather an unbaptised and a (non-practicing) Sufi Muslim, I boarded a 7-hour train from Madrid to Ferrol, accompanied by my friend Gabriel.
Ferrol was a slightly unbecoming starting point for our biblical journey. It felt colder than the meseta, and the few locals who we encountered in sparse tabernas and the local ‘Mobile-Pizza’ did little to remedy this atmosphere. Our hostel owner was imbued with the faint air of fascism still hanging over Franco’s birthplace; she asserted totalitarian dominance by deliberately refusing to give a straight answer to any question we had. 20 minutes passed and we got hold of our credencial booklets, along with a rough idea of where to join the way. The next morning, we picked up some Empanada Gallega and set off for Pontedeume, leaving the unnerving hospedaje and its caudillo behind.
Galicia is a verdant relief from the mind-numbing yellow of Castile. The interior is mountainous and thickly forested, while the coast alternates between rugged cliffs and pretty inlets. In between, vineyards, orchards and pastures abound. This was a far cry from the industrial wilderness surrounding the muddy port of Ferrol. Though, after following the coast through Neda, we entered this lush, rolling countryside, finally descending into Pontedeume after around 6 hours walking. There we stayed in a municipal albergue, paying €5 for the pleasure of a moist towel for a blanket and some bundled up clothes for a pillow. Adequate bedding was a tall order amid a global pandemic, but the scallops and scenery made up for the poor night’s sleep.
Our second stage began the following morning with a steep climb out of Pontedeume. We followed the Vieira through the woods and hugged the Lambre estuary, to finish at arguably the most picturesque stop on the English Way. Betanzos is a walled town of granite houses and gothic churches, neatly arranged on a hill above the River Mandeo. The Plaza Mayor was an ample spot to enjoy baby squid and cold jarra of Estrella Galicia, which is the best lager in the world, despite what Carlsberg’s propaganda machine would have you believe.
After a more comfortable night in a hospedaje, we headed inland. The Betanzos to Bruma leg of the pilgrimage passed bucolic hamlets of pazos and cruceiros. It was supposedly the most arduous, with a steady ascent and few amenities if things were to turn awry. Thankfully they didn’t, and after audaciously outpacing some Italian pensioners we stopped for lunch by the river, three-quarters of the way to our destination. It seemed plain sailing, until we heard from a friendly Dutch couple that the Bruma albergue was closed and hotel places limited. We reposed to a truck stop at Mesón do Vento in the Galician Highlands, dining on seafood broth and raxos. The assortment of dead flies on the windowsill and the barrage of menacing looks from cockeyed truckers did little to taint the meal.
Monday’s walk began later than planned, as we slept through our alarm. I would later repeat this fatal mistake in Porto, forcing a speedy RyanAir flight to make way for a 10-hour FlixBus to Madrid. Our downhill march to Sigüiero took us through leafy lanes and pastures so akin to Cornwall or Ireland that I found myself humming trad songs as I walked. Galicians, though they speak a Romance language closely related to Portuguese, are fiercely proud of their Celtic heritage. This is reflected in much of the region’s cultural symbolism, from the Celta Vigo football club to the bagpipes which resonate through Santiago’s cobbled streets. The late start left us more vulnerable to the afternoon sun, and after a sweaty trudge alongside the motorway we arrived at our hostel. There we met some Italian who had covered the same distance as us in half the time. They slept in their lycra and wore wraparound sunglasses when departing at 5 AM.
A paltry 15km lay between us and Saint James. The concluding stage was scenic nonetheless, with an ‘enchanted forest’ that seemed ripe for an insufferable insta-traveller and a final push through the old city. We mused over our time in Spain and our Camino as we navigated the Gothic alleys. Having spent a week in Málaga on a ‘lads’ holiday, we felt fittingly wayward and unsupervised, though the similarities with St James end there. We were no crusaders either. Yet it was difficult to not sense the divine when we came out onto the Praza do Obradoiro, even if heathens had covered the Cathedral in scaffolding.