The Camino de Santiago
Along the trail of the Camino Francés from the Pyrenees to Santiago you cross Several States of Spain. Starting with Navarra from the French Border, then Rioja and the wide expanse of Castile Y Leon you finally reach Galicia, which you encounter on your climb to O'Cebreiro.
Crossing the border from France into Spain you arrive at the ancient settlement of Roncesvalles (pronounced "Ron says buy yes"). Here an old monastery will provide a shelter for the night. It is also a great place to start your pilgrimage if you are into serious hill climbing as the route from St Jean Pier du Port to Roncesvalles is a 27km long uphill slog. About 40km down the Pyrenees from here with a couple of overnight possibilities you will come to the city of Pamplona famed for the "Running of the Bulls" captured in literature so inspiringly by Earnest Hemingway. Arriving here at the height of Bull season you won't be inspired by the shortage of accommodation.
Along the way you will encounter Puente la Reina which takes its name from the bridge over the River Arga built by Queen Doña Mayor. Boatmen were exploiting and robbing pilgrims so the bridge was her answer. If you crossed the Pyrenees over the Somport Pass you will join the Royal French Camino here. Before exiting Navarra there is a visit to Irache is a must if you enjoy good wine. For centuries the local monastery has provided wine to pilgrims and travellers from its fountain, however if you walk along the bypass trail you will find the Irache winery with its Stainless steel wine fountain.
Shortly before the city of Logroño the pilgrim crosses into the state that is world famous for its wines. Whenever Spanish wines are discussed the area of Rioja jumps to mind. Crossing this state is only a short part of the route but contains some really interesting Spanish history. Not to be missed is Santo Domingo de la Calzada with its cathedral containing caged chickens in tribute to the legend of a young man whose life was spared when the magistrate's cooked chicken flew from his dinner plate.
Castil Y Leon
On heading for Burgos the countryside starts to rapidly dry out as the pilgrim climbs to the Mazeta or table, a large flat plane which is fairly barren other than the endless wheat fields. It can be quite disconcerting when looking many miles ahead the target of the days walk is in sight. Many pilgrims complain about this stretch being boring and tend to use transport to avoid it. However to the serious minded this is an amazing experience as there are few distractions and it provides a wonderful opportunity for introspection. The approach to Burgos is boring as the final 10km is through an industrial are but the city that awaits is worth the boredom. The cathedral is the 3rd largest in Spain and is a wonderful example of gothic architecture. As the end of the Mazeta approaches Leon is also an indescribably interesting city also with a famous cathedral. Although not as large it has probably the finest collection of Stained glass windows in Spain if not in Europe.
After departing Leon the countryside rapidly changes. More hills woods and water are evident. There more interesting sights along the way. Asturias has a charming cathedral built initially from rose coloured limestone but as this ran out bit was completed with the remaining grey material resulting in a two tone ediface. Alongside this is the bishops palace, an early Gaudi building, which could well be the inspiration for a Disney palace. Foncebadon, the infamous "abandoned village" where it was alleged you may be torn to shreds by hordes of wild dogs; Cruz de Ferro where the pilgrim is obliged to leave a possession from home, usually a stone bearing your name; Molinaseca with its bridge over a lovely little dam for bathing. Ponferrada is a dull and uninspiring high rise industrial city but on departure the landscape continues to improve with continued climb and the trail intertwines with the A6 highway from Madrid to La Coruña. Just before reaching the peak of the Camino the route crosses from the largest state into the best - Galicia.
As we are more familiar with this part of the route we will describe the Galician leg of the route some in more detail. Along the short route from O'Cebreiro to Santiago I have a few favourite places - mainly around the area where we live for obvious reasons.
There is a lovely small church with a little known tomb in the floor. This is the resting place of Don Elias, who was responsible for reviving the modern Camino. He set of with a pot of yellow road paint to paint the arrows we know so well. There's also a good bar halfway through the village. Turn left at the crossroad and first door to your right. It has a few rooms upstairs. And by the way - you are not yet finished the climbing. It is a popular myth that O'Ceb is at the top of the Camino; there are still another 200m to climb from here.
Tria Castella holds no particular favourites, as there are several good eating and sleeping places. From here the route splits and the pilgrim can go direct to Sarria through forests and back roads, or take the route along the road to Samos. This takes a little longer, but has a beautiful monastery.
My favourite town on the entire Camino. Arriving on a hot and dusty afternoon and crossing the Sarria River with its waterfowl and gurgling weir it takes a really hard pilgrim not to immediately fall in love with this medium sized town with its historic old pilgrim trail and its modern shopping and residential quarters. Sprawling along the river's edge is a miscellany of bars and restaurants. When you cross the main road to Monforte and climb the 60 steps to the old pilgrim way (Rua Mayor) you will need to turn right for the public albergue or carry on up to your left for the half a dozen private albergues. However right at the top of the stairs is my all time favourite bar, Cafe Bar Escalinata.
- Café Bar Escalinata:
The couple who run this bar/pension have been very kind to me over the trips I've made and we have become firm friends. Jose and Belen work well together and in summer open 5:30am to make sure the pilgrims don't set off hungry. They also have a great menu and the Coffee con leche and the enasalada mixta is to me the best along the Camino. If you feel like cuddling up with your sweetheart instead of another night in an albergue they do have a few rooms above the bar at a reasonable price. You can also leave your bag there to be transported to Portomarin so you can walk packless.
Where? After crossing the River Sarria into the town you will soon face a daunting flight of stairs. At the top of these on the right is this oasis.
I just love visiting this old world barber for my haircut. To me going to a barber is a worse experience than the dentist but surrounded by the trappings of yesteryear and with the patience taken to trim every single hair individually, I sometimes even take a short siesta while my hair is being cut.
Where? At the top of the stairs to follow the pilgrim trail you would go a little to the left then up the old pilgrim way. He's about 3 doors from this corner.
- Clinica de fisioterapia:
Not just a favourite place but one that has become an essential part of my life here. In this clinic trained physiotherapists manage to reset the damage I do to my back mixing concrete or doing the lifting I really shouldn't do. A must for any pilgrim suffering with backpackitis, and cheaper than a massage at 15 Euros for a 1 hour treatment.
Where? After crossing the River Sarria and before you cross the road to Monforte and climb the big stair turn left and it is the second to your left after a few hundred meters further along. You will see a white sign with some blue writing and a logo looking a little like the Camino shell, a little way down on the right.
- Cyber Sarria:
When I don't have the Internet at home I spend some time here to do all the emails and essential keeping in touch. They are very reasonable and have good machines with good connection speeds.
Where? Again on crossing the River Sarria and reaching the main road out to Monforte turn right and after a hundred meters or so a large road goes off to Becerra on your right. Go down about 50 meters and turn right again back towards the river. Halfway down on the right is the Cybercafe with large blue and yellow doors (They also have a pool table and the infernal soccer machine).
By the time you get to Portomarin you really know that you are on the Route Commercial. Even before crossring the long bridge across the Rio Miño you start to see all of the promotion hoardings and signs of various albergues, bars, supermercados etc. Portomarin is a relatively new town as the original was flooded when the dam was constructed in the late 60's. Before flooding the Church was moved block by block to the top of the hill and the new village constructed around it. If you look carefully you will see the location numbers still visible on many of the blocks. This must be one of the ugliest churches on the whole Camino from the outside looking like a shoe box with a castellated top, but once inside the plain simplicity is inspiring. Again there are many good places to sleep and eat. My favourite for a good meal O'Mirador which has an excellent table and also has a good albergue. Remember to ask for room number four as it has its own loo and shower. Right next door is another private albergue - Feramenteiro. If you are planning to cook yourself then this is the place. The greatest kitchen on the Camino having all that is needed to cook up and eat a great meal.
A really nice new restaurant and bar with its own albergue. There is an amazing veranda for dining out with a beautiful view of the dam on the Rio Miño. Late summer evenings having candlelit dinners here as the sun sets bring back wonderful memories of lovely friends and good food and wine. Ruben and the young people who run the place do a great job.
Where? At the bottom end of the main street in Portomarin.
- Café bar Espana:
Is another regular haunt. His coffees are good as well as his computers. But most of all its his dry sense of humour that is the main attraction.
Where? On the main street just down from the Square a few doors on the left as you go down.
Palas de Rei
A somewhat uninspiring town on the main road to Santiago. Not much here but a good hotel and a nice albergue. Just go down the steps to the main road and you will find the Municipal albergue with its queue on your left. Cross the main road and carry on strait foe another 100 meters and you will see a long yellow banner of Albergue Buen Camino They have rooms of differing sizes so if you are a group of 4 say you can be private. The hospitalerda is Luma and she also serves a good breakfast.
From here on the Camino cris-crosses the main road to Santiago. A few kilometres out of Palas is San Xulian and here is a good bar cum albergue with a really grumpy owner and his charming wife. He's not really that bad but he becomes very irritated with Camino bums and the fools who expect to use his loo without so much as buying a coffee. I sympathise and enjoy his company when I pop in for a coffee on my trips to Santiago
A fair sized town on a cross road with a reputation throughout Spain for its pulpo (octopus). It has not much to offer by way of tourism but good food. Besides any number of pulpo restaurants there is a great churros bar (or churrosaria) about a 100 meters further up the road from Pulperia Ezequial on the opposite side. Churos are cookies made from deep fried dough and are great with coffee or chocolate. Often eaten with thick rich dipping chocolate. Wicked.
- Pulperia Ezequial:
The pilgrim trail arrives in Melide onto the main road from Palas de Rey entering at an oblique angle. Going up the main road until just about opposite the old Romanesque church you come to this establishment that is not a restaurant but a genuine pulperia with its long tables and benches. Good pulpo and some good young wines are served at affordable prices. For any foreigner to Galicia not to sample Pulpo it is a sin that will cancel out any indulgence that you may incur walking the Camino.
Monte de Gozo
Or Mountain of Joy in English. This is where you first see Santaigo. Just past the monument which you cannot see because of its size, is the albergue. It sleeps about 800 people but don't be put off - only 8 to a room and plenty of facilities. The nice part is it is only an hour or so's walk from here to Santiago centre and if, as I do, you like to arrive early enough for a nice breakfast and the midday mass then this is your best bet.
Santiago de Compostela
I am sure I do not need to into any explanations about the object of the pilgrimage as anyone who is heading this way will surely have done their homework. Santiago is a modern large city with a fascinating old city at its heart. The Cathedral although not one of Spain's largest must rank amongst one its loveliest. The ornate altar is beyond belief and the building itself is amazing. This is one of the Catholic faiths most revered sites and houses the earthly remains of St James the greater - son of Zebedee and Sarah. The old city is a warren of alleys and narrow streets all devoted to cashing in on the pilgrims desire to purchase a reminder of the pilgrimage, a decent meal or a good night's sleep. There are a myriad of churches and museums to occupy lots of time but if you want to get the real smell of Galicia visit the food market on the edge of the old town.
Midday mass is the pilgrim mass and this is when you are most likely to see the greatest show on earth. Six monks will swing a thurible as big as they are from one side of the cathedral to the other. Flames and smoke pour out as it speeds its way across the transverse of the church.
Where? This time you are on your own.
- Hospedaje Bar la Tita:
Again another pal with good food and accommodation. He has a different special every day. Tuesdays is Lasagne - one of the best I've eaten anywhere. The owner Dario is a bit dour to start but warms nicely when he gets to know you.
Where? At the top of Rua Nova on the right next to the internet office. Rua Nova is parallel to the one in front of the pilgrim office, to the left as you look away from the cathedral.
- Casa Manolo:
A very popular restaurant with a good pilgrim meal. Price is very competitive but wine is extra. Good selection from extensive menu. Get there early or you will queue for a table.
Where? Head back up from the cathedral the way you came in from Monte de Gozo and when you get to the square with a fountain in the centre Manolo is in the far left corner. Address: Rua Travesa 27.