As the end-point for the famous 800km pilgrimage, Santiago is every bit a paradise. But if this epic trip is too much, a 'secret' shorter one is out there
I knew little about Santiago when you voted it second-best city in the 2008 Wanderlust Travel Awards. I knew it was in the bit of Spain that Brits rarely go to, and that it has a really big cathedral. I also knew it was the end-point of the epic Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. I was intrigued, but had no time for an 800km hike.
But then I discovered a ‘secret’ section of the pilgrimage, which starts in Santiago and carries on to the Atlantic coast at Fisterra, the ‘end of the world’. Santiago to Fisterra is just 90km: the idea for a long weekend break was born.
An unsociably early flight plonked us in Santiago at midday, and by 1pm we had rudely ignored the cathedral – its steps festooned with weary peregrinos, celebrating the end of their 800km epics – to strike out westwards into the Galician countryside. No matter, we would be back.
Following the scallop-shell waymarkers, we were out of the city confines within minutes, strolling beneath trees and flitting birds. Lost in a world of foxgloves and ferns, it was odd to look back and see the cathedral still looming. But soon we had new architecture to admire – small Spanish villages dotted with the area’s trademark hórreos (raised granaries), like sheds on stilts.
The scallops dutifully counted down our distance-to-destination. It was about 90km to Fisterra, measured out to three decimal places – precise peregrinos could chart their progress to the centimetre. Today we were bound for Negreira, a fair hike given how early we’d risen, but the sun was shining and the long June days were on our side.
The advantage to starting late was having the paths – butterflies notwithstanding – to ourselves, as most of the walkers were long gone by now. It was only in the late afternoon, as we made our way over the 15th-century bridge at Puente Maceira, which arched idyllically over a gushing weir, that we saw other peregrinos.
Soon we reached Negreira, and our farmhouse home for the night. True Camino walkers stay at albergues (pilgrim hostels), which are cheap as chips but can’t be booked in advance. We were part-timers, so went for the luxury option – though our gorgeous B&B was only €65.
That night we found a restaurant – we were the only non-locals there – and gorged (unfashionably early) on grilled pulpo (octopus) and saffron-bright paella. We ordered a glass of wine in bad Spanish and – whoops! – got a whole bottle. But our legs said we’d earned it.
Flinging back the shutters, sunshine blasted in – an almost painfully beautiful day, the sort you want to bottle. The swifts were going bonkers as we passed Negreira’s pazo (manor house) and wended our way up out of town, past the small stone church and vertically stacked tombs, like macabre gym lockers.
I had to pinch myself – as we strode across the gentle green slopes, eucalypts scented the way, birds chirruped and perfect-yellow wild broom bushes exploded under the blue sky. Had I really been at boring-old-home 24 hours earlier?
Farmers scything fields hollered ‘Hola!’ and old ladies in regulation black stockings and smocks nodded cheerfully from shady stoops. The dogs were more of a nuisance, yapping (fine) and snarling (not) as we passed – most were tethered, but I was glad of my pointy hiking pole, just in case.
As we descended a hillside, a deep-blue reservoir shimmering ahead, we caught up with some other peregrinos. This eclectic trio – Spaniard, French-Canadian and Costa Rican – were in for the long haul, having started from St Jean four weeks earlier. We felt like such lightweights.
“We’ve only seen one other English couple walking the path,” confessed Julio. “They were 77 and determined to make it to Santiago before they died!”
We walked on with them to Olveiroa – this impromptu camaraderie is key for many pilgrims – but then we went our separate ways: they to the albergue; us to a hotel with private room and shower (posh pilgrims!). We still ate a devout feast, however, tucking into the slap-up set menu – common along the Camino – at a local bar. The key is wholesome fodder in large, cheap portions to revive pious limbs. I slept well, legs heavy from walking, belly heavy with tortilla.
The flung shutters revealed only murk the next day, and our walk began under grey skies and mizzle. Still, it enriched the rock-clinging mosses, heather clumps and long grasses (though did nothing for the spewing carbide factory en route). The smells were earthy, the greens deep and fecund. Through the rain we could just hear the ghostly whirr of the wind farms – their slender white sails lined the ridges, making the most of the Atlantic gusts.
As we carried on, near-bouncing though spongy forest and pacing on quiet roads, the hillsides rolled and the grey started to give in. Sailors’ underpants-sized patches of blue broke through and I got my first whiff of the sea. By the time the ocean came into view, the sun was full sparkling on it, illuminating the curve of the coast that would see us round to Fisterra.
We stopped in Cée, where the market was in full swing. Slippers and knickers we didn’t need, but we lingered at the churros stall to buy a cone of the wormy deep-fried doughnuts.
The final slog was sad and sore. Road pounding took it out of my soles, but detours through forests delighted with hovering hawks, pink-purple flowers and slowly revealed views of sweeping bays. I didn’t want this to stop.
I’d only been walking for three days, but I still felt the weight of the destination; goodness knows what it means to proper, long-haul peregrinos. One, whose T-shirt was emblazoned with blistered feet and the words ‘No pain, no glory’, gave me an inkling.
As we climbed the last hill, up to the rocky promontory once believed to be the end-point of civilisation, I thought how this was a good walk made even better by the history accompanying it. Standing by the old semaphore station (now a hotel), looking out into, well, nothing, this would have been a fitting climax to any stroll. The fact that there was also a deliciously final scallop pronouncing distance-to-destination ‘00,000km’ made it all the sweeter.
Where do you go after the end of the world? Back to Santiago, of course. Having slept at that wind-blasted Cape, we bussed the distance that had taken us three days to walk in just a few hours, and were drinking café con leche in the old town for elevenses.
We didn’t linger though – it was time to give the cathedral the attention it deserves. It’s an astounding building, every inch embellished with architectural whistles and bows, the spires curl, the balconies hang with geraniums. Inside, light streamed down the nave, shining on the peregrinos gathered for the daily pilgrim mass at noon; everywhere wooden walking sticks nestled against the pews. As a nun began her delicate, crowd-warming chant, we sneaked out, feeling fraudulent in our only-three-days-tramping boots.
It was good to be back outside. Santiago is compact, and pleasing to stroll – we wandered down narrow alleys, past museums (all closed; don’t go on a Monday) and through the arcades of the old marketplace – where we bought some suggestively shaped queso de tetilla (‘nipple cheese’) for a picnic lunch. We were thoroughly Spanish by now and didn’t head out for our last supper until at least 9.30pm, sitting al fresco eating platters of goodies until the sun set and the streets were atmospheric in the gloaming.
The next day we had to fly home, but for that evening we could cling on to our weekend with the last dregs of wine, the last crumbs of almond-laced Tarte Santiago, the final walk past the bulk of that all-imposing cathedral. It had been a worthy pilgrimage.