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Spain: To the End of the World and Back

The Way of St. James is the most famous pilgrimage route in Europe. But the path of the true traveller doesn’t stop at the cathedral

Published: Aug 10, 2011 06:21:37 AM IST
Updated: Aug 8, 2011 04:43:19 PM IST
Spain: To the End of the World and Back
Image: Dave Besseling
OLD WORLD CHARM The way out of Santiago

In Spain, they say the pilgrimage starts with the first step out your front door. For me, it began with a thought, sitting in a Galician restaurant on Calle de Las Huertas, Madrid.

“Galicia, eh? Where’s that?” I asked Gordon, my Irish friend. “It’s the region just above Portugal,” he said. “Green and wet. It’s like the Ireland of Spain.”

This, I admit, was news to me.

We were eating a kind of baked mussel/prawn/scallop mousse served in a seashell, boiled octopus sprinkled with sea salt and paprika, and hot beef stew in a clay pot, which, even before Gordon’s statement, tasted like a rather Irish dish to me. The music in the place sounded Irish too: Bagpipes with that ‘fiddle-dee-diddle-dee-dee’ rhythm of a sea chantey.

“There,” said Gordon, nodding his head towards the wall, “check out the map.” I immediately recognised the name of Santiago de Compostela, the third city of Catholicism after Rome and Jerusalem. Its cathedral marks the end of the Camino de Santiago, probably the most famous pilgrimage route in Europe.

“Oh, that’s where Santiago is,” I apologise to the map. I should have known that. And that scallop shell Gordon was spooning seafood from — of course, now I remembered, from reading The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho in my early 20s: That was what the pilgrims wore on a string around their necks or tied to their backpacks.

Beside the map hung a framed poster blaring in block letters ‘Nunca Máis’. It didn’t ring any bells then, but would later.

My Andalusian friend Rafael, it turned out, had walked the pilgrimage — the camino — to Santiago a couple of years ago. I told him that I was shopping around for an adventure, but out of sheer childish spite, I didn’t want to follow Coelho’s footsteps. Other books in other languages had contributed to bringing the Way of St. James firmly into tourist territory, and there’d be all those milquetoast questers out there as well, ‘finding themselves’. No sale. I wasn’t going.

“But the camino does not have to end in Santiago,” grinned Rafael. “There is about another 100 km of walking to Finisterre.”

“Finis / terre?” I repeated. “Does that mean…”

“Yes,” he continued. “The Romans thought that was where the earth ended. It’s a long cape sticking out from the Costa da Morte.”
“Costa da / Mo—”

“Yes,” he said, almost rolling his eyes, “the Coast of Death. They say the route was perhaps used by the Celtic tribes, maybe for a kind of sun worship.” “Celtic tribes, eh?” Maybe my word associations weren’t so random.

Could Spain and Ireland have more in common than toilet-flushed economies and staggering IOUs to the European Union? Could my maternal Irish ancestors have anything to do with Spain?

“The path west from Santiago follows the Milky Way,” explained Rafael, “and not nearly as many people walk that camino”. Sold. I was going — to walk a post-Compostela, post-Coelho pilgrimage of my own making.

Spite can be a powerful thing.

It’s the first time in just over a decade that it’ll be just me and my backpack in Europe.

On the train from Madrid to Santiago, I find it hard to picture any lush forests, green hills, or rocky outcrops busting Atlantic waves into mist. Before long, I’ve convinced myself that I’m riding a model train across an ersatz landscape, built over a plywood plank in some hobbyist’s basement. On a ridge up ahead, a line of tall, white wind turbines spin — but don’t think for a second I’m going to indulge in that Spanish cliché.

After a few EU-blasted tunnels through the Cantabrian range, the landscape does begin to green up. In the distance, one craggy mountain bulges up, much like Croagh Patrick, the mountain of Ireland’s patron saint in County Mayo. It is beginning to look a lot like Ireland. Apparently, Galician myths and superstitions are just as replete with banshees and purgatory-stalled spirits as those of the Celts in Ireland.

I’m certain we’re in Galicia when the station names begin to replace the Castilian ‘j’ with the ‘x’ of Galego, a language that, though it does sound like ‘Gaelic’, is closer to Portuguese — which makes sense, considering the shared geography of Galicia and northern Portugal. Rising from Galicia’s southeast to the northern coast, the Cantabrian mountains have historically made travel difficult between Galicia and the rest of Spain.

As for the Celtic connection, there didn’t seem to be anything linguistic, besides certain words prefixed ‘dun’. Here, ‘dun’ refers to the hill forts the Iron Age Celts built in Galicia, later called castros by the Romans (yes, Fidel traces his lineage to Galicia, and so does General Franco). Castro culture, more or less, marks the period after the central Europe-migrated Celts and the Iberians mixed genes — and adjectives — to become known as Celtiberians. So, I reason, there probably wouldn’t be much of any Celtic language left. Maybe all that was left of the Celtiberians was the walk to the end of the world.

Or maybe, not quite. As I set out from Santiago cathedral at 8 am, I am bid farewell by a chorus of Galician bagpipes — gaita — coming from somewhere behind the cathedral: ‘Fiddle-dee-diddle-dee-dee’.

The road west out of Santiago dips down a mostly residential street, and I can see my first set of hills to be conquered in the distance. Both this road and the first café on the right share the name of the Madrid street where this caper was hatched: Las Huertas. I take it as an omen. Maybe not the same kind of omen that sees fit for a black cat to cross my path in the first village after being out of Santiago — today of all days, Friday the 13th — but let’s face it, we’re always choosing what to accept as omens and what to ignore as insignificant, what to dismiss as myth, and what to accept as history. And in Galicia, mythology and history are not always easy to separate.

As I walk, I reminisce, that whether good or bad, Friday the 13th is ‘unlucky’ because this is the day the Knights Templar were rounded up by the Holy See in Rome for getting a little bit too big for their chainmail britches after the Crusades. The Templars’ symbol was a red cross, and it hits me now that it may have been borrowed from the namesake saint of the cathedral looming behind me.

Spain: To the End of the World and Back
Image: Dave Besseling
GOTHIC SPLENDOUR The Medieval structure of Santiago de Compostela

The chances that St. James, the patron saint of Spain, is actually buried under his cathedral are slim to none. The church was built on the spot where shepherds, guided by strange lights in the sky — cough — were led to the saint’s grave, 700 years after he was beheaded in Jerusalem. The stories of his remains’ voyage to Galicia are even more ludicrous. But consider: This myth was created during the Muslim drive through Spain in the 8th century, when Galicia, along with the Basque region, was one of the last Christian holdouts on the entire peninsula. Frankly, the cause needed a hero.

So the myth climaxes in 844 CE at the battle of Clavijo, with St. James’ morale-rallying ghost showing up with the red cross — the future cross of the Templars, the same red cross still painted on most pilgrims’ scallop shells today — aiding in the Christian victory, kicking off the reconquista of Spain, and being given the honorific ‘Moor Slayer’.

St. James, it could be said, was the first Crusader; his reconquista the germ for the centuries of Crusades that would follow. And following my cliché dodge and my childish spite, my journey to land’s end, my pilgrimage of non-alignment, my long-shot genealogical foray begins with my back squarely to the church of St. James.

Once properly out of town, I see the first stone marker of hundreds more. Day one is spent bounding up and down hills, through tiny farming villages, a few crumbled ghost-villages, and along riverbanks, with my fresh-from-college ghost egging me on, with no regard whatsoever for any pain my body may accrue the next day.

Here are the forests I was told about, but more than Ireland, they remind me of New Zealand, a place home to another younger self, which adds another ghost to my spectral entourage. And then I hit Ponte Maceira, one of the more idyllic little medieval snapshots I could imagine, with its vine-grown turrets and cobbles that seem to grow up the buildings. More than the little quarter-moon waterfall and the mirrored-scalene triangle of the bridge, I press on with glee at the name itself, Maceira, the name of the restaurant in Madrid — that’ll be omen number two, then — with my shadow directly in front of me, shortening as I walk towards the final resting place of the sun.

By the time I saunter into Negreira and arrive at the pilgrim’s hostel, in the early afternoon, I feel I could walk another 23 km.

Day two, I’m told by Wolfgang, a German in his mid-50s, is the longest single stage of the entire Camino de Santiago: 34 km. No worries, I think. But after walking for over an hour-and-a-half before sunrise and stopping for a short break mid-morning, my legs decide they just aren’t interested in how young my mind feels.

By km 25, I don’t care about scenery, and every new hill seems insurmountable. I tell myself I can’t carry on about as many times as there have been scallop markers up to this point, but there’s Wolfgang up ahead, forcing me to keep pace. Wolfgang: That human stairmaster, with calves like loaves of bread, an easy laugh, and proof that it really is true — no one loves the moustacheless beard as much as the Germans do. He strolls contentedly about 50m in front of me as I struggle to lift my right foot more than a few centimetres from the ground. What’s worse is that a Portuguese girl of about my age, my walking companion for the day, seems to be holding up all right.

By km 30, I am swearing at pebbles and the Portuguese girl is shouting at birds, and the only clear thought I have as we shuffle the last kilometres into Olveiroa is about how the sun is burning the skin off my face and arms. I feel a little better once we sit down at the pub with four pilgrims. As we while away the evening, I am comforted to hear them agree that it takes about a week to hit your stride.

“One day in the first week, I just keeled over by the side of the road for a while,” says the Canuck. “One day I couldn’t really lift one of my legs at all,” says the young David Gilmour. “Does anyone else feel like the entire bottoms of their feet are bruised?” says an American girl. “Who needs another beer?” asks an American guy.

I am so stiff and tired that I can’t remember if I had been expecting to find any so-called Celtic influence in the faces of the locals, but if I had, I would have been disappointed. The south to north pigment paling of a country like India, for example, is no way in evidence here. The people look, well, Spanish.

Again, myth and history overlap and conflict with each other when it comes to what the Celts’ voyage from Spain to Ireland actually means. A Galician myth says the son of the Celtic warrior king Breogán set sail from the north coast at La Coruña and took the emerald isle by force, in one day no less. Some historians posit that Ireland may have been sacked by Celtic tribes 2,500 years ago, though current popular opinion in science and archaeology favour a more gradual Celtic incursion from locations like Brittany in France and even Hungary, besides Galicia and neighbouring Asturias.

A 2004 genetic study conducted at Trinity College, Dublin, does conclude that many an Irish gene can be traced to Galicia and Portugal. And yet in his book, Ghosts of Spain, veteran journalist Giles Tremlett writes, “Galicians are probably not real Celts. But they would like to be.”

Beyond the myths, there is one historical thing that Galicia and Ireland have in common: Mass emigration. Roman historians called the Galician Celts “barbarians, who would fight during the day and at night, drink and dance to the moon.” If barbarian could be updated to blue-collar, and fighting called work, nothing much has changed in the two millennia between them and most young men in my hometown.

But really — just how Celtic are the Galicians? No one I speak to seems very interested, and the idea of self-rule certainly hasn’t coagulated to anywhere near the fervour of the independence bids of the Catalans or the Basques. But in what has always been considered the poorest part of a country that now (along with Ireland) is considered a straggler within the EU, the tourist draw doesn’t hurt, and the Celtic connection, however tenuous, has drawn at least one curious, paying traveller to their lands this spring. And God, do his feet hurt.

Spain: To the End of the World and Back
Image: Dave Besseling
ALONG THE TAXING, ALBEIT Fulfi lling Journey The stone bridge at Maceira

West beyond Olveiroa, the path of the Milky Way splits: Left to Finisterre, or right to Muxia at the top of the Costa da Morte. I’d originally planned on branching off right and walking the 28 km to Muxia, then tackling the 26 km down the coast to Finisterre, but my lower half is killing me. I
seriously consider making day three my last. But when Hans says he’s keen to do the Muxia leg, my spite prepares its endorphins.

And I am forever in debt to the Canuck who suggests, after we stop for a break in the morning on the way to Muxia, that I pop four Advils and use his hiking sticks. After extending the retractable NASA-type fibre poles to my height, I dig in and press on. I am reborn of Ibuprofen, and our clan jaunts up mountains, strides over ridges and whips through villages and freshly built suburbs without so much as a pause for water.

After about six hours in all, we trundle down the fern-swirled slopes and into a sandstorm along a beach, with the hilly nub of Muxia jutting out into the Maldives-blue waters of the Atlantic, a modest beehive-shaped hill at its end.  

We’re able to secure some of the last beds in the albergue, and I shower, jab a kidney-bean blister on my right toe, and we set out for the pub. You’d think that in Galicia, which brings in more shellfish than any other region in Europe, the paella would be transcendent, but it isn’t. The mussels are shriveled and the razor clams are dry. The saffron, I suspect, is actually turmeric. I miss the Galician restaurant in Madrid.

“Hey look, it’s Martin Sheen,” says one of the Americans. And there he is, in a newspaper clipping pinned to the wall. He was in Muxia last year filming The Way — which, incidentally, opened in Ireland on Friday the 13th  — a film about a man who walks the camino to spread his son’s ashes after he’d been killed at the outset of his pilgrimage.

I feel somehow more able to write this story about my own walk from Santiago, especially after that day in Negreira, when an English fellow had pleaded with me not to write anything about this at all. Please, he said, there were already too many people beginning to stretch their camino past Santiago. I didn’t know at the time what the Sheens had been up to. So, Rafael: Thank you for your nudge. This may be the last Finisterre season before the hordes descend.

At the end of the Muxia peninsula, the church dedicated to another far-out fable, Mother Mary’s boat landing, is nothing if not obstinate: A two-spired ordeal with a small window facing west. The wind is still fierce, and any sailing ship wanting to go west this evening would have some trouble
getting anywhere but bashed back into the rocks.

The name ‘Costa da Morte’ — however fanciful in its pagan potential — is perhaps more apt in its practicality after thousands of recorded shipwrecks throughout the ages, the most publicised in recent times being The Prestige tanker’s oil spill just beyond Muxia in 2002.

The spill was serious enough to modify regulations on how close ships could come to the Galician coast, and it would give birth to the slogan I’d seen on the restaurant wall in Madrid. Nunca Máis: Never again.

Standing high on a hill with Muxia behind me, looking down the coastline that shares many attributes with County Clare, where the Irish side of my family is from, oil spills are as far from my mind as are the shores of my homeland. What is on my mind is how I never would have guessed that the cliffs of Moher had any connection to the northwest coast of Spain, and how I’ll never know whether my Irish ancestors were ever connected to this land.

The thing to do at the end of the world is to watch the sun set, so once in Finisterre, that’s what we do. As our clan perches high on a cliff at the end of the world, we take in the uninterrupted sinking of the sun into its slot on the horizon with just as much humility as whoever lived here 2,500 years ago must have. The difference being, we know what’s over there on the other side, where my initial self was born, where it must be just about lunchtime. Tonight, our clan of six is going to celebrate like the Celts described by the Romans, and maybe that’s enough of a connection to them for now.

 Spain: To the End of the World and Back

History All Over A horreo, or raised granary
When to go: May-September.
How to get there: Fly to Madrid from Mumbai or Delhi (from Rs. 35,000) and connect to Santiago de Compostela, capital of Galicia, on Iberia, Spanair or Ryanair. Alternatively, do the 7.5-hour train ride from Madrid (www.renfe.com ).
Where to stay: Pilgrim’s hostels or albergues offer basic accommodation (€5/ night. Every stop from Santiago to Finisterre also has a least a couple of private guesthouses (€10-15/night).
Where to eat: In Santiago, there is food for every budget. In the medieval town around the cathedral, there’s everything from €2 pizza slices to €200 dinners. Options are more limited along the camino, but restaurants and pubs are affordable (€5-10) and hearty.
How to get around: Even though the whole point of making these pilgrimages is to walk, government buses and private shuttles are available. A public bus between Santiago and Finisterre will cost €15, and cut a three- to four-day-walk to about 90 minutes. The bus station in Santiago is on the Praza Camilo Díaz Baliño. Government and private buses leave Finisterre from the side of the Albergue de Peregrinos.
What to see/do: Walk. And while at it, admire all the picturesque en route.  
What to shop for: While trinketry and moulded plastic icons abound, more authentic religious images are available in the medieval area in Santiago. Local white wines are a must-buy.

(This story appears in the 12 August, 2011 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Sturla

    Great article! I've walked the Way with my camera in hand, making a film about this beautiful journey. It's such an important experience meeting people from all over the World with different backgrounds and beliefs, on the same path (In Between - Walking the Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela)

    on Aug 10, 2011
  • Colin

    "844 CE at the battle of Clavijo, . . . . kicking off the reconquista of Spain, " Hmm. This is generally reckoned to be the battle of Cavadonga, in Asturias in 711. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Covadonga

    on Aug 10, 2011