"Didn't pick you as a religious man," the seasoned tech journalist commented.
I'd just done one of those some personal news posts, announcing my plan to retire and walk across Spain. He was right—I'm not at all religious, but serendipitous moments spanning decades have drawn me to El Camino, the Way of St James.
My first and so far only visit to Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia in northwest Spain, was 35 years ago. Before taking up a job in London, I spent the summer Interrailing around Europe, starting in Portugal. After Lisbon and Porto I reached Santiago de Compostela in late July. A man waiting outside the station offered me lodging—"You'll never find a room in town tonight," he foreboded. I told him I'd take my chances and strode off to find Praza do Obradoiro, the city's magnificent main square.
The reason for his warning soon became clear. The date was 25 July, St James's Day, when thousands of pilgrims converge on this small, historic city for several days and nights of music, fireworks, and Celtic camaraderie. I had made the pilgrimage by happy accident, and eventually found a tiny room above an amusement arcade. Over the next 48 hours I barely needed it.
The story of St James, patron saint of Spain, is improbable to say the least. Legend says that when the apostle James the Elder was beheaded by King Herod after the crucifixion of Christ, his followers spirited his remains to Galicia by boat. It was apparently made of stone and took just a week from Palestine. Then in the 9th century a star above a field (the campus stellae that possibly gave the city its name) guided a hermit to the burial site. A cathedral was built to mark the spot and Santiago de Compostela has been Spain’s number one pilgrimage destination ever since.
St James is especially revered in Spain as it is said he appeared miraculously on a white charger at the battle of Clavijo in 844 and helped the Christian king Ramiro I of Asturias defeat the Muslims who were then occupying the Iberian peninsula. Hence his nickname Matamoros (Moorslayer), for which there is about as much evidence as for the existence of St George's dragon.
Over the years I have often said to my wife Julia that one day I would love to go back to Santiago de Compostela. So, when the idea of retirement loomed (and perhaps to ensure I kept my word) she enquired about a room on St James's Day at the city's parador, the Hostal dos Reis Católicos. Standing elegantly next to the cathedral on Praza do Obradoiro, it is Spain's oldest hotel. The Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando commissioned it in 1499 as accommodation for pilgrims. It comfortably beats a tiny room above an amusement arcade.
The manager emailed straight back to say booking wasn't yet open, but that he would let us know as soon as it was. We thought no more about it until nearly a year later he emailed to say that if we confirmed that very day we could have a room for three nights around 25 July, 2023. We booked it.
Having secured a room at the Spanish home of pilgrimage, we felt it would be fitting to walk there. But which of the many routes should we take?
A few years earlier we had bought a former casa rural guesthouse in the mountains on the border between Extremadura and Andalucía, a long way south from Santiago de Compostela. We didn’t know it at the time, but the Camino known as Vía de la Plata (the Silver Route) passes by our front gate. The Roman road from Seville has been a pilgrimage route since the Middle Ages, but it is far less travelled than the famous, and now rather congested, Camino del Norte that crosses northern Spain from France. Only a tiny percentage of pilgrims take the southern route—a few thousand a year—but thanks to the enthusiasts of the Amigos del Camino in Seville, interest is starting to revive. On hot summer days we sometimes spot a solitary Spanish pilgrim toiling up the hill, staff in hand.
To get ahead of the weather this summer, we're planning to set off on our pilgrimage in mid-April. Averaging about 20km a day, the long walk across Extremadura, Castilla y León, and Galicia should take around eight weeks. For months we've been visualising the moment we'll set out down our front lane, turn left and continue, we hope, for more than 900km. You can follow our progress here.
Last month, in preparation, we went to Spain to do some steps and wear in our walking shoes. When we arrived at the house, we couldn't believe what we saw. On the road opposite our front gate was a newly erected notice with the familiar blue background and stylised yellow cockle shell, pointing the way north. Simultaneously, we cried:“It’s a sign!”
Hostal dos Reis Católicos courtesy of Paradores
St James, Museo das Peregrinacións, credit: Lameiro