The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is the stuff of legends. Chaucer wrote about it the Canterbury Tales and millions of people have meandered across Europe to kneel before the relics of Saint James, patron saint of Spain.
Alongside Jerusalem and Rome, Santiago de Compostela is one of the three most important pilgrimage sites since medieval times.
Today, walks to the sacred city have gained in popularity, with a quarter of a million pilgrims predicted to complete the walk for the jubilee year. The most famous path, the Camino Frances from St Jean Pied de Port is over-run with pilgrims in the summer months.
These days getting to Santiago is a lot easier with Air Lingus now flying to the Northern Spanish city of Bilbao and to Santiago, making it possible to browse the lush landscape of northern Spain while picking and choosing your destinations along route without the physical excursion!
From the airport, arriving through a dark tunnel, visitors to Bilbao burst through to the light and are treated to the incredible vista of the Puente de La Salve bridge, with its big red circular suspension support framing the head-turning curves of the Guggenheim museum; the stunning titanium clad building that define the new half of Bilbao, deep in the Basque territory.
Designed by world famous architect Frank O. Gehry, the museum has redefined the way Bilbao is perceived globally. Once considered an industrial town and port made wealthy by its docks and iron reserves, Bilbao is now a culture hot spot and a great city break.
Divided into the old and new town, by the river Nevion, the glistening facade of the Guggenheim looks starling juxtaposed against the lush green hills for which this region is famed.
With temperatures in the early twenties during the summer months and rarely dipping below 14 degrees in the winter, Bilbao enjoys an Atlantic climate where rain is a frequent visitor. Ambling through the city you can’t help but marvel at the snatched views of the sloping green hilly landscape. Originally founded in the sixteenth century, many of Bilbao’s ancient architecture were destroyed during the civil war, yet the city has immense diversity in its architecture, old buildings sitting comfortable along side the new and avant garde.
Bilbao’s metro system is marked by giant Perspex vortex style tunnels designed by Norman Fossett that look like they could suck you hover-style down into the belly of the underground, which links the city to the port on the outskirts on the bay of Bisquet.
It is well worth a trip out here to see the Vizcaya Bridge, the oldest transport bridge in the world and a world heritage site. Visitors can get a lift to the top of the bridge and walk across for panoramic views across the bay. On the other side, enjoy a traditional Basque meal of peppers stuffed with white sauce, cod and squid ink risotto, in the Hotel Puente Colgante, www.puente-colgante.com.
The trendy Silken Gran Hotel Domine, is an excellent place to base yourself in Bilbao. Positioned metres away the main shopping street and the Guggenheim Museum, where you can catch the fascinating exhibition, ‘Surreal Things’ containing art, artifacts, furniture, fashion and theatrical sets from famous members of the Surrealist movement such as Salvador Dali, Jean Cocteau and Elsa Schiaparielli.
Renting a car is a good way to navigate through the northern Spanish district, hitting beauty spots and sites of interest such as the village of Gernika, made famous by Picasso’s iconic painting el ‘Guernica’ inspired by the German test-bombings which happened in the tiny rural village under Franco’s regime.
An hour’s drive from Bilbao, visit the church of Santa Maria perched on a rocky precipice which plunges into the sea below, in the village of Castro Urdiales, in the Cantabrian region. This Gothic style 13th century church houses the stone statue of the ‘Santa Maria’ which lay hidden behind the church wall for years, hidden by priest to protect it from looters.
Enjoy passing through the dramatic Atlantic coastline of Cantabria with its rugged, wild and wind-swept beaches.
In the port town of Santander visit the former Spanish royal summer residence, now open to the public, before wandering down the estate drive to spot the penguins and sea lions which are residents in an open air sea aquarium. Feast in the remarkable Cañadío restaurant, www.restaurantecanadio.com, where you can experience signature Cantabrian cuisine such as succulent pigs cheek.
Reaching the stunning Asturias region, don’t miss the pretty village of Llanes, where you can walk along the grassy cliff tops and enjoy startling views of both mountains and coastline, before heading on to the Titi Bustillo’s cave.
This magnificent cavern stretches for miles under ground. Nature has decorated it with pillars where stalactites and stalagmites have joined together after a journey to meet, which undertook thousands of years. This geological wonderland also houses per historic cave paintings.
Lunch at the famous Eutimio’s restaurant, www.casaeutimio.com is not to be missed. At this family-run restaurant, prepare to tuck into steaming bowls of the regional stew, Fabada, a hearty concoction made with white beans, chorizo, pork shoulder and Asturian black pudding in saffron infused broth.
Following the Camino de Compostela, along the Coastal road the landscape turns more rural in Galicia district where the countryside is framed by both the native pine and more bizarrely, the eucalyptus, which were introduced to the Provence for paper mills and became prolific throughout the territory.
Until finally you hit the Gothic splendor that is the square of Plaza del Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela, in the shadow of the cathedral with the statue of Saint James standing tall on the roof with arms out-stretched welcoming the throngs of weary pilgrims congregating in the exact spot the pilgrimage is completed, marked by the scallop shell, the symbol of Saint James.
The cathedral is awe inspiring with its giant silver incense burner, the Botafumeiro, which sweeps across the heads of the prayer goers during mass exuding the heady scent of frankincense which would original ly have quelled the odours of the masses of grimy pilgrims as they sat in prayer in medieval times, many of them sleeping in the eaves of the church having completed an all-night vigil to St James.
Standing in front of the saint’s relics and kissing the golden statue is a memorable experience and one that feels steeped in tradition.
Don’t leave without taking a tour of the rooftops of the cathedral. Here pilgrims would strip and burn their diseased and filthy clothes, by the ‘cross of the rags’ as a symbol of renewal and the start of a new life.
The city of Santiago is a warren of interconnecting medieval streets, lined with restaurants with tanks full of lobster and the regions favourite, octopus. Pilgrims follow in the tradition of buying talismans in tourist shops, a superstitious hangover from the middle ages. These trinkets are supposed to ward off evil and bring good luck. A small hand with a thumb up is to be given to a child to protect them from harm while the scallop shell of Saint James is said to protect you on your travels.
Those who have walked the pilgrims way convene in the Pilgrims Credential to be awarded their Latin Compostela, a certificate to prove you have done the pilgrimage.
Those thinking of heading off on the Camino must walk the last 100km or do 200km on horse or bike to qualify. Along the route you must also get your pilgrim’s passport stamped in the designated churches.
Whether you choose to cruise by car or walk the pilgrims’ route, northern Spain guarantees you cultural diversity, wonderful scenery, memorable food and a chance to step back in time to an ancient tradition to meet like-minded pilgrims.
- Have a coffee or some traditional tapas in Victor Montes, over looking the Patza Novava in Bilbao. This gem was the favourite restaurant of American architect Frank O Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim museum.
- Visit the Guggenheim Bilbao. Wander through the colossal ‘The Matter of Time’ sculptures by Richard Serra, and see the giant grass and flower ‘puppy’ statue that guards the museums entrance.
- Go to mass at noon in the Santiago’s cathedral and witness the giant Botafumeiro incense burner swing over the heads of the pilgrims in prayer.
- In the city of Oviedo in the Asturias region, see the Santa Maria Del Naranco, an ancient pre-Romanesque, world heritage church; dating from 812-842, it’s the largest of Spain’s pre-Romanesque buildings.
- Llanes village in Asturias. Sandwiched between the Quire mountain range and the Atlantic sea, this area is a walkers’ paradise know as a great spot for fishing and hiking.
- Riba de Sella, caves in Asturias. The awe inspiring caves cut by the Sella river- a fisherman’s favourite, crowded with salmon and trout. The caves are also painted with animals, horses, deer and bison.
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