El Camino de Santiago has inspired and challenged pilgrims since the Middle Ages. Approach it slowly and steadily with plenty of curiosity and you may well return home enlightened.
Apr 13, 2023 11:00pm
As a drinks writer, I am often asked to describe the most memorable wine ever encountered. The answer isn’t based on a specific vintage, variety or style. It was the 2014 Pagos de Obanos Crianza, a Spanish tempranillo-based drop that was elevated from basic to unforgettable in a simple moment.
The red wine was imbibed at the conclusion of the first day of the Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of Saint James. The lengthy pilgrimage through Spain is tackled on foot, bicycle or horseback and is no walk in the park. There are many routes from which to choose and my travel companion and I opted for the most popular and traditional route; the French Way, a five-week hike (approximately 25 kilometres per day) which begins in southern France and passes through the regions of Aragón, Navarre, La Rioja, Castile and León, and Galicia. The French Way was the first route of the Camino de Santiago to become a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was the first Cultural Route of the Council of Europe.
Day one kicked off at the quaint French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, with a 27-kilometre walk over the towering Pyrenees mountains. It was both the most visually spectacular and physically challenging day of my life. Ewes, cattle, horses and Basque shepherds watched on as we huffed and puffed through their jaw-dropping, lush green homeland. Later, as darkness fell over our humble accommodation, we offloaded backpacks, tended blisters, sipped the wine from a plastic cup and pondered how we’d make it to our final destination; a lazy 800-kilometre walk away. We weren’t alone. More than 150,000 pilgrims traverse the French Way every year. More still, follow the coastal Northern Way and the arguably more demanding Primitive Way. Each one concludes at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, where the shrine of the apostle Saint James can be found.
Pilgrims follow painted yellow arrows that lead the way across countryside, farmland, forests, towns, cities and terrain of every description. It attracts walkers of all ages; from fit young European students to adventurous types aged in their 90s. The beauty of this adventure is you go at your own pace. Many people opt to walk the final 200 kilometres only. If lugging a backpack isn’t appealing, there are companies who will do it for you. There are myriad reasons for embarking on the pilgrimage. For many, it is a spiritual journey inspired by medieval Christian origins. Some people walk to honour a lost loved one. For others, it is a unique vantage point from which to explore Spain’s landscape, history, architecture and cuisine.
I went in an attempt to challenge myself physically and to hopefully “find myself” somewhere between the heritage towns of Jaca, Pamplona, Logroño, Nájera, Burgos, León, Astorga, and Ponferrada. That, and the wine. The French Way passes through vineyards and wineries in the likes of Navarre, La Rioja, Castilla y León (home to tempranillo and verdejo), and Galicia, where a glass of crisp ribeiro or albariño is a stellar way to round off a day on your feet. The public wine fountain in the small town of Ayegui in the Navarre area, is a highlight. There, on a stone wall at the Bodegas de Irache winery (established in 1891) is a fountain created to motivate weary pilgrims with free chilled red wine. It does so to this day.
This generosity of spirit is typical of the Camino. Fleeting moments with strangers result in shared memories, provisions and friendships. I’ll never forget the bearded shepherd who wrote me a roadside poem during a moment of respite. Or Diana and Sophie, the delightful mother and daughter duo from San Francisco who embark on the pilgrimage together every year. There was the lady with a physical disability who fell often but persisted with determination, the likes of which I’d never seen. Vince from Birmingham reminisced about his first pilgrimage at the age of 65. “A cancer diagnosis nearly stopped me in my tracks a few years ago,” he said. “But here I am today.” Then there was Mark, whose tears fell as he spoke of his Spanish mother. “She died before she had a chance to walk the Way of Saint James,” he said. “I am walking for her.”
Each person experiences the Camino in their own unique way. One moment you’re surrounded by people, the next you’re basking in hours of solitude, just you and the Spanish countryside. It is challenging and evocative. Many movies and tomes have been inspired by the Camino, including The Way starring Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen, and A Food Lover’s Pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela: Food, Wine and Walking Along the Camino through Southern France and the North of Spain written by award-winning journalist, editor and Limestone Coast farmer Dee Nolan. During Nolan’s journey from southern France to northern Spain she met cooks and farmers and dove deep into the food traditions found among the vines, towns and farmland.
Moments of epicurean delight await in each medieval town and city. In Navarre, chunks of Idiazabal and Roncal cheeses made from raw sheep’s milk are a must. Spanish chef Ferran Adrià famously coined Navarre the, “global capital of vegetables” due to its spectacular Tudela artichokes, piquillo peppers and asparagus. Wash it all down with a nip of the traditional aromatic, sloe-flavoured digestif Pacharán. La Rioja’s bodegas proudly serve cod and potatoes a la Riojana, while Castile and León tick meat-lovers’ boxes with specialties such as blood sausage, roast suckling pig and lamb, crab dishes or maragato stew (made with goat, chicken and pork).
The city of Logroño in the province of La Rioja is home to Calle Laurel, a street full of tapas bars so alluring you’ll want to stay a few days. September is a great time to visit. That’s when the Rioja Wine Harvest Festival, known traditionally as the festivities of San Mateo, fills the streets with celebrations devoted to grapes. Meanwhile, Galicia is all about fresh seafood, particularly octopus and scallops. Here, Queimada is also a must. The punch-like beverage is made with orujo (a liqueur similar to grappa) and glows blue when set alight to burn off excess alcohol.
When in Santiago de Compostela, drop in to the Mercado de Abastos food market for seafood, padrón peppers and tapas. Finally, seek out the Tarta de Santiago (St James Tart) known affectionally to pilgrims as Santiago cake. The Spanish almond cake dates back to the Middle Ages and is topped with a dusting of icing sugar depicting a silhouette of the St James cross; a simple but evocative reminder of the people, places and lessons encountered on The Way.