The Path of the Pilgrims
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Our bunch of merry pilgrims travelled 2764 kilometres over seven weary, but thoroughly satisfying days, as we followed the Camino de Plata towards the UNESCO World Heritage city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the final destination on the “Way of Saint James” pilgrimage route.
Is there a better way to start your holiday than the coach dropping you off outside one of the best preserved walled cities in Europe? You then enter the UNESCO World Heritage city of Avila and take a gentle stroll past churches and Renaissance palaces towards your hotel, itself a reformed Palace and right next door to the cathedral, and your first beer.
The past wealth of the town as a textile centre has left its mark with many important buildings and the following morning our guide Mariano walked us through history as we learnt all about this compact city and its Saint, Teresa of Jesus. The city walls are truly amazing; the perimeter is two and a half kilometres, with about 2,500 battlements, 100 towers, 6 doors and 3 secondary entrances.
En route to Galicia we stopped in Zamora for lunch, it was a long way to the north west tip of Spain and we were quite late checking into our hotel, so it was a quick dash out to find a bar and tapas for the footy.
We spent a total of four nights in Santiago de Compostela, and after a guided tour on the first day some people actually attended the Pigrims Mass, which I was told was standing room only. During the service they normally swing the botafumeiro, a gigantic incense burner, from the ceiling of the church.
It was interesting to see the various groups of pilgrims arriving and hugging each other with pure joy and a sense of achievement, as they queued for their certificates and hoped to be amongst the first ten to get free board and lodging at the Parador. All this atmosphere backed by the swirl of Gallegan pipes in the distance.
One night Danny took a few of us on a trek through the city to a typical Pulperia, a spit and sawdust bar serving the Gallegan speciality – Octopus! The idea was to educate our palates and also improve our appreciation of the finer points of football. Most of us preferred the other local dish of Zorza, and were also able to share the pain of the locals as we watched Spain being knocked out of the World Cup, welcome to our world. Even the crowning of the new King Felipe was no consolation.
The next day we headed to the Rias Baixas and south to the city of Pontevedra, the Galician capital for a stroll and some free time before we continued west. Our next stop was the delightful fishing village of Combarro, with its traditional architecture and “horreos” (special buildings for keeping the grain dry). We continued on to Puerto O’Grove right on the tip of a small peninsula here we had a very special experience: a boat trip out to the mussel and oyster farms, here known as “bateas”, where we learnt all about this important source of income for the locals. Included in this trip were as many mussels and Riberiro wine as you like! We even had the seagulls eating out of our hands, with tutelage from Paco our driver.
We then crossed the bridge to the Isla de la Toja, a very popular spa island visited for many decades by wealthy Spanish families. Most people, by now in a jolly mood, took a trip on the “Wally Wagon” around the island and afterwards visited the seashell church and the shop selling the famous La Toja soap and gels.
The last full day in Galicia we travelled along the “Coast Of Death” to the “End of the World” (Finisterre) and en route, in Carnota, saw the longest hórreo (35 m long) in Spain.
As its name indicates, Finisterre was the end of the world as far as the Romans and many other dwellers in Europe knew until the discovery of America. The coastal drive was spectacular with many photo opportunities along the way, and we were so lucky with the weather. Finisterre village itself was a good place to stop on the harbour side for lunch or even leave behind your gifts and souvenirs!
We left Santiago on a completely different route heading west along the Pilgrims way with Paco honking the intrepid walkers as we passed and Danny shouting Buen Viaje!
Lunch was arranged for those that wanted in a huge tavern in the lovely village of Molinaseca, another spot full of Pilgrims.
As if four nights in Galicia was not enough we had a night stop in the elegant and impressive San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the historical residence of the Kings of Spain, but also a monastery, mausoleum, royal palace, museum, and school. Oh, I nearly forgot, yet another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Philip II of Spain, appointed Juan Bautista architect-royal in 1559, and together they designed El Escorial as a monument to Spain’s role as a centre of the Christian world. Bautista had spent the greater part of his career in Rome, where he had worked on the basilica of St. Peter’s, and in Naples.
On our last morning we had a guided tour of the Royal Monastery a complex structure, but the simplicity of its lines focus all the attention on the harmony of its courtyards, fountains, cloisters and towers. More than 4,000 rooms are distributed among the principal areas. The Courtyard of the Kings of Judea gives way to the Basilica, which has a dome base measuring 95 metres and paintings by Lucas Jordán among its major features.
San Lorenzo was also built to house the Royal Pantheon and the Spanish monarchs from the houses of Habsburg and Bourbon are buried here. The princes, infantes and queens who died without leaving royal descendants rest in the Pantheon of the Infantes.
We arrived home late; weary but well fed and watered, wiser and more educated but also having had a thoroughly good time.