Some 300,000 souls make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela every year. This Easter, I am one of them; only I am following a road less travelled.
For a long while, I have wanted to make the trip, but never had the time, as most of the routes are more than 500 miles long. Then I heard about the Primitivo, Spain’s oldest and shortest pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. And the toughest.
It starts in Oviedo and winds its way some 200 miles through the Cantabrian Mountains — just about doable in a fortnight. The story goes that, in the 9th century, Alfonso the Chaste heard that the tomb of Saint James (Sant Iago) had been discovered.
Goal: Santiago de Compostela. Bill Coles followed in the footsteps of Alfonso the Chaste to reach it
He immediately set out to investigate, and I am now following in his footsteps.
The pilgrimage has been the subject of a three-part BBC TV programme, which ended last night.
The lifestyle is Spartan: huge, €5-a-night dormitories that sleep anything up to 40 people; a 10pm lock-up at most of the hostels and check-out by 8.30am; rubberised pillows and mattresses with a disposable sheet if you’re lucky.
I’m on foot with a 10 kg rucksack, so there’s plenty of time to revel in the history and lush beauty of North-West Spain. It has a slight feel of Switzerland: verdant green, cow bells, men in clogs and rickety store rooms perched on staddle stones.
There are a lot of hills and lots of mud and the rain is like nothing I have experienced.
I walk through Storm Hugo and everything from my Scottish-seasoned waterproofs to the entire contents of my rucksack are saturated.
I flew to Oviedo a week ago, direct from Heathrow. In the cathedral, I picked up my Credencial (pilgrim’s passport) plus the icon of the camino, the scallop shell, all of its ridges leading to the same place, just like the routes to Santiago de Compostela.
Within an hour, I am in rolling countryside, now following larger scallop shells, as well as supplementary yellow arrows.
Bill with his fellow pilgrims, who all had different reasons for making the trip, from atoning for a lost love to self-reflection
Restaurants offer huge pilgrim meals, at least four courses with wine, for €9.
My motley crew consists of a grizzled Spanish sea captain, Pepe, 54; a Spanish accountant, Roberto, 40; and two German women, Giulia and Sara, both 27.
We all have our reasons for making the trip. For me, it’s the idea of walking where thousands have trod before.
Roberto is atoning for a lost love; Sara wants to take a silver crucifix back to her Portuguese grandmother.
For Giulia, it’s all about being here during Holy Week. When we climbed the mountains on the Hospitales route, she sat on the path and silently wept.
And Pepe? He says he wants to ‘learn’ about himself.
It was our miserable day walking through Storm Hugo that brought us together.
Now, we celebrate cheap thrills together.
There is nothing to touch the ecstasy of vegetable soup after a morning in the rain, or tugging off my sodden boots, or showering in the grotty bathrooms.
This is Pepe’s fourth camino and he says the worst day will be when we arrive in Santiago de Compostela, because then our adventure will be over. I have heard much about the city’s cathedral, with its colossal incense-burners that swing above the congregation. I don’t know how I will feel when I get there next week.
But I can already sense the camino weaving its magic.
I’ve never been more in the moment — focusing only on the next step.
Getting the finish certificate will be an achievement, but pilgrimages are not only about the destination.
They are about the journey, the scrapes and the people you meet along the way — all of which can be strangely and wonderfully life-changing.