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April 17, 2018, Spain

Walk this way

Tan Chung Lee traces the footsteps of early pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago in Spain

Tan Chung Lee

As a regular hiker, the Way of St James (Camino de Santiago) in northern Spain ticked off the right boxes for me.

It is a great way to exercise, meet locals and discover rural Galicia, with its mediaeval villages, Romanesque architecture, delicious food and scenic landscapes.

But the full 780km long Camino, a pilgrim’s path trodden over the centuries by the faithful, seemed daunting to me.

Only when I found out that I could walk a much shorter stretch but still qualify for a pilgrim’s certificate did I finally head to Spain in spring last year.

The Camino de Santiago is a network of nine ancient pilgrim routes, some of which are listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. They start from different places in Europe and all end at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where martyred Christian apostle St James, known in Spanish as Santiago, was buried.

As many as 200,000 people walk their way to Santiago de Compostela annually.

My 115km walk took me along the final section of the Camino Frances. The latter is also known as the French Way, the 780km route of the earliest pilgrims.

Getting started

I joined a group of 14 for a seven-day journey, with accommodation booked for each night and luggage transfers between stops. All I had to carry was a small daypack with essentials such as a rain jacket, sunblock, water bottle and a fleece.

We started in Sarria, 130km from A Coruña, a city on the northern coast of Galicia, and covered up to 30km a day.

We set off at about 8.30am every morning for the walk, which was physically challenging, given the intensity and brisk pace. I was travelling with avid walkers, so most of us took the strains in our strides although a few suffered blisters.

There were hundreds of participants from around the world. I came across a couple who broke the monotony of the walk by strumming a guitar and singing, two best friends who kept a steady pace with nary a spot of sweat shed, and groups of noisy teenagers on a school excursion.

Along the way, we stopped for occasional morning breaks and lunch. The regional dishes at bars and cafés allowed us to sample typical Galician fare such as Tarta de Santiago, a traditional almond cake; Caldo Gallego, a hearty white bean stew with greens; empanadas or savoury pies stuffed with meat or fish, and the famous soft cheeses of Arzúa.

Scenic trails

The Camino is clearly marked. Just follow the stone markers with the emblem of a scallop shell, the symbol for St James, which are also distance indicators showing the kilometres left to reach Santiago; signs of a pilgrim with a walking stick; or the yellow arrows daubed on trees, walls and kerbs.

Much of the mostly flat trail is through woods and some of it on gravel tracks. Now and again, there is a stretch of motorway to cross.

We walked through leafy forests of oak, chestnut, pine or eucalyptus trees, and past vineyards, quaint villages and isolated farmhouses.

There were panoramic views to enjoy, like when we had to walk up undulating hills on the 25km trail from Portomarin to Palas de Frei on the second day.

There were old stone bridges to cross and Romanesque churches to visit, such as the ancient church of San Verisimo and the 18th century chapel in Santa Irene on the trail from Arzúa to Rua O-Pino.

Everywhere in the countryside were distinctive horreos or granaries, raised on pillars to ward off rats, found only in this part of Spain.

Scenes of local life filled my days: farmers herding their cattle into corrals or riding tractors across fields; residents wishing “buen camino” (“good walk”) as I sauntered past their gates; and restaurateurs in towns tempting me to stay to try local specialities.

I also saw historical sites and learnt about the heritage of the towns we passed.

Highlights included Portomarin with its stone staircase leading into town and the fortress-like 13th century church of San Juan; the town of Melide famous for its Galician pulpo, boiled octopus drizzled with olive oil and paprika; and Arzúa, with a magnificent 18th century pazo (manor house) that has been converted into a hotel.

The finishing line

Santiago de Compostela, of course, is the jewel in Galicia’s crown. At the top of a hill overlooking the town where the Mount of Joy ridge is, the cathedral’s twin spires came into view. It took another hour to walk into town but with the finishing line in sight, we plodded on with a spring in our step.

When we reached Praza do Obradoiro, the main square in front of the cathedral, we joined an exhilarated crowd cheering the end of their walk, and documented our accomplishment with multiple photos.

Inside the cathedral, the largely Romanesque interior was filled with flickering candles and a constant flow of pilgrims. In front of its high altar hung the botafumeiro or incensor, swung over the heads of pilgrims and the tomb of St James.

I joined a long queue to climb up to a central gold and silver altar to touch — or hug — a 13th-century statue of St James.

At mass later, I stood in awe while observing the mystical spectacle of the swinging botafumeiro filling the cathedral with the sweet aroma of smoking Frankincense. It was a touching finale to a centuries-old tradition of walking the Way.

TIPS ON WALKING THE CAMINO

What to prepare:

Assess your health and fitness level. Expect a long-distance walk so having stamina is key. If you are not an avid walker, build up your strength first.

What to wear:

Wear waterproof high-cut hiking boots that offer ankle support and protection, and choose those with non-skid soles to withstand uneven terrain. Consider walking poles. Galicia is wet and windy so a waterproof jacket and over-trousers are essential.

Where to stay:

Choose from refugios offering dormitory-style accommodation for €5 (S$8) a night to luxury hotels. Refugios are a boon to self-guided walkers, but they have a no-reservation policy, stick by an 8am check-out time and offer no luggage transfer services.

Alternatively, make transfer arrangements with courier companies such as www.elcaminoconcorreos.com; www.caminofacil.net and www.jacotrans.es.

But book hotels in advance so that your bags can be arranged to be delivered there. Or join a group and have all room reservations and luggage transfers taken care of.

When to go:

The pilgrimage season runs from Easter to October. The best months for walking the Camino are April, May, June, September and October. Although summer is hot, many pilgrims walk in July, with the aim of arriving in Santiago de Compostela by July 25, the feast day of St James.

What to collect:

People who have walked at least 100km along any of the routes can obtain a pilgrim’s certificate, or compostela. The Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela issues the document upon presentation of a pilgrim’s passport at €2, available at souvenir shops, newspaper kiosks and convenience stores. Passport stamps can be obtained at cafés, churches, town halls or accommodation places en route.

Getting there:

Fly Singapore Airlines to Barcelona and Vueling to A Coruña, then take a train to Sarria. Or fly on Emirates or Qatar to Madrid to connect with Iberia Airlines to A Coruña.

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