In 2021, during a spring reprieve from lockdown, we left our home in Portugal and headed north to the border with Spain to embark on a route-finding pilgrimage through Galicia on behalf of Inntravel.
It felt good to be liberated, free from the confines of our immediate surroundings to stride out into what, for us, was new territory. Everywhere we walked we were greeted with smiles, shouts of buen camino! and on one occasion, tears of joy. The lifeblood of hostels, cafes and small businesses along the route, the sight of pilgrims was erased from the face of Galicia almost overnight the previous year as Covid restrictions were introduced. Our appearance on the trail of the yellow scallop shells was like an omen – we were seen as the harbingers of a return to some kind of normality.
Over the course of ten days, we traversed country lanes, riverside paths, pavements and forest tracks; through ancient villages adorned by stone hórrreos (grain stores) and cruceiros (crosses), vineyards heavy with Albariño grapes, and fertile plains embroidered with allotments above whose flourishing vegetables, thin wisps of white woodsmoke spiralled into the blue sky, to reach the hallowed spires of Santiago de Compostela.
These are just some of the standout memories of an unforgettable journey.
At the start of our pilgrimage, a short stroll over the bridge spanning the River Minho took us over the border into Portugal, and back one hour in time. On the Portuguese side, the walled fortification of Valença is dominated by its fortress from whose walls there are spellbinding views over the river to Tui. Narrow streets lined by pavement cafes and traditional textiles shops where time seemed to have stood still since the Romans left, set the scene perfectly for the journey ahead.
Many years ago, Jack and I visited China and were blown away by the number and size of cities whose names we had never even heard of. Arriving at Pontevedra felt the same, not due to its size, but its beauty. How could we never even have heard of a Spanish city so blessed with architectural treasures and a buzzing restaurant and tapas scene? Deliciously ensconced in the gorgeous parador at the heart of the old quarter, we relished the labyrinth of lanes lined with enticing tapas bars and mouth-watering bakeries, the stunning Renaissance architecture, and the city’s youthful vibe.
Dragging ourselves away from Pontevedra, we once again set out on the trail and very quickly, left the main Portuguese Way to head west on the Variante Espiritual. We had heard that Combarro was one of this journey’s must-sees but we were not prepared for just how unique the little fishing village is. A line of hórrreos, the first of some 30 in total, guided us along the beach and into the narrow alleys lined with traditional fishermen’s cottages, some of their stone balconies bedecked with flowers. Passing multiple stone crosses, we followed the single street along the waterfront where the terraces of seafood restaurants jutted out over the Pontevedra river and the aroma of frying fish made us rue the picnic in our rucksacks.
Ruta da Pedra e da Auga
Once again reluctant to depart, this time from the embrace of the Quinta de San Amaro in Meaño, Nacho dropped us back at the Monasteiro de Armenteira and we took up the scallop trail again. Immediately, we followed a sign for the Ruta da Pedra e da Auga (the 'route of stone and water'), over a bridge by a waterfall, into dense woodland and along a narrow path that weaved through the trees alongside the Armenteira river. Stopping frequently to listen to birdsong, watch a cascade tumbling over rocks, and explore an old sawmill, we allowed the tranquillity and beauty to seduce us. Not for the first time, we were struck by just how special this pilgrim route is.
Mar de Arousa
The original of all the Ways of Santiago, the third and final section of the Variante Espiritual, the Mar de Arousa, follows the route taken by the disciples of the Apostle James in 44AD as they carried his remains back to Santiago from Jerusalem where he had been beheaded on the orders of Herod. Marked by a series of stone cruceiros set into the estuary, the route follows the final navigable section of the Ulla River to Pontecesures, outside Padrón. The boat journey was not only memorable for its scenery and wealth of information but also for its palpable connection to the Apostle in whose name we were journeying.
Santiago de Compostela
Legend has it a hermit saw lights in the sky, alerting him to the presence of a hitherto unknown tomb in which, 800 years earlier, the remains of James the Apostle had finally been laid to rest. And so began the Camino de Santiago which today annually sees hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arriving from around the world. Walking through the medieval city with its proliferation of august monuments, ornate churches and palaces, with tapas bars, cafes and tourist shops tucked into every available space, fatigue was replaced by elation and a sense of completion. This is a city to stroll, admire and explore; to savour its food and wines; to drink in its history and piety, and to luxuriate in well-deserved rest and relaxation.