The hardiest modern pilgrims trek overland to Galicia along centuries-old pathways carved into the landscape.
On foot and on horseback, people have been crisscrossing Galicia, in northwest Spain, for thousands of years. When the Romans reached Cape Finisterre, the westernmost point, they stopped. Their empire could stretch no further. This, they declared, was the end of the world: finis terrae.
On a misty winter's day, you can believe it. The gray Atlantic Ocean shatters against the rocky headland. Sea and sky fuse in the gloom. This is certainly not what you think of when you think of Spain.
Indeed, most of Galicia subverts our preconceptions. It is part of Spain, yet scenically, culturally and linguistically, it is distinctly different. The rolling green countryside and craggy coastline is strongly reminiscent of Ireland, an impression reinforced by the proud Celtic heritage.
Recent DNA research has revealed a close genetic relationship between Galicians and the Irish. Local festivities are often accompanied by bagpipes, which have been played here for centuries. As for the language, around 85 percent of the population speak Gallego, which is derived from Spanish and Portuguese.
Life in this remote corner of Spain has traditionally been tough, and consequently, as with Ireland, many inhabitants emigrated to the New World in search of fresh opportunities, especially to Cuba (both of Fidel Castro's parents were from Galicia), Uruguay and Argentina. There are said to be more Galicians in Buenos Aires than in Galicia itself.
Yet wherever Galicians end up, their land exerts a mystical pull. According to the local legend, when God rested on the seventh day, his hand pressed down on Galicia and the imprint of his fingers created the four fjord-like inlets that fracture the coast between Finisterre and the region's largest city, Vigo. It was Galicia's first blessing.
The second came in 813, when the purported tomb of St. James was discovered a short distance inland. A city was founded on the spot, Santiago de Compostela. Derived from Latin, the name means St. James of the Starry Field - according to the story, a farmer was led to the hidden tomb by the light of stars.
From the Middle Ages onward, up to 500,000 pilgrims from all corners of Europe - the British Isles in the West, Scandinavia in the North, and distant Constantinople in the East - descended on Santiago de Compostela each year. It was soon recognized as the third most holy site in Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome.
The pilgrims still come, around 70,000 annually, walking or riding the various converging routes that make up the Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims carry a credencial - a kind of passport - to be stamped along the way. A completed credencial earns a certificate known as a compostela and a pardon for sins. Anyone who walks at least the last 62 miles, or cycles or rides at least the last 124 miles, is eligible for a compostela.
For many, the prime motivation is religious. But in recent years the Catholic pilgrims have been joined by an increasing number of secular trekkers for whom the journey itself is the big attraction. The weaving route has been carved into the landscape by centuries of footsteps, passing through some of the most beautiful scenery in southern Europe.
The hardiest modern pilgrims trek overland to Santiago de Compostela from all over Europe, threading their way down through France to the Pyrenees. The routes converge at Roncesvalles, the ideal starting point for adventurers intent on completing the 485-mile Spanish section of the route - an epic undertaking which requires meticulous planning, and takes four to six weeks on foot.
It is here that the four principal routes through France converge, originating in Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy and Arles - routes that follow the trails taken, historically, by pilgrims from Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. In France, only traces of the pilgri mage infrastructure remain, but from Roncesvalles onward there is a network of pilgrim hostels providing inexpensive ($3-30 per night) overnight accommodation for anyone with a credencial. Many of these hostels have been receiving pilgrims for more than a thousand years.The hostel at Roncesvalles is one of the largest, with bunk beds for 120 people in its single dormitory. In summer, capacity is regularly exceeded, and a campsite of tents springs up around the ancient building to accommodate the overflow.
From Roncesvalles, the trek to Santiago generally takes four to five weeks, considerably less on mountain bike or horseback. Bikes and horses are available to rent along the way, or you can pre-book a guided group tour.
The outer reaches of the Camino are the most enjoyable. There is a strong sense of camaraderie among the pilgrims - whatever their motivation for the journey - and friendships are made easily. There is a tangible sense of connection to the past, of treading in the footsteps of previous generations.
During the last 62 miles, the atmosphere changes. Hundreds of fresh pilgrims join the path for the final stretch, and there is no longer quite the same bond of shared experience. But the countryside is still pretty, and there is growing anticipation with each footfall (or each revolution of the bike wheel, each horse's hoof step), as the final goal approaches. Few sights compare to the first glimpse of the spires of Santiago de Compostela after days on the Camino.
The aim for most pilgrims is to arrive in the city in time for the Festival of St. James on July 25. The years when that date falls on a Sunday are designated Holy Years and are especially auspicious; the next two are 2010 and 2021.
Even for non-pilgrims, Santiago de Compostela is a compelling destination. Many of the buildings, including the magnificent cathedral, are made from pink granite. When it rains here - and it does quite often - the stone gleams, giving the whole place an ethereal aspect.
The weather plays tricks with the surrounding landscape, too. At dawn, when the patchwork fields are coated with dew and wisps of Atlantic fog hang among the trees, and the watery sun bathes everything in golden light, it doesn't feel like the end of the world at all. More like the beginning.