The Camino de Santiago, or Pilgrim Route, is the longest-established “tourist” route in Europe, and its final section through Galicia provides echoes of the medieval pilgrimage to the thousands who walk it every year, armed with the traditional staff and the scallop-shell emblem of St James. Today’s pilgrims seldom walk from their homes to Santiago de Compostela and back; most follow one of the half a dozen or so standard pilgrimage routes through Spain and France. The most popular, the 750km Camino Francés, heads westward from Roncesvalles (or Orreaga-Roncesvalles in Basque) in the Pyrenees across northern Spain. You don’t have to be Christian, or even religious, to follow the route. For roughly half of all pilgrims, the journey to Santiago is prompted by their religious faith, while others want to experience their own spiritual quest, or simply to immerse themselves in Spanish history and culture. Whatever the motivation, the camino’s popularity has exploded in recent decades; while only a handful of people walked to Santiago in the 1960s, the route now attracts well over 100,000 pilgrims a year, half of whom are Spanish.
The Camino de Santiago in Galicia passes few tourist sights, meandering instead through countless tiny villages. Pilgrims work a little harder on this last leg as the route clambers up and down steep hills and valleys, but the scenery is gorgeous compensation: green with oak forests and patchworked fields. Galicia is green for a reason, however; the region gets a lot of rain, and you can get caught in a storm even in summer.
The Galician government has made a huge effort to promote the camino, maintaining an extensive network of pilgrim hostels along the eight separate routes that converge on Santiago – all are listed on the website wxacobeo.es. The Camino Francés enters Galicia at the Pedrafita do Cebreiro pass, a desolate spot where hundreds of English soldiers froze or starved to death during Sir John Moore’s retreat towards A Coruña in 1809. It’s a fierce 30km climb from Villafranca del Bierzo in León up cobbled paths often slick with mud and dung to the mountain village of O Cebreiro. There can be snow here in winter, and fog often obscures the spectacular views, but it’s a magical place, with round, thatched-roof pallozas (stone huts) and intricate horréos (granaries).
The camino is naturally at its most crowded in Galicia. The volume of pilgrims reaches a crescendo at Sarría, 115km from Santiago, which is the last major town where you can start walking and still earn a compostela; 12km southeast of here, the moss-covered Monasterio de Samos (daily 10.30am–1pm & 4.30–7pm; free), famous for its library in the Middle Ages, is one of the few surviving ancient buildings along the route.
The closer you get to Santiago, the more pilgrim rituals you’ll encounter. Medieval pilgrims would wash themselves in the river at Lavacolla, 12km east of the city and now the site of its airport, to prepare for their arrival. During this ritual cleansing – often the first bath since leaving home – they’d pay extra attention to their private parts; lavacolla is said to mean scrotum-washing. From there, they’d race 5km to Monte de Gozo (Mount of Joy), where the first to cry “mon joie” on spotting Santiago’s cathedral spires was declared the king of the group.
Although most people end their pilgrimage at Santiago de Compostela, some walk another 75km to Fisterra (Finisterra), a Celtic route towards the setting sun that predates the medieval pilgrimage by at least a millennium. The quiet, well-marked rural route ends at Cabo Fisterra, the westernmost point of mainland Europe. Below the lighthouse, at a small bronze sculpture of a pair of walking boots, pilgrims traditionally burn their clothes after a dip in the sea to celebrate the end of the journey.