Just how Santiago ended up in a remote northwestern corner of Iberia is a strange and marvellous tale.
Santiago, or St James as he’s known in English, was one of Jesus’ apostles, and after the Crucifixion, he left Judea for Spain to spread the Gospel. Though he preached as far north as Galicia, he didn’t have much luck with the native peoples, and attracted a mere seven converts before turning towards home.
While there’s no biblical basis for Santiago’s visit to Spain, it is clear that Herod Agrippa had him beheaded in ad44 in Jerusalem, making him the first apostle to be martyred. Santiago’s friends managed to sneak his body out from under Herod’s nose, and put him on a stone boat headed for northwest Spain without oars, sails or crew. After a week-long journey, the body arrived in Padrón on the Galician coast, where his disciples were waiting. They buried Santiago 20km inland in Compostela, after the local queen witnessed a series of miracles and converted to Christianity.
Santiago lay forgotten for a good few centuries, while all around him Spain became Christian through rather gradual, more conventional means. The move to Christianity ended abruptly at the start of the eighth century, when Muslim armies crossed over from North Africa, soon conquering most of the Iberian Peninsula and pushing up into central France. Still, pockets of Christianity remained, notably in northwestern Spain.
In 813, a curious Christian hermit followed sweet music and twinkling stars to a remote hillside in Galicia. The bones he found at Campus Stellae (Compostela) were quickly identified as those of Santiago, and the bishop of nearby Iria Flavia sanctified the discovery. Within a few years the King of Asturias, Alfonso II, visited the site, built a chapel and declared Santiago the patron saint of Spain.
Visions of Santiago multiplied, and the saint became instrumental in the fight against the Muslims. His most famous appearance was at the battle of Clavijo, near Logroño, where he rode a white charger and personally scythed his way through tens of thousands of Moors. This kind of behaviour earned him the name of Santiago Matamoros (Moor-slayer), to go with his more peace-loving image as Santiago Peregrino (pilgrim).
The history of the camino
Well before Santiago’s time, the ancient Celts had their own version of the camino, said to follow the vía lactea (Milky Way) to the sea at Finis Terrae (Finisterre), the end of the known world and as far west as they could travel without getting their feet wet. Although it’s a beautiful legend, the Milky Way only mirrors the camino for an hour or so on September nights. Pilgrims who tried to follow the Milky Way to Finisterre would simply end up going around in circles.
By the ninth century, Christian authorities had seized on the pilgrimage to Santiago as a way to drive out Muslim invaders and to prevent the peoples of northern Spain from falling back on their pagan ways. Local churchmen were also keen on the cash flow that a stream of pilgrims would bring, and their promotion of Santiago de Compostela as a pilgrimage destination was a masterful piece of mediaeval marketing.
The number of pilgrims rose over the next couple of hundred years, particularly after the Turkish capture of the Holy Sepulchre made Jerusalem unsafe for pilgrims. The French were particularly keen, so much so that the main route over the Pyrenees from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and across Spain is called the camino francés.
In 1189, Pope Alexander III declared Santiago de Compostela a Holy City, along with Rome and Jerusalem. Under his edict, pilgrims who arrive during Holy Years (when the Día de Santiago, July 25, falls on a Sunday) can bypass purgatory entirely, while those arriving in other years get half their time off.
It wasn’t all voluntary penitence; sometimes people were sentenced to walk to Santiago as punishment for a crime, although wealthy convicts could get around this by paying someone else to walk the pilgrimage. Other pilgrims went on behalf of their villages in an effort to get rid of plagues, floods or locusts, or as a chance to see the world in the days before package holidays.
Churches and pilgrim hospices sprang up along the camino, often built on the site of miracles. Their walls provided havens from a dangerous and arduous outside world, where wolves and bandits thwarted the faithful.
The stream of pilgrims peaked in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when about half a million people made the pilgrimage and when many of the towns and cities along the camino were built. French pilgrims of this time may well have been guided by the Codex Calixtinus, a twelfth-century travel guide usually attributed to Aymeric Picaud, a cantankerous French monk with bilious views about almost all the people he met and most of the land he walked through.
The number of pilgrims dropped off once the Christian reconquista was complete, and had fallen considerably by the time that Domenico Laffi, a seventeenth-century Italian pilgrim, wrote his guide to the camino francés. The steady decline continued through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and by the mid-twentieth century only a few hardy souls walked the camino.
The camino today
Although the camino had dropped off the world-tourism radar, it wasn’t entirely forgotten. Santiago remained the patron saint of Spain, and local people were still able to trace the route of the camino through their villages. In one of these villages in the 1960s, Don Elias Valiña Sampedro, the parish priest at O Cebreiro, began a meticulous labour of love that eventually became El Camino de Santiago, the camino’s first modern-day guidebook.
By the 1980s, the camino’s popularity had soared: in 1982, John Paul II became the first pope to visit Santiago de Compostela, then in 1987 the European Union declared the camino Europe’s first Cultural Itinerary. unesco followed suit in 1993, adding the camino to its World Heritage list.
Today’s pilgrims rarely make the complete journey from their homes to Santiago and back, and most prefer to follow one of the standard routes through Spain or France. Some pilgrims walk the vía de la plata from Sevilla or the camino inglés from A Coruña, but the vast majority join the camino francés at some point between France and Santiago.
Any pilgrim who walks the last 100km to Santiago can apply for a compostela (a certificate recognizing the completion of the pilgrimage) from the authorities in Santiago de Compostela. The number of pilgrims travelling the camino peaks during Holy Years: 180,000 people reached Santiago in 2004, and future Holy Years are likely to see even more pilgrims. Even in other years, about 100,000 people follow the camino; more than half are from Spain, and most of the rest are from elsewhere in Europe.
Some pilgrim traditions have survived into the modern era. Many pilgrims walk with the aid of a tall staff and wear a scallop shell attached to their pack or their person, mimicking images of Santiago Peregrino. The beaches of Galicia are awash with scallop shells, and mediaeval pilgrims would often collect one as a souvenir of their journey; scallop symbols are also ubiquitous, adorning concrete camino markers, churches and houses along the way.
Even some of the pilgrim songs survive, as does ¡Ultreia!, an exhortation to pilgrims to keep going, which you’ll see graffitied on walls and underpasses along the way.
Hiking is gaining popularity in Spain, particularly amongst southern city dwellers, who escape to cooler mountain regions like the Picos de Europa on sticky summer weekends. Around cities such as Pamplona and Logroño, you’ll share the trail with recreational walkers, but most northern urbanites prefer the civilized tradition of the evening stroll, browsing in shop windows, sipping Rioja and nibbling at tapas. In places like rural Galicia, walking is an integral part of life, whether heading to work in the fields or to the bar for a post-farming glass of wine, and exercise for exercise’s sake can be seen as rather ridiculous.
There’s a certain snooty hierarchy amongst pilgrims. Many walkers look down on cyclists, often called peregrinos descafeinados (decaffeinated pilgrims), and albergues (pilgrim hostels) may refuse to admit cycling pilgrims or ask them to wait until early evening before deciding if there’s room. Self-propelled pilgrims, even non-religious ones, often dismiss car-pilgrims as “tourists.” Pilgrims on horses or donkeys are a conversation piece: fewer than 1% of pilgrims travel this way.
The camino heads across Spain on a variety of different surfaces, from narrow paths to wide tracks to tarmac (paved roads). It’s mostly easy walking with very few rough or uneven surfaces, although some stone and mud tracks can become slippery after rain. Road walking can be unpleasant, and occasional stretches are dangerous due to narrow shoulders, busy roads and blind corners. Walk in a group on the left-hand side of the road (facing oncoming traffic), if possible.
Trail marking is generally excellent, and it’s difficult to lose your way. Almost every turn is marked with a scallop shell or a yellow arrow painted on everything from sidewalks to trees to the sides of houses. Local people will be able to direct you to the camino if you should stray from the route — see our language section on page 169 for helpful walking phrases.
Navigating through cities is occasionally difficult, as new building work or industrial development can obliterate arrows and paths. In other areas, Spain’s aggressive program of road-building can alter the route. Whether it’s a temporary or a permanent diversion, watch out for trucks, dust and mud.
Most pilgrims don’t bother with detailed maps, as the camino is well marked and easy to follow. The sketch maps in this book show the villages, terrain and sights you’ll encounter, along with distances and facilities along the way. Pili Pala Press also publishes the Camino de Santiago Map, a lightweight, pocket-sized book of maps at a scale of 1:100,000. The map book also lists points of interest and accommodation along the camino francés.
If you’re determined to weigh down your backpack with walking maps, Michelin maps 571, 573 and 575 give an overview of the camino, and although they’re next to useless for walking, they do mark most of the towns and villages you’ll pass through. There’s more detail on the 1:25,000 maps put out by the Instituto Geográfico Nacional (www.mfom.es/ign/) and the 1:50,000 maps published by the Servicio Geográfico del Ejército.
Walking maps are scarce along the camino but can be ordered from the UK before you go. Try Stanfords ( 020 7836 1321; www.stanfords.co.uk), the Map Centre in Hereford ( 01432 266 322; www.themapcentre.com) or the Map Shop in Upton-upon-Severn ( 0800 085 4080; www.themapshop.co.uk).
One of the most stunning aspects of walking the camino is the gradual unveiling of the landscape in front of you. As the camino snakes its way across the third-largest country in Europe, you’ll traverse everything from high mountain passes to wide river valleys. Although Spain is more mountainous than any country in Europe apart from Switzerland, the camino follows the line of least resistance across gently undulating terrain.
The foothills of the Pyrenees are the first obstacle faced by pilgrims. Created by the collision of the Afro-Iberian and European tectonic plates, these mountains continue to rise fractionally every year. On the other side of the mountains, you’ll enter the provinces of Navarra and La Rioja, where grapes grow on rolling hills of sun-baked clay and limestone. The land is dominated by the Río Ebro, which drains the water from a vast area of northeastern Spain, and the camino follows a natural corridor into the heart of Spain between the Sierra de la Demanda to the south and the Sierra de Cantabria to the north. The Montes de Oca are the last major hills before the city of Burgos and the meseta beyond.
Many pilgrims expect the meseta to be a long flat boring expanse of nothing, but the reality is far more interesting. The 800m-high central plateau dominates central Spain, covering almost two-fifths of the country. Treeless for the most part, the horizon seems to stretch endlessly across yellow wheat fields, broken only by views of the spectacular Cordillera Cantábrica, which dictates the meseta’s climate. In winter, a strong, cold wind howls down from the ranges’ snowy peaks, freezing the land for eight months of the year. In summer, temperatures soar, as the same mountains block cool breezes from the ocean and trap the baking heat.
Eventually, the Cordillera Cantábrica must be clambered over, as the mountains curve down towards Portugal, blocking the way to Santiago and marking the end of the meseta. Although the western fringe isn’t the highest part of the range, it’s certainly the wettest section, as the gulf stream brings soggy warm air that clings to northwestern Spain for weeks on end. The mountains have also protected the indigenous people from successive waves of invaders; consequently, this corner of Spain often seems to have more in common with Celtic nations than with the rest of Spain.
Water dominates Galicia — the coastal province gets an average of 2m of rain each year. Deep river valleys have been carved by all that precipitation, and water-loving oak forests cover the land. From Santiago, the lowest point of the camino so far, it’s downhill to the ocean at Finisterre, a slim finger of a peninsula that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean towards the setting sun.
As in much of the rest of Europe, modern development has had environmental consequences in Spain. Flush with European Union cash, the government embarked on a frenzy of road building, and there are times along the camino where you’ll be surrounded by underused, multi-lane roads.
In Galicia, indigenous forests have been torn down to make way for fast-growing eucalyptus. Very few birds and other animals can live in these monocultural stands because the acidic leaves sterilize the soil.
Although it’s hard to believe when you’re getting soaked by a Galician rainstorm, water is one of Spain’s major environmental problems. Not only does the country get less rainfall than it did a few years ago, Spain’s per capita water consumption is one of the highest in the world. River flow is decreasing at an alarming rate as water is siphoned off to irrigate agricultural lands and to satisfy thirsty industries and cities. Tourism, destructive in its own right in Spain’s coastal region, is also causing water problems as foreign visitors demand emerald-green golf courses even in water-starved areas. A moratorium on coastal development, introduced in 2007, may go some way to stemming the tide of rampant tourist development.
Hunting is a big part of Spanish culture, and Spain gives over much of its land to reservas de caza (hunting reserves). In summer, you’ll often hear staccato bursts of gunfire-like noise, although the sound is just as likely to be from fiesta firecrackers as from hunters’ rifles. Hunting has eliminated some of Spain’s rarer creatures, and the brown bear, found in the Cordillera Cantábrica, and the lammergeier, a bird of prey that nests in the Pyrenees, are just clinging to existence. Although the wolf is a protected species, local farmers put their rifles away with gritted teeth, as compensation from the government for lost livestock arrives at glacial speed.
The green movement in Spain is much younger than its counterparts in northern European countries, but it has become much more organized and high-profile in the last few years.
Litter on the camino can be a big problem, particularly at busy times of year. Please make sure that you pack all your garbage out with you, and consider minimizing your use of plastic water bottles by bringing a reusable water container. You could also consider doing your bit to reduce litter along the way.
In 2008, the Canadian Company of Pilgrims launched “Take a Day to Make a Difference.” Every pilgrim who applied for a credencial also received a litter bag and was asked to spend one day of their trip along the camino picking up litter.
When to Go
Pilgrims traditionally timed their journey to arrive in Santiago de Compostela for the Día de Santiago. Now a Galician holiday, July 25 is still the liveliest time to be in the city, when the Plaza de Obradoiro in front of the cathedral is illuminated by a magnificent fireworks display.
Summer weather is the most reliable, although it can rain at any time of the year in Galicia, and the meseta can be uncomfortably hot from June to August. Albergues are crowded throughout the peak season, and hotels may be fully booked in destinations popular with tourists. Many regions along the camino come alive from June onwards with traditional festivals; the Navarrese celebrate with particular gusto in July and August. The end of summer marks the start of the harvest, and food-based fiestas pop up everywhere.
Early autumn is the perfect time for wine buffs, as the grape harvest in La Rioja and Navarra gets into swing. It’s also wild mushroom season, and an excellent time to see birds heading south for the winter. The weather is often mild, sometimes wet and windy, and there may be occasional snow flurries at higher elevations.
The weather worsens through the winter. You’ll need to carry more equipment to cope with rain at any time and to deal with snow on the mountain passes. It can be an inconvenient and chilly time to travel, as churches and tourist sights may be closed, and those albergues and hotels that stay open can lack heating. Despite this, travelling the route in winter can be a fabulous, solitary experience, and there’s a definite camaraderie amongst the hardy souls who attempt the camino at this time.
Come spring, the weather improves, although there’s still a chance of snow at higher elevations and you’ll probably be rained on for at least a few days of your trip. Spring is the best time to see wildflowers, which bloom earlier on the warm meseta than in chillier, damper Galicia, and it’s also the ideal time to spot migrating birds on their way back north.
The camino is always busier during Holy Years such as 2010 and 2021, when the Día de Santiago falls on a Sunday. Pilgrims who walk the camino in Holy Years get more time off purgatory, and special ceremonies are performed in Santiago and in churches and cathedrals along the way.
How long will it take?
If you’re fit and healthy and don’t want to stay for more than one night in any of the places along the way, you can walk the camino from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in about a month. It’s a good idea to allow for extra time in case of any unforseen injuries, an occasional lazy day or a whimsical decision to linger in one of the lovely towns along the way.
If you have less time, or if you’re not used to walking long distances, consider starting somewhere closer to Santiago; you only need to walk the last 100km to Santiago to get a compostela. Cities such as Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada and Sarria are all popular places to start.
Many pilgrims walk the camino in stages, and returning every year or so to walk another two-week stretch is especially popular with French and Spanish pilgrims.
People & Culture
The Iberian peninsula was home to some of the earliest known Europeans, and excavations at Atapuerca, on the camino just before Burgos, have uncovered an 800,000-year-old skeleton. Farther north, and a good many years later in 15,000bc, cave dwellers at Altamira created stunning, artistically sophisticated buffalo and deer paintings. Neolithic peoples arrived in Spain in about 5000bc, building some splendid megalithic monumnets in Galicia and the Basque country. The Celts came south across the Pyrenees in about 800bc, leaving a string of castros along the camino, and an indelible mark on Galicia’s culture and architecture.
Things were fairly peaceful on the peninsula until the Romans decided to expand their empire in about 200bc. Resistance from the Celtiberian tribes of northern Spain was so strong that it took a couple of centuries for the Romans to control the country and, even then, peoples like the Basques retained their own distinctive cultures. The Romans, as always, chose the shortest, most logical routes for their roads: the camino follows the Via Traiana, the Roman road that linked Bordeaux and Astorga, for much of its length.
As Roman power waned, northern armies poured into Spain. Like the Romans, the Suevi and the Visigoths made little impact on northern Spain, although some lovely chapels remain, and others lie buried beneath the foundations of later, grander churches.
In 711, a small force of Moors landed in Gibraltar and quickly moved north, controlling much of the peninsula in a few short years. But just as the Romans and Visigoths never really got a grip on Spain’s unruly northerners, so Muslim strongholds were limited to the south of the country. By the ninth century, while southern Spain was prospering under Muslim rule, pockets of Christian influence were developing in the north.
In 824, the powerful kingdom of Navarra was formed, becoming strongest in the eleventh century during the reign of Sancho el Mayor, who captured La Rioja and a large chunk of Castilla for the Navarrese Christians. The balance of power was destined to shift west along the camino, however, and by the end of the eleventh century the kingdom of Castilla was the dominant force in Christian Spain.
The camino’s popularity peaked in the Middle Ages, when some of the grandest and most glorious churches and cathedrals along the route were built. Meanwhile, Spain’s disparate Christian kingdoms were drawing closer together; León, Castilla and Navarra joined forces in 1212 to defeat the Moors at Las Navas de Tolosa, and a more concrete union was cemented in 1479, when Isabel I of Castilla married Fernando V of Aragón.
Fernando and Isabel’s reign began a flurry of Spanish exploration and conquest; Columbus discovered the New World in their names, and Pizarro set about dominating South America. Back home, the insidious Inquisition was driving almost half a million Jews from the country and was also systematically rooting out Muslims, gypsies and witches.
Meanwhile, Spain’s centre of government was moving south, and Felipe II had set up court in Madrid by the sixteenth century. The north suffered from its lack of political influence, and many of its towns went into gradual decline.
In 1808, Napoleon crossed over the Pyrenees by the old Camino de Santiago, soon installing his brother on the throne of Spain. The Spanish called for help from the British, who were spectacularly unsuccessful at first, and Sir John Moore’s troops trashed towns such as Ponferrada and Villafranca del Bierzo as they speedily retreated to A Coruña on the northern coast. It took Wellington’s army to drive the French out of Spain, although his troops were just as apt to destroy as liberate the Spanish towns they passed through.
The rest of the nineteenth century is a muddle of coups and counter coups as Spain swung from monarchy to liberal constitution and back again. By the early twentieth century, political groups had splintered into factions, and regionalism, anarchism, communism and fascism all gained ground. Almost inevitably, civil war broke out in 1936. The province of Castilla was firmly on Franco’s side, and the Nationalists made Burgos their wartime capital. Galicians were also predominantly Nationalist, partly because Franco was a local boy from Ferrol, and partly because of the region’s inherent conservatism. The Basques sided with the Republicans, becoming increasingly isolated in the Nationalist north, and in 1937 were finally defeated as Nazi planes carpet-bombed Guernica.
When Franco came to power at the end of the civil war in January 1939, he set about rewarding friendly cities like Burgos, which got a big chunk of money from the dictator for industrial development. The Basques, meanwhile, were punished severely. Euskara, the Basque language, was repressed, and the Basque flag and other Basque symbols were banned. Economically, the country suffered from the costly civil war and the isolation of Franco’s fascist regime, but an injection of US investment in the 1950s nudged Spain into the industrial age.
Franco finally died in 1975, wielding influence beyond the grave by nominating King Juan Carlos as his successor. Although Spain flirted with dictatorship and military coups in the late 1970s, by 1982 the country was flinging itself into democracy and capitalism with abandon. Spain’s recent economic development has been largely due to its enthusiastic membership in the European Union, which it joined in 1986. European money has flooded into the country, leading to industrial development, agricultural modernization and an unstoppable orgy of road building.
In keeping with European Union philosophy, Spain’s modern era has seen a devolution of power to the regions, and the Basques and Galicians in particular have been granted a large measure of autonomy.
Spain is not so much a single country as a paella of diverse and disparate cultures. Many Galicians and Basques don’t even consider themselves Spanish, and even less autonomous regions are intensely proud of their homelands. Having said this, foreign visitors will notice certain things that are distinctly, and often uniquely, Spanish.
Spain may be in the same time zone as many European countries, but the Spanish day is unrecognizable to those from more northern climates. For a start, things happen later in Spain. A lot later in the case of meals, as restaurant lunches aren’t usually served until 2pm, and Spaniards rarely eat dinner before 10pm. Nights out in Spain aren’t for the faint-hearted, nor are they for pilgrims curfew-bound by albergues, as bars don’t get going until midnight and clubs rarely open before 4am. It’s no wonder the Spanish need a long siesta, and you’ll find that even in the cities, life will grind to a halt from 2pm to 5pm.
Spanish life seems to revolve around eating and drinking. Sunday lunches, in particular, are vast, communal affairs stretching well into the afternoon and involving all members of the family from the oldest to the youngest. Children are universally adored, and more puritanical northern Europeans and North Americans may be shocked at the extent to which Spanish kids are heard as well as seen in public. Children are positively welcomed in restaurants, and you’ll often see youngsters brought along for a late-night stroll or a tapas crawl.
You won’t hear much English spoken along the camino, and even a smattering of Castellano (Spanish) will help with communication. Both Euskara (Basque) and Galega (Galician) are undergoing literary and linguistic revivals. Surprisingly, the noisily nationalistic Basques are less likely to speak their indigenous language than the quieter Galicians, 90% of whom speak some Galega.
Spain is an inherently Catholic country, 500 years after the Inquisition drove out Jews and Muslims. Since the 1978 constitution, Spaniards have enjoyed official religious freedom, but there are still fewer than a million non-Catholic souls in the country. In practice, however, secularism is taking hold as church attendance plummets; regular churchgoers are likely to be older, poorer northerners.
You won’t pass through any major football towns on the camino, although you may be able to catch an Osasuna game in Pamplona, and Galicians have adopted Deportivo La Coruña as their provincial side. This scarcely seems to dim support for the beautiful game, as almost all Spanish football fans support either Barcelona or Real Madrid as well as their local club, and matches between the two giants of Spanish football will pack bars everywhere in Spain.
The camino is responsible for and replete with gorgeous examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. From the stunning Romanesque frescoes of the Basilica de San Isidoro in León to the gossamer Gothic spires of the Burgos and León cathedrals, you’ll be dazzled by the wealth and creativity of mediaeval Spain. Spain’s airy Gothic traditions were both continued and splendidly distorted by Gaudí’s fantastical swirling confections, seen at their best in Barcelona but with examples in León and Astorga.
Spanish art has very few important schools and movements but a few amazing peaks of individual creativity. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, El Greco, a native Greek who lived most of his life in his adopted Spain, painted passionate and deliberate canvasses of elongated figures and intense contrasts of light and colour. A few decades later, Velázquez, perhaps Spain’s greatest artist, painted intricate, life-like portraits of Spanish nobility with meticulous care and flawless technique. Goya was contrastingly prolific. He was a late starter who began with fairly conventional paintings before spiralling towards embittered and imaginative works as his health declined and the war with Napoleon sent him into depression.
Picasso is probably Spain’s best-known artist, although he spent much of his long life in neighbouring France. After flirting with Toulouse-Lautrec’s style in his blue period, Picasso moved on to a rose period, when he was influenced by El Greco and Celtiberian sculpture. With Georges Braque, he developed Cubism, a style also adopted by his countryman, Juan Gris. Politicized by the civil war, Picasso portrayed a Basque town’s decimation by Nazi bombers in his most famous painting, Guernica. The painting has become a symbol of Basque nationalism, and its presence in the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid really sticks in the collective Basque throat. Dalí put the fish in surrealism and was as talented at self-promotion as he was in his bizarre, dream-like art. Alongside him, Spain’s other noted surrealist, Joan Miró, seems positively mundane.
Spanish film is well respected internationally, but only a handful of directors are household names. Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí made many of their films in France, and Buñuel was forced into exile after the civil war. Carlos Maura’s bleak, allegorical films subtly undermined the Franco dictatorship during the 1960s and 1970s. In common with many of Spain’s younger generation, Pedro Almodóvar sees the Franco years as irrelevant to his work, instead making quirky, controversial and successful films about desire and sexuality.
Spain’s folk music is firmly regionalized. Even flamenco, the closest Spain has to a national music, is rooted in Andalucía and is rarely heard outside the south and the larger cities. Galician and Basque tunes have much in common with Celtic music from northern Europe, and each culture has its own version of the bagpipes. Modern musicians have moved away from the rigid traditionalism of folk music under Franco and are influenced by styles as diverse as flamenco and electronica. Basque and Galician musicians also borrow a lot from each other, swapping instruments and styles with creative abandon.
The food of Spain is as varied as the country, but as a rule of thumb it’s tasty, substantial and lacking in vegetables. It’s also very cheap by northern European standards.
Hungry pilgrims may find it difficult to get used to Spanish mealtimes. Lunch is between 1pm and 3pm, and dinner seldom begins before 9pm or 10pm. The best value comes from the menú del día, a three-course set meal that includes bread and wine. Many restaurants along the camino will offer a menú del peregrino (pilgrim’s menu), an early evening menú starting at 7pm or 8pm, which is an excellent deal at between €9 and €12 for three courses and wine.
On most menus there’s a choice of dishes for each course. The primer plato (first course) can be anything from salad to spaghetti and is often more filling than the main course.
mselves. You shouldn’t leave Spain without trying sopa de ajo, commonly known as the “soup of the poor,” a broth of garlic, bread and water topped with a poached egg. At San Juan de Ortega, the soup is still served at the monastery, despite the death of Don José María in 2008. You’ll have to wait until Galicia to eat authentic caldo gallego, a thick soup made of shredded gallego (a dark green cabbage), beans and potatoes. Vegetarians be warned: soups are usually made using meat stock, and caldo gallego often includes a few slices of chorizo (spicy sausage). Fabada is a hearty dish made from beans and chorizo. The beans are cooked slowly in a stew, soaking up the smoky flavour of the sausage.
The segundo plato (second course) is a hefty serving of either fried or roasted lumps of meat with a few chips (french fries) or boiled potatoes on the side. Chicken, beef, veal and pork are the most common, although fish, usually trout, may also be on offer.
If you still have room, postre (dessert) is mercifully small. Usually you’ll be offered a piece of fruit, ice cream or yoghurt served in its plastic container, but flan (egg custard) is also a good choice.
Most cafés and bars will serve bocadillos, substantial sandwiches made from half a baguette stuffed with a range of fillings. Bocadillos are often filled with whatever happens to be in the kitchen, usually cheese, chorizo or jamon serrano (a prosciutto-like ham); one of the most fiendishly tasty versions is tortilla con chorizo (chorizo omelette).
Breakfast can be tricky. In summer, early starts mean that pilgrims often begin walking hours before any of the cafés open. Those bars that are open may serve pan tostada (toast) or an assortment of packaged pastries. If you’re lucky, there’ll be tortilla on offer, a deliciously thick omelette made with potatoes that is left to cool and served by the slice with a hunk of bread.
Vegetarians will have a hard time eating out. The menú del día is usually devoid of vegetarian options, and even an ensalada mixta (mixed salad) may contain tuna. Your culinary options are mostly limited to off-menu standards such as bocadillo con queso (cheese sandwich), tortilla francés (omelette) or potato-based tapas treats such as patatas bravas and patatas al aioli.
The best way to eat well and meet fellow pilgrims is to make dinner at the albergues. Some will have a kitchen, where people of different nationalities gather together to cook, generating a fantastic hum as pots boil and bottles of wine are uncorked.
When shopping, look out for typical foods: try jamon serrano and chorizo or sample wonderful olives like huge green manzanillas. Spain’s varied climate means there’s a wide selection of fruit and vegetables available year-round. In most shops, you’ll need to ask for what you need rather than picking up the fruit yourself. Try not to get caught short of food on Sundays, when many shops close.
At least once during the camino, head out for an evening of tapas grazing. At its most basic, a tapa is just a little bite of food to go with a glass of wine, often offered free by the bartender. In other places, you’ll need to order what you like; pinchos are small tasters and raciones are bigger portions. The best way to sample tapas is to embark on a tapeo (tapas crawl) with a group of friends, hopping from one bar to another and discussing the shortcomings of Real Madrid’s latest striker with local bankers and road sweepers.
Spanish people spend a lot of time in cafés, and days in Spain rarely begin without a caffeine hit. The coffee’s excellent, and even the smallest village café will boast a big, shiny espresso machine. Coffee comes in many variations, but essentially you have two options: the strong and espresso-like café solo or the long and milky café con leche.
Tea is just about drinkable, but hot chocolate can be hard to find and you’re more likely to be offered Cola Cao, a sickly, powdery substitute. There’s a wide array of soft drinks available, from the usual imports to Spanish sparkling fruity drinks. Fruit juice tends to be sweet and thick, but it’s refreshing when diluted with sparkling water.
Even teetotalling Spaniards drink wine with food: it’s considered such an integral part of the meal that it’s not even thought of as alcohol. The Spanish, who have lots of alcoholic proverbs, say, “comer sin vino es miseria y desatino” which loosely translates as “a meal without wine is a mean and foolish one.”
Foremost among wine regions is La Rioja, Spain’s most important wine-producing area. Its smooth, oak-aged wines are well known outside Spain, and fans of Rioja will be delighted by the low prices. There are also some great reds from the Navarra and Ribera del Duero regions.
Galicia’s cooler climate is ideal for producing white wine. The region’s Albariño whites are unoaked and crisp with flavours of peach and apricot, while cloudy Ribeiro wine rarely makes it outside the province; both perfectly complement the region’s seafood.
Spanish beer is bland and tasteless, although brands such as San Miguel, Cruz Campo and Estrella de Galicia can be refreshing on a hot evening. Ask for a caña if you want a small draught beer.
Bars are an integral part of Spanish culture, and almost every village has one. Bars and cafés in Spain are mostly interchangeable. You can get a great café solo at a late-night bar, though it’s more of a shock the first time you see locals waking up with a shot of something stronger alongside their morning café con leche.
Alcohol in bars is very cheap, with wine and beer usually costing less than €1 a glass, though the glasses may be smaller than you’re used to. As always in Europe, bars on main squares are more expensive than those tucked down a side street. It often costs more to drink at a table, particularly one outside, than standing at the bar.
Long, afternoon-consuming lunches aren’t complete without a stiff drink. Northern Spain’s favourite tipple is orujo, a ridiculously strong spirit made, like Italian grappa, from grape skins. Despite the pretty bottles, the manufactured version isn’t as good as the rough-and-ready homemade version, known as orujo casero and found in unmarked bottles under the counter in bars, restaurants and even bakeries. In Navarra, end your meal with pacharán, a sweet, pinky-orange drink usually served over ice. Avoid spirits such as gin and whisky, particularly the dodgy brands of Scotch made for mainland European tastes.Back to Top