WALKERS' WONDER: Santiago de Compostela cathedral, a travel destination for more than 1,000 years
As Pope Benedict XVI prepares to visit Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain, ANDREW EAMES follows in the footsteps of centuries of believers
I'M A BIT nerdy about the travel world, so my curiosity was aroused when I learned that the first example of mass tourism, which generated the first guidebook, was still going strong.
When it turned out this "mass tourism" was more than 1,000 years old, cost practically nothing and that 2010 is a special year in its history, I had to give it a go. Click here now for amazing offers to Santiago de Compostela!
Which was how I came to be foot-slogging across inlets and over headlands in northern Spain, on the English Way.
Crossing footbridges, splashing my face in fountains, walking barefoot along beaches and always following the sign of the scallop shell, I was slowly closing in on a destination that has welcomed 150,000 walkers in the course of this year: Santiago de Compostela.
The English Way may sound like a technique from a tame Kama Sutra but it is actually a subsidiary leg of the Way of St James, an international pilgrimage route that started as early as the 8th century.
At its peak in the 12th century, the Camino, as it is known in Spanish, hosted up to half-a-million walkers every year, all of them making a beeline (albeit a slow and erratic bee) for Santiago.
Such large numbers needed big services, including the first guidebook, the Codex Calixtinus, which was written by a monk in the 12th century. Fast forward to the 21st century and the various routes of the Way of St James are detailed online but the overall experience is not much changed since medieval times.
You can still overnight in official lodges (albergues) for free and on arrival you still receive a Compostela certificate to celebrate your achievement.
I'm no religious pilgrim but I was interested in the Way of St James because it is an inexpensive, companionable, long-distance walk through a landscape that can be wild and fierce one day and mellow and luxuriant the next.
If you're going to walk anywhere in Spain do so in the north-west where the heat is far less intense and it's even been known to rain.
The year 2010 is one of the designated Holy Years when St James's Day, July 25, fell on a Sunday. Next month Pope Benedict will mark this special anniversary with a visit to the city. Want incredible deals to Santiago de Compostela? Click here now...
These days the majority tackle the route for non-religious reasons. I was one of them. The English Way is the shortest of the various options (how typically English to take a short cut).
It starts from the northern Spanish ports of either La Coruña (a 68-mile route) or Ferrol (46 miles), where the English would once have arrived by boat.
Unlike the main trail across the Pyrenees from France, where it would take about 25 days to reach Santiago from the Spanish border, it mixes coastal scenery with rural Spain. Either route can be completed in under a week.
At times it felt quite English too, as I walked between flower-rich hedgerows and crossed Cornishlooking creeks. The woodland was fragrant eucalyptus and vineyards grew on south-facing hills.
It would probably have been better for my soul to have stayed in the official self-catering lodgings, comparing blisters with other walkers. Instead I chose to do it the easy, Galicia Tourist Board-run way by walking between designated points to be picked up and taken to stay overnight in lovely rural hotels.
As for Santiago, it made a fitting end even though, having only walked about half the requisite 62 miles, I was not entitled to a certificate.
It still felt medieval, its streets paved with granite and lined with granite arcades. There was even a medieval-looking mix of people in the main square under the towering, sculpture-encrusted cathedral: buskers, beggars, eccentrics, holy men and pilgrims:
tanned and smiling and with that wide-eyed look of people who have only just arrived in the 21st century. GETTING THERE: Vueling (0906 754 7541/vueling.es) offers return flights from Heathrow to La Coruña from €110. Tourist service Bono Iacobus, organised by the Galicia Tourist Board (dialling from the UK: 0034 902 200 432/turgalicia.es), offers prearranged accommodation in rural hotels along the routes (including the English Way) from £533pp (two sharing), half board. The Way of St James (xacobeo.es) details the various routes including locations of official hostels that are free of charge but available only on a first-come, first-served basis. Spanish Tourist Office: 020 7486 8077/spain.info