LOUISE RODDON sets off on the trail to holy Santiago de Compostela, a route which inspired Martin Sheen's new film
YOU have to hand it to Martin Sheen. When the 70-year-old actor set off on the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in his new film The Way, he vowed to do things properly. Sheen, playing a grieving father called Tom, hiked the entire, arduous 500 miles of the popular French Camino, right over the jagged Pyrenees and all the way to the holy city of north-western Spain.
I decide to follow in his footsteps - well, some of them. I manage fewer than 25 miles.
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OK, I can only spare two days, not several weeks and happily this isn't to honour a son who died en route.
Yet even on a cheat's hike, this journey proves compellingly contemplative.
Maybe it's the fact of walking along this French route, one of seven long-distance pilgrim pathways, which has existed for more than a millennium.
The city's cathedral, whose 800th birthday is currently being celebrated, is the triumphal end point and I can't help but imagine those hopeful early walkers tramping along the same well-marked trails.
Did they sing hymns or utter prayers? For prosaic me, battling a continuous downpour in ugly waterproofs, the saying "the rain in Spain" lodges alongside loftier thoughts.
I start from the small Spanish town of Arzúa. It's a bit of a one-horse town but no matter.
The Camino is well-signposted: ancient stone waymarks etched with St James's trademark scallop shell keep you on track and with only one direction to follow you can't get lost.
Off screen, Sheen chatted to everyone he met. Not in an actorish way but because it's what pilgrims do. "Buen Camino!" they cry. They want to know why you are doing the walk and from where.
Thankfully, no one seems too competitive nor do they laugh at my humble route. There is a group of cheery Spanish teens led by teachers Marita and Fernando who lumber alongside me, occasionally overtaking, often collapsing for unscheduled stops in typical teenage fashion. When I finally overtake, they applaud. In Pedrouzo, I meet three Texan ladies. Grandmother, mother and daughter. They are clocking up 62 miles, much in driving rain, staying in traditional mixed dormitory "albergues", often without even the comfort of a blanket. I send up thanks for the Travelodge-style hotels that herald the end of my hikes.
Sometimes a watery sun filters through the canopy of eucalyptus leaves, accompanied by aromas of damp bracken and soggy moss. I pass little hamlets of tumbledown barns and cottages that segue into green pastures. On both days, I manage five hours' leisurely hiking, just about justifying the huge suppers that await me.
You see poignant tokens: crosses from twigs threaded through barbed wire, a plaque commemorating an Irish pilgrim who died having completed her second Camino. Waymarks are receptacles for pebbles, flowers and hand-written prayers.
Just outside Santiago is Monte de Gozo, a windswept hill topped by a modern crucifix marking where medieval pilgrims would see the city for the first time. Present day ones can too but the view is of concrete blocks.
Santiago de Compostela proves a glorious city dominated by a huge cathedral that houses the remains of the apostle. As I stand in front of its embellished façade, foot-weary pilgrims raise their sticks in salute, triumph etched in tired faces.
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Those that have chalked up 62 miles are eligible for the coveted "compostela" or stamp in their pilgrim's passport, the final in a collection amassed en route. Many attend the pilgrim's mass and the lucky ones see the world's largest incense burner, an 85kg "botafumeiro" that arcs along via pulleys.
You can visit the apostle's tomb or queue to "hug the saint", a tacky bling-covered statue of St James. Inevitably, Santiago de Compostela suffers a surfeit of tourist shops. No light-up popes but there is a Jesus mime artist. An American girl throws her arms around his thorn-studded hair and shouts "Hey! Jesus is my home boy!"
You can easily escape the tat. The historic centre has a stage-set grandeur, with three ancient roads cutting down from the cathedral. You can meander Rua do Vilar, Rua Nova and Rua do Franco in relative peace, admiring the ornate Baroque edifices and Renaissance courtyards, many of which belong to the 500-year-old university.
The lovely vaulted Mercado de Abastos is where market gardeners sell home-made fruit liqueurs, flowers, cheeses and olive oil: a great place for non-pilgrim-themed souvenirs.
In the evening, head for tiny Rua da Raina where "O Beiro", an exquisite old wine bar, offers a long list of regional wines by the glass. You can eat here too.
The tapas of Spanish hams with melted cheeses and stuffed pimentos are enormous. Easily enough for three. Then again, I had walked 25 miles.
Follow the Camino (0208 816 7328/www.followthecamino.com) offers a self-guided three-night break along the last sector of the Camino Francés (The French Way) from Arzúa, from £260pp (two sharing), half board. Price includes one night in Santiago de Compostela, luggage transfers, walking notes and maps. Private transfers from Santiago airport can be arranged upon request. A six-night break covering the last 62 miles from Sarria is available from £440pp (two sharing), half board.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000/www.ryanair.com) offers return flights from Stansted to Santiago from £40. Spanish National Tourist Office: 00800 1010 5050/www.spain.info