Trek to the Cathedral of Santiago, the Grave of the Apostle Saint James
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela, known in English as The Way of St James, on the north-west tip of Spain, might just be the ultimate active break. For more than a thousand years, tourists and pilgrims have been walking this route to the Cathedral of Santiago to visit the grave of the apostle Saint James ('Sant Iago' in Spanish).
This is a hike with a difference. Even if you aren't religious - and most people who do the Camino are not obvious god-botherers - a trek with lots of footsteps but no carbon footprint is understandably popular. You can have more than 100,000 people in some years receiving their 'compostelas' - the traditional Latin certificate of pilgrimage - in Santiago.
If this all sounds a little, er, pious, rest assured the scenery is varied and wonderful, the wine is cheap, and the tortillas are sublime. You can soak up the history and adventure along the way.
The Camino Frances (The French Way in English) is the route we followed to Santiago de Compestela, and is one of the most popular with pilgrims. It runs from St-Jean-Pied-de-port, in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, across 800km of northern Spain to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
This path can be divided into three main sections - the Pyrenees and the rolling hills of the Basque country; the hot, flat and empty central 'meseta' (tableland), and more green hills of Galicia. The Camino also goes through the city centres of some beautiful Spanish cities, including Pamplona, Burgos and Leon.
Burgos is famous for its fantastic Gothic cathedral, which took five centuries to build. Burgos residents are also proud that their city is the birthplace of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar, or El Cid. This Spanish hero is known for his military leadership during the war against the Moors.
The town of León was used by pilgrims in the Middle Ages for stopped overs. After walking for a week across the empty meseta. León really feels like a cosmopolitan metropolis. The city is famous for the gothic León Cathedral.
In St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we pick up our 'pilgrim passports', or credentials for the walk. These must be stamped and dated at each stage of the journey, preferably not always in bars. They entitle you to a place in the Spanish refugios, which are dormitories along the way. These basic accommodations have doubled and even triple bunks in big rooms.
The actual trek
From St-Jean there was a long hike over the Pyrenees to the Spanish monastery of Roncevalles. The path wasn't too difficult, but the mountains were high. We took the advice of the hospitalero (dormitory warden) and followed the lower route, after hearing about a fatality during a snowstorm on the high-level route.
In general, we found the path to Santiago was clearly marked by yellow arrows and the image of the scallop shell. The shell is a 1000-year-old symbol of achievement that has long been the emblem of the Camino de Santiago.
Arrival at last
At its heart, the Camino is not about history, but walking. After 32 days on foot (and two rest days) we arrived in Santiago de Compostela. We triumphantly received our compostelas, and headed off to Pilgrim Mass. In order to qualify for the 'compostela', we had to prove that we'd walked the last 100km to Santiago. We managed to complete the 800km from St Jean in one go, but many pilgrims do the Camino on stages, coming back over a period of months - or even years - to complete the walk.
If you have time, stop to explore Camino, which happens to be a great destination in its own right. The cathedral is the first destination for pilgrims, but the old town has many narrow winding streets full of historic buildings.