Barcelona to Santiago de Compostela: Spain’s Northern Pilgrimage Route, Go Ahead Tours

Romanesque Pilgrimage Church in Santillana de Mar, Northern Spain 2012

Romanesque Pilgrimage Church in Santillana de Mar, Northern Spain 2012

From a monastery roof in Monserrat, forty-one miles Northwest of Barcelona, I angled my path to get a shot of the wide clay path that led to a ravine between two mountains and then disappeared in the direction of Santiago de Compostela.

My husband anad I were following the Northern Route by bus rather than foot on Go Ahead’s “Barcelona and Northern Spain” trip. No worries about following trails in the woods, blisters, backaches from carrying heavy packs, not to mention bedbugs at way stations where we would spread out our sleeping bags for the night. Though we often rent a car on European trips, it was freeing not to worry about finding the correct parking places in cities, paying high insurance rates, or navigating hairpin turns in blinding rainstorms. Traveling along the northern Spain coast from Barcelona to Santiago de Compostela on the northwest corner had been a wish list trip for a long time, and the Go Ahead trip seemed perfect to replace a March trip to Egypt which had been cancelled. After narrowing down the choice to two tour companies which offered similar routes, GoAhead and Insight Vacations, we found that GoAhead had the advantage of actually visiting the inside of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum rather than viewing it from the outside, and flying rather than taking the bus from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid at the end.

In twelve actual traveling days, we touched glass ball that covers the much worn fingers of the Black Virgin of Monserrat, walked down the route of the bulls, which was also a pilgrim route, in Pomplona, wandered up and down the cobblestone streets in the Renaissance town of Santillana del Mar, surrounded by horse farms and mountains. The pilgrimage church there was Romanesque style, and had not been rebuilt as a Gothic cathedral or embellished with bright gold baroque in the 17th and 18th centuries, as many of the other medieval churches had. In small cities such as Oviedo and Lugo, with its intact Roman walls, we went through cathedrals with the traditional pilgrimage architecture. Visitors would come in on one side and walk down behind the alter where they would pay their respects to the relics, and then walk out the other side. During the Middle Ages, visitors who’d come a long way would sometimes sleep in the clerestory, or clear story, a level high up and surrounded by windows that would let light in.

Once we reached the main square of Santiago de Compostela, we were in the midst of modern day pilgrims ranging from teens to seventy somethings: hikers from Italy, France, and other locations with gear on their backs, some in the latest athletic gear, others in simpler garb, some in groups with the same color. One on a bike was holding out his passport like book and asking another where the compostela or certificate office was still open. He had his book stamped at many locations on the way and could finally get a certificate. Fortuitously, we arrived in Santiago just as the Good Friday Procession was beginning. Residents were buying palm leaves and olive branches from purveyors on the streets that led to the cathedral square. Shortly before noon, priests in white and priests in black carried high gold crosses. Men from the Order of St. James, men covered from head to toe in olive green garb, their peaked hats with eye slits, went before a carriage carrying a large red box, followed by locals, old and young, with olive and palm branches in their hands. Would we have been able to capture the high spots of the ten days on our own? Probably not as well.

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