Walking to the end of the world

Murray Stewart heads as far west as he can on Spain’s Camino de Fisterra, a pilgrimage with pagan origins.

Part of the Camino de Fisterra, near Spain’s most westerly point

Nowadays, the much publicised Camino de Santiago pilgrimage appears on many a bucket-list. Too many, perhaps. The main pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain – the Camino Frances – has become almost processional, so crowded that the vital ‘headspace’ you were perhaps hoping to find along the way can evaporate amidst a soundscape of whistling Italians, chattering Spaniards and – at night in the hostels – snoring Germans who wake at 4am for an early departure after disturbing everyone else with their intrusive head torches.

Europe? I love it, and its inhabitants, yet long-distance walking demands periods of solitude, for me at least.

Now, with over 150,000 pilgrims annually heading along the Camino Frances, where can you still find some pilgrim peace and quiet? You could of course choose another long-distance variant of the camino, such as the Via de la Plata which runs for 1,000 km in a south to north trajectory from Seville to Santiago.

But if you’re a first-time pilgrim, that’s an awful long way, so why not try a taster, the bite-sized, lesser-walked Camino de Fisterra, which unusually starts at Santiago and heads west for a mere 90km to the ‘end of the world’. No over dramatics in the name here: as scholars of Latin will know, Fisterra comes from ‘finis terrae’ or ‘end of the Earth’ and Spain’s version is mirrored both by Land’s End in Cornwall and Finisterre in Brittany.

Galician beaches are an unexpected delight at the end of the Camino Fisterra

Ah, those exciting days when the Earth was still thought to be flat, the New World was as yet undiscovered and the world supposedly ended at the western extremities of Europe.

Strictly speaking, the trek to Fisterra in Galicia has more pagan than Christian reference points and therefore is no pious pilgrimage. But it can be conveniently covered in three or four days of walking, through beautiful countryside flanked by ferns and gorse, dwarfed by towering eucalyptus trees.

At your feet, marvel at the flowers that seem to have disappeared from the wayside elsewhere in the world. Infrastructure is good, without being so sophisticated as to spoil the adventure. There are plenty of hostels to stay in for the truly budget-minded, or modest hotels for those seeking some comparative luxury; an abundance of cut-price pilgrim’s menus proffered at restaurants along the way will keep you well-fed. It’s quieter here than on the Camino Frances, true, but there’s still plenty of encounters with others of all nationalities, bound together by a common goal of trekking to the very edge of Spain.

Horreos were used to dry store animal feeds

After three days of hard walking (or four of not-quite-so-hard walking), kick off your boots for the grand finale, a three kilometre barefoot trek along the stunning sands of Playa de Langosteira. On this gorgeous beach, you may find yourself stooping to collect a scallop shell, the emblem of Santiago (Saint James in English) or stopping to watch the scuba divers upturn themselves like ducks as they plunge for prized razor-clams, a local speciality.

This region of Galicia is famed for its excellent seafood and although some of it is whisked straight off the boats and down the motorway to the plush restaurants of Madrid, enough of the catch remains in the locality to feed hungry and deserving pilgrims. Fitting reward for their efforts.

Lush scenery is the upside of the wet Galician climate

At the western end of the beautiful and often deserted Langosteira sands lies the town of Fisterra itself, given purpose by its fishing fleet and the steady flow of pilgrims arriving between Spring and Autumn. But this somewhat untidy town is not quite the end of the walk, for a further hour’s westward is the iconic lighthouse.

Next to it lies the fire pit where walkers traditionally burnt their boots or an item of clothing, a chance to get rid of their smelly rags after a long walk. Nowadays the pit is less-used, and this is a place to contemplate…life, the universe, whatever you want, staring out over the vast, uninterrupted ocean with America the next stop.

You can walk back to your starting-point, should you have another few days to spare. But once you’ve been to the local administration’s office in Fisterra to collect your rather impressive certificate of completion, enthusiasm may have waned.

It’s more usual to take the two-hour bus journey back to Santiago de Compostela, where the cathedral awaits your confession at undertaking such a pagan trail. Perhaps you’ll have caught the pilgrim bug: your walk to the end of the world might turn out to be the start of a new world, a world of many more adventures along Spain’s caminos.

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