‘By land it is the greatest journey an Englishman may go.’ So wrote Andrew Boorde, physician and former bishop of Chichester in his 1542 First Book of the Introduction of Knowledge. The road to Santiago has rarely been without plaudits, from Godescalc, bishop of Le Puy in 950, to Paula Gerson, scholar and sceptic in 1993.
What was claimed to be the tomb of St James was discovered in 813 in the wilds of Galicia and soon began to attract pilgrims. Roads and bridges were built along the approaches which soon coalesced into a standard route. Hospices and monasteries were founded and secondary shrines became established. Variously described as the Camino Francés, the Milky Way and the Road Beneath the Stars, the route exerted a pull which was pre-Christian, but the discovery of an Apostolic tomb and the renewal of the infrastructure conspired to make Santiago the most celebrated of all medieval journeys – a byword for Chaucer’s pilgrims, a destination to vie with Jerusalem and Rome.
The funds poured into such an enterprise were immense, resulting in an incomparable range of medieval – particularly Romanesque – and Renaissance monuments. With cathedrals such as Burgos, León and Santiago, monasteries of the calibre of Silos and Leyre, the paintings of Jaca, the sculpture of Miraflores, the metalwork of San Isidoro, the textiles of Las Huelgas, the road to Santiago does not want for masterpieces.
But equally impressive is the landscape, a memorial backdrop through which all must pass – the limestone cliffs and tumbling watercourses of Aragón and Navarra, the forests of chestnut, oak and acacia of the Rioja, the vast wheat fields of Castile and the green, slate-divided fields of Galicia.
We have two itineraries in 2020: The Road to Santiago – travelling by coach – and Walking to Santiago. They are markedly different in focus; the former is very much an architectural tour, and the latter a walking tour. But both are journeys in which you are conscious always of participating in a thousand-year-old flow of humankind which constitutes one of the most powerfully felt shared experiences in the spiritual and aesthetic history of Europe.
Fly at c. 11.15am (British Airways) from London Gatwick to Bilbao. Drive to Argómaniz (80 km), arriving at c. 4.45pm. Overnight Argómaniz.
Pamplona, Roncesvalles. The day is spent in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Reflecting its proximity to France, Pamplona cathedral has a cloister which constitutes perhaps the finest achievement of High Gothic in Spain. Roncesvalles Pass was scene of the famed rearguard action of Charlemagne’s paladin Roland, and has a renowned pilgrims’ church and hospice. Drive through the spectacular gorge of the Urrobi river. First of two nights in Sos del Rey Católico.
Sos del Rey Católico, Sangüesa, Leyre, Jaca. Stroll through the picturesque town of Sos to the church of San Esteban. Sta María la Real in the little town of Sangüesa has superb architectural sculpture, including some by a craftsman from Burgundy. The monastery of San Salvador de Leyre maintains Gregorian offices in a fascinating church with a good crypt and western portal. Jaca, below the Somport pass, has a Romanesque cathedral with a magnificent collection of medieval wall paintings.
Eunate, Puente la Reina, Estella. At Eunate a mysterious round chapel with encircling arcade rises from the midst of a cornfield. Puente la Reina is the point where pilgrim roads from France converged, and is equipped with hospices, churches and an amazing bridge. Estella, once a largely French-speaking, new town with an important collection of churches including the magnificent San Miguel. Overnight Santo Domingo de la Calzada.
Nájera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, Burgos. See the Royal tombs at Santa María la Real in Nájera. Santo Domingo cathedral has Renaissance and Baroque accretions, and a cockerel still crows over the shrine of the saint. Arrive at Burgos, which grew up at the foot of the fortress of the Kings of Castile. The magnificent cathedral combines French and German styles; remarkable vaults, 16th-cent. choir stalls and a wealth of sculpture. First of two nights in Burgos.
Burgos, Quintanilla de las Viñas, Santo Domingo de Silos. Free morning in Burgos. In the afternoon drive to the Visigothic chapel at Quintanilla de las Viñas. Santo Domingo de Silos is the largest and finest Romanesque monastery in Spain, and has an epoch-making 12th-cent. cloister with magnificent sculpture.
Burgos, San Miguel de Escalada. The Carthusian monastery and royal mausoleum of Miraflores has superb 15th-cent. sculpture by Gil de Siloé. Just outside Burgos is the Early Gothic convent of Las Huelgas Reales, a place of royal burial. Pressing westwards, we stop at San Miguel de Escalada, an elegant Mozarabic gem. First of two nights in León.
León. Former capital of the ancient kingdom of León, the city has many outstanding medieval buildings. The royal pantheon of San Isidoro is one of the first, and finest, Romanesque buildings in Spain, with important sculptures. The cathedral is truly superb: Rayonnant Gothic, with impressive stained glass.
Lena, Orbigo, Villafranca del Bierzo. Drive through the Puerto de Pájares (mountain pass) to Santa Cristina de Lena, an exquisite 9th-cent. church. Puente de Orbigo is a 13th-cent. bridge which carried pilgrims over the River Orbigo. Villafranca del Bierzo was an ancient haunt of hermits and anchorites and subsequently studded with churches and hospices. Overnight Villafranca del Bierzo.
Villafranca to Santiago. Three churches punctuate the final stretch of the journey: O Cebreiro, site of a great Eucharistic miracle; Portomarín, a Templar foundation guarding the bridge over the Miño; and Vilar de Donas, decayed and evocative knights’ church. Finally: Santiago de Compostela, goal of the pilgrimage. Three nights in Santiago.
Santiago de Compostela. The morning is dedicated to the great pilgrimage church, the shrine of St James, one of the most impressive of all Romanesque churches; also outstanding treasuries. Explore the university quarter and the narrow picturesque streets and visit Sta María del Sar, where walls splayed and buttressed support a charming Romanesque church against its cloister.
Santiago de Compostela. Free day.
Noia. Continue westward to the coastal town of Noia, whose medieval quarter is dominated by the 15th-cent. church of San Martiño. Drive in the afternoon to La Coruña for the flight to London Heathrow (Vueling), arriving at c. 7.45pm.
Dr Richard Plant
Architectural historian and lecturer specialising in the Middle Ages with a strong interest in the modern. He studied at Cambridge, followed by the Courtauld, where he obtained his PhD. He was Deputy Academic Director at Christie’s Education and has published on English and German architecture.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £3,940 or £3,750 without flights. Single occupancy: £4,430 or £4,240 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller, economy class) with British Airways and Vueling (Airbus A320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 2 lunches and 10 dinners, with wine or beer, soft drinks, water and coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Parador de Argómaniz: 4-star hotel; simple rooms. Parador de Sos del Rey Católico: 4-star parador with views of surrounding countryside. Parador de Sto Domingo de la Calzada: 4-star parador in the heart of town. NH Palacio de Burgos: 4-star modern hotel in the centre of town. NH Collection Plaza Mayor, León: 4-star hotel in an 18th-century converted military building in the main square. Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo: 4-star parador in a contemporary building. Parador de Santiago de Compostela: 5-star parador, for centuries the abode of the grander pilgrims. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
We stress that this is a long tour with a lot of coach travel, seven hotels and a lot of walking, often on uneven ground. A good level of fitness is essential. Unless you enjoy entirely unimpaired mobility, cope with everyday walking and stair-climbing without difficulty and are reliably sure-footed, this tour is not for you. Average distance by coach per day: 85 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.fco.gov.uk.
'Everything we hoped it would be. Tremendous variety of landscape and historic buildings. We saw pilgrims on every part of the route and were aware of the tremendous infrastructure of such a journey.'
'The lecturer was excellent in every way.'
'We could not have done this journey independently as we were taken to many small interesting sites off the beaten track.'
'One of the great journeys of the world, condensed into a short period of time and undertaken in comfort. Those lucky enough to secure a place on this tour can consider themselves to be very fortunate.'
'I came home on a complete high from all the wonderful buildings, made so much more interesting by the detailed information given by the lecturer at each site.'
'The lecturer was very affable and congenial, extremely knowledgeable, happy to answer everyone's questions.'
'There's not much room for improvement upon an exceptional tour experience.'