Galicia’s new Lighthouse Way connects fishermen’s ways and farm tracks – and is a more meditative walk than the busy Camino de Santiago.
Have we hit peak Camino de Santiago? Almost, according to a copy of the El Correo Gallego newspaper I found lying in a bar in the harbour town of Muxía in north-west Spain: a record 301,036 walkers completed the pilgrim trail last year – 98.6% capacity, said a professor.
I mention this because Muxía – a splatter of peach, royal blue and yellow buildings amid the green hills – was busy with hikers when I arrived. This wave-lashed point steeped in aeons of mysticism – prehistoric, Celtic, Christian – is one of the final destinations for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago after visiting Santiago de Compostela.
Not for me, though. I was three days in on the Camiño dos Faros. In two more it would peter out at Cape Finisterre – literally, Land’s End. Two more days of spangly seascapes and wild hills to make the soul sing. My walker count up that point? Two.
If that’s surprising for a journey that skirts one of Europe’s most spectacular coastlines it’s because the Camiño dos Faros – the Lighthouse Way, passing 11 en route – isn’t an official trail. Not yet, anyway.
The idea for its 124-mile (200km) path originated in a bar in December 2013. Could the coast from Malpica to Finisterre be tracked, wondered four Galician friends. It could, connecting fishermen’s ways to farm tracks to back roads. Guided day walks followed, promoted on Facebook. In 2014 they launched a trail association to meet growing interest but until official accreditation arrives circa 2020, the trail will remain a grassroots venture run by volunteers. Where the more famous caminos have smart signs, this one has blobs of green paint.
“We don’t want it to be the Camino de Santiago,” Camiño dos Faros Association vice-president Cristina Alonso told me. She said she enjoyed the fact that its paths were sketchier, scenery wilder. “It has taken me places I’ve never been before, where there is nobody, and I’m from here.”
That has not stopped UK operator On Foot Holidays from launching the first self-guided holiday along the full route: 5-, 7- or 10-day treks, 9 to 16 miles a day.
I realised I was in for something special when I began to walk the coast towards the pretty port of Camariñas. People say Galicia is like Wales. It isn’t, really. Its cool climate, wild beaches, drystone walls and pink and purple sea thrift flowers are similar. But the coast itself is in another league. It has a keening, edge-of-world abandon. A black belt in ruggedness.
Its official name is the Costa da Morte (Coast of Death). That’s a tough sell for the marketing people, especially when up against the more famous Costas of Sun and Light. The story goes a British magazine coined the name in 1904 after yet another shipwreck.
At one lonely point where the sea lunged at the land, I came to what my map called the Cemiterio dos Ingleses, a red-granite enclosure for 173 sailors of The Serpent, shipwrecked off this coast in 1890. A posy of fresh thrift flowers lay on the epitaph. As if on cue – and I swear I’m not making this up – a three-masted ship appeared briefly from the grey murk offshore then vanished again like a ghost.
Reaching Camariñas afterwards felt like a hug. I hoovered up a plate of octopus with paprika and drank in the life-affirming hubbub: pensioners cackling over jokes, teenagers holding hands, a TV blaring but ignored by everyone.
The second and third days’ walking were gentler. Now with a walking stick, I followed the trail inland around the Rio Porto estuary: through hamlets quiet but for crickets and birdsong; past neat vegetable patches and traditional hórreo stone granaries propped on pillars like toadstools; into woods glossy with rain where the smells of pine and brine mingled.
Nights were passed in small hotels and a farmhouse. Those two walkers appeared too – a day trip, they said. So it was a jolt to see so many hikers in Muxía.
Beside the Nosa Señora da Barca pilgrimage church, I lay on the sun-baked foreshore beside a curved rock – the sail of the Virgin Mary’s stone boat, they say – breathing air supercharged with spray, my feet tingling from five hours’ walking.
And that’s the thing about the Camiño dos Faros. It’s a little appreciated fact that the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage was a journey to still the mind as much as revere relics. That’s hard when you share the route with 300,000 pilgrims. I saw three Faros walkers over five days. I’m not claiming an epiphany en route; not even that this route has the same cachet. But I can’t recall the last time I felt such simple satisfaction. Such quiet joy, actually. They could sell this as therapy.
What explained this numinous quality, I wondered in Finisterre (I’d detoured to see the harbour fish market). What had drawn people to Galicia since the dawn of civilisation?