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.Galicia walk
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.
Cabo Vilán lighthouse. Photograph: Carol Yepes/Getty Images
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.
Walking Camiño dos Faros
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.
An hour later, past a massive rusty anchor (another disaster), past fishermen who nodded “bom dia” (the Galego language is closer to Portuguese than Spanish), I reached Cabo Vilán lighthouse and met keeper Cristina Fernandez. The twinkly sixtysomething had been Spain’s first female keeper 43 years ago, taking over from her father, who had been born on this exposed knuckle of granite. Her retirement age had arrived and passed.
“I know the fishermen around here. I care about them,” she said. “When it’s bad weather you worry.”
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.
Actually, I hadn’t been entirely alone beforehand. Each morning, On Foot’s local guide, Aznar, texted advice and restaurant recommendations. Now I contacted him.
My notes showed a trudge beside a busy road followed by a stiff ascent the next day. Not my ideal start. So I texted Aznar and booked one of the free taxis available to shorten walks. Cheating? I called it testing On Foot’s service.
Either way, it made the day’s walking more enjoyable. After the sleepy hills before, the scenery shook itself awake and sat up. The camino dwindled to a sheep-path through gorse. High above fishing boats and soaring gulls, I tracked across steep hills seemingly capsizing into the foaming surf. With two hours saved by that taxi, I lingered over a picnic lunch on the sand, watching surfers at Praia do Nemiña.
The last day was wilder still. Just over 20 miles away was Cape Finisterre. I was in no hurry to arrive. I had a dip at Praia de Arnela – all mine except for skittering plovers – and beyond Denle hamlet dawdled over tumbling cliffs. Miles ticked by to the metronome of my walking stick. The sea winked. Life simplified.
‘Miles ticked by to the metronome of my walking stick. The sea winked. Life simplified’
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?
Alexandre Nerium has a theory. We’d been chatting about the day’s catch when the fisherman-poet (only in Galicia, that title) showed me an anchor mounted on the wharf – a memorial to a lost crew. “When death is so close everything assumes a spiritual side,” he said. “And there’s the symbolism too; the sun setting into such a big, big ocean. It’s Finisterre – the end of the world.”
The ‘end of the world’ – and the end of the walk: the lighthouse at Cape Finisterre. Photograph: Getty Images
A few miles south of Praia do Mar de Fora I crested a hill, and there, finally, was the end of my trail – Cape Finisterre. It felt a huge pity, to be honest.
Through the busy carpark, past gift stalls, beyond my last lighthouse, I sat on the cliffs at the edge of the world. Expanded into wraparound after five days on my right-hand side, the Atlantic sucked at the rocks below.
For an hour I sat and watched the sea and the fishing boats and the gulls. Then I dropped my stick into the sea and turned inland.
• The trip was provided by On Foot Holidays, which offers 5-, 7- and 10-night Lighthouse Way itineraries from £555 to £830, including accommodation and some meals. Ryanair flies to Santiago de Compostela from Stansted, easyJet from Gatwick
Five of the best Galician seaside towns
By Matthew Bremner
The fishing town of Muxía. Photograph: Alamy
On the rugged Costa da Morte, close to the beaches of Muíños, Cruz, Lago and Lourido, Muxía is a picturesque seaside town jutting out into the Atlantic. Stay at the Bela Muxía hostel (doubles from €50) and eat at Restaurante D’Alvaro, where the enormous seafood platter for two is €60.
On the border of the Rías Baixas and Altas, Muros – with its winding streets that meet in hidden squares with large fountains and greystone houses – is one of the area’s most beautiful seaside towns. Stay at Casa Sampedro (doubles from €80), which also has an excellent seafood restaurant.
Ó Fragón restaurant
The Romans called this fishing village finis terrae as it’s at one of the most westerly points on continental Europe. For seafood and Atlantic Ocean views, go to Ó Fragón, a stunning modern restaurant. Hotel Langosteira (doubles from €52) is a comfortable, affordable stay.
In the north of Galicia, Ortigueira is a centre for Celtic music and gaitas (Galician bagpipes, known as gaitas) A rather underrated northern town, its picturesque historic centre is surrounded by epic landscapes of mountain, river and sea. Stay at El Castaño Dormilon (doubles from €89 B&B). For food, try the caldeirada de pulpo (octopus stew) at Bar O Coto (menu of the day €15), a 15-minute drive south of town.
In 2017, Cambados was chosen as European Capital of Wine and the Festa do Albariño (1-5 August 2018) is the town’s most significant event, attracting 150,000 people. Stay at the Parador de Cambados (doubles from €120).