Following in the footsteps of pilgrims
OAT’s tour, billed as a “Pilgrimage into the Past,” begins in Bilbao, once a major shipbuilding center and the wealthiest city in all of Spain back in 1900. Natural disasters and civil war, however, took its toll on the town and many believed its glory days were in the past. Fortunately, the unveiling of the cutting-edge Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry, ignited a transformative boom in the late 1990s and today Bilbao is thriving once again. The museum holds one of the world’s premier collection of contemporary art and is a destination in itself. The futuristic architecture and innovative design of the building with its curved outline and interconnected titanium and limestone-clad spaces is truly unique, and the art within its walls is stunning. It’s no wonder that the place was recently voted “The Most Beautiful Museum in the World 2016” by Condé Nast Traveler readers.
On the way to Pamplona, we stop in San Sebastian, an elegant seaside locale that became known as a destination for the wealthy, attracting politicians, royalty and celebrities. Constitution Square, a massive former bullfighting ring, is a picture-pretty pedestrian plaza ringed by colonnaded buildings; the windows of each which are decorated with the number of the corresponding spectator box that once occupied that particular spot in bullfighting days. We spent time strolling the area and stopped to check out Bretxa Market, one of the oldest continuously operating traditional markets in Spain. It’s a colorful spot with an area designated for Basque certified products, from local veggies and meats to fresh-caught fish. We had the chance to sample a trio of cheeses and later some pinxtos, the Basque answer to tapas. These can be snack-size morsels, some of which are simple and unadorned, while others are miniature works of elaborate cuisine. They are typically eaten accompanied by a couple of glasses of wine.
In Pamplona, the city made famous by the “running of the bulls” event during the yearly San Fermín festival, we discover a charming scene of medieval bridges and buildings dating back to the 14th century. Hemmingway, who visited the town numerous times to witness the running of the bulls, based his renowned book, The Sun Also Rises, on his experiences here, as well as his love of bullfighting, which he deemed “a beautiful nightmare.” There’s a statue of him outside the central ring and you’ll find plenty of places around the city with his moniker. You can even see the room where he stayed in at Hotel La Perla, the second oldest hotel in Spain. The “running of the bulls” happens once daily during the weeklong celebration in July and lasts a mere four to six minutes in duration. The tradition started in the 14th century when handlers took the bulls from the corrals to the bullrings. Each year, 2,000 people participate in this spectacle.
Pamplona is also a major city for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James as it is known in English. There are a number of different pilgrimage routes, with the most common being the French route, originating in France. All paths, however, lead to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Those who undertake this pilgrimage via the French way walk 500 miles over the course of approximately five weeks or more. Last year, more than 240,000 people embarked on this journey. They came from all parts of the world; some making the trek for their second, third or more times. Most walk, though you can do the Camino on a bicycle or even on horseback. Along the route, which is marked with yellow arrows and/or a specific blue and yellow clam shell designation, the pilgrims get their “passports” stamped to document they have gone the distance. This proof is necessary to receive the “compostela” or final certificate at the end, attesting to the fact that one has completed the Camino. Years ago, in the Middle Ages, an actual shell took the place of the certificate, which pilgrims would wear with pride to show they’d been to what they believed to be the end of the world. They envisioned that the end of the way represented the beginning of a new life.