We follow the trail pilgrims have trod for centuries, from the French border to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain. Along the way, we stop off in Pamplona to run with the bulls, and dive into the unique Celtic culture of Galicia — where Riverdance meets flamenco.
Pilgrim Friends Office in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port
The Pilgrim Friends Office (Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques) is where pilgrims check in before their long journey to Santiago. For a small fee, a pilgrim can buy the official credential (credenciel) that she'll get stamped at each stop between here and Santiago to prove she walked the whole way and earn her compostela certificate. Pilgrims also receive a warm welcome, lots of advice, and help finding a bunk. The well-traveled staff swears that no pilgrim ever goes without a bed in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port (rue de la Citadelle 39, tel. 05 59 37 05 09, www.aucoeurduchemin.org).
Pamplona's Running of the Bulls: Fiesta de San Fermín
For nine days each July, a million visitors pack into Pamplona to watch a gang of reckless, sangria-fueled adventurers thrust themselves into the path of an oncoming herd of furious bulls. The festival begins at City Hall on noon on July 6, with various events filling the next nine days and nights. Originally celebrated as the feast of San Fermín — who is still honored by a religious procession through town on July 7 — it has since evolved into a full slate of live music, fireworks, general revelry, and an excuse for debauchery. The festival ends at midnight on July 14 when the townspeople congregate in front of the City Hall, light candles, and sing their sad song, "Pobre de Mí": "Poor me, the Fiesta de San Fermín has ended" (tel. 848-420-420, www.turismonavarra.es).Pamplona's Café Iruña
Café Iruña, which clings to its venerable past and its connection to Hemingway (who loved the place), serves up drinks out on the main square and food in the delightful old 1888 interior. While the food is mediocre, the ambience is great. Find the little "Hemingway's Corner" (El Rincón de Hemingway) side-eatery in back, where the bearded one is still hanging out at the bar. Enjoy black-and-white photos of Ernesto, young and old, in Pamplona (Plaza del Castillo 44, tel. 948-222-064).
Burgos is rightfully famous for its showpiece Gothic cathedral. With its soaring, frilly spires and an interior that's been augmented across the centuries, Burgos' cathedral is an impressive sight. Unfortunately, the church's cultural and spiritual significance is badly presented; what precious English information it provides is stilted and boring (www.catedraldeburgos.es).
León's 13th-century Gothic cathedral is filled with some of the finest stained glass in all of Europe. The purely Gothic structure — extremely high, with columns and pointed arches to direct your gaze ever heavenward — really allows the stained glass to take center stage. Of all this glass (the second-most glass in any European cathedral, after Chartres in France), 70 percent is original, from the 13th to the 16th centuries. If you notice scaffolding, it's part of a painstaking restoration of the cathedral's windows. Each piece of glass is being carefully removed from its old iron frame and reset in a brass frame (tel. 638-479-419, www.catedraldeleon.org).
San Isidoro Museum in León
San Isidoro is an 11th-century Romanesque church that's been gradually added on to over the centuries. The church itself is free and always open to worshippers. But the attached museum is the real attraction. Inside you'll see a library, cloister, chapter house, and a "pantheon" of royal tombs featuring some of the most exquisite Romanesque frescoes in Spain (Plaza San Isidoro 4, tel. 987-876-161).
Santiago's cathedral isn't the biggest in Spain, nor is it the most impressive. Yet it's certainly the most mystical, exerting a spiritual magnetism that attracts people from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe. Exploring one of the most important churches in Christendom, you'll do some time travel, putting yourselves in the well-worn shoes of the millions of pilgrims who have trekked many miles to this powerful place. Originally a simple chapel, the cathedral you see today has gradually been added on to over the last 12 centuries. By the 11th century, the church was overwhelmed by the crowds. Construction of a larger cathedral began in 1075, and the work took 150 years. The cathedral also houses a museum with three parts; as you face the facade, the door to the main museum is to the right, the entry to the crypt is dead ahead (under the staircase), and the door on the left leads to an empty palace and the cathedral rooftop (www.catedraldesantiago.es).