Domenico and I

Geoff Hill drives to Santiago with a 17th-century Italian pilgrim's ghost

James the Apostle arrived in northern Spain AD 44. He had just been beheaded by King Herod. His body was then lost for 750 years until a shepherd called Pelayo saw a star in a vision and dug up the saint's bones. The field where he found them became Santiago de Compostela, (St James of the Field of the Star), the site of a pilgrimage that would soon compete with the great routes to Jerusalem and Rome.

Today, thousands of pilgrims still make their way there from all over the world. This year, since St James's Day falls on a Sunday, a pilgrimage to Santiago is a go-straight-to-heaven-do-not-enter-purgatory event. This means that this year up to half-a-million faithful will make the long trek by foot, bicycle, horse or, in my case, bright yellow sports car.

The yellow car was a brand new tradition, but that's because I'd only just thought of it as I sat on the boat to Calais, realising with a sinking feeling that my entire preparation for the trip had consisted of reading a copy of Biggles Hits the Trail (the one with the giant Tibetan caterpillars, if you remember).

Still, at least I had brought A Journey to the West, the diary of a 17th- century Italian pilgrim called Domenico Laffi, and I kept it by me as I drove through the ancient gates of the village of Montreuil-sur-mer, which, six centuries ago, had been a main stopping point for pilgrims from northern Europe.

In Poitiers the next morning I had a croissant with two ladies from the tourist board who gave me the pilgrim's essential potted guide to the road between Poitiers and Blaye.

Poitiers, they told me, had witnessed the world's longest job interview, in which Joan of Arc had her ideology and virginity extensively verified by the local bishops and matrons respectively. It was also home to the university where Descartes cogitated.

The next place I learnt about was Lusignan, a village built by a fairy called Melusine, who married a mortal called Raymondin on condition he never saw her on Saturday, when she did all her building. When he eventually did see her, she turned into a dragon (motto: if your wife goes out on Saturdays with a magic wand and a hod, give her the benefit of the doubt).

I drove on. At Aulnay I discovered a Romanesque church, the facade of which depicts a diminutive breed of donkey (resembling a shaved teddy bear) and an eternal battle between wise and foolish virgins. If they were so foolish, I wanted to know, why they were still virgins? Next along the road was Pons, built in the Middle Ages, destroyed by the English, rebuilt by the French, captured by the English, regained by the French, and everybody killed several times. Pons, in other words, was best visited before 1178.

Late that night I arrived in Blaye and spurned my hotel to dine in a cafe which in England would have been naff, but in France was quaint. What a splendid creation is the French provincial waitress: she gives you enough time to dither, ignores all your choices and suggests better ones, leaves you plenty of time between courses, doesn't ruin your meal by constantly asking if you're enjoying it and, best of all, doesn't tell you that her name is Crystal and she's really an actress.

At dusk the next day I was in St Jean-Pied-de-Port at the foot of the Pyrenees, the great crossroads where pilgrims from all over Europe converged to continue through northern Spain together. It was also where I started reading the journal of my Italian predecessor Domenico Laffi. The next morning, the Pyrenees were shrouded in snow. Domenico would have wrapped his cloak about him and set off. I got into the car and switched on the heater. It was never going to stop raining. I retired to the hotel bar, sank into a deep sofa with the sort of gin and tonic they only make in Spain - one gallon gin, one gallon tonic, one whole lemon, one iceberg - and read about Domenico Laffi getting soaked instead. The next morning, it was still raining.

In fact, I could not remember when it had not been raining. I got into the car, turned on the wipers and drove west to Guernica. Since I only knew it through the painting by Picasso, I half expected it to be full of screaming horses and women with eyes on tops of their heads, but it was normal to the point of dullness.

After a while the rain, impossibly, got worse. I wound up the windows and floated west past Bilbao, on to Santillana del Mar. Even Jean Paul Sartre, a gloomy writer at the best of times, described Santillana as the most beautiful village in Spain.

I got back into the car and floated on through the Picos de Europa mountains. Darkness fell, the rain fell, my spirits fell, the moon rose, I found an old bossa nova channel on the radio, my spirits rose. Many hours into the night, I washed up in Oviedo and tied up the car to stop it drifting away. The next morning, it was still raining. It was raining all along the Calle de la Magdalena, where the pilgrims used to trek up the street past the erotic magazine shop and to the cathedral, where the front door contains a carving of Eulalia, patron saint of Oviedo, tossing a bucket of water over the city. Well, Eulalia, I've got news for you. You've succeeded all too well. I drove onwards, through the green and rain-washed mountains.

It was impossibly idyllic, and even the rain was of an unusually soft quality: the sort that makes you feel gentle all the way through to your soul, like some sort of existentialist fabric conditioner, so that you could sidle innocently up to a farmer's daughter, make harmlessly illicit suggestions in a spirit of universal love and harmony, and not get kicked.

Remarkably, during the afternoon the sun finally came out, and it was in dazzling sunshine that I crested the mountain named Montjoie, after the pilgrims' cry at the sight of Santiago. Here I was, 1,286 miles and six days from Calais. And here beside me, on this very spot three centuries earlier, Domenico had stood and looked down on the same city.

Strangely, on his last stage he, too, had been drenched by the rain and then dried by the sun. And when he finally saw the twin towers of the cathedral from this mountain, he burst into tears, then went down into the town to buy a scallop shell, the traditional pilgrim's symbol. I filled my yellow car up at a petrol station instead. That night, the ghost of Domenico Laffi and I went out and found a little tapas bar, and got very drunk. The rain had started again, unfolding upon the bar roof with a sound like someone unwrapping cellophane from a gift. Some time after 3am we staggered back through the winding, hilly streets. The rain had stopped, and above our heads people were opening the arched windows of the 18th-century galleries on the top floors, flooding the damp air with laughter and light, music and the delicate spin of rioja. I turned to speak to Domenico, but he had gone, like the ghost of imagined memory.

BUSKING TO SANTIAGO, PAGE 2

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA

GETTING THERE AND BACK

Pride of Bilbao, owned by P&O European Ferries (tel: 0870 242 4999), sails from Portsmouth to Bilbao. The mini-cruise ship has enough restaurants, bars, cinemas, bow-tied pianists, beauty salons, nightclubs, shops, saunas and gyms to keep anyone occupied during the 29-hour crossing. The better cabins are larger than you'd find on several full-size cruise ships. The Pride of Bilbao sails twice a week from Portsmouth, and return fares for a driver and car range from pounds 240 to pounds 525 depending on season and length of stay. Fares for additional adult passengers are pounds 45 to pounds 145.

GETTING AROUND

If you want to be a proper pilgrim to Santiago de Compostela, you have to walk at least 100kms (60 miles) or ride 200kms on horse or bicycle, getting your pilgrim's passport stamped along the way, to qualify. For details contact the Confraternity of St James (tel: 0171-403 4500, fax 0171-407 1468, open Tuesdays only).

WHERE TO STAY

The owner of the pleasant Hotel Darnetal in Montreuil-sur-mer (tel: 0033 321 060 487) speaks good English. In Poitiers, the Grand Hotel (tel: 0033 549 609 060) is modern and upmarket. In Blaye, the Auberge de Porche (tel: 0033 557 422 269) is basic but comfortable. In St Jean-Pied-de- Port, the Hotel des Pyrenees (tel: 0033 559 370 101) is stylish and friendly. In Hondarribia, the beautiful Parador de Hondarribia (tel: 0034 943 645 500), is one of the magnificent Paradores chain of restored castles, monasteries and the like all over Spain. In Oviedo, the hotel de la Reconquista (tel: 0034 985 241 100) is stylish and expensive. The Parador Los Reyes Catolicos (tel: 0034 981 582 200) is in Santiago. The Hotel Melia Confort Fernan Gonzalez (tel: 0034 947 209 441) is in Burgos.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Geoff Hill drove to Santiago in a Seat Ibiza 16V Cupra Sport. Details on travel in France can be had from the French Tourist Board, (tel: 0891 244 123); details on Spain from the Spanish Tourist Board (tel: 0891 669 920). Calls to either number cost 60p per minute.

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