World's end: A journey to Spain's wild western edge

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The pilgrim route through Galicia ends at glorious Santiago de Compostela – but travel further and you'll be amazed by Spain's very own Land's End

So this is where the road to nowhere ends, I thought, eyes scrunched against the glare of a shimmering slick of melted sapphire: Cape Finisterre, Spain's Land's End. This rocky peninsula jabs into the Atlantic nearly 10 degrees west of the Balearics, meaning the sun sets here about 40 minutes later than on the island of Menorca. Until the discovery of the Americas, Finisterre was – as its name suggests – the last outpost of the known world. The place is filled with legends and stories of cults who came here to watch the sun die at night. Gazing out from the pinnacle of rock into the vast ocean I felt a sense of empathy with those who thought the world ended at that dissecting horizon.

In the year 813 the far north-west of Spain was the last refuge of the Christians. War was raging in Iberia: Muslim armies had conquered most of the peninsula, while the Christians held just a sliver of land here, their backs to the sea and their kingdoms divided. Divine intervention, or at least a good dose of religious spin, provided the only hope. Cue the discovery of bones in a Galician cave in 813 by the Galician Bishop Theodomir and the pronouncement that they belonged to none other than St James. What better news in time of war than that an apostle, known in Spanish as Santiago, has joined your ranks?

The Santiago legend soon loomed large on the battlefields: St James became Santiago Matamoros, "St James the Moor-slayer", zealously decapitating unfortunate Muslim soldiers. The tide of war began to turn. The city and cathedral of Santiago were built and a pilgrimage from the Christian heartlands beyond the Pyrenees was born.

Santiago – the city and the legend – provided spiritual nourishment for Christian Spain during the 700-year Reconquest. By the end of the first millennium a number of pilgrim routes from across Europe converged at the French border at the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. From here most crossed Northern Spain by the same route, known as the Camino Francés.

In the early 12th century a claimant for the world's first guide book, the Codex Calixtinus, cemented the pilgrimage in medieval culture with advice on routes, accommodation and scams pilgrims might encounter on the way. The city had become the third most important Christian site after Jerusalem and Rome – hundreds of thousands of devout souls crossed the continent to visit in what became the largest migration in medieval Europe.

Pilgrims on the Camino Francés crossed the Pyrenees and traversed the deep Basque valleys before trudging across the treeless, parched plains of León, interrupted only by the occasional savage dog. By the time they reached Galicia they had spent more than a month walking, and blisters had long become hardened calluses of skin. Then the Galician hills began: outcrops of craggy granite and pasture, pushed into steel-coloured clouds, signalling that they were nearing their destination.

Even today, over 100,000 walkers, cyclists and riders make the journey every year for both religious and secular reasons. Pilgrims help define Santiago's character. Usually wearing boots and shorts, they ensure the elegant city keeps an informal earthiness about it. The jubilation shown by the constant stream of weary bodies finishing their journey in the vast Praza do Obradoiro beneath the cathedral's grand spires is infectious; strangers approach new arrivals and shake them by the hand. It reminded me of the engaging atmosphere peculiar to a city hosting a marathon.

Santiago's soaring architectural magnificence can be appreciated equally by the pious and the lapsed. Alongside the rucksacks and prone pilgrims in Praza do Obradoiro I marvelled at the city's centrepiece: the cathedral, within which the saint's remains supposedly rest. Predominately Romanesque in character, the remarkable west facade is an 18th-century Baroque addition capturing in stone the conflicting Spanish characteristics of exuberance and restraint. The granite, besieged by moss, lichen and spouting seedlings courtesy of Atlantic rain, had the unexpected echo of a Mayan ruin, while the lavish Pórtico de la Gloria, behind the outer façade, is one of the finest examples of Romanesque sculpture in the world. Its sumptuous depiction of good and evil would have greeted the first readers of the Codex Calixtinus more than eight centuries ago.

The interior is suitably gloomy – the lack of a choir, unusual in Spain, allows unobstructed appreciation of the central nave (as V Cwell as the rather over-indulgent altar). Confessional booths line the nave and kneeling pilgrims ask for forgiveness in evocative scenes which could come from the Middle Ages. I tingled with historical vertigo. (Look out for the statue of Santiago Matamoros on his white horse, the heads of his victims now more sensitively hidden beneath a cloth.)

The longer of the two queues at the end of the nave leads to the statue of St James, which marks the official end of the pilgrimage; the shorter one leads down to the crypt where his reputed bones remain. On select holy days (or in return for a €240 fee) an enormous incense burner, the Botafumeiro, is swung across the breadth of the cathedral. Its original purpose was to mask the potent odour of hundreds of devout but not particularly well-washed medieval souls.

The impressive building on the north of the square is the Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos, boasting a remarkable Plateresque façade. Built by Ferdinand and Isabella in the 16th century as a free hostel-cum-hospital for weary pilgrims, it claims to be the oldest hotel in the world. It now provides shelter to paying guests of the Parador ensconced within it. However it hasn't entirely abandoned its original remit: the first 10 pilgrims to arrive at its canteen each morning are entitled to a free meal.

Any region that has pulpo (octopus) and pimiento (green pepper) as its gastronomic mainstays clearly takes its food seriously. Santiago's market is an excellent place to see what's on offer – especially on Saturdays, when women from outlying villages come to sell their garden vegetables and home-made cheeses. The iconic Galician cheese is the creamy, smooth tetilla, in the shape of a breast. The story goes that a prudish clergyman demanded that the ample bosom of the woman depicted on the Portico de Gloria (probably the Old Testament's Esther) be reduced as unbefitting of such a holy place. The people responded, whether in jest or defiance, by making their cheeses in the form of the offending breast.

Deeper into the market, seafood stalls spill over with a dizzying diversity of shellfish – clams, cockles, crabs and mussels, as well as the rather offputting local delicacy: goose barnacles, which look like amputated lizards' feet.

You can spend a small fortune sampling these crustaceans at one of the city's excellent restaurants – or, for a fraction of the price, have your catch cooked at the unassuming Churro Mania, within the market arcade. It was with gluttonous delight that I watched the sealed clams I had handed over just minutes earlier return to me steaming, open and shouting out to be slurped. The chefs will cook anything you buy (over 500g), for €3 plus 10 per cent of the price you paid for the creatures.

Over the centuries Santiago has attracted plenty of religious celebrities: Francis of Assisi came here in 1214. While here he had a convent built which now opens its doors to secular guests as the Hotel San Francisco. The high-ceilinged rooms are built around two elegant cloisters and the hotel has adapted austerity into nobility. The roof terrace is another selling point with commanding views across the city although I'm not sure what St Francis would have made of the choral versions of Eighties classics playing at breakfast.

The Church insists the Camino de Santiago ends in the city of the saint but pagan pilgrimages predating St James continued to Finisterre. Many modern-day pilgrims choose to follow their footsteps and the geographical logic of finishing when you can't walk any further. It's a three-day hike to the town of Finisterre, a couple of miles walk from the headland itself, but a bus (or in my case a rental car) can get you there in less than two hours.

Once on the coast it pays to explore more of it. Galicia boasts of more than 700 miles of Atlantic border and the same number of beaches. North of Finisterre the coastline is infamous for its treachery and is often called the Costa da Morte.

The sight of the ocean snarling in all its fury is a compelling one. One of the best places to get close to its elemental rage is Muxia. I parked up at the end of the unremarkable town and set off on foot over the headland. As I came over the crest a scene of inky seas with chalky scratches revealed itself and then, built almost amid the surf, the church of Santa Maria del Mar. Unsurprisingly it's been adopted by fishermen; among tourists, the main attraction is the high drama of the setting especially at sunset.

The coast running south from Finisterre makes for a great road trip. The section of the AC550 highway between Cee and Muros is the wildest, here the roads are in fabulous proximity to the ocean and on a weekday they're empty. Along the route is Mount Pindo, the "Celtic Olympus"; a great joint of muscular granite flexing to 2,000 feet as it meets the Atlantic. A tough climb is rewarded by epic views: on a fine day you can see north back to Cape Finisterre, south along rugged coast towards the Rias Baixas, Galicia's flooded river valleys and west towards a breathtaking unity of colour and space.

If the sun is shining – and the further south you go the greater the chance of it doing so – then exceptional beaches await. One of the best is the blue-flag beach of Estorde on the road out of Finisterre. Here, a curve of white sand smiles at a sheltered turquoise bay. Further south the Ria Muros and Ria Arosa are both lined with numerous sheltered coves.

For those like me, who like their beaches frothing with surf, the ocean-facing beaches of Ancoradoiro just west of Muros, or Arealonga, below the Celtic ruins at Baroña, are both superb; except for weekends they will be almost entirely yours save for the odd nudist bather and dedicated surfer.

To be frank, many of the towns and villages along the coast are concerned more with the serious business of fishing than dressing up for visitors. The fishing town of A Pobra do Caramiñal doesn't make an obvious stop on a sightseeing itinerary. But the quality and ambience of eating are unrivalled. Extremo Street, one back from the seafront, is crackling with life in the evenings. Restaurant Kunka offers delicate tender octopus and baby squids cooked in their ink. Sit outside and soak up the source and atmosphere.

Galicia isn't on the way to anywhere, but it's a destination people have always felt the need to travel to. A place that provided the Spanish state with its religious DNA now seems largely uninterested in the affairs of the peninsula, distracted instead by the draw of the Atlantic.

Myth, mist and melancholy have created a region with a compelling identity – one of extraordinary architecture, superb cuisine – and an intimate relation with the ocean and the heavens. Standing at the end of the world amid a symphony of rock, cloud and wave I was able to understand why.

Travel essentials: Galicia

Getting there

* The writer travelled with Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com), which flies from Heathrow to Santiago via Madrid. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies direct from Stansted.

Staying there

* Hotel San Francisco, 3 Campillo San Francisco (00 34 981 581 634; sanfranciscohm.com). Double rooms start at €85.60, room only.

* Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos, 1 Plaza Do Obradoiro (00 34 981 582 200; parador.es). Double rooms start at €150, room only.

Visiting there

* Santiago cathedral is open daily 7am to 9pm; admission free.

* Santiago market open Monday to Saturday from 7.30am to 2pm.

Eating & drinking there

*Restaurant Kunka, 15 Calle Extremo (00 34 981 833 370).

More information

* Spanish Tourist Office, PO Box 4009, London W(12A) 6NB (020-7486 8077; spain.info/uk; info.londres@tourspain.es). Twenty-four-hour information and brochure request line: 08459 400 180.

* Santiago de Compostela Tourist Office: 00 34 981 542 300; santiagodecompostela.org

End game: Five final frontiers

Scotland

Kintyre, the 40-mile-long peninsula on the west coast of Scotland, is named after the Gaelic Ceann Tire, which literally means "head of the land". The largest town is Campbeltown, close to the southern end. From here you can drive, or take a local bus, south to Southend on the south-east coast of the peninsula. From there you can see Dunaverty rock, jutting up from the sea. This was the scene of a massacre in 1647 when the 300-strong garrison of the castle on the rock surrendered to a Covenanting army and were then slaughtered. The castle has long since fallen into the sea. St Columba, who bought Christianity to Scotland, first landed here on his journey to the island of Iona, and close by are St Columba's Chapel and the Keil Caves as well as St Columba's footprints carved in the rock. Southend is not, despite the name, the southern end of the peninsula: this lies eight miles further, in the forbidding shape of the Mull of Kintyre.

By bus (Scottish CityLink, 08705 50 50 50; citylink.co.uk) from Glasgow it is roughly a three-hour drive to Tarbert – the narrow isthmus at the north of the peninsula. You can continue south from here to Campbeltown in a little over four hours. Alternatively, you could fly from Glasgow to Campbeltown airport with Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com).

France

The westernmost point of the peninsula of Brittany is a wild headland that runs down into the sea with rocky outcrops similar to Land's End in England. This is Finistère, "end of the land", which has bestowed its name on an entire département; its capital is the Breton tourist town of Quimper, a great place to sample the local delicacies of crepes and cider. Its other major town is Brest, one of France's main naval bases. (See Something to Declare on page 9 for travel possibilities.)

An excellent place to stay to explore Finistère is the port of Douarnenez, close to the mirculously preserved village of Locronan. The Hostellerie Le Clos de Vallombreuse (00 33 2 98 92 63 64; closvallombreuse.com) is an early 20th-century villa with one of the region's grandest restaurants – plus well-appointed public rooms and bedrooms.

Portugal

To reach the end of mainland Europe, hop aboard bus 403 from the prosaic surroundings of Cascais bus station, itself a half-hour train ride west of Lisbon. The last village before the westernmost extreme of the continental mainland is Azoia; the rocky road to the cape unwinds extravagantly from here towards a cluster of maritime installations, presided over by a lighthouse; the base of this is 140m above the sea itself, on the edge of a towering cliff. A needle pays tribute to this being the "Ponto Mais Ocidental do Continente Europeu", but the view says it all: land mass collides with ocean in spectacular fashion. Close by is the Boca do Inferno, enabling you conveniently to combine the end of the world with the mouth of hell.

Papua New Guinea

Almost all of the candidates for the end of the world point west; but the Finisterre Mountains in the Morobe region at the far end of South East Asia rise a few miles off the north-eastern coast of Papua New Guinea. They form a 10-mile barrier across the island. "They are very steep and spectacular," says John Thomas, a pilot who flew in the Morobe area for 14 years. The mountains have been the end of many planes. During the Second World War, 350 American and Australian aircraft disappeared while on flights in eastern New Guinea.

To get to Papua New Guinea, make your way to Brisbane on one of several airlines, and connect to the three-hour hop on Virgin Blue to the capital, Port Moresby. From here, you will need expert help.

Canada

The most remote end of the earth is probably Land's End on Prince Patrick Island, on the western fringe of Canada's Arctic Archipelago – and making an impressive appearance as 55th largest isle in the world. Named after Queen Victoria's third son, it was discovered in 1853 by Sir Francis McClintock, an explorer who had mastered the Eskimo art of sledging.

James Donald and Simon Calder

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