Between hailstorms and blisters, Sue Cocking finds the time to admire centuries-old cathedrals - and a genuine wine fountain.

Stepping quietly through the dimly lit 12th-century cathedral in the small Spanish town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada, I looked up to the ornate mausoleum in the rear and saw something you don't usually see in a church: two white chickens pecking around in a Plexiglas hen house.

Turns out chickens have been housed here for hundreds of years.

The tradition is based on a local legend, and the "church of the chickens" is only one of the homespun, non-touristy attractions along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or the Way of St James - an ancient pilgrim route leading to the place where the apostle was supposedly buried.

A network of paths, trails and paved roads snakes through Spain, France and Portugal - all leading to the northwest corner of Spain and the city of Santiago de Compostela where some believe St James is buried.

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The most popular route is the Camino Frances, or French Way, which originates in the small town of St Jean Pied-de-Port, climbs the Pyrenees mountains, and covers almost the entire width of northern Spain for nearly 800km.

The reasons people walk the Camino vary from person to person - religious pilgrimage, spiritual quest, outdoor exploration, exercise and cultural absorption. But those who commit to the entire Camino Frances are an especially dedicated subgroup.

Travelling nearly 800km in unfamiliar, often rugged, terrain in weather that veers from sunny and warm to hail and fog - sometimes in a single day - is taxing and stressful, but ultimately fulfilling.

For me, the trip was simply a chance to spend more than a month exploring a beautiful country I had never visited.

But first my walking companion and I had to conquer the Pyrenees.

Definitely the most rigorous part of our five-week journey, crossing the mountain range that separates France and Spain so intimidates some would-be pilgrims that they simply skip it and start their hike on the Spanish side in the tiny burb of Roncesvalles.

It took almost eight hours to reach Roncesvalles, during which time the snow briefly became hail and so muddied the downhill forest path that numerous pilgrims - including me - lost their footing and fell.

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a weeks-long walk through fields and across mountains. Photo / 123RF
The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a weeks-long walk through fields and across mountains. Photo / 123RF

We secured a room in the Hostal La Posada, which served delicious, salt-rubbed, broiled trout for dinner.

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If you're on a budget, albergues, or pilgrim hostels, are the cheapest places to stay along the Camino. Ranging in price from donativo (whatever you want to donate) to about US$15 ($23.70) a night, they usually offer rows of bunk beds, a couple of bathrooms, and maybe kitchen and laundry facilities. Other lodging options include small private hostels, rural inns or hotels.

We next made our way westward to Pamplona, site of the summertime running of the bulls. We were about two months ahead of the bulls and stayed only one night in a small pension, then continued west toward the 890m Alto de Perdon, or Hill of Forgiveness.

The hill is a high, scenic spot decorated with metal sculptures of medieval pilgrims next to a massive wind farm. A must-stop on the Camino is the celebrated wine fountain behind the Bodegas Irache just outside the town of Estella. Here, pilgrims can drink free vino to fortify themselves for the next leg of their journey.

Besides colourful characters, the Camino is riddled with ancient, beautiful churches. One of the more outstanding is the 13th-century Cathedral of Leon, renowned for its Gothic architecture and stained glass windows.

Many of the old churches, particularly in the mostly flat Meseta region, also serve another important function: their belfries are used as nesting sites by large storks.

Many pilgrims skip the Mezeta because they've heard it's a desert with little shade and not much to look at, but in springtime, the grain fields are splashed with multicoloured blankets of wildflowers and the wheat farmers hot-rodding in their John Deeres add to the entertainment.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in the evening time. Photo / 123RF
Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in the evening time. Photo / 123RF

After Rabanal, three of the steepest spots on the Camino loomed in the mountains ahead - La Cruz de Ferro at more than 1500m followed by O'Cebreiro and Alto de Poio (1300m).

At Cruz de Ferro, we encountered a windy, swirly snowstorm, and we needed a short day of walking after mounting O'Cebreiro, the gateway to Galicia - a lush, green agricultural region.

We stopped for the night at a small inn in rural Biduedo and arrived the next day in Sarria, where we felt a change in the atmosphere on the Camino.

This modern town of about 13,000 is 100km from Santiago - about five days' hike - and the minimum distance a pilgrim has to walk in order to pick up a Compostela, or certificate of completion.

Unlike previous sections of the Camino, we were never really alone on the 22km segment from Sarria to Portomarin, crowded with walkers and cyclists.

For the next two days, it either drizzled or poured, but on the morning of the final 20km leg from O'Pedrouzo to the finish line, the unfamiliar sun lit the path.

I had arrived in the Promised Land. I thought I'd feel some kind of emotion but mostly it was just the relief of completing a very long-term, somewhat arduous project, and the satisfaction of completing the longest walk of my life.

IF YOU GO
Depending on how fast you walk, you should allow four to six weeks to complete the Camino Frances, which is the nearly 800km path from St Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain.

Train with a loaded backpack so mountainous, 25km-a-day walks won't come as a shock to your body. Learn about blister prevention and care, and be prepared to field-dress your blisters.

The best time to hike the Camino is in April or May. The path becomes very crowded during the summer, and it may be difficult to find lodging. However, spring weather can run the gamut from pleasantly warm to cold and snowy, so pack for all conditions.

Getting to St Jean Pied-de-Port to begin the Camino was difficult in medieval times and is still difficult today. The most direct route is to fly to Madrid and take a train or bus to Pamplona. Depending on when you arrive in Pamplona, you may be able to take a bus to St Jean or you can hire a private taxi for about $180.

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Getting there: Cathay Pacific has a special launch fare flying return from Auckland to Madrid of $1839, including all taxes/surcharges, to celebrate the introduction of its newest destination on June 2.

-AAP