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Pilgrim's Progress in Northern Spain

We pull into the Marqués de Riscal and are greeted by Alejandro Aznar, the vineyard's dapper president, who gives us a quick tour of the grounds and the site of the new Frank Gehry-designed headquarters and hotel (not a stop on the pilgrimage route, but I couldn't resist). When completed in 2005, the structure will form an architectural troika with Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao and José Rafael Moneo'sbold Kursaal Center in San Sebastián. Construction workersare sheathing the building in 95,000 square feet of undulating titanium. "The metal will reflect the colors of a bottle of red wine," Aznar explains. "You have the pink, which is the wine, and the silver is the foil covering the cork. Finally, the gold is the color of the wire around the foil."

We leave Elciego and get back on the Camino, meandering through Castilla y León, Spain's largest region, until we reach the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada at sunset. We find a small restaurant called El Mesón del Abuelo, with family-style banquet tables set on the Plaza Alameda. Much of the food along the pilgrim route is a selection of heavy, almost medieval chops and stews. Tonight, I have buttery chuletas de cordero (grilled lamb chops) with white asparagus, while Katya chooses sopa de caviar de trucha, a trout stew. Locals, happy for the night's coolness, spill from the dark streets to the fountain on the lighted plaza. A handful of pilgrims drink beer at an adjoining table; two of them soon fall asleep, and we watch as the others carry them away.

Burgos, just 40 miles up the road, is where we'll spend the night. As we drive through the dark, we stop to pick up a hobbling peregrino. Philippe, a Frenchman in his sixties, has a twisted ankle. Would other pilgrims consider hitchhiking to be cheating?"We're like brothers, or soldiers in an army," he says. "If I say, 'Oh, it's too hard to go on,' a brother picks me up. Like you two—you picked me up when I needed help."

After dropping off Philippe, we arrive at La Puebla, a tiny, angular hotel in Burgos. Three chic Spanish women in Prada are in the lobby, flipping through L'Uomo Vogue as the concierge makes dinner reservations for them. I'm grimy and sweaty, even though we've been in the car most of the day. In our soothing beige cave of a room, Katya collapses on a chaise longue. I stand in front of the air conditioner as I surf TV channels and plug my laptop into a high-speed port. Such amenities seem decadent after a day on the Camino.

In the morning, we skirt the pilgrims' trail through small villages such as Carrión de los Condes and Sahagún. The heat is even more oppressive here. Just before sunset we arrive in the pulsating city of León. Cafés are jammed with university students deep in discussion. One street broadcasts hip-hop, another a felicitous cello. At night, thousands fill the square; well-dressed couples nuzzle under the light of the cathedral, Santa María de la Regla, and wait until midnight, when the stained-glass windows are illuminated. Katya wants to dance, so I interrupt an urbane man and woman on the steps and ask them where we should go. They cheerfully lead us down a winding alley into the Barrio Húmedo, where we push through crowds of students to a dimly lit club called La Paloma. As Katya dances with our new friends, I spot two peregrinos sitting outside and bring them each a beer. "If only I had the energy to dance," laments a Spaniard from Marbella. "I'm missing the twenty-first century."

The next morning, Katya takes the wheel as we drive on back roads in the Ulla River Valley on the way to Santiago. In the alpine village of Molinaseca, Katya cools off in a frigid river with a busful of Italian tourists. Approaching Santiago, the traffic slows to near gridlock. Katya relents, and we park on the town's outskirts. Santiago de Compostela is a maze of dark granite that seems to spin off into curlicues. Along the ancient sidewalks are touches of tomorrow. Garbage cans have solar cells for refrigeration, cutting down on the smell (a small miracle in this heat). Traffic flows smoothly within city limits, thanks to computer-controlled traffic lights. The twisted glass-and-stone City of Culture, Santiago's new $125 million arts complex designed by American architect Peter Eisenman, shines from a nearby hill.

Despite all the technological advances, the city's nexus is the looming Catedral de Santiago. Originally constructed in the ninth century, supposedly atop the tomb of Saint James, the cathedral has been rebuilt so many times over the years that it is a hodgepodge of design, with styles that range from Romanesque to Gothic to Baroque.

As we walk toward the giant cathedral, giddy peregrinos stride quickly past us. So close to completing their act of devotion, some abandon their backpacks on the sidewalk to get there faster. They pack the nave, dancing ecstatically on blistered feet. A few even break pews in their fervor. We leave a crate of bottled water for the exhausted faithful—at night, the steps outside become crowded with sleeping pilgrims—and walk back to our hotel, the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos. The peregrinos may be blessed, but tonight we sleep in a bed.

MIKE GUY writes for Rolling Stone, GQ, and Men's Journal.


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