el camino de santiago, spain -- "You'll be sleeping in the barn," says Pilar, the proprietor, as she leads me through the courtyard of Casa da Curiscada to my sleeping quarters.
After a full day of hiking, I was hoping for something more comfortable, but with my aching feet I'm willing to sleep anywhere. And this home has a long history of offering refuge to travellers, thanks to its location on the historic trail known as El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James.
For over 12 centuries, pilgrims have been making the 900-kilometre trek from France through the Pyrenees and across northern Spain to pay homage to the relics of the apostle St. James in the city of Santiago de Compostela. En route, many pilgrims stay in refugios, the public network of hostels found along the trail. Free of charge, they are available to those officially registered with the Pilgrim's Office.
I'm not a pilgrim and plan to hike for only three days, so I've chosen an alternative a casa de turismo rural home. While not free, these historic farmhouses, designated for preservation by the Spanish government, offer the opportunity to experience the region's rich history and the life of a pilgrim. They also provide a glimpse of country life and a chance to meet and support the locals. Plus, at under 50 euros they fit my budget.
My room for the night is at a private home located between the villages of Arza and Burres, only 36 kilometres from the cathedral the final destination.
"Pilgrims would grab some straw from the field to catch some sleep before the final push to the cathedral," explains Pilar, pointing to a photo display by the doorway. It shows the home filled with livestock pens and bales of hay.
Four years ago, she and her husband bought and renovated the 400-year-old abandoned, debris-filled farmstead.
Today, visitors get much more than a straw bale for comfort. Like other casas rurales in Spain's countryside, this stone home has been fully restored and boasts seven bedrooms as well as a patio, television, country kitchen and fireplace.
My room, formerly a wing of the barn, has been decorated in the charming style of Galicia and boasts every modern comfort. Breakfast is included. Other guests hail from Poland, Brazil and Portugal.
Located in northwest Spain, the province of Galicia is still relatively unknown. But it has a quiet beauty: undulating green hills, rocky granite outcrops and deep coastal inlets carved by powerful Atlantic waves.
Geographically isolated from the peninsula's Moorish invaders, the region was originally influenced by Portugal to the south and Celts from the north. Even today you're more likely to hear bagpipes than flamenco.
The next day, after hiking across creek beds, quiet meadows and through fragrant eucalyptus forests, I stop at Mes&oactue;n a Pa'nza, one of the small village cafés where my leisurely lunch includes a caña (a glass of local beer), tetilla cheese, hearty peasant bread and a soup called caldo gallego.
Later, as I chat with women hanging out their laundry and shepherds tending sheep, I imagine that nothing's changed since pilgrims first walked the trail over a thousand years ago.
Morning comes early at Casa da Curiscada, announced by the sounds of lowing cows. Outside, the panadero (baker) has dropped off a basket of bread. Pilar is hauling in vats of fresh milk.
As I relax in bed under embroidered white linens, listening to the clinking of cowbells, I realize something surprising: I could get used to sleeping in a barn.