I wouldn't say I had a religious experience hiking along the Ignatian Way in Spain, but I certainly found myself contemplating my mortality as I huffed and puffed my way up a steep incline on the way to a stone shack at the summit.
The path, also known as El Camino Ignacio, runs some 430 miles from Loyola in Basque country to Manresa in Catalonia and in some ways is still a work in progress. During our trip, which was organized by the Basque and Catalonian tourist offices, we encountered the occasional muddy patches, sporadic signage and more than a few loose rocks underfoot.
But for the local guides I encountered during my recent visit, the route's newness is the whole point.
The trail, which follows the pilgrimage of early Jesuit St. Ignatius of Loyola in the 16th century, offers an alternative to Camino de Santiago, or St. James Way, which has become so popular that one of our guides likened it to a crowded highway.
Not so the Ignatian Way, where visitors can commune with nature relatively undisturbed by other hikers and enjoy the diversity of the Spanish countryside, from the vivid, green foothills in the Basque region to the arid expanses in parts of Catalonia. The trail wends through tiny towns and villages and passes close enough to big cities such as Balboa and Barcelona to offer interesting pre- and post-trek stays.
You don't have to be religious to enjoy the experience, thanks to a rich menu of cultural, historical and gastronomic attractions. Wine lovers will find that the route often intersects with the Rioja Route, where bodegas offer wine tastings and pairings with local foods.
But religious pilgrims are especially catered to on the trail, which was created by a Barcelona-based Jesuit, Josep Lluis Iriberri, and officially inaugurated in 2012. Locals told us that so far, pilgrims tend to come in groups, often bringing their own priests, and many stay in specially designated sanctuaries run by religious orders.
It takes about a month to hike the entire trail, which is divided into 27 segments. For our trip, we spent a week exploring the trail route, combining hikes with van-assisted visits to restaurants, monasteries, museums and wine cellars.
Because the route is still so new, travel agents can enlist the help of Iker Urcelay at the Basque tourist office and Cristina Gargallo and Mariona Lloreta at the Catalonian tourist office for guidance. In addition, a guided walk with Iriberri will take place from Sept. 23 to Oct. 21.
What follows are some highlights of our experience.
The Loyola Sanctuary dates from the 14th century and includes the Loyola family home. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
On our first day, we explored the picturesque Azpeitia old town, surrounded by the foothills of the Pyrenees, and the Loyola Sanctuary, which dates from the 14th century and includes the Loyola family home, complete with its original furnishings and tapestries. The site marks the official start of the pilgrimage route and offers tours in English, which was not the case in some of the other places we visited.
From here we proceeded by van to the Santa Maria La Antigua hermitage in Zumarraga, one of the older sites we saw. A beautifully stark Romanesque structure, the hermitage features a complicated wooden ceiling resembling an upside-down boat and opalesque, alabaster windows.
A modern visitors center next to the building offers a glimpse into the region's turbulent history and serves as an exhibit space for local artists and as a restaurant.
A stark contrast came when we visited the Sanctuary of Arantzazu in Onati, which resembles a modern art museum with its spiked exterior, expressionist sculptures by Basque artist Jorge Oteiza and vivid interior paintings by Nestor Basterretxea.
The current incarnation of the building was constructed between 1950 and 1955, and during our visit the grounds were filled with children running and playing and families bringing their new cars to the church to be blessed.
It was here that we started the mountain hike some of us found so challenging, although to be fair, a couple of much younger members of our group did the walk with ease, smoking and chatting all the while.
One of the most charming destinations was the walled village of Laguardia, a medieval town with more wine bars than you can count, including the Bodega Casa Primicia, where archaeological digs in the floor of the bodega have unearthed ancient ruins that are now encased in glass.
In Laguardia we also visited the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes, known for its vividly well-preserved polychrome portico.
Overall, the town is startlingly untouristy, considering how beautiful it is, but it's a good bet that it will be discovered in a big way once the Ignatian Way becomes better known to visitors.
The highlights of our next leg of the trail, which ran from Kripan to Elvillar, were the La Hechizera dolmen, an ancient burial structure in an otherwise empty pasture, and the Hotel Marques de Riscal, a Frank Gehry-designed hotel. Its distinctive pink roofs are said to have been inspired by the surrounding vineyards.
The marker at the start of the Ignatian Way, which runs from Loyola in Basque country to Manresa in Catalonia. Photo Credit: Felicity Long
It took about four hours to drive to our next stop, the ancient city of Lleida in Catalonia, where we visited the 13th-century Cathedral of St. Mary of La Seu Vella. In addition to being a stop on the Ignatian Way, the bustling city is on a wine route and boasts a rich tradition of fine cuisine.
The next day we walked the next leg from Vilagrassa to the town of Verdu, which turned out to be another of my favorite villages.
The walk, which took about 90 minutes, traversed land that was flat and almost desert-like, with only almond groves and olive trees punctuating the horizon.
Fewer than 1,000 people live in Verdu, which is about 900 years old, and portions of the original fortified walls are still visible.
For an interesting blend of art and gastronomy, we spent an afternoon at Miro a Taula, a combination museum and restaurant in Verdu that showcases the works of Spanish artist Joan Miro as well as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali and Alexander Calder. Small groups can arrange for lunches or dinners comprising small-plate courses served in the various rooms of the galleries.
After an exploration of the pretty town of Cervera nearby, we ended the day by pulling into the monastery of Montserrat.
Probably the best known of our destinations, the complex, which comprises the monastery, a hotel and several museums, is also a stop along the Santiago Way and draws visitors from both trails.
I was awed by the geological marvel of the surrounding mountains, which rise like tall spires around the complex, and by the so-called Black Virgin statue, said to date from the 12th century.
I rose early to attend the 7:30 a.m. lauds in the abbey amid the clanging of the bells, just in time to see the sun rise between the arches that line the courtyard in front of the monastery entrance. The ceremony inside was notable for its beautiful singing, a result of the fact that many of the resident monks were members of the Montserrat boys' choir in their youth.
After a tour of the grounds, we embarked on an easy, serene hike from Montserrat to the lovely and low-key Santa Cecilia hermitage about an hour away, followed by an hourlong drive to Manresa for a look at the original cave where St. Ignatius is said to have experienced his conversion from wealthy knight to pilgrim.
Our last stop before Barcelona was Mon Sant Benet, a site so interesting that it could have wide appeal for casual visitors and families with children.
In addition to boasting the most appealing hotel we'd experienced along the way (the Mon Sant Benet Hotel), there is a 10th century monastery on the property that features 3-D videos, holograms and moving displays projected onto the ancient walls that bring the history of the region and the ancient monastery to life.