Allied with erudition is the gift of description. Howse writes of the "incised meander" of the Tagus at Toledo and of "swifts in their mysterious shoals" over Ávila. He observes the Ebro in spate at Logroño, its surface "shaped like cauliflower inflorescences, but transparent enough to catch the sun like sections of broken wine glass". Before a mass in Caleruega, the birthplace of St Dominic, 12 old women say the rosary, the "machine-gun delivery of Castilian syllables" being "mitigated by a certain sing-song cadency". In the chapter entitled morcilla or blood sausage, the slow martyrdom of St John of the Cross at the hands of fellow-believers is movingly told.
Howse is more chronicler than historical polemicist. I should like to have read his view of the Inquisition, which he touches on when visiting Toledo, and for him to have expanded on what he writes about the adverse effect of Republican zeal on the Catholics of Salamanca in the run-up to the Civil War.
The publisher has served the author well, both in the dust-jacket, mentioned above, and in diagrams and historic illustrations inside. The only criticism is the somewhat haphazard application of accents.
In the final chapter, Howse reaches Santiago and witnesses the swinging of the great censer or botafumeiro in the cathedral. Pilgrim numbers may have risen hugely over the past 20 years but he remarks on "a dangerous undercurrent of self-centredness, as if the journey were there to prove oneself", an attitude reflected in Emilio Estévez's new film The Way (see the June issue of Standpoint).
For Howse, pilgrimage is "an expectation of a particular grace to be found in the journey", which in Spain ("not always likeable" but "compellingly lovable") is "never looked for and found wanting". To travel with him through these pages is a delight.