Europe was formed on the road to Santiago
The 'Camino de Santiago' or 'Way of St James' is a network of pilgrims' footpaths that lead eventually to Santiago de Compostela (in the far north-west of Spain), one of the three holy cities of Christendom, along with Rome and Jerusalem. Although the spiritual significance of the Camino has been lost for many, there is little doubt that this is one of the most important, and exhilarating, long-distance paths in Europe.
Having apparently preached extensively in Spain, and certainly having visited Zaragoza at one point, St James the Apostle is the patron saint of the country. Even so, Queen Lupa of Galicia was rather taken aback when two bedraggled Palestinians turned up one day in around 60 AD, claiming to have the saint's body and requesting permission to bury it. Unsure of what to do, she sent the men to the Roman governor, who immediately imprisoned them. However, when the men returned to her unharmed, after having apparently been freed by an angel, she was suitably impressed enough to allow them to bury the body in a small tomb near the village of Compostela.
Momentous as these events were, they were forgotten for around 750 years. In the meantime, the Moors invaded much of Spain, and the battle to drive them out was relentless. Then in 813, a shepherd, apparently guided by a vision and a rainbow, discovered the remains and immediately claimed them to be the same ones that had been buried all those centuries ago. As word spread, stories of St James the Moor-Slayer came back from the front line. Evidently impressed by the new interest in him, St James was returning to help his followers in the war.
Tenuous as this story may be to the modern sceptic, people at the time certainly believed it. By the 11th Century, hordes of pilgrims were walking from their homes all over Europe to pay homage to the saint. Santiago became one of Christianity's three Holy Cities at around this time. Rome was unpopular as it was surrounded by marshes, which harboured all kinds of diseases, and Jerusalem was likewise surrounded by the (possibly more active) threat of Muslim invaders. Santiago soon became seen as a relatively safe pilgrimage, especially when the Knights Templar started building defensive bastions along the way. A few of these still remain and are worth a visit, most notably the fortress at Ponferrada and the enormous castle-palace at Villafranca del Bierzo. The popularity of the Camino continued until the advent of motorised transport, when it became far easier to get to Santiago by less strenuous methods, and for a while it seemed the old Pilgrims' Way would be consigned to history. However, as long-distance walking became fashionable in the latter stages of the 20th Century, the Camino's popularity grew once more. It is now one of Europe’s most popular long distance paths, and a large proportion of its walkers are still walking in the name of St James.
The tradition of pilgrims walking from their own front door to Santiago has led to a whole network of paths crossing Europe, all of which are part of the Camino de Santiago. Branches of the Camino start as far away as Scotland (though obviously incorporating a sea journey), Scandinavia and Sicily. Many of these are now half-forgotten side branches, and most of the trails only take on significance when they cross into Spain. Here are the most famous of the routes:
The French Way begins at Le Puy, in southern France and covers around 750km1 of Spain after crossing the Pyrenees at Roncesvalles. It runs through the cities of Pamplona, Burgos, León and Ponferrada before finally reaching Santiago, and crosses a variety of terrain from the rugged mountains of Navarra and León to the hot flat meseta plains.
This is the classic Camino route. When people refer to 'the Camino de Santiago', they are usually referring to the Camino Frances. In fact, whichever Camino you take, you are likely to join onto the Frances at some point.
Travellers crossing the Pyrenees at the Somport Pass, further south, face a rugged trek before joining the Camino Frances at Puente la Reina (just west of Pamplona). This route crosses a higher pass and feels like a trek in the mountains, rather than just one near them. Traditionally, this route would have been used by pilgrims coming from the French and Spanish areas of Catalunya, and from the western Mediterranean coast of France.
Caminos del Norte
Often badly marked and sometimes following main roads, the network of infrequently used Northern Caminos reflects the fact that many pilgrims would take a boat to the northern coast of Spain, before continuing inland and converging on the city of León. Travellers walking down the west coast of France and crossing the border at Hendaya would also come onto one of these Caminos. For modern pilgrims, these Caminos are probably best avoided.
Ruta de la Plata
The 'Silver Way' begins in earnest at Sevilla and runs roughly north through Andalucia and Extremadura, joining the Camino Frances 690km2 later at Astorga. Unbearably hot in summer, and with poor infrastructure and infrequent water especially in the early stages, this is a route for well-prepared and hardy pilgrims and should not be considered lightly.
The Portuguese Camino, appropriately enough, begins in the Algarve and runs right through the countryside to Santiago without joining the Camino Frances. This version is becoming more popular, particularly among Brazilians with an ancestral link to Portugal, but for non-Portuguese speakers communication can be arduous.
The Camino Fisterra runs for 75km3 west to the sea from Santiago. It was rarely used historically until the Camino Frances became a popular route for long-distance hikers. People began to walk it as an add-on to the Camino route, to finish at the sea instead of Santiago, and as such is the only Camino that is usually walked away from Santiago. It makes an interesting rural jaunt to the sea for pilgrims who feel that the distance of the main route isn’t quite testing enough.
The English Camino is the shortest of all. Eschewing the idea of walking all that way across Europe, the English simply hopped on a boat, put their feet up and sailed down to La Coruna or O Ferrol on the north coast and, presumably with grumbles of complaint, dragged themselves on foot over the last 65 kilometres4.
So, are you considering walking the Camino yourself? Not a bad idea, when you consider that if you make it all the way to Santiago, after completing at least 100km on foot or 200km by bicycle5, you will be presented with a certificate in Latin that absolves you from all earthly sin6. These are some of the things you need to consider if tackling the Camino Frances:
When To Go
The best months to walk in Spain are May, June and September. July and August can be extremely hot, especially on the plains, and accommodation can be hard to find. The trail gets so busy in these months, because of the school holidays, that some towns open leisure centre halls to accommodate the influx! Winter can bring harsh weather, particularly in the mountainous areas, and passes are often closed due to snowfall. The shoulder months either side of July and August are good compromises for a fairly quiet trail and generally pleasant weather.
Accommodation and Food
Along the Camino, pilgrims' refuges (or refugios) have been set up in many towns and villages to the extent that, on the Camino Frances, you are never more than three or four hours walk from one. Often nothing more than a simple dorm with as many beds packed in as space can allow, they are an extremely cheap way of sleeping. At your first refugio, you will need to register that you are a pilgrim and buy a small 'Camino passport' (Known as the 'Credential') which you then show and have stamped at every place you stay. Some charge a nominal fee for a bed and others invite a voluntary contribution. Traditionally, many refugios were monasteries and churches and although this is not usually the case now, you're still likely to sleep a few nights in incredible places.
Many refugios have small kitchens attached where pilgrims can cook their own food. Often you will be lucky enough to have a fantastic meal where everyone shares their food with everyone else in a convivial atmosphere. If not, look for restaurants that advertise 'Menu del Peregino' (Pilgrims' Menu) – often you will be able to get a two- or three-course meal, with wine, for just a few euros. It can be a good idea to adjust your habits by starting your walk early in the morning, avoiding the hottest part of the day by taking a long, luxurious lunch and continuing mid-afternoon, finishing with a light snack at the end of the day.
What To Take
Take as little as possible. Forget the camera tripod, selection of books and reams of spare clothing. If you’re planning the whole walk in one go, minimising the weight makes all the difference. A suggested bare minimum is:
- Walking boots. Some pilgrims complete the whole route in sandals, but boots are highly recommended. Make sure you have 'worn in' new boots before you set off, or blisters will become a debilitating problem.
- Rucksack. Aim to get all of your gear into a 35-40 litre rucksack so that it is not tempting to fill up a larger bag with things you don't really need.
- Food and water. Be prepared to carry at least three litres of water and refill every time you pass a drinking fountain. Sugary snacks and fruit to munch on through the day will help keep your energy levels high.
- Lightweight sleeping bag. Refugios do not usually provide linen, and a light two-season sleeping bag will keep you warm enough without being too heavy.
- First aid kit. Make sure you have rehydration salts, insect repellant and plenty of plasters for the inevitable blisters.
- Spare clothes. Go by the principle of 'one to wear, one to wash, one for tomorrow' on small items like underwear and socks. Then get the bare minimum of larger items that you think you will need, put them on your bed and allow yourself to pack only half of them. If you haven’t got enough, there are plenty of shops in Spain!
- Guidebook. Most important for route finding and letting you know how far away the next refugio is.
- Waterproofs. There’s no need to take your big, heavy mountain jacket. A light, shower-proof set will suffice as you’re never going to be far from somewhere you can dry off.
- Sunhat and sun cream. A wide brimmed hat will stop your head boiling; high factor sun cream will help to stop you burning.
- A scallop shell, gourd and walking stick. These are the symbols of the pilgrim. Tie the shell around your neck or to your pack; traditionally they were used to scoop water out of streams to drink or wash with. The gourd7 is tied to the top of the walking stick, presumably because it looks nice.
- Toiletries. Just enough to stop you smelling!
The following are some of the sights and places worth visiting along the Camino Frances. Although by no means exhaustive, this list should give you an idea of what's worth seeing:
From east to west, the most famous and impressive cathedrals you will encounter before Santiago are in the cities of Burgos, León and Astorga. The beautiful cathedral at Burgos, started in the 13th Century and not completed until the 15th-16th Centuries, is considered Spain's finest Gothic cathedral and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The cathedral at León is no less impressive, completed in 1280 and still soaring above the streets. Astorga cathedral, though impressive in itself, stands out for a different reason. The adjacent Archbishop's Palace burnt down in 1886, and the architect chosen to rebuild it was none other than modernist Antonio Gaudi8, who took six years to build a fantastic fairytale castle. The contrast of these two buildings standing opposite is something to behold.
An hour's walk west of Pamplona, near the town of Estella, the pilgrim meets with a very refreshing sight indeed. The good winemakers of the Bodegas Irache company have erected a fountain: the left hand tap for cool, fresh water, and the right one for red wine. The general consensus is that it's not a bad drop, either. A plate on the fountain reads, in Spanish:
Pilgrim, if you want to reach Santiago with strength and vitality, take a drink of this great wine and toast to happiness.
To drink without abuse we invite you with pleasure.
To take the wine with you it will have to be bought.
A young pilgrim was said to have been wrongly hanged for theft in Santo Domingo in the 15th Century. His parents, after praying to St James and cutting his body down from the noose, were astonished to find him still alive. They went to tell the judge of the miracle, who was sitting at a table eating a hen and a cockerel. In disbelief, the judge said, 'Your son is as alive as these birds on my plate,' at which the birds sprouted feathers and began to run around the room. This story is still taken so seriously in Santo Domingo that a cockerel and hen are given pride of place in the church.
Before the climb up the Cebreiro Pass in the Leonese Mountains, there is a small town called Villafranca del Bierzo. This is most famous for its small, romanesque Church of Santiago, which has its own 'Puerta del Perdon' (Door of Pardon). Pilgrims who were too ill, elderly or injured to cross the mountains could claim spiritual benefits just as if they had made it all the way to Santiago by presenting themselves here. This right was eventually enshrined in a Papal decree.
Just outside the first suburbs of Santiago de Compostela itself is a hill called Mount Gozo ('Mount Joy'), where pilgrims can catch their first glimpse of the two towers of the cathedral that is their goal. In modern times it is also home to a holiday camp-style refugio, which sits rather oddly with the sense of anticipation most pilgrims feel at this point. The place doesn't quite fit in with the 'feel' of the rest of the route, but most pilgrims do stop here to leave an easy last day.
The last few kilometres of the Camino wind through the streets of Santiago de Compostela, first through the suburbs and then the old city, the waymarkers tantalisingly counting down the distance. Eventually the pilgrim emerges from the dark, narrow streets onto the great plaza in front of the cathedral, a moment that has held millions in thrall over hundreds of years. After being totally destroyed by the Moors in the 10th Century, it was rebuilt in the 11th, and the cathedral and parts of the surrounding area are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For those hardy enough to have walked from the Pyrenees or beyond, it is an especially welcome sight. Inside, the pilgrim may be lucky enough to see the great Botafumeiro – the world largest incense burner – in use. Swung through the air by means of a great system of ropes and pulleys, it was designed to be big enough to mask the odour coming from hundreds of unwashed pilgrims! Finally, descending a flight of steep, dark stairs brings the pilgrim to (if one believes the story) a casket containing the remains of the Apostle himself, undisturbed for the best part of two millennia.
There are many excellent general guides to the Camino on the internet, one of which is Santiago-Compostela.net. This is about as good a general guide as you will find.
Or if you're really serious, try the British website of the Confraternity of St James, which has everything most people will want to know, particularly with regard to the religious aspects of the Camino.