Imagine walking through the high beech woodlands of the Pyrenees… across wild poppy fields in Spain’s empty plains… spending the night in medieval buildings… tramping through Galicia’s verdant forests… 50,000 people a year take on the Camino de Santiago, wouldn’t you like to have a go? We’ve put together a mamoth Camino FAQ to help you get your bearings…
What is it?
The Santiago Way, or Camino de Santiago, is an ancient pilgrimage route that crosses Northern Spain to end in Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia. The most popular route is the Camino Frances, which covers around 800 kilometers, starting in the Pyrenees (Saint Jean de Pied de Port in France, and Roncesvalles or Jaca in Spain), and crossing Spain’s high Meseta plains – all in all around a 4 week walk.
How did all this start?
One of Jesus’ apostles, St James the Greater (Santiago), was sent off to preach in Europe, and is said to have reached the western tip of Galicia. When he got home in AD 44 he was beheaded by Herod, whereupon his body was (apparently) transported by angels to a rudderless marble boat that whisked him back to Galician shores. His body was then magically encased in a block of stone, and buried on a hillside near the city of Padrón. Eight centuries later an old man saw stars shining above the hillside and heard heavenly voices singing. Digging ensued, a body was found, and a local bishop was rushed in to declare that it was indeed that of the missing Saint. Word of the discovery soon spread across a relic-hungry Europe, and people started walking insane distances to see the remains for themselves.
When did it reach its peak?
By the twelth century up to a million people a year were making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella from as far afield as Greece, Britain and Hungary, with a whole industry of hostels, trinket sellers, hospices and banditry growing up in their wake. These early tourists even had the world’s first guide book to help them along, the Codex Calixtinus, published around 1130. Some villains were sentenced to make the pilgrimage in lieu of stiff prison sentences, and all those that did make it to Santiago had some or all of their sins wiped from their spiritual slate. Those rich enough to afford it could even pay servants to walk the route for them, and still benefit from the spiritual cleansing. From the thirteenth century onwards the popularity of the route began to decline, mainly due to the danger of robbery en route, the gradual decline in fervant religious beliefs (all science’s fault, apparently), and a sneaking suspicion that maybe the relics had nothing to do with St James or reality after all (what was that about a rudderless marble boat?)
How did it all get going again?
In 1993 the Galician local government hit on a plan to revitalise tourism in the region. Under the banner of Xacobeo 93, the concept of the Camino was once again revived, and the mostly overgrown and forgotten route was marked out anew. Today up to 50,000 pilgims a year make the journey to Santiago, double that in special ‘Holy Years’.
Does everyone follow the same route? Do I have to walk?
No on both counts. There are eight or nine (depending on who you ask) main routes to Santiago, and people cover these on foot, by bicycle, on horseback, with a donkey in tow… On top of that some people will take years to cover the whole route, doing it weekend by weekend or week by week over the years until they have completed the whole thing. Although the Camino Frances is the most popular route (90% of pilgrims choose this option), the Camino Norte, which passes through the green wooded landscapes of Spain’s north coast, is also gaining in popularity. You can also follow routes from Seville, Madrid, Oviedo, along the Portuguese border… See the Confraternity of St James site for a full list of possibilities.
Is this a religious thing?
For some yes, but motives for taking on the Camino are endless. Some come to find themselves, or to escape the rat race for a while, others to get closer to nature… most report finding some sort of spirituality along the way, but it’s entirely voluntary 😉
Where do I sleep?
Official Albergues (hostels) line the Camino Frances, often located in monasteries or ancient Camino hospices. To get a bed for the night in high season you will need to arrive early, and remember, lone walkers or those in small groups take precedence over bikers and horse riders. Once the Albergue is full you will have to look for normal hostels in the village, or pitch a tent. The advantages of the Albergues is that they are free (though a donation of a few Euros is expected), and you will have the chance to fraternise with fellow walkers. The disadvantage is that you will be packed into a shared dorm room, and others’ snoring can be a problem – bring earplugs.
What happens on a typical day?
You get up very early, walk around 30 kilometers to reach the day’s destination (hopefully arriving by early afternoon), and spend time until evening doing some washing, chatting to people from all over the world who end up in the same Albergue for the night, exploring the village or town, and drinking cheap wine in local bars with new friends. Most Albergues close their doors between 10pm and midnight, so make sure you don’t get locked out!
What do I need to take with me?
Very very good and completely worn-in walking boots. Blister packs. Earplugs. Waterproofs (it rains all year round in Galicia!) A complete minimum of everything else (9 kilos is the maximum recommended weight for your back pack). You’ll also need your Pilgrim’s passport, or credencial, a small document that is stamped along the route to prove how far you’ve been. This can be picked up at pilgrim’s offices in the main starting towns, at Camino confraternities in your own country, and at some Albergues. See the Santiago-Today forums for good advice on packing.
When is the best time of year to do the Camino?
If you can avoid high-season (June to September) you will have a much better chance of getting a bed. April, May and September are good Camino months, but even then it is wise to avoid setting off with the rush at the beginning of each month. Only the insane will set out on the Camino in winter.
What do I get at the end?
Arriving at Santiago de Compostella is an emotional experience. The first thing to do is to attend the midday pilgrims’ mass in the cathedral, where you should get to see the giant incense filled Botafumeiro swinging from the ceiling. Then it’s off to the Pilgrims’ office to pick up your Compostela certificate – you will need to have walked at least 100 kilometers, double that on a bike, to get one, using your credencial to show how much ground you have covered. Finally, the insatiable may walk onwards to Finisterre, the most western point in Galicia, and once considered to be the end of the world…
Where can I find out more?
– Jacabeo.net has a fact-filled pdf
– The Santiago Today forums are a great place to ask questions and chat about the Camino
– www.caminodesantiago.me.uk is an interesting Camino lover’s website
– Mark K has a good account of a social night on the Camino
– The Confraternity of Saint James site is packed full of useful info.
– Wikipedia on St. James and the Way of St James
A good read…
Spanish Steps by Tim Moore is a very amusing tale of one man’s mission to drag a relcutant donkey from one end of the Camino Frances to the other.
Have you done the Camino? Would you like to? Did we miss anything out?
The Camino is all about taking time out to complete an extraordinary challenge, meeting like-minded people from all corners of the earth, and developing an intimate relationship with some of the most dramatic landscapes in Spain. I have yet to do it, something I hope to rectify before too long…