It’s an adventure that promises to seduce your soul with centuries of history and breathtakingly beautiful villages, towns and cities – welcome to the Camino de Santiago.
For those who’ve never heard of it, the Camino de Santiago is a large network of hiking routes across Europe that lead to the gothic cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela in North-Western Spain. Each year thousands embark on this ancient pilgrimage on foot, bike or horseback and sometimes donkeys*.
The most popular route is the Camino Frances, which starts at St Jean-Pied-du-Port in the French Pyrenees, almost 500-miles (780km) away from the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where most finish their pilgrimage. Pilgrims take around five weeks to walk the Way of St James (as it is known in English), but on bike it’s possible to complete it in ten days or less, depending on your stamina or how much holiday you have left! However, it’s not a race, so most take their time exploring the villages, towns and cities along the way.
It became an important Christian pilgrimage around 1,000 years ago and since then millions of people have walked the route to ask for forgiveness from St James, whose remains are said to be buried under the cathedral. Nowadays, modern pilgrims walk for a multitude of reasons, some like the idea of five weeks of freedom on the open road, while others welcome the thinking time that comes with an escape from modern life.
You can choose where you start from, so if 500-miles of blister-inducing trekking doesn’t appeal to you, simply choose a shorter route. Many pilgrims start from Sarria, which is 62 miles (100km) from Santiago and just enough to qualify for a certificate.
Volunteer run pilgrim hostels pepper the ancient route offering a place to eat, shower and sleep for around £4 a night – some are even free. These are usually bunk beds in shared rooms† of anything from 10 to 120 people. But if you like a little more privacy, there are also plenty of reasonably priced hotels and hostels along the way.
To stay in the hostels you need a Pilgrim’s Passport, which you collect at the start of your journey. It gets stamped in each hostel along the way so that when you arrive in Santiago you’re rewarded with a certificate of completion.
Places of Interest
Make sure you visit the free wine fountain of Irache to sample the flavoursome local red wine‡. The bustling cities of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon are also a must stop for those who appreciate a good tapa or two, and you’ll gasp at the beauty of the medieval bridge in Puente la Reina.
Although buying a guide book is highly recommended, finding your way is simple. Just follow the yellow arrows all the way to the Galician capital.
Foodies and wine aficionados should keep an eye out for the Pilgrim’s meal. Most restaurants offer a three course meal with wine for £6-8. As the old saying goes, no vino, no camino (no wine, no pilgrimage)
Ten tips for walking the Camino de Santiago
- Pack light – you carry everything in a backpack. Although there is a free courier service
- Ear plugs are essential. You’ve not experienced snoring until you’ve slept in a room with over a hundred tired pilgrims!
- Get some walking poles and buy good shoes, you’ll thank us later
- Wear in your new shoes with some long walks in the months leading up to your trip, plus it’ll get you fit
- Get to know your fellow pilgrims – many turn into lifelong friends
- Make sure you have a few rest days to explore and soak up the atmosphere along the way
- Take a camera to document your experience
- Keep a journal
- Buy the guide book A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, it has fantastic maps and points out countless places of interest that you’ll otherwise miss
- Watch the Hollywood film about the Camino de Santiago called The Way to get a taste of what to expect