A Journey Along The Infamous El Camino de Santiago

El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James or St. James’s Way) is a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James the Great, housed in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, located in Galicia of northwestern Spain.

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

As one of the three most revered pilgrimages of Christendom (Rome and Jerusalem being the other two), it was originally devised as a way to ask St. James for a miracle and later to earn penance. Today, the camino has become a source of religious or spiritual guidance, as well as a common attraction for adventure seekers and backpackers alike. Each year, hundreds of thousands of peregrinos (pilgrims) come from all over the world to walk the camino, a tradition which has continued every day for more than one thousand years.

History:

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

In the 7th century, the apostle St. James was commissioned with the task of proselytizing and spreading word of Christianity along the region of the Iberian Peninsula. Upon his return to Jerusalem in 44 AD, he was beheaded by order of Herod Agrippa I, after which his followers brought his body back to Spain, to the city now known as Santiago de Compostela. The earliest known records of a pilgrimage date back to the 9th century, where a hermit named Pelagius found the tomb based upon a vision he had and reported it to his local bishop, Theodomir. Informing Alphonso II of his find, the King of Asturias declared St. James the patron saint of the then regional territories of medieval Spain.

Initially based upon a Roman trade route along the Iberian peninsula, it wasn’t until the early 12th century that the camino became a popular and common destination for peregrinos seeking penance. The Codex Calixtinus (regarded as the first travel book ever written) is a collection of sermons, liturgical texts, polyphonic musical pieces, and reports of miracles related to the life of St. James. Written in 1140, Pope Callixtus II began what is known as Compostelan Holy Years or Jubilee years (Año Santo Jacobeo), which is when St. James’s Day (July 25) falls on a Sunday. If the pilgrimage is completed during a Jacobean year, Catholics receive a plenary indulgence, thereby absolving them of any temporal sins.

When returning from their pilgrimage, it was customary for peregrinos to bring back Galician scallop shells as proof of their journey. The scallop shells are significant for a couple of reasons: first, similar to the lines on the shell, it has come to symbolize how the many paths people take will always convene to the same point (namely the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela); second, they have practical use as a convenient drinking and eating utensil, or makeshift bowl, especially helpful for medieval peregrinos who may have had little to no amenities on their camino; and lastly it was used as a means of security, as potential thieves were less likely to hurt or rob peregrinos who carried the scallop shell.

The modern camino:

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

Though initially a journey of religious or spiritual means, the camino has become such a popular tourist attraction within the last few decades that it was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993. The journey is often completed on foot or by bicycle, while some even choose to travel by horseback or by donkey as their medieval counterparts once did. What is important to note about the camino is that there is no special date by which the journey must begin or end. It can begin at any time of year and from any location, thus you choose where your camino starts. Some even begin from the doorstep of their own home, whether it be from Brussels, Paris, or elsewhere.

It’s more important, however, to decide on what time of year you would like to go. The summer months may be ideal for vacation but that also means there will be many more people on the trails, which means less availability in the many albergues (hostels) that line the camino. When you go largely depends on what type of experience you would like to have. For a less intrusive and personal trek, consider going during the winter months, when less peregrinos will be on the roads. But remember to always heed the advice of your hostel staff and fellow travelers on safety advisories and pay attention to the weather forecast as winter can be harsh during this time of year. Also Compostelan Holy Years are always the most popular time to go, often attracting hundreds of thousands to the camino (in 2010, the last Compostelan Holy Year, nearly 272,000 people made the trip).

Routes:

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

Though there is no right or wrong place to start your journey, there are a few routes that have now become traditional starting points for many peregrinos:

  • The Camino Francés (the French Way) is by far the most popular route for many people. You begin in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France (just north of the Pyrenees Mountains) or in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side, and travel west through Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León and Astorga. At a distance of about 800 km, it will take you 30 days (walking on average 23-27 km or 14-16 miles a day) to complete the journey. The trails are well marked with plenty of plaques and signposts pointing the way.
  • Another popular route is the Camino Portugués (The Portuguese Way), which begins at Lisbon, or the Camino Portugués del Interior, from Porto. At 232 km and 13 days from Porto, or 550 km and 25 days from Lisbon, these routes are significantly shorter than the Camino Francés.
  • For a more challenging path to Santiago de Compostela try taking the Camino del Norte, the oldest route known for the camino. When the Moors ruled most of Spain, peregrinos were forced to travel along the northern coast in order to avoid conflict and violence. Beginning at Irún, near the French border, your journey beings on the Spanish side as you make your way through 825 km of terrain, all the while visiting San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Oviedo, and Lugo.
  • If you’re still not satisfied after reaching Santiago de Compostela, then continue due west another three to four days (about 75 km) to the city of Fisterra on the Camino de Fisterra. The city was named by the Romans who believed this to be the end of the world and thus named it Finisterre (Latin, meaning “end of the earth”).

There are countless ways you can begin your pilgrimage, in fact here’s a list of possible routes that may interest you. Don’t be afraid to “hike your own hike”, as veteran adventurer and hiker Francis Tapon once said (check out his TEDx talk here, where he discusses the camino, hiking, and the value of traveling in general). Map the route you want to take and then do it. Some people complete the pilgrimage in weeks, months, or even years, completing sections of the trail one segment at a time.

What not to pack:

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Shoes – Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

As anyone who has traveled extensively knows, when you’re living out of a backpack for an extended period of time, every little item you bring makes your bag that much more heavier. What you won’t need are books (you’ll probably be too tired and exhausted to have the energy to read at the end of each day), water canteens (all hostels will have plenty of water bottles available and not to mention the towns and shops you come across), a sleeping bag (bulky and heavy, instead bring a duvet in the summer or a fleece blanket in the winter), a tent (too heavy and impractical when hostels can be abundantly found throughout the trails), and a sleeping mat (won’t be necessary if staying in a hostel).

What to pack:

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

Items you should bring include: long sleeve shirts (you can roll them up if you’re hot or keep your arms covered to protect against the cold or heat), shorts, underwear, duvet (or fleece blanket in the winter), Vaseline (apply a liberal amount on your feet each morning before you begin, it’s the best way to prevent blisters from occurring), a towel (especially a high-absorbent one for showering because there’s nothing worse than having the smell of a wet towel linger in your backpack), toiletries (such as small soaps, a half tube of a full-sized toothpaste container as travel sized toothpaste tubes will not last a month, and spray-on deodorant when you or your clothes need a quick spray), and a waterproof cover for you bag (if you’re bag comes with one built-in then that would be better).

Here is a more comprehensive list of what to pack for your camino, as well as a couple of example lists from fellow peregrinos Ruth Potterton and Glen Van Peski.

Albergues:

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

Albergues or refugios (hostels) can be found on any trail you choose. Trails that see many peregrinos (Camino Francés) will be littered with albergues, while others (Camino de Fisterra) have fewer as less people tend to travel along these paths. Also, it’s important to actually walk or bike the trail as many albergues will not offer you a bed if you do not have a sello (stamp) on your credencial or if they do not believe you traveled the way you said (i.e. having stamps from various albergues too far apart to cover either by foot or on bike in a day). After all, if someone has spent the last 7 to 10 hours walking 14-16 miles, then they deserve to have a bed over someone who sat in an air-conditioned bus on a paved road.

Keep in mind, however, that unless you have a medical condition or emergency situation, you are only allowed to stay one night per albergue, and are usually expected to leave by 8am. This ensures everyone has a fair chance to have a bed for at least a night. Albergues tend to be cheap ranging from €6 to €10 (about $8 to $14) a night. Also keep in mind that the vast majority of those who work in the albergues are volunteers so be courteous to the staff as they make the camino possible for all of us.

For a comprehensive list of hostels along the camino, click here.

Credencial:

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

Remember, if you wish to attain your compostela (certificate of completion) then you’ll need to hike at least 100km by foot or 200km by bike and have your credencial (pilgrim’s passport) properly stamped each day to be credited and recognized with the pilgrimage. The credencial can give peregrinos access to cheap or even free accommodation as well as free meals at the albergues.

Each sello is unique to the locality of its origin and can be attained from any albergue, cathedral, local church or any town hall and tourist office if the aforementioned are closed. During peak season in the summer, especially during Compostelan Holy Years, some albergues can stamp up to 1,500 credenciales a day! Make sure to get your credencial stamped each day and if you happen to lose it then you can always request a new one from your albergue. If, however, you’re within 100km of completing the journey then finding it will be you’re top priority or else you’ll need to retrace your steps to the nearest starting position (that being in Sarria) from Santiago de Compostela, and redo the last 100km with a new credencial to be approved for the pilgrimage.

Also, crendenciales are typically given to members of a confraternity of St. James. If you’re not a member or choose not become one, then, for a small donation (typically a few euros), you can get one at your starting point, wherever that may be. Locations vary but include le Puy, St. Jean Pied-de-Port, Roncesvalles, Pamplona, and others.

For the Pilgrim’s passport request form, click here.

Compostela:

Camino de Santiago
Joan Grífols via Flickr

When you arrive at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago de Compostela, you will turn in your credencial full of stamps and, once approved, you will finally receive your compostela, a certificate of satisfactory completion. The certificate will contain your name and date of completion and is written entirely in Latin. You will also be asked your motivation for undertaking the camino, where those with “religious” or “religious and other” motivation will receive the standard compostela, while those who reply “other” will receive a similar certificate which is more secular in nature.

Pilgrim’s Mass:

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

Every day at noon, a Pilgrim’s Mass is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where each peregrino has their country of origin and starting point announced at mass. Priests then perform the Sacrament of Penance, or confession, in multiple languages.

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Jesús Pérez Pacheco via Flickr

Words of caution concerning the camino:

The camino is a long, arduous journey that many people do not complete, mostly because of inadequate knowledge of the trails or sheer physical and mental fatigue. It’s important to wear the proper shoes or even conduct proper physical training prior to attempting the trek (for more information on how to train for the camino, click here). Although there is no time limit or rush to complete the camino (it’s your journey after all, so you should go at your own pace), walking 14-16 miles or more a day for several weeks or months is not a typical activity that most people are accustomed to performing.

Damian Corrigan, travel writer for about.com, has an excellent list of things every peregrino should be aware of before heading out on the camino, including blisters (the most common ailment amongst peregrinos, consider buying “compeed” or Spenco blister pads), tendonitis, back pain, broken equipment (there are some resupply stores located on some of the camino trails), bad knees (walking downhill, rather than uphill, is more likely to result in knee and back problems), sunburn and heatstroke (sunscreen is a must during the hot Spanish months), getting lost—if you manage to lose the path just remember this simple question: ¿Para el Camino? (For the Camino?), and any local will know what you mean—exhaustion and dehydration (drink water regularly and eat when necessary, just listen to your body), pre-existing conditions (those with a heart condition, asthma, arthritis, or other medical concerns should consult a doctor before going), and traffic accidents.

For more information about the camino please visit American Pilgrims and About.com.

For more information about the Confraternity of St. James, click here.

For more information about Francis Tapon please visit www.francistapon.com