What is the Camino de Santiago?
If you’ve been doing research on travel to Spain or just reading about Spain in general, you might have heard of the Camino de Santiago and wondered, what’s that? Santiago is St. James and a camino is a path or a walkway, so translated, el Camino de Santiago means the way of St. James or the path of St. James.
St. James is believed to be burried in the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, a city in the northwestern corner of Spain, in the region of Galicia. Inside the cathedral, one column has the imprint of a hand that, legend has is, was originally made by St. James. Throughout the middle ages, people traveled from all across Europe and Northern Africa to Santiago de Compostela to the burial site of St. James, making the pilgrimage to Compostela one of the most important Christian piligrimages of the middle ages, along with the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.
Wealthy pilgrims stayed in what were essentially hotels for those making pilgrimages. The Hostal San Marcos in Leon is a good example of one of these buildings. Today it is a Parador, one of several historic buildings all over Spain that have been converted into luxury hotels and run through a private-public partnership as a way to preserve and use these beautiful and historic buildings.
Non-wealthy pilgrims would camp on the side of the road. They suffered greatly during these pilgrimages, from hunger and from sickness, but only wealth pilgrims were assured food and the medical care. Most people who make the journey to Santiago were not wealthy. That so many made this arduous journey is a testament to the importance of Santiago de Compostela.
Why do people do the Camino today? Is it only for religious people?
Over the past three or so decades, many people, mostly from Spain and other European countries, rediscovered the Camino and started walking or biking different routes to get to Santiago. People who were outdoor enthusiasts and liked hiking or biking realized it was a great way to do something they loved while also seeing beautiful countryside, cities and towns that one might otherwise not see. Within the past decade or so, the Camino’s popularity has truly exploded, with many North Americans joining in.
There are many reasons why people today do the Camino and many people, I would say the vast majority, do not do it for religious reasons. In the middle ages, people endured difficult, uncomfortable pilgrimages for religious reasons. Today, there are so many ways to do the Camino, but even the most austere way is much more comfortable, not to mention safer and more hygenic, than anything medeival pilgrims would have encountered.
There really is something special and unique about doing the Camino. My dad, sister, and I biked the Camino in 2007 and even though we all know Spain incredibly well (two of us are Spanish nationals), biking the Camino was in many ways an indescribable experience that let showed us remote roads, villages, tiny towns of only a few abuelitos. We got to know fellow pilgrims, chat with people from all over Europe, and see beautiful countryside by bike.
There is not one only Camino — Different Camino routes
There is more than one Camino de Santiago; in fact there are many! Pilgrims traveled from all over Europe and Northern Africa to Santiago and the multiple Caminos reflect this.
There is the classic Camino Frances, or French Way, that crosses Spain from East to West. This is the most popular route. Many people start this route at Roncesvalles, which is the first town on the Camino del Norte in Spain, just next to the French border. Some people start just over the border in France.
There is also the Ruta del Norte that goes along the northern coast of Spain. This route is spectacularly beautiful and allows walkers to enjoy the coast, maybe spend afternoons discovering different beaches.
The Ruta de la Plata comes up from the south, from Sevilla specifically. The Ruta Portugues starts in Lisbon and makes it way up through Portugal and to Santiago de Compostela.
People start the Camino at points all over Europe. When we did the Camino, we met a family from Denmark who were also biking the Camino. The youngest of the three children was so little that she didn’t have her own bike; she was rode a trailer attached to the back of her dad’s bike. They started biking in Denmark and traveled all the way to Santiago.
There are a number of decisions to make regarding your Camino trip. There are three big questions to decided right away. The rest of your planning will be based around your decisions on the following —
- Method — walk or bike;
- Route — which Camino will you do;
- Starting point — will you do the entire Camino route, or will you do a smaller piece.
The most basic question you need to answer is how you are going to transport yourself along the Camino. Are you going to walk or bike?
You need to decide which Camino route you will do and where you will start. For instance, if you’re doing the Camino Frances, are you going to do the entire route in Spain starting in Roncesvalles or are you going to start somewhere else along the way?
Once you’ve made these three decisions, you can move onto additional logistics. You will need to decide what type of accommodation you want. Are you going to stay in the pilgrim hostels, called albergues, or do you want to stay in hotels? How long are you planning to walk or bike each day? This is important in terms of the time you need to allot to get from one town to the next. Are you going to carry all of your belongings or is someone going to drive a support car? Are you going to take any rest days? If so, where? What are the sites you most want to see? Are they any restaurants you want to eat in along the way?
Planning for the Camino
This is a general overview. I write more about planning for the Camino here.
It is important to research thoroughly and plan for your Camino adventure. I would say it’s actually more important than for the average trip because you need to time your trip so that you’re able to spend each night in a pre-planned city or town, unless you’re bringing camping equipment and are planning to camp wherever you can (I would not recommend this approach).
Weather is an important consideration. We did the Camino in early to mid June, a time that most everyone associates with hot weather in Spain. The first half or so of our trip, from Roncesvalles through León, was quite hot, but once we past León and were off the Meseta, or the central plain of Spain, and in the mountains of Galicia, the weather was much colder. In fact, we were freezing and completely unprepared clothing-wise.
Packing light is very important for the Camino as you’re likely carrying all of your belongings, but making sure you have the adequate clothing is important. No matter the time of year, you should be prepared for rain and have changes in temperature. A light weigh rain jacket, moisture-wicking layers including a least one top layer that is a bit warmer, and gloves are must pack items. For those walking, sturdy high quality and well fitted hiking boots are an absolute must as well as as second pair of lighter, yet still comfortable walking shoes like sneakers.
In thinking about where to start the Camino and which route to travel, you should consider if you want to build a bigger Spain trip around your Camino adventure and what parts of Spain you like to see. Is it beaches on the north coast, Castilian cities, or do you want to jet off to another part of Spain after finishing the camino.
I am happy to give advice or help you plan your Camino adventure!