Camino de Santiago: The Way Of St. James
What is The Camino De Santiago?
The Camino De Santiago is said to be Spain’s oldest trail and it is dubbed as the most popular pilgrimage trek in the world. For over 1000 years human feet, animal hooves, and recently bike and motor vehicle tires have literally carved this majestic and historical Camino (main highway). It is said to have started when the remains of apostle Saint James were discovered by a farmer in Galicia, Spain. Travelers from all over Europe came to see the remains, which marked the same trails which are being traversed to this date.
At the highest point of the Monte Irago, the topmost point of the Camino, pilgrims traditionally leave a rock to symbolize their journey on the Camino.
The French Way (Camino Francés) is the portion of the Camino that binds various routes through France and across Spain. It is one of the most-travelled ancient trails in the world, estimated to date back from the 9th century. This route starts at St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France, then crosses the Pyrenees and continues westward across Spain about 60 miles south of the coast. It passes through Leon, Burgos, Pamplona, and a host of smaller towns and villages.
The Northern Way (Camino del Norte) begins in Irun on the boundary with France and west across Bilbao, Santander, and Oviedo. This route takes about 35 days to finish on average with a total distance of 510 miles. Accommodations are sparse along this route and this itinerary is mostly rigid. The Norther Way is one of the more difficult Camino routes as the terrain is mountainous in places and the Coastal breeze can turn into a brisk wind during certain seasons.
The Portuguese Way (Camino Portugues) is relatively flat, without too many hills and begins in Lisbon and traverses Porto and Pontevedra on its way to Portugal. Distance is 380 miles with reasonable infrastructure along motorways.
The English Way (Camino Inglés) is a Y shaped route which begins in either La Coruna or Ferrol. Distance is 75 kilometers when started from La Coruna and normally takes 3 days. It is 70 miles when starting from Ferrol and normally takes 5 days.
The Original Route (Camino Primitivo) is the straightest route from Oviedo to Santiago traversing through Lugo. Many pilgrims detour to this route to visit the city’s cathedral. The walk is about 180 miles and quite challenging since it includes hill climbing and the weather is always changeable.
Camino de Finisterre
The Finisterre Way (Camino de Finisterre) is located in one of the westernmost points in Europe. This route is 55 miles and best walked in 5 stages.
All along the various Camino routes there is an abundance of Pilgrim refuges and hostels (“refugios” and “albergues” in Spanish).
In the Camino Francés diary sections of the route segment pages, I list all of the refuges on the Camino Frances way. There is a comparison table on this page that rates each refuge for it’s comfort and facilities.
I list whether each has laundry facilities and kitchen facilities, as well as how many beds they have. I also show how the distance of each Refuge from the previous refuge on the journey.
In many of the Hostals, they have rules about who can stay the night. Some of these Refuges will check that you have the official Pilgrim’s passport (or Credencial, in Spanish) with some stamps to show that you have travelled at least part of the Camino.
Modern pilgrims carry a “Credencial del Peregrino” or Pilgrim’s Passport, which they get stamped at churches, hostels, or other official stops along the way. Upon reaching Santiago de Compostela and presenting the stamped passport at the Pilgrim’s Office, they receive the “Compostela” certificate, acknowledging the completion of their journey.
The Credencial is an exciting way to see how your pilgrimage has progressed as you get stamps from each of the Refuges along your journey. Here is a nice example of a Credencial with many stamps collected on the Camino Frances.
There is also the coveted Camino completion certificate which you can gain at the Pilgrims Office. There are some rules to consider, for example if you start your journey outside of the Galicia region then you will only require one stamp per day. Once you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, you will need to show your stamped Pilgrim Passport at the Pilgrims Office to apply for your Compostela certificate. There is also a range of other certificates to apply for.
To obtain the Compostela, you need:
- To have walked or traveled on horseback at least the last 100 km, or cycled the last 200 km, to arrive at the tomb of the Apostle in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
- To collect at least two stamps each day on your credential. This is usually where you sleep and another place such as a church, town hall, café, etc. You must make sure to do this at least in the last 100 km from the Cathedral of Santiago if you are walking or on horseback and 200 km if you are cycling.
- To have made the Camino for a Christian reason (pietatis causa). This means that you have done it for religious or spiritual reasons, or for a vow or a promise.
Definition of Spanish Terms
Compostela – is the certificate awarded to pilgrims which you get at the end of the walk if you completed 100 kilometers or about 62 miles. You must mention that your goals were spiritual, else you get a plainer certificate
Albergues and Refugios – are the refuge or hostel accommodation stops for travelers and pilgrims. These are mostly church-run and are quite cheap.
Credential – is the passport for pilgrims and issued by Camino-friendly organizations. Each accommodation has its own stamp which you will receive each night. You will need this Credential to be able to stay in the Albergues and Refugios. And you need to get a complete record of stamps to get your Compostela.
Camino – means road or path. Many people follow the route as a pilgrimage for religious reasons, but recently the Camino has been popular with cyclists and hiking enthusiasts.
A Brief History Of Camino de Santiago
In recent years, hikers around the world are reviving Spain’s Camino. The city of Santiago de Compostela is the heart and destination of the Camino and it is where the name is derived from.
It is in Spain’s far northwest where legends tell about the martyrdom of Saint James who is buried in the city which then became the rallying point of the Europeans in fighting the Moors during the 8th century. History states that the Camino was responsible for the largest movement of people in Europe during the Middle Ages.
People from all walks of life made their way to Santiago de Compostela where a pilgrim mass and certificate of pilgrimage were believed to ensure their souls will spend less time in purgatory.
These days there are an overabundance of travel guidebooks and online resources to help you plan your very own tour of The Camino.
Tours also abound for this destination and they vary in intensity and levels of difficulty. So, to provide readers with a simple reference, I have classified all the tours I found across the internet into 2 categories, light tours meaning very little or no difficulty at all and the self-guided tours wherein levels of difficulty mostly ranges between medium to high.
Background of the Camino
The Camino, also known as the Way of St. James, is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that traverse Europe, ultimately leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Over the centuries, it has drawn millions of pilgrims, seeking spiritual growth, adventure, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This article delves into the rich history and background of the Camino.
The Legend of St. James
The origins of the Camino date back to the discovery of the tomb of St. James the Great in the 9th century. St. James, one of Jesus Christ’s twelve apostles, is said to have preached the Gospel in Spain before returning to Jerusalem, where he was martyred. His remains were transported to Galicia and buried in a field. The tomb was later rediscovered by a hermit named Pelayo, guided by a star, giving the city its name: Santiago, or St. James, and Compostela, from the Latin “Campus Stellae” (Field of the Star).
After the discovery of the tomb, King Alfonso II of Asturias built a church on the site, which later became the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. The first recorded pilgrimage took place in the 10th century, and soon after, thousands of pilgrims began traveling from all over Europe to visit St. James’s tomb. The pilgrimage gained popularity throughout the Middle Ages, and the Camino evolved into a significant religious and cultural phenomenon.
The Camino Routes
While there are numerous routes to Santiago de Compostela, the most popular and well-traveled is the Camino Francés, which starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, and spans approximately 800 kilometers (500 miles) through northern Spain. Other notable routes include the Camino Inglés, Camino Portugués, Camino del Norte, and Camino Primitivo.
The Yellow Arrows
A system of yellow arrows and scallop shell symbols mark the Camino routes, guiding pilgrims on their journey. The scallop shell has become a symbol of the pilgrimage, with many interpretations, including the many routes converging at Santiago de Compostela, and the shell’s grooves representing the numerous paths a pilgrim can take to reach their goal.
The Camino Today
In the 20th century, the Camino experienced a resurgence in popularity, attracting pilgrims from around the world for various reasons, including religious devotion, personal growth, and physical challenge. UNESCO declared the Camino Francés and the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral as World Heritage Sites in 1993, recognizing their historical, cultural, and spiritual significance.
Half -day Way of St. James Hiking tour from San Sebastian – for this tour, you can engage yourself in a nature hiking walk of Mount Ulia so to escape a half-day away from the crowds of San Sebastian. You can visit local villages, experience the remarkable Basque landscape, and learn about the locale. You can also take a boat ride across Pasaia San Pedro’s bay. Tour starts at central location in San Sebastian where you shall meet your tour guide and tour group
Camino Primitivo – this is a not so light tour but lighter compared to the self-guided tours. Duration is 15 days/ 14 nights covering 200 miles through mountains and meadows of Northern Spain. It is described as a heart-centered companionship tour where nourishment is nature-based. Tour starts from the Cathedral de San Salvador in Oviedo Spain and ends at the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela.
Camino Trek – begins in La Coruna and ends in London. Duration is 9 days and tour include accommodation in a hotel, an expert guide, meals, and transportation
Cycle the Camino – is a bicycle tour which starts and ends in Oviedo. Duration is 8 days and takes you through Oviedo in Spain and 11 other destinations also within Spain. Tour includes accommodation in a hotel as well as an expert guide, meals, and transportation
Walk the Camino – is a hiking and trekking tour which starts in Lugo and ends in Santiago. Duration is 8 days and covers Lugo in Spain, with it’s World Heritage listed Roman Walls and 4 other destinations also within Spain. This tour includes accommodation in a hotel as well as an expert guide, meals, and transportation
Camino de Santiago Encompassed – is an in-depth cultural tour and starts in Madrid and ends in Santiago de Compostela. Duration is 10 days and covers Madrid and 6 other destinations within Spain. This tour includes accommodation in a hotel, an expert guide, meals, and transportation
Walk the French Way – (Camino Frances) is a walking tour which begins in Sarria and ends in Santiago de Compostela. Duration is 8 days across Sarria and 2 other destinations also within Spain. This tour includes accommodation in a hotel, an expert guide, meals, and transportation
The Camino, Part 1 – is a hiking and trekking tour which begins in Biarritz and ends in Estella. Duration is 8 days across Biarritz in France and 5 other destinations in Europe. This tour covers accommodation, an expert guide, and meals.
10-Day Adventure – this is the last 150K from O’ Çebreiro to Santiago. Duration is 10 days / 9 nights covering 150 kilometers or 93 miles. The level of difficulty is medium to high. This is the Walk of St. James from Santiago’s O’ Cebreiro in a total of 8 stages full walk in Galicia. For this tour, introductions are made in Madrid and then you will proceed to O’ Cebreiro where you shall begin your walk the next day. There are reserved accommodations at the end of each 8 stages, but you will have to walk independently and on your own each day in this tour.
Last 100 km’s Self-Guided 8-Day Camino – this is a 100 kilometers walk to Santiago coming from Sarria. Duration is 8 days/ 7 nights covering 117 kilometers or 72.7 miles. The level of difficulty is medium to high. For this tour, introductions and meet and greet are made in Madrid and then you will proceed to Sarria by train where you shall begin your walk the next day. There are reserved accommodations at the end of each stage, but you will have to walk independently and on your own each day in this tour.
Camino Lite – this is the final 100 kilometers walk of the French Way in short stages. Duration is 12 days/ 11 nights covering 117 kilometers or 72.7 miles with a low level of difficulty. Since this tour is in shorter stages for your comfort. This is designed to walk the last 100 kilometers needed to obtain the Compostela certification from Sarria in 9 short stages, with an average of 13 kilometers or 8 miles per day. In this tour you can immerse yourself in the culture of Galicia and experience a truly unique tour while you walk on your own
Portuguese Coast Camino – this is a tour along the majestic coasts of Spain and Portugal. Duration is 15 days/ 14 nights covering 261 kilometers or 162.1 miles with a medium level of difficulty. For this walk, you start in Porto along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. You will be passing through important cities in Spain and Portugal and experience a variety of biological and landscape values. For this tour you will pass through beautiful environment that takes advantage of the shoreline and trails along the ocean such as dune cords, cliffs, beaches and marshes, and stunning landscapes
Portuguese Adventure – is a walk over the border from Portugal to Spain. Duration is 11 days/ 10 nights covering a distance of 154 kilometers or 96 miles and with a level of difficulty from medium to high. This is a spectacular tour wherein you start your walk in the beautiful town of Ponte de Lima and make your way to Santiago de Compostela. You will be travelling through wild forests, vineyards, historical villas, and coastal cliffs. Introductions and meet and greet in Madrid then you will be transferred to Ponte de Lima where you will begin your walk the following day. There are reserved accommodations at the end of each stage, but you will walk independently and on your own for this tour
Epic Adventure – this is a self-piloted 39-day walk from France to Spain by means of the original French Way. Duration is 39 days / 38 nights covering 752 kilometers or 467 miles. The level of difficulty is medium to high. This is the complete French Way self-directed from the French boundary. You will experience travelling through Spain’s history and varied landscapes such as the Roncesvalles’ Pyrenees, the pines of Navarra, the La Rioja vineyards which are known to be sweet smelling, and the wide Castilian plains, until you reach the mountains and Galicia’s oak and chestnut tree forests. You will walk independently and on your own for this tour.
Preparing for A Tour of The Camino
Just like any travelling, planning is very essential and make sure to bring along guidebooks and pre-plan and pre-book all accommodations and destinations and necessary tours to make sure you maximize your vacation days. The guidebook by the Confraternity of St. James is highly recommended. Also, it is ok to make adjustments in your tour, just make sure you have the necessary arrangements confirmed.
Actually, there is very little technical walking on the main Camino routes, this is mostly on well-maintained pavements and tracks, so you do not really need much backpacking experience. About 300,000 pilgrims walk the Camino every year and many of them are in the senior age group so there is no need to worry, rather you just engage in this breathtaking adventure.
If you are the type of traveller who does not like to hike much, then just get out and go around your sight seeing for an hour or two. Just be ready with your comfortable and reliable walking shoes.
As to the necessary clothing and gear, this will depend on the type of tour you planned yourself into. Make sure also to carry the load which your body type allows, never take overload as this will just make your trek a nightmare. And always bring along the water, light food, emergency kit, sunscreen, and never forget your passport and other travel documents.
As I mentioned above, there is a basic list of necessities that you will need to carry with you at all times while walking the Camino. Do remember to keep it light. On the Route page I show that most of the refuges do have both laundry and kitchen facilities. This means that you can get away with minimal clothing.
Clothes are often among the heaviest items that you will want to carry with you but there are lots of specialist lightweight hiking clothes available if you want to pay the price for them.
For a detailed list of what to carry in your rucksack, you can check my Camino packing list. Hopefully this will give you some good ideas of what to carry with you. Some unexpected items like bed bug spray are great advice!
Sounds of the Camino
If you are so inclined, and why not, if you are out hiking in the vast natural landscape of Galicia? You can listen. In fact you will have miles and miles to listen. The further you walk, the more the sounds of the Camino will come alive to you.
If you are walking alone you will find that these sounds become a recogniseable and friendly song to accompany your journey. Pilgrims often remark that the sounds of the birds, wildlife, livestock, wind, sea, trees and grass speak to them in songs during visions while walking. I am sure that these people do not feel alone. In fact, the sounds of the Camino are part of what make the Galician countryside such a marvellous place.
On my second camino on May 2001, I took along a small mini-disc recorder, a Sony MZ-G750, and a stereo microphone to try and record some of the fabulous sounds I heard. Although I did not get the snoring, I recorded most of the other characteristic sounds that can be heard.
There has probably been hundreds of books written about the Camino. The earliest known book called the Codex Calixtinus, which was written sometime in the 12th Century about the Camino Frances and is kept in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This Medieval Pilgrims guide is still available today along with many other books written since. I have attempted to cover some of my favourite Camino books and travel guides on the Camino books page.
I have listed some links to old websites that inspired me over the years. When I started walking the Camino the Internet was brand new and so there was not much available, but here are some of the sites that moved and informed me all those years ago. Some are not online any more, but those that are still around are listed on the About page .
Because the Camino is literally over 700 years old, a lot of organizations have grown up around it. However, for official, local information you can rely on the following official organizations. Take a good look and read up as much as you can before you go.
The Confraternity of St James website https://www.csj.org.uk . The official website of the Confraternity of St James UK, which is a charity that promotes the Camino pilgrimage. The organization’s mission is to support and promote the Camino as a transformative journey of health, adventure, peace, and happiness.
The Spanish tourist office website https://www.spain.info . The official tourism website for Spain. It provides comprehensive tourist information, including details about art, culture, museums, monuments, beaches, cities, fiestas, routes, cuisine, and natural spaces in the country. The website aims to assist tourists in planning their trips to Spain and discovering the various attractions and activities available.
The Galician tourist office website https://www.turismo.gal . The official tourism website for Galicia, a region in Spain. Galicia is described as a destination that offers something for everyone, whether you’re interested in art and culture, adventure in nature, or relaxing in spas and enjoying world-class seafood.
“The Way” and Its Role in Popularizing the Camino de Santiago in Recent Years
In 2011, a film titled “The Way,” directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, was released. The film, which tells the story of a father completing the Camino pilgrimage after his son’s tragic death, has played a significant role in popularizing this sacred journey in recent years.
“The Way” is a poignant exploration of grief, self-discovery, and the search for meaning. The film’s depiction of the Camino a pilgrimage route that spans across northern Spain, has sparked a renewed interest in this ancient journey. The Camino, which has been a spiritual and cultural journey for centuries, has seen a surge in popularity since the film’s release.
Estevez’s film captures the essence of the Camino, showcasing the stunning landscapes, the camaraderie among pilgrims, and the introspective nature of the journey. The film’s authentic portrayal of the pilgrimage, shot using Super 16 and all natural light, has resonated with audiences worldwide, inspiring many to embark on the journey themselves.
The personal connection of Estevez’s family to the Camino adds another layer of authenticity to the film. Estevez’s grandfather was born in Vigo, Spain, which is about 50 miles from Santiago de Compostela. Furthermore, Estevez’s son fell in love and moved to Spain after a trip to the Camino de Santiago with Martin Sheen. These personal experiences deeply influenced the narrative of “The Way.”
In a post-pandemic world, the themes of “The Way” are more relevant than ever. The film’s emphasis on self-discovery, community, and introspection aligns with the global sentiment of re-evaluating priorities and seeking deeper connections with others. This has further fueled the interest in the Camino, as people seek transformative experiences after a period of isolation and introspection.
The re-release of “The Way” in 2023 is set to continue this trend, bringing the story of the Camino to a new generation of viewers. Estevez also revealed plans for a sequel, which will undoubtedly contribute to the ongoing popularity of the Camino.
“The Way” has played a pivotal role in popularizing the Camino in recent years. The film’s authentic portrayal of the pilgrimage, coupled with its themes of self-discovery and community, has resonated with audiences, inspiring many to embark on this transformative journey. As the film returns to the big screen, it continues to shine a light on the Camino, encouraging more people to embark on this journey of a lifetime.
Enjoy Your Camino Adventure!
There is amazing camaraderie on all of the routes and the people you meet and the stories you share are all part of the atmosphere.
To all travelers and pilgrims out there, take note that this not a race, so take your time and enjoy the scenery.