Way of St. James
The Way of St. James (Spanish: El Camino de Santiago, Galician: O Camiño de Santiago, Ruta Xacobea), often referred to colloquially as simply the Camino in English or El Camino in Spanish, is one of the most important Christian pilgrimages in Europe and increasingly famous throughout the world, with Santiago de Compostela, Spain, as the final destination.
The pilgrimage goes to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried. According to the legend, after being executed by King Herod in 44 AD in Jerusalem, St. James' body was taken by boat to Galicia, where he had been preaching prior to his return to Israel, and carried inland to where Santiago de Compostela is now located. The pilgrimage is believed by some to be one of three pilgrimages for which the sins of the pilgrim will be forgiven.
Since the Middle Ages, European pilgrims have been going on foot or by sea from their home countries to Santiago de Compostela. Since the turn of the millennium however, the trail has increased in popularity among non-Europeans and non-Christians through depictions in various books and movies. Since then, wayfinding and accommodation facilities have gotten significantly better to cater more visitors.
Since the route choice and starting points are completely arbitrary, it is up to you to decide by factoring in the season & duration you have for the trip, the terrain, the trail surfaces, the infrastructure along the way, and if you want to walk often with other people or have the trail mostly to yourself.
On the most traveled trails such as the French Camino or the Portuguese Camino, you can easily pick any nearby village to pause or end the day, while you may need to walk quite a distance on the less popular routes to find any civilization. An average person generally walks 20 kilometers per day, however you can adjust depending on your general health conditions; it is not uncommon for pilgrims to pace slower, rest for at least one day in a town, or skip to another using a bus or train.
While most of the route is fairly gentle with only a few long ascents, some days can be challenging. Over the past 20 years a great deal of effort has gone into improving the walkers' route, and most of the route is now well marked, reasonably well surfaced, and separated from the increasingly heavy traffic on Spanish highways. If one begins in France, the route passes over two major mountain chains and several smaller ones. There is a joke that the Camino never meets a mountain it doesn't cross. While that is not really true, there are many ascents and descents, and some of the latter can be quite steep.
Due to the warm climate of the Iberian Peninsula, the road can generally be traveled year round. At the extreme of the seasons however, there are nuances that can potentially hinder your trip.
Around summer from June to September is when the most pilgrims arrive, however at the height of it, be prepared for excruciatingly hot weather especially as you walk along central Spain or inland Portugal. Attention turns towards the mountains and coastal Galicia & Portugal in the fall to early spring when the least pilgrims conduct their voyage. The cold and snowy weather at the Pyrenees can be unforgiving, while downpours and gusty winds brush the western Iberian Peninsula. Many albergues will be closed for the season, leaving you with fewer choices of accommodation or sticking to a slightly more expensive hostel.
As this itinerary involves multiple days of long walking and staying in 'rudimentary' facilities along the way, it is a very good idea to travel light by bringing only the bare essentials. In general, at most three pieces of each upper and lower body clothing are recommended, as many facilities provide laundry to wash your clothes. A sleeping bag is also useful, as many albergues do not provide duvets for their mattresses and may not have enough heating to keep the room warm. A raincoat (not an umbrella) is needed for the rain, and a warm coat may be needed as well, depending on the season. For those travelling during the summer, sunscreen is vital for skin protection and sunglasses for the eyes. If your plan involves night-time walking, a headlight comes in handy for venturing outside the lit settlements.
Walking long distance for multiple days carries the risk of blisters forming due to the friction between your hot and damp feet and footwear or socks. Good footwear is essential for conquering the terrain, but make sure you wear it in before the trip to avoid blisters early on the journey. Also try out good socks. If blisters do show up, cover them with moleskin tape or blister cushions and treat with Vaseline. A hiking stick would also be helpful to support your legs, especially on steeper terrain and decline.
All of your items should be brought in a backpack; suitcases are not ideal as you will have to drag them on all types of roads, from asphalt to dirt to cobblestone. Alternatively, you can bring a suitcase or a large backpack that can be brought to your destination albergue by a luggage delivery service from the Spanish postal service (Correos) or other agencies for €5 to €7 per piece and walk the road with a daypack. Another service can also offer you to bring them to Santiago de Compostela and hold them for two weeks to one month, perfect if you plan to undergo another excursion after walking the Camino.
English is generally spoken among the pilgrims, in many albergues, and in the office at Santiago de Compostela where you can get your certificate. Depending on the population and the popularity of the route, many establishments along the way may have some staff that understand at least basic English. Should you require help from the locals however, picking up some basic native phrases, especially Spanish (or Portuguese if you are in Portugal, French in France), will come in very handy.
Depending on which route you are taking, the closest major international airport you can fly in to would be Biarritz, Bordeaux, Paris or Toulouse in France, Barcelona, Bilbao or Madrid in Spain, and Lisbon or Porto in Portugal. With the exception of Lisbon and Porto, which lay directly along the Portuguese Camino, and Bilbao directly on the Northern Camino, you have to connect using land transport to the towns along the routes.
Smaller airports on the route that can also be of use are Zaragoza, Pamplona, San Sebastián, Logroño, Burgos (unserved as of April 2023), Santander, León, Oviedo-Asturias, Salamanca, Bragança and Vigo.
At the end of the route, Santiago de Compostela has an airport that offers domestic flights and international flights within Europe.
Most major towns along the route are well connected by train, including traditional starting points for the short hikes like Sarria for the French Camino, Tui for the Portuguese Camino, and Ferrol for the short English Camino.
Santiago de Compostela also has a frequent train connection to other Galician cities, in addition to the high-speed Avant and Alvia trains to Madrid and Barcelona.
|“||"Have you ever walked the Camino, senora?" |
"Never. When I was young, I was too busy. And now that I'm older, I'm too tired."
—Emilio Estevez, The Way (2010)
There is neither a set number of days one needs for walking the route nor set points where you should start or end the journey. You can even start and finish the route somewhere and continue where you left off whenever you wish to. However, to earn the compostela (certificate of accomplishment) you need to walk or ride on horseback for at least the final 100 km to Santiago or cycle for at least 200 km. Walking to Santiago de Compostela along the English Camino, the French Camino from Sarria in Spain or the Portuguese Camino from Tui, would all fulfill the condition.
While many pilgrims only do that final portion of the route, there are great rewards for starting much further away. During your journey, you will meet plenty of pilgrims from many nationalities, with whom you can strike a deep conversation or stick along during your walk, and they may end up at the dinner table with you or rest in the same accoomodation on that same evening. Other times you can simply switch to another group should you have a change of interest or with whom you can walk at the same pace. Sometimes you may even bump into someone you met a couple of legs before; other times you may receive help from a stranger or give a help, only to never be seen again. At times you will also walk alone, where you can use the opportunity to appreciate the view, reflect & pray, or be inspired from the music or podcast you listen to.
Some Europeans walk from their homes, following one of the many routes from virtually all corners of central and western Europe. Most of those routes, save the maritime one from the UK and the routes from Portugal and those from southern Spain, converge to funnel walkers across one of two Pyrenees passes, either the Somport pass or the one between St. Jean Pied-de-Port and Roncesvalles. A few days onward, those two routes converge at Puente la Reina and follow the traditional French Way across Navarra, La Rioja, Castile and Leon, over the pass at O Cebreiro and on to Santiago.
If one has the time and inclination, there are several lovely routes across France leading to Somport and St. Jean Pied-de-Port, the most popular being the Chemin St. Jacques beginning at Le Puy-en-Velay and passing through Conques enroute to St. Jean Pied-de-Port. Another French route, the Chemin de Arles passes through the southern tier of Languedoc toward Oloron St. Marie and the pass into Spain at Somport. While those routes are beautiful and interesting, they add weeks to the pilgrimage.
Due to time constraints, many non-Europeans begin at St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France or Roncesvalles in Spain. Beginning in the French city means the first day of walking requires a long and steep climb, perhaps the most arduous single day on the route. Roncesvalles, steeped in history and the site of the defeat and death of Charlemagne's lieutenant Roland, is a usual starting point for Spaniards.
Once on the Camino, the pilgrim has three duties: to sleep, to eat, and to walk. Those duties are made less onerous by paying attention to the quality of the path, a large number of bars, restaurants, and cafes, and the albergues.
Alternatively it is possible to walk the Camino with various travel companies that have set itineraries and will transfer your luggage between your overnight locations, leaving you free to enjoy the Camino in style and comfort.
More and more pilgrims decide to come to Santiago by bike, it's the second most used way of doing it. The first thing that you have to bear in mind is that it's not possible to do all the original way by bike; sometimes you will have to change the route a little bit to get to the end of the stages.
Before starting, you have to decide what route to follow, and also the season in which to go. There is no perfect route for a cyclist; all of them have easy parts and other parts that are more difficult. Nevertheless, the easiest ways for cyclist are the French Way and the English Way. As for in which season to do it, it would be perfect in spring or autumn, avoiding the hardest months of the year: November, December and January; during these months, there's snow in many stages of the way. Avoid the hottest months: July and August, because you could suffer a heat stroke.
While the ideal way to traverse the route is on foot, those who wish to expedite their journey to rejoin a group or skip stages with boring views, can make use of some bus services along the way. However these are mostly local buses that are slow, infrequent, and do not cover the route as a whole. In the leg from Pamplona to Astorga along the French Route, there are buses that run almost every hour from dawn to dusk.
Passport and stamps
While bringing a normal passport may certainly be necessary, a special pilgrim's passport is the document that can get you a compostela certificate for having walked the Camino. Even if you do not wish to get the certificate however, this can be a perfect memento for your long travels. Some albergues may require it to allow you to stay there, or to give you a reduced pilgrims' price.
This passport can usually be obtained at a pilgrim offices such as those operated by cathedrals along the way or Friends of the Camino, or before your departure online or from similar organizations in your home country. At each albergue, and sometimes in city centres and places to eat or drink, pilgrims receive a unique stamp on their passport, serving as proof that the pilgrim actually walked through the city or town in question. The passport also proves to the albergue owner that the passport holder is a true pilgrim, not just someone looking for a cheap place to stay.
Stamps are also a way for cities and albergues to make their literal mark on a pilgrim's Santiago journey. To get a compostela at the end of your trip, you must have had your pilgrim's passport stamped, as an evidence that you indeed traced the route. You must get at least one stamp per day of travel, two per day on the last hundred kilometres to Santiago if travelling on foot or horseback, two per day for the last two hundred kilometres if using a bike. In Santiago de Compostela, shops will offer to emplasticar or laminate the passport to make a souvenir. Hundreds of stamps exist for each route of the Camino. Pilgrims can add to the database of stamps on websites built to keep track of the unique designs.
Depending on the village, there is usually at least one cafe that provide a simple breakfast such as a simple piece of pastry with coffee for only €2. During lunch, many restaurants serve "pilgrim's menu" (menú del pelegrino) or simply "today's menu" (menú del dia) that consists of a three-course-meal plus a choice of water or wine for €10. After people settle into their albergues, their choice of dinner is to either go out to eat again or to buy fresh ingredients at the nearest supermarket and cook up something at the provided kitchen for a communal meal.
Regional specialties are also ubiquitous along the way. Those missing fast food and international flavors however, may struggle to find one until arriving in the larger towns.
A staple for the journey along the Camino way is a stay at an albergue, where pilgrims spend the night to rest before continuing their journey the following day. While cheap, it has at least the basic necessities such as a bed in a shared room and a shower. Some also provide self-service laundry and a common kitchen.
Different types of albergues exist. Those operated by the municipal government & churches are normally very cheap or even donation based (usually €5 to €15 per night, but donation-based does not mean a free stay!) but with basic facilities, accepts guests on a first-come first-served basis, and has a curfew & strict check out times. Private albergues are slightly more expensive (€15 to €30 per night) but with better amenities, takes reservations, and is usually more flexible with check out times.
During peak season such as before Easter, summer, or St. James' day, however, it is not uncommon to hear fully occupied accommodation in a single town, in which case travelers need to plan ahead by reserving in advance or starting their walk earlier, change their destination to the preceding or following town, or an alternative place to sleep can be created from a makeshift facility, such as a sports or municipal hall. Albergues can also try calling other nearby accommodations to help you find a bed, should you show up at one where they have nothing left.
If you yearn for something more comfortable, a couple pensions and hostals can also easily be found along the way, with rates from €25 to €60 per night.
Camping along the way is uncommon considering the nature of the trip, and it is not allowed to camp outside a campground or private property without permission.
This section is an attempt to encourage sharing practical information about travelling the Camino. Peregrinos (Spanish for "pilgrim" in English or "pèlerin" in French) as they are called in Spain should feel free to use the information in this section and contribute to it. Albergues, restaurants and other accommodations all change with time, and this information should be updated accordingly.
There are several different routes that can be called The Way of St. James, such as those listed below. There are also many stopping points along each route, and none are mandatory. The stopping points listed will vary for each peregrino, just like every peregrino's experience will be different. The route listings are by no means complete, but are an attempt to share information about the possibilities.
A pilgrim interested in walking less crowded routes may consider starting before the more popular starting lines, including beginning in Bayonne and crossing the Valley of Baztan to Pamplona. This takes just under a week and is less travelled than the Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port route to Pamplona. Beware of the poorly marked trail during the last two days, though one needs only follow the valley.
The French Way
- Main article: French Way
The French Way (Spanish: Camino Francés) is the most popular of the routes of the Way of St. James and thus has the best infrastructure. For a description of the route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port across the French border, please refer to the main article. For the routes to there from different points in France, see Routes to Santiago de Compostela from France.
An avid pilgrim will most likely start this route from its official start at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port across the French border, while Spanish domestic travelers favor the start from Roncesvalles just before the border and the Pyrenees. Those who do not have one whole month to spare however, can spend as little as five days by starting from Sarria, only 116 km to Santiago de Compostela, enough coverage to obtain a certificate. In between, you can start from León or Astorga for easy access from Madrid and perfect for a two-week hike, and Pamplona or Logroño for the easiest access from Barcelona with a three-week hike.
The Portuguese Way
The Portuguese Way is the second most popular Camino route, increasingly busy but still quieter by a huge margin than the French Way. This trail takes you from Lisbon in Portugal through Porto, crossing the Spanish border at Tui to Santiago de Compostela, although most people start the route from the latter two cities due to better infrastructure and a friendlier summer heat. Porto is a little more than 200 km from the goal, and Tui is 100 km away.
From Porto, the route splits into a coastal route and an interior route, before rejoining at Redondela, just outside Vigo in Spain. You can however easily switch between both routes on the way for a change of scenery. While it does not have as many hills or mountains to conquer, the main challenge would be walking on asphalt or cobblestone through towns, which can stress your feet.
The Northern Way
The Northern Way (Camino del Norte) combs the northern rim of the Iberian peninsula along the Basque Country and Cantabria. Officially starting from Irún, it passes other large towns such as Bilbao, Santander, and Gijón. While being a more bearable option for a summer walk to escape the heat of the Spanish interior, it too has a fair share of ascents and descents, especially as you are away from the beach during the last 100 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela.
The Original Way
The Original Way (Camino Primitivo) is the first ever documented trail to Santiago de Compostela, as stated by the historical manuscripts of the Spanish King Alfonso II in the 9th century. Directly cutting through the mountains with hilly contours and only a few villages and towns, it is often named the toughest Camino, yet the shorter distance than the Northern Way (321 kilometers from Oviedo) and its quietness are the enticing factors.
The English Way
The English Way (Camino Inglés) is a relatively short Camino trail from the north, traditionally for pilgrims who traveled to Spain by sea and disembarked in Ferrol or A Coruña. To earn a compostela however, you must walk from Ferrol (114 kilometers), as its larger counterpart, A Coruña is only 75 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela.
The Silver Route
The Silver Route, or Via de la Plata, goes from Andalusia (Malaga or Seville) crossing the Extremadura region, Salamanca, and Zamora. From here, the route splits into two branches: one passing through Ourense and the other leading to Astorga where it joins the French Way. Walking the route for beginners and in the summer is not ideal due to the hot and arid summer weather, in addition to the accommodations that are few and far between.
The Tunnel Way
The Tunnel Way is also known as the Tunnel Route, the Basque Inland Route and the San Adrian Route.
The Camino de Madrid
The Camino del Ebro
The Camino de Santiago de Soria
The Camino de la Lana
The Camino de Levante
The Camino de Levante starts at Valencia and crosses Castille-La Mancha, passing through towns and cities including Toledo, El Toboso, Ávila and Medina del Campo, joining the Via de la Plata at Zamora.
The Camino del Sureste
The Camino del Sureste starts at Alicante and follows a broadly similar route as the Camino del Levante from Albacete until Medina del Campo, where the routes bifurcate, with the Sureste heading northwards to Tordesillas, joining the Via de la Plata at Benavente, while the Levante goes westwards to Toro and Zamora.
The Camino de Torres
The Aragonese Way
The Aragonese Way comes down from the Somport pass in the Pyrenees and makes its way down through the old kingdom of Aragon, adjoining the French Way at Puente la Reina. It is 835 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela.