Camino de Santiago
End: Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella
The Camino de Santiago is the name given to the many pilgrimage routes from England, France, Italy and elsewhere that all have as their common goal the shrine of St James, the patron saint of Spain, in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia on the Iberian Peninsula. James, the son of Zebedee and Salome, was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, and one of the first to follow him. Tradition says that after the resurrection, James travelled to Spain where he preached tirelessly, before seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary which prompted his return to the Holy Land. His beheading in Judea in the year 44 CE on the orders of King Herod Agrippa is the only recorded instance of the death of an apostle in the New Testament (ACTS 12: 1-2), making him very likely the First of the apostles to be martyred for his faith. His remains, it is claimed, were then taken by boat from Jerusalem back to Santiago de Compostela, where the cathedral of Santiago was built between 1075 and 1211 over the agreed site of the apostle’s remains.
The trail is Europe’s most ancient pilgrimage route, with the first recorded journeys dating to the 9th century. It has survived the Dark Ages, Black Plagues and Protestant reformations to become the most popular pilgrimage trail of the medieval period, and the Galician scallop shell with its many indented lines all coming together at its centre – was then, and remains now, a symbol of the many pathways along which people converge upon this cherished place. And while the many religious houses that once were sprinkled along its route to welcome travelers are now a little harder to find, walkers and pilgrims have little trouble finding more conventional accommodation on a trail that was always designed to pass through towns and villages rather than avoid them for the sake of tranquillity, like so many other long distance paths. On the Way of St James providing comfort and food for weary, hungry pilgrims was always good business.
And nowadays, even better business. More than 200,000 people walk these ancient trails every year, numbers greater than any ancient pilgrim could have ever dreamt possible passing over the same rivers and hills and through the same villages that believers did a thousand years ago. There has been a boom in numbers over the past fifteen years, and gone are the days when farmers would ask pilgrims to enter their houses and share a meal and ask for little in return, Spain’s economic realities have instead led to a huge growth in the number of satellite television-equipped guesthouses that cater for what some disparagingly call ‘phony pilgrims’, those who arrange for their luggage to be ‘driven ahead’ to their next hotel, who choose not to seek out the basic three-course ‘pilgrims’ meals’, or stay in sleeping bag-filled hostel halls with a hundred other wayfarers. Times have changed.
The most popular route without doubt is the Camino Frances, the ‘French Way’, which begins in St-Jean-Pied-du-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and crosses the border into the small Spanish village of Roncesvalles on the Urrobi River, famous as the site of the defeat of Charlemagne in 778 CE. From Roncesvalles it is a further 780 km to Santiago de Compostela via Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon and beautiful Ponferrada, surrounded by mountains on the Sil River and the last major city before your destination. (Don’t leave without visiting its magnificent 12th-century Templar Castle.)
In terms of landscape, the Camino de Santiago lacks for nothing. The alpine vistas of the Pyrenees, the treeless and windswept Meseta Plateau, the green fertile mountains of Galicia the ‘country of a thousand rivers’, and finally the rugged Atlantic coast. If you decide you want to avoid the crowds and do it from November to April, the trail will be less crowded but shorter days due to fog, rain and the like will result in shorter sections walked and therefore more overnight stays, raising the cost. The pilgrim-like, solitary experience you will have, however, will likely more than compensate if that is what you’re looking for.
The Camino Frances is the most developed of all the Camino routes, has the most extensive trail markers, and a never-ending choice of hostels, guesthouses and hotels.
Walking it will take you through seven provinces and a wealth of human history that is just too numbing to attempt to describe here. Rest days along its 33 stages can be taken in towns such as Pamplona (don’t walk all day, it’s a ‘rest day’!), and if you take the time to get to know some of your fellow walkers representing 130 nations then chances are you’ll barely notice you’ve just walked alongside 90 km of paved roads, 203 km of streets through sleepy villages, and 505 km of ancient, story-laden trails.