Walking the Camino, the Way of Saint James, El Camino de Santiago, there are plenty of names for the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain. Traditionally the walk was one of the most important of Christian gatherings in medieval times, where indulgences could be earned, as they travelled from their home to the pilgrimage site. Today walking the Camino is popular and getting busier every year.
Incredible image via @ xul
We spoke with Camino enthusiast and veteran Blaithin who gave us the details on what to expect.
Let’s start with the basics
There are more or less two types of walks along the route: The light version, where you stay in hotels, have your bag carried or walk the last 100km into Santiago, but that misses so much of walking the Camino.
You carry your bag so that you pack the minimum, and share the connection with others and are generally less material, you don’t have to dress up or buy anything. You stay in the hostels because that’s where you meet everybody and build a community. If you do the last 100k just to get to the end, you miss out on the more real part of the Camino.
Pack lightly, no more than two sets of clothing and maybe few more underwear. Everyone wears the same clothes every day because that’s how it goes. Pack plenty of plasters, padding, anti-inflammatory gels, pain killers, and any other medication you feel you might need. Quick drying towels are a really good investment, although an expensive initial outlay. Most places have blankets so all you need is a sleeping bag liner. Oh, and you’ll need boots for walking and a light pair of sandals for evening.
There are many routes that take you to Santiago, the main and most popular one is the French way – from St. Jean de Pied Port in France. You’ll find some more details here and here on the different routes available.
there are different levels of hostels, albergues, and refugios. Municipal hostels are generally €5 a night. Parish hostels and refugios are very often by donation where you can give around €5. Private hostels are a bit posher and charge €8 a night. Big cities might be a bit dearer. Hotels sharing would be €15 a night. In Spain you can’t book hostels, you just turn up. In France you have to book (not St. Jean though). Some places do communal meals which are always well worth booking into because you get to know lots of people and that’s part of the fun.
Everywhere along the 800km route provides the same pilgrim menu, generally €9, dearer in big cities. That usually includes starter, main, desert and wine. During the day small towns will have bars and cafes selling bocadillos (big baguettes) and tapas – mostly spanish tortilla. Food in shops is very cheap too.
The camino is a pilgrimmage and all the language and commerce of it is based on this. Peregrinos get special treatment. Everywhere does pilgrim menus that are cheaper than the day menu. Pilgrims have to get a passport which is stamped at each place you stay in. Bars, cafes, hotels, hostels, museums, all have their own stamp.
There are a few pilgrim hospitals along the route and if you get injured, treatment is free for peregrinos once you have your passport. In Santiago there’s an office that gives accreditation for walking the Camino to those who’ve walked at least 100km to Santiago. Your passport stamps prove that you’ve walked and this is the main purpose of the passport. The stamps also become a thing to collect and are pretty. When meeting others you can compare stamps and see if you’ve stayed in any of the same places.
Time to walk
The Camino is open all year round, but best times of year are May, June, September and October. July and August get very hot and very busy. At the start of summer the landscape is all green and there are rivers. At the end of summer the landscape is all yellow and all the rivers have dried up. It’s colder on higher altitude. France (the start) and Galaicia (the last 200k) are cloudier and rainier than the rest which is generally hot and dry.
Camino Frances starts with a very big mountain on day 1. There are small hills after that and Burgos is on a big mountain but generally a gradual ascent and descent. The middle few 100km is called the Meseta and is totally flat. After Leon there are a few more mountains.
Depending on where you start, there are flights into Biarritz, Bilbao, Santiago, Madrid, Santandar. ALSA are the main bus providers to get to your starting point. There are also trains to the big towns: St Jean de Pied Port, Burgos, Sahagun, Leon, Astorga, Ponferrada.
The guide books recommend around 20-25km a day. It’s generally 4-5km an hour. Many people will do up to 3km a day but not every day. The very fit and adventurous people can do up to 4km a day! More practice walking makes you faster and able to do longer days walking.