WALKING TO SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA in northern Spain has become an increasingly popular activity in recent years. In fact, 5,279 Canadians obtained a Compostela — the certificate that rewards those who complete the required minimum 100km from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela — in 2019. They don’t make the walk alone — 20,652 Americans did it in 2019, as well, and so did another 146,350 Spaniards. And expectations are that 2022 will see a strong return to those pre-COVID figures.
The Spanish portion of the route, curiously known as the Camino Frances, begins on the French border at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and runs 780km to Santiago de Compostela. Four to six weeks is average time to complete this walk. Many pilgrims start in France, some at Le Puy, but there are other options for those with more time. There’s also a Portuguese route, approaching Santiago from the south, and a northern coastal route, farther north than the Camino Frances.
Above: Signposts point the way for pilgrims walking along the Camino de Santiago.
Some hike for religious reasons, to see the reliquary in the cathedral in Santiago reputed to contain the bones of Saint James the Apostle. Others do it for “cultural” reasons, to experience Spanish food, scenery and personal contacts along the way. Some hike to have time alone to assess their current situation in life, to set new goals and personal objectives. No matter what the motivation, all are referred to as pilgrims.
A friendly camaraderie prevails along the path, warmed by the “buen camino” greeting that pilgrims exchange as they meet or pass one another.
I didn’t have time to hike 780km, and well into retirement I didn’t think I needed to reassess my life’s goals. I also was pretty sure I didn’t want to spend my nights in the low-budget albergues (dormitory-like hostels) along the way after carrying a 14kg backpack all day. I found there are numerous companies ready to handle the logistics for you, moving your luggage from place to place and transporting you at the end of the day to more comfortable, conventional lodging than that provided to the truly-committed pilgrim. Many of these companies will transport you to the most scenic or historically interesting parts of the trail, making efficient use of limited time.
There are pros and cons to this approach.
Above: Pilgrims collect stamps, like the ones above left, to prove they've completed the inspirational journey. Along the way they join celebrations, like the one right, which is held in Santo Domingo de la Calzada to honour Saint Dominic.
• Your lodging will be better than the crowded, often noisy albergues, some rumored to have bedbugs. And you won’t have to worry about arriving at an albergue in late afternoon only to find it already full;
• Avoid the boring meseta, the flat, level plain that occupies the central portion of the Spanish trail;
• Hike the most scenic portions;
• Benefit from knowledgeable, helpful guides;
• Let someone else manage the lodging and transport;
• Meet other interesting, well-travelled people in your group.
Going with a pre-planned, organized group will assure you of great Spanish meals at the end of a hiking day — almost certain to be better than the “menu del dia” offered by many restaurants and some albergues.
Our guide ensured that we were treated to a never-repeating variety of cuisine each day. Tender meats, especially veal and pork, were exquisitely presented. Mackerel, cod, octopus and hake were included, preceded by savoury salads, followed by a wide variety of desserts.
Above: People from around the world come to complete the legendary walk and at the same time are introduced to Spain's stunning landscape and historic landmarks like the 13th century Puente del Paso Honroso at Hospital de Orbigo.
Though largely beyond your control, good luck can add to the hiking experience. We happened to arrive in Santo Domingo de la Calzada on the feast day of Saint Dominic, who died on May 12, 1109.
We witnessed costumed town and church notables leading a procession through the town, carrying a statue of Saint Dominic. Young men in costume performed dances surely not much changed since the Middle Ages, accompanied by men playing traditional melodies on small flutes, followed by young women in period dresses. Except for the spectators lining the streets, and the modern clothing of certain city notables and police officials, this procession must have appeared much the same hundreds of years ago.
On another day we reached the village of O Cebreiro — first Galician village on the trail — in time to receive a blessing from Father Paco, pastor of the church of Santa Maria la Real, believed to be the oldest church on the entire Camino Frances. The church holds a reliquary believed to contain the blood and flesh of Jesus, a result of a miracle performed by a priest in the late 13th century. You never know when good timing will add something special to your trip.
Another advantage of being in a group assisted with vehicular transport is that this allows you to access other points of interest off the trail. My group spent a day hiking in the Natural Park of Somiedo, a protected area located in the central area of the Cantabrian Mountains of Asturias, north of the Camino. As well as being designated a natural park, it is protected as a Special Area of Conservation, and as one of a number of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in the Cantabrian mountains.
Above: Participants in the walk gather in front of one of the many historic churches that line the route.
Our bus drove us to a trailhead from where we hiked several kilometres up and over a summit before being picked up on the other side. Our guide spotted chamois grazing at high altitudes but we failed to spot the European brown bear, which also inhabits the area. We enjoyed sandwiches and fruit on a hillside overlooking the Braña (meadow) de Mumian, site of several stone and thatch shelters (teitos) built to protect cattle in the harsh Cantabrian winters. Though the thatch is renewed from time-to-time, the stone walls of the structures are hundreds of years old.
On another day we visited a winery in the Rioja region just a few miles off the Camino. A tour included a walk through the underground caves, hundreds of years old, where the wine is stored and cured. The caves include an underground chapel where weddings have occasionally been performed. Apparently I am the first to name this as The Chapel of Our Lady of Constant Fermentation.
• It’s more expensive;
• You may regret not earning your Compostela, and may miss a feeling of completion or achievement;
• You rely on someone else to select the best portions of the trail;
• You’ll have to adjust your pace to the rest of the group’s. Sometimes others can slow you down, or make you go faster than you prefer.
Above: Two Spanish hikers unfurl a banner to celebrate their arrival at the Monte del Gozo, the point from which pilgrims get their first sighting of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
In my case it was an easy choice. In 11 days I hiked about 120km along the trail, plus quite a few more exploring cities where we stayed over night or passed a few hours during the day. I made new friends in our 13-member group, composed of other interesting people. I returned with a good collection of photos sure to restore memories for years to come, or to be the content of a photo book I sometimes make after a trip. I improved my knowledge of Spanish history and visited a number of churches and cathedrals along the way, several claiming to hold relics of high spiritual value to pilgrims willing to trust the veracity and faithfulness of the priests who first testified to their origin and discovery centuries ago.
There are many guide books to help you decide what’s right for you. These range from personal memoires detailing the psychological effect of undertaking this effort, to very practical how-to guides complete with lists of what you’ll need and won’t need if you decide to do a do-it-yourself pilgrimage. Others are full of cultural and historical information about cities and sites along the way. Sampling the trail on a pre-arranged, fixed itinerary may serve two purposes. It may whet your interest and lead you to return in the future to hike the entire route, or at least lengthy selected portions as part of a multi-year approach adopted by some.
Or it may satisfy your appetite for the Camino and lead you to conclude that the samples you have traversed are enough to put to rest your curiosity and interest in the longer undertaking. Whatever you decide, Buen camino will be a greeting that will elicit smiles and happy memories from anyone you meet who has shared the experience of the Pilgrims’ Way, the Camino de Santiago.
Above: Pilgrims take pictures and take a well-deserved rest in the Plaza de Obradoiro after completing their pilgrimage. Right, pilgrims feast on the rural cuisine of Spain.
JUST THE FACTS
Canadian companies offering Camino excursions: https://creativetravelcanada.com
Good sources of advice and help:
https://followthecamino.com/en/blog/camino-training-walks-canada/ or https://www.santiago.ca/
U.S. firms offering Camino excursions:
I went with Road Scholar, which caters primarily to the 50+ generation: https://www.roadscholar.org
Spanish firm offering to arrange tours: https://santiagoways.com/en