Walking the Camino: Start Here
The train doors opened in Sarria, and we all piled out eager to begin our first day of walking. Each of us slid our packs, full of 12 days of belongings, onto our backs and took the obligatory group photo to mark our first pilgrimage day. Locating the yellow arrow, that would be our navigation tool, was pretty easy. We made our way down the cobbled stone streets and past the tiled roofed buildings of town. But it didn't feel official until a fellow pilgrim shouted, "Buen Camino!" We followed yellow arrows out of town towards a grove of trees and into the countryside.
62 miles (ca. 100 km) and 7 days of walking ahead of us. For hundreds of years, thousands of others have taken this journey to the city of Santiago de Compostela, in the northwest of Spain. The pilgrimage culminates at the tomb of St. James, and now it was our turn to take the journey. The Camino is for everyone, young or old. Walking this ancient pilgrimage route will take you through medieval villages, lush countryside, and enchanted forests with gnarled oak trees. Along the way you'll meet fellow pilgrims and enjoy Galician cuisine. There is an infrastructure of support of food and accommodations for the pilgrims. But first you have to decide which one of the many routes to Santiago de Compostela you want to travel.
The Most Popular Routes to Santiago de Compostela
Camino Frances: The French Way
The most popular route, referred to as "the Camino". This route begins at Saint Jean Pied de Port in France, near the Pyrenees Mountains and continues across Spain passing through many villages and towns to Santiago de Compostela. It is an easy route to follow because it is easily marked with yellow arrows or a scallop shell that are on buildings, trees and rocks.
Distance: 800 km (497 miles)
Duration: 40 days depending on your fitness level. You will walk 8-14 miles (13-23km) a day.
Difficulty level: This is a moderate level walking route. The route begins with the pilgrim walking over the Pyrenees for approx. 26 km (16 miles). The highest elevation is 1,200 meters (3,937 ft) in the first miles out of Saint Jean Pied de Port. From France, elevations fluctuate from 200-1,550 meters (656 to 4,921 ft.). You walk mostly on pavement, through vineyards and hills in the countryside.
Sarria to Santiago de Compostela: This route is for you, if you don't have time to walk the full Camino Frances. This part of the route takes you past medieval churches and religious sites. It is rare that you will go a few kilometers/miles without passing through a village.
Distance: Walk the last 100 km (62 miles) of the Camino Frances, from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. As long as you walk at last 100 km of the Camino you have earned your compostela, a special certificate given to pilgrims who complete the Camino.
Duration: You can walk this part of the route in 5-6 days, walking 6-7 hours a day.
Camino Portugues: The Portuguese Way is not one route but three routes through Portugal into Spain. The main starting points are Lisbon (600 km/373 miles), Porto (240 km/149 miles) and the most common starting point from Portugal, Tui (119 km/73 miles). This route crosses Portugal from south to north and takes pilgrims through breathtaking nature. There is a detour route that takes you along the coast, but mostly you walk through the historical towns of Portugal and Galicia.
Distance: 600 km (373 miles)
Duration: 24-33 days, depending on your fitness level. You will walk 17-32 km (11-20 miles) a day.
Difficulty level: This is an easy level walking route. Most of the route is on pavement.
Camino del Norte: The Northern Route is a route along the Atlantic coast of Northern Spain. The main starting point is Irun, near the French border. The Northern route is possibly the oldest and the most scenic route. It winds along the coast until it connects inland to the Camino Frances. You will walk though lush green hills & mountains, extensive forest and lovely beaches on natural paths, dirt and also asphalt roads.
Distance: 784 km (487 miles)
Duration: 41 days, depending on your fitness level. You will walk 16-33 km (10-21 miles) a day.
Difficulty level: This is a moderate to difficult walking route with numerous elevations and drops.
Camino Finisterre starts where the pilgrimage ends, at the Cathedral in Santiago to the lighthouse in Finisterre. Finisterre is the western most part of continental Europe. Finisterre translated means, “end of the world”. Before Columbus discovered the Americas Finisterre was considered the end of civilization. It is an easy route marked with yellow arrows and concrete milestones. You will walk through countryside, medieval villages and over fairy tale like bridges. It is a more serene and less crowded route. When you complete the walk to Finisterre a certificate of completion, called a Fisterrana, is available from the albergue in Finisterre.
Distance: 89 km (55 miles)
Duration: 3 -4 days. You will walk 16-32 km (16-20 miles) a day.
Difficulty Level: This is an easy level walking route and like most of the Camino there are some elevations but no significant ascents or descents.
A Typical Day
Morning: Your day typically begins at 6 am. You can usually get breakfast at your accommodations or nearby. Then you start walking.
Afternoon: You will get lunch on the road. Some pilgrims are done walking for the day between 2-4 pm. When you arrive at your destination for that day you will check into your accommodations. You may want to wash the walking clothes you wore that day, most places have washing machines or you can wash them out when you take a shower.
Evening: Many local restaurants offer a pilgrims menu for dinner. The evening is a good time to meet other pilgrims and share your Camino stories. Most pilgrims are in bed by 10:00 pm.
Where to stay
Albergues: Albergue de peregrinos are hostels only for pilgrims walking the Camino and are the cheapest and most popular accommodations for pilgrims on all routes. There is an extensive network of albergues and new ones are always opening up. You are required to show a pilgrim's passport to stay in an albergue. Albergues generally consist of dormitory style rooms where there are a large number of single beds or bunk beds. Men and women usually share the same sleeping space. Hot showers and a cafe/bar for breakfast or pilgrims' menu are usually available. Some albergues have washers & dryers, free wi-fi, common lounge areas and cooking facilities. Albergues are usually available on a first-come first-served basis on the day of your arrival. Most allow only a one-night stay and open in the early afternoon with check out by 8 am the next day.
Hostels: Hostels on the Camino routes offer single accommodations in private rooms. Some hostel accommodations are in 2-3 star hotels. There isn't room service but you can get on site meal options, linens and basic toiletries.
Hotels: There are a few 3-4 star hotels and advance reservations are recommended.
Religious Organizations: Monasteries and religious organizations offer cheap and simple accommodations along the Camino routes.
Barracks of volunteer firefighters (A.H.B.V.): Local volunteer fire stations, more common on the Camino Portugues, provide space on their floor and use of their facilities to pilgrims.
Where to eat
Breakfast: if you eat at your albergue, breakfast consists of café con leche, toast or bread with butter and jam, or pastries and fresh squeezed orange juice.
Lunch: the pilgrims lunch is usually a sandwich of meats and cheeses, an egg and potato dish called tortillas de patatas and a piece of fruit.
Supper: Most bars, restaurants and some albergues offer a special pilgrim's menu. This menu/Menú de Peregrino is three courses, usually, salad, a pasta or rice dish with meat and dessert. The pilgrim's menu is served with bread and a glass of wine or other beverage. Pilgrims staying at some albergues may have the option to enjoy a shared pilgrim meal served family style. Pilgrims sit together at long tables. This meal is similar to the pilgrim's menu, but can include more options.
Local delicacies: mussels, octopus, almond pastry, tartra de santiago or tapas.
The Pilgrim’s Passport (Credencial) serves the purpose of documenting the pilgrim’s journey, and granting access to the pilgrim hostels along any of the Camino routes. Each day when you check in to your accommodations, you will present your pilgrim's passport as evidence that you are on the road to Santiago de Compostela. You will receive a stamp or sello, in your passport book, along with the date. Sellos can also be obtained from many bars, hotels, town halls, museums and churches along your route. You are required to get one sello per day until you are 100 km from Santiago, from there into the Cathedral you are required to get two stamps per day. You may order your passport in advance from Pilgrim Associations around the world, but allow six weeks prior to your pilgrimage to receive it.
The Compostela is the official documentation for having completed the Camino. It is a certificate issued in Latin free of charge by the Pilgrims' Welcome Office in Santiago. You can claim your Compostela in person when you present some form of identification, your pilgrims' passport and when asked at the office claim that your reason for walking the Camino is spiritual or religious. To qualify to receive a Compostela your pilgrim's passport must show that you have walked at least the last 100 km or cycled the last 200 km of any Camino route into the Cathedral in Santiago.
Walking is not the only option
Bicycle: A small percentage of pilgrims bike the Camino on a mountain bike. Going by bike greatly decreases your travel time, for example, cyclists can complete the Camino de Frances in two weeks. Please note that cyclists are often given last priority over walkers at albergues. There are several companies that rent bikes for the Camino if bringing your own is not possible. Cyclists are eligible to receive the Compostela if they document via the Pilgrim passport, that they have at least ridden the final 200 km to Santiago. Unlike walking the Camino, it is recommended that you are a fit and experienced cyclist to bike the Camino.
Bus: Bus are available for pilgrims along most of the Camino routes, particularly, the Camino Frances. Many pilgrims only use them if they are tired, injured or running behind they're travel schedule. You can pick up bus schedules at most albergues or hotels.
Traveling on to the Camino Finisterre. If you do not have more time or enough energy to walk the additional kilometers to Finisterre, you can take a quick bus trip.
Horseback: If you are a horseback riding enthusiast and able to sit on horseback for 6-7 hours then you might consider horseback riding the Camino. You can travel 25-30 km (16-19 miles) a day, through forests and villages, over rolling countryside. There are albergues on most routes that offer lodging and accommodations for horses.
Who was The Apostle St. James? Saint James the Greater was one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. Son of Zebedee and Salome, brother of John the Apostle. He was the first apostle to be martyred and the only disciple whose martyrdom is mentioned in the New Testament. He is the Patron Saint of Spain, Pilgrims and Laborers. It is said that Saint James the Great miraculously appeared to provide assistance to an outnumbered Spanish Christian army, helping them gain victory against the Moors during the battle of Clavijo. James continued preaching Christianity for 14 years following the death of Jesus throughout Spain, Iberia and Israel. James was beheaded by King Herod. It is said that his body was carried through Spain by his disciples and laid to rest at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. A pilgrimage route was established in the 9th century to the shrine of Saint James at the Cathedral. James' emblem was the scallop shell and pilgrims to his shrine often wore that symbol on their hats or clothes.
The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela Between 830 and 840, King Alfonso II commissioned a modest church to be built over the recently discovered tomb of the Apostle St. James the Great. The church was rebuilt several times, until 1075 when bishop Diego Pelaez began construction on the present cathedral. The cathedral is a synthesis of the techniques and styles to be found in other great Romanesque religious architecture.
Under the main altar is the tomb of St. James. You can visit the tomb from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm and from 4:00 pm to 8:30 pm every day of the week.
The Pilgrim's Mass Every day at noon and again at 7:30 pm a mass is held at the cathedral. The mass is to welcome and bring together for a time of worship, friendship, and the receiving the body of Christ all those who have journeyed to the Cathedral and the tomb of St. James. At the beginning of the Pilgrim Mass a list is read out loud of the number of pilgrims who have been received in the Pilgrims’ Office in the last 24 hours. They also share where they came from and where they started their pilgrimage.
Families Traveling with Children Families with children 3 and older can enjoy walking the Camino. The French Way is the best option for families with children to choose. Prepare your children for the long days of walking ahead of time by walking together as a family at home. Plan to map out each day according to the age of your children and putting in time for breaks. The Camino is a fun source for history & culture. You will encounter interesting nature, animals and other families along your route.
Teen Groups Walking the Camino with your student groups provides them with a unique pilgrimage experience.
Solo Walking solo? On the Camino you can be as alone or as social as you want to be. There are many opportunities while you are walking and especially when you stop for the day in albergues or hostels to connect with other pilgrims. Want a solitary experience, walk the Camino del Norte, it provides quieter solitude and time for spiritual reflection.