With sore feet, new friends, lessons learned, and lots of wet socks, we made it to Santiago!
Tom and I just completed a month-long hike through Northern Spain on the Camino De Santiago. As you can imagine, I can’t possibly summarize the last thirty unique, wonderful, and challenging days in one blog post, so the next 4 posts (including this one) will be about our journey.
But before I jump into telling you about our experience of the Camino (and it was quite an experience), let me begin with a high-level, birds-eye perspective of this age-old journey in case it is unfamiliar to you.
Although the Camino de Santiago is well known throughout Europe, it has only recently gained popularity and awareness in the United States thanks primarily to the film, The Way, with Emilio Estevez and his father, Martin Sheen.
The Camino de Santiago has existed as a Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in the Northwestern region of Spain, known as Galicia, since the Middle Ages. There are various ways or “Caminos” that begin from various points throughout Europe and all end in Santiago de Compostela, believed to be the burial site of Saint James, one of Christ’s apostles.
The symbol of the Camino is the scallop shell or “concha.” The shell has many lines that all converge on one point, similar to the various roads to Santiago. It is also a shell common to the region of Santiago, Galicia.
Tom and I walked on the “French Way” or Camino Frances. We began in the popular starting point of St. Jean Pied-de-Port in Southwestern France and walked roughly 800 km (approximately 500 miles) along the Northern part of Spain to Santiago.
We passed many regions, including Navarra, Rioja, Burgos, Leon, and Galicia.
Pilgrims have walked the Camino for about 800 years and the towns through which the Camino passes drip with the tradition of the Camino. The town residents are accustomed to seeing hundreds of pilgrims walk through their tiny towns every day. The spirit of the Camino is rich, and almost all the locals greet pilgrims with a welcoming smile and a hearty “Buen Camino!” (the traditional greeting along the trail, which means “Good Way”).
You can find a map of the French Way, here.
This is not meant to be an encyclopedia, so if you are interested in a more detailed account of the Camino’s history, you can read more about it on Wikipedia or other informative sites. The movie, The Way, also gives some insight (although it is dramatized for Hollywood). For my purposes in this post, I mainly want you to understand the origin of the Camino, its richness in tradition, and a few details of the road.
Who walks the Camino?
Traditionally, pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago were Catholic and came from countries all over Europe. The reason for walking was often religiously based. For example, some walked to fulfill some sort of promise to God, others for penance, and still others simply to arrive at a holy site.
Today, the Camino is full of people from all different backgrounds and religions. In fact, I would say, based on my own unscientific survey and the people that I walked with on the Camino, that much less than half of the pilgrims today are Catholic.
There continues to be much diversity when it comes to country of origin. Europeans still make up the majority. We made friends with people from Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, France, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, The UK, and more. There were also several Americans and many Koreans, too.
While Catholicism characterized the wide majority of pilgrims throughout history, many of today’s pilgrims were people in some sort of transitional period of life. They hoped this walk would help them to work something out. Many were out of work, between jobs, recently quit their careers, lost a loved one or child, or longing for some sort of change in their lives. Some were seeking God, but I think most were simply seeking clarity.
Our Typical Day On the Camino
Life was simple on the Camino. Each day’s major concern was merely food, shelter, health, and walking. A day with a good meal, dry socks, and no bed bugs was a good day.
Tom and I typically woke up around 6:45-7:00am. We got dressed, packed our bags, put on our boots and headed to a nearby café for espresso and breakfast. I usually ate a Spanish Tortilla, which is like an egg and potato omelet and Tom usually ate a bocadillo, which is a baguette sandwich with ham and sometimes cheese and/or tomato).
The sun was usually up by 8am and that is typically when we began our walking for the day, although many more eager pilgrims’s started before dawn with headlights and flashlights in tow. We did this during the first few days as well, following advice on blogs and guidebooks, but we quickly learned there was no reason to rush.
Each day we walked an average of about 28 km (17 miles). Every day’s walk was slightly different as we progressed through many Northern regions of Spain. Some days it was flat, others treated us to lots of hills. We passed through many small, rural Spanish villages and also some larger cities such as Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon, Astorga, and Ponferrada.
Below are some pics to demonstrate the variety in landscapes:
Depending on the length of the walk for that day, we usually arrived to our destination in the mid to late afternoon. We would find an albergue (hostel) to sleep, check-in, get a stamp on our credential to prove our walk, and find our bed. After showering and doing laundry, we rested until dinner around 7pm. Everyone was typically in bed by 9 or 10pm.
My favorite part of the day was the late afternoon. Tom and I typically walked faster than most of the other pilgrims, so we enjoyed sitting with friends at a café along the Camino route, with a glass of red wine (“vino tinto”), watching the other pilgrims come into town. They always looked so exhausted, but so glad to arrive. Everyday was like a little reunion amongst friends.
Where Did You Sleep?
Along the Camino route are a number of “albergues”, which are basically hostels reserved for Pilgrims. The albergues have anywhere from 20-150 beds. Some are privately owned and operated, but almost every town has at least one municipal albergue run by the city. Also, some towns had albergues inside of or operated by a church or monastery. Some of these were “donativo,” which means you simply donate what you are able. There is no set price. These also often provided a communal dinner.
The average price to stay in an albergue is about 5-10 Euro ($7-13 USD) per person per night. Some include breakfast, which is usually just coffee, milk, and toast. When sleeping with 20 other snoring pilgrims in one room became too much to bare, we would treat ourselves to a night in a private hostel or pension with private rooms for about 15-20 Euro ($20-30 USD) per person.
There were some people on the Camino that would only sleep in albergues and some that would only sleep in private rooms. Tom and I chose to do a mixture of both. The albergues are fun because you are with friends and you save a lot of money, but as a married couple it is nice to have some privacy occasionally too.
How Did You Know Where To Go?
The symbol of the shell and yellow arrows directed our path. In every region, the signs were slightly different. For example, some cities had metal shell symbols engraved into sidewalks, and others used the typical bright blue and yellow metal signs painted with the shell. Without fail, every region used the simple spray-painted yellow arrow to indicate each turn.
Except for a few rare instances, the road was very well marked and easy to follow.
Below is the exact schedule that Tom and I followed.
I know this is a lot of information, but now that you have an overview of what the Camino is, my future posts will go into more detail on our actual experience of the Camino.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!