What is El Camino de Santiago?
El Camino de Santiago (The way of St. James) is both a popular and historic pilgrimage walk with the destination traditionally being the north western Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela; hence why the full title of the walk is El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that here in the city of Santiago, the remains of the apostle, Saint James the Great, are buried. There isn’t an official starting point because pilgrims used to start their journey from their own home and today there are various pilgrimage routes within Europe which lead to Santiago.
El Camino de Santiago is also known as: Le chemin de St. Jacques (French) / Der Jakobsweg (German) / Camí de Santiago (Catalan) / Done Jakue Bidea (Basque) / Camiño de Santiago (Galician).
What is the most popular Camino route?
The most popular route is the Camino Francés (The French Way). This route stretches from St. Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side, and then another 780km on to Santiago de Compostela.
Do you have to be religious to walk the Camino?
People who walk the Camino are referred to as being Pilgrims or Peregrinos and many people do walk the Camino for religious reasons, but what seems like an equally large number of pilgrims along the way are either agnostic or atheist and walk the path either as a physical challenge, for personal reasons, or to try and attain an inner spiritual awakening: which may or may not be described as being “religious”.
What is the Credencial?
The Credencial is a booklet which acts as a pilgrim passport to collect stamps in along the Camino so you have a record of your pilgrimage. You should have your Credencial stamped daily at the albergue (refugio / pilgrim hostel), church, monastery, town hall, local office of the Guardia Civil, or at various cafes and restaurants along the way. The Credential must be presented in Santiago at the Pilgrim Office close to the Cathedral to receive your Compostela, and you must also present your Credencial to provide evidence of pilgrim status when you want to gain access to the albergues.
What is the Compostela?
The Compostela is a certificate of achievement, formally issued at the end of your Camino by the Santiago cathedral authorities, and confirms that you have completed the Camino and that you are a bona fide pilgrim. Walkers (also applies to any pilgrims on horseback) need to have walked at least 100km (cyclists 200km), to be eligible to receive their Compostela.
Do you lose weight walking the Camino?
You do tend to lose some weight walking the Camino, but most people find that it is only temporary and that it soon finds its way back at some stage after returning from Santiago. However, walking such a long distance is extremely healthy for the body and you will in some physical form or other reap the benefits of walking a Camino for the rest of your life.
What’s the significance of the pilgrim’s scallop shell?
In days long gone when the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was considered a punishment and atonement for sins committed, and an alternative to prison time – the more serious the crime committed the longer the pilgrimage route – the pilgrim would be given a scallop shell at the end of their Camino as proof that they had completed the walk. The scallop shell is therefore a strong symbol of the Camino. The shell is also used on the modern day Camino path as a symbols to show pilgrims the correct direction of the route. Please note though that kings and noblemen were also known to have walked the pilgrimage (obviously though for none of the reasons listed immediately above).
Where do you sleep on the way?
Some people opt to sleep in B+Bs or hotels, while other more adventurous souls sleep out under the stars either in a tent or sleeping bag. The majority of pilgrims sleep at the albergues (refugios / pilgrim hostels) and these are hostels which specifically cater for pilgrims and which cost little more than 5 Euro per night’s stay, with some charging no official rate and instead relying on pilgrim donations (Donativo). Albergues are categorised into Municipal (sponsored by local government bodies and often staffed by volunteers), Parochial (run by religious institutions such as monasteries, convents or local churches), Association (run by various pilgrim associations from around the world and often staffed by volunteers who have walked the Camino), or Private (owned and run by private individuals or group). One important note is that they generally open in the afternoons and normally have a night curfew which is usually around 10pm. Wardens who manage the albergues are called Hospitalero.
Besides the Camino Francés (French Way) which are the other more popular pilgrimage routes to Santiago?
The Northern Way (Camino Del Norte) is the second most popular route and runs along the northern coast of Spain from Irún to Oviedo (where it connects with the Original Way) and then on to Santiago de Compostela.
The Original Way (Camino Primitivo) was the first route to Santiago de Compostela (when in the 9th Century most of Spain was under Moorish control) and runs from Oviedo to Lugo and then onto Santiago.
The Aragonese Way (Camino Aragonés) is the continuation into Spain of the French Vía Tolosana, the Arles route. The Aragonese Way begins in the Pyrenees Mountains at Sompor and runs through Jaca to finish just east of Puente la Reina, where it joins the Camino francés.
The Arles Way (Chemin d’Arles) begins in the French city of Arles in Provence and was traditionally the route used by pilgrims traveling to Santiago de Compostela from Italy and the South of France This route joins the French Way at Puente la Reina, which is 20km south of Pamplona.
The English Way (Camino Inglés) Starts out from the north Spanish port city of Ferrol and this route was traditionally mostly used by pilgrims coming from Northern Europe, Britain and Ireland. It’s also possible to begin this Camino route from the city of A Coruña, but as the distance to Santiago is less than 100km pilgrims who walk this way won’t be eligible for their Compostela.
The Finisterre Way (Camino Fisterra) is unique because it is the only Camino which begins in Santiago de Compostela. This walk leads to the Atlantic Coast and once reached pilgrims would often burn their clothes as a symbol of rebirth. Finisterre translates as “The end of the world”, but was (and is still today for many pilgrims) the place of new beginnings and a place of spiritual transformation for the pilgrim.
The Jaume Way or Camí de Sant Jaume (Camino Catalán) traditionally starts in Montserrat, near the city of Barcelona, and finishes in Logroño (capital of La Rioja) where it joins up with the French Way.
The Madrid Way (Camino de Madrid) starts off right in the centre of the Spanish capital city and meets up with the Camino Francés at Sahagún, from where it continues on to Santiago de Compostela.
The Via de la Plata (Camino Mozárabe) crosses the whole of Spain from south to north and begins in Sevilla, meeting up with the Camino Francés at Astorga, from where it continues on to Santiago de Compostela.
The Portuguese Way (Camino Portugués) reaches Santiago from Lisbon and goes via the Galician border town of Tui, located 100km from Santiago de Compostela.
The Le Puy Way (Chemin du Puy) is the most popular of the Camino routes in France and starts in Le Puy-en-Velay, which is close to the French city of Lyon. The Le Puy Way continues from the Geneva Way and the Cluny Way and joins up with the French Way in Saint-Jean-Pied de Port.
The Tunnel Route (Via de Bayona / Camino Vasco del Interiór) links the French Camino route of Voie Littorale to the Camino Francés via the old Roman road through the San Adrian Tunnel. The Tunnel Route starts out at the Spanish border town of Hendaye and forks out at the town of Estavillo to join the Camino Francés at either Santo Domingo de la Calzada or Burgos.
There are also other numerous Camino walking options in Europe which have Santiago de Compostela as their final destination and as a few examples you can walk official Camino routes from Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Netherlands, Poland, Switzerland.
I have read that most pilgrims complete their Camino in Santiago de Compostela, but that some walk on to Finisterre. Do you recommend walking on to Finisterre of just finishing in Santiago?
The simple answer is that it really is up to you. If when you reach Santiago you feel that you have enough time and energy to continue on to Finisterre then I definitely recommend walking this Camino route. If when you reach Santiago you feel that you have reached your final destination (as the vast majority of pilgrims do), then Santiago is a great city to hang up your boots and kick back while taking in the beautiful sights and atmosphere of the city. I can’t help but stress that your Camino is your way.
Do I need to learn some Spanish for the walk? (I’m going to be walking from St. Jean to Santiago)
You don’t have to learn any Spanish (Castilian) because almost everywhere along the way there will always be at least someone who can communicate in English, but I definitely recommend learning at least some basic words and phrases in Spanish simply as a way of showing respect for the local culture and it’s quite amazing what a difference even knowing a few basic words in a local language such as “Thank you” and “Please” will mean in terms of positive interaction with locals along the way. Spanish is a beautiful language – and one of the easier languages to pick up – and besides, it’s fun learning a new language even if it does mean speaking broken Spanish. Right? Right! Other languages spoken along the Camino Francés include Basque and Galician, or Galego. It naturally follows that if you choose to walk the Camino de Santiago from another country such as from Le Puy in France for example, then you will find it helpful to learn a few phrases and salutations in the French language.
What does “Buen Camino” mean?
This is the salutation which pilgrims say to each other along the way and means “Good Journey!” You might also hear pilgrims exclaiming “Ultreia!” and this simply translates as “Beyond!” or “Onwards!”
Is the Camino route safe?
The vast majority of pilgrims walk the Camino and return home with wonderful memories and new-found friendships which are set in stone. The Camino is safe but I would suggest that you be extra vigilant about your personal belongings in the larger towns/cities. On my summer 2013 Camino I was unfortunate to have had my rucksack stolen from under my head as I slept outside (in a bus shelter and on a relatively busy road) approx 50km from Santiago, and I did hear the odd story here and there about someone having something stolen in an albergue where they were staying for the night. Luckily though, apart from my little disaster, I didn’t personally witness or hear first hand any other accounts of theft from my numerous fellow pilgrims along the way and there were also no recounts at all of any violent crime. The only other possible concern would be that the Camino sometimes joins up with a main road and this should be a time when you are extra focussed regarding the flow of oncoming traffic. Still though, the overall feedback is that the Camino is safe and I think that the amount of single female pilgrims walking the route is testament to this aspect of the Camino.
I have seen many Camino walking tours advertised. Should I fork out the money for one or can I easily go it alone?
There are Camino tour operators which advertise Camino tour experiences – and I’m sure they all provide a great service by the looks of the relatively high prices they charge – but I personally don’t see the logic or need to invest in a Camino walking tour when its so easy to meet other supportive, sociable, and friendly pilgrims along the way. Be adventurous and set out on your Camino independently, with a friend, or with a group of friends!
Is the heat an issue in summer, given that Spain is a hot country to visit?
Regarding the Camino Francés, when I took my flight from Prague for my summer 2013 Camino I was surprised at just how green the landscape below looked as my plane began its descent into Bilbao airport. This wasn’t the arid desert topography which I had assumed made up Spain’s landscape. I was even further surprised when I discovered that the nights and early mornings were often chilly and wet in Galicia (north western Spain). Sure, some days were hot and I found myself seeking out shade a number of times, but the climate in northern Spain wasn’t anywhere near as hostile as I had assumed and overall I felt mostly comfortable temperature-wise throughout my Camino walk from St. Jean Pied de Port to Finisterre. Ironically, it was the cold mornings and nights which made me wish I’d brought a fleece with me – most notably as I descended down to the little hamlet of Manjarin and where I was welcomed by a couple of pseudo Knights Templars at their albergue (donativo), with several pilgrims huddled around an open fire and warming their hands in the cold of the night. Of course though if you were to walk the Camino Mozárabe for example then you would definitely feel a lot more heat and intense sunshine. The general rule of thumb no matter which Camino route you walk is to always apply sunscreen, cover your head, and drink plenty of water.
How should I physically prepare for the walk?
It is essential that you prepare before walking your Camino and the most basic way is to walk everyday leading up to your day of departure. It is also essential to make sure that your walking boots or shoes are fully walked in before you leave.
What’s a typical day like on the Camino?
Pilgrims wake up before 7am to grab breakfast and then begin walking for the day. The day is spent walking, taking occasional breaks / food and water stops, until its time to find an albergue for the night, eat dinner, and sleep. The magic happens during the day during the walk as you meet with pilgrims and share stories, discuss life, making new friends and very often relationships which blossom into a loving relationship between 2 pilgrims who have found their paths meet on the way. Of course there is the often gorgeous landscape as a backdrop and peppered with beautiful villages, vibrant cities, and calming fields of corn in contrast to vineyards and olive groves to feast the eye on. Then there is the mental journey which each day brings: overcoming pain and fatigue, and becoming more focussed as your mind follows your decisive steps forward with a sense of happiness, purpose and self-achievment. The beauty of the Camino is that there really is no typical day.
What should I take on the Camino?
The answer is as little as possible and then half it again. You really need to understand that you will build some type of relationship with your rucksack as you walk along the Camino path and the lighter and more efficient your bag, the healthier and happier that relationship will be.
How much does it cost?
Some pilgrims are able to survive on as little as 5 Euro per day by sleeping outside and eating frugally, while other pilgrims who stay in albergues who eat their meals at a cafe / restaurant / albergue, and who enjoy the odd glass of wine or beer here and there will spend roughly 20 to 30 Euro per day.
Am I fit enough to undertake the walk?
Only yourself or your doctor can answer this question. Some people do die on the Camino. It’s extremely rare but it has happened and the occasional photos and tributes to the deceased who fell along the way are testament to this, albeit most of the fallen pilgrims were of more advanced years (please do stop for a few minutes thought in silence whenever you come across a pilgrim remembrance stone along the way. Thank you). Remember that you can walk the Camino at your own pace and you can decide for yourself how many kilometres you are going to walk in one day: it’s not a race to the end, but the experience of the journey. You also can choose to walk a part of the way only – for example the final 100km to Santiago from the town of Sarria if you are walking the Camino Francés. Alternatively, if you begin the Camino and then start to feel very tired at the end of each day then there is always the option of catching a train or bus to complete a partial section of the Camino and again, it’s your path. The vast majority of pilgrims do complete their Camino in full health and experience only (minor) blisters and sore feet and limbs. I was 41 last summer when I walked the 900km distance between St. Jean Pied de Port and Finisterre and I only found that the Camino made me feel fitter and healthier (physically and mentally) as each day passed, but not everyone is the same and if you are much older or if you have experienced serious health issues in the past then best check with your doctor or health representative first and then base your Camino decision upon that professional advice.
Do you have to walk in a group from the start or can you go off on your own?
It isn’t a group organised walk (unless you have opted to spend out for an organised walking tour) and pilgrims walk freely along the way at their own pace and inclination. The Camino is your journey and almost everyone arrives to their starting point solo. However, I think it is rare that anyone walks into Santiago without an amazing friend or friends accompanying them with beautiful memories and true smiles.
What time of year is best to walk the Camino?
The answer to this question really depends on your schedule and when you can afford the time off, and of course on the weather and also whether you want to be walking with more or less other pilgrims. Regarding the Camino Francés, in winter it can get very cold and wet and at this time of year many albergues and restaurants are closed. Summer for me was a wonderful time for my Camino, but the last 100km walk into Santiago felt suffocating what with the amount of the “100km Pilgrim posse” who walk the minimum amount of km required so that they can obtain their Compostela. I will be walking my next Camino from Prague to Finisterre in spring and I have heard from other pilgrims that both spring and autumn are the most optimum times for the walk because the climate tends to be more temperate and there aren’t the crowds which accumulate in the last 100km bottleneck, and plus the landscape is more vibrant and colourful in these seasons.
I don’t have so much time to spare. Could I begin my walk a little later along the Camino – for example in Leon – and walk from there to Santiago?
Absolutely! It’s your Camino and you can choose to begin (and finish) wherever and whenever you wish. Some pilgrims for example who don’t have the luxury of time to be able to walk their whole Camino route at one time divide up heir walk over a few years, so that one year they might walk from St.Jean to Burgos, the next year returning to walk from Burgos to Leon, and so forth. Other pilgrims simply choose to start off for example in Leon and finish up on one trip in Santiago, whilst others are content with walking the last 100km from Sarria to Santiago. Again, it is your Camino and you can walk it how you like.
Where do pilgrims eat along the Camino?
The norm for breakfast is to either have something bought the day before to snack on, or to catch breakfast at a cafe or restaurant. When I walked my Camino this summer past I took my Italian cafeteria, a small gas heater, and a bag of coffee with me so that every morning I could enjoy a fine cup of coffee without needing to stake out a place selling coffee (which can be very difficult when you decide to make an extra early start to your day). From my observations, during the day pilgrims tend to grab a bocadillo (baguette sandwich) and in the evening it was common to visit a restaurant (or at the albergue itself) and order from the Pilgrim Menu which seemed the standard affair wherever there was a cafe or restaurant in the vicinity and on the route. Evening meals are often provided for in request for a donation at donativo allergies, whilst some other times communal meals were cooked and with all pilgrims contributing to the cost of the meal.
I’m Vegetarian. Will this pose a challenge on the Camino for me?
Your choice of food options will naturally be more limited than if you were a carnivore, but on the whole you won’t find yourself going hungry and particularly along the Camino Francés you will find numerous vegetarian and vegan eating options. I myself walked my summer 2013 Camino as a meat eater but will now be walking my spring 2014 Camino as a vegetarian.
What are the most common injuries which pilgrims incur along the way?
On my summer 2013 Camino I met up with a few pilgrims along the way who had terrible blisters on their feet, with some pilgrims going as far as abandoning their walk and returning home because of the severity of their condition. Every pilgrim whom I spoke to who had severe blisters did admit that they either hadn’t done any pre-Camino walking, or hadn’t walked their walking boots or shoes in sufficiently before leaving home. Naturally when you walk such a long distance you may experience a twisted ankle or pulled leg muscle for example, but with sufficient pre-Camino planning and by not over-exerting yourself on the Camino you shouldn’t suffer really that much. The most demanding aspect of the walk for many pilgrims tends to take the form of sporadic psychological discomfort: it is often a long way to Santiago and when on some stretches of the walk you can see perhaps 100km ahead of you, then the fight begins in your head and you begin to question your will to proceed. For me, the constant kilometre countdown signs to Santiago along the way do not help this mental battle at all.
How do you feel by the end of the walk?
Sore, tired, exhausted even, but absolutely amazing; and not just at the end but throughout the walk. Simply put: el Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a true experience of a lifetime.
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Thank you and Buen Camino!