What is it?
I would really enjoy sharing with you one of the greatest experiences I have ever enjoyed. It was an experience that helped me come out of my 'hardened military shell' and into a more thoughtful, spiritual and open personality. It's a journey I wish to return to do again and again after that, and I really hope that you may do it too some time.
It is the ‘El Camino de Santiago’, or translated into English ‘The Way of St James’ also known by other names such as ‘Camino de Santiago’, or the long-winded version, ‘Camino de Santiago de Compostela’. Compostela referring to following the Milky Way as you walk from the east to the west, the same way the Milky Way rises and sets!
The El Camino de Santiago, commonly called the ‘Camino’, is an old Christian pilgrimage to the north-western Spanish city of Santiago from all over Europe, that is traced back to the 11th century. However the route on which the pilgrimage lays is much older, being a trade route during Roman occupation. There is some belief too, that it may have been used as a Celtic Pilgrimage to follow the setting of the Milky Way to Finisterre, (Latin for end of the world) a coastal township further on from Santiago, still used today as an alternative ending for the Camino.
The pilgrimage came about when, as the story goes, Saint James’ (the believed brother of Jesus) bones were discovered in a boat made of stone, on the Northern Coastline of Spain. His bones were then taking inland and buried where they were, much later on, rediscovered by a hermit attracted to a cave in which a light was shining from. A pilgrimage route was then made by the Pope of this time.
Which coincided at the same time the ‘Moors’ (North African invaders of Spain) where reaching the last of the Northern Christian Kingdoms of modern-day Spain. These Christians Kingdoms needed some allies fast; hence a couple of Pilgrims being attacked would draw the famous pilgrim protectors, the ‘Knights Templars’ into action, leading to another Crusade.
Nowadays you do not need to worry about invading armies or liberating knights. Nope, not at all, the route is now set up for travellers of all ages, experiences, time and finance budgets, nationalities, comfort seekers and practically everything else!
Where is it!?
The most common route, Camino Frances, which traditionally starts in 'St Jean Pied de Port', France, is a 780 km (485 mi) route. However some will walk from further afield, like people I meet from Poland, Scandinavia and even the Ukraine!! However to qualify as a Pilgrim, you only need to walk a 100km of the route into Santiago.
The ‘Camino Frances’ lies across the Northern regions of Spain and the French Pyrenees. You will cross over the many regions, all with their own cultures, languages (Spanish being the main language) and cuisines.
The first will be the Basque region, a proud and independent people with a strong, hardy and defiant heritage. The Basque region you travel through is a steep mountainous area where the storms will come and go in a blink and the fog will drop visibility to a couple of feet ahead of you!
Next will be the Navarre region, this lush and green rolling hill country side is a great relief coming from the Basque Country! And when you make it into 'Pamplona', yes the running of the bulls’ city, you by amazed by a vibrant and lovely cultured city!
La Rioja Country, this country side is amazing with its hill-top villages, castles and forts, long vineyards (plus great wine too) and nice level terrain, you will be memorised by the unique beauty of this little corner of Spain. You will then entire into ‘Burgos’, a lovely and old city with a most impressive Cathedral, well worth a tour.
Castilla y LeÃ³n
Castilla y León region is next. You will start to descend out of the hilly country side into the flat and long scenery of Castilla and Leon. You will have time to think and reflect to yourself here, as some parts are long, hot and dry. This is the moment of endurance as you only think about pushing on to the end goal. However rest assured that ‘León’ another of Spain’s amazing, old and historic cities will give you some comforts and rest!
Galicia; a Celtic outpost, yes still Celtic due to its mountainous isolation, is where Santiago lies. This breath-taking mountainous country side is steep and rocky, with its villages that cling, defying gravity, to the mountain sides, and its ancient pass will entrap you as well.
Santiago; you have made it, the feeling of achievement and happiness will be very overpowering. As you walk into the old city, a large open area dominated by the towering spires of the Santiago Cathedral itself, you will reunite with old pilgrim friends from along your journey. And you will all look into one another’s eye and, without words, congratulate each other on your achievements. From here you should attend the Pilgrims mass, held within the Cathedral. Now you decide whether to end it here, or continue to Finisterre, the ‘end of the world’.
Finesterra; about another three days hike onwards, or a bus if you wish, from Santiago. Here it is the custom to head to the end of the peninsular, in which was once believed to be the end of the world before the Americas were discovered, and follow the tradition of burning a article (or all) of clothing, washing yourself in the surf and then watching the sunset. This represents burning and washing your pass away for a new life ahead, and watching the sun set on your final day of your new life.
Why would I want to do this!?
I know what you’re asking? Why the heck, would I want to submit myself to a tough and gruelling holiday! Well quick answer, the overall experience!
You are going meet people from all over the world, and you will share your cultures, your humour, your stories and your problems and joys too. Your friendships will be that of lifelong friends, even today, 4 years on, I receive Christmas cards from my European, Asian and American friends!
You will gain a unique insight into an old and ancient land full of cultures, tradition and amazing history. Plus you will feel a sense of spirituality, as you venture deeper into your Camino. It cannot be helped, you will hear and read the stories of the countless pilgrims, from over a thousand years, who have made the route and laid the path for you, and you will understand that you are taking part in something far greater than a simple hiking holiday.
What would I need to do and take?
Well, dependant on your time and budget, I would first work out where you would want to start. To start from Saint Jean Pied de Port, the French town in the Pyrenees, the traditional starting stage you will be looking at a 4-6 week journey. However you can start anywhere you wish, closer or further afield. What I would recommend is to buy the guidebook below. It is the most commonly used and is printed in all languages, so you can communicate with your non English reading friends who will most likely have it too. It shows all the stopping points, historic points, lengths and inclines/declines and allows you to plan your day or entire trip.
Other items you will definitely need are a really good pair of hiking boots and socks, a good quality backpack and ear plugs. When you sleep in the Albergues (Pilgrim’s Hostel) you will understand why you will need earplugs. Then other items, like hiking clothes, toiletries and camera. Remember, you are carrying all this on your back, pack light!
Do your research, feel free to contact me for any advice, and be assured that this is one of the greatest things you could ever undertake. So, until next time, allow me to say the Camino de Santiago greeting, and farewell of,
Beun Camino, good Camino.