Since you are reading this travel column, you doubtless have heard of El Camino de Santiago – the famous, UNESCO World Heritage pilgrimage path that runs for almost 500 miles across the top of Spain, from St. Jean Pied de Port in southwest France to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain. As you likely know, the path commemorates Jesus’ disciple St. James (“Santiago” in Spanish), who preached in Spain and whose remains were miraculously found in a field there in the year 830, and were then entombed in Galicia by King Alfonso II. In the Middle Ages up to half a million pilgrims per year trekked to the tomb, making it the third most popular pilgrimage route after Rome and Jerusalem.
But you probably do not know some of the following tips, which will help you if you decide to tackle El Camino.
First, there is not one Camino, there are many. There are at least fifteen major, sacred, approved paths to get to Santiago de Compostela, although by far the most popular is the traditional inland route across the rolling hills of northern Spain, called the Camino Francés. A more scenic but rather difficult route, the Camino del Norte, runs right along the north coast of Spain, dipping down into every river gorge. Two routes run north mostly inside Portugal, with only short stretches in Spain.
Second, if you want to get the treasured Pilgrim’s Certificate, the Compostela, you don’t have to walk the entire route from France. You only need to hike or ride a horse the last 100 kilometers to Santiago, beginning at the town of Sarria on the Camino Francés or the same distance on other routes. But be sure to get at least two stamps per day in your Pilgrim’s Passport during your trip, since the Certificate officials in Santiago are quite strict.
Third, parts of the traditional Camino Francés route run beside roads with noisy truck traffic, and are not at all scenic. Think of these as penance for your many sins!
Fourth, bedbugs can be a plague if you stay in the many albergues (special hostels for walkers carrying Pilgrims’ Passports) along the Camino Francés. The solution: carry a sleeping bag liner and light sleeping bag, both liberally sprayed with permethrin. And spray your backpack and other luggage, too. (If you get bedbugs anyway – more good penance!)
Fifth, if you use the classic Camino Francés route, and are not in great shape, do not start in the usual town of St. Jean Pied de Port. The first twenty miles of this route are very rugged, steep hills — the most difficult of the entire trail. Even our car had trouble climbing some of those hills. Start forty miles or more inside France to get fit.
Sixth, you don’t have to walk to enjoy the Camino. We walked short, scenic sections of the Camino Francés and the Camino del Norte, and drove a rental car on two separate trips to northern Spain. That way we were able to hit the highlights, we didn’t have to spend five weeks walking, and our knees thanked us! We didn’t get a Compostela Certificate, however.
Seventh, before you go, see the 2010 Hollywood movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen and Emilo Estavez. The plot revolves around an American doctor whose son has died on the Camino, and the doctor decides to walk the route himself. The film has a lot of rude repartee, but it does capture some of the spirit of the Camino. The project was inspired by Emilio’s 19-year-old son Taylor, who had traveled the Camino Francés and met his wife along the way.
Eighth and last, budget lots of time to see some of the fabulous sights of northern Spain — next month I will describe some of the highlights.
Photos courtesy Lew Toulmin