The Way of St James (el Camino de Santiago) is considered one of the most important pilgrimages in Christianity and today is completed by in excess of 300,000 pilgrims annually. Following the purported discovery of the remains of St James the Greater in the early 9th century, the city of Santiago de Compostela emerged in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula and became a destination for Christian pilgrims from across Europe. Where today pilgrims will begin their journey in one of several traditional start points - we commenced in the small French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port - and follow a well-marked route, pilgrims of yore walked from their own front door as well as completed the journey home by foot.
In the Spanish Autumn of 2015, my partner Katherine and I, alongside both of our mothers, walked El Camino de Santiago. Upon blistered feet and weary bones we spent 37 days navigating this ancient pilgrim route from the foothills of the Pyrenees in France to that fabled destination of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.
Walking the Camino is no mean feat (excuse the pun). The landscape varies markedly from arduous ascents and tricky descents in the Pyrenees and Navarra, to the flat rolling plains of la meseta (the 250km of plateau between Burgos and León), to the lush green countryside of Galicia. Perhaps as variable as the landscapes are the pilgrims you meet - their stories and their reason for walking offer a remarkable cross-section of culture, creed and commitment. For some the original idea of pilgrimage holds firm, while for others it is an opportunity to challenge oneself, to reflect on loss, to engage in the pursuit of ‘finding oneself’, or simply to fulfil a lifelong dream.
The route itself is marked by a yellow arrows hastily scrawled on footpaths or stonework, or more formally by way-markers in blue and yellow. The truth is it is difficult (although not impossible) to get lost. Every 5-6kms you come across another town - some small pueblos with only a café and a few dwellings, others grander cities like Pamplona, Burgos or León.
Almost all will have pilgrim accommodation in the form of hostels - albergues or refugios - to which your pilgrim passport (credencial) will grant access. A night’s accommodation often comes with the offer of a communal meal, which is a rich opportunity to learn a little more about your fellow pilgrims, as well as make an educated guess about who is likely to be a heavy snorer that night!
While there are several towns of note along the route, there are a few smaller gems that I would heartily recommend for a stop. Make sure you refuel at the feunte de vino in Irache - here you can fill up a bottle with wine flowing directly from source! Don't miss Santo Domingo de la Calzada in the famous wine region of La Rioja - this town is best known for its impressive cathedral which, unusually, has a glass box displaying a live hen and rooster - a homage to the role of some poultry in a miracle some centuries earlier. Another township where it is well worth spending a night is Castrojeriz. Here, in one of the albergues - Ultreia - we enjoyed a tour of a 1st Century wine cellar located below the property, shared a hearty meal and imbibed on some excellent local wine.
There are various blogs that offer a wealth of advice about what to pack, when to go, where to stay, and all the rest. However, a few general tips which I think could be useful, include:
A final piece of important advice is to have also studied some Spanish before departure. While English is increasingly common along the Camino, the experience is made that much richer by being able to communicate with the people running the hostels – hospitaleros – as well as locals in cafés, bars and post offices in their language. They will not only be impressed and respect your effort to express yourself in Spanish, but you may even find that you make some lifelong friends.
For information about the various Spanish courses available at El Patio, which can help to prepare you for the journey, have a look at our courses: www.elpatiospanish.com.au/courses.
If you are planning on walking El Camino at some stage, enjoy the planning, preparation, and every step of the walk. ¡Buen camino!
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By Chris McBrearty
August 7, 2019
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