An antique map in the streets of Belorado

A Very Brief History of el Camino de Santiago

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.

Our Journey

The scallop shell is ubiquitous along the Camino

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. 

Follow the Yellow Arrows (Sigue las flechas amarillas)

An example of the various route markers

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!

Some Towns not to be Missed

Refuelling for the day ahead at 'la fuente del vino' in Irache

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.

Some Useful Tips

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: 

  1. Pack as lightly as you can (the recommendation is no more than 10% of your bodyweight). Most albergues will have washing facilities, and for days when you’re feeling exceptionally weary, there are also services that will transport your bag from one town to the next for a fee of 5 Euros.
  2. Have sturdy boots or shoes that you have worn in for at least six months.
  3. You don’t need to be in peak physical condition to start the walk, however don’t overdo the first week if you have not done a lot of distance walking – ease yourself into condition.
  4. Walking poles are a great way to help reduce the repeated stress on your knees.
  5. Where there is a detour along the route, do the detour. The walking may be more challenging but you will almost always be rewarded with incredible views.
  6. If you are travelling in high-season it is best to start early to both beat the heat and the rush for accommodation in some towns.
  7. Take your time … those pilgrims that we met who had a strict deadline seemed to find a lot more to complain about.


The Importance of Language

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:

If you are planning on walking El Camino at some stage, enjoy the planning, preparation, and every step of the walk. ¡Buen camino!

With our compostelas - written in Latin and confirming that we have completed the pilgramage

The incredible cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

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