“You’re off to do what?” “A Pilgrimage!” My friends eye me with more than a modicum of scepticism. Have I totally flipped?  Am I seeking redemption for some dastardly deed? 

Legend has it that the bones of St. James (Santiago), a disciple of Jesus, were washed up on the shores of Galicia in a stone boat. Discovered by a hermit monk in the hills of Compostela around 813, they were verified and sanctified by the local bishop. 

King Alfonso 2nd visited the site, built a chapel and made Santiago the patron saint of Spain. In 1189 Pope Alexander 3rd declared Santiago de Compostela a holy city. All who completed the pilgrimage would receive 50% dispensation from their time in purgatory. 100% if the journey was made in a “Holy Year” when “Dia de Santiago” fell on a Sunday. 

Needless to say, thousands of pilgrims from all of Europe flocked over the Pyrenees to take advantage of the deal. They risked frostbite, starvation, attacks by bandits and Moorish armies. Towns, churches, albergues (hostels) grew up along the route to feed, house, and minister to the spiritual needs of the masses. Fervour peaked when Christianity regained control of the region, and waned throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. 

In 1982 Pope John Paul paid a visit. In 1987 the EU declared The Camino to be Europe’s first cultural itinerary, earmarking 1800 historic buildings along the route. In 1993 UNESCO declared Santiago a world-heritage sight. July 25th “Dia de Santiago” is a Spanish national holiday. 

With all this hype, The Camino has a new lease on life. Today’s pilgrims (70,000 last year) are a mixed bag. Religious. Cure seekers. Mid-life crisis solvers. Hey – Why not take time to bond with your mother? 

Others come to amble through unspoilt countryside and the fascinating towns and villages of northern Spain. Where else can you pay for accommodation by donation? Whatever the initial motive, no one returns without being touched by the experience. 

To do the job properly a pilgrim can choose from a handful of ancient routes. The Camino Frances, for example, begins in Paris, Le Puy, Vezelay or Arles. Many choose to begin in Spain. Some attack it in chunks, returning year after year. A good walker can cover the distance from the French/Spanish Pyrenean border in around a month. 

We were grazers. Cherry pickers. With 3 weeks to spare and nothing to prove we decided to ‘walk the walk’ (usually, although we did hitch a bus even a cab on occasion!), do the sights, try the wine and sample the food. So here’s the scoop. 

Easyjet flies from London’s Stansted Airport to Bilbao. Book on-line early and the deals are phenomenal. You’ve got to do the Guggenheim Museum (Closed monday). It should only take a day. 

The train from Bilbao to Leon is 9 hours of heaven – right up with “great train journeys of the world” as it weaves slowly through pretty valleys and across the flatlands of Meseta. Bring your own food and get there early. It’s cheap (C$27) and popular. 

We officially become pilgrims in Leon. We acquire “credencials” or pilgrim passports at the Monasterio de Benedictinas. It is a 7-leaf document to be stamped along the way at hostals, hotels and pensions. Essential if you plan on staying at municipal albergues and required if you want a “compostela” at journey’s end. 

I lift my pack with more respect than usual. It will remain on my back for 140 kilometres. A daunting thought. To lighten the load I have decanted my Scotch supply into a “roll-up” bladder pack. I even chucked my shaving foam for a tiny bottle of useless “whisker wizard” to save weight.  I will surely be crippled by lunchtime! 

The Camino is clearly marked with painted yellow arrows. Scallop shells, once a pilgrim’s tool for scooping water, are synonymous with the route. They decorate fences, doors, manhole covers and church walls. They hang from every backpack often hidden by underwear drying in the morning sun. They adorn each regularly placed milestone showing the remaining distance to Santiago. 

By the end of day #3, my body feels like it has been trashed by a Mack truck! (It gets better with time!) Yes, we take time out.  Why not, we are “cherry pickers.” We travel a 100km by bus to the magnificent old capital of Lugo. The 2 kilometer Roman wall is the finest in Spain and a magnet to joggers. Definitely worth the time, effort….. and the break – Phew! 

We bus to Ponferrada for a sidetrip to Las Medulas where 3 million kilos of gold, mined by armies of slaves, financed the building of the Roman Empire. The evidence is tough to see on foot. 

Northern Spain has not been subjected to the tourist boom of The Costa Brava or The Costa Del Sol. Residents go about their day without the need for “Fish & Chips” MacDonald’s, Starbucks or English! (Bring your dictionary). Here, a “Café con leche grande” is considered the perfect way to jump-start the day – perhaps with a splash of cognac on the side. 

Business hours are traditionally Spanish. Civilised but irritating to spoilt North Americans. Shops close from 2pm to 5pm. Restaurants serve lunch between 2pm and 4pm. With a 10pm curfew at most public albergues some restaurants offer an early “pilgrim menu del dia” for a remarkable C$10 (3 courses and 1⁄2 litre of wine) from 8pm on - the only compromise to tourism. 

The trail doglegs through villages lined with stone-built slate roofed houses. Past tiny churches. Storks choose flat belfries to build huge nests and pop up like finger puppets when a summons to evensong peals out. 

It’s April. Lambs are suckling. Dewey-eyed foals see life for the first time. Flowers are blooming. The Camino becomes a stream with thoughtfully placed stepping-stones. Centuries old trees provide a canopy from the midday sun. We are passed by “keeners” anxious to make time. Soon, the faces become familiar friends. We read a memorial to an old pilgrim who died en route. 

We are lucky to arrive during “Semana Santa.” Easter week. Processions in Leon and Astorga are riveting, colourful affairs. Each is worth an extra day or two. Jesus and The Virgin Mary are carried on the shoulders of hooded men from surrounding suburbs and villages. Bands play. Bars do a roaring trade between shifts. It’s a thirsty job! 

Sometimes we must follow a highway but more often The Camino will snake up through a eucalyptus forest or along a farm track. We come face to face with cows heading for the dairy. 

Comfortable walking shoes and woollen hiking socks save our feet from blisters. Water from ancient fountains and wells is safe to drink unless marked “no portable” so a couple of 1 litre bladder-packs do the job. 

We vary our accommodations. Immaculate rooms in small hotels are a bargain at C$35/$49. Private “albergues” offer dormitories with all the bed linen provided. Public albergues – refugios - are more basic but great places to share a bottle of wine and a story with an eclectic bunch of people. These are generally run by the municipalities and the concept of “pay by donation” goes back 1000 years. 

The last hill seems never ending. We break up the day with a picnic lunch beside a stream. Pilgrims are supposed to wash their “parts” here before heading into the final stretch. Can’t arrive in Santiago smelling like a skunk! I test the freezing water and rely on a morning shower to see me through. 

We struggle up Monte de Gozo past radio towers and TV stations. We have learned to watch our feet rather than the hill ahead. It flattens out. The giant steeples of Santiago’s massive cathedral appear in the haze. The end is in sight! It’s downhill from now on. 

We experience a huge feeling of elation heading through the outskirts of this ancient city. We are following the well-trodden path of millions who came before us. We proudly present our “credencials” at the “Oficina del Peregrinos.” Did we walk the mandatory last 100 kilometres? Did we ride a horse or perhaps a bike - which requires 200 kilometres to qualify. Were our intentions “religious” or “other”? Compostelas – certificates - proudly in hand, we head through narrow alleys to the cathedral. 

Each day, a noon mass is held for newly arrived pilgrims. Names are read. Eight priests haul the “botofumeiro,” a huge silver smoke-belching incense burner, into the air. It swings dramatically from side to side like a giant pendulum. We have reached our goal. The bones of St James are safely stashed in a casket in the crypt. 

We ate “Pulpa” in Melide. “Cocina Maragato” in Astorga. “Quiexo Tetilla” – nipple cheese – in Arzua. We shared bars with families pushing baby strollers. We found new friends from Germany, Holland and Belgium. We felt like spoilt guests in a corner of Spain still locked in a traditional time warp. Best of all, we made it and we have the Compostelas to prove it. 



It may sound like a stroll in the park but do you walk 15 to 25kms every day with a pack on your back? Build your strength before you go. 

WHAT TO PACK: Half a dozen t-shirts – 6 pairs good, double layer, wool walking socks. 2 pairs of quick dry zip off pants. Fleece. Thin wool sweater. Gore-Tex jacket. Sun hat. Worn-in walking shoes. Sandals. Moleskin. Sunscreen. Extra lightweight sleeping bag. Spain is a civilised country – anything you forget is available. 

SHOULD YOU PAY TO JOIN A GROUP? There is absolutely no need to. You will meet lots of nice people and you can send your luggage – and yourself - ahead by cab (Approx $1.40 per Km) if you are really desperate. Just go and enjoy! 

CYCLING: Many people cycle the Camino. Though not a cyclist myself, I imagine you would need a strong off road mountain bike. Walkers receive priority at public albergues. 

WHEN TO GO: Spring and fall are the best times. Cooler weather. Less crowded. No problems with accommodation. If you go in summer try to book your accommodation ahead. Try for Easter – It’s magical! 

COSTS: For a civilised European country – it’s a steal. $60 a day will keep you in reasonable comfort. Half that if you stay in public albergues.


Copyright © 2007 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.