Year after year, Camino de Santiago gains popularity. In 2015 alone, over 262 thousand pilgrims walked the way towards Santiago de Compostela, a town in Galicia, northern Spain, where St. James’s remains were supposedly buried. Initially a Christian trail, nowadays this picturesque path hosts wanderers of all and no religion. So, what is it all about and can you still squeeze in along the way without stepping on somebody’s foot?
The first good news I have to share is that not all 262 thousand pilgrims walk the same trail at the same time. Plus, it covers quite a huge chunk of land… They just all share the same destination, Santiago. Traditionally, every pilgrimage starts the moment you cross your doorstep, and some indeed still set out from the most remote of places. However what has brought fame to the route nowadays, is the infrastructure. Most beaten paths, like Camino Francés, the French way, that stretches all the way from Franco-Hispanic border in the Pyrenees up to the common destination in Galicia, are dotted not only with yellow arrows and characteristic shells that mark the way, but also with affordable accommodation exclusively for pilgrims. The latter are called albergues (or gîtes d’étape in France) and are everything from simple hostels through adapted spaces in monasteries to modest mattresses thrown down in sports halls. They’d usually cost you anywhere between 0-10€, since many of them are operated on a donation basis (donativos) and all are thought to be accessible for every pocket.
Hare and hounds
Now you’d ask, how do they distinguish pilgrims from any casual traveler? Have you ever played hare and hounds? That’s pretty much it. You need to collect stamps along your way to unlock next stages. Or, simply speaking to be recognized as a genuine pilgrim and as such granted access to St. James’s perks, like the cheap accommodation. For that purpose, you’d get yourself a passport. A special one. You can order it online (like anything these days, right?) or buy it for a few euros from any local parish, church, monastery, or often as well as from a tourist agency or office along the way (no, you don’t need to be religious for that matter). The credential needs to be regularly stamped as your journey progresses, since this record proves that you’ve accomplished the route in an honorable way, meaning either on foot, cycling or on horseback (well, donkeyback counts as well, if you fancy). Otherwise, you might be rejected from any refugio (and yes, any smartass would find a way to cheat, but what’s the point?) Stamps can be collected pretty much everywhere where you find a passport and additionally in some restaurants, cafes or local attractions en route. The more popular the path you’ve chosen is, and the closer to destination you are, the more stamp-locations there are to be found.
She sells sea shells
There’s another way to easily spot a St. Jacob’s wanderer. It’s the omnipresent shell. You’d usually get the shell along with your credential, or buy it at a local souvenir shop. Most pilgrims attach it to their backpacks to be recognizable to their fellow travelers and to show(off) their status. The walkers are usually much respected by the locals and on occasions invited to stay at their homes. It is, of course, much more likely to happen when there’s still long way to go ahead of you and there’s not an overwhelming amount of pilgrims frequenting the path of your choice. For that matter, if you don’t care much about Compostela (certificate of completation of the pilgrimage) and want to feel even more unique, you may as well follow a less common route starting beyond Spain and finishing when it gets crowded. A few years ago, I chose the northern path (Camino del Norte) all the way from Bayonne in France along the coast until Comillas in Cantabria, which makes almost 400 kilometers. I started in a random place, walked for three weeks and finished in another random place once I ran out of time. In France one could really feel special. It was the middle of summer, yet there were just a few pilgrims about and you would be stopped on your way and asked about your experience. I would be invited to people’s homes and the few but repeatedly seen faces of my fellow travelers would quickly become friendly. Though with every kilometer, the albergues would become more and more full and one had to take care to arrive in time to be sure to secure a spot for the night.
The early bird regime
You might take it slow, but if you’re staying at public refugios there’s no way to sleep in. In best case scenario you’d be kicked out at 8am, feeling very weird as most of the neighboring beds would have been long empty. I’m definitely not an early bird myself and the above reason on its own would be strong enough to convince me to rather spend the night outside in my hammock at times, just to be able to sleep in until the first beams of sunlight would force me to move on. Yet most pilgrims have a different strategy, which means leaving their beds and hitting the road between 5-7am (or even earlier in extreme cases) and reaching the next stage (usually 10-30km further) before noon. This is actually very wise, bearing in mind how hot it might get in summer. That way you have enough time to drop off your stuff (keep it light!) at the next shelter and venture out to do some sightseeing before you hit the sack exhausted at 8pm. If you aim to stay exclusively at public shelters along the way, this afternoon will probably be all the time you have to discover the town, since albergues usually only allow you stay a single night, unless you’re injured or sick.
All roads lead to Rome (oh wait, Santiago!)
Nowadays there’s around dozen different routes in Iberian Peninsula alone, which all are considered to be Camino de Santiago. Camino Primitivo, starting in Oviedo is considered to be the oldest path, though it’s Camino Francés, the last bit of Via Regia, which is the most frequented these days. It is the central spine, so to say, which brings together many routes and leads them to the end. Although you can trek the Portuguese route starting in Lisbon, or leave Barcelona walking. However I don’t want to clip your wings, since you can even start in Italy, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, or… Jerusalem, where St. James’s body is thought to have be taken from before ending all the way west in Galicia. Just remember though, the further away you start, the less perks you get. In Spain or Portugal, you really don’t need a map to find your way, since yellow arrows clearly mark the trail. This might not be the case in Germany or Poland.
No matter which route you take, pushing one’s body to its limit is always unforgettable. All the more, when it’s accompanied with mind-opening natural beauty, an overwhelming sense of freedom and generous hospitality. And hell… if you walk hundreds miles by yourself, you can tick off meditation for next couple of decades.