Our starting point, León’s cathedral with its soaring towers and flying buttresses is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.
Heading into northwestern Spain, paved roads, stony pathways, wooded trails and cobbled streets all seem to lead to the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela. It has been a coveted destination for travelers from many walks of life and many levels of European society since the ninth century. Millions of people have walked, ridden donkeys and horses, or been carried to this most famous Christian pilgrimage site after Jerusalem and Rome, often taking months or even years to reach their goal.
While recent pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal and Medjugorje in Bosnia may now surpass Santiago for shear volume of visitors, the history-steeped Camino de Santiago (Road of St. James) across northern Spain has experienced an enthusiastic revival since the early 1980s. This has not only drawn new generations of believers but a global clientele of active travelers with a largely secular agenda of walking, cycling or even horseback riding through the picturesque, often challenging, countryside and historic townscapes, unchanged in many parts from the days of the earliest pilgrims.
The Camino de Santiago’s walking route comprises modern paved roads, cobbled streets, stony pathways, and dense forest trails.
Most people have a life list of accomplishments they hope to check off before they wind down; for me, walking a modest piece of the Camino de Santiago has been near the top for a while. Feeling the early stages of wind-down coming on, I figured it was time to get going on this one.
Now, I didn’t long to hike 750 kilometers or more from the French/Spanish Pyrenees border all the way to Santiago de Compostela, nor carry even a portion of my worldly goods on my back, nor share communal nights in the free pilgrim dormitories spaced out along the Camino. I am, after all, a North American for whom the term “soft adventure” has a nice ring, and a Baptist whose motivation to blend a high degree of discomfort into my pilgrim walk was substantially less than traditional Catholics may have thought acceptable.
Signing up for a walking tour from Leon to Santiago, I did seek a deep sense of the region’s history, and exposure to a culture and cuisine distinctively northern Spanish. I also wanted a chance to practice my rusty language skills, and test my walking abilities as I had never done before. Unlike actress and author, Shirley MacLaine, I had no interest in discovering past lives en route or even skeletons in my closet, but this adventure did affirm the excitement of a shared faith in the purest sense.
The imposing Convent of San Marcos in León was built in 1173 as a pilgrim hospital and resting place on the way to Santiago de Compostela. Today it serves as an elegantly restored and furnished parador (government-owned historic hotel).
As in times past, my fellow pilgrims each had their own reasons for being on the road. To my surprise, the majority of modern day walking travelers are far from youthful, and many of the dedicated marathon walkers are in their sixties and even seventies. Some are working their way through the entire Camino in two or three week holiday allotments over several years. Plenty of life lists are getting a check, I suspect.
Who was Santiago?
St. James (or Santiago in Spanish) was one of the original 12 apostles, a fisherman who left his nets by the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus and help establish the Christian faith. By tradition we are told that after Jesus’s death and resurrection, James traveled across the Mediterranean to Spain to preach. He returned to Jerusalem around 44 A.D. and was beheaded by Herod Agrippa. James was the first of the apostles to be martyred.
Legend goes that to prevent its desecration believers secretly carried the saint’s body back to Spain and buried it near the northern coast. There it lay undisturbed for nearly 800 years until 813 A.D. Within 100 years, people from all over the European continent were making the harrowing, frequently life-threatening, journey to pray at the gravesite. A church was soon built over the bones of this patron saint of Spain, and around it arose the town of Santiago de Compostela. By 1000 A.D. it was the most popular of all Christian pilgrimages.
Our two guides for the journey, Clara Moreno and Olga Muñoz, quickly demonstrated a comforting appreciation of our expectations and potential concerns. We weren’t going to be abandoned to find our own way through the maze of each day’s route, but neither were we going to be herded along like a group of school children.
Clara, who had walked and cycled our itinerary so many times she could do it with eyes shut tight, encouraged us to set a personal pace that might vary from day to day, and to walk alone as well as with different participants.
While staying in a 400-year-old, character-steeped country house, we joined the owner and our guide, Clara (right) in the kitchen for a culinary demonstration of creating the traditional Tortilla Espanola (Spanish Omelet).
“Always remember,” she promised, “that one of the guides will be at the back as ‘the sweep’ to make sure everyone is accounted for at the end of the day.” Alternating days as sweep and driver, Clara and Olga took turns driving the van full of luggage, as well as shopping and preparing food for snacks and lunch.
Our guide, Olga, draws our attention to a primitive roadside drying and storage structure.
Olga’s excellent command of the English language included the latest expressions acquired while recently completing a university degree in England. To our delight, her thesis was on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the pilgrimage route to Canterbury. She is part of a team encouraging British tourism to do the same professional job of developing the historic walking possibilities there as Spanish tourism has done with the Camino. Each morning when we met for breakfast, we were given a descriptive handout of special sites along the route, a map, snacks, and bottled water. As we set off, each at our own pace, we wished each other Buen Camino!, roughly equivalent to “Have a nice day!” offered as a greeting by pilgrims to one other.
There is no denying that we traveled as privileged pilgrims (rather like the noble men and women of old, I liked to imagine), burdened with nothing more than a few personal belongings, attended by excellent servants (read “guides” here), assured of comfortable accommodation each night, and treated to sumptuous meals of our choosing all along the way.
Traditional building materials of stone, slate and tile outlast many a resident.
Most days we came together for lunch at a designated point on the route where the paved road crossed our walking path at a suitable hour. This allowed us to compare notes with our guides and each other as we enjoyed a picnic of fresh fruits, salads and bread, sliced meats, and local cheeses, all collected that morning and prepared by the van driver. Lovely leftovers and iced drinks were sometimes offered to passing pilgrims, gaining our vehicle the nickname of the “Happy Van” among those who accepted this gesture of fellowship most gratefully.
Countryside vistas on a ridge-walking day offer an eagle’s-eye-view of fertile valleys below.
Along the way, we compared notes with other cycling and walking groups staying in a variety of budget to luxurious accommodations, and with many independent pilgrims who stopped each night at historic and contemporary refugios (hostels) managed by municipalities and state governments. Sleeping in farmer’s fields is frowned upon!
A traditional refugio allows walkers and cyclists to rest and wash their clothes.
Many refugios are free, following the long tradition established by the church of honoring pilgrims and their good intentions with one or more days of hospitality. Well-maintained facilities usually include bunk-style accommodation with good mattresses on which to spread your sleeping bag, his and hers washrooms, a shared kitchen and common areas. See our story on this Camino option.
For a moderately fit individual, admittedly unaccustomed to four to six hours of walking for seven straight days (or three straight days, for that matter!), this tour was bound to reveal some critical, though not life-threatening, weaknesses. Of course, there is always the clearly stated message in such group activities that the luggage and lunch van is there for ride hitching if that’s your choice.
Following a flock of sheep for an hour puts the walk in perspective for the modern pilgrim.
On two occasions it was my choice to ride shotgun with the driver for a couple of hours after lunch, especially anticipating hefty distances the next day where I knew I would want to walk the full distance. Did I feel slightly guilty announcing that I was going to ride a while instead of walk? Yes, but I’m also glad I’ve reached a stage in life where caring for oneself takes precedence over saving face.
A biblical passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians seemed to pop into my head quite spontaneously whenever joints were feeling most taxed or hiking boot blisters cried out for attention. St. Paul declared, “….this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal..” Taken somewhat out of context but nonetheless a suitable thought on a Christian pilgrimage route of long tradition, the quote usually served as the perfect tonic for me to go the extra mile!
After attending evening vespers sung by the Benedictine monks at the Samos Monastery, we toured the Gothic and Baroque cloisters with Brother Fluctocio, a diminutive monk in his eighties whose infectious laugh and sparkling eyes would have made him a great tour guide!
Santiago de Compostela was indeed a goal worthy of the modest effort required of this pilgrim. Walking my scheduled 11.8 miles or 19 kilometers on the last day, first through beautiful countryside and forests, then picnic lunching on a mountain top overlooking the city of 87,000, and finally winding down the slopes and into the pages of medieval history, I arrived at the cathedral fresher than on any other day.
My first duty and pleasure was to enter the great cathedral and join other recently arrived pilgrims to climb a flight of narrow, well worn steps behind the altar. There I threw my arms around the neck of St. James’ giant statue and gave him a hug from the back. There was something truly defining about that gesture, bringing closure to the memorable images, efforts, and events of the past week.
The ultimate destination: Santiago de Compostela’s 10th century Romanesque and Gothic cathedral.
I then proceeded another block along narrow cobbled streets framed with arches and brooding stone buildings to our accommodation. Considered to be among the finest paradors in Spain, the Hotel de los Reyes Católicos was originally built about 1500 by the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel, as a huge cross-shaped hospital to shelter and care for thousands of poor and sick pilgrims. Though many of them would never return to the lands from which they had made their extraordinary journeys, their goal had been achieved, and St. James had been hugged, I am sure.
Today this exquisitely restored structure serves a very different clientele while the friendly ghosts of its original patrons glide through long hallways and scattered courtyards. Getting lost for a few hours is no challenge at all.
For a myriad of ancient and modern reasons, peregrinos (pilgrims) continue to be drawn to Santiago de Compostela, choosing to tread their own piece of the Camino, paved with the colorful characters and good intentions of its rich history.
Follow Up Facts
The tour operator with whom I did my Camino no longer exists. However, I have listed six small-group tour operators below who are reliable, creative and knowledgeable in planning your Camino.
About 2.5 million people a year visit Santiago de Compostela, mostly by car, bus, plane and train, as well as by more challenging “pilgrimatic” methods, to quote fellow walker, Henry Maloney, who shares his thoughts on being an American pilgrim elsewhere in this collection of articles. I also recommend checking out the Little Company of Pilgrims Canada website, www.santiago.ca, which is full of information and insights about hiking the Camino independently.
For a more poetical and entertaining insight of the Camino, we recommend All the Good Pilgrims (Thomas Allen Publishers, 2007) by our latest contributor to the Camino collection, Robert Ward. See Robert’s essay on the rhythms of the Camino, and consider ordering his book featuring personal stories collected over five independent walks of this famous pilgrimage trail. Visit www.robertward.ca/books.html for all the details.
When on a walking holiday in Spain there is no better way to relax than by renting a holiday villa in Spain. Buying or renting a Marriott timeshare is another option. If you are already an RCI timeshare owner but don not own in Spain, consider exchanging through RCI before selling timeshare on the resale market.
At Galiwonders.com we are local experts in all the best travel elements of Spain’s Galicia region. We offer tailor-made holidays for individuals and groups in Rías Baixas, Ribeira Sacra, Costa da Morte, the Lighthouse Trail, wine tours, Glamping, thermal spring waters… and of course the Camino de Santiago! Galiwonders.com.
Walking The World is the world’s leading 50+ hiking tour company discovering the world’s most magical corners in small groups with a maximum of 16 active travelers. We offer guided trips to 30 destinations worldwide, with our Camino de Santiago tours being a consistently popular choice. www.walkingtheworld.com.
Viajes Mundiplus is a Spanish travel agency specialized in Camino de Santiago tours, on foot or by bicycle. We provide Quality lodgings, Van support, Assistance en route, Luggage transfer, Travel assistance insurance, and Pilgrims’ Passport. www.mundiplus.com.
Spain is More knows Northern Spain intimately. We are local experts on traveling all parts of the Camino de Santiago on foot or by bicycle, offering personalized itineraries tailored to individual travelers. Visit our website, www.spainismore.com, for creative sample itineraries.
Since 2006, leading Camino de Santiago tour operator, Follow the Camino, has specialized in organizing walking, cycling and horse riding holidays along both familiar and lesser-known routes. Our approach to this ancestral pilgrimage respects its spirit and enhances its values, making it more accessible, enjoyable and achievable for all. www.followthecamino.com.
Marly Camino offers several fully-supported options for your pilgrimage walk including your choice of the French Way, the Portuguese Way, the North Way and the Catalonian Way from Barcelona. www.marlycamino.com.
Art & Cooking Vacations in Southern Spain. Ignite your artistic passions and immerse in this fascinating region. Your Canadian hosts share their enthusiasm for Spain’s rich culture and history. A stunning country location, talented art teachers, excursions, and magnificent Mediterranean cuisine. www.trvlconcepts.com/a-flavour-of-spain.html
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.
Click on the picture below for an inspiring essay capturing the rhythms of walking the Camino.
Click on the picture below to experience an independent pilgrimage walk 751 km across northern Spain.
Click on the picture below to share an American pilgrim’s thoughts on the journey.
Click on the picture below to learn about the ‘pilgrim passport’ and the symbolic scallop shell.