Walking the famed Camino de Santiago is a truly life-changing experience you will remember forever. While I know how cheesy this line sounds, trust me, it is true.
A pilgrimage steeped in history and faith which connects people from all walks of life, different cultures and backgrounds describes the Camino in a nutshell. On average, it takes around five weeks to complete and one of the more popular routes starts at St. Jean Pied de Port in the south of France, finishing at the Santiago de Compostela, 800 kilometres away in Northwest Spain.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of people travel its rural trail on foot or on bikes, via the many differing routes crisscrossing Europe. Although for many it is not about religion at all, for some it is still a Christian pilgrimage with religious connotations, culminating in worship before the relics of Saint James, one of Christ’s apostles.
No matter which route you choose to walk the Camino de Santiago, you are guaranteed a magical experience which, for some, is truly life-changing. Each individual route has its own history and significance, plus, along the way, you will be able to eat and drink at some of Northern Spain’s very best restaurants – it doesn’t get much more authentic than tapas bars along the Camino de Santiago, that’s for sure!
Here are some facts you need to know about the Camino de Santiago before you pack your bags and hit the road –
Historically, those embarking on this epic pilgrimage would start their journey from their own homes, but this is no longer the practice. Now, most Camino de Santiago pilgrims will start from major European cities, but there are still those who embark on this walk from their own doorstep.
A route to remember
The Camino de Santiago is not one single route, but instead refers to any number of routes leading to the shrine of Saint James, located in Galicia in Northwest Spain. Although there are popular ‘touristy’ Camino de Santiago routes, you can start your pilgrimage from virtually anywhere.
A popular choice
The most commonly taken and most famous Camino de Santiago route is called the Camino Frances (the ‘French Way’) and it starts at St. Jean Pied de Port in the South of France and finishes in Northwest Spain. If you are going to walk the Camino de Santiago for the first time, chances are that this is the route you will take.
A certificate of achievement
If you are inclined, you can even get a certificate at the end of your pilgrimage. This is known as the Compostela Certificate, and you do need to provide proof of your accomplishments to get it! You need to collect two stamps each day in your ‘pilgrim passport’ to get your Compostela Certificate, which you present at the Pilgrims Office when you finally arrive in Santiago. Although the Compostela Certificate can only be claimed by people who are doing the pilgrimage for religious or spiritual reasons, those who do it for the challenge can claim a Certificate of Welcome instead – nobody is left out!
The significance of the shell
Along the Camino de Santiago, yellow scallop shells mark the way and help guide you to your destination. These markings can be found on pavements, sidewalks, on trees, painted on walls and strewn throughout the routes. Why scallop shells, you may wonder? There are several stories which link Saint James and scallop shells, the most popular being that Saint James saved the life of a knight who was wearing these shells as a suit of armour. Whatever the reason, the scallop shell has become the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, recognizable anywhere along the routes.
The final destination
Santiago de Compostela – the town at the end of the Camino de Santiago – is a vibrant old town which has been made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. This quirky city is full of cobbled streets, quaint cafés and wonderful restaurants. These, in addition to the many monuments which adorn the city and it being home to one of Europe’s oldest universities, makes the Camino de Santiago all worthwhile, especially if you are into architecture and history.
A bond of friendship
The Camino de Santiago is a massive attraction. Each and every year, over 200,000 people who have taken on this pilgrimage arrive at the town of Santiago de Compostela and proudly claim their Compostela Certificate. Interestingly, all of these people will have walked different routes and have completed the pilgrimage in their own way. Because of this, the Camino de Santiago is a great way to meet new people, and form new friendships which will last a lifetime with people from all around the globe.
A two-wheel experience
If you are cycling, you will need to cover a distance of at least 200km to qualify for the Compostela Certificate. Those who complete the Camino de Santiago by bike are often referred to as ‘bici gringos’ or ‘bike pilgrims’!
The Camino de Santiago is hugely varied. It is a super long-distance trail which stretches hundreds of kilometres – thousands if you really want it to! – and combines country trials, small roads, pavements and off-road tracks, taking you through quaint villages, scenic countryside and big cities. If you have been looking for an excuse to get out there and see rural Spain, what better way to do it than this?