For those who haven’t heard about this famous pilgrimage route, it is a blister-inducing 750 kilometre long walk from the traditional starting point of Roncesvalles in the northeast of Spain to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest. Although there are countless starting points all over Europe, you can begin this ancient pilgrimage anywhere you chose, though the majority tend to start in the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Known as The Way of Saint James in English, this UNESCO recognised collection of centuries old paths has seen its popularity soar in recent years since the Hollywood film The Way, starring Martin Sheen, came out in 2010.
Pilgrims have been ambling along this route since the 10th century to reach the shrine of the Apostle St. James (San Tiago), who is said to be buried in the city of Santiago. Walking the Camino was a traditional penance and upon completion pilgrims’ sins were pardoned. Nowadays, walkers who complete at least 100km earn themselves a Compostela certificate on arrival in Santiago, as long as they get their pilgrim’s passport stamped along the way. Today around 200,000 pilgrims from all over the world attempt the walk each year, including 80 per cent on foot, 20 per cent on bicycles and a few brave souls on donkeys and horses. Walking this epic route takes between four to five weeks based on covering a 20 to 25-kilometre stretch each day. However, with a bike it can be done in around ten days depending on how much of a glutton for punishment you are.
The most popular route to take is the Camino Francés (French route), which takes in some of northern Spain’s most stunning cities and towns including: Pamplona, Puente La Reina, Burgos, León and of course Santiago de Compostela, a beautifully preserved historic town crowned with Spain’s most impressive cathedral.
Along this arduous route you can stay in subsidised Town Hall-run albergues (shelters) for between €5 and €10 a night. In addition, many taverns and restaurants offer a ‘pilgrim’s meal’, which consists of a three course meal with a drink for less than €10. Highlights of the pilgrimage are plentiful, including a free wine fountain, countless medieval churches and cathedrals, breathtaking landscapes and a fair few castles to boot.
This is an epic voyage of discovery, both in terms of exploring the northern regions of Spain and taking time out to rediscover yourself, while making plenty of new friends along the way. No wonder the Camino de Santiago is fast becoming one of the world’s most popular active escapes from everyday life.
Read more about the film The Way featuring the Camino de Santiago.