We often underestimate just how far our bodies can take us. We’ve been so conditioned to rely on modern modes of transport for travel that the most reliable means of getting from place to place – our own two legs – have been somewhat sidelined. For the pilgrims in the Middle Ages, embarking on a 700-kilometre journey along the Camino de Santiago was as much a spiritual feat as a physical one. Today, you can choose to do the trip by bike, or even horse. But to relive the true Camino de Santiago pilgrimage experience, guides recommend doing it entirely on foot.
What is the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage Experience?
Translated as “the Way of St. James,” the Camino de Santiago comprises a web of ancient pilgrim routes that run from as far as Biarritz in France to Santiago in the north-western region of Spain. The year 814 AD is said to be when the tomb of St. James was discovered in the Santiago de Compostela, making it a place for pilgrims from across the European continent to converge.
Along the way to Santiago, tributary routes from regions in Portugal, southern Spain and France link up with main routes that all eventually end up at the resting place of St. James.
Each route has its own designation. The most popular route is known as the Camino Frances and runs approximately 800 km from Biarritz to Santiago. The other routes which start in the French region are the Voie de Vézelay, the Voie du Puy and the Voie de Tours. Peak season for the Camino Frances is the European mid-summer. Annually, this route sees numbers in excess of 100,000 pilgrims.
Why Should You Walk the Camino?
The Camino de Santiago is now centuries old, testament to the spiritual weight that it holds. Over the years, the pilgrim routes have persevered through wars, disease, and disasters. It has been in the last century, however, it has seen a true resurgence amongst travellers the world over. With this rise in popularity has come the rebuilding of vital infrastructure along the various routes. Travellers now have the choice of staying at a multitude of luxurious guest houses; dining at gourmet restaurants and using shuttle services to bypass certain sections of the journey. This makes it an attractive travel prospect for those looking to explore the western stretches of Europe in a format that not many other expeditions can match.
More importantly, the Camino de Santiago affords travellers time to contemplate and reflect on the path taken by pilgrims that came before them.
An Expedition Unlike Any Other
The sheer physical act of traversing hundreds of miles by foot can be daunting to some. But the joy of completing the Camino de Santiago lies in the enlightenment that is found along the way. Whether you choose to embark on your journey alone or in a group, the trek has brought spiritual salvation to those living in a world more secular than ever.
Preparing to Walk the Camino
The most temperate months to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage experience are from May to August. If you want to avoid the crowds, then you’re best off taking to the trails during winter, rather than summer. Solo travellers shouldn’t worry about provisions along the route, as there are many guesthouses; and restaurants to be found along the way.
Although the terrain is largely flat, travellers can witness majestic architecture from the mid-ages in buildings such as the Catedral de Santa Maria in Burgos; as well as the Episcopal Palace in Astorga.
Other sights to take in include the striking peaks of the Pyrenees and the haunting ruins of abandoned homes in the village of Manjarin. Along the Camino Frances, you will come to the Iron Cross, or Cruz de Ferro as it is known to locals. At more than 1500 m above sea level, this is the highest point of the Camino. It is custom for pilgrims to throw a stone (from their point of origin) at this stage of their journey to Santiago.
Gear Up for the Camino with the Right Kit
Given that the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage experience is a multi-day walking trip, travellers should pick out comfortable, supportive footwear and moisture-wicking clothing to stay cool and dry. The best footwear is durable, ideally with a breathable upper for ventilation; has good cushioning and enough support to keep the foot locked in place for long periods. Shoes with ‘lugs’ or grooves in the outsole are recommended, as they provide traction in slippery conditions. Backpacks shouldn’t be overly burdensome, but should instead be light enough to carry and offer decent lumbar support.
Compared to the journeys taken by pilgrims in years gone by, walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage experience in the 21st century doesn’t have to be an arduous undertaking. Embark on a journey for the soul. Discover your own slice of solitude by walking the well-worn paths that lead to St. James’s tomb.