The Camino de Santiago (Latin: Peregrinatio Compostellana; Galician: O Camiño de Santiago) is known in English as the Way of Saint James. It is a network of villages, Churches, inns, restaurants, families and individuals all working together to assists pilgrims traveling to the shrine of Saint James (“Sant”-“iago”) in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, where the remains of the saint are buried. While there are various routes, what makes the Camino special are the people who travel it and the people who serve them.
The Camino was the third most popular Christian pilgrimage of the middle ages (behind Jerusalem and Rome) and has grown in popularity in recent years since the Schengen treaty has made travel between European countries increasingly easy to do. Nowadays, as many as 250,000 pilgrims will walk some part of The Way each year. About half of them will walk the last 100km from the town of Sarriá. The other half will start at one of the many towns and cities along the other major traditional arteries into the city.
The Camino has been in constant use for at least eight centuries and those who complete the Camino may receive a plenary indulgence for their efforts.
The earliest records of visits paid to the shrine dedicated to St. James at Santiago de Compostela date from the 9th century, in the time of the Kingdom of Asturias and Galicia. The pilgrimage to the shrine became a renowned medieval pilgrimage, and it became customary for those who returned from Compostela to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof of their completion of the journey. This practice gradually led to the scallop shell becoming the badge of the pilgrim.
The daily needs of pilgrims on their way to and from Compostela were met by a series of hospitals and contributed to the development of the idea itself, some Spanish towns still bearing the name, as Hospital de Órbigo. The hospitals were often staffed by Catholic religious orders and under royal protection. Donations were encouraged but many poorer pilgrims had few clothes and poor health often barely getting to the next hospital.
The Pilgrimage can be rather short (less than a week of vigorous walking) or months-long. The pilgrim can begin from almost anywhere in Europe. Before the advent of motorized travel, every Camino really began at the pilgrims front door... Of the formally established routes, the Via Frances or French Way, is the most popular. It begins in the northern Pyrenees Mountains in the Basque town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Historically most pilgrims came from France because of the Codex Calixtinus - the first travel book. Pilgrims on the Camino spend most or all of their time in Spain and so much of the lingo of the Camino is tied the Spanish language and culture. Of course, the culture of northern Spain is anything but uniform.
In Spain, France and Portugal, pilgrim's hostels (small inns) with beds in dormitories dot the common routes, providing overnight accommodation for pilgrims who hold a credentiále - a passport which is stamped by various officials along the way. Small restaurants, bars and other services are found in the little towns which line the trail.
The most common phrase on the Camino is "¡Buen Camino!" which simply means "have a good walk." "Es su camino" is also a frequently heard reminder - "It's your camino" (don't compare your journey with someone else's).
Pilgrims are day hikers. They carry packs ranging from only a few bare necessities to standard backpacker kit complete with everything but the tent. Most hikers will carry at least a few changes of clothes, rain gear, some first aid supplies and a phone.
The daily rhythm usually begins early. Most hikers will be out the door before sunrise. They will be headed to a village 12 - 15 miles away and will pass through 3-5 little villages along the way. Total walking time on any given day will range from 3-6 hours depending on pace and most walkers will be at the destination village before 2p. The inns (AKA hostels, albergues, refugios) will accept hikers on a first-come-first-served basis for between 5€ -10€ per night. Each hiker will be assigned a bunk bed and have use of the showers, kitchen, patio and lawn. Most refugios expect pilgrims to be in bed by 10pm. Some of these inns are run by the local municipality, others by religious orders and still others by private individuals or even corporations.
Most villages will have some kind of bar or restaurant which will serve the pilgrims. Many will have a discounted menu for pilgrims.
Many villages and cities have historic sites, Churchs, cemeteries, museums or other points of interest. One village has a wine fountain. Another has the tomb of the great hero of the Reconquesta, El Cid.
Theoretically, a pilgrim could rush his trip by hiking 20 or more miles a day as would be expected of an endurance backpacker on the PCT. The Camino, though, isn't really intended to be rushed through. The people one meets are as much a part of the experience as is simply traversing the trail. The camaraderie of the refugios and the conversations shared along the walk are integral to the experience.
I will begin my Camino in Pamplona which is just on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees mountains and while allows me to travel without the need for certain mountaineering gear. My pack is already extra heavy because of my Mass kit and adding extra gear which I would rarely need feels silly.
I'm expecting to walk about 30 days with 2 days of rest in the two major towns between Pamplona and Santiago, Burgos and León. By starting just a little after the summer rush, I'm hoping to avoid the crowds which tend to accumulate in the last 100km of the Camino.
I'm expecting to arrive in Santiago de Compostela on Sept 12 around 10a. I'll attend the noon Mass, have lunch and then check into my hotel just outside of town which overlooks the Camino, itself.