The Camino de Santiago is a trail, a hike, a pilgrimage, a cultural tour, a historical tour, and much more. It can mean a lot of things to many different people, and there are a lot of reasons why people hike the trail and come back year after year.
The Camino de Santiago stretches across Spain, and it’s primary destination is the city of Santiago de Compostela. In addition, there is another extension which takes the traveler to Finisterre – the end of the world.
The Camino de Santiago is shown in red. O Cebreiro is shown above because that’s where my sister, Linda, and I started the Camino. Linda had previously hiked the first third of the trail, from France to Burgos. She’s the one who introduced me to the Camino.
First and foremost, the Camino de Santiago is a Catholic pilgrimage. Catholics from around the world travel to Santiago de Compostela to pay their respects to the remains of Saint James (i.e. Santiago) which are held in the basement of the cathedral. Saint James, one of the twelve apostles, traveled to Spain to worship, and was returned to Spain for burial when he died.
The remains of Saint James were rediscovered around 813 AD with the help of divine intervention. The authenticity of the remains was reconfirmed by Pop
Leon XIII in 1878.
By the 11th century the pilgrimage to honor Saint James had been firmly established and it’s popularity was encouraged by monks and monasteries.
The pilgrimage was given greater strength in the early 12th Century by Popes Calixto II and Alexander III who established the “Jacobean Holy Year” grace of the Jubilee. All Catholics who made the pilgrimage to Saint James would receive a plenary indulgence (would have their time in purgatory reduced or eliminated).
While the pilgrimage to Santiago is quite old (1000 years or more), an even older pilgrimage exists: to Finisterre, the “end of the world”. This destination was considered magical for ancient pagan Celts who thought that paradise existed beyond the horizon. Finisterre is also an important site for Christians, who believe that this is where the bones of Saint James landed after they traveled from Palestine.
Become A Pilgrim
Whether you’re Catholic or Celtic or neither, being a pilgrim is a very appealing part of the Camino de Santiago. As you walk the Camino, you are constantly reminded that you are taking part in a great, centuries-old human excursion. Hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of walkers have walked the paths and have seen the sights that you will see.
And signs of the pilgrimage are everywhere you look. Medieval carvings, paintings, and sculpture show pilgrims with walking sticks, gourds, and scallop shells, the most popular symbol of the Camino (no one really knows why). Every city has one or two statues of pilgrims, and you’ll find scallop shells everywhere, in walls, fences, doors, floor tiles, etc.
And so, as a pilgrim, you become a member of a much larger community which stretches over many generations. And what a powerful connection this is! When you touch the column just inside the front door of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, it’s as if you are actually touching the hands of your predecessors.
As a pilgrim, you are given a special set of “credentials” (‘credencial’ in Spanish) which identify you as a pilgrim and track your progress along the Camino de Santiago. The credentials will be stamped at each albergue, and if you like stamps, you can also get it stamped at any bar, restaurant, or hotel that you encounter along the way.
When you arrive in Santiago, take your credentials to ‘La Oficina del Peregrino’ (Pilgrim’s office). The officers there will inspect your credentials and if you’ve walked at least 100 kilometers you will receive a “compostela”, or certificate of completion. The picture on the right shows Linda and I after just having received our compostelas. Linda’s certificate is the standard compostela. Mine is the one given to pilgrims who do the trail for non-religious or spiritual reasons. If you hike on to Finisterre, be sure to stop at the albergue there and you will receive a colorful certificate of completion for that portion of the trail.
The picture below shows the inside of my pilgrim’s credentials. The stamp on the far lower left shows my completion of the pilgrimage in Santiago, and the stamp on the far right shows my completion of the pilgrimage in Finisterre.
The trails which make up the Camino de Santiago are quite beautiful, but what I like best about them is the incredible variety of terrain. The Camino goes through mountains, farm lands, urban areas, ancient rural hamlets, forests, and (if you go to Finisterre) beaches and rivers. Unfortunately, the trail does travel down highways rather frequently, but this accounts for only about 25% of the trail and fortunately there is, generally, very little traffic to contend with.
The trail is, indeed, well marked, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no challenge at all to staying on the trail. There are a very wide variety of markings on the trail. Ceramic tiles of scallop shells, kilometer markings, signs, and spray-painted yellow arrows can (and do) occur everywhere: on rocks, roads, buildings, trees, and special concrete pillars. Part of the fun of the Camino is searching out the next sign to make sure you haven’t strayed too far from the trail.
The following pictures show some of the typical types of terrain that are on the Camino:
Small Rural Hamlet
When I started the Camino, I thought I was fairly familiar with Spain, having visited Barcelona and Madrid (several times). However, the Camino passes through rural portions of Spain that are mostly off the beaten track. This gives a view of Spain that I think is quite unusual and mostly unspoiled, not the least of which is a wonderfully wide variety of rural and religious architecture, such as the Horreo (drying shed) pictured on the left.
In addition, the food is fantastic. True, the meals are simpler than standard city fare, but the ingredients are always fresh and tasty. Special recommendations include the octopus (“pulpo”, see below), the shrimp with garlic, empanadas (flat meat pies, usually stuffed with tuna or pork), and the merluza (a kind of white fish, ‘hake’ in English).
And finally, the Spanish we met along the trail were great – some of the most friendly and helpful people I have ever met while traveling abroad. The patience and good humor of the locals easily overcame any difficulties I might have had communicating, since I really only know about a dozen words of Spanish.
And if you bother to learn a bit more Spanish ahead of time (my sister Linda, for example, did an intensive two-week course in Spain, right before we started the trail), you will find yourself easily falling into long, jovial conversations about the trail, food, soccer, politics, life, etc. Once even, fellow Spanish pilgrims took it upon themselves to order our entire meal (one of them was a friend of the restaurant owner). It was best meal we had on the trail!
The Albergues and Your Fellow Pilgrims
Finally, there are two additional reasons why many people hike the Camino de Santiago: The fellow pilgrims and the system of albergues, and the two go together. Albergues are pilgrim’s hostels, in which only pilgrims (with pilgrim’s credentials) are allowed to stay. There is a small charge for most albergues, of around 4-10 Euros. The albergues in the province of Galicia (near the end of the trail) are free (but please donate, see below).
Since the albergues are so convenient (every 10-20 km) and so inexpensive, they are used by many pilgrims. This means that you will tend to see the same fellow pilgrims day after day, as you check into albergue after albergue. This makes it easy to strike up conversations and to continue to get to know each other as you progress down the trail.
And then, when you reach Santiago de Compostela the center of the city is small enough that you will invariably run into many of your fellow pilgrims as you wander through the streets. It has the definite feeling of a high-school reunion, and I felt genuinely sad to be leaving the new friends which I had made.
Note: Please donate to the albergues! We read in the newspaper that donations typically only cover enough for toilet paper and cleaning supplies. In fact, the albergue at O Cebreiro said that the largest bill ever received was a 5 euro bill — which may have been ours!