A Little Background
Back in the 9th century, a shepherd found the bones of St James (Santiago) in a field in the Spanish region of Galicia. A small chapel was built and The Camino de Santiago was in business. And a very successful business it was, with thousands of pilgrims from all over Europe coming to pay homage and earn heavenly bonus points.
There were, and are, many Caminos from different starting points. Still the most popular is the Camino Frances, which crosses the French-Spanish border and then makes its way across northern Spain to Santago de Compostela.
There are many monuments and historic buildings along the way, there are beautiful villages and towns, and long stretches run through a countryside that is almost empty of people. There are also busy cities, highways, and industrial estates.
On your Camino, you will be cold and wet, hot and thirsty, and often very tired. But it is an experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Need to Know
How Long Does It Take?
Starting from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France or Roncesvalles - the first stop in Spain, it will take you about a month to reach Santiago. This is a fairly steady pace, some people do it a lot quicker but there is so much to see that you should take your time.
Where Can I Stay?
There are hostels (or albergues in Spanish) all along the route. These range from the very basic to the quite plush but at least they are clean, reasonably priced, and offer a hot shower. Note that many of them expect you to be tucked up in bed at 10.00 pm and the doors may be locked after that. Normally, you can only stay one night.
I treated myself to a couple of nights in cheap hotels. This was because I felt that I needed a break from the relentless goodwill of my fellow walkers.
What Should I Pack?
I always pack too much. The rule of thumb here is to carry a maximum of around 10% of your body weight. You don't need to pack too much stuff - there will be opportunities to do laundry in most hostels.
Make sure that you get a comfortable, water-resistant backpack and carry it on a few practice outings before you start your Camino.
Make sure that you have:
- change of clothes
- comfortable, lightweight sandals or shoes. You'll want to take your boots off in the evening.
One tip - If you are expecting cold weather you can use spare socks as gloves.
Pack your backpack, weigh it, then go through everything again and see what you can leave out.
When Should I Go?
The most popular months are July and August. However, I would go at a different time if you can. The summer months can be searingly hot and the number of walkers puts pressure on albergues that generally operate on a first-come-first-served basis.
I went in April. This had the advantage of fewer people but all the albergues were open. However, the weather threw everything at me with a quite bewildering variety.
How Much Will It Cost?
Obviously, you are going to have to spend money on equipment, getting to your starting point, and getting back home. Leaving these expenses aside, you could do the Camino for as little as 20 euros a day. As a rule of thumb, I would allow a minimum of 1 euro per kilometer. This will cover basic accommodation and basic food. Of course, there is no limit to how much you can spend if you put your mind to it. But you don't need a lot of money.
Is the Camino Safe?
Generally speaking, yes. Unfortunately, there are people who will try to take advantage of travelers - there are everywhere. A little common sense is all that you require.
Alone or in a Group?
I decided that I would go alone. Not because I'm anti-social, but because I thought that it would be better if I could choose my own timetable. Groups can put pressure on you to do more (or less) than you want to do. One day, I met a woman in a cafe who was walking the Camino at a very leisurely pace indeed. Some days, she told me, she would only walk a couple of kilometers and stop because she liked the look of a village. She might still be walking.
What Is a Credential?
This is like a passport. You get it either before you start or at your starting point. As you move from place to place you can get it stamped in bars or albergues. It shows that you are a genuine "Peregrino" and makes a great souvenir.
Do I Get a Certificate When I Finish?
Yes. You go to the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago and show them your Credential. They will issue you with a Compostela if you have completed the last 100 kilometers on foot.
Do I Need to Speak Spanish?
No, not really. It may make your trip more enjoyable if you can chat with the locals. However, the Camino attracts people from all over the world. English is the common language and most people that you will deal with will at least speak some.
Best Feet Forward
As I was sitting chatting to people in Roncesvalles, the evening before I started walking, an Australian couple joined us. They had started off that morning from Saint Jean Pied de Port, nearly 25 kilometers away over the French border. The end of their first day should have been an occasion for rejoicing. In their case, it was anything but. The girl had worn a brand-new pair of training shoes, these might have seemed a good fit in the shop but they didn't work for her. Her feet were covered in blisters. They had no option but to travel to Pamplona and buy better footwear. I never saw them again.
It is essential that your footwear is right for you. There are many options available. Personally, I prefer hiking boots that support the ankle but there are many other possibilities. Shop around, read reviews, and buy a slightly larger size than normal. Your feet will swell as you walk and you will be doing a lot of walking.
Get your boots or shoes at least a couple of weeks before you start your Camino. Wear them and walk around. Break them in and make sure that they are a comfortable fit. Make sure that they are water-resistant.
The curse of many a Camino. Fortunately, I didn't suffer from them but many walkers do. To cut down the risk you should make sure that your feet have room to breathe in your boots. Keep your feet dry and change your socks whenever necessary. If, as you are walking, you feel any discomfort, stop and check your feet. There are protective pads that you can get.
If you do get a blister, you should:
- Wash your hands and the blister in warm soapy water.
- Cover the blister with iodine.
- Take a clean needle and dip it into alcohol.
- Prick the edges of the blister to let the fluid drain out.
- Apply an ointment.
- Cover with a non-stick bandage.
Some people run a threaded needle through the blister and leave the thread in place. It acts as a wick to drain out the fluid.
In most albergues, your host will have plenty of experience in dealing with blisters and will be happy to help. Always deal with a blister as soon as possible, don't grin and bear it.
A Diary Excerpt
I kept a diary of my Camino which I wrote up each day. Here is the entry from day 11, when I walked from Atapurca to Villabilla. It should give you an idea of a fairly typical day:
"I get up at about 6.00. My clothes, which I'd arranged by the fire, are nearly dry. By 6:30 there is some light and birds are twittering. It's not raining. Machine coffee and out of the hostel by 7:15. Long but easy rise to the top of the sierra, very misty, cross looming through the gloom. It crosses my mind that if the track takes an unexpected turn then it would be very easy to get lost but it remains straight. It's very, very cold, my hands are numb.
Drop down through small villages, over the motorway, then along the road over the train tracks and into Villafria in the industrial outskirts of Burgos, miles of industrial estate and a main road thundering with trucks. Finally get to Burgos proper, snack in a bar, then residential suburbs, the center is reasonably clearly marked but I miss a sign in a park and go the wrong way for the very first time on the Camino, it doesn't take too long to realize my mistake and, with a little help from a `pleasant passer-by, find the correct route again.
Bumped into John and a couple of the others, find the albergue - nice looking building in a park. I leave them there and carry on, I don't want to stay in cities.
Pass the university and out into proper country, very glad to be away from the city. Through flat fields and tree plantations into Villabilla.
The albergue is hard to find, I know there is one but no one seems sure exactly where. I have lunch in a large and largely empty restaurant. Manolo rings - he's in Astorga having got a bus from Tosantos to Leon. He says that the priest in Tosantos tried to persuade him not to do it but, as Manolo only has a month of holiday and wants to go to his old village in Galicia before returning to Barcelona, he doesn't have much option.
Albergue is on the first floor (second floor for Americans) of a bar opposite the restaurant, it's free, very basic, and empty and remains so. I don't see another walker all day. I smoke inside with the window open and feel very guilty. Pleasant evening wandering around village, buy some stuff in a local shop, few drinks in local bars, and bed before 9.00."
At this point, I was 471 kilometers from Santiago.
The internet is full of advice about doing the Camino. How you do it is, in the last resort, entirely up to you. I would suggest that you do it at your own pace, enjoy the company, and the many beautiful things that you will see.