12 Mar 2021

Camino De Santiago: Here’s What You Need To Know

Ah, the Camino De Santiago, a simple 780km pilgrimage to the Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. It’s said the cathedral is the final resting place of St James, one of the 12 disciples. For over a 1,000 years devout Christians from all over Europe have followed this pilgrimage to pay respects to the great apostle. That being said you don’t have to be of a religious persuasion to participate. People undertake it for a variety of reasons, whether it be for the physical challenge, the prestige that comes with completing it or the fact that it’s a cheap way to see some of the most beautiful regions in Spain. Feel free to guess which one budget-conscious sixteen-year-old me and my friends chose.  

So pick up your pilgrims passport, pack some sensible shoes and join me as I take you through the things you absolutely need to know before undertaking the Camino De Santiago!  

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Pick Your Route

Map showing the various routes that can be taken on the Camino de Santiago
You can start from any of these places

The Camino De Santiago dosen’t have a singular defined starting point, instead there are several mainstream routes you can pick from. The Camino Frances is easily the most popular and starts in France as the name suggests. The Saint Jean Pied de Port to be exact. This route will demand your attention early as it’s first day is an arduous trek through the Pyrenees. Your efforts will be rewarded however with a spectacular view that will be sure to motivate you through the rest of the journey. As you walk, the French way will take you through four of Spain’s most striking regions in Navarra, La Roja, Castilla and Leon, and Galicia. Taking in the surrounding landscapes, you quickly realise why this route is the number one choice for pilgrims.

The Portuguese way meanwhile begins in, well Portugal. This avenue offers a less elevated experience than the French way when it comes to terrain. Spanish hills and farmland are traded for stunning Portuguese vistas no matter if you start from Porto or Lisbon.

If it’s pure physical challenge you are after, then the northern route might be your best option. The constant change in altitude will be tough on you leg muscles but if you can pull through your prize is some of the most serene costal panoramas you’ll ever experience.  

These are just three of the most popular routes but there are many more. Within every ‘proper’ route there are limitless variations depending on where you start and what diversions you choose to take. I, for example, did the Camino Frances but chose to start my journey in the city of Ponferrada, 200km away from Santiago de Compostela owing to time and budgetary constraints.

Train Yourself    

Man hiking over a hill on the Camino de Santiago
Insert 80s workout montage

Even the most straightforward route will require hundreds of kms of walking. Even at a leisurely pace this adds up. You by no means need to be a fitness Adonis. I had the muscle mass of a piece of craft paper when I undertook it. Some long practice walks beforehand however would not go amiss. The average distance walked per day on the Camino will of course vary wildly depending on who is walking it but the average person would be expected to cover around 23km a day.

If you are not much of a walker then firstly, I respect your decision to throw yourself into the deep end by going on the Camino, and secondly, you’ll want to start off with relatively short distances and build yourself up. Everyone prepares in different ways but from personal experience I would recommend starting a month before you start your pilgrimage. Start with a simple 1km walk and add another kilometre everyday until you reach 10km. From here start practicing with your full backpack on (more on that later). I also recommend switching up your practice route on occasion to one that has some elevation to get you used to the hills you’ll be traversing. Take into account where you’re starting from and adjust your training schedule accordingly, for example if you’re starting from Saint Jean Pied de Port you’ll likely need more than just a month of practice.

The most important thing is consistency! So long as you don’t skip on your training too much you should be well prepared to conquer the Camino. The plan I’ve outlined is the one that worked for me. It’s good to experiment and find one that fits in with your fitness levels and schedule. 

Equipment

Full orange backpack and walking polls on the ground
Water… Don’t forget water

A comfortable backpack is essential for the Camino! Without one that works for you, your trip can easily turn into a chaffing fuelled nightmare. A 40/50 litre backpack should provide you with a nice balance between your essential equipment and the load you’re going to have to bear for hundreds of kilometres.  

A sleeping bag is also imperative if you don’t want to freeze as not every Albergue (hostel) you stay at will provide you with covers. Similarly, unless you’re a fan of drip drying, a quick dry towel will quickly become your best friend. Just don’t do what I did and accidently leave it behind in Portomarin!

When it comes to clothes, pack as light as you can. Most Albergues will have some sort of washing facility, and the last thing you need when climbing up a steep hill is fifteen t-shirts weighing you down. Comfortable hiking shoes and several pairs of high quality walking socks are the biggest investments you should make. My biggest mistake on the whole trip was to think pairing the trainers that I used for PE lessons up with normal socks would serve me well. The fact that two days in and my foot was under siege from blisters quickly proved me wrong.

A walking poll is my final recommendation. Buying a hand carved one off of a Spanish villager for three euros proved to be a bargain. I named it Cesc after the Spanish midfielder Cesc Fabragas (because he was always assisting me) and he proved invaluable for my journey. For those planning on doing longer routes then I, a more professionally built one is recommended.       

Pilgrim Passport

Front cover of the Pilgrim Passport
The front cover of my pilgrim passport

A unique feature of the Camino, obtaining the pilgrim passport is a requirement for completion. Also known as a Credencial, this booklet can be obtained from several sources. You can pick one up before your trip from several websites but I would recommend simply buying one in person from your starting point when you arrive. Just look for a pilgrims office, albergue, or church and at least one of them should be able to provide you one for a couple of Euros.

The passport serves both as an invaluable piece of equipment and a precious souvenir of your trip. You will need it to stay at the numerous albergues along route, as it acts as proof of your journey. You will get a unique stamp in the passport every time you stay the night at an albergue. Stamps can also be collected from certain restaurants, bars, churches and tourist spots on route. There is nothing more satisfying than looking back at the colourful array of stamps crowding your passport at the end of your journey!  

Albergues

Pilgrim Passport with stamps from various albergues
Every Albergue stamp is unique!

Albergues are essentially hostels for pilgrims. They offer extremely cheap shelter for those who hold the pilgrim’s passport, often around eight euros for a night. Some will also offer a meal on top, or for a little extra. Every single albergue is wonderfully different from the next. From my experience they varied from the charming attic of a rustic village house, to an ultra-modern dormitory style room in a city centre.

My personal favourites however are a toss up between the ones found in Portomarin and O Cebreiro. Both offered beautiful but wildly contrasting scenery. Portomarin having a sweeping river panoramic view you can enjoy from the comfort if its restaurant. O Cebreiro meanwhile, providing one of the best literal high points on the entire route due to its position 1,300 meters up. Watching the sunset over the sweeping valleys below with my friends and fellow pilgrims beside me was the most special moment of the entire trip.

Socialise

Three pilgrims in front of a fountain on the Camino de Santiago
Cesc was the only thing keeping me standing at this point

Talk to your fellow travellers! Everyone might be undertaking this journey for different reasons but your still all on the same journey. People come from all over the world to partake in the pilgrimage and it’ll be well worth your time speaking to them and exchanging stories. Since most of the Camino is broken up into manageable day sections (e.g. Ponferrada to Villafranca, Villafranca to O Cebreiro etc) you will find yourself walking and staying in the same alberques with the same people.

For my part, I remember meeting a Northern Irish man who gave me some much-needed blister plasters. A Spaniard named Angel who had a promising youth football career with Real Betis before a brutal injury forced a career change. An incredibly happy and drunk Czech man who we encountered in Santiago de Compostela itself. As you can see nothing brings people together quite like hundreds of kilometres of intense exercise!

Important Sites

Sunset at O Cebreiro in Spain
The Sunset at O Cebreiro was magical

Given the variety and length of routes available in the Camino it would be a herculean task to highlight every point of interest. I will however talk about the fountain of wine because, well … it’s a fountain that dispenses wine! What more could you want?

The fountain is located in the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Iranche, in the small Navarra town of Ayegui. The wine is chilled to provide the perfect refreshment for weary travellers. Be warned however its alcohol content combined with a sun beaten and dehydrated pilgrim is akin to a tsunami striking a picket fence.

Santiago de Compostela

The façade of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

Congratulations! You have walked hundreds of kilometres across all types of terrain, and you have reached your destination. So, what now? The first thing to do is head straight to the city’s pilgrim office to collect your Compostela. The Compostela is a certificate that serves as your proof of completion.

Next up it’s time to enter the city’s magnificent Gothic cathedral. The fact the cathedral manages to stand out in a country where it feels like there’s more Catholic buildings than people is a testament to its stately design. The interior is no less opulent and expansive, its high ceilings feeding you a sense of cosmic perspective. Attending mass here is a spiritual experience that honestly can’t be compared to anything I’ve experienced before or since. On special dates, a giant thurible known as the Botafumeiro is deployed via an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys. The Botafumeiro’s primary use is to cleanse the air from the smell of hundreds of sweat soaked travellers.    

After mass it’s time to take the most deserved break of your life. Head to one of the many outside cafes and treat yourself to some beautiful Galician specialties. I sampled something called ‘Galician cheese.’ To this day I don’t know what specific type it was, but I can confirm it was delicious. I have to say there was no better way of surveying the iconic Praza do Obradoiro than with Cesc in one hand and a Galician Estrella in the other.

The End?

Shoe Sculpture at Cape Finisterre
Throw your shoes in don’t be shy

Though Santiago de Compostela serves as the official end of the Camino there are many who carry on all the way to the Cape Finisterre at the very end of Galicia. Some Pilgrims throw their shoes into the unforgiving Atlantic waters to symbolise their spiritual rebirth from completing the pilgrimage.  

If you’re understandably shattered and would rather go home than trek an additional 90kms, fear not. Santiago de Compostela contains both an international airport and a coach station that offers transport to most major Spanish cities as well Porto and Paris.

Finally if you loved your experience (and trust me you will) then doing it again in the future will always be an option. Try a different route, take different diversions, make new friends! No two experiences of the Camino de Santiago will ever be the same.

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