The Road to Santiago de Compostela

The Road to Santiago de Compostela

Few people know how to walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humour, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Almost 300,000 people walk the historic pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago, every year. The ancient pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela draws people of all ages from every corner of the world to wander to the apparent resting place of the apostle St. James. Also known as The Way of St. James, its vast network of routes to Santiago, that originate from almost everywhere in Europe, form part of one of the most important and popular Christian pilgrimages there is.

The Camino can be traced back thousands of years to the claimed burial of St. James in the Galician city of Santiago. Given the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993, the network of routes to the shrine of St. James is steeped in history and Christian lore. It is one of the only three Christian pilgrimages (along with the journey to Jerusalem and the Vatican) that allows for complete penance – the atonement of sins. There is still even a tradition in Flanders that sees one prisoner released every year on the condition they partake in the walk to Santiago, accompanied by a guard and carrying a heavy backpack.

Longstanding myths claim that after his death in Jerusalem, St. James’ body was carried by boat to his eventual burial place in Santiago. The scallop shell, the symbol of the Camino and what almost all pilgrims display somewhere on their backpacks, can also be traced back to the belief that St. James’ body made its way onshore to Santiago. Legend abounds that a violent storm at sea sent his body crashing overboard, only to wash up some days later in the same perfect condition, covered in scallops.

The earliest pilgrims can be found travelling the route to the shrine of St. James back in medieval times, and even after significant drops in numbers thanks to numerous wars and disease pandemics, millions of pilgrims across thousands of years have set off to complete the journey. Today, it retains its importance and is even increasing in popularity.

Various books on the Camino journey have seen a surge in pilgrims along the route. Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist, travelled along the Camino de Santiago in the 80’s and his journey is chronicled in his book, The Pilgrimage. Detailing his journey, and the mystical exercises he undertakes, the bestselling book is translated into nearly 40 different languages and remains one of the most read books about the Camino. Similarly, German comedian Hape Kerkeling’s I’m Off Then recounts his journey to Santiago and is widely read in Germany as well as selling around 3million copies worldwide.

Nowadays, cycling is a popular method of completing the Camino while a large proportion of modern day pilgrims make the journey not for religious reasons, but instead to use it as a way to find oneself. Others simply attempt the long journey for the physical challenge it indisputably presents.

Modern rail and bus networks have made it easier for people to walk a week at a time, resuming their Camino annually at the last town that they reached in the previous year. Additionally, numerous companies specialise in booking the journey for you, from hotels each night to ferrying luggage. The cost of getting to the starting point of the popular Camino Frances route (starting on the French side of the Pyrenees) from London Gatwick can be as cheap as £40 depending on season.

I completed the Camino Frances route last summer, albeit with a very ‘zig-zag’ methodology towards the end. Starting in the French border town of St. Jean Pied de Port, the route stretches about 780km, snaking through Northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela, and is the most popular modern day route. Deciding two days before that I should attempt the Camino, I travelled down to the Spanish border armed with walking shoes, 5 pieces of clothing and a cheap backpack that broke on the plane journey in.

Everyone’s own Camino experience is different, and many people’s reasons for undertaking it become apparent at different times and for different reasons. At times it can be a hard journey, being a 500 mile adventure, but it is also incredibly unique and fun.

Over the course of the month that it takes to complete the journey from St. Jean, you will eat and drink well, eat and drink cheaply, walk through the stunning scenery of Northern Spanish regions such as Rioja and Galicia, visit the historic cities of Pamplona and León, meet countless interesting people and befriend them, and if you’re unlucky, you might even get some horrendous blistering.

One of the most unique attributes of the Camino is that the people that set off from St. Jean on the same day as you will quickly become the people you see walking along the way each day, and eventually become your friends and “Camino Family”. People from across the globe make up the bulk of daily faces and friends; hailing from the far-eastern tip of Australia to the western seaboard of the USA (and everywhere in between).

The stories you’ll take back home will stay with you always. An impromptu wine tasting with a vineyard owner in the city of Logrono, bumping into friends at pilgrim albergue hostels, long post-walk drinking nights, seeing the kilometre count on the signs to Santiago slowly decrease – and of course the final walk into Santiago de Compostela. You’ll eventually get used to a beer tap in every café and the locals starting to drink at breakfast; making for a harrowing time when you get back to the UK and a pint sets you back almost £4 and day drinking is frowned upon.

To anyone even slightly interested in the Camino and its riches, I encourage you to seek out some information and if possible, to go for it. It is an affordable and extremely fun month, but it is what you will take back; the memories and the friendships you will undoubtedly make, that are more important. The long journey to Santiago de Compostela is a trip beyond compare.

The night before I set out on the journey, drinking beer and smoking with a fellow pilgrim in an albergue in St. Jean, I was told the most important credo of the Camino: “Anything you need along the way, if you ask the Camino hard enough, the Camino will always provide.” What I had yet to realise at that point, was that all I would ever need over the next month was a cold beer, a comfortable pair of shoes and the company of the amazing people that I would eventually meet along the way.


Featured Image: Alexi Demetriadi

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