The Camino de Santiago, Spain

What is “the way”, “the Camino”?The Camino de Santiago is a series of pilgrimage trails thoughout Europe. Some trails started in the 9th century and some later depending on who was walking. These trails all end at Santiago de Compostela, the place where St. James’ bones are interred. There are numerous trails that start in France, Germany, Spain, Portual and Great Britain, etc. The most popular trail is the French trail with a starting point at St. Jean pied-de-port. It runs through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Astorga and then on to Santiago. A few people walk or take the bus to Finisterre, a small fishing village on the Atlantic, and pick up their own scallop shell to take home. I took the bus and spent three days unwinding and re-orientating to “the real world”. Finisterre was the end of the known world when it was believed the world was flat. It has a famous lighthouse and a beautiful church with a famous Christ statue. The scallop shell is one of Santiagos’ (St. James or Jacques in French hence coquilles St. Jacque or scallops on half shell) symbols and is a symbol used along “the way”. Pilgrims carry a scallop shell to indicate that they are peregrinos (pilgrims inpanish). The council of Europe has designated the French camino as “the first European cultural itinerary”.

Why is it?
St. James the Greater was beheaded in 44 AD and myth has it that his body was spirited away in a stone boat by 3 companions. The stone boat was guided by angels to a spot on the Spanish coast near what is now Santiago (James in Spanish) de Compostela. The companions buried his remains and guarded the site until their deaths. In around 845 AD a farmer was guided by a star to a field (Compostela can be translated to mean field and star) and found what he believed to be the remains of St. James and his 3 companions. He petitioned the local queen for permission to rebury St. James remains and erect a chapel to mark the place. Permission was granted and when news spread, people started to walk to the site and ask for healings etc. Miracles began to be attributed to the sight and the pilgrims increased in numbers thoughout the centuries.

Santiago’s remains are now encased in a silver casket in the cathedral at Santiago where there is also a large statue of St. James. It has become a tradition to walk up the stairs behind the statue and give it a hug. Hence, people along the trail will often say, when you get to Santiago, give the apostle a hug for me.

Where are these trails?
The main trail is the French trail that has a starting point in St. Jean and is about 800 kms to Santiago. There is the south Spanish trail that starts in Seville, joins the French trail at Astorga and is about 1000 kms. There is a Portuguese trail, the English trail, the northern trail and so on. You would have to understand the politics and religion of Europe over the last 1000 years to understand why the pilgrimage routes were so diverse.

Why the French trail?
The French trail runs from east to west in the north of Spain. It is very well marked with arrows. It has about 80 refugios (hostels) on the route. These are inexpensive nightly accommodation for pilgrims only. The price varies from a donation to 1000 ptas ($10.00 CDN). Each hostel has a warden, usually volunteers, and the pilgrim presents her/his “credencial del peregrino”. It is stamped and dated and the pilgrim is assigned a bed. Without the credencial, you cannot stay in peregrino refugio. Also, you cannot save a bed for people who have not yet arrived. The walk though the mountains and plains of northern Spain is like a walk through time. The towns and villages are very old and the languages spoken vary from region to region as does the wine. And yes it does rain mainly on the plain and usually starting at around 2pm.

What is a credencial del peregrino?
A credencial del peregrino means a pilgrim’s credential in English. You either get this document at the town you choose to start at or from the Spanish tourist office in Toronto. In order to stay in a refugio and to get your Compostela when you finish your walk or bike trip, you must have this credencial stamped along the way.

What is the “Compostela”?
This is a certificate conferred by the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela to a person who has walked or by horse back, at least the last 100 km or cycled the last 200 km. When you get to Santiago, you go to the Dean’s office, present your credencial del peregrino along with your passport and a few minutes later you are given a very interesting certificate in Spanish with your name spelled in Latin. You can then go next door and get it laminated for 150ptas. This Compostela also entitles you to air discounts with Iberia. There is a peregrino travel office on the main floor of the Dean’s office and you can book train, bus and plane tickets.

What is a jubilee year?
This is any year that St. James (Santiago) day, July 25, falls on a Sunday. 1999 is such a year. In the Jublilee year the holy door of the cathedral is opened. It opens onto a huge square and is very beautiful.

The camino
Spain is a Catholic country and Santiago is Spain’s patron saint. You do not have to be Catholic to walk the camino. St. James wasn’t and neither am I. I attended mass and took communion all along the camino. There are beautiful cathedrals and churches along the route; many are not open or are open at very specific times. The churches are decorated with symbols of Santiago the evangelizing apostle, scallop shells, pilgrims hats and the walking stick and gourd, and of Santiago “the moor slayer” with more bloody aspects of how the apostle was used to drive the moors from Spain. I find the two aspects of St. James incongrous. The use of religion to justify a means to an end is nothing new but still disquieting.

The French trail, that I walked, was interesting and beautiful. The mountain trails were tough to climb right to the end. For me it never really got “easy” although it was fun. I had never walked before and really didn’t know what to expect. I never had foot or leg problems in the 5 weeks it took me to walk the 800 km trail. Other that the plains of Burgos, I was either walking up a mountain or down into a valley. I looked forward to my midday break and a glass of wine of the region. There are no washrooms along the trail so you either use the side of the road or wait for a town and head for the bar/pub. Even the smallest village has a bar and sometimes it was not easy to find and often not signed. The locals knew where it was and that was enough. This was often the case with grocery stores. You had to ask. I spend a month at a school in Cadiz learning basic Spanish and if really was of value.

Refugios (hostels) are in most of the towns along the trail. I had a list of all the towns along the trail and whether they had a bar, restaurant, grocery store and refugio was indicated. This was really all you need to walk the camino along with a small road map just showing the general trail. You can obtain detailed maps and guides but remember you have to carry everything and paper is heavy. I did eventually purchase a camino guide when I got to Rabanal del Camino and stayed at the refugio operated by the British confraturnity of St. James. This was after walking the first 500 km with just the list and a basic road map, two pieces of paper, 8 1/2 x 11 and I managed quite fine. I watched people pour over there maps each night at the refugios, and plan their next day as though off to battle. I wanted to let my walk to unfold and to decide how far to walk each day based on that day’s experience. I didn’t plan where to stay, per se. There are natural stopping points all along the camino depending on the region, the terrain and points of interest. Some days I walked 12 km and other days 35 km. I also took 2 days off. A refugio is a hostel run for peregrions only. They offer a bed, shower, toilet, sometimes a kitchen and laundry. They are co-ed. People snore so take earplugs. Lights are out at 11:00pm and check-out is usually 8:00am.

You do not have to be a distance walker or in great shape. I met people from 16 to 75 years old. Each person experienced and walked the camino differently. Age did not seem to be a factor in who got blisters, tendonitis, shin splints, shoulder or back pain etc. The weight of your back pack, what you had on your feet and whether you were walking alone or with a person or group appeared to be more important to a person’s health than walking experience.

I noticed that people who walked alone seemed to have the fewest health problems. I believe it was because they were able to walk at their own pace. Walking with someone means that either you are walking slower or faster than you would normally because the other person’s stride is different from yours. This seems to create problems in the body. If you want to do the walk together, plan your meeting place for each evening. You will enjoy your solitude and self-reliance.

Your backpack should not weigh more that 10 per cent of your body weight. I didn’t know about this rule and was used to carrying a lot of stuff, just in case. After 3 days of walking I got rid of 4 kilos of stuff and my pack was about 12 kilos and that was still too heavy. I left “stuff” along the trail and mailed some forward to Santiago until my pack was done to about 9 kilos. I lost 15 pounds during the walk and finished at 132 pounds. I then had to retrieve my “stuff” from the post office and my pack was back up to 13 kilos and that was too heavy but I was going home and was able to manage. I still find it hard to believe that I carried that weight plus water, etc for the first 3 days, along major mountain trails. I guess we are stronger than we know and to me that is what the camino is all about.

You will need a basic first aid kit. I gave most of my kit away to peregrinos who needed help along the way. Every refugio has a first aid kit and there are always local doctors ready to help often free of charge. You just need your credential and passport. Pharmacies are able to dispense medicines that we have to purchase with presciptions here. If you take aspirin regularly, you might wanted take it with you as that was one item I found to be very expensive and here it is so cheap. It is suggested that you also carry mycins for treating fungi but you can buy it there if you need it. It is important to keep your toenails trimmed and your feet clean and dry.

The post office has a general delivery system and will hold parcels for 30 days. If you are going to walk and take your time, you might want to divide up you pack and send a few things on to stops along the trail, such as Burgos, Leon and Santiago. I wish I had sent a set of clean clothes on to Santiago so that I could get out of my camino clothes. I didn’t want to buy anything because I had clothes waiting for me in England. Oh well, next time. All I had was a pair of shorts, a pair of leggings and nylon wind proof pants and jacket, two t-shirts, one high tech pullover, a change of underwear, 4 pairs of socks and a pair of gators. I had left my jeans in a park around day 5 because they got too heavy when it rained and wouldn’t dry overnight. Many European walkers had lightweight pants, with lots of pockets, and the lower leg zipped off to make shorts. This was very practical. I would have bought a pair but they were not available in women’s sizes and the men’s just didn’t fit properly.

You will need a sleeping bag that is very lightweight. The nights can be very cold in the mountains and the refugios are not generally heated. I had a sheet and piece of fleece that doubled as a poncho on cold days. I don’t like sleeping bags because of the feel of the nylon and the zipper. This worked well because most refugios provided blankets and pillows. I used a t-shirt for a pillowcase. I knew the refugios in Galicia would not provide anything so looked for a sleeping bag at Ponferrada, the last major town before Galacia, but couldn’t find anything lightweight. I went to a fabric store and bought a length of fleece lined fabric. This worked beautifully and was lightweight. I left my sheet behind. I had less than 300 km to walk and my pack was the right weight. An inflatable pillow could be of use but you can make a pillow with clothing. I started my walk on April 25 and finished May 29. I walked through various stages of spring depending mountain top, river valley or plains.

I kept a diary and took a small tape recorder that took standard cassettes. I had recorded some of my favorite music and it came in very handy on those long climbs and flat plains. I also recorded my thoughts along the way and it was wonderful to listen to what had happened 2 weeks before. You soon forget the details. I had a radio but I seldom got anything other than “Spanish classical”. I wouldn’t take one the next time. I had a small pair of binoculars and of course a camera. I took 40 photos along “the way”, just enough to give the flavor of the walk.

Your clothing should be light in weight. I walked in conventional clothes not clothing designed for walking. Next time I will wear walking clothes. There are so many high tech fabrics that keep you warm or cool and dry. They wash and dry easily. The refugios are not heated and you generally wash your clothing in the sink and if it’s not raining you hang it outside. I carried a few clothespins but most people used safety pins. I hadn’t thought of that trick. I used shampoo for washing my body and my clothes. Everything weighs.

Your footwear can vary from sandals to hiking boots. I had a pair of lightweight walking boots, leather sandals and plastic flip flops for the shower. I loved being able to walk in my sandals. They are nothing special and I have had them for several years. I was great to get my feet out in the air but times were few and far between but once I got to the refugio, I cleaned my feet and on went the sandals. I took Tea Tree oil and a small spray bottle and sprayed the inside of my boots each day to keep them fresh. I had 4 pair of socks: 2 medium weight and 2 lightweight. They were all wick socks but it really didn’t matter in the end. Only the lightweight ones would dry over night so I would wear them inside the medium weight. If my feet got really wet, I had purchased insoles from the dollar store and I would take out the wet insoles, stuff my boots with newspaper and hope that in the morning they would be only “damp” with new dry insoles. I usually worked.

You will need a towel. I took two tea towels. They dried easily and I used one for my hair and one for my body. Most people had one of those high water uptake sheets, about 18 x 24 in size. The showers at the refugios are fine other than there is not always hot/warm water. You will need small packets of tissue. They are available in grocery stores all along the camino. Toilet paper is not usually available in bars or refugios.

For mending socks etc., I had a large needle and used dental floss. I replaced my toothbrush every week or so because it never really got a chance to dry and I didn’t want gum problems.

I had a plastic plate, cutlery and jackknife (not Swiss army) and an enamel mug. I left my plate and cutlery along the trail and lost my jackknife in Leon. I bought a plastic knife and fork to use. The type of food I ate really didn’t need a plate etc. I lived on bread, cheese, olives, pate, mussels, fresh fruit and vegetables. It was a very simple existence. I had packets of tea, coffee and chicken bouillion to drink. Next time I will take an immersion heater, as often the refugio would have a kitchen but nothing to cook with. The odd day I would eat dinner in a restaurant or bar (tapas, small snacks, were always available in the bars). Special peregrinos meals were offered for $10.00 included wine. It was good value if you were really hungry. Because Spanish people do not eat dinner until later around 10pm, restaurants didn’t usually open until 8:30 – 9pm. This was too late for me so I would go to the grocery store and buy what I needed for dinner and breakfast. You could buy 2 eggs, 1/2 of a bagette, 6 slices of cheese etc. It was a very easy and a very tasty way to eat.

Getting ready is more “in the head” than the material things you take along. People quit along the way and hope to come back and start where they left off. Because there is no time limit on the walk you can take your time and build up your walking time. There are towns all along the camino and if they don’t have a refugio, they would have a casa rural, pension, hostal or hotel. I don’t believe you could be without accommodation anywhere along the way.

I would also suggest you open an e-mail account with Yahoo or hotmail. It is an easy way to keep in touch with family and friends. There are cyber cafes in the larger towns and at the Leon refugio, they gave peregrinos free access to the Internet. That was a lovely surprise. Perhaps other refugios will follow suit. If you just want to keep in touch by mail, you buy your stamps at the tobacco shops.

Banking along the trail is interesting. They close at 2pm for the day. I had a Visa and bank card. Often my bank card would not work at the ATM but my Visa usually would. I realize that there is interest on the money but what can you do? It’s all the price of travel. Anytime I could charge something I would and that meant my cash lasted longer.

I took the 6 pm bus from Pamplona to Roncesvalles and then a taxi to St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I shared the taxi with two Brazilians and it cost 1200 ptas to go the 27 kms through the mountains. I had been in Morocco prior to starting my walk, so I took the train up from the south of Spain, stopping at Ronda, Granada and Madrid before arriving at Pamplona. You can go to Bayonne in the west of France and take a train from there to St. Jean. There are several trains each day. There you check in with Madame Debril. You would take the train from Paris to Bayonne. If you are not in a hurry, get over your jet lag before starting your walk. If you are starting at Roncesvalles, you check into the monastery.

Final thoughts…
There is a huge gap between knowledge and experience. I thought I knew all about “the camino”. All I had to do was walk each day. That is basically true. It is about getting up every morning, getting ready and going on, day after day, regardless to weather or how you feel. The only person who will get you up and out is you. Depending on your preparations the night before, you will leave wet or dry, happy or sad, tired or refreshed. It’s a cross between boot camp without the sergeant and summer camp without counsellors. You willingly adapt to the challenges as they confront you or you spent your energy wishing it were some other way. It’s all up to you… That’s what makes the camino such a wonderful experience.