Walking the Camino

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Camino de Santiago

After all the craziness of the silly season, most people need a holiday from the holiday. How about a pilgrimage in the north-western region of Spain by taking on the Camino de Santiago?

In English it translates “The Way of Saint James”, a route many use as a path towards spiritual growth. The Camino leads to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Galicia. During the Middle Ages, the Way of Saint James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages along with the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.

There are quite a few routes that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, each with its own appeal. The Camino Francés or the French Way is the most popular route, whilst the Camino Primitivo, the Original Way is the oldest route, first taken in the 9th century. Camino Portugués (the Portuguese Way) is the second-most popular route and starts at the Cathedral in Lisbon (610km route) or at the Cathedral in Porto in Northern Portugal (227km route). Camino del Norte (the Northern Way) is arguably the most challenging of the routes and therefore also the road less travelled. It follows the coast along the Bay of Biscay until it nears Santiago. It was apparently first used by pilgrims to avoid traversing Muslim occupied territories in the Middle Ages. The route does not pass through many historical points as the other routes, but the summer temperatures are measurably cooler. In the Middle Ages the Northern Way was subject to Viking skirmishes and a Muslim presence threatened the pilgrims. The Tunnel Way (or Tunnel Route) provided a safe road. The English Way (Camino Inglés) was traditionally used by pilgrims who travelled to Spain by sea.

France, Portugal and Spain have pilgrim hostels that provide overnight accommodation for pilgrims who hold a credencial or a Pilgrim’s Passport. The passport is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. At the end it is a record of the journey, and serves as proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that the journey was accomplished, qualifying the pilgrim for a compostela (a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage). To earn a certificate like this, a pilgrim must walk a minimum of 100km or cycle at least 200km of the Camino.

Hostels are run by the local parish, council, private owners or pilgrims’ associations. Occasionally they are located in monasteries. The final hostel on the journey is quite famous. The Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos lies across the plaza from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. Originally built by Ferdinand and Isabel, Catholic Monarchs, it stands today as a luxury 5-star Parador hotel, which still provides free services to a limited number of pilgrims daily.

Whether you are in search of solitude, on the lookout for a journey into history or on a spiritual retreat, the Camino, no matter what route you choose to follow, will undoubtedly teach you about yourself more than you ever imagined – step by step, and day by day. The famous author Paulo Coelho penned a beautiful memoir of his “Road to Santiago” that has been made into a documentary. Give it a watch – maybe it will serve as inspiration and get your feet moving on your own road to Santiago. Happy trekking.