El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is a pilgrimage trail more than 1,000 years old and is one of Europe’s most important cultural activities. There are several camino routes running throughout Europe, all of which lead to Santiago de Compostela and the burial place of St. James. Though there may be numerous routes traversing Europe, each of them merge into one at the Pyrenees Mountains before continuing on to Santiago.
From the Pyrenees on, this became known as the Camino Francés, or the French Way. Starting at the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains in the town of St. Jean Pied du Port, the French Way passes through Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León on its way to Santiago, 780 kms away. This equates to about 35 days walking. While there are more than 100 recognised routes, such as The Coastal Route, The Eastern Route, The English Route, The Portuguese Route, and The Camino de la Plata, which begins in Seville, the ‘Camino Francés’ is, by far, the most popular route. Camino Francés is dotted with historical and cultural significance, interesting towns and villages, cathedrals, churches, monasteries, hospitals, inns, hotels, cafes and restaurants. No matter what way you travel on the Camino there is one certainty – it is different for each person.
Santiago de Compostela
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia, and is the final destination of the renowned pilgrimage route. Regarded as one of Spain’s most beautiful medieval cities, it has been declared a National Monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the heart of the town is the harmonious Plaza del Obradoiro dominated by its awe-inspiring Cathedral. Santiago is a compact, lively and buzzing university city with long arcades and narrow cobbled winding streets, almost entirely pedestrianised.
The Baroque entrance to the Cathedral, raised two stories above the Plaza Obradoiro, is very impressive. The Cathedral is crowned with a statue of St. James attired in traditional pilgrim costume. The Cathedral was, and is still, the goal of every pilgrim. The traditions associated with the pilgrimage include the practice of touching the Tree of Jesse under the statue of St. James in the main entrance, Portico de la Gloria, and “hugging the Apostle” – embracing the Statue of St. James behind the high altar, before descending to the tomb of the saint in the crypt. A special pilgrims’ Mass is celebrated at noon each day. The cathedral’s huge incense burner or botafumeiro, swung right across the transept by eight men, is now only used on certain ceremonial occasions – it was originally used on a daily basis to offset the unpleasant body odours of trail-weary pilgrims!
In recent years, the Camino has undergone a revival helped in no small way by the visits of Pope John Paul 11 in 1989, American actress Shirley MacLaine, who wrote “The Camino – A Journey of the Spirit” based on her experience and, of course, the visit of our own President, Mary McAleese. Today, the Camino is recognised as one of Europe’s most important cultural/religious itineraries. Tourists and pilgrims alike travel the road by foot, bicycle, horseback, private car and by coach.
When is a good time to go?
Any time – the Camino is open all year round. Some (the more serious walkers!) like the cooler spring and autumn whilst others enjoy the summer sun on their backs and seeing the wonderful old towns along the way in glorious sunshine.
How fit should I be?
Start preparing 2 months in advance. Building up your stamina helps. Try to walk for 30 minutes every day and, as your departure date beckons, increase this to 45 minutes brisk walking. Near your departure date try walking for about 6 hours each weekend. You should try to incorporate some challenging hill walks.
The fitter you are the more enjoyable it will be, happy feet, healthy body!
Holy Year (Año Xacobeo)
A Holy Year is celebrated when St. James’s Day, the 25th of July, falls on a Sunday. During a Holy Year the Puerta Santa (Holy Door) of the Cathedral is opened. 2010 and 2021 are the next Holy Years.
Pilgrim Passport (Credencial)
The so called Pilgrim Passport is the official document required to obtain the Compostela – pilgrim certificate. The Passport details your starting point, the date and mode of travel – on foot, bicycle etc. and must be stamped and signed each day.
The Compostela is a certificate of accomplishment awarded to pilgrims on completing the Camino. To earn the Compostela one needs to walk a minimum of 100 kms. (which must include the final 100 kms.) – cyclists must cycle at least 200 kms. It presupposes that you are making the walk for spiritual reasons regardless of your religious persuasion.