The call to walk this 800-kilometer/500-mile long trek over the Pyrenees and across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela comes to pilgrims for many reasons. Some seek a great physical adventure. Others want time, insight and space around a challenging life issue. Yet others simply read an inspiring book or saw a great movie. Many say these reasons “called” them to walk the Camino de Santiago, especially the most popular route, the Camino Francés (French Way).
A Christian pilgrimage that is over a thousand years old, the Camino is also a sacred walk open to all. The road is a trek through natural beauty and an intimate connection with the earth. The route is also a profound walk into history and deeper, into human prehistory. In many ways, the Camino is older than Christianity itself.
By the time the medieval Christian world embraced the Camino for its own purposes, ancient hunters and gatherers, early farmers and shepherds (and Celts, then Romans) had already forged and crossed this road many times.
The Camino is a medieval pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain to the purported tomb of Saint James the Greater that legend tells us a hermit discovered in the 9th century.
In its popularity in the Middle Ages, the Camino was a religious pilgrimage. One walked it to gain forgiveness, to be cleansed of mortal sins, and with luck, to earn entry into heaven. It was also the rare way a person could leave home and embark on a great journey into the unknown.
The excitement and transforming power of the Camino is no less today. For the modern pilgrim there is also the chance to walk in nature and take a break from over-scheduled urban lives. Modern pilgrims today also savor the simplicity of walking. Some hope to find themselves. Yet others hope to find companionship or even true love.
You can chose many routes deciding to walk the Camino. Most people who walk the first time select the Camino Francés. This is the road that gained official status by the 11th and 12th centuries. Then as today, it is the road with the most food and lodging for pilgrims along the way.
But there are older routes and more remote routes, such as the Camino Primitivo. This was the first official route taken by the king of Asturias in the 9th century.
When Vikings or North Africans were launching campaigns in the interior, some pilgrims deviated north to the Atlantic coast. That route is the Camino del Norte.
Others arriving from the Mediterranean or southern ports in Spain would likely follow another old Roman road, called the Via de la Plata, Silver Road. Romans used it to take mined minerals from northern Spain to ports in the south an onward to the Mediterranean.
There are numerous other routes beginning all across of Europe, all destined for Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.
The most popular route, the Camino Francés, I divide here into six stages, starting on the French side of the Pyrenees at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and ending at the Atlantic ocean in Finisterre in Spain’s northwestern province of Galicia.
These stages can be walked consecutively in one stretch or can be shorter treks that stand on their own. There is no right or wrong way or order to do embark on the Camino. You can use these as suggested segments to tailor to your own particular journey.
At the foot of the Pyrenees, Stage 1: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Eunate makes its way over the mountains via the Valcarlos Pass. It continues to Eunate via Roncesvalles, Burguete, Zúbiri, Pamplona and the Sierra del Perdón.
Next is Stage 2: Puente la Reina to Santo Domingo de la Calzada via Cirauqui, Estella, Irache, Torres del Rio, Logroño and Nájera.
Westward from Santo Domingo de la Calzada is Stage 3: Redecilla del Camino to Carrión de los Condes. It passes throguh San Juan de Ortega, Atapuerca, Burgos, Castrojeríz, Frómista and Villalcazár de Sirga.
Stage 4: Sahagún to Ponferrada passes through San Miguel de Escalada, León, the Santuario de Nuestra Señora del Camino, Astorga, Monte Irago (Cruz de Ferro) and Santo Tómas de la Ollas.
The next stage, Stage 5: Villafranca del Bierzo to Santiago de Compostela, is often the last stage for many pilgrims. It goes through the heart of Galicia via O Cebreiro, Samos, Sarria, Portomarín, Leboreiro and Monte de Gozo. It ends at Saint James’ tomb, in a crypt under the altar in Santiago’s cathedral.
Yet for pilgrims wanting to extend the adventure there is a lovely route west to the Atlantic Ocean. This is Stage 6: To the Atlantic ocean on the Camino de Finisterre. It goes through the ancient settlements of Cereixo, Muxía, and Moraime and ends at Finisterre.
Stage 6 follows what some Galicians consider the oldest portion of the Camino, an Iron Age route going back 2,500 years ago or earlier.
Check out the details linked on the yellow bar at the top of this page for When to Go, What It Costs, Transportation, and dive deeper into the Camino’s Background.
When to go is a very personal decision. The Camino can be walked or cycled any time of year, but certain factors need to be weighed toward selecting your best time to go. While the Camino is open year-round, not all lodging and cafes and restaurants are open year-round. (This becomes even more true if starting on routes deeper in France or on routes off the Camino Francés.)
If you don’t want to carry a lot of weight, you will want to consider spring, summer and fall, or, the added expense of hiring a luggage transport service. If weight is not an issue, you can walk any time, especially if cold and wet don’t deter you. But also bear in mind that if pilgrims’ dorms are where you want to sleep, some of these close down after the early autumn. But you still have the options to sleep in hostels and hotels, though they cost a little more. Lucky for all of us, Spain remains a very affordable destination and even hotels are reasonably prices.
So, it comes down to your most core preferences. If you like hot warm weather and also are an extrovert thriving on the presence of lots of other people, summer is your best time. If you prefer the solitude and quiet of winter and don’t mind the cold and are willing to carry more layers, than winter is your season. In between are all the ranges of other preferences: desiring solitude but like less cold? Mid-autumn or mid-spring may be your season. Though, in recent years, thanks to the international explosion of films and books (many from France, Germany, Spain, Japan, Korea, and North America) that have made the Camino popular, spring, summer, and autumn are all far more populated with pilgrims than in years past. Having a flexible budget and attitude will help navigate all this. Locals are very helpful as a rule toward directing pilgrims to good lodging and food. (All the more reason to learn a bit of Spanish and keep relaxed, flexible and upbeat as you walk, even when tired.)
Whatever your preference, some form of rain gear, such as a poncho, is a requisite for any season and should be included in your packing list. The rain in Spain very occasionally falls on the plain but definitely has a way of showing up anywhere anytime on the Camino. This is especially true in the mountains and foothills that catch Atlantic storm systems and hold them over the northern reaches of the Peninsula, from the Pyrenees in the east to the tip of Galicia in the west.
Rain ponchos also do multiple service as ground covering for picnics, tarps for extra shade, and even an extra lining between your sleeping bag and dormitory mattresses.
How long does it take? If you can arrange your life to take 5-6 weeks off, this is the ideal time to go from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela and onward to the ocean at Finisterre or Muxía (I recommend both and they are linked by a coastal route). But if you can’t, don’t let time deter you and don’t buy into some pilgrim talk about ‘only true pilgrims do the whole thing at once.’ That is one of a good handful of ego-bloated and subjective attitudes about the Camino. Take a page from the Spanish, who very rarely walk the whole thing but fit in the days they can at a time and pick up the next time where they left off. This is their homeland, they are our hosts, so if this is their example, maybe it pays to chill out a bit and leave the Protestant work ethic and competitive spirit of North America behind?
In fact, many people walk the Camino in stages, not only the Spanish. Most walk 1-2 weeks at time. I recently met four engineers from Madrid who are walking it a long weekend at a time, once a year. It is a chance to see each other each year and savor the Camino without rush. They actually don’t want it to end and joked that maybe in 12 years they’ll get to Santiago. Are they less serious or less spiritual than those hell-bent on doing the whole thing in one stretch? No, and perhaps they are a tad more serious or spiritual because they honor and savor the local world through which they pass, without rush. It’s something to think seriously about.
This too is a personal choice and can be adjusted to how much time you can take off from your life back home and how much time you want to dedicate to walking the Camino. If you are an avid cyclist, I have heard of bikers making the full trek, in a hurry, in two weeks, so consider allowing three weeks for more leisure to linger in interesting places. My particular bias is to walk, not bike, because of the time it allows to soak up the world through which one passes. It is also more meditative, something worth noting if that is a part of the experience you seek.
If you want to walk the whole Camino in one stretch, I recommend no less that five weeks, which allows for more leisure than the alpha personalities that boast doing it in under four weeks. Those who are inspired to walk it that way are more motivated by physical accomplishment. If the physical experience inspires you as much as a combination of cultural, social, and spiritual experiences, if you can, give yourself 5-6 weeks to take the pinch of time off the edges of your experience.
If you opt to walk the Camino all at once, more than any other option, be kind and patient with yourself (and others) and allow the occasional rest day and even a bus or taxi (both very affordable by European and North American standards) to ease up on a soar knee or to allow time to explore a destination more fully. Some pilgrims may poo-poo this idea but in fact, it is considered by most a very healthy and sane consideration. And if being a “true pilgrim” is a part of the thinking, consider this, “true pilgrims” in the Middle Ages never shirked a ride on a horse, donkey or cart when offered. Pilgrimage is taking every day as it comes and seeing what options arise and trusting oneself and the road, not others’ opinions.
Alternatively, there is no shame in deciding to walk the Camino in sections over several visits. Many Spaniards do it this way, usually in 1-2 week increments at a time. They usually use the major cities as their starting and stopping points. Not all do it in order, either, though most do. The way the itineraries are set forth here follow this very native wisdom of what seems to work best if sectional walking is your preference. The advantage of this method is you can take more leisurely time to really be in each place and soak up the history and the local culture of the present, a very welcoming and profound culture of hospitality that has been in place for over 1,000 years.
High season is summer and especially around and on July 25, which is Saint James the Greater’s feast day and a big deal in Santiago de Compostela. Some especially religious or culturally devout pilgrims often strive to arrive in Santiago on this day. But whatever time in summer, it will be the high season and you will encounter nonstop pilgrims all around you.
The low season is the coldest and wettest time of winter, from December to February. For the solitude inclined and the cold-weather loving, this is an ideal time to walk.
All the other nuances of season and preference can be found in between. Spring and fall will still have more people on the Camino but will be more relaxed. Spring and fall are also the seasons when temperatures can swing most dramatically.
Spring and fall are the seasons when temperatures can swing most dramatically from freezing rain, as I have experienced crossing the Pyrenees in mid-May, to torrid heat, as I have also experienced walking in mid-October during an unseasonably warm autumn. Nonstop rain is a likelihood in all seasons but especially in spring, autumn, and at times, winter.
As such, for all seasons, plan for unpredictable weather and also for varied terrain: You are crossing a territory that begins in the mountains, continues through foothills, reaches its middle in high altitude and exposed plains, and finishes in more mountains before ending at the hill town of Santiago de Compostela. If you desire to continue on to Finisterre and Muxía, than you will continue on to the Atlantic coast, which can receive abundant rainfall all year round and is as famous for its storms as for its green, green countryside.
The Spanish have so many holidays that some joke that scheduling for work between festivals and holidays might be more efficient. (Though, the northern Spanish grumble that their southern kin have even more holidays…)
The most major holidays are listed below, but for the Camino, the most important holiday is July 25, Saint James the Greater’s feast day. This guarantees that the summer days leading up to July 25 will show a surge in devout pilgrims walking to Santiago, especially that last 100 kilometers that qualifies the faithful with a Compostela, a certificate of pilgrimage.
There is a holiday I personally love on the Camino and that is November 1, All Saints Day. Cemeteries in villages, towns and cities become colorful and festive places and locals often can be seen gathering at a deceased family member’s tomb, decked out in flowers, and sharing a glass of local wine before retiring to someone’s home for a lunchtime feast. Walking the Camino takes pilgrims through these places and past the cemeteries just on the edge of town. To pass through so much life and color in the celebration of the ancestors can be a profound experience on the Camino.
Beyond this, major European Holidays to consider in your planning include:
January 1st New Year’s Day
Good Friday and Easter Monday
May 1st or the first Monday in May
August 15th Assumption Day
December 25th: Christmas Day
December 31: New Year’s Eve. Celebrated with very festive and extravagant dinners and eating 12 grapes at midnight, a tradition you see most prominently at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. If you are with friends or in a restaurant on this night and at midnight, don’t be surprised when your host hands you a cup filled with twelve grapes. You are to eat one for every strike of the clock at midnight.
January 1: New Year’s Day
January 6: Epiphany (the day gifts are traditionally exchanged)
All of Spain and Portugal are an hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (London) and in the same time zone as France, Belgium, and Holland.
Daylight Saving Time (DST) happens in the Spring (last Sunday in March at 1AM) when clocks are advanced one hour. In the Autumn (last Sunday in October at 1AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time to give more daylight in the morning.
Pack as light as possible, weeding down to the absolute essentials that serve more than one purpose.
But, whatever you decide is or is not essential for you, four things are universally proven as must-haves:
Hiking/trail walking shoes that are already broken-in and comfortable on your feet. These ideally are supportive light-weight hiking boots or sturdy cross-trainers that work well for you, whether they are light and almost like running shoes or sturdy with ankle-high lacing.
Sometimes pilgrims overdo it on the footgear and get constant blisters because they go for boots that are too heavy or don’t fit well (or pack too much weight).
The Camino is mixed terrain, from dirt paths to rocky climbs to (unfortunate) asphalt stretches. Seek the shoes best for you. Start early and try a lot of shoes. Once you select a pair break them in (they should be comfortable from the get go but now is the time to road test them). Walk on all sorts of surfaces and go for a 8-12 mile walk with your packed pack to be sure they really translate into supportive and comfortable action. And talk to pros, and be very, very picky. This is your one most important item.
2-3 pairs of good blister-preventing socks. I prefer the double-layered socks that specify they prevent blisters on the labeling because they actually do. Other hikers swear by wearing two layers of socks. Between picking good shoes, socks, and keeping your pack weight light, you can prevent blisters, something that took me four Caminos to perfect from making the mistake of overlooking one of these three essentials for foot health.
A light backpack that really fits. Be honest and brutal and pick out a pack that really fits your hip, shoulders, and torso. Opt for the next size smaller if you are inclined to think too big and hence carry too much stuff. Realize that most pilgrims pack too much at first because they are packing not for their trek but for their fears over what might happen. The Camino is one of the most supported trails in the world and if something happens, which usually it does not concerning that piece of gear you left at home, you can in fact find that item on the Camino. Along with lodging and ample places to eat, shops dedicated to supplying things pilgrims need dot the trail. This includes arnica gel for sore muscles and adhesive bandages for cuts and blisters. (If you picked your shoes, socks, and pack well, you may never need a bandage for blisters.
Good rain coverage: Each person finds their solution but I have found that a rain poncho and a rain jacket, both lightweight, work well together to keep as dry as possible. Also, when selecting footgear, opt for waterproofed shoes or ones that will dry out quickly. If you’re walking in the warmer seasons, water-bound sports sandals work. (Feet dry out faster than socks and wearing sandals in a summer rain is actually fun.) You have to find what works for you but just know that no matter what season you walk in, rain is a very likely possibility and being wet is the worst challenge a pilgrim faces.
For the rest, layers and pieces that can serve double purposes, such as being layered with each other for more warmth or to serve as sleepwear as well as hiking layers. For example, a light-weight short-sleeve t-shirt and thin insulating leggings can serve as pajamas and also as warm layers under hiking pants and a long-sleeve shirt.
Also, you will be wearing these clothes for a while. On the one hand, you will discover the pleasure of not wondering what to wear each morning you wake up (and in reverse, when you return home, you might be stressed by the sudden expansion of choices in your closet). On the other hand, you are likely going to get really tired of the clothes you’ve taken and so, one way to prevent these doldrums is to pack those few and useful pieces that you also really love and feel good in, the clothes you reach for all the time to put on.
These precious threads should also be high performance, as noted above, and hold up to being washed many times, be quick to dry, and not retain body odors after washing. Avoid sweat-wicking industrial fabrics and go for light-weight, loose-weave, high-quality cotton and wool that perform better than the moisture-wicking fabrics made from artificial fibers.
Trekking pants are pretty good at durability and fast drying and also often come with useful pockets to stash money and passport. Make sure these pockets are zippered rather that button, not only for security but to prevent the pockets from catching on bushes and branches and risking tears and pulls on the trail.
For more on what to pack, plus a tried and true packing list, read on below for The Whole Pack.
The Whole Pack
This packing list has been heavily worked over and refined over twenty years of trail-trial-and-error on over a dozen caminos across France and Spain, learning from each pilgrimage in freezing and sweltering conditions as well as delightfully moderate and pleasant ones.
Some of the things I take are tailored to my very personal top reasons for walking: to explore and learn on an inner and outer journey, as well as to share my experience as a travel writer. Essentials for me are a journal (paper notebook or electronic, such as an iPad mini with Bluetooth keyboard) and a camera.
A helpful editing and filtering aid to lighten your pack is to gather all that you plan to take and step back and ask of each item, “Am I taking it because I am afraid something will happen where I will need this, or am I taking it because I will likely actually use it every day?”
Most pilgrims over-pack by packing in their unexamined fears. Find out why you fear the stuff that might happen and release it to a lighter load. More hard stuff can happen if you carry too much unnecessary weight. This is a pilgrimage, after all, where trusting the road, your own abilities, and the kindness of strangers (with good street smarts always engaged) is part and parcel of the attraction for doing it.
The (Suggested) List:
1 pair of well-worn and fitted hiking shoes or cross-trainers
1 pair of after-walking shoes that can double as slippers (or shower sandals, if you want) in the afternoon and evening.
3-4 socks, at least three of them blister-preventing and the fourth for added warmth and comfort both on the hike and in the evening at your lodging. Socks are important and you need to factor in that one or two pairs may be wet at the same time, from washing, from a heavy rain, or from accidentally stepping into a puddle where you may change socks a couple times in one day. You always want to have one pair of dry socks in your pack.
2 pairs of quick-dry hiking pants, one that can be rolled up and serve as shorts or capris.
3 t-shirts (1-2 short-sleeve and 1-2 long-sleeve: select the shirts best for the season and for layering so that all three can be worn over each other if needed).
1 warm but lightweight sweater or fleece. (I am partial to a good cashmere sweater because it feels really good and is warmer and lighter than most fleece and actually translates well from hiking to dinner. It also offers immediate warmth and softness while on warmer days isn’t cloyingly warm either and is also a nice variation to the usual trekker’s attire. It also dries quickly and endures well, making the price tag worth it for quality. It also can make you feel a little more elegant at dinner, not a small thing after days and then weeks on the trail where you still go to a communal sit-down dinner at night!)
1 rain jacket that also doubles as an extra layer for wind or added warmth even when there is no rain.
Add 1 warm jacket if you are walking in winter. This is unnecessary in other seasons when the sweater/fleece and rain jacket over t-shirts will suffice for warmth and flexible layering.
2-3 pairs of quick drying underwear.
1-2 bras for women, ideally sports-style bras and if you can, no underwire.
A good sun hat for spring to fall. A headband for spring and fall. A warm cap for winter.
Sunscreen for long sunny days, even in winter (at high altitudes in the mountains and on the high plateau, the meseta).
If you plan to stay in pilgrim dormitories and hostels rather than private inns and hotels, you will want a light-weight sleeping bag geared to the season you’ll walk. I carry a 3-season ultra light weight sleeping bag plus a sleeping bag sheet that serves as extra warmth in my sleeping bag or as the only sleeping linen I need on warm nights. It also serves as a layer between me and all the humanity that has slept on my bunk before me. (And, it is a courtesy to all the humanity that will sleep on it after me…nothing like the Camino reminds you that you are a link in a chain of a long ongoing ancestry.)
A small first aid kit such as the smallest you can buy at places such as REI, EMS, or Decathalon (in France and Spain). I tuck into this little kit a tube of arnica cream and an herbal salve for bumps and bruises that I find effective (my favorite is Second Aid, available on Etsy). All the items in your small first aid kit can be replaced on the Camino as you use them, such as adhesive bandages and ibuprofen. Very often cafes and small groceries have little first aid packets at the counter geared just for the pilgrims’ needs.
A small head lamp with a good light (and batteries that don’t burn out quickly) for the occasional late trail day or need to get up to use the WC in an unfamiliar and dark piglrim’s hostel. (But turn it on after you pass everyone’s beds and are in the hall so that you don’t wake them….And on that theme, try to avoid opening your pack and rustling through plastic bags when everyone is asleep; it is a very irritating sound to the sleeping pilgrim! See more on etiquette here!)
A traveler’s towel or a cotton bandana that doubles as towel and headgear and dries quickly. I’ve been amazed at how well a bandana actually works for drying the whole body and then air-drying within minutes.
A shoestring with several safety pins attached that become a clothes line you can hang at the hostel or attach to your pack as you walk to let your clothes finish drying. Having and extra shoelace and pins also double for other repairs or needs.
A journal in the form of a notebook or a small tablet with a keyboard.
A pen and a pencil (pens get lost and dry up, but for some reason, pencils never do either).
A guidebook with good maps.
A small and accurate compass.
A list of Spanish words and phrases—essential for a deeper and more enjoyable experience with the local culture—that you make up yourself, even if you copy it out form the guidebook. Something about writing a foreign word or phrase with your own hand makes it get absorbed better into your memory.
A camera with extra memory cards.
Once on the ground, you will want to have water and food in your pack, enough to tie you over between meals, or in low season times or more remote stretches, to cover a meal or two. Fountains to fill up on potable water are reasonably abundant along the Camino Francés but less so on other Camino routes. It is always a good idea to have a half to whole liter of back-up water on you at all times, just in case. Water is very important considering how much you are exerting your body over several hours a day. I have even learned that by keeping my body well-hydrated, I avoid a lot of aching muscle and joint problems as well as excess fatigue.
There are a lot of side pilgrimages off the Camino, roads medieval pilgrims to Compostela also took for extra adventure and grace. Two of these are especially riveting today. San Millan de la Cogolla, southwest of Logroño in Rioja, and Santo Domingo de Silos, south of Burgos in Castilla y Leon.
San Millan de la Cogolla can be done as a detour along the main Camino Francés.
Santo Domingo de Silos makes a good restful retreat if you need two to three days of stillness. There you can enjoy the cycle of sung prayer six times a day (except Mondays) in the form of Gregorian chant with the monks of Santo Domingo. The village can be reached by a minibus from Burgos.
For bottom rung budgets, allow around 35 Euros per day (about 5-10 Euros for a dorm bed and about 25-30 Euros for three daily meals).
For medium budgets, allow around 50-60 Euros (22-30 Euros for a private room in a rural hostal and 30 Euros for meals).
For total Camino luxury, 100 Euros a day will do it (60 Euros for lodging and 40 Euros for meals).
If you have more budget than this, you can pretty much splurge anywhere you go, including staying in the Paradors, the state-run hotels in restored historical buildings such as castles, mansions, and chateaus. But even these are reasonably priced compared to their counterparts in other parts of Europe.
Consider also that if you have a budget of around 30-40 Euros/day, you can mix it up and some days stay in dorms that cost 10-15 Euros for a bed and other days stay in a one or two star hotel for a bit more and for the luxury of a private room with bath.
Know also that meals are not going to be expensive. Spain has a tradition of daily fixed menus that cover three courses (a starter, a main dish, and a dessert) with bread and wine included for a flat price averaging 10-15 Euros.
Usually, the largest meal of the day is lunch and these menus are offered enforce at lunch time. But on the Camino, given the heavy presence of pilgrims, fixed price menus are offered more widely at both lunch and dinner time, and also, dinner time is pushed a little earlier than is the Spanish habit. (Pilgrim dinners can happen as early as 6:30pm-8pm and locals will then sit to eat at 9-10pm. Keep this in mind with your innkeeper who has worked hard all day since the first pilgrim rose and needs to then feed him or herself and family after the last pilgrim is fed.)
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We donât want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in â¬.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
â¬ => Tickets less than â¬15 per person
â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬15- â¬30 per person
â¬â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬30 per person
Sleep — Out of town/rural
â¬ => Rooms less than â¬60 for a double
â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬60 – â¬100 for a double
â¬â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬100 for a double
Sleep — Large Cities
â¬ => Rooms less than â¬100 for a double
â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬100 – â¬150 for a double
â¬â¬â¬ => Rooms â¬150 for a double
â¬=> â¬5- â¬10 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
â¬â¬ => â¬10 – â¬25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
â¬â¬â¬ => â¬25 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
â¬ => Tickets less than â¬25 per person
â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬25 – â¬50 per person
â¬â¬â¬ => Tickets â¬50 per person
On the Camino, ATM machines are widespread in cities and towns and in some larger villages and are the best way to get Euros as you go. Some banks may charge a fee (typically 1.5 or 2% per transaction) but not always. (Often it is worth the fee for the convenience and it is still less than the commission charged to change currencies.)
Higher scale hotels and restaurants along the way will accept credit and debit cards, but smaller truly local restaurants (the places to go!), cafes, and hotels and pilgrim dormitories are almost all cash only so plan for this as you walk and draw out enough cash as you go. And of course a credit card is a nice thing to have in case of an emergency or for a splurge.
Also, don’t forget to call your debit and/or credit card company before you travel to inform them of your planned itinerary. If you don’t do this in advance, you risk having your card denied/declined when you try to use it in a destination far from home. You should also call your company immediately to report loss or theft. You should also reconfirm this information when you call your company by asking, What is the number I should call from Spain/France/Portugal (depending on where you’re starting your Camino) in the case of loss or theft?
Recently, companies have been issuing cards with embedded chips that prevent counterfeit fraud. Banks and merchants that don’t offer the chip-and-PIN technology are beginning to be held liable for fraud. Check with your bank and credit card company for details on your specific cards.
The good news for travelers in Europe is that you don’t need to get stressed about tipping as you don’t have to do it and when you do, it really should reflect good or excellent service rather than be something you are expected to do.
A good tip is around 5% of the meal’s total cost. This applies to taxis too.
If you stay in a hotel you liked and found clean, leaving a Euro per night stayed is good practice to thank the cleaning staff.
Many restaurants include a service charge for large groups in the price so check and, if it is not mentioned, a tip of about 5 % is a good idea. Even where it is included but you feel that you have had really excellent service then the same amount is adequate but ensure that your server receives this by handing it directly to them.
For pilgrim’s meals (there is such a thing and it is a little less expensive than the usual daily three-course meal and usually called the menu de pelegrino) you usually only pay the set price for the meal. Unless is was really good and the server and/or restaurant gave you extra and went our of their way, there is no need to tip.. Here, too, 5% is a good rule of thumb.
The good news is youâre walking or cycling, so, youâre your own mode of transportation. But you still will want to know your options if you need to rely on a bus, train, or taxi if and when the unexpected happens, or you simply change your mind about how youâre walking or where youâre going.
And you certainly will want to consider your options for getting to the starting point youâve selected for the Camino, which are many.
Most people deciding to walk the Camino think their only options are flying into Paris or Madrid and then wondering how to get to the remote spot by train, bus, and/or taxi in the Pyrenees where they will begin their walk. How does it all link up?
First, consider that while flying into Paris and Madrid are good options, you also have Bordeaux, Toulouse, Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Barcelona as alternatives. All these cities connect by train or bus to Pamplona on the Spanish side or Bayonne on the French side and can get you Roncesvalles or Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (SJPP). If you heartily want to start on the French side of the Pyrenees in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, it is often easier to fly into a hub in France and then connect the rest of the way with the train. Flying into Paris, you can buy your full trip ticket to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and catch the train directly from Charles de Gaulle airportâs station to Bordeaux, change for Bayonne and there, and change for Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in Bayonne. Take note, sometimes this last train is a bus due to rail work so check your train ticket for the word “autocar,” a sure sign to go to the front of the train station and catch the connecting bus. When in doubt, always ask.
If you fly into Toulouse, youâll catch the train to Bayonne and change there for Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
If Roncesvalles is your chosen starting point, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, the best entry is to fly into Madrid and catch the train to Pamplona and from there, a more local bus to Roncesvalles. Flying into Barcelona can also connect you to a train going to Pamplona.
You can also book connecting flights from Paris or Madrid to nearer cities, such as to San Sebastian where you can catch a train to Bayonne via Hendaye and onward to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, or a bus (or two) to Roncesvalles.
Spain is one of the best connected countries for public transportation via bus and train. Almost everywhere, including small villages, is connected by these two options. Taxis are also less expensive than most of the rest of Europe and a good option when you really want door to door transportation and your onw schedule. And all are far less expensive than renting a car.
The main cities on the Camino offer everything if you need a taxi, bus, or train. But the cool thing about Spain is, the towns and villages pretty much offer the same. All you have to do is ask. I usually for to the central café in the village or town and ask if I need a taxi or bus or train. Very often the café owner will call the taxi for you or direct you personally to the bus stop or train station. Otherwise, you’ll be relying on your feet or wheels and you most important transportation technology will be your shoes. Pick them very, very well.
The Camino Francés is the most common road that pilgrims have walked during both modern and medieval times. It crosses the Pyrenees at the Valcarlos Pass near Roncesvalles and ends at Santiago de Compostela. Many continue on to the Atlantic Ocean on the Camino de Finisterre.
Other roads in France eventually join with the Camino Francés and all come together at Puente la Reina as one great road. This road follows closely the older Roman road that joined Bordeaux in Aquitaine with Astorga in western León, constructed largely to transport minerals mined in northern Spain’s mountains to the rest of the Roman world.
There are three most popular starting points for the modern pilgrim on this route. The most popular is at Sarria, the last point where a pilgrim can walk the 100 kilometer minimum to receive a certificate of walking, called the Compostela. Those with more time and hearts set on a longer trek begin most often on the French side of the Pyrenees at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Roncesvalles, on the other side of the Pyrenees, fluctuates between the third and the eighth or ninth most popular starting point. Many more pilgrims these days are starting somewhere midway, such as in Burgos, León, or O Cebreiro.
The Way of Saint James, known as el Camino de Santiago in Spanish and le Chemin Saint Jacques in French, is an over-one- thousand-year old Christian pilgrimage road destined for Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain to the purported tomb of Saint James the Greater, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. (He was called “James the Greater” only to distinguish him physically from James the Lesser, who was simply smaller, and also one of the twelve, adding to people’s confusion.)
Though the Camino is most famous for its stretch of 800 kilometers/500 miles across northern Spain, called the Camino Francés, it is really many roads that begin all across Europe, aiming to intersect with this one. While today pilgrims begin the Camino Francés either in the French Pyrenean town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or just over the mountains in Roncesvalles in Spain, long has it been understood that the road begins from a pilgrim’s front door. And it ends not just in Santiago de Compostela, but also onward to the Atlantic coast for many, and even more transformative, upon one’s the return home, altered by the experience. In that sense, it never ends.
For most pilgrims today, the Camino officially begins when they have arrived one way or another at the border of the Pyrenees. But the roads to Santiago were and are numerous, as numerous as the paths forged from each pilgrim’s front door, which then tied into the nearest tributary that joined with one of the main roads across Europe to Santiago. Of these main roads, many still remain today and are being resurrected by local communities as pilgrims seek paths less trodden than the popular Camino Francés.
Among these many alternative medieval paths to the Camino Francés, the Camino Aragonés, from Somport, east of Roncesvalles, was the second most popular. This guidebook covers these two roads because they were the most traversed and are in the heart of the Franco-Cantabrian corridor of southern France and northern Spain. But other roads came from all corners of Europe and grew more numerous in France, Spain, and Portugal.
Among the most historical, in use long before the Camino Francés, is the Camino Primitivo, the first road ever taken to Santiago de Compostela shortly after the tomb’s discovery. Early in the 9th century, King Alfonso II of Asturias (CE 760-842) made the pilgrimage from Oviedo to Lugo and then onward to Santiago. This was and remains a challenging mountain route through the Cantabrian Mountains but also traverses some of the most beautiful mountain passes in Europe. Some of the villages along this stretch still preserve the old ways of living, by subsistence farmers, shepherds, and hunters. Some old-timers also have fascinating mining tales to impart, throwing in an occasional reference to an unmarked but locally beloved sacred stream or Celtic settlement.
In CE 950, over a hundred years after Alfonso II’s pilgrimage, Bishop Godescalc of Le-Puy-en-Velay in the remote Massif Central of south central France made the pilgrimage to Santiago and established the first formal route to Santiago from outside of Spain. At that time, the stretch of what we later came to know as the Camino Francés was still under Muslim control. So Godescalc left Le Puy, made his way across southern France toward the coast, and followed the old Roman coastal road across northern Atlantic Spain. Not that pilgrims there were immune to attack. Vikings were active and a major threat along the coast and other waterways and they attacked pilgrims as easily as anyone else.
In the mid-12th century, two centuries after Godescalc’s pilgrimage, the French monk and pilgrim Aimery Picaud is believed to have penned the Camino’s first pilgrim’s practical and spiritual guidebook, the Codex Calixtinus. A compilation of five separate books, Book Five is the actual pilgrim’s guide and offers opinions about the different peoples and regions along the Camino Francés, as well as advice and warnings about ease, accommodations, thieves, bridges good and bad, safe and treacherous water sources, and where one could eat well and plentifully versus regions with no cuisine or decent food. The Codex is so fresh and opinionated that it must have really been written by someone who walked the Camino. It is also so imperfectly human as to endear us to it even today.
The Codex also establishes that by the 12th century there were four official roads through France, from Paris, Vézelay, Le-Puy-en-Velay, and Arles, heading toward the Pyrenees and Santiago de Compostela. And it tells us that they converged in Spain at Puente la Reina into the one great road, the Camino Francés, like four streams joining a river.
While Aimery Picaud’s guide was exclusively about the world of the Middle Ages, and while many modern guides tend to be exclusively about the modern experience of the Camino with some medieval facts added to enrich the experience, everyone who has walked the Camino, from Alfonso II to Bishop Godescalc to Aimery Picaud to pilgrims today, knows that the regions through which this ancient road snakes its way are rich in many layers of human presence, from Paleolithic prehistory to the Middle Ages to the present. The main focus of the points of interest noted all along this destination guide is to point out these rich layers.
In the Middle Ages, the Camino was officially a religious pilgrimage, but it was also one of the few great adventures available to the average person if they managed to leave their village or town. Today, the Camino remains religious for some, spiritual for many more—even those hell bent on it being only a physical journey—and a great inner and outer adventure for all.
The Camino is also a very ancient road, one that predates the Christian era of the pilgrimage, which began with the miraculous discovery of Saint James the Greater’s tomb in Galicia, the far northwest province of Spain, in the early 9th century.
Before the Christian era, networks and corridors along this path existed at least since the time of the Celtic tribes and other Iron Age peoples who lived here some 2,500 years ago. These roads connected their settlements for trade and transport. When Romans dominated the Iron Age peoples, they built up these networks into wider roads, also for trade and transport. Today as you walk the Camino, you are walking on large tracts of these surviving roads and often times you will see the remains.
But the region, from southern France through northern Spain across which this great road passes, possesses even earlier signs of great migrations of humans along this corridor. These reach back to deeper prehistory signaled by the region’s high concentration of painted and engraved caves that date to around 30,000 to 13,000 years ago. Even earlier, Neandertals made these regions home, also in high concentration compared to other parts of Europe. Clearly, the geography has a special draw, a magic all its own, a feeling pilgrims and locals today also claim.
With the Christian era and the birth of the Camino as a Christian road in the 9th century, this road was a place of mixing, not just of people from different cultures but also from Spain’s religious communities of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even quiet but persistent pagans. They lived and worked together to build the Camino and you will find their influences throughout the road, pointed out in the itineraries offered here.
You think you are walking through France and Spain, but in fact, you are walking through diverse and rich regions and cultures within the larger nations and cultures. In walking the Camino Francés, you will walk through Basque Country and Gascony, Navarra, Rioja, Castile, León, and Galicia and nuances within all of these.
And, a basic understanding of the outlooks and habits of the French and the Spanish in general will help greatly to begin to explore these areas.
That you are walking (or biking) will give you time to linger and take in the interesting details much better than the usual tourist. Savor this remarkable difference and have fun. All the cultures on both sides of the Pyrenees are very warm and welcoming as a general rule.
A whole book could be written on this given how many pilgrims arrive on the Camino well prepared physically or financially but ill prepared culturally, linguistically, or socially. Ironically, these latter three issues take less time to prepare than the former first two and in fact can aid the financial and physical as well.
Here’s the most basic of what you need to know before you go to make the pilgrimage as profoundly and delightful a journey as possible.
Language Etiquette: If you studied Spanish in school, that’s great, use it. Even if you are shy to do so. If you haven’t studied Spanish, but picked up a basic language book for travelers, that’s great, use it. If you’ve made a list of twenty essential words and phrases (easily found in your guidebook) on a piece of paper (do it even if it is in your guidebook because the act of writing it is the act of owning it in your neural pathways), that’s great, use it. Anything less is poor preparation for entry into a magical kingdom that will open when uttering just a few native words.
The fact is, Spaniards (and the southern French, if you are beginning your walk in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port) love it when outsiders try to speak Spanish (French) with them and they do not judge if it is full of errors. They simply appreciate that the visitor made the effort and in return, make more effort too. It’s a natural give and take of being human anywhere and the Camino is no different. Moreover, you will meet people from all over the world and many of them will speak Spanish or French before English.
Cultural Etiquette: This is about respecting the culture of the locals whose homes you are trudging past all along the Camino. They know they were born into a sacred trust by being born on this ancient and sacred road and most are generous in their support of pilgrims. But it is a gift they give and so the more a pilgrim passing through shows interest and engagement, or at least respect (and so does not litter, does not behave disrespectfully, shows impeccable patience and avoids pettiness), the more beautiful all pilgrims’ experiences will be. Consider yourself a fellow co-creator on the Camino, layering the road with your special energy and outlook. All before you, all with you, and all after you are doing this and all together are creating what the Camino is.
Social Etiquette: This includes the above but adds the need for pilgrims to be more considerate of everyone, locals, animals, plants, and other pilgrims. There has been a disquieting and growing level of rudeness on the Camino and ill prepared pilgrims appear and panic over finding beds or meals when all is available for the patient and trusting. These same pilgrims wake others up at 3 in the morning to rush off to be the first in line at the next pilgrim’s dormitory when it opens in the afternoon. These are the same pilgrims who impatiently demand from the hospitalero/a (the person who is cleaning, cooking, and managing that pilgrim’s dormitory) if there is space or food available, making it harder for that person to do their work (and demanding work it is).
Social etiquette also means that if you stay in a pilgrim’s dormitory that advertises it is donativo, based on donations, to make a reasonable donation, similar to what other places ask that set a firm price. Don’t think it is a free place to stay: That donation is what these types of pilgrim’s hostals use to feed the next pilgrims and cover their housing expenses. They work on this system because it is most in keeping with the older pilgrimage tradition of hospitality.
These suggestions could go on an on, but ironically, the flip side is this:, basic human decency, fairness, and courtesy, qualities that are universal and beyond one culture or another, should be a part of the daily practice of walking the Camino. In reality, most people actually are like this, which is cool. It’s the few derilects who can make it less pleasant and sometimes those folks just didn’t know better, hence, this section.
The Camino is a sacred road, even for the secular walking it. It a road of humanity greeting humanity from different walks of life. It is a walk through the earth’s beauty that is precious and to be shared with other journeyers.
You are in for a treat for you are walking through one famous food and wine region into another famous food and wine area without interruption.
You will spend long days walking through vineyards, agricultural fields, and kitchen gardens, not to mention forests full of chestnuts and wild mushrooms, and all this food and drink makes its way onto your plate and glass each night, at a remarkably affordable price. (The Spanish believe everyone should be able to eat and drink well, whether of modest means or other.)
Yes, this is a Catholic pilgrimage road. But. It is an older road than Christianity and it is a road that even during the Christian era welcomed and continues to welcome people from all faiths, including those who claim none or many. It is the road of all humanity and it is a road where we reconnect with the beauty of the earth as well.
But don’t be surprised to find a pagan spring at a well near a church, signaling why the church was placed there in the first place. Nor be surprised by the Buddhist retreats or pagan sanctuaries set up by modern day people who selected the Camino as a place to host their special sacred outlooks.
On the Camino you are also walking through human prehistory and history. (See Atapuerca for the deep prehistory.)
All sacred systems have existed here and persist for it is an open-minded and celebratory road.
So, yes, it is a Catholic road, officially, but a catholic road in the fullest meaning, also, officially.
Even if all you do is jot twenty words and phrases in French and twenty to forty in Spanish (the main language of the Camino) for your most basic needs and wants, you are a huge step ahead of many pilgrims who exhaust the very patient locals who support the pilgrimage road. Moreover, you will have so much more fun because locals in France and Spain are very warm, patient, and welcoming as a rule.
And, if you trouble yourself with the basics of the languages, especially Spanish but also French, you will be rewarded well over a thousand-fold for your effort in how much deeper and richer your experience will be. In fact, you may very well change your life for the better by that effort.
Camino-related travel guidebooks, travel memoirs and essays by Bindu author Beebe Bahrami:
This is a comprehensive travel guide to Spain;s most sacred sites and routes, from prehistory to the present. Several chapters touch on important aspects of the Camino and one long chapter is dedicated to it.
Cafe Oc–A Nomad’s Tales of Magic, Mystery, and Finding Home in the Dorodgne of Southwestern France (Shanti Arts Publishing)
This is my travel memoir about how I landed in southwestern France and fell in love at a deeper level than anywhere else. All roads lead to the Camino ultimately for it was the Camino that brought me here and the Camino that enriches my time in France’s southwest and Spain’s interconnected north.
Cafe Neandertal–Excavating Our Past in One of Europe’s Most Ancient Places (Counterpoint Press)
While a popular science book, travelogue, and archaeological adventure combined, this travel narrative recounts adventures on the Camino toward getting to key prehistoric sites on foot. If you want to read about a Camino adventure that is a bit different, this one might be the one. Chapters 4 and 5 especially touch on the Camino and its passage through ancient landscapes.
All Beebe’s Camino related essays are listed on her website here.
¡Buen Camino and happy reading!
Often called the Romanesque Road, the Camino is a treasure trove of this architectural form of building and sculptural programs that is very expressive of both local and universal sacred stories. It also is very graphic, showing us humans our angel nature as much as our donkey nature.
Romanesque architecture peaked during the 11th and 12th centuries. It is some of the earthiest and most expressive religious art on the planet. It had an open and experimental nature that incorporated the views of not only patrons but the itinerant and nomadic stone masons (of diverse backgrounds, including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and pagan).
These diverse and mystical iconographies are engraved for us still to see in the surviving stones, celebrating a world where diversity was far more influential than one-way belief.
Through the Romanesque, the Camino is as a magical mystery tour in the company of daring, deeply creative, and itinerant traveling crafts people with a vision beyond the conventions of their times. And if you are walking the Camino to contemplate and stretch beyond the conventions of your own times, you will be in good company.
Many English speakers walking the Camino today have seen or heard about The Way, the recent film staring Martin Sheen. This single film led to an explosion of people from English speaking nations–from Australia to England to North America–to walk the Camino.
A French equivalent to The Way is St-Jacques, La Mecque, a film even more about the places people pass through and the spiritual and psychological transformations each pilgrim undergoes. Available now on DVD with English subtitles, the “La Mecque” (Mecca) part of the title refers to the two charming and funny Moroccan pilgrims in the film who are also walking the Camino, revealing the universal and humanistic aspect of pilgrimage.
An excellent and recently released documentary covering the journeys of six pilgrims is Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago by Canadian filmmaker Lydia Smith.
The Camino has inspired a lot of music over the ages but the music supreme of the road comes from the 13th century poet king, Alfonso X, el Sabio (the Learned), who wrote and commissioned a lot of poetry and music (cantigas) for the Camino. These songs were often sung by troubadours (who used the ?Camino as well to go from court to court and perform). They sang in the lingua franca of the age, Gallego, Galician, still spoken in northwestern Spain’s province of the same name. It is also the Romance language directly related to today’s Occitan, which is also still spoken in ?areas across northern Spain, southern France and northern Italy.