The Way of St. James: El Camino de Santiago

A pilgrimage on this path can last for days, weeks or months as you trek toward Santiago de Compostela.

LEADspainCaminoThere are no footprints on the path through the thick red mud. I watch an 85-year-old man in hand-knit woolen socks nimbly work his way up the trail. If he can do it, so can I.

Such is the strength gained on the Camino de Santiago, an ancient path that crosses northern Spain, beginning in St. Jean Pied De Port, France, and ending 496 miles (798 km) later at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Many people smitten with the walk continue to Finisterre, land’s end at the Atlantic Ocean coast.

On the beach is a huge bonfire and it is a tradition to burn traveling clothes upon arrival, a custom that is easy to understand after 30 days walking in the same clothes for the benefit of carrying a light backpack.

Walking the full length of the Camino usually takes 30 to 40 days, depending on weather, injuries and foot stamina. Some walk shorter sections of the Camino. Most choose to walk in the spring or fall during cooler weather and because crowds increase in the summer as more students arrive. The Camino also can be walked in winter, but with limited facilities available.

Pilgrims, as walkers are named, have treaded this historic route since the 10th century. St. James, the patron saint of Spain, was said to have been brought by ship to the Galician region of Spain after his death.

A coffin was built for his remains that can  be viewed in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

In the days of kings and queens, tens of thousands of pilgrims walked across Spain and other European countries to make this coveted pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago. Many towns and villages grew across the countryside to provide rooms and food. It became, and still is, an economy built around the journey.

It is difficult to lose our way, as scallop shell symbols and yellow painted arrows guide us through cross sections of Spanish life. Pilgrims can almost always be seen on the path ahead.

The path consists of every walking surface, from ancient Roman stone roads to brief sections of highway shoulders. Most often we walk on quiet country tracks that wind across fields of wheat and grapevines.

One can watch the growing and harvesting of white asparagus in spring and experience grape harvesting in the fall.

The Camino takes us through picturesque cities such as Pamplona, Burgos and León. Many pilgrims stop for rest days to explore the historical sights.

Pilgrims walk, cycle, and ride the Camino on horseback. Tours are also available, combining hiking with busing to make the journey accessible to a wider range of walkers. However, most choose to find their way with a good guidebook and the symbols of the Camino.

Local residents of the towns and countryside along the Camino have been welcoming and caring for pilgrims for centuries. As we walk through one farmyard, a stout, elderly woman appears with a plate of hot crepes, sits us down and treats us.

Of course, we can make a small donation, but there is no pressure. One albergue, or hostel, host spends her evening treating foot ailments for grateful pilgrims. There is always a Camino Angel to help when trouble afflicts the traveler.

Historically, modestly dressed pilgrims walked this path, without the sophisticated quick-dry garb and sturdy hiking boots of modern walkers. Accommodation is provided in albergues, or Hospitals for Peregrinos, as they were historically named, and have existed since the faithful began walking this route around 950 A.D.

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