Of the many popular walking trails and hiking tracks in Europe, perhaps the best known is the pilgrim trail known as El Camino de Santiago — or the Way of Saint James.
Granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1993, The Camino is now the subject of a movie that is being released later this year (directed by Emilio Estevez, starring his father Martin Sheen and appropriately titled “The Way”) about an American dentist “too busy to take a holiday” and his life-changing experience of walking the Camino.
Legend has it that the bones of Saint James, one of Jesus Christ's twelve apostles, who in Spain is known as Santiago, are buried in the magnificent cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. For the past thousand years or so, devout pilgrims, mostly Catholics, have been trekking their way from various parts of Europe to worship at the shrine.
But as an oft-quoted 12th century poem states, the Camino is “open to all… sick and well, not only Catholics but also pagans, Jews, heretics and vagabonds” — and these days as many as a hundred thousand such “pilgrims” arrive in Santiago each year, having walked or cycled all or part of the way, to collect a Compostela or certificate of completion of their pilgrimage.
The Camino actually consists of several trails that converge on Santiago — the most popular being the Via Frances or French Way that stretches some 800 km from the little town of St. Jean Pied de Port at the foothills of the Pyrenees in France through northern Spain to the cathedral city (itself a World Heritage site) near the Atlantic coast. The start of the Via Frances, although physically demanding as one climbs through the Pyrenees to about a mile above sea level, takes the walker through some spectacular mountain views.
Walking The Camino is a great way to get to Santiago — allowing you to enjoy some breathtaking scenery and also to sample the culture, the food and the wine of Spain in the company of various like-minded pilgrims.
Recognising the contribution that the advent of so many thousand visitors can make to their economies, the regional governments of Spain ensure that the path is clearly way-marked and well maintained. Every ten to 15 km one finds convenient cheap accommodation in the form of Albergues run by local monasteries, municipalities and private individuals which offer a place to sleep for the night for around 5 or 6 Euros. This is usually in dormitories with bunk beds, although a few do have a limited number of single or double rooms available for about € 20 per person. Some Albergues as well as most restaurants along The Camino provide a reasonable three-course pilgrim meal for about € 10. In order to avail oneself of the facilities at these Albergues, one needs a Pilgrim Passport, known as a Credencial, which can be obtained from the pilgrim office in St Jean Pied de Port — or alternatively by post from one of the official Pilgrim Confraternities (eg. American Pilgrims on the Camino http://www.americanpilgrims.com/ ).
And whether you do it for spiritual reasons, cultural reasons or just for the physical challenge, The Camino is certainly a path worth walking.
What better way to spend a glorious spring day than hiking through beautiful country, admiring picturesque views of the Pyrenees or passing through little Spanish villages that still have a medieval air about them? You cross over ancient bridges, pass through quaint villages and ancient walled towns like Astorga, and walk past impressive Templar castles such as Ponferrada. When you reach the big cities, one of the privileges of walking the Camino is taking a day off to see the tourist sights along the way — such as the amazing new Museum of Human Evolution in Burgos or the magnificent Cathedral in Leon. At the end of the day's walk you have the choice of staying in a cheap Albergue or a less inexpensive pension or motel — it is all part of the glorious experience of walking The Camino.
You can walk alone (which gives time for reflection), undertake the journey with a family member or friend (as I did this year with my son) or use the opportunity to meet people and make new friends.
At the end of each day's walking, in a manner reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales , there is the opportunity of meeting fellow walkers — peregrinos, pelerins and pilgrims from different walks of life and various parts of the world.
They certainly make a great and welcoming fraternity with which to break bread and share experiences at the end of the day — not only the Catholics, but also the pagans, the heretics and the vagabonds!