The Camino de Santiago - also known as The Way of St. James or simply: The Camino - is the legendary pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James, one of the original apostles. There is no such thing as ONE camino, there are many Ways to reach Santiago. Fanatics start from home, fans of the Grandes Randonnees from Le Puy (France), hurried pilgrims from Porto. There’s the gruelling Camino del Norte along the coast and the never-ending Via de la Plata from Sevilla. All roads lead to Santiago, just like all the lines on a shell - the Camino symbol - come together in 1 spot.
The Camino Frances
The most popular route is the Camino Frances - the French Way - starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees. The total distance is 818 km, spread over 34 day stages. Most pilgrims can do it in less. I only needed 27 days. It’s worth walking 3 extra days - another 90 km - to Cape Finisterre on the Atlantic coast.
The Camino Frances offers great variety in landscapes. You’ll cross the Pyrenees, the fairytale forests of Navarra, the endless plains of the Mesata and the rolling hills of Galicia. It’s also the most touristic route. You’ll never walk alone. Be prepared to see the ‘Completo’ sign in hostels. If you don’t have much time, you can join the Camino in Pamplona, Burgos, Leon or even later. The minimum distance to get your Compostela paper is only 100 km (200 km for cyclists) so many tourists start in Sarria.
When to walk your Camino?
You can do it all year long. In theory. The winter months (Dec-Jan) are too cold and most hostels are closed. Oct, Nov, Feb and March are very wet, the summer months (July and August) extremely hot and busy. That leaves you basically 2 windows: spring (April, May and June) and autumn (Sept).
I started my Camino on May 4 and I was surprised how busy it was. Actually this year, May was a record month with 36.000 pilgrims (!) arriving in Santiago. The weather was mostly sunny, but not too hot. Perfect hiking conditions, although there were many days of heavy rain. Nights were still cold. I’m happy I've walked in May. Nature was at its best. The fields were an endless patchwork of colours. Stunning.
There’s a wealth of great and cheap accommodation along the Camino Frances. You’ll get a long list at the start in St. Jean. There are basically 3 categories: donativos, municipales and albergues privados (private hostels). Donativo stands for pay-what-you-want but doesn’t mean free. Some are housed in vey authentic settings (like the monastery of Samos), which makes up for the basic comfort. Most towns have a Municipal offering a bed for 5 euros. They work on a first-come-first-serve base. Make sure you arrive early, especially in busy months and big cities (Burgos). Contrary to popular belief, most municipals are modern and comfortable. Always check the house rules: most close their doors at 10 PM and kick you out at 8 AM.
Finally, you have the private hostels, popping up like mushrooms. Prices are slightly higher - around 10 euros - but you might get an extra design-ish dorm or swimming pool in return. Touristic? Sure. But it’s not pure business, most owners are very helpful and work extremely hard to get you a 4 course meal for just 9 euros.
Most places are run by Hospitaleros or volunteers. They are mostly foreign ex-pilgrims who want to give back to the Camino. The Dutch are running the show in Roncevalles, the Flemish in Los Arces and the Germans in Burgos. The Hospitaleros are the Roadies of the Camino. Treat them with respect.
Credencial or Pilgrim’s passport
To make use of pilgrim’s hostels you need to present your Credencial or Pilgrim’s passport. Every day it needs to be stamped. These stamps will later prove you’ve actually walked your way to Santiago. In the final 100 km stretch, you need 2 stamps a day. You can easily get these in churches, monasteries, even bars. It’s a bit of a sport to collect stamps. My Credencial is my dearest souvenir. At the Pilgrim’s office in Santiago, you need to bring this document to get your ‘Compostela’ paper.
How to obtain your credencial? I got mine (2 euro) at the ‘Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques' office in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
How much money do you spend?
Between 20 and 30 euro. If you’re really on the cheap, sleep in 5 euro Municipals or give-what-you-want Donativos. Buy your food in supermarkets and cook your own meal. Most hostels have a kitchen. A pack of pasta costs 1 euro, a can of meatballs 1.8 euro, 3 chocolate croissants 1.5 euro.
Not much of a cook? Neither am I. Most hostels offer breakfast for 3 euro (bread, coffee) and 8-10 euro pilgrim’s meals (a simple, but filling 4 course meal plus half a bottle of wine). During the day, you can stock up plenty of Pinchos deTortilla (2.5 euro) and Cafe con Leche (1.20 euro) to keep you going. Count a little extra for your final days in Santiago.
Doing the Camino with zero money in your pockets in a myth. Those days are long gone. Also, think of your flight tickets / transportation to Biarritz and from Santiago.
The Camino is a safe place. Remember: you never walk alone. But it only takes one thief to spoil your whole trip. Wear your money belt at all times. Most showers have a little antechamber to keep valuables ‘where you can see them.’ Every night, put your tablet and phone inside your sleeping bag, even when there are lockers. Hans, a Dutch Hospitalero in Roncesvalles told me about thefts. No need to be paranoid, just better to be safe than sorry. Keep copies of your travel documents on your mobile.
Cash or plastic?
You need to pay cash in hostels. Always have correct change, if not, you’ll have to wait until they have enough small money. In some private hostels you can pay with credit card. Almost every village has an ATM machine, but always good to have some money on you.
Level of fitness
Some basic fitness always helps. No need to train as long you can walk 20 km. Take it easy in the first stages. Your body is a smart machine that easily adapts to the environment. Right now, it might be perfectly adapted to drinking 10 beers in front of your TV. Trust me, 1 week of Camino will turn you into a walking machine, fast and furious.
What you really need
Don’t think about the long distance ahead, focus on today’s stage. Live into the present. Enjoy every step of The Way.
Next episode: ‘What to pack and NOT to pack? That is the question.'