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Spain - El Camino de Santiago  by Michael Russell - Spain Travel Guide

Return to Travel Guide / Galicia Accommodation

If the idea of exploring Europe is met by a "been there, done that" response, think again. There's a unique option whose concept started long before the advent of those whirlwind package tours. You can walk all or part of the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain for an intimate, at-your-own-pace exploration of a country steeped in magnificent beauty, art, history and faith.

Traveling the Way of St. James had its origins over a thousand years ago when pilgrims or "peregrinos" from throughout Europe journeyed across Spain to Santiago de Compostela in search of miracles, as a penance, or to honor St. James the Apostle who is entombed in the Cathedral. In those days, early pilgrims, which included even royalty and popes, had to risk bandits, extreme illness, wolves, difficult river crossings and dangerous encounters with the Moors. Today those challenges no longer exist, allowing millions to make this trek with somewhat less hardship.

Pilgrims, Santiago De Compostela, Galicia, SpainMany begin their journey in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the rugged Pyrenees just across the French border, or in Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. Most frequent connections to Roncesvalles are through Madrid. Take the bus to Pamplona, then a bus next day (only 1 daily) to Roncesvalles. Bus connections also available though Barcelona. To St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, take the train from Paris to Bayonne, then a local train.

In Roncesvalles you can register and obtain a Pilgrim's "Credencial" which identifies you as a peregrino and allows you to stay in "refugios", small inns along this 500 mile path. Each day you set out either alone, in couples, or a group, depending on your inclination. This is no tour. Everyone sets their own pace shepherded by well-marked arrows, signposts, or guidebooks from home.

This well-worn path wends its way through vineyards overflowing with grapes ready for harvest, among apple and pear orchards, across fields thickly scented with thyme, past a mosaic checkered with fresh vegetables, over the desolate, windswept meseta or plateau. Climbing thousands of feet to secluded mountain villages, such as El Cebreiro featuring traditional Celtic round stone houses, it descends to tree-lined Galician pastures with hórreos, elaborate brick grain storage bins on stilts with crosses on the roofs.

The refugios are located in unusual settings, from historic 16th century convents to hospitals run today by the Knights of Malta to modern prefab complexes. While all provide basic dormitory-style bunk bed accommodations and showers, some may include common kitchens, pay phones, laundry facilities or internet-connected computers. They hold 20-800 travelers each night. Charges are modest, from $4-6 a night to a simple donation. Bedding is usually not provided, so it's a good idea to bring a sleeping bag.

People trek the Camino year round. Summers are crowded at the refugios and are very hot, with little or no shade in many sections of the trail. Spring or fall treks are best. The weather is better and the crowds are fewer. Fall temperatures range from 80 to 40 degrees (F) and winters can be quite cold with snow. Plan on rain any time of year, but especially in verdant Galicia, Spain's equivalent to America's Pacific Northwest.

So who walks the Camino de Santiago today? Thousands of travelers of every age from around the world. In just one typical year, there were over 25,000 pilgrims from 72 countries.

But what attracts folks to the Camino? For many it is the solitude and chance to shut out the distractions of a busy world, to meditate, to reaffirm their faith, to search for answers, to find inspiration. This is the perfect venue, since it can be a walking meditation, not a marathon.

For others it is the chance to discover precious, little-seen art and architecture, such as Astorga's magnificent Bishop's Palace built by renowned architect Antonio Gaudi. It's a chance to stroll ancient Roman roads and appreciate twenty-arch stone bridges like the Paso Honroso, commemorating a month-long jousting tournament in 1434. Or you might explore castles built by the Knights Templar, elaborate fountains, frescoes, sculpture and relics sequestered in tiny romanesque churches along the way.

For some, it is simply the opportunity to take part in a rich tradition of wandering the same path in the same spirit (and earning the same aching muscles and blisters) as millions of peregrinos over the past millennium. Certainly a highlight is savoring Spain's rich culture. If you're lucky, you might arrive in a village during their version of the running of the bulls, or during a Saint's Day festival, complete with memorable local cuisine, traditional costumes, lively games and parades. Or just revel in the exploration of traditional delicacies, from the wonderful selection of rustic chorizo (sausage) and hearty sheep cheeses of the distinctive Basque region to Portomarin's enormous almond pastries, Torta de Santiago, decorated with sword and shepherd's staff, to the tapas, pulpo (octopus) and other fresh seafood delights of Galicia. Sip delicious viño tinto wines across Rioja, Burgos and the Mesa and delicate white wines poured at arm's length into pottery saucers in Galicia, most of which you'll never find at home.

Whatever your motivation, villagers will often surprise you with a "Buena Camino!" from their modest doorstep or second floor window, or may graciously fill your water bottle. Peregrinos have trod this path for a thousand years and these towns have a long tradition of hosting travelers. You'll still see bags of water hanging over the doorways of some inns, symbolic of the days when innkeepers washed the feet of pilgrim guests.

Walking the Camino can take as little as 26-30 days if you plan to do it in one stretch. Or can take as long as you wish. Many hike two weeks one year and two the next. Bicyclists typically spend two weeks on the trail.

When you finally arrive in the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, an emotionally charged finale is to attend the Peregrino Mass, featuring the world's largest incense burner, the Botafumeiro, swung nearly at ceiling level by eight men, back and forth across the transept. Then join the throngs in paying a reverent visit to the apostle St. James' tomb. Later, with your Pilgrim's Credential filled with stamps from all of your refugio stays and church visits in hand, go to the Office of Peregrinos to receive your official Compostela, certificate, as proof of your pilgrimage.

As always, it is the journey that matters, not the destination. Remember this and with any luck you'll find whatever answers you seek on this or any journey.

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Michael Russell Your Independent guide to Travel

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