For more than a thousand years pilgrims have walked this trail across northern Spain and every year more and more people join that number.
The Way of Saint James, as it is called in English, was an important pilgrimage made in medieval times. It is believed that the remains of Saint James were carried from Jerusalem to Spain along this path before being buried where the city of Santiago de Compostela now stands, the end point for the pilgrimage walk. The cathedral was built in the 9th century.
There are five main routes that are walked: the Camino Frances, the Via de la Plata, the Northern Routes, the English Road, and the Portuguese Road.
This is the most popular of all the Camino Routes and probably best for first timers as it is well-supported with hostels along the way. It starts in St Jean Pied de Port and runs for 485 miles (780km) west to Santiago de Compostela. Many people just do a section of this route.
Via de la Plata (Silver Route)
Following an old Roman road this way leads south to north starting in Seville, or alternatively in Granada. The Silver Route is about 620 miles (1000km) and normally takes 6 or 7 weeks walking. As facilities along this route improve it is becoming a popular alternative to the increasingly busy Camino Frances.
This is one of the more difficult routes due to the rough coastal terrain and poor signposting, but the fact that it follows the coast does mean you can have a refreshing swim at the end of a day’s walking. The Northern Route begins by crossing the Santiago Bridge into Irun (on the border of France and Spain) and there are few hostels in this section. The route is about 512 miles (825km).
Starting in Porto, this route of 143 miles (230km) is well signposted with many pilgrim hostels along the way.
Camino Ingles (English Road)
This is a short route and doesn’t really qualify you to say you have completed the pilgrimage. There are two starting points, both port towns in northern Spain: A Coruna and Ferrol. From Ferrol to Santiago it is about 68 miles (110km) and from A Coruna only 46 miles (75km). These routes meet up near a village called Hospital de Bruma.
Some people extend their walk by carrying on past Santiago de Compostelo to Finisterre on the coast which was the edge of the medieval world.
Along all the paths you will find pilgrim hostels – Albergues and Refugios. These are staffed by volunteers and usually open from about 4pm each day. They provide cheap accommodation to walkers holding a Pilgrim Passport, which you can get at some albergues at the start of the trail or in the main starting towns: St Jean Pied de Port, Roncesvalles, and Pamplona. Some of the hostels have kitchen facilities, while others provide low cost meals.
If you choose to join a tour group for the walk, they will organize your accommodation each night and most likely will also transport your luggage from place to place.
Many people nowadays do not begin the walk out of any spiritual intention, they just want a good walking or cycling holiday, but many end up feeling transformed by the experience of walking the Camino de Santiago. Whether it is the sense of accomplishment or the camaraderie along the way or that there really is something spiritually uplifting about the route, it doesn’t matter. What is uncontested is that walking this path is a wonderful experience as anyone who has done it will tell you.