During this holiday week, CTLatinoNews.com is bringing you travelogues from destinations around the world that have a Latino flair. We’ll take you on journeys to Spain, Peru, Colombia and Cuba to give you a respite from this busy time of year and to encourage you to start making travel plans for 2013.
Today CTLatinoNews writer Robert Cyr explores the Camino de Santiago de Compostela that traverses the northern quarter of Spain.
By Robert Cyr
Have you ever dreamed of embarking on an adventure in a foreign country that would change your life forever? Do you wonder what it would be like to hike through exotic and ancient mountains, forests and villages, sleeping in a different historic place every night?
If you said yes, you’re not alone. In fact, hundreds of thousands of people every year put on their favorite walking shoes and complete the Camino de Santiago de Compostela – considered the third-holiest pilgrimage in the Catholic world, bettered only by trips to Rome and Jerusalem, respectively, as one of the top three spots for the faithful, curious or intrepid.
The trip, which spans more than 500 miles across northern Spain, is a modern remnant of the strange pilgrimage it once was, and draws people from all backgrounds and countries to the magnificent sights, sounds and experiences of the Iberian Peninsula.
And with just a little planning and some time (about a month) to finish the journey, anyone can make the walk that has a rich history going back almost a Millennium.
There are now dozens of groups in several countries that cater specifically to anyone interested in the trip, offering everything from advice on when to go, where to go and how to get the Pilgrim’s passport book: a small, folding booklet with a simple map on one side that pilgrims use to check into cheap (or free) lodging along the path.
While many of the routes overlap, interconnect and start from varying points in Spain, Portugal and France, they all converge on the same spot – the ornate Santiago Cathedral.
According to an online history, by most traditions, El Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of Saint James,” is the medieval pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela built on the burial place of the remains of Jesus’s apostle, Saint James the Elder. St. James was allegedly a missionary in Spain, and when he returned to Jerusalem in 44 AD, he did not impress King Herod Agrippa I, who dismembered him for failing to convert enough souls. Followers of James sailed his remains to Spain, and the rest is, well, history.
The route has famous veterans, including popes, Napoleon Bonaparte and Mary Magdalene, for starters. But not everyone who walked The Way was on holiday. For medieval convicts, the trip was a form of punishment. They were forced to walk the Camino barefoot – usually during winter – receiving a full pardon for their crimes upon completion of the journey.
According to this Camino website, more than 270,000 people walked the route in 2010, and more than half were between the ages of 30 and 60.
Off The Beaten Path (Sort Of)
While there’s a common saying on the Camino that your journey starts the second you decide to go, there are about 10 “official” routes sponsored by Spain’s tourism branch that accommodate travelers with low-cost lodging and meals in old churches, bunkhouses and refugios (or pensions). Those who are map-challenged or lack spatial reckoning skills can be comforted by the yellow arrows that appear throughout the Camino, pointing pilgrims in the right direction.
Where To Stay
While the path crosses through larger, modern cities like Pamplona, Burgos and Leon, each with their own wealth of history, culture and famous cathedrals, the bulk of the Camino passes through farmland, prairies, plains, mountains and villages. Cities, of course, have all the modern amenities, but the countryside has cheap – sometimes free accommodations in clean, cozy places, which are often old barns or churches purchased by a local or business-minded foreigner and rebuilt as a hostel.
Many adventurous pilgrims choose camping over refugios, with obvious freedom and economic benefits. There are few areas posted for camping, but in the countryside, it’s unclear if there’s a place you can’t pitch a tent.
What To See
The list of historic sites to examine is staggering and encompasses a thousand years or more of Spain’s breathtaking history. From Celtic influence to Roman occupation to modern-day gypsy-themed festivals in remote villages, many find it best to compose a brief “must-see” list that affords them less stress and more flexibility on the trip.
The most heavily used route is the Camino Frances, which starts in St.-Jean-Pied-de- Port, a mountain village in France at the foot of the Pyrenees.
To find useful lists of the trip’s highlights, click here or here. Both sites are in English.
Several books on the trip are also available.
- *Pamplona, famous for the bull-running festival, or the festival of San Fermin
- *Ponferrada, home to an ancient Knights Templar castle in the middle of a modern city
- *The cities of Burgos and Leon, each with their own spectacular cathedrals and festivals
- *Finisterre, a town on the Western Galician coast whose literal name is “The End of the Earth.”
What To Eat
It’s difficult to go wrong when eating anywhere along the Camino, unless, of course, you’re a westerner addicted to fast food. After spending a few weeks on the Camino eating locally-grown produce and meat and drinking spring water, you might cringe at the idea of ever again eating a bag of potato chips or hitting up your local gas station for a late-night snack.
One of the most common side effects of walking the pilgrimage is not only sore feet but tremendous weight loss and increase in stamina and feelings of general good health. This is not due to under-eating; many of the dinners prepared at local refugios are cooked by traditional, matronly Spanish villagers that lavish their guests with three-course meals.
Weight-loss is due not to food poisoning, but to the fresh food and average daily hike of 10 miles or so. But many people do much more than that, sometimes trekking 40 miles or more in one day.
The culinary delights span several regions and Spanish sub-cultures and go from the world-famous cuisine of the Basque people around the Pyrenees to the seafood-centered fare of the western regions of Galicia. Pork in any form – especially cured and aged – is a huge staple and eaten all day, usually along with an aperitif, some roasted red pepper and some wine and cheese. There is the traditional Paella of rice and shellfish, and finger food of shark, shrimp and clams.
Ever present are late-afternoon and night-time tapas, small, bite-sized cafe food that uses local vegetables, seafood and bread to fill you up with a glass of regional Rioja wine – likely grown and bottled in the same village you’re sipping it.
Which brings us to another universe of gastronomic delight: Spanish wine is considered some of the finest in the world, and the Camino passes through the seemingly endless acres of ancient vineyards (not to mention olive groves and errant fig trees dripping fruit along the path). In the summer, the path through the Pyrenees is littered with tiny yellow chamomile flowers that you can collect and boil later for a soothing cup of tea.
When To Go
The majority of pilgrims take their vacations to Spain’s route in the spring, late summer and early fall, but some more brave souls go during winter. This is generally not recommended, since some passes in the Pyrenees and Pecos de Europa in the West are almost impassable then, and many refugios are closed.
The middle of summer is also often avoided, for the infamously long, hot Iberian days. From June to September temperatures are high enough to force region-wide siestas of four hours or more, resulting in the spontaneous closure of every shop imaginable. The only services usually found during those hot hours are for a cold drink in a dark cafe.
What To Take
Locals will tell you over and over to make sure you have enough water. Listen to them. Many recommend at least two liters for a day’s hike, but it may be wise to carry more. Several stretches of the Camino have no springs and some lakes, steams and rivers are not readily potable.
The less you take and more essential it is, the better. That 30-pound pack that seemed fine at home will feel like an elephant on your back after a week of hiking. Take a ziplock bag with a bar of soap, toothpaste and toothbrush and shaving kit. Take five pairs of socks. You will likely wear through a few pairs pretty quickly. Take extra ziplock bags to keep dirty clothes in until you have a chance to wash them. Bring a rain poncho for the eventual downpours and a sun hat for the guaranteed walks across shade-less plains. But most important of all …. DO NOT take new hiking shoes. Blisters and foot troubles abound on the Camino, so wear only your most comfortable boots.
Monetarily speaking, most village businesses only take cash, so bring a few hundred Euros to last the stretches between cities with ATMs. Fixed-price meals range between $8 and $15 and accommodations range from free to about $10. A good bottle of wine can cost as little as $4.
Camping, of course, adds a lot more weight to that pack, so bring only one pot, a warm bedroll, waterproof matches and the lightest tent you can afford. Every ounce counts. And last but not least, don’t forget a camera. You may never be in Spain again, so bring lots of extra film or batteries.
A good scan of a Camino map inside a typical pilgrim’s passport book can be found here
The trip you’ve been waiting for is right across the pond, so get planning, get packing, Bon Voyage… and Buen Camino.
Read more on the official Camino de Santiago website.
Photos (c) Robert Cyr