El Camino de Santiago – Northern Spain

Introduction

“Pilgrim, leave what you are able; take what you need.” This simple phrase left anonymously at the entrance of a refuge house for pilgrims, describes the difference between El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) and all other foot routes in the world. Hospitality, the tradition passed on by thousands of travelers over the past 11 centuries, echoes in each stone, each tree, and each piece of land along the medieval route.

The pilgrimage to Santiago is a trip of almost 800 kilometers. Some claim that it is a journey not only to a physical destination but to the interior of oneself, and that each person undertakes it with their own baggage and objectives. There are those that seek the pleasure of trekking; others are motivated by religious conviction, or by artistic and historic interest in a footpath that penetrates the Occidental culture. Although reasons for embarking on the pilgrimage differ, one thing rarely does: the spirit of adventure towards an uncertain and mysterious end continues to be cultivated in whoever confronts it.

Over the last few years El Camino de Santiago has seen big changes. The year 1999 brought a new injection of publicity, and ever since, the flow of visitors has not ceased. While at one time it was difficult to find a public telephone, today there exists a number of modern conveniences along the route.

Preparation

The paths used by the ancient pilgrims to reach Santiago are found all across the peninsula. However, El Camino Francés is the most important historically and strategically. El Camino Francés has two points of entrance. The first is Roncesvalles (Navarra); the second is Somport (Huesca). Both reconvene at Puente la Reina and continue onward to Santiago. So, the first decision is which way to elect. The route via Navarra is more beautiful and frequented; Huesca, due to its solidarity, is said to reproduce for many the true nature of the original medieval walk. Those who choose the Navarra route have yet another decision to make: where to begin their pilgrimage. The majority of modern pilgrims choose Roncesvalles as their point of departure. Whoever elects to leave from Saint Jean Pied Port and travel through Roncesvalles will experience traversing the marvelous Pyrenees mountain range.

When to Visit

El Camino Francés can be traveled year round. July and August are the months with the most hours of sun and fewer weather risks, but also are the most popular tourist time (65% of pilgrims elect to visit during these months). In other words, if you are looking to experience the solitary, medieval spirit of the pilgrimage you are better off trekking during the winter, when the refuges are vacant and you are likely to be the sole pilgrim on the track. Of course, the price you pay is the mud (a good excuse to get dirty), the rain, and the cold. July and September are both ideal months, with good weather and a moderate crowd of walkers.

Duration

Most guide books propose dividing El Camino de Santiago into daily stages of 20-25 kilometres. The publisher El Pais Aguilar distributes guide books in both English and Spanish on the ins and outs of planning your pilgrimage; books include color maps. On average they recommend allowing 30 days (or 30 stages of 20-25 kilometres) to travel from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, or 32 if you elect to start from Somport. It is always a good idea to allow extra days for rest and recuperation in between long and physically demanding stages (El Pais Aguilar also ranks the level of difficulty of each stage in the pilgrimage – very handy when on unfamiliar ground!). If the impossibility of taking 30 consecutive days of vacation is getting you down, you might consider dividing the stages into multiple excursions. For example, many pilgrims begin during Holy Week (La Semana Santa) and conclude their journey sometime in the summer or the following year. Another possibility is to get hold of a guide book and pick and choose what you most want to see and experience. Say you only have seven days to work with, and touring the city of Santiago is high on your priority list. No problem! Settle on the number of days you will walk the pilgrimage, as well as the distance you will walk each day, and depart no farther than that from Santiago. Your point of departure might only be two or three days from the city, but that is better than not experiencing it at all. However you choose to undertake the pilgrimage you will not be disappointed.

Albergues (Refuge Houses for Pilgrims)

The network of refuge houses for pilgrims is the most genuine representation of traditional hospitality. Here, anyone traveling by foot, horse, or bicycle may sleep in exchange for a small sum of money. At one time these refuge houses requested donations only; however, increased popularity of the route and an influx of pilgrims have provoked the establishment of an obligatory payment of �1,80-3 a night. Although, don’t be surprised if you come across a few places that still conserve the old tradition. Refuge houses are not five star hotels, so expect only a roof over your head and water to wash (not always warm!). Typically they do not open until midday, and silent hours begin around 2100-2300. Take note that many refuges are closed in winter, so special care is needed if you plan a pilgrimage during this time of year.

Credentials

You must register as an authentic pilgrim in order to take advantage of the refuge houses. If departing from Roncesvalles, you can register at the tourist agency there. If you choose to begin via Somport, head to the tourist office of Canfranc Station or the Church of Santiago in Jaca for the authorization stamp.

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El Camino de Santiago is so much more than just a backpacking journey across Northern Spain; history, art, and culture are everywhere. However, the proper equipment is still required to ensure a safe and comfortable trip. Here are a few essential things to pack: a sturdy, well-fitting backpack; a rain jacket; a fleece or other warm coat (expect to layer); appropriate seasonal clothing; wool socks; gloves; backpacking boots; a sleeping bag; plastic bags (for disposal of waste); cooking equipment and utensils (plastic wine goblets are a Spanish essential – a trekking group I hiked with actually lugged along bottles of wine to compliment lunch; the quick learner that I am, you can guess what was brought on all trips last summer!); a hat to protect from cold or sun; a walking stick; sunscreen; lip protection; a small towel; a notebook and pencil/pen for whatever you feel inspired to record; a first aid kit including supplies to treat blisters, inflammation, and muscular fatigue; oh, and you might want to brush up on some basic Spanish phrases just in case. Que te pases buen viaje!

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