I remember when I started planning my first walk on the camino and the many questions I had. And then when I told others about it, they sometimes asked questions I couldn’t answer. So here’s some of the absolute basics, in case you or a loved one is planning on walking it and you find it all a bit bewildering. The lack of concrete answers can be frustrating, but hopefully this will give you some idea:
What is it? Short answer: A long walk. The word camino means ‘road’ or ‘way’, and is basically the age old route to Santiago de Compostela, a city in northwestern Spain. It is also a pilgrimage. The remains of St James (Jakob) the Greater, one of Jesus’ disciples, is said to be buried in the cathedral, so in the middle ages pilgrims started walking there to pray. People still walk there for religious and/or spiritual reasons, for historical and cultural interest, or for or for sport, health or leisure. The Spanish caminos are mostly village-to-village walks with some gorgeous towns and cities thrown in, this is not a tent-and-bear-spray kind of wilderness hike. It’s all very civilised!
Where is it? The easy answer here would be Spain, but there is a huge network of pilgrimage routes all through Europe, from back in the medieval days when the Top 3 pilgrimage destinations were Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. There are also many caminos in Spain, all leading to Santiago, and the most popular or busiest is the Camino Francés, so-called because it comes from France (nothing to do with anyone called Francis or Frances). You can find this map on the Wise Pilgrim website.
How far is it? As long as you make it. These roads and trails are there for the walking, so you can pick them up where you like and walk as far as you want. It all depends on how much time you have and which route you want to walk. As an example, walking from the eastern border with France to the lighthouse at Fisterra – the End of the World of old – on the other side of the country, is about 860 km.
What – on foot?? That is the idea, yes. Slow travel is the name of the game. Some ride bikes or horses. Most people walk.
Where does it start? There is no such thing as a starting point for the camino, only an end, which is the cathedral in Santiago. Anyone who walks a minimum of 100 km on foot, or rides 200 km on a horse or bike, will be eligible for a certificate from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago to prove they got there, but where you start is up to you. Some walk for two weeks a year, picking up where they left off the year before, and move slowly towards Santiago that way. Some start at their front door and walk all the way to the sea, quite a few start in Sarria to walk the last 100 km.
Where do I register? You don’t. No starting point, no register, no controls. If you are walking the Camino Francés, one popular starting point is St Jean Pied-de-Port just over on the French side of the border. If that is where you want to start, you can visit the pilgrim’s office on the Rue de la Citadelle, where a volunteer will give you a pilgrim passport, your first stamp, a scallop shell – the symbol of a pilgrim on the way to Santiago – and most importantly, valuable information about the weather in the area and any warnings about the crossing into Spain. If you would like some sort of official start, seek out a similar pilgrim office at your starting point, or visit a church, they often have stamps. Along the camino, many also have pilgrim masses or blessings you can attend.
I need a pilgrim passport?? Don’t worry, the credencial or pilgrim’s passport isn’t a passport as such, it is a folded or booklet type document with space for stamps. You get the stamps in places you stay overnight, and on the last 100 km you are required to get two a day, so get another along the way – at a church, bar, shop, hotel, lots of places. (There might be a digital version post covid.) The stamps record your progress and provide proof of your journey when you get to an albergue or pilgrim hostel, and also when you go to claim your compostela, the certificate of a completed camino. Top tip: The folded-up credencial makes for a good keepsake as you can see all the stamps at once, while the booklet ones are harder to display. You can buy them from your local pilgrim association, from tourist offices and churches along the way, or order the official cathedral credencial or special Holy Year version from Ivar at the Caminodesantiago.me pilgrim forum, where you can also find answers to any and all questions you might have.
So … how do I do this? You can buy a guidebook and make your own plans, according to your own dreams and needs, how far you can/plan to walk each day, places you would like to visit, city rest days etc. Here are some handy free websites for you to start off with. Or you can pay a person or company to organise your daily stages and book your accommodation for you. If you book through others, make sure they understand your requirements.
What do I need? Good footwear, comfortable backpack, some clothes that will keep you warm, dry and decent, toiletries, something to sleep in and a few bits and bobs. Keep it simple, look up other pilgrims’ packing lists or have a look at some of mine – different lists for different times of year, type of terrain, available services etc. Rule of thumb: You need much less than you think! Spain is a modern country, there will be shops if you need something. If you are unable to carry what you need, there are transport companies that can forward your excess luggage from village to village, accommodation to accommodation.
Where do I eat? Buy food in the shops as you pass, or eat in the many little café-bars and restaurants along the way. Food is generally good, cheap and wholesome, there are tasty tapas everywhere, and many places offer a very affordable pilgrim menu consisting of starter, main, dessert and wine. Top tip: Go for the salad starter, to get some veg!
Where do I sleep? There are many albergues, or hostels – cheap accommodation with bunkbeds and dorms – along the way, and naturally also hotels in bigger towns and cities, plus casa rurales – B&B type places – and everything in between. Pick and choose, mix and match, book ahead or go with the flow. Websites like booking.com, hotels.com and also airbnb.es are handy.
Where do I pee? In the loos in the many café-bars along the way, and your accommodation … and if need be, off the trail, but without leaving toilet paper or any other kind of mess. Bring a doggy poo bag for used paper, wipes or more serious things, and carry it to the nearest bin. Or for women – buy and try a FUD, a Female Urinary Device, to help you pee standing up. Practice makes perfect!
Where do I wash my clothes? In albergues there will normally be a laundry sink, often outdoors – doing laundry in the shower wastes hot water and is not acceptable! More and more places now offer a laundry service at ~€5 for washing and ~€5 for drying your clothes. You can normally share a machine load with another pilgrim, especially if you operate the machine yourself.
How hard is it? Some parts of some caminos are steep, rugged, exposed to sun and wind and rain, and some are flat and easy. Some places have lots of facilities and accommodation, some places they are few and far between. Check with Gronze online or your guidebook what the landscape is like where you intend to walk, and get some training in before you go.
Do I have to be super fit? No. Fitness is a definite bonus, but if it is lacking, you can compensate with careful planning. Take it slowly, don’t overdo the daily stages – ease yourself into it and you will get camino fit along the way.
Can I do it on my own? Yes you can. In fact, many prefer it, as they are free to make plans to suit themselves, and also free to change their plans if they want or need to, for sightseeing, rest, injury, or to walk with new friends. You won’t be alone for long, there will be many others who also walk on their own, and with everyone walking the same way towards the same goal, ice is easily broken. The camaraderie and community between pilgrims also makes it a safe place for women travelling on their own.
What are the other pilgrims like? Like people! You will meet people of all ages, a multitude of nationalities, several religions or none, people who are called to walk the camino in grief or gratitude, to pray in all the churches along the way, or for exercise, to have time to think or not have to think, for the social aspect, for the history, architecture, food and drink, to challenge themselves and get to know themselves better. Or just because it sounded like a good idea.
Do I have to be religious? No. Try to be kind, patient, respectful and tolerant, to the best of your abilities (some days are harder than others). Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and you’ll be fine.
Do I have to speak Spanish? Well, no, but it is sensible, polite and very helpful to know at least some camino relevant words and phrases, at least hello (hola), please (por favor) and thank you (muchas gracias). Try DuoLingo to learn some basics for free, or bring a small Spanish phrasebook.
Is it expensive? That depends. If you use clothes and kit you already have – though I’d highly recommend making sure your footwear is comfortable over time, buying new shoes if necessary – choose cheap travel to your starting point, stay in albergues (pilgrim hostels ~€10 a night), buy food in the local shops and cook or prepare your own meals etc, it can be done on a virtual shoestring. If you want to get the latest ultralight and breathable gear, stay in hotels, dine in restaurants and get a person or company to organise it all for you, it can cost as much as you are willing to pay for it.
How dangerous is it? Not very! You will mostly be walking village to village, with a light backpack with some essentials, on safe roads, trails and paths. Some dogs will bark from behind closed gates, cats will approach you to get a cuddle, cows will stare blankly at you as they trundle home to be milked. The horses up on the hill between St Jean and Roncesvalles roam freely but are not very interested in people. The biggest threat to an enjoyable pilgrimage or walk is blisters from wearing the wrong shoes, leg injuries from walking too fast or too far, or back ache from carrying too much or carrying it wrong. And sun burn, and dehydration, so cover up and take more water! Oh, and it’s also highly addictive, so you might find that long walks take over your future holiday schedule.
The short version: The camino is a long walk along a network of walking routes ending in Santiago de Compostela. You pick your route, your starting point, your daily distance, your rest days, your kit, clothes and form of accommodation, and your budget. The trails are there for anyone who wants to walk them. Be kind, respectful and open to the camino, and you can’t go wrong (taking half the stuff and twice the money also helps).
I hope that answered some of your questions, or if not, feel free to ask them in the comments. If you have walked it, what were your first questions? How and where did you find the answers?