One of the most popular walking trails in the world, El Camino de Santiago or the St James Walk is one of the most stunning pilgrimage routes.
If you enjoy walking and hiking, consider walking el Camino de Santiago. I have just returned from walking El Camino del Norte and loved it. Here’s my journey to give you a flavour of what to expect.
The Camino de Santiago is a collection of Christian pilgrimage routes all over Europe which lead to the north-western Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela.
It is believed that the remains of Saint James are laid to rest in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. Christians have been walking the routes to Santiago since his remains were discovered in 812AD. Depending on the season, about 1200 pilgrims arrive daily in Santiago. Some people do it for spiritual reasons, others for the challenge, and others because they just love hiking. For me, it was a mixture of all three.
There are Camino routes all over Europe, but the most common route is the Camino Frances which starts at St Jean-Pont-de-Port near the France/Spain border. There is also the Camino del Norte which begins at Irun in Basque country and the Camino Portugues which begins in Lisbon. I decided to do the Camino del Norte because I love the coast (it follows the northern coast of Spain), it’s a quieter route and it goes through the cities of San Sebastian and Bilboa.
A couple of good websites to find information on the Camino is the CSJ, and the Camino blog. I decided to start at San Sebastian as I had always wanted to visit. I knew that I had to pack as light as possible. I used a 50l Quecha backpack from Decathlon and left with a 9kg backpack (without water) which seemed manageable.
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Starting in San Sebastian
In San Sebastian, I stayed in a nice hostel called A Room in the City, quite expensive at 24 euros a night for a dorm room– San Sebastian is a tourist destination with amazing restaurants and good beaches for surfing but can be both busy and expensive so book in advance. You can pick up your credencial in the pilgrim’s office – ask at the San Sebastian tourist office where to go. The credencial is the pilgrim’s passport where you collect stamps along the route and use it as evidence to get your Compostela at the end.
After a sleepless night, I arose at 6am to start my first day on the Camino. I had a light breakfast and set off. To follow the route, I got the Buen Camino app which costs 5 euros to download. The app has a yellow line along a google map so it is easy to follow. The yellow Camino arrows en route are also regular and clear. There was one moment where I missed a yellow arrow and took a 2km detour but apart from that no hiccups.
Where I stayed
That first day I hiked 22km to Zarautz, a pretty coastal town. Someone had recommended that I book ahead as rooms were scarce so I was booked at the Zarautz Hostel which had bright, spacious dorm rooms, a nice kitchen and a terrace in the sun. It cost 22 euros for the night.
After sampling the local white wine and having some pinchos (the basque word for tapas) I had an early night. The next day was a 28km walk from Zarautz to Deba. The Buen Camino app (Android and iOS) lists all these distances for you and you can edit your journey and what town you want to finish in.
My decision was made by distance I wanted to do coupled with the amount of accommodation available at the destination. Deba, for example, has one of the municipal albergues or pilgrim’s hostels which are dotted along the route. They generally cost 5 to 10 euros or are by donation. This is the cheapest accomodation, but many choose to find private rooms as they know they can’t sleep with that many people.
Also, not every town has albergues so sometimes you need to stay in private hostels; expect to pay between 12 and 20 Euros. Some are also monastery’s, for example the Markina albergue which had rules like lights off at 10pm or departure at 8am. Note also, that some of the albergues are only open in the summer months (July/August).
By the third day I had started to get a routine: early rise, snack, and arrive in the early afternoon. I had started to meet fellow pilgrims and we would have drinks or dinner at a local restaurant offering the pilgrim’s menu – normally a basic 3 course meal for 10 euros. I also discovered a service which for 6 Euros sends on your bag to the next hostel you are staying at. The private hostels often know someone who offers this– arrange it by phone and attach the address of the next hostel onto your bag. It then gets picked up at reception and dropped at the next hostel – a great service!
Rest day in Bilbao
Having hiked 5 days, I took a rest day when I got to Bilbao as I wanted to explore the city. I loved it, particularly the Guggenheim museum and I would have loved to walk along the river or go on the funicular to see the skyline. My bed was in the All Iron Hostel which was clean and well stocked.
It’s definitely important to give your feet and legs a chance to rest if they need it and I felt the rest days made the difference to how much I enjoyed the journey.
After that, each day became a blur of hiking, albergues, scenery, pilgrims and good food. I started doing over 30km and noticed it was becoming easier. The route along the coast gives you a chance to see beautiful villages and stunning coastline – we even swam in a natural swimming pool at Castro Urdeales.
Getting into Santiago was like a dream and the last day really felt special – I had walked roughly 800km! Finishing the walk with two people who had become friends, and arriving to the square at Santiago de Compostela was a memory I’ll never forget!
We stayed at a nice pensione called Bar Forest and enjoyed some great tapas at a bar called Damajuana. The old town and cathedral of Santiago is very beautiful. English mass is held at 10am during the week and there’s a daily pilgrim’s mass in Spanish.
Once you get to Santiago de Compostela you have one more decision to make – whether to go on to Finisterre! Before being a Christian pilgrimage, both Romans and Celts would walk the Camino finishing at Finisterre, a spot on the Spanish Galician coast which literally translates as “world’s end”. They believed the Milky Way points the way there.
Interestingly, the Spanish also call the Milky Way the El Camino de Santiago; medieval legend says that the milky way was formed by the dust raised from pilgrims. The walk from Santiago to Finisterre is about 90km so can be done in three days.
There are so many highlights to the Camino but it can be tough; it’s tough on your feet (there is lots of tarmac) you may struggle with bedbugs (we did once in Mondonedo) and if you pack too much, it can be a hard work. I would recommend preparing, particularly load-bearing training so your joints don’t get too much of a shock. But overall, what an incredible journey!
Items I’d deem necessary
- Walking shoes – I used my well-worn Timberland boots and needed to buy shock absorbing insoles and heel supports.
- Walking sandals – for the end of the day and when your boots get too much. Some people walk only in these!
- Compeed or mole skin, medical tape and plasters – to both protect feet so you don’t get new ones and to heal the old ones
- Iodine – to sterilise blisters. We knew one girl who had to go home due to infected blisters.
- Poncho or water coat and bag cover – I will probably buy a poncho for next time, that covers me and my backpack. They don’t get as hot.
- Walking poles – up for debate but they help absorb the impact on your joints
- Determination – some days are hard, so you have to dig deep but it’s worth it!
Don’t forget your camera!
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Ready to walk el Camino de Santiago? Or have you been and done it before? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences so please feel free to have your say in the comments below. Don’t forget to share this article on Facebook, Twitter etc…
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