What is the Camino de Santiago
Created by Colleen Sims * 3 April 2023 * Updated 15 August 2023
If you have a friend like me who waxes lyrical about the Camino de Santiago you may well ask yourself what is the Camino and where is it? And maybe you’ve also asked yourself how a walk across Spain can be so life changing?
I discovered the Camino Frances in 2013, I walked 800 kilometres from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela and it did indeed change the direction of my life.
Where is the Camino?
I learned about the Camino when two friends walked it several years earlier. At the time I thought it sounded like a grand adventure and looked on a map, only to discover that it really was a very long walk across Spain; I put the map away and all thought of having a grand adventure. But it seems that once you’ve heard of the Camino de Santiago, once it’s caught your interest, then it keeps calling you to walk.
In essence the Camino de Santiago is not one single path but a network of trails across Europe, all leading to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where it is believed that the Apostle Saint James is buried. Santiago de Compostela is found in Galicia on the far end of Northern Spain where land gives way to the Atlantic Ocean. Pope Benedict XVI has said that the camino “is a way sown with so many demonstrations of fervour, repentance, hospitality, art and culture which speak to us eloquently of the spiritual roots of the Old Continent”. Whilst the Camino paths form part of a network of Pilgrim trails you don’t have to be catholic or religious to choose to walk.
This map above isn’t complete. It doesn’t show every path. There are many more routes in Spain and the European paths start in the far corners of Europe and Ireland. The Camino isn’t just one route but many and they aren’t all in Spain; they start all over Europe.
What are the Main Camino Routes
Not everyone chooses to walk the Camino in Spain; although most do. Some hardy folks start walking from their front door like medieval pilgrims. There are popular routes through Germany, Switzerland and France. I live just a stone’s throw from the Camino Vezeley in France although the most popular French route is Le Puy. One of the shortest routes is the Camino Ingles, or English way. We ancient Anglo Saxon’s took a boat to A Coruna and started walking from there; a mere 108 kilometres from Santiago. You can also walk to the coast in Ireland and do the same. In short there are many, many Camino trails.
However, the most popular routes are undoubtably in Spain and Portugal and include :
- Camino Frances : 491 miles / 790 kilometres | starting in St Jean Pied de Port in France. Modern day pilgrims start in St Jean but the Camino Frances actually starts at Roncesvalles Monastery on the Spanish side of the mountains.
- Camino del Norte : 513 miles / 825 kilometres | starting in Irun. You can also start in Hendaye in France as we did as the border between the two countries is a simple bridge.
- Camino Primitivo : 200 miles / 321 kilometres | starting in Oviedo. Many people extend this trail by starting on the Camino Norte, we started at Ribadesella.
- Via de la Plata : 621 miles / 1007 kilometres | starting in Sevilla. When I walked I continued to Santiago along the Sanabres Camino but there is an option to continue north to Astorga and join the Camino Frances.
- Camino Portuguese : 110 miles / 178 Kilometre | Starting in Lisbon the route is much longer but almost all pilgrims start this route in Porto. You can choose to walk the Central Route, the Coastal Route or the Literal which hugs the coast. All are beautiful and can be undertaken in a couple of weeks. The collective Portuguese camino are the second most popular option. You can also extend this route and walk the Variente Espiritual.
- Camino Ingles : 75 Miles / 108 kilometres | Starting in Ferrol, this is the shortest of the camino routes and just qualifies for a Compostela.
- Camino Finisterre : 71 miles / 114 Kilometres | Starting in Santiago and the only route that leaves the city and traces the footsteps on the Celts to the Ocean at Muxia or Finisterre
Where Do You Start?
I’m fortunate that I live in France and whilst the Camino Vezeley is on my doorstep I am also just a short train ride or drive away from the Pyrenees. Getting to the Camino is not so difficult for me but for many people there could be a long flight and it could take several days to journey to Spain (and of course cost a great deal too).
Not everyone can take 6 weeks out of their life to walk the entire route of the Camino Frances but the good news is that you don’t need to. You can start anywhere! I have met many folks who walk a week at a time, some from their front door across Europe and every year they get a little closer to Santiago. I’ve also taken many groups who have started and ended in different places. There is no rule about where you start.
When choosing where to start there is one very important question you need to answer : Is receiving a Compostela important to you? If the answer is yes then you must walk the last 100 kilometres of any route, ending in Santiago de Compostela. If the answer is no then you can start and end where ever you wish.
How Do You Choose a Camino?
Every route is different. On my workshops I tell my groups to close their eyes and imagine themselves on the Camino. In your mind’s eye what do you see?
- Do you prefer mountains or coast or wide open spaces?
- Are you looking for solitude or would you prefer to walk with pilgrims from around the world?
- Are you happy with simple pilgrim accommodation or would you prefer some comfort?
- Will you carry your world on your back or would you prefer to have your bag transported?
- Do you see yourself tackling every challenge and hiking over mountains are would you prefer a more sedate pace that allows for plenty of cafe con leches?
- Do you prefer rural splendour or do you wish to explore cities and culture?
Your answers will direct you to the route that works best for you. Once you have decided on the route, your time scale and budget can determine your start.
Who is the Camino For?
I have walked thousands of Camino kilometres and the more I walk the more I believe that everyone could learn something from walking the Camino. There is no ‘right’ kind of pilgrim. There are some folks who talk about ‘true’ pilgrims and ‘real’ pilgrims but I believe they’re missing something really important; everyone is a real pilgrim. Even the Cathedral de Santiago recognises that not everyone will walk for religious reasons and it has created a certificate just for folks who walk for culture or sport.
The youngest solo pilgrim I met was just 16 years old and the oldest was 83 years young. I’ve seen people carried in wheelchairs and parents pushing babies in buggies. I’ve seen dog lovers walking with their faithful friends and one couple even walked with their cat! Couples walk, singles walk, old, young and everything in between walk the Camino. I’ve met people from across the world and I’m always amazed at the countries that log in to read my Camino blog. In short, the Camino is for you if you wish to walk.
My original Camino Journal, which started life just as a means of keeping in touch, has been visited by over 130,000 people and has been viewed by people across the globe; you can see on this map below (a screen shot from that blog) all the countries where folks dropped in to have a read. Nothing says how universal the Camino really is than this map.
The Camino also caters for all budgets. Not withstanding that you need to finance your travel, municipal albergue provide very reasonably priced accommodation across all routes and you can still find a bed for under 10€. Pilgrim menus offer three courses with wine and bread for under 15€ and in many places in rural Spain you can still get a coffee for 1€. COVID has made things more expensive but once in Spain the Camino really does cater for all budgets.
If you feel called to walk the Camino, regardless of your faith or lack of it, if you are being pulled to walk then my advice is go. Even if just for a week or a few days. Go. When I started taking groups I worried that a week was not long enough. I was wrong. A week could change your life. Everyone should walk the Camino.