Every year thousands of people go on a pilgrimage along St. James’ Way. I wondered what was so special about this journey so I’ve found an expert pilgrim, who answered all my questions.
Pilgrims have made their way along the Camino de Santiago to see the grave of the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela for over a thousand years and every year there are even more. Pilgrimages are on trend. But why? What’s so special about going on a pilgrimage? And how does the Camino change your life? My expert, Christoph, will answer these questions as well as many others for me. He has lots of handy tips for fellow pilgrims and those who want to walk the route. Now Christoph and I are going to tell you everything you need to know about the Camino de Santiago and why you should definitely head off on a pilgrimage.
What route does the Camino de Santiago actually take?
Before you set off, you need to decide which route you’d like to walk. ONE St. James’ Way doesn’t actually exist. If you stepped out of your house tomorrow morning and walked all the way to the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, this would also be a Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Over the years, however, the five most popular routes have been established:
Difficulty: easy to moderate
The most popular route of the Camino de Santiago, 65% of pilgrims go this way
The second most popular pilgrimage route, 16.4% of pilgrims walk this route although that number is rising
Camino del Norte / Coastal Way
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Because of its difficulty, only 6% of St James’ Way pilgrims walk this way every year
4.3% of pilgrims choose this way every year
Vía de la Plata / Silver Way
This is suitable for anyone who doesn’t like crowds – only 3.5% of pilgrims take this route
Christoph, you’ve walked several of the routes. Which one is your personal favourite?
My favourite is the Coastal Way (Camino del Norte) along the north coast of Spain because I love the sea and don’t like walking through crowds of people to reach Santiago. The Camino Francés was too full for me.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago, or way of St. James in English, is an established network of routes across Europe which begin at different points. These trails have been used for centuries as a pilgrimage walk to the tomb of St. James, located in Santiago de Compostela.
This walk means a variety of things to different people. One thing everyone has in common is that they want to not only experience the beauty but also earn the Compostela; a certificate of completion when you have walked more than 100km. This cert is like a badge of honour issued by the Santiago cathedral authorities and is only available to bona fide Pilgrims; there are conditions to meet, no cheating.
There are different ways to do the Camino; by foot, bicycle or by a horse. If you choose a method other than walking, you need to cover a longer distance to earn the Compostela. There are also many routes to take. The French Way begins at the French side of the Pyrenees, through northern Spain as far as Santiago de Compostela. The Northern Way starts at Basque Country and follows the northern coast of Spain and the mountains of Asturias until Santiago. The beginning of The Silver Way is in Seville in southern Spain and follows an ancient Roman route which merges with El Camino Frances in its final section. The Primitive Way or Original Way involves crossing the high mountains of Asturias. The Portuguese Way is from the city of Porto.
The final part of the French Way is the most popular. Only taking a week to complete, it is easily manageable and affordable making it the perfect experience for many explorers.
What is the best time of the year to go on a pilgrimage?
First of all, you have to ask yourself when you have enough time to do this journey as you need to use all your days off work to do the Camino Francés, the most famous route of the Camino de Santiago. But when’s the best time to do the pilgrimage? Depending on the time of year, the paths have more or fewer pilgrims on them. Ultimately, however, you need to decide when suits you best and which weather you’d prefer.
From December to March, it is really quite cold. This time of the year is only suitable for the die-hards among you. Another disadvantage is that not all of the hostels are open then. The most pleasant time to walk is from April to the middle of June. It’s not too hot in Spain then and the plants on the edge of the path are lovely and green. The summer months from July to the middle of September are particularly hot. At this time, you need to make sure you bring something to cover your head and drink enough water. As there are holidays in many countries during the summer, there are lots more pilgrims in these months which mean that hostels are frequently fully booked. From the middle of September to the middle of November it is quieter again and the temperatures are just right for hiking.
What preparation is necessary for the Camino de Santiago?
Before you set off, you need to make a few arrangements. Christoph tells us which ones are the most important.
Christoph, should people book accommodation in advance as hostels are often very full in peak season especially on the Camino Francés?
No, I would personally avoid that at least after the first night. Others like to do it differently, but the spontaneity and freedom of not knowing what’s going to happen in the evening is key for me, especially on the way.
How much time should people plan for the 800 kilometres long Camino Francés and do you have any helpful tips as to how many kilometres people should walk per day?
People should plan 5 weeks for it, which is more or less about 25 kilometres per day. I would recommend 6 weeks though, as this means that you can stay somewhere for a day or two.
What sort of budget do you need for a pilgrimage?
An important question now. How much does a journey like this cost? How much money do people need per day?
You can live well on about 25-30€ per day on the St James’ Way. Depending on your taste and how much luxury you want, it can be more or less. Staying overnight in public hostels only costs 5€. There are also often Pilgrim Menus for 10€ including drinks.
Do you need knowledge of Spanish?
As most of the Camino de Santiago runs through Spain, the question of whether you need a knowledge of Spanish when you’re on the Way of St James is an important one.
Christoph, how does it work in terms of communication in Spain?
A little bit of Spanish obviously helps, especially if you want to talk to the locals. However, you’re fine on the Camino de Santiago if you don’t speak Spanish. Communication almost always works in English, at a pinch with sign language, or even with the help of other pilgrims, if you’re in an emergency.
What equipment is necessary for a pilgrimage?
On your pilgrimage, you need good equipment, like what you’d take on a long hiking trip.
What should you definitely not forget to pack, Christoph?
There are definitely things which you should put on your list of things to pack. The most important thing is the Pilgrim’s Credential (Credencial del Peregrino). Without it, you can’t stay overnight in the special hostels for pilgrims. Right after that, though, the top rule is to pack as little as possible.
The Pilgrim’s Credential or Passport is a very important document for all pilgrims, because, as Christoph has already explained, you’re not allowed to stay overnight in a pilgrim’s hostel on the Camino de Santiago without one. You also get a stamp (‘sello’ in Spanish) in your pilgrim’s passport from every hostel where you stay. So, be careful with your pass. It’s best to protect it with a waterproof cover. The stamps in your pilgrim’s passport are also a great way of remembering your journey. Once you’ve arrived at Santiago de Compostela, you’ll receive the coveted Pilgrim’s Certificate with your full credential.
How do you get stamps for your pilgrim’s passport?
You get them wherever you stay. But they are also given out in lots of churches, bars, cafes and tourist information offices along the way.
Is it better to go on a pilgrimage alone or in a group?
Some pilgrims travel alone. Many of them like to get away from the stress of everyday life and just switch off. That’s what’s exciting about hiking. If you walk alone, you have time to reflect and find yourself again after a stressful time. But, there are also small groups, so you can go on the pilgrimage with others. Obviously, you need to decide for yourself which is the best way to do it for you.
As you’ve already walked the Camino de Santiago a few times, which is the best way for you?
That’s a tricky question. There is no right or wrong answer, but you need to ask yourself, ‘what do I need right now?’. For me personally, it was good to be alone for a while so I could have some time for myself. Today, though, I also enjoy company during my pilgrimages.
Pilgrimages are on trend – but why?
Hiking has long been fashionable, but a journey along the Camino de Santiago is really something else. This path constantly changes and takes you to your limits, but it also gives you an incredible amount of power. This could be the reason why more and more people are discovering it for themselves every year.
“People are longing to get back to the basics”
Christoph, why do you think that more and more people are setting off on pilgrimages?
People are longing to get back to the basics. In the long run, it does no one any good being exposed to a constant stream of media and not being active in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, our everyday life often looks like this. More value is put on brainpower than physical work. But, I’ve always noticed that it is so important for both mind and body. The popularity of the St. James’ Way is actually reactionary to this.
What sort of people do you meet on the Camino de Santiago?
When it comes to nationalities on St. James’ Way, you’ll mainly meet Spaniards as they’re at the top of the list with 46.6%. Italians are second with just 15.7% and Germans are third. People from the United Kingdom make up just 4% of all pilgrims. When asked what sort of people Christoph met on the Camino de Santiago, he answered like this:
People of all ages and from every walk of life. Luckily, the first question isn’t ‘What do you do?’. It’s usually more like ‘Where did you start today and where are you going?” Everyone is equal on the Camino de Santiago. Everyone is in similar hiking gear.
I want to know three more things!
What was your most beautiful experience on your journeys along the Camino de Santiago?
The most beautiful moments are those when you’re fully living in the here and now and forget time altogether.
What inspired you to walk the St. James’ Way?
I was stuck in an identity crisis and very unhappy. I wanted to change that and knew that a long weekend hiking in my home country wouldn’t achieve that. Somehow, I’d heard of the Camino de Santiago. A friend of mine came back from Spain and his face was glowing. I packed my bags.
You’ve said before that the Camino de Santiago changed your life. How exactly did it change your life?
Walking, being in nature, and finding deep connections with other people all helped me to develop further, widen my horizons, find new meaning in my life and break my old chains.
Have you got itchy feet now? I, for one, would love to get my own Pilgrim’s Passport and then start hiking straight away to experience all these great things that my expert pilgrim has told me all about. I would also like to give my heartfelt thanks to Christoph for answering all my burning questions. So, I’m off to walk the Camino de Santiago now – who’s coming with me?!
If you like what you've seen on this page so far, why not check out our shiny new podcast. Holidayguru's Gurucast is our newest way to inspire and interact with you beautiful people. Here you can learn about new and exciting places, pick up some great tips on how to save on your travels and also listen to interviews with some of the world's most influential personalities. Happy listening! :)