Found in north west Spain, the Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela traversing gems of medieval history. Caitlin’s given us the run down of everything you need to know before taking on this hike of a lifetime.
When my family walked the Camino de Santiago three years ago, we didn’t know anyone else who had done it. Now, I tell our story (or a shortened version of it) to everyone that we know. So, if you’ve heard the name before, or better yet if you don’t know what I’m talking about, read on and start your packing lists, for what follows is everything you need to know about one of the most famous pilgrimages in the world.
The History of Camino de Santiago
There are two histories of the Way of Saint James, in literal Spanish, Camino de Santiago. The first is the history of the walk, and the second is my personal history of the walk and a small little snapshot into one family’s big journey.
The official history of Camino de Santiago begins in the Middle Ages, reaching popularity around the 11th or 12th centuries. Many churches, hostels, and buildings are relics of this past time, and the religious significance of the walk is the knowledge that the remains of Saint James, one of Jesus’ twelve apostles lay interred in the Cathedral de Santiago. Every year, hundreds of pilgrims made the journey to visit that beautiful city on the western edge of Europe.
In 2010, my Mum went to our local independent cinema to see a film called The Way, directed by Emilio Estevez of The Breakfast Club fame, and left with a simple thought in mind – ‘I’m going to do that walk’. The idea lay in her head for many years before my parents finally determined when and for how long they were going to be away.
Then preparations truly began and in September 2018 we began our pilgrimage. I joined them at the end of a five-month sojourn in Europe and we spent 33 days hiking Camino de Santiago. It’s an event that we now determine as a time measurement in our lives; before the Camino and after.
Essential Gear for Hiking Camino de Santiago
Backpack and Shoes
To walk the Camino de Santiago, you need two important things above all else. A very good hiking backpack and very good hiking shoes. All else comes secondary. In saying this, the backpack and shoes I walked with were over 10 years old, very well-loved and in great condition for their age. New doesn’t always mean better.
Both of my parents had shiny new backpacks and relatively new shoes but for the sake of budgets, and if you already have an old (preferably not in tatters) backpack, chances are you don’t need another one. Make sure you’re well-acquainted with your shoes before embarking – your feet need to be in prime condition!
Four changes of clothes is probably the maximum you want to be carrying with you on this long journey. Two hiking outfits, (long sleeve loose-fitting shirts that’ll cover you from the sun) and two ‘leisure outfits’ for when you’re resting. Depending on the weather, you’ll be walking most of the day, and when you’re not walking on the trail, you’re walking around town!
Pack a lightweight pair of sandals so you can give your feet a rest from the hiking shoes, and as for sun protection, be sure to pack sunscreen and of course a good hat. I also packed a pair of swimmers and used them a few times.
The bigger cities like Leon, Burgos, and Pamplona have hiking stores for other items you feel you may need. Think minimal and pack light, you’ll thank me later.
When you visit the pilgrim’s office in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port you’ll receive some really important and helpful flyers about contact information for pilgrim hostels (albergues), daily breakdowns including recommendations on how far to walk, and the topography and gradation of the trail.
Coupled with some very helpful maps, we took these along with us and used John Brierley’s fantastic book A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela. That’s literally all the reading material you’ll need. Be sure to follow the blue and yellow arrows and shells, there isn’t much opportunity to get lost!
Your international passport is required to check into an albergue each night. What you’ll receive when you begin the walk in Saint-Jean is what’s called a credencial – this is also known as a ‘Pilgrim’s Passport’ and is a collection of stamps from your walk which is one of the only formal requirements to receive your Compostela certificate in Santiago. My credencial is one of my favourite things.
You don’t need to accommodate for your own food. The stops at towns and cities along the way are filled with absolutely glorious restaurants and opportunities to buy groceries, and everything is very cheap compared to Australian prices.
Why should I hike the Camino de Santiago?
There’s one big looming question around doing something as momentous as crossing to the other side of the world to walk to Santiago. And that’s WHY? Why walk 800km? People will need answers! Of course, everyone you ask has done it for different reasons, but you actually need to officially state religious or spiritual reasons at the pilgrim’s office in Santiago to receive your Compostela.
I think everyone needs to do something adventurous on a large scale at least once in their life. Whether that’s bungee-jumping, skydiving, or walking this absolutely beautiful 800km pilgrimage.
Everything about this experience is pushing yourself – mind, body, and soul – to the very edge of your comfort zones and emerging changed. For my family, this was a religious experience, and while I understand not everyone’s journey will be, it certainly marks a realignment to the routines, values, and things you hold dear when you return to normal life.
It’d be easy to say that I simply followed my Mum and Dad on an adventure, but it very soon became more than that and I’m forever grateful for that time now.
5 Quick Questions Answered
1. When/what time of the year, should I go?
We walked the Camino for the entire month of September and it was a fantastic time to go. Peak times are usually either side of the European summer (June – August), in April and May or September and October, and I highly recommend September if you can. It’s beautiful weather and there are still people around but it’s not super busy. The walk’s closed over winter because of treacherous conditions, so make sure you research and find a time that works for you.
2. What should my fitness level be?
We encountered pre-teenagers and octogenarians on this pilgrimage and it’s a reasonably accessible walk for most parts. The easiest way to test yourself is simply to start walking. When you buy a guidebook like John Brierley’s you’ll notice that a lot of the walks are broken up into 25 kilometre/day sections. It’s a good idea to start practicing around your area to get used to the long 6-7 hours walking per day. It seems daunting but is surprisingly manageable.
3. How do I get there?
The Camino de Santiago officially begins in a small town in south-western France called Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. The closest airport is Biarritz, which can be reached from most European cities. I’m of the firm belief that your Camino journey begins immediately when you leave your own country, and all the little stops on the way to Saint-Jean are part of your Camino journey too.
4. Do I need to know Spanish to walk in Spain?
It certainly helps, but it’s definitely not essential. We definitely got away without speaking Spanish but by the end we realised that it’d have enriched our experience on another level. You learn little pieces along the way, food items, pleasantries, and that may inspire you to try and learn a new language!
5. Do I have to walk it all at once or can I break it up into sections?
Officially, to receive a Compostela accreditation in Santiago you must complete the final 100km from Sarria to the end in approximately four days.
For those who are time-poor and for international travellers, it’s certainly a great way to get a taste of the routine of the Camino. For those of us from Australia, it seems quite a long way to make a very specific trip and that’s understandable.
My parents were away for six weeks in total, spending time with friends and family in the UK and Germany either side of our walk. It really depends on your preference.
I highly recommend walking the whole of the pilgrimage in one go, but other travellers have embarked on the Camino in designated sections.
A Final Note
If you’re reading this and are a planner, I really hope the info has been helpful! But if you’re not a planner and prefer being spontaneous like my Mum and I, take comfort in knowing this walk is simply magical because of how easy it is to complete without being organised.
You can just move through unknown towns and cities and be content with the flow, no routine, and absolute peace. Knowing that you can just arrive in Saint Jean and be ready to go the next morning should inspire you to go for this (really long) walk.