A Beginner’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago
With any luck, you’ve found this page while researching the Camino de Santiago through Europe to learn more about pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, Spain. Some pilgrims find the Camino through books or blogs. Others may learn about the Camino through movies, such as “The Way”. Regardless of what first sparked your interest in the Camino, this beginner’s guide to the Camino de Santiago is intended as an introduction to the different routes through Spain, France, and Portugal as well as a primer on the unique culture among pilgrims along The Way.
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- How To: Sleep Peacefully on the Camino de Santiago
Walking the Camino de Santiago: The Routes
The network of Caminos crosses Europe, and you can follow a Way from Finland or Turkey. The possibilities are beyond the scope of this article, but these are the main routes.
Camino Francés (the French Way)
The Camino Francés is the most popular option for a reason: The varied scenery and good infrastructure means that it’s an enjoyable walk. Most of the routes from other parts of Europe converge in St-Jean Pied-du-Port, France where the Camino Francés is said to officially start.
Camino Portugués (the Portuguese Way)
The Camino Portugués is the second most popular route because of its unique paths, historical connection to St. James in Padron, Spain and because it is regarded as a relatively flat path, without too many steep inclines. It starts in Lisbon and passes through Porto and Pontevedra on its way north through Portugal, and is approximately 380 miles long. The Portuguese Way is generally divided into two main routes: the more popular and well-supported route through Central Portugal and the Coastal route that roughly follows the coastline of Portugal to the border with Spain. Both routes converge in Spain before entering Santiago de Compostella.
Camino del Norte (the Northern Way)
Hugging the northern coast of Spain, this route starts in Irún on the border with France and travels west through Bilbao, Santander, and Oveido. The 510 miles of pathway will take about 35 days to complete, and though the distances between towns are reasonable, the sparse accommodations mean that you have to stick to a fairly rigid itinerary.
Via de la Plata
The “plata” in the Via de la Plata‘s name comes from a corruption of an Arabic word that means “wide surfaced road.” In this sense, it’s well named, as most of the route follows an old Roman road north from Seville; if you’re interested in Roman history, this is the route for you. At 620 miles, it’s the longest route through Spain, and it passes through Merida, Cáceres, Salamanca, and Zamora, as well as other cities.
Camino Inglés (the English Way)
English pilgrims arriving by boat from Britain started their walk at either La Coruña or Ferrol, and the English Way is a Y-shaped route which can be started in either of these cities. The 75km from La Coruña can be walked in three days, though you won’t earn a Compostela as it’s under 62 miles. From Ferrol, the 70-mile walk will take five days.
Camino Primitivo (the Original Route)
Oveido isn’t on the Camino Francés, but many pilgrims detour there to visit the city’s cathedral. The Camino Primitivo is the most direct route from Oveido to Santiago (passing through Lugo), and it rejoins the Camino Francés about 40 miles from Santiago. The walk is about 180 miles long and is quite challenging, as it includes a fair amount of hill climbing and the weather can be very erratic.
Camino de Finisterre (the Finisterre Way)
Instead of finishing their walk in Santiago, many pilgrims continue on to one of the westernmost points in Europe: Finisterre, whose name literally translates to “end of the world.” The route from Santiago to Finisterre adds on 55 miles and is best walked in five stages, with an optional extra 18-mile walk to Muxia afterward. Organizations in Finisterre and Muxia both offer Compostelas to those that complete these routes.
When to Walk the Camino de Santiago
While the Camino de Santiago is passable all year round, the months of April, May, June, September and October are optimal months for experiencing the trail.
For those opting for the popular Camino Francés, the Pyrenees mountain chain can see deep snow and inclement weather in wintertime. Also, a number of albergues close in winter due to low tourist traffic.
Summer months are vacation season in Europe, meaning an influx of hikers on the trail and strained trail infrastructure (read: fewer available beds and less food). Additionally, summer temperatures across central Spain often hit 90 in July and August.
In contrast, shoulder seasons in the spring and fall feature much more enjoyable weather and far less foot traffic. Remember to note Spain’s Semana Santa holiday, as many pilgrims try and align their trips with this spring holy week.
Walking the Camino de Santiago: Talk the Talk
Everyone who walks the Camino should get familiar with the following Spanish terms:
A Compostela is the “pilgrim certificate” you get at the end of the walk if you’ve completed 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) or more on foot. If you are not Catholic but did the Camino for ‘spiritual reasons’ you can get a Compostela. If you say your goals were non-spiritual, you get a rather plain certificate of completion.
Albergues and refugios are the pilgrim’s accommodation stops. Run by churches, town councils, non-profit organizations, and private for-profit groups, they provide inexpensive accommodations in dorm rooms, mattresses in church bell towers, or provide hotel-like rooms with prices starting at five euros a night. Accommodations are offered (generally) on a first-arrived basis, with priority for beds given to pilgrims who are walking the Camino before cyclists.
A credential is the ‘pilgrim passport’ issued by various Camino-friendly organizations. Along the way, pilgrims will collect sellos (stamps) to show their progress towards Santiago. Each albergue or refugio has its own stamp, which you’ll receive each night, and additional stamps may be collected along the way. You need a credential to stay in pilgrim accommodations, and a complete record of at least two stamps per day to get your Compostela. Credentials can be mailed to pilgrims prior to beginning their pilgrimage or obtained in Europe from cathedrals along the way.
Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. In 2020 and 2021, I’m walking the California Missions Trail in the United States, as well as England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.