El Camino de Santiago (or The Way of Saint James) is a pilgrimage ending in Santiago de Compostela near the north-western coast of Spain. The most popular route, El Camino Frances ( The French Way) is traversed, in part at least, by around 180,000 people each year. Though the greatest number of pilgrims can be found walking the final 100km stretch (this allows you to claim a certificate of completion) for a great number the route begins in St. Jean Pied de Port: a small town nested on the edge of the French Pyrenees, just some 5km from the Spanish border.
From here over 30,000 pilgrims and hikers alike from all over the world begin their journey each year, making their way step by step (or pedal by pedal, or hoof by hoof) out of the Alps, through the vineyards of La Rioja, along the notoriously barren Meseta and eventually into Galicia where they will finally arrive, some 850-odd kilometers later at Santiago de Compostela: a bustling touristic city centred around an ornate cathedral which many say houses of the bones of St James.
Many choose to extend their
Camino a little further and carry on walking (a comparatively measly) 90 km extra to Finisterre (derived from the Latin Fins Terrae meaning Land’s End). Here pilgrims are known to burn an item they have carried with them from the start, often their shoes.
Finisterre to the left, Murxía to the right.
Hugs are given, photos are taken and feet are rested as pilgrims finally arrive at Santiago de Compostela. Some have journeyed thousands of kilometers to arrive.
This pretty spot was found on a ‘Camino Alternativo’. Often the long way is the best way.
Tortilla (Spanish Omelette) and cañas (small beers) are a staple part of the Camino diet.
Enjoying the good weather.
Littering is a sad reality on the Camino. Bushes and resting spots are regularly plastered in used tissues and wet wipes. Remember the Leave No Trace Principles.
A cute, local stand sells beeswax and offers pilgrims the opportunity to draw their own stamp.
It’s common to find messages of positivity left by fellow pilgrims. ‘Buen Camino’ (meaning good journey) is a greeting often used to wish you on your way.
The French Route is really busy. It’s rare to walk far without catching sight of another pilgrim, unless you choose to hike into the afternoons or off-season.
This albergue is infamous for it’s hospitality and lack of amenities.
For many the Camino is a very spiritual experience. Here, after climbing for a number of hours, pilgrims enjoy sunrise at this towering cross nestled in the hills. It is tradition to leave a stone you picked up with you or bought from home at the foot of the cross. A lot of people stop and pray, many cry.
The Way is abundant with statues marking those who passed before.
Road walking is unavoidable but not always unpleasant.
Camino 1 – 0 Pilgrim.
Days in the middle-of-nowhere leave you bewildered when you reach a city. Here I marvelled for minutes at a vending machine offering high-end Spanish produce.
DIY repairs are common in small village homes. Many towns along the route are fairly poor and rely heavily on tourism as a form of income.
Walking between Burgos and Leon the path is very repetitive. Wheat fields to the left, wheat fields to the right, dirt track ahead.
Shade becomes a distant memory in the dry heat of the Meseta. Temperatures regularly reached 32°C (90°F) as I walked in late September.
Camino kindness: a South-Korean street toy gifted to me by a stranger after I made them coffee.
Advertising is less high-tech than in the real world.
Yellow arrows mark the way to Santiago.
Wine is very cheap and extremely readily available. In a local bar a glass of red will set you back as little as €0.60.
Arrows are painted in the most unlikely of places.
Painfully specific (and often incorrect) distance markers are found every 200m or so in Galicia. At Cape Finisterre the final marker reads 0.000 km.
To receive a certificate of completion pilgrims must collect stamps as they walk. This ex-paralympian offers strangers an elaborate wax stamp in exchange for willing donations.
The path crosses small market towns where you are offered a real glimpse of local life.
It’s not a pilgrimage without suffering. Trudging up these steps is the only route on foot into the town of Portomarín.
The last 4-5 days are overwhelmingly busy and commercialised. Sarria, the most common starting place, is just over 100km from end (the minimum needed to obtain a certificate of peregrination).
If you want to find peace and quiet then don’t be afraid to stray from path.
Sunset walks are beautiful and refreshingly tranquil. Many pilgrims set out at dawn and stop around 2pm to ensure they get a bed.
Fresh fruit is easy to find.
You are often reminded that the path is not reserved for purely for hikers.
Pilgrims places sticks in this fence as they pass, forming a wall of crosses as far as the eye can see.
Local chocolate comes very highly recommended from me.
A long-term pilgrim (seen in the red shirt) drinks tea at an English run albergue. He has been walking on the Camino for 13 years, stopping only to volunteer in the shelters. In this time he’s completed every route, many of which going the wrong way.
Local craftsmen often sell jewellery and bags to passers-by. The white scallop shell is a common symbol of those on their way. In the middle-ages pilgrims are said to have collected and brought them home as proof of a completed pilgrimage.
The second bar was disappointing.
The French Route is very flat.
‘More than 800,000 years ago, man watched the sun rise from this very spot’
A Camino legend poses for photos, stamps pilgrim passports and offers hugs (seemingly only to women). He has walked the camino numerous times, often during winter.
No. Sudden. Movements.
Albergues (shelters) allow pilgrims to stay for a small fee (often around €6) or donation. Communal dinners are lively, joyful affairs.
La Rioja is Spain’s most renowned wine region.
Coliving becomes part of your day-to-day. In this monastery 70 people were crammed into one room. The chorus of snorers was likely heard towns across.