WARNING: The next few posts I will cover off on are going to be a little dry. I am going to cover off on some of the more technical questions I get from people who are seriously considering the pilgrimage. I hope it will help those considering The Way to think through the key decisions you need to make before you book your trip. Think of it as my Cliffs Notes to the Camino! Today I am going to discuss the history (hey, I come from a family of teachers…we eat up history like Basque pinxos spread atop a farm table in our backyard!) and the ‘why, when where’s’ of Camino de Santiago questions. So, let’s start from the beginning.
Medieval Times, Baby
The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a Christian pilgrimage dating back to over 1,000 years ago. It is said that the remains of the apostle St. James were transported from Jerusalem and laid to rest in the city Santiago de Compostela located in Galicia, Spain.
As a way to give penance, many devout Christians would make the journey relying on the kindness and generosity of local residents and hospitals to feed and shelter them. There are accounts of locals cleaning the feet of pilgrims just as Mary Magdalene so famously did for Jesus.
The earliest records show pilgrims making the journey as early as the 9th century and it grew in popularity throughout the Middle Ages until the 16th century when health scares and religious political movements shifted the focus away from this religious experience. From the 16th century to the late 20th century the Camino was virtually relegated to history books. In 1985 only 690 people were recorded completing the pilgrimage.
When I first heard of the Camino while living in Madrid, the pilgrimage had gained in popularity. In 2000, According to the Archives of Santiago de Compostela, around 55,000 pilgrims completed the pilgrimage. In 2014, when I completed it, there were over 230,000. My guess is this is driven by the number of books and movies that have been released in the last 30 years. Also, the world is now much more accessible due to the Internet. Thanks Al Gore!
These days people decide to do the Camino for a variety of reasons. Some people still do it for deeply spiritual or religious reasons, others do it to check a cool experience off their bucket list and still others want a physical challenge or just a plain ole escape from everyday life. I met a couple from Asia that went to mass every single day at 19:00. I saw a small group running the trail as well.
To give you a little more color, let me break it down by age demographic. Those in their 20s were typically on break from college or taking a gap year. For them, the Camino was a bucket list item. Men and women in their 30s and 40s seemed to be reflecting on their life. I met a lot of people in this age band that had ended a relationship or left a job and needed time to reflect on the past and begin to think about new dreams for their future. People in their 50s and older were recently retired and had trained and looked forward to the Camino for months, if not years. To be honest, this group seemed to be having the most fun!!
Ways to Tackle The Way
The variety of reasons people decide to participate mirrors the myriad of ways folks traverse the trail. I would say that the majority of pilgrims walk the route, but I did see a number of cyclists, a woman on horseback and even a family traveling with a mule! There was one running group I came across and have heard of other extreme sport runners in my area conquering the Camino in years past. I witnessed giant luxury buses full of tourists visiting sites along the way. It is safe to say there are plenty of ways to get from point A to point B on the Camino!
I would think through the type of experience you want. Let’s say you are an avid cyclist but really want to connect with people on your journey. You could cycle during the day and get to know people during your pit stops and in the evenings. Maybe you decide to stay at albergues so that you get the social experience but still get to enjoy your love of cycling during the day.
When To Go
From what I am told the Camino gets really crowded over the summer. I have heard the best time to go is in the spring and fall. I decided to go in the fall. I started in late September and made it to Santiago de Compostela at the end of October. There were not as many people on the path but enough to feel like you are getting the pilgrim experience. Also, the weather was really nice. It was a bit hot at the beginning but the majority of my time I was very comfortable.
How Long To Go
This is a personal preference. It seemed to me that the farther you live from Spain the more likely you are to walk the whole thing. Australians, Canadians and Americans were in it for the long haul. But I met quite a few Europeans that would take a week each year to walk the Camino. They would just pick up where they left off the prior year! Pretty cool!
All in I spent five weeks on the Camino. The days flew by. Now as I look back that feels like a crazy amount of time but while I was in it, the time passed quickly and I never felt like I wanted to leave or quit. It really will come down to how long you can peel away from your life, your budget, and your health.
Which Path To Take
You know I realize I am starting to sound like a guidebook! There are a ton of books and sites on the different paths you can take etcetera. I recommend checking those out and deciding what makes most sense for you.
I decided to take the French Way and start in Pamplona. There were a couple of reasons I decided to start there versus in St. Jean Pied de Port, but the most impactful reason for me was a personal one. I had a very close family friend pass away a couple of months before the Camino who was from St. Jean and it felt too painful to start there. Sometimes I think about going back and walking that last leg in honor of Sebastian and our families. Perhaps I will one day.
Resources: (click links below)
Guidebooks – to cover off on the practical stuff!:
Camino de Santiago – Practical Preparation and Background by Gerald Kelly
Entertainment – to get you pumped!:
The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho
Hope this background was helpful. Now you know a little background on the Camino de Santiago and how to think through how and when to go. Next time I will get into the preparation for the trip. I will tell you how I prepared for all of the walking and the oh-so important shopping list and the fun spree I had at REI! If you liked this post and want to learn more, please sign up for my newsletter to stay informed of more posts on la princesa del Camino de Santiago!