El Camino de Santiago (Path/Way/Road to Santiago) is, in its proper interpretation, any route taken by one with the sole intention of reaching the Cathedral de Santiago in the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela. The cathedral houses the remains of St. James and, because of such, has been an important destination for pilgrims since the 9th Century. The pilgrims have historically been religious folk walking in order to obtain the grace of St. James, to make miracles happen, or to be absolved from sins. These days pilgrims are frequently not religious and have been known to walk the route for reasons ranging from the sheer joy experienced by ambulation to an interest of the cultural history encountered on the route.
Occasionally one will hear the camino be referred to as though it were only one road, in these cases, the most popular of the pilgrimage routes is probably being referred to. This route, the French Route, traditionally starts in St. Jean Pied-de-Port (though some say it starts in Roncesvalles) in southern France and covers an estimated 800km across the Pyrenees and northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.
A brief history of James and the Camino
The story of the Camino de Santiago begins with the death of Christ. After Christ died, St. James the Greater (Son of Zebedee) trekked to Spain where he spent time in Spain proselytizing before returning to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he preached to (and even converted some of) the Jews and, not happy with such heresy, Herod Agrippa ordered his beheading.
Fearing that the Jews would also behead them, St. James' disciples embarked on a boat and set sail, eventually landing on the shores of Galicia, about 20km from where Santiago de Compostela now stands. After a few miracles, and the conversion of a city to Christianity, the disciples buried St. James in a large sarcophagus on top an isolated hill.
Seven hundred years later, a hermit had a vision of many stars shining over a nearby hill. When investigated, a tomb with three bodies was unearthed exactly under where the stars shone. The bodies were identified as St. James and two of his followers. King Alfonso II soon declared St. James the patron saint of Spain and had a church and monastery built over the newfound tomb. The discovery caused much talk across Europe, and the area surrounding the once isolated hill soon garnered a fair population and was dubbed "campus stellae" which eventually became "Compostela" and then "Santiago de Compostela."
The politicians of the time, wanting to spin the situation to further benefit themselves, their country, and their war, began promoting the town as a destination for pilgrims looking for grace, favors and miracles. Their plans succeeded and, come the year 950, the Bishop of Puy, Gotescalco, became the first pilgrim to make the pilgrimage. By the 12th century, Santiago de Compostela was comparable to Rome and Jerusalem as a favorite destination for religious pilgrims. However, the 16th century saw a sharp decline in the number of pilgrims, and by the 18th century, the camino was practically dead.
So you wanna go for a walk, do ya?
"Some days you will not want to walk, and other days you won't want to stop. Some days you will ask yourself what horrible thing you did to deserve such punishment, and why you put yourself through it. But then again, some days you will believe yourself to be one of the truly blessed people walking this planet, living an incredible experience amongst incredible people, spectacular scenery and mouthwatering gastronomy."-Christopher Hewitt
The camino has experienced a resurgence in recent years as people from all walks of life have undertaken the journey, giving all manner of reasons for wanting to walk for hundreds of kilometers. Religious folk continue to undertake the camino for grace, favors, miracles, ablution, and/or a closer relationship with their beliefs, but such people are now joined by not-so-religious trekkers on the path for their own reasons. People who make up this not-so-religious group are on the road for fitness, as a vacation, for inspiration, for a change of scenery, as a challenge, and others simply can't explain why they are walking.
There are many reasons why you should consider walking the camino, so many, in fact, that I cannot list them all, so I shall share a few that I consider the more important (non-religious) ones. Regardless of where you start from, you will travel through a varied landscape that is sure to appeal to your sense of beauty, additionally, watching the geography around you change slowly, evolve from one form to another, is a much more satisfying feeling than watching it blur by from the windows of a motor vehicle. There is also much to be said about the peace of mind one finds after 3 days of hiking, with or without company, as silence and patience become daily norms. Additionally, whether you start the hike alone or with a group of friends, you have ample opportunity to meet a nice somebody who, literally and figuratively, speaks your language.
Packing for the trip
The details of the Camino de Santiago vary a great deal depending on when you go and which route you take, all routes, however, require a fair amount of walking or biking- the entire French Route, for instance, is composed of 800km usually split up over 30+ days of walking or 10+ days of biking through relatively remote areas. Packing the right materials is important, but one should be careful not pack too much. It is recommended that one go during a time of year with favorable weather, such as the months between (and including) April and September. All pilgrims should pack the a small, light sleeping bag (and possibly a small, light tent), a change of clothes, a small first-aid kit, minimal toiletries, and rain gear. For walkers, a comfortable, worn in pair of hiking boots and thick cotton or wool socks should be added to the list of necessities, all of which should be packed in a small, lightweight backpack. For bikers, sturdy, lightweight saddle bags should be entrusted with the standard gear plus repair materials.
The established routes of the camino generally pass through at least one small town per estimated hiking day so rations and loos are rarely an issue, but packing a couple of snack items and a wad of toilet paper never hurt anyone. Likewise, it is generally recommended to acquire a map of the proposed route before heading out, but I found that a map is not really needed if one journeys during the peak pilgrimage times of July and August when there are numerous pilgrims, each with his or her own map, to guide you...then again, having a map never hurt anyone.
Once the route is chosen and the bags are packed, you should be ready to go. Pilgrims generally start in a city with a camino affiliated monastery (such as St. Jean Pied-de-Port, Pamplona, Burgos) in order to pick up their pilgrim passport. The pilgrim passport is an official church document given to pilgrims in order to identify them as people attempting the camino. With the pilgrim passport, pilgrims are authorized to sleep at the numerous refugios scattered across the established routes. Each refugio has a special stamp with which to decorate the passport, and if one walks the last 100km to Santiago de Compostela, and has the stamps to prove it, one can ask for a certificate of pilgrimage as proof of a successful pilgrimage. Most refugios are only open for pilgrims, have modern kitchens and modern bathrooms, and ask for a small donation. Most will also stamp a passport whether or not the passport holder stays the night, which means pilgrims are free to seek other accommodations, from tents to hotels, if the refugios are full or the pilgrim has other preferences.
Days of the camino become fairly routine. Most pilgrims in the refugios start each day around dawn and walk for 25-30km, which most finish between 12:00 and 15:00. Once at their destination, most opt to clean their bodies and their clothes, shop for dinner, and, in the larger cities, explore their surroundings. Bedtime varies, but is usually around 22:00 (after all have had few drinks and a few laughs).
Most traditions (things like holidays, laws, and etiquette) seem to force themselves upon us, making us conform to their rules regardless of whether or not we wish participate. The Camino de Santiago is a rarity among traditions* in that it allows for each individual to decide whether or not it is the right thing for him/her to do. The camino is a difficult thing to do, but anybody can do it with the right motivation and the right pace, I watched a 90 year old French man, wobbly and knotty with arthritis complete all 800km of the French Route in five weeks. There are tons of resources on the web, including the links listed below, for those of you interested in taking the camino. Most of the world will never attempt the Camino de Santiago, but those who do will surely come to a better understanding of themselves and the beauty of its country.
*The only other tradition along these lines that I can think of is the Blarney Stone