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Unraveling from the end: the reputed resting place of the apostle Saint James, or Sant Iago, in Spanish, is a magnificent urn tucked inside a tomb, within a crypt, at the heart of the monumental medieval cathedral named in his honor in the city of Santiago de Compostela. Nearly a millennium after the saint’s body made its way here from Jerusalem, aboard a stone boat guided by angels, a shepherd was led to the burial site by a star. And the story continues.
Over the past millennium, a multitude of pilgrims has traversed the intricate network of cross-country trails, known as the Camino de Santiago, culminating their journey at this junction of myth and history. The pilgrimage saw a record 438,000 completions in 2022. With the minimum required distance to qualify for the official pilgrim certificate, the Compostela, being 62 miles for walkers (or 124 miles for cyclists), it’s apparent how widespread this pilgrimage has become. Drawn to this voyage are not only devoted Catholics but also casual hikers, mountain bikers, group tourists, and solo travelers, seeking to clear their minds and shed some weight while exploring the wilds of the Iberian peninsula.
Seven main Caminos (routes) converge in Santiago de Compostela, spanning not only Spain but beyond. The French Way from the Pyrenees’ foothills boasts exceptional infrastructure and attracts the most traffic. Less crowded alternatives traverse the Portuguese coast, the Cantabrian Mountains, and Castile and León’s vast plains. Each path presents unique rewards in terms of weather, scenery, physical challenges, and regional cultures. Regardless of the chosen route, travelers will encounter holy ruins, shrines, monasteries, and albergues (simple hostels that have serviced these routes since the Middle Ages), fostering camaraderie among pilgrims. Even solitary travelers can find profound joy in moving through natural beauty on their own terms. While some may find God or themselves, everyone is guaranteed a profound sense of peace and tranquility.
Itinerary One: The Coastal Portuguese Way
The popular Portuguese Way from Porto features a 170-mile coastal variant that traces the Atlantic coastline through northern Portugal and Galicia, the edge of the known world during Roman times.
Begin at the picturesque Porto Cathedral with its Romanesque facade and heavenly blue azulejo tiling. Detour to Matosinhos, follow the ocean via wooden walkways through scenery of dunes, flora, and market gardens. Visit the old naval town of Vila do Conde, taste cod in Póvoa de Varzim, an 18th-century fishing port, and witness kitesurfers off the protected shores of Esposende, before reaching Marinhas in northernmost Portugal.
The journey now veers inland, following the Neiva River on a long, stone path. Cross the Lima River via an impressive iron bridge by Gustav Eiffel into Viana do Castelo. Here, a funicular ascends to the ‘Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’, evocative of Paris’s Sacré Coeur. A winding path through a eucalyptus forest takes you back to the ocean, passing coastal strongholds and windmills to reach the Minho River, crossing into Spain via a ferry. On the other side, the coastal town of Mougás is your next destination.
Further north is the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Oia, a Cistercian bastion against Turkish invaders. This part of the journey is fondly referred to as the Monastic Way. It leads you to Baiona, the port which received the news of the New World in 1493 from the returning ship La Pinta. Traverse inland to join the classic Portuguese Way after enjoying sea views and oysters in Arcade. Then cross the Ponte Sampaio bridge to the former Roman road leading to Pontevedra.
Explore Pontevedra’s historic center before the final stretch. Visit the gothic basilica of Santa María la Mayor and the ruins of the Santo Domingo convent. Traverse tranquil Galician farmlands towards Caldas. Recharge in thermal springs, refuel with a lamprey-filled empanada, then continue to Padrón, where Saint James’ disciples allegedly first landed. The route concludes by following Bishop Teodomiro’s path who found the remains around 900 years later, leading to the final resting place now known as Santiago de Compostela.
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Practical Guide to Travel
Different routes have varying degrees of difficulty, but a 14-day pilgrimage demands physical conditioning. Begin by gradually increasing your walking distance (up to 15 miles per day) a few months prior to your trip. If you plan to carry your own luggage, gradually increase the weight of your backpack as well.
Carrying your own luggage is optional. You can avail the services of Correos, Spain’s state-owned postal service, or private providers like Pilbeo, which provide luggage transfers for around €5-10 (£4-8) per route stage. They’ll pick up and drop off your bags, allowing you to carry just a day pack.
Essential Items to Pack
Don’t forget to pack waterproof clothing, sunscreen, a sun hat, a water bottle, a first-aid kit, and comfortable shoes. If you plan to stay in albergues (simple Camino hostels), bring a sleeping bag, a headlamp, earplugs, an eye mask, and bed bug spray. Also pack plasters and merino wool socks.
Public albergues managed by local municipalities charge less than €10 (£8) per night for a dorm bed, but don’t take reservations. Consider booking private albergues or guesthouses during the busy season.
Alternative Modes of Travel
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about pilgrimages
Question 1: How many main Camino de Santiago routes are there, and where do they end?
Answer: There are seven main Camino de Santiago routes, and they all converge in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Question 2: What are some of the popular Camino routes mentioned in the article?
Answer: The article mentions the Coastal Portuguese Way, the Original Way, and the Sanabres Way as popular Camino de Santiago routes.
Question 3: How many miles does the Coastal Portuguese Way cover, and what are some of its highlights?
Answer: The Coastal Portuguese Way covers approximately 170 miles. Some highlights include Porto Cathedral, wooden walkways along the ocean, Viana do Castelo, and the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Oia.
Question 4: What is the significance of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage?
Answer: The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage holds both historical and spiritual significance, as it is believed to lead to the resting place of the apostle Saint James in Santiago de Compostela.
Question 5: Is it necessary to carry one’s own luggage during the pilgrimage?
Answer: Carrying luggage is optional. Pilgrims can avail luggage transfer services from providers like Correos or Pilbeo, which pick up and drop off bags along the route for a fee.
Question 6: What essentials should one pack for the Camino de Santiago journey?
Answer: Essential items include waterproofs, sunscreen, a sun hat, a water bottle, a first-aid kit, comfortable footwear, and if staying in albergues, a sleeping bag, headlamp, earplugs, eye mask, and bed bug spray.
Question 7: Are there alternative modes of travel besides walking?
Answer: Yes, alternatives include cycling (on certain routes), horse-riding (requires experience and planning), and even yachting between stages via the Sail The Way initiative.
Question 8: How does the accreditation system work for the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage?
Answer: Pilgrims can obtain a Credencial (pilgrim passport) from organizations like the Confraternity of St James. They collect stamps at albergues and marked locations along the route and present it at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral to receive the Compostela certificate.