They say all roads lead to Rome but just as many lead to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain where the remains of the Apostle James lie in the awe-inspiring cathedral in the Praza del Obradoiro, the heart of the town. Since the 9th century when the relics of the Apostle were discovered, pilgrims (peregrinos in Spanish) have been making the long trek across northern Spain.
The Camino Frances (The Way) is the most popular pilgrimage route and this well-worn path is negotiated by thousands of pilgrims every year – even more in a Holy Year when the feast of St. James on 25 July, falls on a Sunday.
For many people, walking the Camino is a spiritual journey; however, numerous others walk for more secular reasons, including ‘to embark on the adventure of a lifetime’, ‘train for a marathon’, ‘escape the daily routine’ and even ‘to find a wife’. Each day introduces all who follow The Way to the unique culture, history, architecture, countryside, gastronomy and way of life of an area which for the most part is off the beaten tourist track.
In brief, the Camino Frances commences in the foothills of the Pyrénées in France and concludes 850 kms later in the city of Santiago de Compostela. The scenery along the route is varied and often remarkably beautiful, especially around Pamplona and as far as Burgos, though the walking can be difficult, up and down rolling hills and steep mountainous terrain.
The dirt path curls through charming and often strangely silent agricultural villages, some with a welcome café and almost all with a well-kept, timeless church. Fertile fields of green and gold checker the landscape and once across the Atapuerca Mountains and past a vast, active archaeological site, the modern medieval city of Burgos can be seen on the horizon.
After leaving Burgos pilgrims tackle the often dreaded ‘Meseta,’ a long, flat, testing, and often hot, cold, windy or wet stretch on a seemingly never ending, sometimes monotonous trek to the gracious, elegant city of León. From here it is a rugged, exposed walk to Astorga, famous for chocolate and pastries but more applauded for Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí’s masterpiece, the Episcopal Palace and the Pilgrim Museum within.
Rows upon rows of grapevines march over the hills of El Bierzo and the countryside suddenly greens up again. On and up to the fascinating hamlet of O’Cebreiro where Celtic stone palozzas (dwellings) and the Iglesia de Santa María, said to be the oldest church on the Camino and famous for a ‘Eucharistic Miracle’ believed to have occurred in the 14th century, ensure a steady stream of pilgrims and curious tourists. The path weaves over the mountains, past ruined churches and peaceful rural settlements and a surprising number of cafes, bars and rest areas. Panoramic views are a feature of this section, before the Camino descends steeply down to Samos where a 12th century Benedictine monastery welcomes overnight guests. Sarria, famous for antique shops and fairs is 12 kms further on.
Prepare to meet many new pilgrims here as the town is 100 kms from Santiago, the minimum distance a pilgrim must travel to receive the indulgences offered by the Catholic Church and a Compostela (certificate). The stunning scenery and the peaceful walking continue on to the ‘new’ Portomarin, (old Portomarin sits at the bottom of the Belesar Reservoir) from where the surroundings slowly become more built up.
However, on the outskirts of Santiago the Camino dives through cool forests of giant eucalypts then tracks past farms and by suburban backyards, most shared by a mix of domestic animals. Monte do Gozo is the last resting place for pilgrims before the Camino heads downhill towards the final destination. The sight of the Santiago town sign will possibly be enough to cause any weary and excited pilgrim heart palpitations and from here the Camino winds through the outer suburbs on the way to the Praza del Obradoiro and the majestic cathedral where an unforgettable, celebratory Pilgrims’ Mass takes place at noon every day. And let’s not forget the all important reward, a well-earned, hard fought Compostela and a lifetime of treasured memories.