Pilgrim's progress: the road to Santiago de Compostela

By Murray Stewart, a Travel Enthusiast

Overall rating:4.3 out of 5 (based on 9 votes)
Enjoyable
4.88889
4.9
Useful
3.88889
3.9
Inspirational
4.666665
4.7
Recommended for:
Activity, Food and Drink, Romance, Budget, Expensive, Mid-range

You don't have to have religion to 'walk the walk' to Santiago de Compostela. Food, wine, history or interesting company might be your motivation. Or there could be something else....

Staring at the petite raven–haired beauty in front of me, I tried but failed to keep my jaw from hitting the pavement.

“You play rugby for Spain!” It was meant to be a question, but it left my lips with too much incredulity to sound like one.

“Yes. My name is “Maite.” It means “I love you” in the Basque language.”

I told her my name was Murray. I wanted to add that it was Scottish for “I love you too.”

One thing’s certain: a walk on the Camino de Santiago, the 500 mile Pilgrim’s route from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain will expose you to some pretty interesting characters.

Pilgrims of varying degrees of faith have been making the walk for nearly 900 years, since the bones of St James were apparently discovered in a field near Santiago. In medieval times this walk ranked in importance only behind Jerusalem and Rome in the ‘Pilgrimage Hit Parade’.

But this walk is no longer the preserve of the religious. The motivations of those who walk all or part of the route every year are many and varied. And basing a holiday on the Pilgrim’s Route could give you an exhilarating, healthy break without unduly troubling your bank account - though the odd bit of luxury is also available.

You’ll get to the starting point with the budget airlines and then local bus. After that the mode of transport – walking – is free, and (it gets better) the entire route is furnished with refugios –  basic hostels run by local councils or religious organisations. These will let you stay in a dormitory for ten euros, usually less. All you need is the easily-obtainable Pilgrim’s Passport and you’ll be welcome. (See www.csj.org.uk for useful route and hostel information).

The only catch is that you need to like walking. You can start anywhere along the route, depending how much time you have. Five weeks at 15 miles a day would allow you to begin at the most common jumping-off point in St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees, and comfortably make it to Santiago.

If you have less time, you can choose starting points further westwards, flying to Santander, Bilbao or Valladolid with a bus connection to the camino starting town of your choice.

Assuming that you start at St Jean, a steep climb over the Pyrenees will take you first into the province of Navarra (red wine), the Basque Country (female rugby players) and then Rioja (more red wine).

One local producer ('Bodegas Irache', near Estella) has even been decent enough to attach a wine tap to the outside wall of his bodega. Tempting, but think hard before you fill your water bottle with the free alcohol. Another hour’s walking in the sun will have you pining for your discarded H 2 O.

For those thirsty for history, Spain’s turbulent past drips from the mouth of every church gargoyle. Whether your interest is the Spanish Civil War, the Gothic period or earlier eras, something somewhere along the route will take your breath away. The sheer majesty of Burgos and Leon cathedrals can drop the jaws of even non-believers: they certainly dropped mine.

The walking itself is not physically difficult, and clear way-marking ensures that you can’t get lost. Follow the yellow markings painted on walls and trees. No compass required.

Not many refugios provide nourishment, but eating out provides an opportunity to dine with your fellow pilgrims and to try the regional cuisines. A day’s walking deserves a big restaurant meal.

You’ll pass through little-known Logrono in your first week of walking. Head straight for the town’s L-shaped street, the Calle Laurel which teems with tapas bars. As each one specialises in only one type of tapa, you’re forced to do a pub crawl. And as virtually all the bars are in this one street, you can gorge yourself on breaded mushrooms, prawns in garlic and other delicacies without too much….walking. Bar Pata Negra (24, Calle Laurel) specialises in ham-based tapas - and has a massive wine selection for the discerning pilgrim.

Next, the hearty, meat-based dishes of the provinces of Castile and Leon beckon – try Cocinandos restaurant (Calle las Campanillas 1; 987 071 378; www.cocinandos.com) in Leon for a 50 euro, top-end, Michelin-starred splurge. The delicious grilled seabass did it for me, though the menu changes weekly. Enter the last province, Galicia, to taste the ubiquitous pulpo gallego - octopus chopped with garlic, and fried in front of you, in pans the size of dustbins, by smiling grandmothers.

Dormitory accommodation and the novelty of snoring pilgrims may wear thin (do take some earplugs). If your budget is flexible, there are plenty of cheap hotels along the way. If you fancy somewhere to stay in Burgos, the Meson del Cid Hotel Burgos (Plaza de Santa Maria) is centrally located, with good breakfasts and local cuisine.

When you do finally reach Santiago, however, pamper yourself and stay in the luxurious Parador Dos Reis Catolicos Santiago de Compostela (Plaza del Obradoiro 1). It ain't cheap, but after 500 miles, you've earned it. The sheer elegance will transform you from pilgrim to royalty as you step over the threshold: fine wine and food complete the picture here.

But the main attractions are your fellow pilgrims. They come in all shapes and sizes, each with a story to tell and time in abundance to tell it. And they come from all over the globe. It’s as if the United Nations has been evicted and sent on a march of penance. Even better, everyone looks out for each other, making this a safe, ideal alternative to the ‘Singles’ holiday. As the song says “You’ll never walk alone” – unless you want to.

Apart from Maite, my favourite pilgrims from memory were Wingfried – dressed in full Bavarian leather britches, feather cap and with an accordion strapped to his back, and Rudolf, a middle-aged Swiss who used a minimum of three languages in every sentence.

Every pilgrim has a slightly different reason for embarking on the camino. Some find God, some find spiritual fulfilment, some people “find themselves”, and some people, it would appear, find someone else.

As you get closer to Santiago, you may notice that previously solo travellers can increasingly be spotted as cosy couples in the dimly-lit corners of restaurants. Could there possibly be another motivation for people doing this so-called ‘spiritual’ walk?

But if all you find on the Pilgrim’s Route is a healthy, cultural and inexpensive holiday and some interesting companions, then surely that’s enough?

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More information on Pilgrim's progress: the road to Santiago de Compostela:

Author:
Murray Stewart
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
4.333335
Average: 4.3 (9 votes)
Total views:
1806
First uploaded:
4 January 2010
Last updated:
4 years 29 weeks 1 day 3 hours 41 min 25 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Activity, Food and Drink, Romance
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
Free tags / Keywords:
history, country walking

Murray recommends

Hotels

Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Parador De Santiago De Compostela
£95
N/A
2. Meson Del Cid Hotel Burgos
£55
N/A

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Community comments (13)

Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

An enjoyable read, very inspirational!

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Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

What a great read and new religion in writing style. He reaches the parts that other travel writer's don't and, most importantly, uncovers the real faces and places along the route. I also love the writer's ability to delicately place so much information into each sentence, while tantalising us with contents such as garlic octopus at the same time.

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

A very guide; it made me want to go there. I like the little vignettes of the lady rugby player and the bodega with the outside tap. A great sense of place. I'll look for more by this author

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I'm a motorcylist rather than a long-distance walker but I might well tackle this one day, so inspired am I!
Excuse me whilst I go and buy some walking boots...
Jacqui

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Well written, informative and enjoyable.

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Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I want to do this walk! I want to see those sites, eat that food, drink that wine and meet those interesting people. I really enjoyed reading this article, it was engaging and told me about an amazing pilgrims walk which has clearly stood the test of time and evolved over the years. I would love to have read more and perhaps a little more detail on options for things to see en route or even slightly off route.

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Rating:
5
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

This was an inspirational guide. I really want to get my walking boots on! I am just wondering what are the hostels like? Will I get a hot shower each day ?
Thanks Murray for sharing your journey with us. It obviously made an impression on you.

Sara

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Sara,

Thanks for your comments. The hostels are a bit rough and ready, but the camaraderie makes up for the basic standard of accommodation. You will get a shower every night -occasionally you need to be quick before the hot water runs out! PS - take a bit of emergency loo roll.

Murray

Rating:
4
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

The guide is written in an attractive and entertaining style, with ingenious segues between sections. The only reason it did not attract top marks in all sections is that more detail is required to enable proper planning. A few more photographs would have been a bonus too. I would have been happy to read a longer guide. But the guide succeeded in making me want to visit the places mentioned! I look forward to reading other guides by this writer.

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Rating:
3
0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Murray, thank you for your first guide on the site. You have a very readable, personal writing style and I enjoyed this guide. Be careful to exactly match the name of the hotels in your guide to those in the Make it Happen box. Although, in parts, this is thin on detail - I would love to know more about your accommodation and the name of the wine producer who has a tap on the wall - I think that this will be a useful guide for readers thinking of going on a similar trip.

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Thanks - have added in the name of the wine producer now.

Thank you Murray for commenting on my guide to Mayo and thus enabling me to find this little gem of a guide that you have so beautifully wrote.
It was a pleasure to read it, so much so that my wife has read it twice and has even talked me into doing the walk.

Liam

Liam,

Glad you liked the guide - and even happier that you and your wife are going on the walk: I found it to be life-changing, and am doing it again in March - June. Watch out for the man in the kilt!

Murray