During the last ten years, the numbers walking pilgrimage routes in Spain have doubled from 100,000 per year to more than 200,000. In our age of ultra convenience travellers are opting for a holiday that is basic and strenuous.
Just imagine taking a month off work, then using that precious month to walk across Spain carrying all you need. Your needs become minimal when you walk 30km everyday with your belongings on your back. Keeping the weight as low as possible is the obsession of most pilgrims on the routes to Santiago de Compostela.
Each night instead of a good quality hotel you sleep in hostels that are only for pilgrims. The hostels are basic, most however now have hot water showers and washing machines. You sleep in shared dormitories often only feet from someone you just met that evening.
Strangely though most love it, they make life long friends, and go back and walk again. Some like me meet the love of their life.
The Camino Frances, also known as the French Way, is 780km. The route starts in St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees of France and runs across Northern Spain westward. Four Camino routes in France meet at St Jean and the French pilgrims of the 10th century created the track through Spain; hence this way is known as the French route.
The first day is the hardest days walking over the Pyrenees into Spain. The first main city along the route is Pamplona which is beautiful at all times of the year except during the San Fermin celebration when it is impossible to find a room due to the world famous bull run. The Fiesta takes place every year between the 6th and 14th of July.
This route has the best infrastructure, there are small towns and villages every few kilometres, finding somewhere to sleep each night is easy, and each region sends out patrols during the summer to help pilgrims with water and medical aid. During the summer months of July and August the Camino Frances is very busy, this is its only drawback. However many are now opting to walk one of the following routes instead.
This Camino starts in Lisbon and closely follows the Atlantic north through Portugal into Spain. The Portuguese Camino is 610km, mostly flat, and often along cobbled paths. The route has three distinct sections.
The first section from Lisbon to Porto has little infrastructure, (380km); often there is 30km between hostels, requiring more forward planning. Some hostels will collect hikers along the route and return them to the same place the next morning.
The second section from Porto to the Spanish border, (117km) has good infrastructure and is peaceful all year round; however it is becoming more popular each year and this can lead to accommodation problems during August.
The last section from Tui to Santiago, (112km), can be very busy. Pilgrims must walk more than 100km to receive their Compostela, or certificate of accomplishment; therefore all shorter distances to Santiago have many more pilgrims.
Via de la Plata
The Via de la Plata, also know as the Silver route, is the longest of the Camino routes in Spain at 1,000km. It is impossibly hot in summer and deserted in the winter; this is attractive to many who are looking for a more solitary hike. April to June and September and October are the best months to walk this route.
The way starts in the old city of Seville and travels north through the centre of Spain. In the north there are two options: you can join the Camino Frances at Astorga or turn north west and stay on the quieter Via de la Plata.
Whatever route you decide to walk be prepared, as it will make the journey more enjoyable.
·Reduce your backpack weight as much as possible
·Train before you go
·Have very comfortable walking boots
·Remember travel insurance
·Order your pilgrim’s passport before leaving
Maps and guide books are not required to find your way. Each route is very well marked with yellow arrows all the way to Santiago. In the cities the arrows are replaced with scallop shell symbols.
Leslie writes about the Camino on his Camino Adventures blog and runs a Camino Forum helping answer all the questions you may have before leaving. He has walked the Camino Frances, the extension to Finisterre, the Le Puy route in France, and the Camino Aragon.