Essential guide to the Camino de Santiago

Today we introduce you to the fascinating history, routes and symbols of the Camino on a simple and practical essential guide to the Camino de Santiago.

What is the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, is a pilgrimage of medieval origin that has attracted pilgrims of all ages, nationalities, faiths and walks of life to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia, in the North West of Spain, for many centuries. It is here, in the city’s magnificent cathedral where the remains of Saint James the Apostle are buried. Here’s our essential guide to the Camino de Santiago.

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According to legend a shepherd by the name of Pelayo discovered the remains of St James in the 9th century having followed a star. It was in the place where Pelayo found the remains that the first chapel in honour of St James was built and where the cathedral stands today. The name Santiago de Compostela has a beautiful meaning: ‘St James of the Field of Stars’, Campus Stellae.

Along with Rome and Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela has been an important pilgrimage destination for Christians since the Middle Ages. Pilgrims from across the world have made their way to Santiago de Compostela to honour the relics of St James, and their tracks have developed into a network of pilgrim trails known today as the Camino de Santiago routes, spreading across Europe.

The Camino de Santiago is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rich cultural heritage and its important role over the centuries as a path of exchange, understanding and harmony between cultures and people from all over Europe and the world.

The Camino de Santiago is a truly special and unique experience, for the rich history of the towns and villages, the centuries-old monuments and chapels you will encounter, the ever changing landscapes and above all the sense of camaraderie and connection you will discover with the pilgrims you meet along the way.

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Camino de Santiago routes

When people talk about ‘the Camino walk’ they generally refer to the Camino Frances although there are many more Camino de Santiago routes. Here are the pilgrims’ favourites, according to figures from the Pilgrims Office in Santiago de Compostela:

1 – Camino Frances

The Camino Frances is ‘The Camino’ as it is the best known Camino route, featuring in many movies and books such as Martin Sheen’s The Way. It stretches for nearly 800kms (500 miles), from the French Basque town of St Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the Pyrenees; across the La Rioja region, La Meseta, El Bierzo and into Galicia to reach Santiago de Compostela.

It takes approximately 5 weeks to walk the full route but many pilgrims walk the last section, starting their journey from the market town of Sarria, in Galicia, 111kms away from Santiago. Nearly 55% of all pilgrims arriving in Santiago have taken the Camino Frances route.

2 – Camino Portugues

Approximately 20% of all pilgrims take the route known as Camino Portugues or Caminho Portugues, which is the trail traditionally taken by pilgrims from Portugal, including many royal pilgrims. The 600km-long route starts in Portugal’s capital city Lisbon, although many pilgrims choose to start in Porto and walk the last two weeks in the North of Portugal and into Galicia, which is approximately 250kms.

3 – Coastal Camino Portugues

The Camino Portugues along the the coast, Caminho Portugues da Costa, is a very scenic and increasingly popular alternative route to the classic Camino Portugues. It is 260kms long and starts from Porto but instead of taking the central tracks of the Camino Portugues, pilgrims follow the Atlantic shores of Northern Portugal and into Galicia, dotted with beautiful sandy beaches and stopping in lovely coastal and seaside towns such as Povoa de Varzim, Viana do Castelo and Baiona. The trail joins the classic route from Portugal at Redondela.

4 – Camino del Norte

The Camino del Norte is another classic Camino route that takes several weeks to complete, all the way from Irun, on the French/Spanish border in the Basque Country. It used to be a route also favoured by pilgrims from Nordic countries who would arrive by boat to some of the towns and ports along the Northern coast of ‘Green Spain’, in the Basque Country, Cantabria or Asturias. The Camino del Norte hugs the Bay of Biscay from the Basque Country to Galicia and takes pilgrims through wonderful cities like Bilbao, San Sebastian and Santander; as well as lovely fishing towns and villages, each with their own traditions, rich heritage and delicious local gastronomy.

5 – Camino Ingles

The Camino Ingles is the shortest Camino de Santiago route and has two starting points: Ferrol or A Coruna, both port cities in the North West of Galicia. It was the route preferred traditionally by pilgrims from the British Isles and Ireland, hence its name. Pilgrims would typically travel by boat and land on one of the two port cities to continue their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela on foot.

6 – Camino Primitivo

The Camino Primitivo or Original Way is the oldest Camino de Santiago route, since this was the route taken by King Alfonso II of Asturias when he went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the 10th century. The first section from Oviedo to Lugo across the Cantabrian Mountains is one of the most remote of all the Camino routes and of extraordinary rugged and wild beauty; it is ideal for those looking for a less known and more challenging Camino route.

7 – Vía de la Plata – Camino Sanabrés

Starting in Seville, the Via de la Plata is the longest of the Camino de Santiago routes in Spain as it crosses the whole of the Iberian Peninsula from South to North. It is challenging because of its length and some of the stretches are best avoided in the Summer months due to the extremely high temperatures. Spring and Autumn are the best seasons to experience this historic and epic Camino route. The route joins the Camino Sanabres from Granja de la Moruela to continue to Ourense city. The last stretch from Ourense into Santiago is one of the most rural, peaceful and wonderful of all the routes.

8 – Camino to Finisterre – Muxia

The Camino to Finisterre is the only Camino de Santiago route that starts in Santiago de Compostela and takes pilgrims west towards Cape Fisterre by the Atlantic Ocean. It is believed to be a very important place since pre-christian times as it was believed to be the ‘end of the known world’ and the place where the land of the living got closer to ‘the other world’. Many pre christian pagan traditions and myths are still really strong in the area, in many cases, mixing with religion resulting in fascinating rituals.

There are many other routes from France and beyond, such as Le Puy, Vezelay, Via Turonensis … which join up with the Camino Frances. In recent years, other Camino routes have been rediscovered across Spain and other countries in Europe.

How Long Is The Camino De Santiago?

The Camino de Santiago is a network of different routes, of different lengths. However you can choose to start your Camino de Santiago as close or as far from Santiago as you wish (nearly!).

For instance the shortest Camino de Santiago route is the Camino Ingles, which has two starting points: Ferrol (120kms) and A Coruna (75kms).

The most famous Camino route is the Camino Frances which is 800kms long, and the starting point is St Jean Pied de Port. However, many pilgrims start their pilgrimage at other spots along the route, depending on the time they have available. It would take approximately five weeks to walk all the way from St Jean Pied de Port, while it takes around two weeks to walk from Leon, and one week to walk from Sarria.

Many of the routes starting further afield in France or Switzerland, such as the Le Puy Camino or the Geneva Way, join the Camino Frances at St Jean Pied de Port, so if you were to talk all the way from Le Puy to Santiago, it would take approximately ten weeks.

Essential guide to the Camino de Santiago

Where Do You Start The Camino?

You can start the Camino de Santiago in any of the cities or towns along the various routes, and walk as much or as little as you wish.

The Camino Frances starts in the French Basque town of St Jean Pied de Port, at the foot of the Pyrenees, 800kms away from Santiago de Compostela.

According to statistics by the Pilgrims Office, these are the towns chosen by pilgrims to start the Camino:

  1. Sarria – Camino FrancesThe most popular starting point for Camino pilgrims with over 96,000 starting their journey here in 2019 (27.66% of all pilgrims).
  2. Saint Jean Pied de PortThe starting point of the Camino Frances was chosen by 33,000 pilgrims.
  3. Porto – Camino Portugues
  4. Tui – Camino Portugues
  5. Ferrol – Camino Ingles
  6. Porto – Camino Portugues Coastal
  7. Leon – Camino Frances
  8. Valenca do Minho – Camino Portugues
  9. Oviedo – Camino Primitivo
  10.  O Cebreiro – Camino Frances
  11.  Ponferrada – Camino Frances
  12.  Irun – Camino del Norte
  13.  Roncesvalles – Camino Frances
  14.  Astorga – Camino Frances
  15.  Lugo – Camino Primitivo

– TO RECEIVE THE COMPOSTELA

If you are walking, you must complete at least the last 100kms into Santiago de Compostela to apply for your Compostela pilgrim certificate at the Pilgrims Office.

These are the towns on the Camino routes where you should start your walk if you’d like to receive the Compostela. It is possible to start from further afield or closer to Santiago adapting your Camino to your own abilities and fitness but these locations mark the minimum 100km required in order to request your certificate if you are walking:

Camino Frances – Sarria
Camino Portugues – Tui
Camino Portugues Coastal – Vigo
Camino Primitivo – Lugo
Camino Ingles – Neda
Camino del Norte – Vilalba
Via de la Plata – Ourense

What Is The Compostela Pilgrim Certificate And How Do I Get It?

While most pilgrims embark on their Camino de Santiago journey on foot, walking sections of the Camino routes for days, weeks or even months… it is also possible to take the journey to Santiago de Compostela by bike or on horseback.

The Pilgrims Office in Santiago de Compostela issues pilgrims arriving in Santiago with a ‘Compostela’ pilgrim certificate. In order to qualify for this certificate, pilgrims must walk at least the last 100kms of any of the Camino de Santiago routes into Santiago de Compostela and record their progress in their ‘Pilgrim Passport’ or credencial, a kind of logbook that must be stamped twice per day along the way.

The Compostela certificate is written in Latin and is issued to pilgrims undertaking the pilgrimage for religious or spiritual reasons. If you are walking the Camino for cultural or other reasons a different certificate is provided.

Those travelling on two wheels must complete at least the last 200kms into Santiago de Compostela.

If you are walking for longer than 100kms, for instance if you are walking 200kms or the whole route, one stamp per day on your pilgrim passport is enough to record your journey.

Compostela certificates are issued free of charge but pilgrims can make donations to the Pilgrims Office.

In addition, the Pilgrims Office can also issue a ‘Certificado de Distancia’ (Certificate of Distance), registering their starting point. This certificate has the same requirements as the Compostela and can be requested for a small fee of €3.

What Is The Pilgrim Passport?

Also known as ‘credencial del peregrino’, the pilgrim passport is a logbook issued by the Catedral de Santiago and St James associations around the world (for instance the Camino Society in Dublin, Confraternity of St James in London, American Pilgrims on the Camino in the USA). This logbook must be filled in with your name, starting point and starting date, and stamped along the route (twice a day if you are only walking the last 100kms) in order to obtain the ‘Compostela’ certificate at the Pilgrims Office.

The Pilgrim Passport is also important for those staying in public hostels (albergues) as these operate on a first come first served basis and would give priority to pilgrims on foot and the pilgrim passport will be required as proof of the pilgrimage.

Since the Covid pandemic, Santiago Cathedral has been testing an ‘online’ pilgrim passport.

How Do I Follow The Camino De Santiago Route?

The Camino de Santiago routes are signposted with scallop shells and yellow arrows, as well as regular markers indicating the number of kms left to reach Santiago. Marking on less known routes can be less frequent but the most popular Camino routes in Spain, Portugal and France are quite well marked.

In addition, included in your JWT holiday information you’ll have route notes or guidebook, as well as all the practical information you need to help you navigate the route.

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When To Do The Camino De Santiago? Best Time To Travel

Most pilgrims do the Camino de Santiago from Spring to Autumn. Summer months are busy, mostly with Spanish pilgrims. Best time to travel will depend on your preferences and the route you are taking. Are you looking to meet many other pilgrims? Or would you prefer a quieter route or time of the year? Do you mind a bit of rain, do you prefer Spring-like temperatures or do you like walking in sunny and warm weather?

There are two factors to take into account: weather and the number of pilgrims en route.

Weather

Weather is an important factor to keep in mind when planning your Camino trip and unmissable for our essential guide to the Camino de Santiago. Weather can vary greatly between routes and regions, as the Camino de Santiago routes cover thousands of kms in Spain, Portugal and France. It is important that you check the forecast and average temperature and rainfall before you decide which month you’d like to travel.

Here are some general tips in terms of weather you might encounter on the Camino de Santiago:

Mountains

If you are looking to walk the whole Camino Frances from St Jean, it is worth noting that the stretch across the Pyrenees is not recommended and is in fact closed to pilgrims in the winter months and into the early Spring, due to risk of snow. However there is a detour route through the town of Valcarlos. The mountains of Asturias on the Camino Primitivo and O Cebreiro on the Camino Frances and the Aubrac Plateau on the Le Puy Camino in France are also best avoided in the winter months for its challenging weather conditions.

Coast

If you are walking the last 100kms into Santiago, you are in the region of Galicia, which has a mild Atlantic climate, great for walking but also a bit unpredictable. March and April can still get a bit of rain but they are good months for walkers. May, June, September and October are drier months and great in terms of temperature.

Summer months are fantastic for coastal routes such as the Camino Portugues Coastal and Camino del Norte.

Heat

Certain inland regions can get really hot temperatures in the Summer months, such as the stretch across the La Meseta plateau on the Camino Frances and most of the Via de la Plata route but particularly out of Andalucia and across Extremadura.

The Pilgrims Office in Santiago de Compostela

The Pilgrims Office in Santiago de Compostela is the place to get your last stamp on your pilgrim passport, this is where the journey is finally complete. The Pilgrims Office issues the Compostela and other certificates to pilgrims arriving in Santiago, and they also release their statistics on pilgrims on a regular basis. They are located very close to the Cathedral, at Rua Carretas, 33.

Due to the high volume of pilgrims that visit the office to request their certificates, they have implemented a QR code system to avoid lengthy queues.

We hope you find this essential guide to the Camino de Santiago useful to start planning this unforgettable trip.

If you’d like to join our Camino de Santiago guided tours or you’d like us to help you plan your self guided Camino de Santiago trip, contact our experienced team at JWT.

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