The Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrims’ ways that lead to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwestern Spain.
Legend has it that the remains of the saint are buried here, enticing many to follow the Camino routes as a form of spiritual path.
The trek was Medieval Europe’s version of the thru-hike and although almost lost to history, in recent years it has become extremely popular with hiking and cycling enthusiasts.
A common myth about the Camino de Santiago is that there is one route, but if you look at the maps you will see that there are paths winding in from virtually every corner of every country in Europe.
The most popular route by far is the Camino Francés, seen as the Catholic pilgrimage that was Medieval Europe’s answer to the Appalachian Trail and now attracts almost 200,000 people a year.
The Camino Francés (the French Way) starts at St. Jean Pied-du-Port in France, crosses the Pyrenees, and continues west across Spain towards the end point.
Many smaller routes were established by pilgrims coming from their own towns and countries. For example, the Camino Portugués travels northwards through Portugal, while the Camino Inglés works its way down from the north coast of Spain from where English pilgrims arrived by boat.
- Walk the route that was once responsible for the largest movement of people in Europe.
- Pass through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon and a host of smaller towns and villages to see the diversity of people and culture in France and Spain.
To be truly authentic, the Camino would start from your doorstep as the original pilgrims would have done. However, most people will travel to St Jean Pied de Port to begin their trek, coming from either Pamplona or Biarritz – both with international airports. Other airports near the Camino route are Madrid, Bilbao, Vitoria and Zaragoza.
From Pamplona you can get a bus to Roncesvalles. From Roncesvalles there are two options to continue on to St Jean Pied de Port, either a private taxi or a shuttle with Express Bourricot.
If you are coming from Biarritz, things are slightly easier. Whether you are getting a train from Paris or flying in you should head to Bayonne train station, where you then take a direct train onwards to St Jean. It is also possible to drive to the start point as there is a huge car park in Roncesvalles that is free for any length of time – just factor in how you will return to this point at the end of your trek.
At the end of the trail, getting away is equally simple. Cheap flights are available out of Santiago on all major carriers. It is also possible to take train or bus journeys onward to most places in Europe, just be aware that from July through until September it is difficult traveling from Santiago if you have not booked well in advance.
If you’re planning to break up the trail, you can travel up or down the Camino Francés by bus. Alsa, the main bus company covering northern Spain, has various pickup and drop-off points along the way.
The Camino Francés stretches 772 kilometres, depending on how many detours you take. For most people this is achievable in 30 to 35 days, based on walking between 23 and 27 kilometres each day.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The majority of the Camino de Francés is on well-maintained tracks or pavement with very little technical walking.
Various towns and settlements dot the route with just a handful of mountainous areas and the trail is even most of the time.
If you choose to walk some of the smaller and lesser-known trails the terrain varies greatly and some of the mountain passes are extremely dangerous in the winter.
It is not necessary to be a seasoned hiker to take on the Francés route of the Camino de Santiago. Practice walks in the form of getting out and about in your neighbourhood with a loaded backpack would be sufficient.
You do not need a permit to trek any of the Camino de Santiago routes.
However, on setting off you should carry a Credencial (Camino passport) that is a printed book or spreadsheet with your data and empty spaces for stamps at each albergue you stay at.
This serves as proof that you have walked the 100 kilometres necessary to obtain your ‘Compostela’ or ‘Certificate’ at the end point, the official document that will be a testament to your journey.
Guided or Self-Guided
Camino Francés is very well trafficked, maintained and marked so there would be no issues tackling the route self-guided. In peak months you will always be able to see others on the route that you could follow or ask for help if needed.
If you are taking one of the smaller or more remote routes and are not a confident hiker, you should plan your itinerary in advance and consider going with a guide.
It is best to avoid winter, summer, and Easter on your Camino if possible. In winter the conditions can be unpredictable and extremely cold, whilst the summer brings more crowds and temperatures can soar – particularly on the exposed sections.
In March the weather is cool and prime for walking, warming up through April to start hitting uncomfortable temperatures in northern Spain in May/June.
Although the summer months are popular due to school holidays, June and July very hot and potentially unpleasant if you’re not used to walking in the heat. October, similar to March, is also a great time to walk.
Due to the religious nature of the route, Easter will be a particularly busy time for pilgrimages. Equally, in a Jacobean year there will be huge numbers of pilgrims (more than triple) on the Camino de Santiago. Both of these events will mean a more competitive battle for hostel beds than usual but can also add to the atmosphere.
Below is a typical itinerary but en route you’ll find that your plan changes as you meet people, stumble across beautiful little towns or just fancy a break.
The Camino Francés is the most popular option for a reason, offering varied scenery and good infrastructure – so you will be able to stop and refuel at any of the below places.
Saint-Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles – 24.2 km
Roncesvalles to Zubiri to 21.4 km
Zubiri to Pamplona – 20.4 km
Pamplona to Puenta de la Reina – 23.9 km
Puenta de la Reina to Estella – 21.6 km
Estella to Los Arcos – 21.3 km
Los Arcos to Logrono – 27.6
Logrono to Najera – 26.2 km
Najera to Santo Domingo de La Calzada – 20.7 km
Santo Domingo de La Calzada to Belorado – 22.0 km
Belorado to San Juan de Ortega – 23.9 km
San Juan de Ortega to Burgos – 25.8 km
Burgos to Hornillos del Camino – 21.0 km
Hornillos del Camino to Castrojeriz – 19.9 km
Castrojeriz to Fromista – 24.7 km
Fromista to Carrion de los Condes – 18.8 km
Carrion de los Condes to Terradillos de los Templarios – 26.3 km
Terradillos de los Templarios to Bercianos del Real Camino – 23.2 km
Bercianos del Real Camino to Mansilla de las Mulas – 26.3 km
Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon – 18.5 km
Leon to San Martin del Camino – 24.6 km
San Martin del Camino to Astorga – 23.7 km
Astorga to Foncebadon – 25.8 km
Foncebadon to Ponferrada – 26.8 km
Ponferrada to Villafranca – 24.2 km
Villafranca to O Cebreiro – 27.8 km
O Cebreiro to Tricastela – 20.8 km
Tricastela to Sarria – 18.4 km
Sarria to Portomarin – 22.2 km
Portomarin to Palas de Rei – 24.8 km
Palas de Rei to Arzua – 28.5 km
Arzua to Pedrouzo – 19.3 km
Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela – 19.4km
Because Oveido isn’t on the Camino Francés, some pilgrims detour to visit the city’s cathedral.
The Camino Primitivo (the Original Route) is the most direct path from Oveido to Santiago, rejoining the Camino Francés about 70 kilometres from Santiago.
This route is longer, more challenging and encompasses plenty of hill climbs.
If you don’t have much time, consider walking one of these shorter routes:
- Logroño to Santiago de Compostela – 25 days
- Burgos to Santiago de Compostela – 20 days
- León to Santiago de Compostela – 12 to 14 days
There are many different types and styles of accommodation along the Camino de Santiago, ranging from hostels to guest houses and luxurious paradores.
The larger towns and cities have a better choice of accommodation options to suit all budgets, whilst the smaller villages and hamlets can be limited.
Because it is the most popular, the Camino Francés has the most options but also gets busier, particularly in summer months where certain towns completely book up, so be sure to plan ahead.
The network of hostels along the Camino de Santiago are named albergues and can’t be booked in advance. Dorm beds are first come, first served but the good news is that walkers always take priority over other pilgrims (those on horse back or bike).
Albergues typically have laundry facilities for a small additional charge and nearby shops will allow you to restock on snacks.
Another option is to find privately-run hostels, guest houses (pensiones) or casa rurales (country cottages) that are often family-run and can be booked in advance. Bigger Camino towns and cities will have also have 4 and 5 star rated hotels on offer if you want to pamper yourself.
Unless you’re really strapped for time, make sure you have plenty of time to soak in the culture around you along the way. Whether you’re taking the full pilgrimage or trekking just part of the route, the Camino de Santiago offers visitors a plethora of sights and opportunities for cultural experiences.
Santiago de Compostela is not just the end point of the trail but is also a fantastic place to explore, wandering around its alleys and quaint granite streets. This region of Spain is renowned internationally for its burgeoning modern art scene, with a host of museums and exhibits.
Other options in town are the Praza do Obradoiro with its imposing Cathedral, where the remains of Saint James are (allegedly) buried, or the Old Town with winding streets, arches, squares and monuments that have helped make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At the end of your trail you might want to just take a breather at the Alameda Park, Santiago’s most emblematic green space, or unwind on Rúa do Franco – the town’s most famous street to go out on, with bars offering free tapas when you buy a drink.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Starts at||64220 Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France|
|Finishes at||Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Spain|
|Length of route||772 Km|
|Average time to complete||28 - 34 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||1501 metres|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots|
|Countries visited||France, Spain|