28 March 2018 by Maddalena Cardone
Last year, Europe specialist Maddalena Cardone walked the entirety of the 780km Camino de Santiago, the revered route that’s been a journey for pilgrims for over a millennium. Here, she gives us an in-depth insight into her experience, as well as some first-hand advice for embarking on this spectacular journey.
It all begins at the foot of the Pyrenees, among the whitewashed houses and cobbled laneways of St Jean Pied de Port, literally the 'foot of the pass'. The ancient town, dominated by its bastion-framed citadel, was the starting point for my adventure along the Camino de Santiago or ‘Way of St James’, a crisscross of routes that have been significant for pilgrims for over a millennium as they make the journey to the shrine of the apostle Saint James in Galicia. Heading between the flower-lined walls of the charming streets, I was overcome by a mixture of excitement and trepidation as I made my way through the city gate, Porte St-Jacques. Itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s also the gateway to the Camino Francés, or French way, one of the most popular routes for walkers, where trails take in everything from ancient towns to rolling vineyards. Many come for religion, spirituality, or in memory of a loved one; my journey was perhaps simpler, a chance to retreat from day-to-day pressures, to think and contemplate. And, with 33 days’ walking ahead of me, I’d have plenty of time for that.
St Jean Pied de Port
Crossing over the Pyrenees is the most difficult part of the entire route, a steep mountain pass that brings you up to over 1400m. It’s typical, I suppose, that the toughest part of the journey falls at the very beginning, when you’re yet to become accustomed to the long distances, or carrying a heavy rucksack. But it was all worth it when, after a long uphill slog, I was rewarded with wonderfully panoramic views. An early rise the following day greeted me with equally stunning valley vistas, delightfully bathed in the morning sunshine.
The next few days comprised of high mountain passes, picturesque villages and cosy woodlands before I reached the bustle of medieval Pamplona, with its collection of fortresses and Gothic churches. What’s more, the city’s parks provided lovely spots to relax with a tortilla lunch, picked up from one of the many charming eateries dotted along the trail. The following day, the Puente La Reina was a particular highlight, home to the church of Saint Mary Eustane and all medieval splendours, narrow cobbled streets and Roman bridges.
Puente La Reina
Then it was onto rolling farmlands and pretty hilltop villages that gave way to oak tree trails, open countryside and vineyards that led me west towards Burgos. I carried just an 8kg rucksack which made for fairly easy walking, but you can arrange for your luggage to be delivered from place to place for a small fee. I thought there was something rather liberating about having it all on my back, though. If you don’t have the luxury of time, there’s also the option to walk the last 100km, for which you still receive a Compostela certificate citing your efforts, gained with stamps every few days at villages along the route. Arriving at the hills of Burgos was rather a shock to the system after the gentle paths of the camino, but I was enchanted with its Gothic cathedral, shadowing the city. The square was particularly charming, and it was here that I enjoyed a delicious lunch of bruschetta-type tomato bread, found in the many albergues (pilgrim hostels), B&Bs and hotels. Many of these also offer set meals for between five and 10 euros that include excellent soups and hearty dishes of local fish and meat. I enjoyed the simplicity of staying in the albergues, a unique feature of the camino, but there are several more superior hotels and B&Bs for those who prefer a bit of luxury.
Continuing along the way I reached Leon, a trip highlight. It’s full of buzz and energy, just what I needed after 10 days of hiking. And it’s a popular spot to meet and talk with fellow walkers, all swapping stories and hints and tips for the road ahead. There’s much to see in Leon itself, with a collection of grand monuments contrasting beautifully with the pretty lanes of the Old Quarter. I could have eaily spent a few days here, but it was time to move on, and, after two scenic days on the road, I approached Astorga. Prettily perched on a hill between the mountains towards Galicia, Astorga’s grand cathedral, a palace designed by Gaudi, and Roman ruins provided a welcome rest stop after a long hot hike. I walked in April and May, but any later and you’re likely to really feel the heat, and tourist bustle, of the Spanish summer. Though, you can choose to just walk a short distance daily, cooling down at the delightful little huts that dot the trail.
Castilla y Leon
Finally reaching Galicia, I was greeted with the site of towering mountains framed by lush greenery, all giving way to rolling hills almost reminiscent of the English countryside – except the near-constant glare of the sun, of course. The bucolic landscapes, framed by the distant swell of the Atlantic Ocean made for a truly spectacular setting as I reached the crossing of the Camino Primitivo and the Camino Frances in Melide. This is rural Spain at its absolute best, a lively market town where endless pulperías offer perfectly cooked octopus, the classic dish of Galicia. Continuing towards Santiago de Compostela, I traversed across peaceful forests and farmland, following old Roman paved roads, winding country lanes and pretty medieval bridges.
After tracing the stunning Atlantic coastline, the route brought me through an urban sprawl, and scenes that were rather less breathtaking. But, the anticipation of reaching Santiago de Compostela spurred me on. Finally reaching the shrine of St James the Great, a Cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a true achievement, and I spent several happy hours exploring the grand medieval walls and plazas. But this wasn’t my final destination. I carried on a further 70km or so to the craggy rocks of Finisterre, often called the ‘end of the world’ and considered sacred by pilgrims as the place where the Virgin appeared. Here I allowed myself a true holiday, relaxing on sandy beaches and taking a welcome dip in the sea.
Santiago de Compostela
For me, the whole journey was about taking my time, and being able to plan day to day was wonderfully liberating. Having said this, I’d recommend some training beforehand, perhaps in the form of a few long walks carrying a backpack. Overall, though, it’s fairly gentle, particularly if you have time on your side. I came across such a distinct variety of people, from those who just wanted to see the medieval towns, culture and sightseeing, to those on a real spiritual or religious journey. I met cyclists, hikers, and horse riders, all with a different purpose but the same end goal, and all more than happy to speak and share stories. I got a certificate, but gained far more than that – including the certainty that the Camino de Santiago deserves its position as one of the most revered walks in the world.
If you'd like to experience the history and nature of the Camino de Santiago, call Maddalena or any one of our Europe specialists. We offer a choice of guided walking tour, or a self-drive option taking in some of the route's highlights by road.