Are you setting off to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (also known as Way of Saint James) ? Here’s our mini-guide to everything you need to know about this spiritual journey!
Created in the early 9th century, the pilgrimage to Compostela is one of Europe’s largest and most famous walks. The pilgrimage routes, some 1,500 kilometres in length to Santiago de Compostela, converge on a well-known route: the “camino francés”. Declared a “first cultural route” by the Council of Europe in 1987, the pilgrimage routes have enjoyed renewed interest and growing numbers of visitors since the 1990s.
In fact, more than 300,000 people walked the Camino de Compostela in 2018. A religious procession, the pilgrimage is also a time for sharing and exchanging ideas, an ecological and inexpensive way to travel, a spiritual journey that invites you to meditate and write poetry, to recharge your batteries and find yourself, and a hike to reconnect with nature and/or yourself.
Would you like to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela? We can tell you all about it.
The Compostela pilgrimage: presentation and history
The Compostela pilgrimage was once considered to be one of the most important in Christianity, after Rome and Jerusalem. For devout Catholics, the pilgrimage was dedicated to visiting the relics of Santiago de Compostela in Santiago de Compostela cathedral.
In the 12th century, tens or even hundreds of thousands of faithful people flocked to the Camino de Compostela every year. At the time, the walk also attracted non-believers, who lived off charity by visiting the hospices along the route. During the 14th century, famine and plague ravaged Europe and pilgrimages were gradually forgotten.
Then the Christian Reconquest swept through Andalusia, Protestantism emerged and the Bishop of Santiago hid the relics of Santiago in an unknown location (never revealed because of the Bishop’s death). These factors virtually brought an end to pilgrimages along the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela, and it wasn’t until 1879, during work on the cathedral, that the relics of Santiago were rediscovered, giving a new lease of life to the pilgrimage to Compostela.
Preparing for the Compostela pilgrimage
Like any journey, the Compostela pilgrimage requires a minimum of preparation. Which map(s) to choose so as not to get lost and cover unnecessary kilometres, how to stay along the route – in a hotel, with a local or camping in a tent? -How do you listen to your body’s signs of fatigue (blisters on your feet, hunger and thirst, physical tiredness)?
When is the Best Time to Walk the Camino de Santiago?
These are all questions you need to ask yourself before setting off on the Camino Francés. Of course, you’re free to set off whenever you like, at any time of the year. Your holiday dates will determine the length of your itinerary, and you’ll also need to question your physical stamina to estimate how many kilometres a day you’ll cover.
In any case, we recommend that you set off in spring or late summer, so that you can cross the passes in the Pyrenees without being caught out by the cold or snow. If you have more time, try to arrive in Santiago de Compostela in early autumn, but again, it all depends on your starting point.
Leaving from Le Puy-en-Velay, the routes cross high-altitude areas such as the Auvergne and the Cévennes, where it is best to travel in spring. Make sure you have a good supply of water, too, as summer can be torrid in south-west France and Spain.
How do I make the pilgrimage?
You should be aware that not everyone makes the pilgrimage on foot. Many do it by mountain bike, which allows them to cover 50 to 90 km a day. Others do it on horseback, which is yet another way of enjoying the route.
What should you pack in your backpack?
First of all, think about your back and your ability to walk with weight on you. Don’t load yourself up unnecessarily and take only the bare essentials: you’re on a pilgrimage, everyone will be dressed like you. In your rucksack, make sure you have :
- Good walking shoes
- Warm clothing for cool nights
- A water bottle
- A small first-aid kit
- A hat
The routes of the Compostela pilgrimage
The most famous route is the Camino Francés, which links the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (64) to Santiago de Compostela, a communication route in northern Spain dating back to the Reconquista.
Upstream, there are four main routes for making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela:
- Via Turonensis: starting from the Saint-Jacques tower in Paris, it crosses Orléans or Chartres, Tours, Poitiers, Saintes or Angoulême, Bordeaux
- Via Lemovicensis: from Limoges to the starting point at the Madeleine abbey in Vézelay
- Via Podiensis: from Puy-en-Velay to Ostabat
- Via Tolosane: from Arles, via Toulouse.
For a long time, the Tours route was the least travelled. It is 667 kilometres long and takes between 35 and 40 days to walk to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
The route from Le Puy-en-Velay to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is 732 kilometres long and takes 30 to 35 days to walk. This is the most popular route. Around 900 kilometres separate the town of Vézélay from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, with 32 to 40 days’ walking. The Arles route covers 769 kilometres and takes 28 to 35 days to cross the Pyrenees at the Col de Somport. Finally, the distance between Narbonne and Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port is 591 kilometres, counting 21 to 26 days’ walking.
If you are not starting from France, you can use one of the routes on this map of Europe :
The stages of the Compostela pilgrimage
The question of where to sleep on the Compostela pilgrimage can be crucial. If you have a credit card, check out all the hotels, refuges and hostels along the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela and the Camino Francés.
There are around thirty stages on the pilgrimage from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela, along a long 811.9-kilometre route. Each stage covers an average of 24 kilometres a day. There is a wide range of accommodation along the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela. We cannot give precise details of each stage. However, here is a detailed map of the stages along the Camino Francés:
- Stage 1: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles: 26.9 kilometres,
- Stage 4: Pamplona to Puente-la-Reina: 24.3 kilometres, 93 km covered,
- Stage 6: Estrella to Los Arcos: 21 kilometres, 137.3 km covered,
- Stage 8: Logroño to Najera: 30.1 kilometres, 195.4 km in total,
- Stage 21: Mansilla de las Mulas to Leon: 23.2 kilometres, 489.6 km in total,
- Stage 24: Astorga to Rabanal del Camino: 22 kilometres, 560.5 km in total,
- Stage 33: Santa Irene to Santiago de Compostela: 25.3 kilometres, 811.9 km in total.
If you always have a map of the nearby stages, you’ll know which town to stay in, which is ideal for booking accommodation in advance.
Where to sleep on the Camino de Compostela?
Here too, it all depends on how you approach the journey. Are you a true pilgrim at heart? If so, you’ll need a Credencial, available from associations. Compulsory to stay in accommodation open to pilgrims, necessary to stand out from the rest of the tourists and useful for your souvenirs, the Credancial – or creanciale – is a document synonymous with a “pilgrim’s passport”.
Once issued by the religious authorities to allow safe passage through the checkpoints along the routes to Galicia, it is now a document that gives you access to the gites and accommodation you’ll find along the Spanish routes. The creanciale costs around €10.
If, however, you’re looking for a bit of comfort after a long day’s walking, you’re better off staying in youth hostels, gîtes and small hotels at various stages. To help you out, don’t hesitate to read our article “Where to stay on the Compostela pilgrimage? ” .
A little reading and culture about the pilgrimage
To immerse your mind in the pilgrimage and inform yourself about this mythical trek to Compostela, we have selected the best books and guides to read before setting off on the trails. We’ve also listed a few films and documents to watch to immerse yourself even further.
Here is our selection of books on the Camino de Compostela:
- Immortelle randonnée: Compostelle malgré moi, Jean-Christophe Rufin
- Le pèlerin de Compostelle, Paolo Coelho
- Compostelle instructions for use, Jacques Clouteau
- Les chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Alexandra de Lassus
- Comment draguer la catholique sur les chemins de Compostelle, Etienne Liebig
Our selection of films and documentaries on the Pilgrim’s Way to Santiago de Compostela:
- The way – la route ensemble, DVD in French, or in English: The Way, by and starring Martin Sheen
- The alchemical journey from Brussels to Santiago de Compostela: 7 stages in 7 DVDs from Brussels to Santiago de Compostela
- Saint Jacques … La Mecque, by Coline Serreau, with Muriel Robin
- Les Doigts croches, by Ken Scott (2009)