Here are the essential tips you need to know to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela a success.
The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is one of the “three great pilgrimages of Christianity”, along with those to Jerusalem and Rome. For centuries, pilgrims have taken the roads to Compostela to visit the tomb of James of Zebedee, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ.
By walking the Santiago de Compostela route, you join the hundreds of thousands of walkers who cover 1,500 kilometres of legendary paths every year. To avoid hassle, disappointment and wasted time, we have put together a list of 5 tips you need to know before embarking on this exceptional journey. Buckle up, lace up your boots and let’s go!
1. Choose your itinerary carefully
The place of departure
The best-known route to Santiago de Compostela is undoubtedly the Camino Francés. This route links the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Pyrénées-Atlantiques) to Santiago de Compostela. Depending on your point of departure, you can follow a number of different routes through France before this common route. The four main routes are
- The Via Turonensis: starts from the Tour Saint-Jacques in Paris.
- The Via Lemovicensis: starting from Limoges.
- The Via Podiensis: from Le Puy-en-Velay.
- The Via Tolosane: departure from Arles.
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People taking part in the trip
Men, women, young and old, sporty or not: anyone can do the Camino de Compostela. That said, some people will go faster than others, or will feel more tired from the dozens of kilometres of daily walking.
Knowing the abilities and needs of each participant is therefore essential if the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is to be completed in the best possible conditions. Children and the elderly, for example, will need longer, more frequent breaks and greater comfort during night-time stops.
The desired length of the pilgrimage
The route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela is around 800 kilometres long. If you walk an average of 25 kilometres a day, it will take you just over thirty days to reach the tomb of James of Zebedee. And that’s not all: on average, it takes between 30 and 40 days of additional walking to cover the four main French routes to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Did you know? The average speed of a pilgrim in France is slightly slower than in Spain. This is due to the greater difference in altitude on the French sections, particularly in the Pyrenees. Of course, you can reduce the overall difficulty by moving further along the route. The train is undoubtedly the best option for doing this. Take advantage of the many railway stations along the pilgrimage route to save time and energy!
Must-see stopover villages
The roads to Santiago de Compostela in France are part of an exceptional historical and cultural heritage. 71 monuments and 7 sections of the GR 65, totalling 160 kilometres, are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Camino Francès (Spanish section) was listed in its entirety by UNESCO in 1993. Among the most beautiful “jacque towns” crossed by these legendary routes are Saint-Côme-d’Olt and Estaing, in Aveyron, and the villages of Lauzerte and Auvillar, the pride of Tarn-et-Garonne.
There’s also Roacamadour in the Lot department, one of the most beautiful villages in France. Pilgrims come here to venerate the “Black Virgin” or to visit the tomb of Saint Amadour. Another marvel on the route is Conques, in Aveyron, listed as one of the “Most Beautiful Villages in France”. Here, pilgrims can visit the abbey of Sainte-Foy-de-Conques, which boasts one of the best-preserved treasures of relics from the Middle Ages.
What could possibly motivate hundreds of thousands of walkers to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela every year? From a religious point of view, tackling these hundreds of kilometres had an expiatory aspect. Penance, in other words. The religious dimension of this Catholic pilgrimage can be coupled with particular inner reasons: paying tribute to a loved one, meeting a psychological challenge or celebrating a particular event.
Many pilgrims simply enjoy walking alone or in a group. Some want to take on a particularly demanding sporting challenge by running long distances or reducing the number of stages as much as possible.
Whatever the reason for your departure, and even if you can’t think of any, the experience is yours alone. Very often, in fact, you’ll be surprised by the lasting inner well-being and serenity it brings.
2. Don’t neglect the preparation
The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is a physical and mental act of endurance that requires special preparation. On the physical side, walking training is essential. Not just to improve your performance, but above all to find out exactly what you’re capable of on a walk!
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Several months before setting off, organise regular walks, gradually increasing in length, duration and loads carried. A healthy diet and good sleeping habits are essential beforehand if you are to successfully complete this fabulous pedestrian odyssey… and reach your goal in the best possible conditions without injuring yourself.
On the mental side, try to prepare your mind for this extraordinary adventure by making a precise list of your motivations. You could, for example, write them down and reread them frequently to increase your determination. Prayers, meditation, walks in nature… Everyone has their own way of preparing for this feat, which is as much psychological as it is physical. Finally, on a purely practical level, leave nothing to chance: to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela with complete peace of mind, choose your departure date precisely and estimate your arrival date.
Make all the necessary formalities and reservations well in advance: travel insurance, train tickets, accommodation, catering, etc. Planning is good planning, especially in high season!
3. Choosing the right equipment
The equipment required for the Camino de Compostela is much the same as for a normal walk. Footwear is the most important item in your pilgrim’s outfit. Take care to select the right model for you. Choose sturdy, waterproof ankle boots for a winter pilgrimage, and opt for a lighter pair in summer.
The amount and type of clothing you pack will obviously depend on how long you plan to walk. There’s a simple rule when it comes to hiking: weight is the enemy, so make sure you adapt your outfit to the season. In summer, there’s no need to pack heavy parkas, woollen jumpers or thermal tights. However, keep a waterproof jacket under your elbow in case of thunderstorms. Finally, a breathable headgear and good sunglasses are useful in any season.
Choose a lightweight, high-performance tent if you plan to bivouac every day. It should be roomy enough to ensure optimum comfort, whether you’re travelling solo or with others. Choose a comfortable bag with padding around the shoulders or lower back.
Ideally, it should contain the following items: a first-aid kit complete with bandages and sun cream, a Swiss Army knife, one or more water bottles and a supply of energy-dense food in case you get hungry. One last piece of advice: test your equipment before the big day – it could save you a lot of trouble!
4. Going at the right time
While it’s possible to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela all year round, the experience is very different depending on the season you choose. Summer is the busiest time of year, partly because of the summer holidays. Temperatures often exceed 30°C and thunderstorms are more frequent. The advantage? You can travel lighter than in winter, and walk for longer as the sunshine is at its maximum.
Winter, on the other hand, is the slowest season in which to make the pilgrimage, because it is more difficult. In addition to the fickle weather, night falls very quickly, the bag is much heavier and many places to stay or eat are closed.
The ideal season, in fact, does not exist and depends on your aspirations, practical possibilities and general abilities. However, if we had to give you some advice, we’d suggest setting off in spring or autumn. The conditions are then almost as favourable as in summer, while visitor numbers remain reasonable.
5. Plan your return
The return journey is almost as important as the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage itself. Yet this part of the experience is all too often neglected by walkers. First of all, it’s essential to make all the essential arrangements for your return long before you set off: the means of transport you plan to use, for example.
Once you’re back home, before returning to your everyday life, allow yourself a few days to recover from this rewarding but exhausting adventure. You may feel the need to indulge in some cocooning: invigorating meals, quiet moments indoors, cuddles or simply naps galore.
Whatever the case may be, you should avoid too sudden a return to stress in your life after a pilgrimage that is normally totally stress-free. To digest this wonderful experience as well as possible, keep things simple: surround yourself with the things and people that make you feel good… and then stay away from the rest!