The remains of St. James the Greater — the patron saint of Spain — are reportedly buried in Santiago de Compostela. During the Middle Ages, Christians made the pilgrimage there for religious reasons.
Many modern-day pilgrims are motivated by spiritual beliefs as well, though there are a host of other reasons for making the trek: the cultural experience, the adventure, the opportunity to meet people from around the world, and for those on a tight budget, it’s an economical way to travel. (Hostels that offer room and board to pilgrims are much less expensive than traditional hotels and restaurants.)
There are multiple routes to Santiago de Compostela; the most popular is the Camino Francés, the 500-mile trail that begins in the French village of Saint- Jean-Pied-de-Port and winds through northern Spain, passing through the cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León.
While many pilgrims are committed to doing the entire trek, several — myself included — on tighter schedules break it into more manageable sections. In 12 days, I made if from Saint Jean to Logroño — around 85 miles — and that included a couple of rest days along the way.
There are many guide books and websites that will help you plan your trip and advise you on what to bring and how to get in shape for the experience.
Here are a few tips that may not be covered in the guides:
E-reader: There is a fair amount of down time on the Camino. If you’re awake at 3 a.m. and all of your roomies are happily sleeping — lucky them! — an e-reader can keep you quietly entertained.
You can also download a Camino guide, so you don’t have to carry a thick book.
Bodega break: Being from the Central Coast, of course we wanted to sample the local vintages, but with no car, we were limited in the number of wineries we could visit.
We chose one outside Logroño that was reachable by taxi and served a mid-day meal that was among the best we’d ever had, not just in Spain, but anywhere.
Veggie options: Vegetarians don’t have to forgo the communal meal; many hostels were willing to substitute a salad or, in one case, a veggie burger, for the meat course. Just let your hosts know in advance.
Walking sticks: If you don’t plan on checking your backpack, you might run into some trouble if you’re carrying a set of walking sticks. (I checked with the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport and was told I could bring one stick, but not two.) Be aware that it is possible to pick up walking sticks on the trail — especially if you’re willing to use a wooden staff instead of the high tech, foldable kind.
Solar chargers: I spent lots of time researching and testing solar chargers, figuring there would be a lot of competition to power up phones and e-readers in the hostels. That wasn’tthe case; there was never a shortage of outlets. And as much as I like the idea of using the power of the sun to charge my electronic equipment, the charger wasn’t as efficient as I’d hoped.