Way of St. James
The pilgrimage goes to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried. Legend has it that St. James' body was taken to Galicia by boat from Jerusalem and carried inland to where Santiago de Compostela is now located. The pilgrimage is believed by some to be one of three pilgrimages for which the sins of the pilgrim will be forgiven. There are several routes that can be taken, the most popular being the Camino Frances, which begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France.
The walk from the French border to Santiago de Compostela on the main routes of the Camino Frances beginning at Roncesvalles or Jaca takes about a month. Speed hikers can make it in as little as two weeks (about the time bicyclists usually require), but that requires walking 40 km or more each day.
While most of the route is fairly gentle with only a few long ascents, some days can be challenging. Over the past 20 years a great deal of effort has gone into improving the walkers' route, and most of the route is now well marked, reasonably well surfaced, and separated from the increasingly heavy traffic on Spanish highways. If one begins in France, the route passes over two major mountain chains and several smaller ones. There is a joke that the Camino never meets a mountain it doesn't cross. While that is not really true, there are many ascents and descents, and some of the latter can be quite steep.
One needs to be in reasonably good condition and to have good hiking boots. If you wish to camp, you need to carry clothing and a sleeping bag in a comfortable backpack. But you can stay in hostels (called albergues or refugios) for low cost. Unless one plans to camp in the most crowded months of the summer season, it is unnecessary to carry camping and cooking gear.
To earn the compostela (certificate of accomplishment) one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. For walkers, that means in practical terms starting in the small city of Sarria, for it has transportation connections by bus and rail to other places in Spain.
While many pilgrims only do that final portion of the route, there are great rewards for starting much further away. Some Europeans walk from their homes, following one of the many routes from virtually all corners of central and western Europe. Most of those routes, save the maritime one from the UK and the routes from Portugal and those from southern Spain, converge to funnel walkers across one of two Pyrenees passes, Somport or the route between St. Jean Pied-de-Port and Roncesvalles. A few days onward, those two routes converge at Puente la Reina and follow the traditional Camino Frances across Navarra, Castilla y León, over the pass at O Cebreiro and on to Santiago.
If one has the time and inclination, there are several lovely routes across France leading to Somport and St. Jean Pied-de-Port, the most popular the Chemin St. Jacques beginning at Le Puy-en-Velay and passing through Conques enroute to St. Jean Pied-de-Port. Another French route, the Chemin de Arles passes through the southern tier of Languedoc toward Oloron St. Marie and the pass into Spain at Somport. While those routes are beautiful and interesting, they add weeks to the pilgrimage.
Due to time constraints, many non-Europeans begin at St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France or Roncesvalles in Spain. Beginning in the French city means the first day of walking requires a long and steep climb, perhaps the most arduous single day on the route. Roncesvalles, steeped in history and the site of the defeat and death of Charlemagne's lieutenant Roland, is a usual starting point for Spaniards.
Once on the Camino, the pilgrim has three duties: to sleep, to eat, and to walk. Those duties are made less onerous by paying attention to the quality of the path, a large number of bars, restaurants, and cafes, and the albergues.
Alternatively it is possible to walk the Camino using a number of different travel companies that take all the organisational work out (including organising your luggage transfer for you) leaving you free to enjoy the Camino in style.
This section is an attempt to encourage sharing practical information about travelling the Camino. Peregrinos (Spanish for "pilgrim" in English or "pelerin" in French) as they are called in Spain should feel free to use the information in this section and contribute to it. Albergues, restaurants and other accomodations all change with time, and this information should be updated accordingly.
There are several different routes that can be called The Way of St. James, such as the Camino Frances, the Camino Norte and Camino Portuges. There are also many stopping points along each route, and none are mandatory. The stopping points listed will vary for each peregrino, just as each peregrino's experience will be different. The route listings are by no means complete, but are an attempt to share information about the possibilities.
A pilgrim interested in walking less crowded routes may consider starting before the more popular starting lines, including beginning in Bayonne and crossing the Valley of Baztan to Pamplona. This takes just under a week and is less travelled than the St. Jean-pied-du-port route to Pamplona. Beware of the poorly marked trail during the last two days, though one needs only follow the valley.
The Camino del Norte, while definitely less populated, is not as well developed and there may be longer distances between established Albergues.
This section is just a brief outline. For a full description of the route please refer to Camino Frances.