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In 813, a curious Christian hermit followed sweet music and twinkling stars to a remote hillside in Galicia. The bones he found were identified as those of Santiago, or St James as he's known in English, and within a few years, Alfonso II, King of Asturias, visited the site, built a chapel and declared Santiago the patron saint of Spain.
Well before Santiago's time, the ancient Celts had their own version of the camino, following the via lactea (Milky Way) towards the sea at Finis Terrae (Finisterre), the end of the known world and as far west as they could travel without getting their feet wet.
By the ninth century, Christian authorities had seized on the pilgrimage to Santiago as a way to drive out Muslim invaders. The number of pilgrims rose over the next couple of hundred years, and peaked in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when about half a million people made the pilgrimage and when many of the towns and cities along the camino were built.
The camino dropped off the world tourism radar for a good few centuries, but by the 1980s, the camino's popularity had soared once more: in 1982, Pope John Paul II became the first pontiff to visit Santiago de Compostela, then in 1987 the European Union declared the camino Europe's first Cultural Itinerary. UNESCO followed suit in 1993, adding the camino to its World Heritage list.
In places like rural Galicia, walking is an integral part of life, whether heading to work in the fields or making for a post-farming glass of wine, and exercise for exercise's sake can be seen as faintly ridiculous. Recreational hiking is gaining popularity in Spain, though, particularly amongst southern city dwellers who escape to cooler mountain regions like the Picos de Europa on sticky summer weekends.
The camino heads across Spain on a variety of different surfaces, from narrow paths to paved roads. It's mostly easy walking with very few rough or uneven surfaces, although some stone and mud tracks can become slippery after rain. Trail marking is generally excellent, and the abundance of yellow arrows makes it difficult to lose your way.
For a good map at a scale of 1:100,000 try Pili Pala Press 's Camino de Santiago Map. It is in full colour,includes contours, places of interest and weighs a mere 88 grams. Camino de Santiago Map
Based in A Coruña, On Foot in Spain's small group tours (www.onfootinspain.com) are highly regarded. Iberian Adventures (www.iberianadventures.com) are also based in Spain, while Oxford-based Alternative Travel Group (www.atg-oxford.co.uk) runs two-week tours of the camino.
Many US companies offer camino tours, including Experience Plus (www.experienceplus.com), Spanish Steps (www.spanishsteps.com), and Saranjan Tours (www.saranjan.com).
Hunting is a big part of Spanish culture. It has eliminated some of Spain's rarer creatures, and placed creatures such as the brown bear and the lammergeier, a bird of prey that nests in the Pyrenees, on the endangered species list.
Although it's hard to believe when you're getting soaked by a Galician rainstorm, water is one of Spain's major environmental problems. River flow is decreasing as water is siphoned off for agricultural irrigation and to satisfy tourism demands, and Spain's per capita water consumption is one of the highest in the world. The November 2002 Prestige oil spill decimated Galicia's beautiful coastline and fishing industry.
The green movement in Spain is much younger than those of most northern European countries, but it has become much more organized and high-profile in the last few years, particularly since the Prestige spill. For more information about environmental issues in Spain, contact Amigos de la Tierra (www.tierra.org, or Adena, now affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund (www.wwf.es).
Pilgrims traditionally timed their journey to arrive in Compostela for the Dia de Santiago. Now a Galician holiday, July 25 is still the liveliest time to be in the city, when the Plaza de Obradoiro in front of the cathedral is illuminated by a magnificent fireworks display
Summer weather is the most reliable, although it can rain at any time of the year in Galicia, and the meseta can be uncomfortable hot from June to August. Albergues are crowded throughout the peak season, and hotels may be fully booked in popular destinations.
Early autumn is the perfect time for wine buffs, as the grape harvest in La Rioja and Navarra gets into swing. The weather worsens through the winter, and these months can be an inconvenient time to travel, as churches and tourist sights may be closed, and those albergues and hotels that remain open often lack heating.
Come spring, the weather improves and wild flowers bloom along the route. This is also an ideal time to spot migrating birds heading north.
The camino is always busier during Holy Years such as 2004 and 2010, when the Dia de Santiago falls on a Sunday. Ceremonies and festivities make this a special time to visit, but space in the albergues and hotels is at a premium.
If you're fit and healthy and don't want to stay for more than one night in any of the places along the way, you can walk the camino from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in about a month. Still, it's a good idea to allow for extra time in case of unforseen injuries or rest days.
If you have less time, or if you're not used to walking long distances, consider starting somewhere closer to Santiago; you only need to walk the last 100km to Santiago to get a compostela. Cities such as Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada and Sarria are all popular places to start.
If you have one week ...
... start at Sarria, 100km from Santiago
... if you're doing the camino in stages, walk from Pamplona to Estella
If you have ten days ...
... start at Ponferrada, 200km or so from Santiago
... start at Sarria, walk to Santiago, then continue on to Finistere
... if you're doing the camino in stages, walk from Pamplona to Santo Domingo de la Calzada
If you have two weeks ...
... start at Ponferrada (200km from Santiago), Astorga (250km from Santiago) or León (300km from Santiago)
... if you're doing the camino in stages, walk from Pamplona to Burgos
If you have three weeks ...
... start at Frómista or Carrión de los Condes (400km or so from Santiago) or León (300km from Santiago). If you're fit, continue on to Finisterre
... walk from Pamplona to Logroñno (100km), take a break with a side trip to Bilbao, then rejoine the camino in Ponferrada and walk to Santiago or Finisterre
If you have four weeks ...
... if you're very fit, walk from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago (776km)
... take it slower and stop to see more sights by walking from Pamplona to Santiago (700km) or Burgos to Santiago (500km) or Burgos to Finisterre (600km)
If you have six weeks ...
... start at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, or somewhere closer to Santiago. Take your time, take side trips and immerse yourself in the camino
The food of Spain is as varied as the country, but as a rule it's tasty, substantial and lacking in vegetables. It's also very cheap by northern European standards. Hungry pilgrims may find it hard to get used to Spanish mealtimes: lunch doesn't start until 2pm, and you'll have to wait until 10pm for dinner. The best value comes from the menú del día , a three course set meal with bread and wine. Along the camino, restaurants offer a special pilgrim menú, which is excellent value and usually served earlier in the evening.
Get used to drinking wine with your meal. The Spanish, who have lots of alcoholic proverbs, say, comer sin vino es miseria e desatino, which loosely translates as, "a meal without wine is a mean and foolish one". Foremost among wine regions is La Rioja, whose smooth, oak-aged wines are well-known outside Spain. Galicia's cooler climate makes for some great whites, including crisp, peach-scented Albariño, and cloudy Ribeiro.
Spain is one of Europe's richest botanical regions, and the mix of Mediterranean, Atlantic and Continental climates makes for a diverse collection of flowers, shrubs and trees.
Spain is also home to an assortment of rare animals. Nooks and crannies hide fire salamanders, genets and wild boar, while large tracts of remote wilderness, especially in Galicia and the Cordillera Cantábrica, offer animals such as the wolf and brown bear the space to roam unhindered.
Walking the Camino de Santiago includes illustrations and descriptions of northern Spain's most notable species.
EU nationals can stay in Spain indefinitely, and you won't need a visa if you're from Canada, the US, New Zealand or Australia and you stay for less than 90 days.
Spain is a member of the European Monetary Union, and like the other membes its currency is the euro (€). Exchange rates generally hover around UK£1=€1.6 and US$1=€1.1. Check out the x-rates currency converter for latest prices.
The most convenient way to get cash is via a cashpoint or bank machine. Bring some kind of backup, as the machines can be notoriously unreliable. If your card is rejected, try using it again, or go to another machine, and take enough money out to last you through a bank holiday weekend.
Your costs can go down significantly is you're under 26, over 60, or a student. Students should get an ISIC card before leaving home, to get discounts at some museums. More widely accepted is the Euro26 card, available from youth and student travel agencies in Europe. Over 60s also get discounts at museums and other sights.
Northern Spain is cheap compared to the rest of Western Europe. The costs below give a general idea of average prices:
Cheap hotel, double room
3 course meal & wine for one
Cheap bottle of wine
At some point along the camino, you may need to recover from injury, catch up time, or simply miss out a section of the route. Spanish trains, run by RENFE (www.renfe.es), are generally good value, and the most useful line for pilgrims is the one from Santiago to Hendaye on the French border, which passes through Ponferrada, Astora, León and Burgos.
Buses link smaller places, and are run by a huge variety of different companies. One of the biggest is Alsa (www.alsa.es).
Car hire is cheap compared to the rest of Europe, and can be a good way of visiting sites on rest days, or of getting from Santiago to airports like Bilbao and Madrid.
Not all albergues allow cyclists to stay, and some will make you wait until late evening, after walkers have arrived for the day. Road conditions are generally good, and most of the off-road tracks can be ridden on a mountain bike.
Albergues, also known as refugios, provide cheap beds at regular points along the camino: only self-powered pilgrims can stay the night. No longer simply a roof over your head, modern albergues can contain microwave ovens, washing machines and coffee makers, and about half have kitchen facilities. Accommodation is mostly in mixed bunk-bed dormitories, and while blankets are often provided, it's a good idea to bring a thin sleeping bag. Most albergues have a 10pm curfew, and mornings begin early, usually before 7am.
For an up-to-date list of albergues, including number of beds and cost, see the excellent and well-designed consumer.es web site.
Casas, hotels and paradors There are places to stay in most villages, and even if there isn't a hotel, someone in the village will rent out rooms; local café-bars are the best place to ask about somewhere to stay. At the other end of the price scale, paradors are government-run luxury hotels, often in sumptuously converted historic buildings; they're well worth the splurge.
Camping Most campsites are inconveniently located a few kilometres off the camino or a fair way out of town. It may be worth bringing a tent in summer, as packed-out albergues sometimes let pilgrims camp in adjoining fields or gardens.
Bring as little as possible. Spain is a modern European country and the camino passes through many towns and cities where you can shop to your heart's content. Remember that you'll have to carry everything you bring, and every luxury in your backpack leaves you more vulnerable to blisters and other injuries. Once you start walking, it's easy enough to ditch non-essentials and send them on to Santiago or post them home.
Many pilgrims hang a scallop shell from their packs or round their necks to distinguish themselves from ordinary tourists. If you're starting the camino before Ponferrada, you should also bring a small stone from home to place on the pile at Cruz de Hierro, a longstanding pilgrim tradition.
You don't have to be a fitness fanatic to walk the camino. The most important thing you can do is to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes and walk them in thoroughly before you leave home. If you've left things until the last minute, or if you plan to get fit along the way, don't make your first day too tough. Begin at Roncesvalles or Pamplona to avoid the climb over the Pyrenees from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, or start at León or Triacastela rather than Villafranca del Bierzo or Rabanal del Camino.
Correos (post offices) in smaller towns often close at 2pm, while city correos re-open after the siesta from 5pm to 8pm.
Most public phones will take both coins and tarjetas de telefónica (phonecards), and many mobile phone companies provide Europe-wide coverage. Internet cafés are springing up in cities and bigger towns along the camino.
The Spanish take the siesta seriously. Most shops, banks and post offices open at 10am, firmly close their doors at 2pm, then open for the evening from 5pm to 8pm. Museums often stay open through the siesta and close for the day at 4pm; most also close on Mondays.
Apart from traditional western holidays (Christmas, Easter, New Year, 1 May), Spain takes the day off on the following dates:
| 6 January ||Día de los Reyes (Epiphany)|
|15 August|| Asunción (Feast of the Assumption)|
|12 October || Día de la Hispanidad (National Day)|
|1 November || Todos Santos (All Saints' Day)|
|6 December ||Día de la Constitución (Constitution Day)|
|8 December ||Inmaculada Concepción (Feast of the Immaculate Conception)|