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Boots on a landmark of Camino de Santiago

A conversation with my son inspired me to share about the Camino de Santiago this week, as I have found folks have heard of it but don’t know too much, or are curious about it works for those of us who are a little older and not really hikers…

All about the Camino de Santiago

The Camino de Santiago is a collection of pilgrimage routes that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela Spain, where legend says Saint James the Apostle is buried. It is believed that Saint James helped spread Christianity in the Galicia area of Spain; after being beheaded by Herod when he returned to Jerusalem, his followers transported his remains back to northwest Spain.

During the Middle Ages, millions of people walked the “Way of St. James”; there were only three pilgrimages where the faithful would receive a plenary indulgence – to Rome, to Jerusalem, and to Santiago de Compostela.

In the last forty years, the ancient paths were marked with the symbol of the scallop shell, and the routes of the Camino were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993. This has caused a revival of the Camino and attracted those with a variety of interests.

It is quite achievable for novice hikers to walk the last 100+ km portion in about a week, so this journey of a lifetime can become a reality for those inspired to consider this spiritual and physical experience.

Hiking the Camino de Santiago

Most people walk the Camino to create spiritual growth in their lives. However, you can easily walk along as you contemplate your path in life or to simply get away from the busyness of life and disconnect from everyone and everything. Some hike for the adventure, the discovery of a historic practice, or the encounter with nature.

While many people think of the Camino as one path, there are actually multiple routes representing pilgrims starting in France and beyond, Portugal, England or Ireland, or other parts of Spain.

The longest route is over 500 miles, but there are options on each route to walk the last portion of the pilgrimage into Santiago de Compostela, which can be accomplished in about a week. The opportunity to experience a taste of this unique ancient tradition by walking the last 100+ kilometers has been what has attracted many to explore becoming a part of the Way of Saint James.

The Experience on the Camino

For those interested in exploring this unique journey but have concerns about not being a hiker or in the best shape (like me), pre-arranged group trips lessen the physical requirements while preserving the essence of the Camino walk. Before the trip, a training plan is provided that is easy to incorporate into daily life and will help improve conditioning and endurance. Upon arriving in Spain, all the logistics are handled, so the pilgrims’ focus is on the personal experience of walking the Camino.

The path is well defined, with accommodations reserved each evening. You never need to worry about carrying your luggage around on this journey, because it will be transported to the next accommodation. You can set off each morning with a day pack of what you need during your walk, confident that your belongings will be waiting for you at the next stop.

Along the way there are quaint towns with restaurants and small grocery stores for lunch or to take a break, or perhaps you’ll find a vineyard to taste local wines. While a pre-packed lunch can be provided each morning when leaving the accommodation, discovering the authentic local spots is part of the Camino experience.

While other pilgrims are also walking the path, you can choose to engage with others and meet new friends, or walk individually to create a time of reflection and prayer. There is no specific timing or pace expectation, so each person creates their own journey and determines their level of interaction and solitude. The Camino can offer private spiritual time, or the camaraderie of fellow travelers.

The symbol of a scallop shell marks the Camino’s path, with scallops embedded in the street or on signs pointing the way.

During your walk, you carry your credentials, your pilgrim passport. As you journey from town to town, you simply get these books stamped each day of your journey and present them at the Pilgrims Reception office when you arrive in Santiago.

Arriving in Santiago de Compostela

Imagine the feeling of arriving in Santiago de Compostela after a week of following this ancient path that millions of pilgrims have traveled. A week of personal growth, spiritual reflection, solitude, exploration, camaraderie with other pilgrims, and the satisfaction of accomplishment.

The prime destination is the Cathedral, where a pilgrims Mass is celebrated twice a day. The names of the people who have completed their pilgrimage within the last twenty-four hours are read at the beginning of each of the Masses.

Completing at least 100 km allows you to receive your Compostela, the pilgrims certificate, noting your achievement of walking the Camino. You have to walk for spiritual reasons to receive the Compostela; those who walk for cultural or non-religious reasons receive a certificate of welcome.

The Camino offers an amazing spiritual and hiking journey that is feasible by most folks in reasonable physical shape. The history, the sacred path, the authentic local experience, the personal challenge all combine to create an aspiration to undertake this extraordinary journey.

Whether you have long talks with the other travelers, reflect on your life, spend time in prayer, do a little soul searching, or simply enjoy the solitude, the choice is yours. You can make your Camino experience your own.