CW Travelogue

Your Top Camino de Santiago Questions, Answered
Taste of Place | By Matt Thompson, Jul 17, 2014 01:43 pm

Your Top Camino de Santiago Questions, Answered

For centuries, the faithful have been trekking across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago (also known as “The Way of St. James”). Now it’s your turn. We’re excited to debut our Spain: Classic Camino de Santiago Guided Walking experience, which brings you all the best of this renowned route in a manageable 9-day format. We sat down with the trip’s designers, Deb Emerson and Alex Hynes, along with recent traveler (and Marketing Director) Carolyn Fox to learn a bit more about it.

Let’s begin with the basics: what exactly is the Camino de Santiago?

Deb: For starters, it’s one of the three most-followed Christian pilgrimage routes in the world (after Jerusalem and Rome)—so the cultural and historical significance is just huge. It exists because the remains of St. James were said to have been found in Spain and then brought to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages, so for over a millennium pilgrims have been traveling across Europe to pay their respects. The Camino is actually a network of routes fanning out across Spain, Portugal, and France—all coming together as you get closer and closer to the city of Santiago de Compostela.

If you’re walking the Camino, what can you expect to experience along the way?

Alex: We follow the French Route—perhaps the best known of the official pilgrimage routes—and we walk highlights of the path all the way from the French border to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela itself. As I understand it, we’re one of the only travel companies to offer this. Along the way you’ll pass through seven distinct regions of Spain, so you get an incredible cross-section of the country’s diverse cultures, climates, cuisines, etc. From Basque Country, with its stone houses and rolling hills, to the central plateau of Spain, where the landscape changes, to the lush, green hills of Galicia—which many compare to Ireland.

Carolyn: In terms of the personal experience, the idea of walking on the path with other pilgrims is quite meaningful to many travelers. There’s a lot of camaraderie on the road; the spirit of making a journey together is really intense. There are countless countries and cultures represented. I walked for a while beside a Japanese man who spoke no English—we communicated by smiling, nodding, and pointing. Other days, I met people who were walking to honor a loved one who’d passed away, or for religious reasons, or because they’d always wanted to see Northern Spain. You hear so many different stories along the Way—that’s an important part of the experience.

If the Camino is one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the world, does that mean the path is crowded?

Carolyn: Absolutely not! That was one thing that surprised me in a good way when I went. It’s not a highway of people. In fact, you can go for miles without seeing anyone. We’ve timed our departures for the spring and fall, when the weather is nicest. Coincidentally, those are also less-busy times of year for travelers.

How much Catholic history do you need to know to appreciate this experience?

Deb: None at all. Our guides are incredibly knowledgeable about the region. Both are Spanish—Diego lives in Castilla y León and Xabi, who is Basque, lives in Navarra. The Camino is right in their backyards. They’re tremendous at bringing the cultures and history of the various regions to life. And you experience an incredible range of history, from Baroque villages to modernist Gaudí cathedrals—even a neolithic archaeological site!

Can you explain a bit about the significance of the scallop shells you see along the Camino de Santiago?

Alex: Ah, yes. The scallop shell is the symbol or emblem of the Camino de Santiago. You really see them everywhere: from fence posts and trail blazes to statues and the facades of medieval buildings. People clip scallop shells to their backpacks, paint them onto shop signs, even wear them as jewelry. It’s like a fun “I Spy” game to spot them as you go.

Deb: As to how they got to be the symbol, that’s a bit more complicated. Some people point to the many different paths of the Way—which start fanned out along destinations throughout Spain and France and gradually converge on Santiago de Compostela. To many, the routes look like the converging ridges of a scallop shell. There are earlier stories too, mostly describing how the body of St. James came to Spain. In one account, it washed up from the sea covered in scallop shells. In another, it came on an empty ship covered in scallop shells. You can choose your favorite story while you’re on the trail.  

What were some of the challenges in creating Country Walkers’ itinerary?

Deb: It’s something we’ve wanted to do for many years, but have held off on until we could put together the right local partners, accommodations, and plan. The biggest challenge was the distance. The whole Way from the French border to Santiago de Compostela is over 300 miles—to walk it end to end usually takes a month or two. We know that most people don’t have that luxury. Other tour companies just offer a small 6-day section of the route; we wanted to give the full Camino experience.

Carolyn: Another challenge was the wide range of landscapes the Camino incorporates. One difficulty of having a path that’s been in place since the Middle Ages is that cities continue to develop around it. There are stretches of the Camino that take you through suburbs, along four-lane highways, beside parking lots—we wanted to avoid all that. At the same time, we wanted to include a blend of walks in beautiful, medieval cities like Burgos and Astorga with walks in smaller villages and rural areas. The mix of natural and cultural experiences was very important to us.

Alex: Working with local partners, we identified special walks all along the entire length of the route to create a trip to remember. It’s all of the highlights—the local inns, beautiful cathedrals, and amazing cuisine—with none of the lowlights. I know people are really going to love it.

And, in the end, does it feel like you’ve truly had the Camino experience?

Carolyn: Without a doubt. One thing that really struck me as I made my way through the path was that people find all different ways to do it. Some come for just a weekend and walk a short stretch. Others do a week-long section each year until they’ve completed the whole thing. Some do just the final 100 kilometers. There are even people—plenty of people—who walk it in reverse. It’s really not about having one specific journey. Just being there is the thing.

And, really, people are respectful of whatever way you choose to interact with the route. There’s no discrimination or bias towards one “correct” way to go. I found a spirit of generosity to be central to the shared experience. Isn’t that what the Camino’s all about?