Ancient spiritual path draws modern-day pilgrims and hiking enthusiasts

Pilgrims walk a stretch of the Camino de Santiago across La Rioja farmland in Spain. People from around the world walk the Camino Frances, a 500-mile medieval pilgrimage route to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.



About three hours into the day’s hike, having just cleared the highest mountain point of the Camino de Santiago, I looked down into the valleys dotted with yellow and purple spring blossoms — and froze.

Surely that faraway black office tower, seemingly no bigger than the trail stones making my scarred feet scream, could not be where I was planning to stay that night. Guidebook check: It was.

Dejected, I struggled downhill into the next hamlet, El Acebo. I was barely past the first of its slate-roofed stone houses when my name rang out in the lilting Rio de Janeiro accent of a fellow pilgrim.

And that was my Camino experience: 31 days of physical endurance through awe-inspiring landscapes, of contemplation punctuated by deep connections. It was a combination that reset my Type-A internal clock so that stopping to pick a poppy or a bunch of grapes, or to compare blisters with hikers from Seoul or Hawaii or Naples, became not just permissible but imperative.

The Camino Frances, or French way, is a 500-mile medieval pilgrimage route that crosses Spain from the Pyrenees at the French border to the purported burial site of the Apostle James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Of several historical routes to Santiago, this is the most popular.

It’s no wilderness hike: The longest stretch without crossing a village is 10 miles through farmland. How much solitude you get depends on when and where you start.

In 2015, 172,243 people walked or rode bicycles or horses along the Camino Frances, according to the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago. More than 67,000 started in Sarria, about four days from Santiago, the end of the trail. The busiest months are May-September, with more than 20,000 pilgrims each, dropping to fewer than 900 in January. Over the last decade, yearly numbers have mostly risen, but 2010 saw the most pilgrims, likely because it was a Catholic “holy year.”

I walked the entire Camino twice, in May-June 2014 and September-October 2015, averaging 16 miles daily, often for hours without seeing another pilgrim — though I got stuck for a day among hundreds of yellow-hatted German confirmation students.

With the universal greeting of “Buen Camino,” I met bikers from Taiwan, retirees from New Zealand, school groups from Minnesota and southern Spain, couples who started at 4 a.m. to ensure solitude and singles who got a lively party scene going most nights. The only kind of person I did not meet was one not deeply affected by the experience.

Not everyone can devote four to five weeks to go the full way, however. Here are my favorite four-day stretches:

Roncesvalles to Estella  

After the first pilgrims’ blessing in half-a-dozen languages at the ancient stone church in Roncesvalles, a two-day downhill trek through mountain woods where Charlemagne fought and Hemingway fished takes you to Pamplona, Spain, one of four major cities the Camino crosses. Refueled with Basque txistorra sausage, you’re off through rolling hills carpeted in wheat and vines, topped by castles and crisscrossed by Roman roads and medieval bridges until Estella, whose fortress-like medieval churches and palaces huddle in a gorge.


Burgos to Carrion de los Condes

Burgos is the kind of city where, after plodding for half a day through suburbs, you still take 1.5-hour walking tours of the 13th-century cathedral or the main monastery, then limber along the river promenade to restaurants specializing in lechazo, roasted lamb. Beyond is the emptiness of the meseta (plains). Its shades of green and gold are interrupted by jewels like Castrojeriz, Fromista and Carrion de los Condes, with intact Romanesque churches.


Astorga to O Cebreiro

The camino’s longest climbs start just past the Gaudi-designed bishop’s palace and buzzing main square of Astorga. Through fragrant brush and below snow-covered peaks, you clamber up hamlets like Rabanal, with its mesmerizing chanted vesper prayers, then down into vineyards around pretty, riverside Villafranca del Bierzo. From there it’s uphill to O Cebreiro’s thatched-roof stone houses and Galicia’s moss-draped, cow-clogged paths.

After two more bucolic days, the last 62 miles are crowded with the “clean-shod,” as we pilgrims hobbling on muddy boots called those who start here.

That takes nothing away, however, from arriving in Santiago, with its incense-filled cathedral covered with stern medieval statues and swirling Baroque cherubs standing tall among homes, monasteries and student pubs.

Before going back to email and schedules, there’s a stairway to climb to embrace the statue of St. James at the cathedral’s altar, and one last chance to hug fellow pilgrims.

Perhaps you exchange Facebook connections, perhaps nothing but a whispered “good luck,” because you both know that the real tough “Camino” starts now.

This June 4, 2014 photo shows pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago among poppy-covered fields just past the town of Castrojeriz, in Spain's vast meseta. Spring is an ideal time to walk the 500-mile ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

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