Sunday, December 20, 2009


A year ago, I wrote a post titled 'Back to the Past' where I challenged the idea that the camino was being spoiled by becoming too popular. 

The road to Santiago was one of the most popular Christian pilgrimage destinations for hundreds of years. It suffered during the Reformation, the Wars of Religion, the Napoleonic Wars and after the industrial revolution. It is now slowly clawing its way back to its former glory years.

El Pais reports that the camino is returning more and more to its medieval past and villages, towns, municipalities and individuals are vying for a slice of the lucrative pilgrimage pie. (This post is a translation of that article with a few comments by me in brackets).

"We take bags to the next hostel for two euros," reads a sign on the door of a bar in Triacastela.

In another block nearby, the owner has removed his animals and has replaced them with a half-dozen vending machines offering sandwiches and hot coffee and dressings for blisters.

Sarria, in Lugo, now holds the record in Galicia with 8 pilgrim refuges  (not quite as many as the 32 shelters that once floursihed in Burgos)

Some places will charge you $5 for a breakfast of muffins packed in industiral plastic or $25 to sleep in a room in a private home, and you will be grateful because 500 people seeking to stay in a village of 100 inhabitants is common, especially in summer.

The rise of the pilgrimage to Compostela has brought back a new golden age to the Camino de Santiago and, as it did in the Middle Ages, the populations through which it transits are being transformed.

As there was in the past, there is a big fuss about this opportunism.
As far back as 1133 the authorities of Compostela admonished traders after finding pilgrim money was being paid over to residents. A few years later, the bishop instructed Gelmírez to channel water to a source in the northern facade of the cathedral to stop the greed of the landlords who attempted to charge pilgrims for water.

Yellow Arrows
Today the signs of the French Way are well established, but at the beginning of this boom there were some who diverted the yellow arrows so that the  'Jacobean Mana' would pass the front door of their bar or hotel.
The truth is that there are more people wandering in the wilds of the steppes of Castile, with unique names such as El Burgo Ranero or Hermanillos Calzadilla, than there are people entering the route to Santiago on the National Road.
In Rabanal del Camino, a tiny town in the mountains of Leon, there are four hostels for pilgrims, two hotels and a country house.
Take the paradigmatic case of Foncebadón, a town of Leon abandoned and in disrepair for at least a century, which has already opened three shelters, an inn and a restaurant with a medieval letter.
All this has resulted in extra comfort for the pilgrim. A few years ago the daily walking itinerary had to be carefully planned because the stages were far apart and places to eat and stay overnight were scarce. Today, the number of pilgrim hostels scattered throughout the French Way numbers 254.

If there is anything that identifies the Camino de Santiago and makes it unlike any other route it is the hiker's world of exclusive network of shelters for pilgrims. This is a legacy of that tradition of hospitality which allowed medieval travelers to get around the world.  Only those pilgrims on foot, bicycle or horse who hold the credential of a pilgrim (a kind of passport issued by churches, associations and even their own shelters) allowing them to sleep in these shelters.  Authenticated by the owners of the shelter they avoid being overun by sneak vacationers in search of cheaper accommodation.

But even here the road has changed. The shelters started off being managed by the Church, municipalities and associations of Friends of the Way and were mainly 'donativo.   But there are very few donativo left shelters and some pilgrims even take advantage of the donation box (and leave nothing for its upkeep).
Like the sign put up by a priest (in Granon) which says "Pilgrim, give what you can, take what you need" - these are now just a nostalgic memory. Typically, shelters now vask for a fixed price (three to five euros) except a few honorable cases, such as shelters run by the Federation of Friends of the Camino de Santiago, who remain faithful to the donation system.

Private shelters

Given the massive influx of pilgrims and the shortage of places in these public shelters a new class of establishment has emerged - the private hostel. They are pseudo-shelters with services for the walker, gradually being regulated by law, which offer accommodation in bunk beds, heating, hot water and various services at a fixed price, which typically ranges between seven and ten euros. Most offer the same spirit of welcome to the piglrims, in areas where there was none before, and are good value for money. But there are also those who see pilgrims as business travelers, without room for hospitality. A private hostel in Hospital de Órbigo denied entry to a pilgrim at seven pm on a winter's night because he could not pay the stipulated seven euros.

Compostella or certificate of welcome

Pilgrims who arrived in Santiago and demonstrate by producing the stamped credential that they have completed the last 100 kms on foot (200kms on horseback or by bike) are awarded the Compostela a document of completiton in Latin. The precurser to the Compostela was a scallop shell which could only be purchased in Santiago but a rudimentary certification system of letters of proof evolved over the centuries. With the current flood of heterodoxy, the Church wants to bring back the religious character of the pilgrimage. Now, on arrival at the reception office of the cathedral, the pilgrim is asked about motivation. If you are religious, you are granted the Compostela. If you are otherwise, you are given a certificate of welcome in Spanish.

The yellow arrow

Marking each and every one of the crossings and detours along nearly 800 kms of route with yellow arrows seems impossible. But it has been acheived. It started in the eighties with D. Elias Valiña, parish priest of O Cebreiro who, with a bucket of yellow paint and a brush, painted arrows on the mountain. This was taken up and continued by administrations and volunteers of associations of Friends of the Way. Today you can walk from Roncesvalles to Santiago without fear of getting lost. From the 2004 Jacobean Holy Year detours were etablished to avoid those sections that remained along the side of roads.

Other Routes
All this happens in the most famous French route, the busiest since antiquity. It starts in Roncesvalles (Somport in Aragonese ) and passes through Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and Leon before crossing O Cebreiro into Galicia. But there are many other ways that have improved significantly since the 2004 Xacobeo. Historic routes, used formerley by medieval travelers and now, in the slipstream of the success of French, are being put in use.

Camino Portuguese
Chief among these is the Camino Portuguese where the first yellow arrow is found on the facade of the Cathedral of Lisbon. It is a unique opportunity to learn a different Portugal, on foot or by cycle paths, historic sites and remote villages off limits to those traveling by car. From the Tagus to Lisbon Santarém back and then continues to the great monastery of Tomar, Coimbra, Porto and Vila do Conde, to enter Galicia at Tuy. It is also marked, but has the same shortage of shelters on the Portuguese side as in the last Xacobeo - only three.

Camino del Norte

The next in number of pilgrims, the Camino del Norte, a favorite to do in summer. It starts at Irun and follows the Cantabrian coast, the sea to the right and the green mountains on the left. A delight, passing through San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, Oviedo where it divides into two:.  The Coast continues to Gijón, Avilés and Ribadeo, and the Primitivo goes inland to Grandas, Asturias and Lugo. It is very well marked and the number of shelters has grown dramatically since 2004.
Via de la Plata

The Via de la Plata traces several ancient Roman roads that connected with Seville via Astorga, Extremadura and Castilla y Leon. It has also greatly improved its layout and signage since 2004.
The English Way (A Coruña- or Ferrol to Santiago), the Camino de Finisterre, and from Cape Finisterre to visit the Santo Cristo de Fisterra, and the sanctuary of A Barca, in Muxía, the Camino de Alava, the Camino de Madrid, Soria, the Ebro Valley ..


  1. I am constantly impressed by the quality and volume of Camino/pilgrimage information you continue to produce.

  2. Hola Ralph.
    Thank you for your kind words! I am intrigued by all things 'camino'!
    Wishing you and Susan a safe, peaceful and happy festive season.

  3. Anonymous11:47 pm

    Hi Sil, I just found your site. I am thinking of doing the whole camino Frances, having done half of it in 2004. I just realized that it's going to be another Holy Year in 2010. I am fairly flexible in terms of my start dates, would you recommend either May or June? If I want to do the whole Camino Frances, would you think 30 days from Roncesvalles is enough? Also any opinion on starting in Roncesvalles or St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port?

    Thanks for all the information. You can be my go-to Camino gal!


  4. I love your blog - had a quick read through it! Isn't it amazing how we can flit about the earth in cycberspace, visiting and connecting with wonderful strangers, getting a peek into their worlds!
    Peregrina-Christina - I think June would be better. Mainly because May is always a very busy month. June has the least holidays in Spain so there could be fewer Spanish groups walking. And, if you are going to walk in the Holy Year you might as well go the whole hog and arrive in Compostela for some of the Jubilee celebrations. Who knows where you'll be in 2021 when the next Holy Year comes around.
    30 days from Roncesvalles is enough , but tough. A few extra days will make it less of a slog.
    St Jean Pied de Port is the place where most modern Guide Books start from but there is no historical reasoning to start there - or anywhere else along the trail. (Walter Starkie wrote that the Camino Frances starts in Paris!!)
    I'd be proud to be your go-camino gal!
    Mail me if you want to chat about your trip. sillydoll AT

  5. Anonymous4:33 pm


    Great information. And yes, blogs are a great tool to connect strangers across the globe. I'm a fan for that reason.

    I emailed you so we can be in touch thruough that, as questions arise.

    Thanks again for all the information,