The Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James, is a UNESCO World Heritage route which developed in importance as a religious pilgrimage during the Middle Ages. It was during the 10th century that the first pilgrims travelled along what is now known as the Northern Way following the coast of Cantabria. The Reconquest of modern day Navarra, Castile and Leon allowed a new route called the French Way to be designated through this land and further routes became recognised over the centuries such that nine different itineraries are now listed.
The French and Northern Ways are the most popular if you’re planning on a 4 to 5 week walk on foot beginning in France. Below are summaries of the main recognised routes to Santiago de Compostela on the Route of St James. Back in 1976 only 7 pilgrims completed the Camino and received their Compostela certificate from the pilgrim’s office in Santiago. Numbers have since rocketed to over 180,000 per year.
Camino de Santiago French Way
This is the best route to select if you’re planning an itinerary simply because the whole infrastructure of the route is set up for pilgrims including a fine selection of accommodation along the way. The route originates in France then crosses the Pyrenees at Roncesvalles before covering some 774 kilometres in Spain. The journey passes through the provinces of Navarra, La Rioja, Burgos, Palencia, Leon, Lugo and A Coruña. At an average of 20-25 kilometres daily, it usually takes about 30 days to reach Santiago. The route is well signposted with yellow arrows along its route so it’s difficult to lose your way.
Itinerary: Roncesvalles – Pamplona – Puente La Reina – Estella – Logroño – Nájera – Santo Domingo de la Calzada – Burgos – CastroJeriz – Carrión de los Condes – Frómista – Sahagún – León – Astorga – Ponferrada and then they enter Galicia via O Cebreiro – Samos – Sarria – Portomarín – Palas de Reis – Melide – Arzúa – Santiago de Compostela.
Camino de Santiago Northern Way
Almost immediately after the discovery of St. James’ tomb in the 9th century, pilgrims began following the Asturian-Galician ways in order to reach Santiago, since the Castilian plateau, which would be subsequently crossed by the French Way, was still occupied by the Moors. This route enabled the pilgrims, who had come overland from France or disembarked in Basque, Cantabrian or Galician ports, to combine the traditional visit to the Saviour in the Cathedral of Oviedo or continue along the Asturian coast as far as the Ria del Eo.
Itinerary: Hendaya – Donosti – Zarautz – Geurnika – Bilbao – Laredo – Santander – Santillana de Mar – Comillas – Llanes – Ribadesella; there are two branches from here on: inland, via Oviedo (where it joins the Original Way), or coastal, via Avilés and Luarca, entering Galicia via Ribadeo – Mondoñedo – Vilalba – Lugo – Sobrado – Santiago.
Whilst the French and Northern routes have the best facilities for walking to Santiago a number of other recognised routes exist:
It enters Spain from France via Somport, in Aragon, and continues through the provinces of Huesca, Zaragoza and Navarre before reaching, after 6 days and 167 kilometres, Puente La Reina, where it joins the French Way.
Itinerary: Somport – Canfranc – Jaca – Sangüesa – Lumbier – Puente La Reina.
The first devotees from Oviedo, the capital of the Asturian kingdom, followed the ancient route that, according to tradition, led King Alfonso II the Chaste to the Apostle’s tomb, in the first third of the 9th century.
This route from Oviedo to Santiago was a safe itinerary that was frequented until well into the 10th century, when the present-day French Way was consolidated from León, the new capital of the kingdom. However, thereafter it was still an important alternative, especially due to the spiritual value that was attributed to visiting Oviedo’s Holy Chamber of the Saviour, as well as the Cathedral of Lugo, with its permanent exhibition of the Holy Sacrament.
Itinerary: Oviedo – Tineo – Grandas – A Fonsagrada – Lugo – Palas de Reis – linking with the present-day French Way.
There are numerous routes, depending on the pilgrim’s starting point in Portugal, but the main itinerary starts in Oporto and enters Spain via Tui. The international Valença do Miño-Tui bridge has facilitated the crossing of the River Miño but some branches still cross the river by boat. Other Portuguese routes reach the Spanish border via Chaves, Bragança and, inside Galicia, join the Via de la Plata (Silver Road).
The 116-kilometre Galician itinerary passes through:
Tui – Porriño – Redondela (where the other routes meet) – Caldas de Reis – Padrón – Santiago.
The European pilgrims that travelled by ship to the Iberian Peninsula’s northern coast, especially the British, disembarked in A Coruña or Ferrol then headed for Compostela along the following routes:
Itinerary A: Ferrol – Pontedeume – Miño – Betanzos – Abegondo – Ordes – Santiago.
Itinerary B: A Coruña – Culleredo – Cambre – Carrall – Ordes – Santiago.
The Vía de la Plata is the longest Jacobean route, as a prolongation of the Roman road that crossed the western Iberian Peninsula from south to north, linking the cities of Emerita Augusta (Mérida) and Asturica Augusta (Astorga). After the conquest of Seville and Cordoba in the 13th century, this south-north was spontaneously reused by Jacobean pilgrims from Andalusia and Extremadura. Some continued as far as Astorga, joining the French Way. Others headed towards Compostela via the route from Puebla de Sanabria to Ourense, which was shorter and straighter, while some crossed northeast Portugal and entered the south of Ourense province towards Verín.
Itinerary: Merida – Caceres – Plasencia – Bejar – Salamanca – Zamora – Benavente – Astorga – Ponferrada – Samos – Sarria – Portomarin – Palas de Rei – Melilde – Arzúa – Santiago de Compostela.
Arousa Sea and Ulla River Jacobean Itinerary
This sea-river route via the Ria de Arousa and the River Ulla commemorates the arrival, by sea, of St. James’ body in Galicia, the region where he had preached. According to tradition, the boat entered the “ria” and sailed up the River Ulla, arriving at the Roman city of Iria Flavia (Padrón), as remembered today by a sea-river procession to Pontecesures and Padrón.
Itinerary: Sanxenxo – O Grove – Cambados – Vilanova – Vilagarcía de Arousa – Catoira – Pontecesures – Padrón – Santiago; or entering via Ribeira – A Pobra – Boiro – Rianxo – Pontecesures.
If all roads lead to Santiago, the Finisterre Road is the only one originating in the holy city. The visit to the Holy Christ of Finisterre and the Sanctuary of A Barca, in Muxía, surrounded by the impressive landscape of the ancient Land’s End (finisterrae), is a ritual followed by many pilgrims to round off the Jacobean pilgrimage.
Itinerary: Santiago – Negreira – Mazaricos – Vimianzo – Dumbría – Cee – Corcubión – Finisterre – Muxía.
Walking Tours of the Camino de Santiago
If you’re considering walking the entire Camino de Santiago following the French Way you’ll need to allow in the region of six weeks to complete it assuming a daily progress of 20-25km and with few rest days. Unfortunately, few people have that much time on their hands and/or they simply aren’t fit enough for such an expedition.
Therefore, a very interesting alternative is to arrange a tour with a specialist company which will arrange for you to walk some of the route at your own pace without a rucksack in sight. They will transfer your luggage daily to that night’s accommodation whilst you stroll along at leisure. Here are some of the most popular Camino de Santiago tours.
Walking isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But don’t be put off, there are plenty other ways to participate in this great pilgrimage.
Horseriding the Camino de Santiago
What about heading directly to Galicia and riding part of the route on horseback. There can be no better way to experience the Way of St James. As in the tours above your luggage will be transferred to your accommodation for that night. A few horse riding tours are organised by local companies.