This is now an internationally famous trail, allegedly the most famous in the world. Many hikers from abroad come over for the journey. In the information age, one could think it’s easy to get such information about anything imaginable, yet it’s surprisingly easy to find people whose expectations about this trail were not met.
It might be that they didn’t do their homework before departing but it might also be that they didn’t find such basic data as to answer the question “is this trail for me?” Such question is so basic that it’s often overlooked, buried in a mess of hyped-up reports and epic storytelling.
What it is
The St. James’ Way is a pilgrim trail. Back in the middle ages, pilgrims would travel from all over the place to Santiago de Compostela for religious reasons. Those coming from anywhere else in Europe would channel into the main corridor as it is known today.
Pilgrims were not mountaineers, not even hikers. They weren’t there for the hiking experience, they were travellers with a purpose and a destination and they would chose the easiest possible route.
That’s the St. James’ Way: the easiest way across northern Iberia.
It’s a village to village stroll (albeit a long one) with specific services to cover all hikers’ needs. The same it used to be for pilgrims some centuries back.
What it’s not
It’s not a wilderness route. It’s not a mountain trail. It’s not even a trail in the sense that there’s not a purposely built corridor for hikers who must make use of existing trails and roads.
Yes, I said roads. Tarmac roads open to motor traffic are nowadays seldom used, if at all, after efforts to avoid them as they provide the poorest hiking experience but dirt roads are very common.
The original idea of the Way is a medieval one that fell into oblivion to be recovered in modern times. The current idea is to recall the ancient pilgrimages in a recreational fashion. The religious background is still present but many people (I’d say most) don’t have religion as the main reason behind the trip, or at all. You’ll often find references to spiritualism at a personal level. In my opinion, this is no different than what you can feel on any other hiking journey (but people who only hike this trail will never realise)
There are different routes to Santiago within the Iberian Peninsula. Several of them have been designated as Camino branches. There’s no formal organization in charge of designations so the officialness essentially means there’s signposting, specific lodging and some literature available. The main branch and the one that started it all in modern times is the one referred to as Camino Frances (French Way), owing its name to being the branch used by those coming in from France. This route would be the best balance of distance (short) and terrain (easy) for anybody hiking in from anywhere in Europe. The stretch between Saint Jean Pied de Port (just off the spanish/french border) and Santiago is what is popularly known as “The Way”. The rest of this text will refer to this stretch unless otherwise stated.
Apart from the obvious -the hiking, the human-powered, long distance travel- the focus of a trip in the St. James’ Way is on the social interaction and the cultural experience. Aspects like history and architecture play a big role.
There’s limited focus on nature. It’s rather a countryside walk. You’re out there but your average wildlife encounter will be songbirds. In the peak season, you’re not even bound to be out there for too long if you follow the flow: hikers tend to end the walking early to avoid the worst of the heat and the no-vacancies lodge effect -pilgrim oriented lodges work on a first-come, first served fashion.
Except for a few corners, Europe is densely populated by people and infrastructures. This is certainly the case for the Iberian peninsula, to the point that the only tracts of land that have not been altered beyond recognition are the mountain areas. There might actually be a reason why there’s no word for Wilderness in spanish.
Off the mountains, the landscape can still be beautiful and the hiking can be fantastic, just don’t expect a wilderness experience.
The St. James’ Way experience
If a non-hiker wants to hike the distance, it will choose this trail: it’s flat, easy walking, with straightforward logistics, food and lodging every day/night on a countryside setting never really away from civilization. You can hike the whole thing with a daypack. As a consequence, there are plenty of non-hikers or people who seldom hike to be found on this trail.
There’s also the Camino fans who will hike the Way over and over again but no other trails. Some of these may venture into the less travelled alternatives to the main corridor -once within the Iberian peninsula, there are several other historically valid options depending on region of origin. These are rougher than the main corridor but still within the comfort zone of many occasional hikers.
There are plenty of hikers from abroad. The most common are to be expected: German, British, North-american, Netherlander, Scandinavian… It’s definitely an international bunch out there.
In the peak season, there’ll be lots of people on the trail. I mean, lots. You could certainly be on your own if you want to -it’s the countryside after all- but don’t expect solitude.
Flat or rolling hills, mostly treeless, cultivated land. This is a very broad generalization that applies to about 80% of the way. Both ends of the route go across some mountains where the landscape is dramatically different.
The Way starts at the foot of the Pyrenees near sea level. The Pyrenees rise steeply in their northern side. The relief is gentler south of the divide with a much wider foothill area and a lesser net elevation loss.
After crossing the Pyrenees, the Way traverses the iberian northern highlands, a plateau roughly 500-1000 meter high. This is the 80% part of flatland.
The final section requires a minor climb over the mountains that separate the highlands from the atlantic valleys followed by a traverse of this convoluted mountain region.
Spring is the most popular with Easter Week and the 1st of May being the major horn blows. It’s closely followed in popularity by summer which is less optimal weather wise but more convenient for getting holiday time for many. Fall would be best for a balance of nice weather, mild temps and limited crowds. Winter is perfectly doable and it’d be ideal for a bigger challenge and no crowds.
The Camino includes basic, spartan lodging that is super cheap or even free. This meets the original idea of the pilgrimage era. These lodges can be found in most villages along the way. They are usually owned and run by the municipalities or by charities/non-profit organizations, religious or not.
Such hostels usually work on a strictly first-come, first-served basis. You can’t book in advance. Snoring sessions are guaranteed.
As the route grew in popularity, more lodging options developed. These are often privately owned, offer a higher standard, cost more and can be booked.
Most hikers go village to village and stay indoors overnight. In the summer, when midday temperatures are too warm to hike comfortably and when the trail is more crowded, the de-facto standard is a very early, pre-dawn start and an early, afternoon finish. This is to avoid the worst of the heat and also to secure a place in the hostels. It may turn into a bit of a rush.
Is this trail for me?
If you like social hiking and you appreciate old, ancient architecture and the history that goes with it, you’re bound to love this trail. If you’re looking for a logistically easy trail where you just take care of the walking, this one’s a great one. It’d be a great trip for worry free hiking which leads beautifully to active meditation which in turn mixes well with the religious/spiritual background.
If you’re after a wilderness/nature oriented hiking trip, don’t do this one. You’ll be deceived. If you’re after solitude, forget about this one. If you’re after self-supported trips (camping, cooking, carrying supplies for extended periods) this is not the best place for it. You could certainly do all that but it’d feel like a fake.
If you’re after breathtaking, postcard worthy scenery, this route is not the best place. The countryside is just nice.
If the prospect looks good for you and you’re an experienced hiker, beware of your mindset. You’ll be sharing the trail with many occasional hikers or non-hikers whose aims and concerns will likely differ from yours, by a long way. You’ll need to adapt. You’ll share the trail with urban people with urban attitudes, sometimes showing the sense of entitlement found in urban environments. You’ll need to adapt.
Some wayfarers complain about excessive commercialisation of the Camino in recent years with the consequent loss of the trail spirit.
My own stance
In case anybody cares, I can say I haven’t hiked neither biked the Camino and I don’t plan to. I’m sure I’d enjoy it but I have many plans in the pipe that look more appealing. A lifetime of them.
I’ve hiked a few sections of the Camino Frances as part of a different route and I’ve done a proper, multi-day section along one of the other iberian branches. I did this when I felt I needed a simple, worry free, nice hike and it worked fine for that. I definitely wouldn’t feel comfortable in the Camino Frances peak season, despite all the nice things it’d offer.