I like an active holiday. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I want to ski across the Arctic Circle or hike across the Mojave Desert.
At the same time, I’m really not content laying around on a sun lounger. I want to be up and about, I want to be seeing local history and enjoying local cultures.
So when I discovered the Camino de Santiago, I was pretty excited.
What is it?
Basically, it is a series of Pilgrims Ways, essentially a network of walking routes spread all over Western Europe, all leading to the shrine of Apostle St. James housed in the cathedral Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain.
Now, by describing this as a network, this is not an understatement, with trails running toward this central location from across Portugal, Spain and France. They also therefore cross a wide variety of landscapes, from coastal trails through great plains of farmland dotted with mediaeval villages.
Easy to see the appeal, right? It was for me, but at the beginning, the hardest thing was actually choosing the right route. I’ve since walked quite a number of them – and still have barely scratched the surface!
This then is my – very abbreviated – guide to two of the best of the routes across the Camino de Santiago network that I have walked and can heartily recommend -particularly for beginners.
My very first experience on the Camino de Santiago trails! Basically, this is the most famous, and hence most popular route amongst all of the traditional routes to Santiago. In practice however, I did find this to be something of a mixed bag.
Ok, on the one hand this route is fantastically well maintained. Every little village or town I passed through was well used to seeing hikers. All I had to do was walk into a little bar, bistro or tavern with my rucksack on my back, and most locals would instantly recognize me as someone walking the Camino Frances.
Since I did my first walk alone, this was nice – to have an instant ice breaker with every local.
The popularity of the route also means that there is a plentiful accommodation along the way, which meant that I could stage my trip better – I wasn’t rushing from widely-spaced accommodations, but instead could even at several points sleep in and recover and still have plenty of time to meander to the next stop over.
The route is well marked with yellow arrows painted at regular intervals, which is great, as navigation was something that really worried me at the start.
All in all, I would say this is the perfect route to start with – with the understanding that it is extremely popular, and you will rarely get a moment alone without other walkers around.
The Camino Ingles is the second route I travelled, and perhaps the one I wish I had started with. For one thing it is far shorter than the Camino Frances, being only about 118 to 75 km long, depending on where you start. As with Camino Frances, this route is clearly marked out with yellow arrows, and once again, I had no (major!) navigational problems.
The scenery is magnificently rugged and reminded me strongly of the countryside of Cornwall, another favorite walking destination of mine! The route is dotted with medieval towns and accommodation and refueling was never an issue.
One thing I would warn of, which didn’t catch me out luckily but I have heard since of other walkers not being so lucky – expect to get wet, especially in the winter! This is an Atlantic coastal route, and as such, heavy downpours can develop quickly. Make sure you have your waterproofs (as I did!) ready at hand when you are out on the trail.
This route I would also recommend as a prime beginning route for anyone interested in the Camino who are looking for a less busy, dare I say it, more rugged and natural route.
Either way, if you pick one of these or one of the many other major routes you are going to be in the walking holiday of a lifetime – that I can guarantee!