Image credit: CC BY 2.0 (Astro Oscar, 2012)
Known as St. James’ Way or simply The Way, the renowned Camino de Santiago winds through the bucolic countryside of mostly Spain (the key route begins in St. Pied-de-Port in southern France near the Spanish border and ends in Santiago de Compostela) running through awe-inspiring cities speckled with historical sights, charming villages where time stands still and the western edge of the beautiful Pyrenees mountains.
While the Camino’s fame ebbed and flowed over the centuries, in the past decades, the popularity of the 790-kilometre route has soared immensely for plenty reasons; this is still a place where traditions seem unchanged, where the intoxicating mix of religion, architecture, art and nature create one of the most poignant routes in Europe and, perhaps, the world. Today, it draws thousands of travellers each year.
From soaking in the glorious scenery of mountainous Basque country, coastal Cantabria and green Galicia to fantastic gastronomy at every step, Quotient reveals some secrets that will allow sojourners to fully immerse in what the route has to offer.
1. Half of the travellers who attempt the route are non-pilgrims
While in medieval times, St. James’ Way was exclusively attempted by pilgrims on the way to pay homage to the enshrined remains of St. James (Spain’s patron saint) at the route’s very end in the intricate cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, over the years, the pilgrimage has undergone a revival as a nondenominational spiritual rite of passage for travellers looking for soul-searching, self-discovery and reconnecting with nature.
In today’s context, the journey to Camino de Santiago is not solely prompted by religious faith. Actually, virtually half of all travellers to Camino de Santiago walk the trail to quench their own spiritual quest or simply to immerse in Spain’s unique history and culture.
2. It teems with UNESCO World Heritage sites
According to Australian professor Marc Grossman, Camino de Santiago expert and author of The Guide for the Spanish Camino: Walking the Camino Francés as a 21st Century Pilgrim, Spain is like an onion — as you cut it in half and peel it, you realise that each layer stands for so many architectural styles and historical periods that have contributed to the beauty of this inspiring western European nation.
While the Camino itself is so historically precious that it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its outstanding value, Grossman adds that a traveller will come face-to-face with nine UNESCO World Heritage sites along just this pilgrim route.
To him, the Camino is the longest museum crawl in the world, where travellers can hop from one museum to the next or discover a collection of monasteries and cathedrals that will surely satiate your craving for history and superb architectural examples.
Here you can expect to visit exquisite religious landmarks such as the Monasteries of Yuso and Suso in San Millán de la Cogolla in La Rioja region, which are considered the cradle of the Castillan language and, of course, the famous Burgos Cathedral located in the city of Burgos on the French Route to Santiago, which boasts one of the most impressive Spanish Gothic façades in the world.
Not far from Burgos, travellers can also explore Atapuerca, Europe’s most important archaeological site, which is said to contain a rich fossil record of the earliest human beings in Europe. Lastly, the beautiful old town of Santiago de Compostela — the culminating point of the route — is also a treat in itself, as it circles the grandiose cathedral and boasts a mix of ancient streets lined by Romanesque, Baroque and Gothic structures.
3. Eight regions are a gastronomic paradise
It’s a known fact that Spain is one of the world’s culinary havens, but what’s even more impressive is that on Camino de Santiago, travellers will experience a gastronomic rollercoaster in eight of the regions straddling the route from La Rioja to Cantabria to Navarre.
In the renowned La Rioja region, with its traditional feel and rolling hills carpeted with vineyards, visit the capital of Logroño, where nearly almost wine bar pledges topnotch dishes, tasting menus and wines to die for; the city is also the birthplace of the famous Tempranillo wine and is considered the gastronomical cornerstone of Spanish gourmet cuisine.
Over in Cantabria, it’s impossible not to fall for both traditional and contemporary local dishes prepared with the freshest produce from the sea, and stumble upon vivacious tapas bars at every corner, where you will simply want to emulate locals’ take on daily fiesta.
Even the sleepy region of Navarre is redefining its culinary scene these days, appearing strong on the culinary map and drawing foodies in droves to cities such as Pamplona, which is not only famed for letting the bulls run through its streets once a year, but also for its hearty northern cuisine, making it the focal point of every passionate foodie.
4. You can reconnect with nature
While the Camino is primarily known for its historical riches, it is also an amazing playground for nature lovers. You can start by exploring the various pathways of the verdant Spanish Pyrenees, which are home to lofty passes and peaks opening up to fantastic vistas.
Camino expert Grossman notes that in autumn, the Pyrenees become visually compelling; the bright autumnal colours are truly stunning at this time of the year, the deciduous forests of beech, oak, fir and wild pine trees display a unique palette of hues; this is also the period when migratory birds fly across the pathways. From August to October, you will see predatory birds nose-diving for their prey at 300 kilometres per hour — a view to behold, indeed! Also, just outside the village of Roncesvalles, bird lovers will be able to visit the impressive bird interpretation and exhibition centre called Centro de Migración de Aves.
Actually, the opportunities are endless for nature aficionados who can explore the beautiful banks of the River Ebro, which crosses some beautiful villages and stands out with its fertile vegetable gardens, the vast plains of Castile-Leon, teeming with cereal crops and the eye-catching green meadows and pastureland of Asturias and Galicia regions.
5. There are vibrant festivals year-round
The Camino generally conjures up the idea of in-depth historical and cultural immersion, but this is also the place where travellers can get personally acquainted with Spanish traditions and unique festivities. From boisterous street performances to the exciting grape harvesting celebrations in autumn, the Spanish merriment is something you shouldn’t miss.
Perhaps the most famous Camino festival here is Pamplona’s San Fermín, which takes place from 6th to 15th July every year and features a feast of friendship, joy, music and a lively fiesta ambience that Ernest Hemingway describes so beautifully in his famous novel “The Sun Also Rises”. However, the festival also has its thrilling side and will culminate with the tension given by the bull run behind brave Spaniards.
For those who crave a slice of the past, the beautiful city of Lugo completely dons new attire once a year, and revives its Roman heritage for three days in late June during Arde Lucus festival. Pop by to admire locals and visitors dressed up as gladiators, Roman soldiers and emperors within the town’s sturdy Roman Wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and enjoy a dose of hearty Spanish fun!