As I trudged along the dirt path winding its way up the mountain, my eyes were peeled for yellow arrows or scallop shells — the trail markers indicating the way to Santiago. I hadn’t seen any in a while, which made me a bit uneasy. Suddenly I spied the church steeple in Galisteo, the next town on my itinerary, poking up out of the trees below. Phew.
But instead of turning and sloping down toward town, the trail kept marching me straight ahead, up the mountain. Galisteo slowly faded out of view. “Don’t panic,” I told myself. “The path must double back.” Nope. An hour later, it dead-ended at a desolate ranch instead. I was lost.
For a moment I just stood there. Then I took a good look around. The view of Extremadura from the mountaintop certainly was stunning. Still, a lone tear of frustration slid down my cheek. How had I lost my way? There had been no other paths to follow; the markers had simply disappeared. Would I spend all day wandering around this lonely mountaintop? Taking a deep breath, I did what all good pilgrims do: I whispered a quick prayer to the Camino gods for a little help, please, then turned and headed back down the mountain.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s been a world-famous pilgrimage since the Middle Ages.
- It’s the best way to experience Spain as a local.
- Good for adventurers, photo buffs and those interested in religion/spirituality.
A short while later, I heard a faint sound in the distance. Looking up, a shepherd popped into view, herding an immense flock of sheep. Hallelujah! Racing towards him, I blurted out my problem in broken Spanish, scattering his sheep in the process. The man showed me where I needed to go — through a gate whose yellow arrows had been painted over by a grumpy property owner — and I was once again on my way.
An Ancient Path
For the past few weeks, I’d been participating in a centuries-old tradition: following the long, arduous route to Santiago de Compostela, supposedly the resting place of the apostle St. James the Great. Originally, pilgrims simply walked out their front door and made their way to Santiago’s cathedral, where the saint’s bones have been kept since the 12th century. Over time, their paths converged and five main routes developed. The most popular is the Camino Francés, which begins in Roncesvalles near the Spanish-French border and heads west to Santiago. I was walking on the Vía de la Plata, another popular trail and former Roman Road that runs south-north from Seville.
Although the Camino was wildly popular in the Middle Ages, it nearly died out by the mid-1980s. Then UNESCO dubbed the Camino a World Heritage Site, and the Council of Europe declared it the first European Cultural Route. Interest in the ancient trek revived.
In 2011, more than 180,000 people made their way along the Camino, although now mainly for spiritual or adventurous reasons, not religious. While most of those were Europeans long familiar with the pilgrimage, a growing number were Americans, thanks to the recent release of the Camino movie “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen and directed by Emilio Estevez.
“Doing” the Camino
There’s no one way to “do” the Camino. You can walk all or part of it, although to receive a coveted Compostela certificate you have to walk at least the final 100 kilometers on any route. This is verified by having your credencial, akin to a passport, stamped twice per day in the towns you pass through. (Biking or riding horseback for the final 200 kilometers also nets you a Compostela.)
Many people hike carrying 25- to 35-pound backpacks, then stay at night in the free or low-cost pilgrim hostels found along the routes. However, you can also book rooms in hotels, pensions or bed-and-breakfast inns, and hire taxis to shuttle your bags ahead if you’d prefer to hike with a day pack. A variety of group tours is also available.
The terrain ranges from paved roads to wide, dirt trails to steep, fairly technical mountain terrain. While you’re typically passing through tiny towns, most routes lead you through some of Spain’s more impressive cities — Salamanca, Cordova, Burgos, Leon.
Normally, the paths are well-marked. But if you should go astray because of a missing marker, or simply because you lost yourself in the beauty of your surroundings, the locals are happy to help you find your way. Even if they’re in the midst of herding their sheep.
- Plan your Camino for spring or fall, when it’s not too hot.
- Order your Credencial by contacting American Pilgrims on the Camino (www.americanpilgrims.com) or the Canadian Company of Pilgrims (www.santiago.ca).
- Join online forums such as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (www.caminodesantiago.me), where you’ll get all of your questions answered before you leave.
- Grab a guidebook; I’ve written an app guidebook to the Vía de la Plata.
- Try to arrive in Santiago on a Sunday before noon, so you can participate in the special weekly Mass honoring pilgrims. Arrive at least 30 minutes early if you want to get a seat.