Ten steps to taking on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela
1. Just do it: no more dithering You’ve been thinking about it for yonks, telling friends you’re deffo going to do it. . . one day. “Just can’t seem to fit it in yet. . .” Yada, yada, yada. Just do it, okay? Set a start date and a start place (low-cost airline airports are crucial), allow for walking progress of about 20km per day, work out where you will be after your allotted number of days and sort your flight home accordingly. Plan a little; it’s really easy. The best known and most popular Camino is the Camino Francés which goes, essentially, from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees (or Roncesvalles on the Spanish side of the range if you want to start there) to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia – about 800km, give or take, to the west.
2. Do the real thing: pilgrim hostels, not bijou hotels Pilgrim hostels (called albergue or refugio, more often the former) are where you experience the true spirit of the Camino. The hostels are basic (bunk beds in shared rooms or dorms) but invariably clean, almost always well run by nice people and inexpensive (€5 to €10 a night). Some are linked to monasteries or convents, and are usually now run by lay people, but most are either municipal or privately run. They all have good showers and toilets; hand-wash laundry facilities; and most have well stocked kitchens. They are also sources of great information and centres of fun.
3. Boots Your single most important item of clothing. Have a pair of high quality walking boots (spend €100 to €150 if you have to) that are well worn in by the time you start your Camino. One pair of good socks too (rinse them each evening). Bring some Compeed blister pads but, if the boots are worn in, you probably won’t need them.
4. Sheet bag, not sleeping bag If you walk anytime between the start of May and end of September, a sheet bag instead of a full sleeping bag will provide sufficient warmth at night. Albergues usually have blankets if you need one. A sheet bag in lighter and slimmer than a sleeping bag.
5. Pack super light: what you bring, you carry Hire a taxi to carry your bag and you go straight to hell. Promise. It truly is part of the Camino experience to have all you need for the duration in one small rucksack (50 litres is ample). All you need is: one pair of socks and underpants (oh alright, two if you insist); one pair of lightweight trousers with zip-off legs to turn them into shorts; two T-shirts; a sun hat; a fleece for the evenings; one lightweight shower mack; one pair of sandals (also for evenings); toothbrush and paste; soap and a small hand towel. That’s it! Forget the rest – especially the iThis and iThat – you don’t need any of them. When it dawns on you that all you have is on your back and that this is all you actually need, you will feel a great lightness; you are liberated.
6. Make friends: believe me you will have to try hard not to It happens naturally, especially if you follow all of the above. You are walking and will meet like souls – you are staying with them in albergues; you will eat with them (restaurants everywhere do pilgrim menus: €10/€12 for three courses and a half bottle of plonk) and they will confide in you their innermost thoughts – and you will share yours also. It all happens without you even noticing. Your new friends (and some will be your friends for years and years afterwards) come from all parts of the world.
7. Go to Mass: even if you are a heathen atheist Yes, the Camino is everything and nothing to do with religion – and all at the same time. The pagans developed the Camino BC and then Christians took it over from about the 10th century on. For both, the way west has always been associated with life-changing events: death, resurrection and the like. There are numerous monasteries and chapels along the way and many celebrate rites for pilgrims (my favourite is vespers in the tiny Benedictine chapel in Rabanal del Camino, a village 20km west of Astorga) that enrich the whole experience. The midday pilgrim Mass in the cathedral in Santiago is an absolute must (believe me; as a Protestant, I know these things). Visit the tomb of St James; soak up the atmosphere in and around the cathedral.
8. Enjoy the moments: of which there will be many Take your time; it’s not a race. Most people average 20/25km a day. Do five if you want; do 40 (some do). Pace yourself according to what you want. Your Camino will become a really special time during which you will reflect and soak in your surroundings, be they the natural world or the deep sense of history and culture along the way.
9. Reduce your stay in purgatory by half Don’t forget to get your pilgrim passport (credencial) which may be had from the Irish Society of the Friends of St James (caminosociety.ie) or from your first albergue on the Camino itself. You will need this for the hostels, and it becomes a treasured souvenir of stamps collected along the way. You need it also to collect your compostelana certificate from Santiago cathedral office at the end. For this, you need to have walked or cycled a minimum of 100km. It reduces your time in purgatory by 50 per cent, so it is rather important.
10. The end When you finish in Santiago (which may take years if you do the Camino in stages), make time for Finisterre – bus or walk (80km/three days). A simple hotel near the harbour will cost you about €30 a head; albergues half that but hey, you’ve earned the hotel. Spend a day on the white sands of Playa Langosteira, sunbathing, swimming and collecting shells. Then eat your fill in one of the many harbour-side, keenly-priced fish restaurants and go home with a bagful of great memories. When you are home again, it will take a while before your feet are back on the ground.
For further information, do an online search using Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Peter Murtagh is co-author, with Natasha Murtagh, of Buen Camino – a father-daughter journey from Croagh Patrick to Santiago de Compostela (Gill and Macmillan, 2011); paperback in bookshops or kindle from Amazon