The “Camino” pilgrimage began in the Middle Ages with first written accounts recorded in 950 AD. One non-written version says that in 778 AD King Charlemagne had a dream in which St James appeared and told him to clear the path from Navarre to Santiago. He is said to have done this and thereby became one of the first pilgrims. The path he took is called the “Camino Frances”.
It is said that tens of thousands of pilgrims suffered the hazards of the Camino each year, throughout the Middle Ages. Today, over 250,000 pilgrims from all over the world walk the Camino into Santiago during the year with nearly half making the journey during the summer months.
There are many “camino” routes originating from various locations in Spain, France and other European countries, all converging either with the Camino Frances or leading directly into Santiago near the Atlantic coast.
In Spain, one is called the English Way, and starts in Santander and passes through Asturias along the northern coast to Santiago. The Camino Plata is from Seville in the south and heads north to Astorga where it joins the most popular route known as the French Way or Camino Frances.
The traditional beginning of the “Camino Frances” is at St. Jean Pied De Port, France and passes through Navarre, La Rioja, Leon and Galicia, forming a Camino of over 790 kilometres (475 miles). The route is often a single track through the countryside and over mountain ranges, but at times joins the main roads.
At every 5-15km along the route are very affordable ‘refugios’ or ‘albergues’ (pilgrim hostels), located in small villages and towns. A typical albergue will supply basic shelter for the night in dormitory (bunk beds) style for 2 to 100 plus persons in a communal mixed-gender room with shared toilets and showers. Places to hand wash clothes and clotheslines for drying are typically provided. Many also have kitchens, machine washers/dryers and internet facilities. Alternate accommodations can also be found along the way, including rooms rented at private homes, small hotels and even an occasional upscale hotel in more populated areas.
Food can be obtained along the way at Spanish “bars”, generally open all day, offering drinks, sandwiches and light foods. Some villages and most small towns have a small grocery store offering fruits and vegetables and other food items. Small restaurants catering to pilgrims are frequently attached to or close to albergues and offer typical Spanish breakfasts (coffee & toast) and evening meals featuring a pilgrim menu (menu peregrino). The typical pilgrim menu includes a hearty appetizer, main course, dessert, wine, water and bread for 8-12 euros.