Camino Routes

Authenticity of Routes

A pilgrimage consists of a starting point, a route, a destination, and depending on the pilgrimage undertaken, certain rituals undertaken before or during the journey or at the destination. For the pilgrimage to Santiago, the destination is the tomb of Saint James, the Apostle. There is no prescribed route, unlike some pilgrimages which seek to retrace the path of a special person, although some people seem to believe that pilgrims need to follow a prescribed route to be authentic. The routes used to reach Santiago depended on the origin of the traveler and evolved over time as transportation improved, including routes designed to provide a good path for pilgrims. Indeed, it was a result of the millions of pilgrims making the journey to Santiago over the centuries that paths were improved, eventually becoming roads, towns were established and bridges were constructed. Although there was no fixed starting point, people used certain routes because they were better suited to their needs and provided better accommodations.

During the middle ages, when the pilgrimage to Santiago was at its peak, people traveled by foot (the large majority), horse, and donkey. Even the land movement of goods was limited to that which could be hauled on a wagon by horses and oxen. Thus, a pilgrim traveling on foot was not incompatible with other modes of transportation and pilgrims shared the roads, if they could be called that, with others. With the advent of busses, cars, trucks and the construction of highways, a foot traveler cannot follow the main byways.

Although any route that a person could successfully follow to reach Santiago, would be a valid one, there are a relatively small number that are recognized and, most important, marked and maintained. While there are numerous road signs as well as maps for the use of car and truck drivers, few maps or route signs and route markings exist to support foot travelers. However, to support pilgrims along the camino, various associations of “Amigos” or “Friends” of the Camino maintain the markings and even the condition of the footpaths, ensuring that limbs and other debris is removed in the spring. They also place temporary markings to redirect travelers when the path has to be altered because of such things as road construction. In some areas, Galicia, in particular, permanent markings have been erected.

As the routes approach Santiago, they converge and merge. Even the many routes in France merge as they approach the Pyrenees and the border between France and Spain. The principal routes are: French Route, Ruta de la Plata, Camino Primitivo, Camino del Norte, Camino Inglés, Ruta del Mar de Arousa y Rio Ulla, Camino Portuguese and Camino Mozárabe. All of these will be discussed in some detail. Gronze is a site which has very useful information about the different routes, however it is in Spanish.

Be careful when using place names in this or any other text and when referring to maps and, or, signs and waymarks or asking directions. Spain has several languages. The predominant and official language is Castillian, commonly referred to outside of Spain as “Spanish.” However, there are others which a pilgrim may encounter; Basque in País Vasco and Navarra, and Galician in Galicia. For example, the town well known in the US for the running of the bulls by its Castillian name, Pamploña, is called Iruñea in Basque.

Les Chemines de St. Jacques

Les Chemins de St. Jacques” is the French expression for the roads to Santiago, i.e., the French equivalent of “Caminos de Santiago.” Here it is used to refer to those portions within France. The adventuresome traveler with lots of time available can start within France and follow one of the several historical ways within that country. Until the 90's, these routes were not well marked, but that is changing. Those who are interested in doing so, should contact the Confraternity of Saint James for the most recent version of their guides to these routes. (See “Confraternity of Saint James” for more information.)

Historically the four principal starting points, were Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy, and Arles. These constitute the routes today. If considering one of these routes, it will take from 4 to 6 weeks depending on the starting point and the pace of the walker to reach Spain.

Maps

For more detailed understanding of these routes, you should consult the appropriate Institute Géographique National (IGN) Green series, 1:100,000 scale maps. These can be purchased in good map stores in the US or ordered from France. Their legend is printed in English as well as French and German.

France has an extensive network (over 19,000 miles) of Grandes Randonnées or long distance tracks. “Les Chemins de St. Jacques” are part of this system and the designation is GR-65. Topo Guides published by the Federation Française de la Randonnées Pédestre provide information on the tracks. See Reference Information for contact information. They are in French but much of the information, such as that about accommodations, can be used by a non-English speaker. They are marked with red and white stripes painted on trees, rocks and other permanent objects.

Route from Paris

The route from Paris to the juncture with the Vézelay and Le Puy routes near Ostabat, while the longest, is less topographically challenging. It crosses the wide central plain that is the Loire drainage area, that is the major agricultural area of France. A quick look at a detailed map of France shows that there are many towns and villages in this area.

Route from Vézelay

All routes from Eastern France have to contend with the Massif Central. The route from Vézelay has several variations but they all generally stay to the northwest of the more difficult portions of the Massif Central and elevations are generally less than 1000 feet. There is one variation, a more direct route between Nevers and St.-Leònard-de-Noblat, that while shorter, goes through higher passes, reaching an elevation of 655 meters at Toulx-Ste-Croix and is more difficult.

Route from Le Puy

Le Puy is on upper reaches of the Loire River in the eastern slope of the Massif Central. Le Puy has an elevation of 650 meters. The route is generally climbing until it reaches Aubrac with an elevation of 1300 meters. Then it starts a general descent. After Aubrac, the slopes drain toward the Lot River, which passes by Conques, a principal stop on the route. There is another, lesser, climb as the route crosses to the Garonne River drainage basin but it is hilly but not arduous the rest of the way to the junction near Ostabat.

Route from Arles

The route from Arles crosses generally level terrain until after Toulouse. But the real ascent does not begin until Oloron. Oloron has an elevation of 221 meters. The pass at Somport has an elevation of 1632 meters, with 1000 meters of that ascent made during the last 19 kilometers.

Facilities

There are varied facilities available on these routes but there are fewer church supported lodgings similar to those in Spain. This is changing and one should consult the guides from Confraternity of Saint James for more detailed and current information.

The French Route

Brief Introduction

The French Route, entering through Roncesvalles is the most historically significant and most popular. Because of that, it is better supported and has the best facilities. It is also the most crowded. The French Route has one variation, which arises from the different passes used to cross the Pyrenees and enter Spain.

The Aragón Route.

The Aragón Route is followed by travelers who cross into Spain at Puerto de Somport, “Somport Pass” after following the Chemin de St. Jacques from Arles. This route passes through two historically significant towns, Jaca and Sangüesa before joining the main French Route at Puente la Reina. The Aragón route is interesting and passes through some beautiful country. Its main drawback in the past is that between Jaca and Sangüesa, over 50 km, there were no hostels and few places to stop. That has now changed. See Gronce. There are a couple of variations to the route between Jaca and Sangüesa that allow a traveller with the interest to visit two lovely sites, the Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña, and the Monasterio de Leyre. The latter now has a small “hospedería” where one can pay to stay.

The French Route or Camino Francés

What is referred to in Spain as the Camino Francés, the French Route, is the route leading from Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, over the pass to Roncesvalles, and thence to Santiago. Since it is fed by the Chemines de St. Jacques from Paris, Vëzelay and Le Puy, it was, and is, the principal route used by pilgrims to Santiago. It is used by so many people, that when someone talks about the Camino de Santiago, they are usually referring to the French Route. The three chemines converge into one at Ostabat. This then leads to the lovely village of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, the last French town. From here, travellers begin a steep climb to Ibeñeta Pass before descending to Roncesvalles.

This first stage of the French Route in Spain is of great historical significance. This pass is the one used by Charlemagne and his army and Roncesvalles is where they were attacked by the Basques and Roland was slain in 778; leading to the Song of Roland. The same route was followed by Napoleón when his forces entered Spain. Millions of pilgrims have passed through here on their way to Santiago.

Camino Primitivo

The “Camino Primitivo” or Primitive Route is the one first used by pilgrims. At the time of the discovery of Saint James, most of Iberia was occupied by the Islamic invaders, with the kingdom of Asturias the only portion not in their power. Oviedo was its capital and it is believed that Alfonso II made the first pilgrimage from there following this route. The route was safe and well frequented until well into the 10th Century when the development of the French Route and the shift of the capital to León resulted in a decline in its use. However, because of the significance of the collection of reliquaries in the Cámara Santa de Santo Salvador de Oviedo and also the Cathedral of Lugo, it became an important alternative to the French Route for pilgrims continuing from León.

Camino Primitivo

For an American, there are three ways to consider this route. One is as a variation on the French Route, following the French Route to León, then following a route across the mountains to Oviedo and thence the Primitive Road through Lugo which returns to the French Route at Melide. The others are to take a train to either León or Oviedo and pick up the path from there. The trip over the mountains from León to Oviedo is spectacular but a difficult way to start off.      

Camino del Norte

The “Camino del Norte” or Northern Route was the second route followed by pilgrims for it permitted those from France and other countries to reach the Kingdom of Asturias by boat, bypassing the difficult crossing of the Pyrenees. The Camino del Norte follows along the northern coast of Spain with two connections to the French Route while the main route ultimately going directly to Santiago. The first opportunity to cross to the French Route comes at San Sebastián, thence over the mountains through Vitoria and connecting at Burgos. The route of this connection has recently been marked and now has several albergues for those who wish to follow the lesser used path—6.6% in 2010 . Bilbao and Santander are two cities further along on the route can be reached by ferry from Portsmouth and Plymouth, England respectively. Further along the coast, at Casquita, just past Villaviciosa, is the branch leading to Oviedo and the connection to Santiago via the Camino Primitivo. The route continues along the coast to Vegadeo where it heads inland toward Santiago.

Historically, this route is of interest because it was the one favored by pilgrims from the seafaring countries of Northern Europe such as Denmark, and Sweden as well as France and the British Isles. Some English pilgrims would secure passage on French ships returning from carrying wine to the British Islands. These ships would return to Bayonne, then follow the coast toward Cantabria, dropping passengers at Santander and Santillana del Mar.

The entire northern coast of Spain is lovely and green and travelers will not experience the extreme high and low temperatures that those travelling the French Route and the Ruta de la Plata do. However, this is because the route follows the coast and gets more rain.

Camino Inglés

The “Camino Inglés” or English Route is a relatively short route that is probably of little interest to most Americans. A Coruña and Ferrol, both in Galicia, are the two starting points for the Inglés Route. These are both seaports and were ideal destinations for ships bringing pilgrims from England and Ireland, as well as from other countries such as Denmark Norway and Iceland. Ferrol has an excellent harbor and would be a good destination for a maritime pilgrim departing from the East Coast of North America.

Ruta del Mar de Arousa y Rio Ulla

The “Ruta del Mar de Arousa y Rio Ulla,” the “Route of the Sea of Arousa and the River Ulla,” is another route, like the Camino Inglés, that is seldom used by other than people living in the area. However, it is of interest historically and culturally for two reasons. First, is that this is believed to have been the route for the initial transport of St. James body to Iria Flavia. The boat carrying his body landed at Padrón, on the Ulla River, which is one of the towns on this route. In addition, this route was also followed by pilgrims who travelled by boat through the Mediterranean and up the coast, landing somewhere in the Bay of Arousa.

Sailing across the Atlantic, docking at one of the towns on the Bay of Arousa and then walking to Santiago would make an interesting pilgrimage for an American or Canadian.

Along this route, there are albergues in Padrón, Teo and San Lázaro plus commercial lodgings.

Camino de Fisterra-Muxia

“Fisterra” or “Finisterre,” depending on whether one uses the Galician or Spanish spelling, was once thought to be the western end of the world, hence the name—Lands End. For this reason, many pilgrims, after having reached Santiago and completed the outward bound leg of their journey, would continue to Finisterre, to look out over the sea toward the end of the world. These people followed the Camino de Fisterra. Unfortunately, in modern times, their route has become highways, and while there has always some semblance of a trail, it was not well maintained until recently. Because of increased interest in this route it has recently been waymarked with the yellow arrows of the main camino. They now lead you from the first yellow arrow by the Carballeira de San Lourenzo in Santiago to Finisterre. It is also waymarked back, to lead walkers back to Santiago, which can be confusing to the unwary. People interested in following this route are advised to contact the Confraternity of Saint James for more detailed and updated information. (See “Confraternity of Saint James” for more information.)

Camino Portuguese

The figure  “Camino Portuguese” on page 65 shows the major network of routes that historically were used by pilgrims from Portugal to travel to Santiago. Today however, except in the northern portion of Portugal, these routes are not used nor marked as they are in Spain. There are several Portuguese associations and there are routes marked leading from O Porto and Viseau.

It is difficult to obtain reliable data upon the number of people using these routes today, requiring some detective work and assumptions to make an estimate. The Xunta (Government) of Galicia publishes and distributes maps of Galicia showing the Caminos de Santiago. It also uses them in booklets published in many languages for people interested in making the pilgrimage. These maps show two routes entering Galicia from Portugal; the route leading from Tuy through Pontevedra and Padron is called the Camino Portuguese. The other, is a branch connecting Chaves with Verin, which lies on the Camino del Sureste - Via de la Plata, which passes through Ourense. There is also a route, not shown in the Galician map, that leads from Bragança to Verin.

In 2009, the most recent Jubilee Year, the Officina del Peregrino recorded 34,299 people following the Camino Portuguese. As there were only 7,776 Portuguese recorded as having completed the pilgrimage, with no published breakdown as to which route they followed, most must have been from other countries. In addition, since qualifying for a Compostela only requires a person to complete 100 kilometers on foot, many of those recorded as having followed the Camino Portuguese were probably Spanish who started within Galicia, at Tuy.

The register in the Albergue in Cea, which opened on 25 July 1999, is a source of information for the other Portuguese routes. It is a very likely place to stay for those following the route from Chaves and Bragança. For the period 25 July 1999 to 5 May 2000, when I visited, only 16 Portuguese (out of about 1200 people) were registered as having visited. The overwhelming majority were Spanish who started their journey in Ourense.

While it would be interesting to retrace the route followed by medeival pilgrims all the way from Lisbon, someone attempting to do so today would encounter several difficulties: route selection, lack of hostals, and lack of a pilgrim tradition. Due to recent increase in the Camino, there are several associations associated with the Camino Portuguese and there is active way marking going on. For example, an association based in Tavira is way marking a route north from Tavira which will pass well east of Lisbon. It currently goes to Mértola. There are now some guides available and the Confraternity of Saint James has a good overview on its website.

The route from Porto route is closer to the coast throughout its length than any other of the Caminos de Santiago except the Northern Route. It does not have any high mountain passes, with the highest elevation at about 275 meters near Mafra. While there are parts that are relatively flat, there are many hills. Because of the proximity to the Atlantic, it receives ample rainfall and there are lots of trees to provide shade. One of the difficult aspects is the long distances in several areas between locations with support services such as cafes, bars, stores and hostals. In addition, because of differences in land use and planning, there are many places where there is no alternative to walking along the side of a highway, which is often busy with only a very narrow verge.

Summary Table

The following summarizes the principal routes to Santiago within Spain.

       

Name

     
       

Total distance (Km)

     
       

Brief description

     
       

Camino Roncesvalles (Navarrese Route)

     
             

This is the principal route used over the centuries. It is the route followed by pilgrims coming from Paris, Vezelay or Le Puy, who would arrive at Saint-Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the Pyrennees. The Navarrese Route and the Aragonese Route joined at Puente de la Reina and continued to Santiago as the French Route.

     
       

Camino Somport (Somport or Aragonese Route)

     
             

Pilgrims who came from further east, via Saint Gilles, Montpellier, and Toulouse reached the Pyrenees by way of the Bearnese valley, entering Spain through Somport pass. Measured from Somport, this route is longer (about 58 kilometers), and more difficult than the route from Saint-Jean Pied de Port.

     
       

Camino Frances (French Route)

     
             

This is the term used for the route from Puente de la Reina to Santiago de Compostela. It is the route used by most pilgrims over the centuries.

     
       

Camino del Norte (Routes of the North)

     
             

These are paths used by pilgrims coming through France that passed through Bayonne and St. Jean de Luz, essentially following the coast through San Sebastićn and on, and crossing the mountains at various points to join the French route at various points, such as Burgos, LeŚn or in Galicia.

     
       

La Ruta de la Plata

     
             

Those who lived in the southern region (remember it was Moorish well into the 15th Century) used to follow the Ruta de la Plata, a Roman road that connected Andalucia with the north. It starts in Sevilla and passes through such important towns as Mérida, Caceres, Plasencia and Salamanca. It joins the French Route in Astorga.

     
       

El Camino de Portuguës (Portuguese Road)

     
             

There were two routes followed by those that lived in what is now Portugal. The principal one started in Lisbon and followed the Tajo river to Santarém, thence to Coimbra, Braga, Valença, and passing through Pontevedra and Pardon before arriving at Santiago.

     
       

Ruta Maritima (Maritime Route)

     
             

The maritime routes were followed primarily by pilgrims from the British Isles and Scandinavian countries. Landing points were A Coruña, Padrón and Noia.

     

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.