The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, is one of the world's best-known and best-traveled pilgrimage routes, and has been continuously traveled for over 1,200 years. Today the Camino is a loose collection of paths starting all over Europe and ending in the northern Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are buried. Of these hiking routes, there are a few that have become favorites for pilgrims over the years — Camino Portugués, Camino del Norte, Camino Primitivo — but the most popular by far, and the one we've chosen for you, is the Camino Francés. We've mapped out a portion of this route that takes just 14 days to complete, but still gives you, the future pilgrim, time and opportunity to take in the rich history and sights of the Camino.
1. CATEDRAL DE LEÓN - Léon
Take some time on your first day in Spain to appreciate the Cathedral of Léon before you begin your journey to Compostela. Also known as "The House of Light", the cathedral is home to an incredible and rare display of stained glass windows which light up the interior of the building. Today’s route is 21 km of easy, flat hiking across the Spanish plains; enjoy the morning light in Léon, then let the seashells in the pavement guide you out of town and onwards to the Camino.
2) PALACIO EPISCOPAL - Astorga to Rabinal del Camino
The Palacio Episcopal is one of only three buildings designed by famed architect Antoni Gaudí found outside the borders of Catalonia. Like much of his work, the palace is known for its neo-Gothic style, vaulted ceilings, curious Arabesque design, and unique stained glass windows. Since 1964, the palace has been the headquarters for the "Museo de los Caminos", a museum dedicated to the Camino de Santiago. Visit the palace on day 2 if possible; the day 3 hike from Astorga to Rabinal del Camino is just 20 km, but it’s mostly uphill, and you might want to start before the day gets hot.
3) CRUZ DE FERRO - Rabinal del Camino to Molinaseca
From Rabinal del Camino, the trail climbs to the top of Mount Irago, one of the highest points of the Camino Francés at 1,520 meters. At the top stands the Cruz de Ferro, an iron cross set in a tall oak post, and surrounded by a mound of stones. These stones have been left by pilgrims over the centuries, and the leaving of a stone is said to represent shedding a sin or a burden that you carry. Even if you’re not religious, this memorial offers a touching moment of introspection. Bring your hiking boots, don’t forget your rock, and go early to beat the crowd.
4) O CEBREIRO AND SANTA MARÍA LA REAL - Las Herrerias to Triacastela
One week in and you’ll find tiny O Cebreiro, the midpoint of this journey. Some of the last pallozas, the ancient, stone-walled huts that the villagers called home until the 1960s, can be found here. The town church, Santa María la Real, is reportedly the oldest on the pilgrimage. Stock up on water in Las Herrerias: today is one of the longer hiking days at 28 km, and the path will be mostly uphill to O Cebreiro. Outside of the summer months the weather can be rather cold and wet, so bundle up and bring your rain gear. Your day ends with a mostly downhill hike to Triacastela.
5) MONASTERIO DE SAN XULIÁN DE SAMOS - Triacastela to Sarria
On leaving Triacastela you can choose between two routes. The route straight to Sarria is just under 19 km and promises more uphill hiking. The other route is around 25 km, but the hiking is easier, more scenic, and will pass by the Monastery of Samos. Dating back to the 7th century, this Benedictine monastery is one of only a few still operating in the region. Check the times if you want to take a tour (website Spanish only). Temperatures should be a bit higher than the day before, but the winter months can be especially rainy. Bring enough water to last the 9 km between Samos and Aguiada.
6) CASTROMAIOR - Portomarin to Palas de Rei
Day 10 starts uphill and ends flat, but shouldn’t take too long. On the way you can stop at Castromaior, the over 2,000 year old ruined walls and pathways of an ancient Roman town, and a perfect example of the historical sights on the Camino Francés. What it lacks in the grandeur you've seen in the churches and monasteries on your pilgrimage, it makes up for with a timeless, rustic beauty. Keep an eye out for signs on the main trail, as Castromaior is just a stone’s throw away.
7) IGLESIA DE SAN SALVADOR DE VILAR DE DONAS - Portomarin to Palas de Rei
If you still have some energy after visiting Castromaior and before heading to Palas de Rei, take a 2 km detour to Vilar de Donas. This church from the 7th century was formerly part of an old monastery, and is known for the several notable knights of the Order of Santiago entombed there. We've heard pilgrims are welcomed with a daily mass in a variety of languages and enthusiastic tour guides, who would love to tell you about the church's history.
8) PLAZA DE OBRADOIRO AND CATEDRAL DE SANTIAGO - Santiago de Compostela
This is your final reward, the end of a voyage that you and millions of other pilgrims have made for centuries. The grandiose, sprawling square at the center of the city is towered over by the Cathedral of Santiago, the center of this spiritual journey. Walk through the Portico of Glory, embrace the image of the apostle Saint James, and take part in one last Pilgrim’s Mass. As you walk out the door, know that the pilgrimage you have just completed is not the end, but rather the beginning of your next big journey.
There’s a few other things to remember before you start your pilgrimage: bring your rain gear, because the weather can be wet; consider warm layers outside of the summer months; bring your rock, of course; get a scallop shell, the traditional symbol of the Camino; and get your pilgrim’s passport, because you’re going to want stamps at every place you stop. No matter the reason you choose to hike the Camino de Santiago, whether it be to respect a centuries-old religious tradition, to take part in one of the oldest hiking traditions in the world, or simply to escape the loud hustle and bustle of modern life, we hope the experiences you gain along the way will be unforgettable.