Buen Camino: Pilgrimage or Pub Crawl?

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With 300,000 or more walkers each year, the Camino de Santiago de Compostella is the most popular hike in the world.  The system of trails and food and lodging establishments in place to support its pilgrims is massive, stretching from Germany through France into Spain from the north, and from Switzerland and Italy to the east.  But is it a pilgrimage or a pub crawl?

For most the pilgrimage begins at St Jean Pied a Port in Southern France.

St Jean Pied a Port River

Photo: Robert C Deming

The distance from here to the final destination is 500 miles. Although some pilgrims complete the hike in different years, most start here and walk for four to six weeks.  This beautiful and well-kept town in France bustles with Camino hikers in the peak season from May through October.

The trail on day 1 goes over the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, 3,000 feet up and 17 miles 

Horse in Pyrennes Mtns

Photo: Robert C Deming

Each day’s hike is six to eight hours on paths over hilly landscapes. This first day is discouraging for many, but most persevere to end up at a very old monastery at Roncesvalles.

At the end of the day there is a bed, a shower, and the Pilgrim Meal.

Pilgrim Meal at Cizar Menor

Photo: Robert C Deming

If the way of the pilgrim is suffering, it is quickly forgotten in the evening pilgrim meal at the albergue or a local restaurant. Few of the people on this pilgrimage are walking for religious reasons, but many will find the spiritual side of the trail life changing.

This scallop shell sign guides pilgrims on trails and through cities.

Camino Shell signpost

Photo: Robert C Deming

This scallop shell and countless yellow arrows painted on sidewalks, streets, and buildings guides Camino Pilgrims across northern Spain. Virtually every hiker also has a scallop shell tied to his or her backpack. The languages heard on the trail demonstrate the international appeal of this walk – Spanish, German, French, Canadian, Australian, Italian, Dutch, British, and even some Texans can be found on each section of the trail. Many hikers are couples, but most are solo, and ages from 20 to 75 are represented.

The albergue is a key part of the Camino.

Camino Sleeping Room
Photo: Robert C Deming

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