To walk on the Camino de Santiago is to set sail on a river of time. Every ancient church tower, every proud castle, every silent ruin, every rusting, ringing bell has a story to tell the passing pilgrim. These landmarks are the rugged and rounded boulders in the river, silently testifying to the hands that long ago placed them here. The river itself is the thousand-year stream of pilgrims – men, women, children even – who set out toward the far west of Spain to start a new chapter, to remember a lost loved one, to release a burden, to lift a prayer, or to savor an adventure. Pilgrims over this wide estuary of many channels have hardened under their feet a firm path in the soil that beckons the traveler of today to join the procession and be forever changed.
When someone says, ‘I’m going to walk the Camino,’ they mean the Camino Francés – the main one, the big one, the first one to return after a hiatus of centuries. Other walks hold treasures, too, but this walk is incomparable. Its fame may be because of the allure of Santiago, although as wonderful and historic as that Galician capital is, most experienced pilgrims will tell you it is the journey itself that is the star. The unique blend of ordeals, experiences and traditions make it more than a trip. They make it truly a pilgrimage.
The Camino Francés crosses three mountain ranges with elevations of over 1200m (3900ft) as well as smaller mountains and ridges. Every uphill climb also involves a steep downhill walk, which can be just as demanding. Even the long,
flat Meseta includes elevation variations, such as the Alto de Mostelares after
Castrojeríz, a quick but steep climb of 150m. Pilgrims should prepare for these topographic zones of the Camino Francés:
Pyrenees Mountains and foothills in the Arga River valley (Saint-Jean to Pamplona): This mountainous region, running from the French Basque slopes of the Pyrenees over the pass to the Spanish Basque foothills, is walked primarily on
dirt paths and occasionally farming roads, gradually leading downhill along the Arga River. Vast forests cover much of this territory until the rolling fields and vineyards that begin after Pamplona.
Western Navarre to Montes de Oca (Pamplona to Burgos): The vineyards and grain fields stretch out for miles here, but elevations range from around 400 to 1150m. This is hilly country, gradually building up to a final ascent over the Montes de Oca before descending to Burgos.
The Meseta (Burgos to Astorga): Best called ‘High Meseta,’ since elevations are in the 800m range. The area is flat-ish, although almost every day requires some gentle elevation change. This is grain country, with mostly dry-land farming. Occasionally the days are walked on asphalt, but most commonly on gravel paths
along country roads or on gravel farming tracks.
Montes de León to Galicia (Astorga to O Cebreiro): The climb to Cruz de Ferro is a long and sustained uphill march, and the descent to Molinaseca is steepest of any downhill on the Camino. The uphill section just after Las Herrerías and before O Cebreiro is quite steep, while much of the official section before it is on pavement.
Galicia (O Cebreiro to Santiago): Emerald-green Galicia is a land of rolling hills with a daily series of 100m undulating dips and rises. Galicia has done a good job of interspersing asphalt with gravel trails under trees or alongside quiet pastures.
Costa da Morte (Santiago to Finisterre/Muxía): Galicia’s undulations persist after Santiago to the coast, although the sudden quiet of this less-developed itinerary and the endurance absorbed over many pilgrim miles makes it feel gentler. A few steep downhill walks lead to the area’s beautiful beaches.
A pilgrimage is a journey of meaning, a passage toward transformation that seeks something deeper than a mere hike. As Phil Cousineau wrote in The Art of Pilgrimage, ‘What matters most on your journey is how deeply you see, how attentively you hear, how richly the encounters are felt in your heart and soul.’ By its nature, the Camino Francés touches a person deep inside.