A step-by-step guide to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain

Way of St James shell and arrow marks for pilgrims to Compostela Cathedral, Galicia, Spain.

Michelle Darmody was beguiled by the Camino de Santiago, enjoying its food and warm welcome – and the quiet, meditative time to think. 

I have procrastinated about walking part of the Camino de Santiago for years. 

At the end of the summer last year I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with work and with life in general and had a few days off. 

I decided to book a last-minute return flight to Santiago de Compestella and to look into completing some of the ancient pilgrimage route.

On arrival, I took a bus to Luga and then another to the smaller town of Sarria. 

Sarria has become the starting point for the last section of the French way, or Camino Frances, which is the busiest of the routes that converge at Santiago de Compestela.

I strolled through town and found an albergue (a hostel) that overlooked the path I would take the next day. 

That first morning, I was awoken by shuffling in the communal room and I got out of bed, still a little sleepy, without looking at the time.

Once out on the street, I closed the albergue door behind me and realised that the sky was still pitch black. I got a fright and was worried about walking alone in the dark, but I did not need too, I soon heard many footsteps.

Hundreds of walkers were embarking on the pilgrimage. I followed suit and started what was to become a wonderful trip.

The countryside between Sarria and Portomarin is beautiful; there are winding country paths, small stone farmsteads and a few nice coffee shops along the route.

I took an extremely light bag with me, containing two long-sleeved running tops with hoods, to protect from the sun, two pairs of leggings that were quick-drying and light.

The heaviest thing I carried was my footwear, I brought my old reliable hiking boots, a pair of runners and some light sandals.

Otherwise, I had a light silk sleeping bag, a very minimal wash bag of toiletries, and a travel towel. My Kindle allowed me to bring a selection of books and my phone was loaded up with podcasts.

Pilgrims on Obradoiro Square with the facade of Santiago cathedral at background.
Pilgrims on Obradoiro Square with the facade of Santiago cathedral at background.

This section of the route was one of my favourites and I have a slight tinge of regret that I did not savour it more. 

The second night I made the choice of staying in Portomarin in the basement rooms of a noisy bar.

It is not a very attractive town. The setting is dramatic, but the town itself had very little character or charm. 

In retrospect, I would recommend staying a few kilometers back along the route at a tiny crossroads in the countryside called Mercadoiro. 

There is a small privately owned albergue on the bend of the road that is surrounded by verdant fields and quiet woodland.

Like many of the private albergues it is much smaller than the municipal equivalents. 

The rooms are communal and cost €10, but there are about eight beds per room, rather than the much larger dorms, which can contain up to 40 beds. 

There are also a limited number of private rooms, for about €40, in most establishments.

The walk out of Portomarin is unremarkable, in fact it is quite noisy and unpleasant, as the path runs directly parallel to a busy road.

At times it veers off into pine forest, but for quite a while you can hear the constant drone of traffic from the road. 

When the path does start to break from the road and wind into rolling farmland the day becomes far more pleasant.

There are a few cafes in the small hamlets serving welcome glasses of freshly pressed orange juice or cold bottles of “agua con gas”.

This next night I did not make the same mistake of walking quite as far as the town, called Palis De Rai. 

Instead, I stayed in a wonderful country albergue in Portos. There was a large vegetable garden, a cosy restaurant area, and a much-welcomed hammock in which to rest and read.

A pilgrim’s meal is an option on most menus in the region and consists of three courses with wine for about €10.

That night, I had a bowl of hearty lentil broth, followed by rich slow cooked vegetables and a loin of pork served with a carafe of deliciously light red wine.

Dessert was a slice of Santiago cake, the rich almond-flavoured delight crumbled in my mouth.

The next morning I left with a smile on my face by the crowing of the resident cockerel and one or two itchy insect bites, which I would experience many times again.

Palis De Rai is a small market town with a few cafes and supermarkets where you can pick up supplies. I stopped for an hour’s rest in the late morning sun and then continued on my way.

There is an added advantage of not staying in the towns the way most pilgrims do.

When you set off on your journey each morning, there are fewer people ahead and behind you. I liked the quiet time this gave me; nothing but the tromping of my feet on the gravel path and the sounds of the countryside in my ears.

Thoughts flooded into my head about life, work, challenges, and of people who have passed.

That night, I stayed in Casa Domingo in Pontecampana, which hosted the best pilgrim’s meal I had on my trip. The owner pulled all of the tables together and served up a delicious Galician feast, cooked by himself and his mother.

He served us a tortilla made with eggs from their own hens. It was a bright yellow from the rich yolks and served with a side salad of pickled beetroot and fresh leaves. 

This was followed by huge bubbling earthenware dishes of lamb meatballs and mounds of dense, crunchy bread. My bed was cosy and in an old mill house adjacent to a rushing stream.

I had a wonderful night’s sleep, listening to water outside my window.

The next night, I stayed in an ancient hospital that is run as a municipal albergue. 

Called Ribadiso da Baixo, it cost just €6 for the night. One word of warning though: They have quite an extensive rule book, including not handing out blankets, which meant pulling on a fleece and extra leggings in the night to abate the chill.

I had only brought a silk liner to sleep in, which did me elsewhere, as this was the only place where extra bedding was not available. 

The old stone hospital is located at the side of a stream traversed by a beautiful medieval bridge.

I spent the evening with my feet in the fast-running water reading my book and nibbling on snacks. It was a perfect and peaceful end to a long day of walking.

My next night’s stop was in A Rúa, where I had lunch and dinner in the wonderfully Spanish O Acivro restaurant, which is recessed back from the walk and was full of local families boisterously eating their Sunday meal.

I took a table in the shade of a tree and relaxed with a glass of a local white wine and a plate of delicious shrimp pancakes. 

These were paper-thin, with chopped shrimp, possessing a tinge of good-quality vinegar and dressed with excellent olive oil.

The next day I took it easy and wandered towards Casa de Amancio in Lavacolla for my last stop before Santiago.

This allows a nice, easy 10km stroll into the main square the next day. Again, this is a family-run albergue serving hearty home cooking and tasty cakes. It was a peaceful last stop before heading towards a city.

The next day was the final section of the journey and, one I savoured, even though the surroundings were not tranquil.

Like any large, modern city, Santiago de Compostela has a long line of garages, fast-food outlets, and furniture shops as you approach its centre, before you reach its ancient heart.

I did not expect the emotion that came over me on finishing.

I am very aware that I only completed the last, smaller section of a much greater whole, but it still felt like an accomplishment. I was sad that it was over and would have like to have kept on walking.

It is a rare privilege in life to be able to afford to take time out and concentrate on your thoughts, to look at life from a different perspective.

Walking the Camino grants this space, in what felt to me a very safe environment. 

Even if you do not glimpse another walker, you know there is someone not far ahead or behind you. The comfort of not needing a map was appreciated as well.

You can simply walk with your thoughts and the sounds around you and not have to think or plan, just wake up in the morning walk, eat, read, and sleep.

GETTING THERE

Tips

Change your shoes at lunchtime every day to prevent blistering. I started the day in hiking boots then put runners on after a few hours.

Take a silk liner to sleep in. Most private albergue have blankets but some municipal ones do not.

You do not need to bring washing powder for clothes. All albergue have washing machines and drying facilities.

Get at least two stamps a day, most cafes along the way will stamp your passport.

St James’s church on Thomas Street in Dublin 8 has a drop-in centre where you can get maps and ask questions.

Getting there

Aer Lingus flies to Santiago de Compostela. Sarria is a three-hour bus ride from Santiago de Compostela with a change in Lugo. A bus from Santiago airport will bring you directly to the bus station.

Ryanair flies to Vigo.

Bilbao and Porto are also options but that necessitates a bus trip.

Where to stay in Santiago de Compostela

Cheap

- Seminary Albergue

Av de Quiroga Palacios, 2,

Santiago de Compostela

A Coruña, Spain

+34 881 03 17 68

Trendy

- Hotel Altamira

Rúa Altamira, 18,

15704 Santiago de Compostela,

A Coruña, Spain

+34 981 55 85 42

Reserved

- Monumento San Francisco

San Francisco Hotel Monumento

Campillo de San Francisco 3

Santiago de Compostela

A Coruña, Spain

+34 981 58 16 34


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