I saw another article this morning that referred to “the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile walk that stretches from the French border to the city of Santiago de Compostela.” The mistake was made by a reputable travel site, so I considered writing a polite letter to the editor, pointing out their error.
But if I tried to take on that kind of project, I’d be writing a lot of letters.
Is There a “Whole Camino?”
As my departure date for Camino del Norte draws near and my excitement (and incessant talking) increases, several people have asked me: “But I thought you already walked the whole Camino. Are you going back to do a section again?”
When a friend posted a note about my upcoming book, someone responded, “But she couldn’t walk a thousand miles. The whole Camino is only half that.”
Lots of people, when they tell our story, say that Eric and I walked “the whole Camino.”
But the thing is…there is no “whole” Camino.
A Network of Trails
The Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James – is not a single trail with a beginning and ending, like an American through-hiking trail. It is a network of marked routes leading from the four corners of Europe to the central hub of Santiago. (I’ve heard that this is actually one of the reasons for making the scallop shell the symbol of the way to Santiago, because the routes spread out in all directions like the lines on the shell, but I have no idea how accurate that is.)
This makes sense in the historical context: for the earliest pilgrims, journeying to the remains of Saint James for absolution or blessing, this wasn’t about a “starting point.” They couldn’t hop a train to Biarritz or a bus to Pamplona. Their Camino began the moment they stepped out their door. Over time, certain roads became popular, either because they led past other holy relics and shrines, or because they followed established trade routes, offering safer roads and more services.
Today, UNESCO recognizes four official routes in Spain:
- Camino Francés, from St Jean Pied-de-Port to Santiago. This is the “500 mile/800 kilometer” path that most people refer to as “the” Camino. Last year, two-thirds of pilgrims arriving in Santiago came from the Francés. (Helpful stats compiled by the American Pilgrims of the Camino)
- Camino Primitivo, the oldest recorded trail to Santiago, beginning in Oviedo and passing through the rugged, beautiful mountains.
- Camino del Norte, following the northern coast of Spain along the Bay of Biscay.
- Camino Vasco del Interiór, a little-known connector trail that links Irun to Burgos.
In addition, UNESCO acknowledges the four routes across France that “feed into” the Camino Frances, mentioned in the classic 12th century text Codex Calixtinus.
Leading to St Jean Pied-de-Port and the Camino Francés are routes that begin in Paris/Tours, Vézelay, and Le Puy-en-Velay. Branching off behind those are marked trails leading back even farther – Eric and I met pilgrims on the Le Puy route who had started in Switzerland. In his new book, Beyond Even the Stars, Father Kevin Codd (To the Field of Stars) describes how his second Compostela pilgrimage started in his hometown in Belgium.
And then there is a route that officially begins in Arles, France, and crosses a southern pass of the Pyrenees, linking with the Camino Francés near Puente La Reina. Pilgrims coming from Italy and other parts south would have filtered onto that path in order to safely cross the mountains.
But wait…there’s more!
There are at least 3 additional historic and marked Camino routes in Spain:
- Via de la Plata – the longest Camino
- Camino Inglés– the shortest Camino
- Camino Finisterre and Muxia – the only Camino where Santiago is not the destination
Plus, there’s one that starts in Portugal: the Camino Portugués. This popular route travels north from Lisbon and Porto and draws the second-highest number of pilgrims to Santiago every year.
If that’s not enough, the Confraternity of St James has a map that shows 24(!) different marked and maintained routes that all, eventually, lead to Santiago. Some connect Camino routes together. Others stretch to every corner of Spain, and a few holy places in France.
It can all get a bit mind-numbing to think about.
So for now, let’s just all agree that to walk “the whole” Camino would take a lot of time, a LOT of miles, and a lot of backtracking to start again from a new direction.
And when someone asks if I walked “the whole” Camino, I tell them that as far as I know, no one has ever done that. There’s always a new path waiting to be explored.
What’s your favorite Camino route? What’s the one you’re hoping to experience next?