The Way of Saint James: practical advice
There are different ways of doing the Way of Saint James: on foot, by bike, on horseback… However you choose to travel, you'll be able to discover all the cultural and natural riches Spain has to offer. Select your favourite mode of transport and enjoy this experience in the way you like most. Below are some recommendations to make your journey more comfortable.
If you're travelling on foot…
- A rucksack is essential. One with a 40-litre capacity, the anatomical kind, is enough. A hip-belt is a good idea so the weight is more comfortable to carry. It should also have compartments and side pockets so you don't have to take everything out when you're looking for something.
- As for weight, the overriding rule is “less is more”. Your rucksack should never weigh more than 7 kilos, or 10% of your weight. Remember how many footsteps and how many kilometres you're going to have to carry it on your back until you reach Santiago de Compostela. Don't succumb to the temptation to take things "just in case", as you'll find supermarkets, chemists, and a whole range of shops all along the route where you can pick up everything you need.
- A sleeping bag, rain cape and mat are essential equipment. Don't forget your personal documents (ID card, passport or any other identifying document, and your medical card) and a basic first-aid kit. Remember to take a water bottle, and in addition to your sponge bag, a towel, soap powder for washing clothes, and clothes pegs.
- Footwear is another key feature. It's best to use water-resistant mountain boots which adapt well to the shape of your foot (you should use half a size larger that your normal shoe size), well broken-in if possible. If they're new, try to get in some training with them at home before setting out.
- Wear cotton socks always dry and put them on carefully to avoid chafing and blisters. A good way to prevent this is to put Vaseline on your feet. Take a pair of flip-flops for the shower and to give your feet a bit of a rest at the end of each stage.
If you're travelling by bike…
- Bear in mind that there are sections and stages with variants for anyone doing the Way by bike. Some of these follow the main roads. They are usually well signposted, although you'll also find them described in specific guides.
- If you can choose, the best thing is a mountain bike. Before setting out, it's a good idea to do a bit of training, as it's not at all the same thing pedalling along while carrying saddle bags with all your luggage, as without them.
- Don't forget to give your bike a tune-up, and make sure to check particularly the brakes, gears and wheels. A helmet, cycling gear, waterproof, gloves and suitable footwear are essential equipment. And remember to pack a puncture kit and some tools for any possible breakdowns.
- If you're sleeping in pilgrims' hostels, head for the ones with the greatest capacity, as until 8 pm pilgrims travelling on foot have priority.
- Once in Santiago de Compostela, there's a Left Luggage service for rucksacks and bikes at the Pilgrims' Office (Rúa do Vilar).
If you're travelling on horseback…
- Doing the Way on horseback requires more preparation. As well as getting your horse used to carrying loads, you'll also need to take the animal to the vet for its vaccinations, and to take out some insurance.
- It's a good idea to reserve places for your horse to stay overnight and to prepare the sacks of feed it'll need along the route.
- The local police need to be given several days' advance notice if you're entering Santiago de Compostela on horseback (tel. 092), so they can tell you what time to come and the route you have to take. They'll also issue a permit allowing you to enter the Plaza del Obradoiro square, and to stay in front of the Cathedral for a limited period of time.
Accommodation on the Way
You'll find a whole range of different kinds of accommodation to choose from all along the route, according to your needs and preferences: pilgrims' hostels, rural lodgings, hotels, Parador hotels, guesthouses, campsites…
• Pilgrims' hostels
- There are public hostels which are free, and others where you're required to pay a small donation to cover the costs of cleaning and maintenance. There are also private hostels which cost a little more. The public hostels are usually the first to fill up.
- At times when the Way is very busy, for example in the summer months and in Jacobean years, other spaces such as sports centres, churches etc. are sometimes called into service to accommodate pilgrims overnight if everything is full.
- Places in hostels can't be reserved; they're allotted to pilgrims strictly on a first-come, first-serve basis. Foot pilgrims have priority, then those on horseback and then cyclists.
- You can only spend one night in each hostel, except in the case of illness. They usually open at midday, and after 9 or 10 in the evening there is a "rule of silence", when no noise is permitted so people can get some rest. In the morning you have to be out by 8 or 9 to allow time for the staff prepare to receive the day's pilgrims. In some hostels, breakfast is included.
• Other accommodation
- All along the route, you'll find a range of different possibilities in the various towns and villages you pass through. You can choose from the family-style welcome you'll find in the rural lodges, to the charm of sleeping in genuine restored historic buildings, as is the case of the Parador hotels in León and Santiago de Compostela.
- This is the best option when you feel like staying on for a few days to explore a particular spot that has caught your attention, when you want to enjoy one of the local festivities, or simply to make a stop on your route.
- It's also a good idea to choose an option other than the pilgrims' hostels if you're travelling with a support car or with a large group.
Other things you need to know…
- The established stages for foot pilgrims generally consist of stretches of between 20 and 30 kilometres a day; and between 60 and 70 kilometres for cyclists. However, everyone can plan their route according to their age, pace or physical condition, making the stages longer or shorter as they wish.
- Always follow the yellow arrows. Keep your eyes open, as you'll find them all in a variety of places: on walls, on the ground, on trees, stones, posts, etc… If you ever get lost or can't make out which way to go, just ask. There will always be someone happy to point you in the right direction.
- It's a good idea to start the day with a hearty breakfast. Sweets or dried fruit and nuts are ideal for a quick energy fix along the route. Remember to drink lots of water while on the road, even if you don't feel thirsty. You'll find plenty of drinking fountains along the way where you can fill your water bottle or flask.
- And for lunch and dinner, there are all kinds of restaurants, cafés and bars where you can get your strength up again, as well as sampling the typical gastronomy of each area. Some places also offer a “pilgrim's menu ” at a reasonable price.
- Dress according to the time of year. From spring to autumn is a good time to do the Way, always bearing in mind that July and August are the hottest months, and the time when you're likely to find the most people.
- Make sure you take comfortable clothing which breathes. Take a sweater or something warm for the nights, and a hat and some sun cream to protect yourself from the sun.
- You show your "passport" (or "credencial") when you stay in the pilgrim's hostels. You can acquire it in the hostel where you start out on the Way; or else at the associations of Friends of the Way (Amigos del Camino) before you start your journey.
- The "passport" is not the same as the “Compostela”: this is granted to pilgrims who are travelling for religious or spiritual reasons and who have done at least the last 100 kilometres to Santiago on foot or on horseback, or the last 200 kilometres by bike, as a general rule.
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