Looking for a once-in-a-lifetime trip this summer and have a couple of months to spare? Take an unforgettable hike through the Midi-Pyrenees along the ancient pilgrim trail to Santiago de Compostela.
The Way of Saint James or ‘El Camino Santiago’ is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where it’s believed the remains of the apostle, Saint James the great, are buried. Thousands of Christians make the pilgrimage every year through the Midi-Pyrénées and have been doing so since the middle of the ninth century.
Some are keen walkers and others are on a spiritual quest, finding their faith or looking for a different kind of holiday, but whatever their reason, tourists and pilgrims alike walk through the Midi-Pyrénées to face their own personal challenge, go the distance and surpass themselves along the route.
While there are a number of established routes leading to Santiago from all directions, the most popular is the Camino Frances, which crosses the Pyrenees Mountains along the Spanish-French border starting in St. Jean Pied de Port.
This Camino route covers 800km and a pilgrim can expect to walk 12-15 miles a day to reach the next town for the night. At this pace, a pilgrim can reach the Cathedral de Santiago in 6 to 8 weeks’ time to attend the Pilgrim's Mass held at noon each day. Some choose to travel by bike, and some have done the Camino on horseback.
Many pilgrims carry a scallop shell to symbolise their journey in honour of St. James. According to legend, scallop shells are said to have covered St. James’ body after it was found on the shores of the Galician coast. Most pilgrims also carry a document called the credencial, which gives access to inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation in refugios along the trail. Also known as the "pilgrim's passport", the credencial is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. The credencial is available at refugios and tourist offices. The stamped credencial is also necessary if the pilgrim wants to obtain a compostela, a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage.
If you don’t have a couple of months to spare, you can instead follow a six-day section of the pilgrimage route from Le Mas d'Azil through the Romanesque town of St Lizier to St Bertrand de Comminges, taking in varied countryside steeped in history. Either take a walking map and go it alone or take a guided tour with a local company like La Rebenne.
For more information see Midi-Pyrenees tourist site.