It’s essential. You can’t get the Compostela, recording your Camino, without an approved document that’s been stamped along the way. The idea is that you should have places linked to the church and the Camino stamp the credencial when you visit. In practice it’s difficult sometimes to find someone to stamp it in a place of worship.
You’ll need to get an approved credencial before you leave home. In the UK the Confraternity of Saint James offers quite an inexpensive and attractive one, and the office of pilgrims website has details of other places to get the document. They’ll ask about your plans and your purpose, and the receiving office of pilgrims states that only a religious or spiritual purpose qualifies you for a Compostela.
If only walking the last 100km, the minimum to receive the Compostela, you must get at least two stamps per day. Best to have the place you stay stamp and date on the day you leave, and pick up stamps at cafes, restaurants or shops along the way. The larger churches are often keen to stamp, as it encourages people to visit a little longer.
If you’re starting the Camino in Portugal, Oporto is popular at around 200 miles from Santiago. Our Camino started in Vigo, and you could start near the Portuguese border at Tui, but would still need to fly to Vigo. Much of the advice here, therefore, relates to the Vigo to Santiago route, including the Variante Espiritual.
Vigo airport is a decent size, in line with the size and activity of the city itself, but not large. The easiest and cheapest way to get into the city is the hourly bus from right outside the airport. There’s a timetable by the exit and we were lucky, waiting only 5 or 10 minutes. Beyond the bus, a taxi will set you back around 24€ against the 1.35€ fixed price of the bus.
Although not essential, having a reasonable grasp of Castilian Spanish is an advantage. Certainly try to learn (and to recognise) some common phrases you’ll use a lot, such as más despacio por favor to ask someone to speak more slowly, and soy inglés or whatever applies to you, to let them know where you’re from.
The other local language is gallego , the language of the region with links to Portuguese, Spanish and a celtic past. This is still extremely widely spoken, although Castilian remains the national shared language.
Of course there are plenty of languages spoken along the Camino in addition to Castilian Spanish. The standard greeting of Hola and a goodbye of Buen Camino or Buen Camiño were spoken on our route by people from Belarusia, Cuba, France, Ireland, Germany, Panama, Poland, Portugal, UK and USA as well as many we never identified. It’s either an international community or a Tower of Babel depending on your viewpoint. I’m pretty sure it’s the former, with most people trying to communicate and get on with other pilgrims.
Road signs, place names, shop signs and graffiti alike are invariably in gallego. It looks a little like Portuguese but you’ll soon get the hang of it.
Signs of the Camino vary. The blue and yellow scallop shell indicates main routes and is often set into walls along the way. Often this is added to with spray-painted yellow arrows on walls, lampposts and the like, blue arrows pointing in the opposite direction only. Yellow Xs are sometimes usefully sprayed to stop you taking a wrong turn. In fact on the occasions we thought it was about time we got some reassurance from a sign, someone had put over there. It is a community after all.
On the Variante Espiritual the signs are small posts a metre or so high with the scallop and a yellow arrow. These are again supplemented with sprayed marks but less often, especially when following another route (e.g. following a river) with its own marks. In general the routes are fairly intuitive but keep your eyes open for slight deviations.
There are a number of guidebooks and websites for the various caminos, in varying levels of detail. Make sure you get a book that doesn’t take up too much space and applies to the route you’ve chosen. There’s no point taking extra weight. Don’t be fooled by the space some offer at the back for Camino stamps. It won’t be accepted as a credencial. A map showing the surroundings, rather than just the route, could be an advantage if you intend to figuratively ‘stop and smell the flowers’ or just to dwell a little longer. That aside, the cellphone a wonderful thing.
At the time of writing the COVID arrangements are still in force, requiring accommodation to be at 50% occupancy or less. So booking ahead turns out to be essential. We traveled in September, which along with July and August seems one of the busier months.
There’s a range of places to stay from albergues and hostels to hotels, apartments and a few private houses. Cost will be a consideration, and if course the longer you’re walking the greater the cost of places to stay. Albergues and hostels may be solely dormitories, or a mix of larger and smaller rooms. We restricted bookings to twin rooms, taking the ongoing pandemic into consideration.
Monasteries and seminaries sometimes offer rooms for pilgrims, but the one we had hoped to stay at, in Armenteira, was advertised as first-come-first-served in the peak months. In fact, when we arrived it was full, with some bookings taken in early September, so it’s worth checking ahead, if you have some flexibility.
Hotels along the route are welcoming to walkers, very much so as it turned out. They can be great value but if you plan to start walking early in the morning it may be best to go for room only and plan to breakfast part way into the walk.
Sanitary / Health
Most places you visit will have hand sanitizer but of course it’s always going to be useful to have a small bottle with you. Face masks are obligatory inside when not eating, and outside in any situation where 2m social distance isn’t easy to keep.
On the wooded routes including over the hill before Armenteira, horse flies are a bit of a problem so insect repellent is advisable. Other than that (and seeing a couple of hornets… at a distance or sampling our food) insects didn’t cause any bother.
Blister plasters were a godsend, used as soon as you get an inkling of a blister maybe forming. Didn’t use too many but now than I’d expected. Wide strips of adhesive plaster were handy to take the pressure off rubbing points too. Chafing, it has to be said, is worst in the wet. Changes of socks and underwear part way throughout days walking can be a blessing.
The Compostela and Certificado de Distancia
These are the documents you get from the pilgrims office in Santiago, just a 5 minute walk from the main square. The Compostela confirms that you completed at least the minimum distance of 100km for religious or spiritual reasons. The distancia states (or rather estimates) how far you walked based on the starting point and your first stamp. The latter will cost you 3€, the Compostela is free.
The process for getting these is quite lengthy although well managed. This shouldn’t be surprising as when we walked the Camino,in mid September, there were between 1000 and 1500 pilgrims a day arriving in the city. Take your stamped and completed credencial with you.
First you find the oficina de peregrinos (open 9-6) and outside there is a QR code which you scan to get a link to the pilgrims’ website. There you register on your mobile, answering questions about yourself and your journey, and once completed you get a personal QR code. This gives access inside the grounds.
Walk straight through, down some stairs and into a garden waiting area. To your left is a building where in a kiosk at the end you show your QR code and they give you a paper ticket… with yet another QR and a number. The number is your place in the queue (deli style) which gives an indication of when you can collect your Compostela. The code links to a live update of which numbers are ready, and means you can head back out to somewhere not too far away for a wander, coffee or lunch etc while you wait.
To give an indication, we visited the office on the morning after we arrived. There were about 400 peregrinos in the virtual queue before us and it took about two and a half hours before our turn came. There are plenty of displays in the grounds and the app tells you when to move upstairs. It really is smooth but I don’t suggest you plan to wait around. If it goes more quickly, it’s a bonus.
Santiago de Compostela
The city of Santiago is bigger than you might expect but the historical centre is probably the address you’ll spend most of your time in. Arrival in the large Praza de Obradoiro is an experience I’ll let you experience your own way. Everyone does. But needless to say it’s impressive from all perspectives. Running out from this square is a warren of narrow, often cobbled streets with shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels and hostels.
The tourist souvenir shops and stalls sell much the same everywhere, with little variation, but there are some specialist shops too. There are few internationally branded shops here, compared to Pontevedra. Frankly that makes everything at least a little different.
Further afield there is Fisterra or Finisterre, the ‘end of the world’. On a misty day it feels like it but when the sun’s out it’s well with the effort. Walking another 85km is perhaps too much to ask for most, and for 25-30€ you can join a day trip including Fisterra and the scenic beach at Muxia as well as other interesting places en route. I confess we didn’t have time to take this trip before returning home, but on a previous visit we enjoyed a drive to Fisterra and the scenery along the way. I remember being struck by the number of walking pilgrims, so it seems that plenty take the extra pilgrimage beyond Santiago de Compostela.
Tours of the city are available on foot (free of charge) or by a tourist ‘train’ that costs about 6€. All go from, and return to, the main square by the cathedral. On foot the guide will probably take you into the cathedral. If you’re wanting to see the cathedral on your own, try the afternoon rather than joining a long queue in the morning. And it’s free, although with many opportunities to leave a donation, gratefully received.
Food and Drink
The range of food and drink on offer in the city is wide, varied and wonderful. The tapas ranges from excellent to adequate but with most at the better end. Bocaterias offer snacks with your drinks, but probably no more than two per drink. Buy more drinks, eat more. Restaurantes offer traditional Galician meals more than the Spanish food you may be more familiar with. It’s similar but with a twist and there’s a lot of great quality fish (pescado) and shellfish (mariscos) seasonally available.
Cafés and bars serve bottled beer but a cheaper option is a caña, draught beer, usually the good quality Estrella Galicia, occasionally another such as the Portuguese Super Bock. Wine is good and not usually too expensive. The Rias Baixas are well known for the white Albariño wines which are often between 12 and 15€ a bottle in a restaurant and go well with seafood. If you want red, expect to pay a little more, probably from La Rioja or another Spanish region.
Assuming you’re leaving from Santiago’s Rosalia De Castro airport it’s about twenty minutes by taxi and you can expect to pay 20 to 25 euros. The bus will take you an hour or so from the station so if you can spare the fare go by taxi.
The airport has a few shops and they’re largely expensive. One cafeteria and some vending machines too. So do your take-home shopping before if you can. It’s international departures terminal is small but light, comfortable and clean.
Always a helping hand
Whatever you find yourself along the Camino De Santiago, you can be sure that you’re not on your own. Thousands arrive each day in the city at the end of their journey and their adventure. You’re one of them. And not just in number, but you’re part of the Camino community. You’ll meet fascinating people, visit and pass through absorbing and authentic places. But everywhere you’ll always find the gift of a helping hand. Remember to take it with gratitude, and always be ready to return the favour.