Subject: Re: Santiago de Compostela walks
Hello Lucy,

My son did the walk a little over a year ago, starting in southern France, walking down through Burgos and then up to Santiago. It took most of the summer, or a little over 8 weeks to go about 900 miles (1400 km.) In general, summer is the season to do the walk, with the objective of ending up in Santiago de Compostela just in time for the Festival of St. James (i.e. Santiago), which takes place at the very end of July.

In the summer you will be walking with thousands of other pilgrims, although they will be spread out over the length of the trail, so it never feels crowded. It will also be harder to find space in the hostels and refugios during the summer. My son would often just camp out in a field or in a church courtyard.

There is of course nothing requiring you to do the whole walk, or even to do it in the summer. Some just do the last couple hundred kilometers, others do it in stages, tackling a different stretch each year much like hikers do on the Appalachian Trail in the States. The winter in northern Spain, especially on the high central plain, can be brutally cold.

For most of the summer-pilgrims, the walk is a serious undertaking although probably more cultural than religious. They'll carry the walking staff with cockle shell, and also a kind of passport that is stamped by officials of the Camino at each stop along the way.

Even if you don't end up there for the Festival of St. James, I'd recommend trying to be in the cathedral during some special holiday when they swing a giant censer (in gallego "botafumeiro") from ceiling to floor, back and forth along the transept. Legend has it that it was a way to "deodorize" the inside air during the Middle Ages, when the cathedral was perennially filled with pilgrims who had perhaps not washed for the duration of their journey. There is a wonderful description of this spectacle, as well as a good history of the Camino, in James Michener's Iberia, still one of the best books ever written on Spain in my opinion.

Joel, in Chicago