Northern Spain and the Camino de Santiago
We follow the trail pilgrims have trod for centuries, from the French border to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain. Along the way, we stop off in Pamplona to run with the bulls, and dive into the unique Celtic culture of Galicia — where Riverdance meets flamenco.
Pilgrim Friends Office in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port (Les Amis du Chemin de Saint-Jacques)
This is where pilgrims check in before their long journey to Santiago. For a small fee, a pilgrim can buy the official credential (credenciel) that she’ll get stamped at each stop between here and Santiago to prove she walked the whole way and earn her compostela certificate. Pilgrims also receive a warm welcome, lots of advice (like a handy chart breaking down the walk into 34 stages, with valuable distance and elevation information), and help finding a bunk. The well-traveled staff swears that no pilgrim ever goes without a bed in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.
For nine days each July, a million visitors pack into Pamplona to watch a gang of reckless, sangria-fueled adventurers thrust themselves into the path of an oncoming herd of furious bulls. The festival begins at City Hall on noon on July 6, with various events filling the next nine days and nights. Originally celebrated as the feast of San Fermín — who is still honored by a religious procession through town on July 7 — it has since evolved into a full slate of live music, fireworks, general revelry, and an excuse for debauchery. The festival ends at midnight on July 14, when the townspeople congregate in front of the City Hall, light candles, and sing their sad song, “Pobre de Mí”: “Poor me, the Fiesta de San Fermín has ended.”
Pamplona’s Chruch of San Lorenzo
San Fermín is a big name in town, and you’ll find him in a giant side-chapel of this church, overlooking the ring road at the edge of the Old Town. The statue — gussied up in an even more over-the-top miter and staff — is paraded around on Fermín’s feast day, July 7, which was the origin of today’s bull festival. This chapel is the most popular place in town for weddings.
Pamplona’s Café Iruña
Café Iruña, which clings to its venerable past and its connection to Hemingway (who loved the place), serves up drinks out on the main square and food in the delightful old 1888 interior. While the food is mediocre, the ambience is great. Find the little “Hemingway’s Corner” (El Rincón de Hemingway) side-eatery in back, where the bearded one is still hanging out at the bar. Enjoy black-and-white photos of Ernesto, young and old, in Pamplona.
Burgos is rightfully famous for its showpiece Gothic cathedral. With its soaring, frilly spires and an interior that’s been augmented across the centuries, Burgos’ cathedral is an impressive sight.
León’s 13th-century Gothic cathedral is filled with some of the finest stained glass in all of Europe. The purely Gothic structure — extremely high, with columns and pointed arches to direct your gaze ever heavenward — really allows the stained glass to take center stage. Of all this glass (the second-most glass in any European cathedral, after Chartres in France), 70 percent is original, from the 13th to the 16th centuries. If you’re visiting while its windows are being restored, you have a rare chance to see their gorgeous colors up close and personal. Each window is being carefully removed from its old lead frame, dry-cleaned (with minimal use of liquid solvents), and reset.
San Isidoro is an 11th-century Romanesque church that’s been gradually added on to over the centuries. The church itself is free and always open to worshippers, but the attached museum is the real attraction. Inside you’ll see a library, cloister, chapter house, and a “pantheon” of royal tombs featuring some of the most exquisite Romanesque frescoes in Spain.
Villafranca del Bierzo’s albergue is a funky pilgrims’ dorm with oodles of pilgrims bonding. It was built on the site of a medieval clinic that cared for those who needed to take advantage of the puerta del perdón (at the time, the clinic here was the only source of medical aid for 300 miles). Today it provides cheap bunks to 10,000 pilgrims a year. They even have a separate room for snorers. If you’d like to learn about the system (or buy a scallop shell), stop in. It’s run by Jesús, whose father began helping pilgrims here in the 1930s. Jesús welcomes curious non-pilgrims, albeit with the motto “The tourist demands, the pilgrim thanks” (tel. +987-540-260).
O Cebreiro’s Royal St. Mary’s Church
All roads lead to the village church. Founded in the year 836 — not long after the remains of St. James were found in Santiago — this pre-Romanesque building is supposedly the oldest church on the entire French Road of the Camino. The interior is surprisingly spacious, but very simple. Notice the sunken floor: The building is actually embedded into the ground for added protection against winter storms. The desk inside stamps pilgrims’ credentials and sells votive candles. (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with giving your guidebook an O Cebreiro stamp — I did.) In the chapel to the right of the main altar is a much-revered 12th-century golden chalice and reliquary, which holds items relating to a popular local miracle: A peasant from a nearby village braved a fierce winter snowstorm to come to this church for the Eucharist. The priest scoffed at his devotion, only to find that the host and wine had physically turned into the body and blood of Christ, staining the linens beneath them, which are now in the silver box.
Santiago’s Market (Mercado de Abastos)
This wonderful market, housed in Old World stone buildings, offers a good opportunity to do some serious people-watching (Mon–Sat 8:00–14:00, closed Sun). It’s busiest and best on Thursday and Saturday, when villagers from the countryside come to sell things. (Monday’s the least interesting day, since the fishermen don’t go out on Sunday.) The market was built in the 1920s (to consolidate Santiago’s many small markets) in a style perfectly compatible with the medieval wonder that surrounds it. Today it offers an opportunity to get up close and personal with some still-twitching seafood. Keep an eye out for the specialties you’ll want to try later--octopus, shrimp, crabs, lobsters, and expensive-as-gold percebes (barnacles). You’ll also see large loaves of country bread, chicken the color it should be, and the local chorizo (spicy sausage).
Santiago’s cathedral isn’t the biggest in Spain, nor is it the most impressive. Yet it’s certainly the most mystical, exerting a spiritual magnetism that attracts people from all walks of life and from all corners of the globe. Exploring one of the most important churches in Christendom, you’ll do some time travel, putting yourselves in the well-worn shoes of the millions of pilgrims who have trekked many miles to this powerful place. Originally a simple chapel, the cathedral you see today has gradually been added on to over the last 12 centuries. By the 11th century, the church was overwhelmed by the crowds. Construction of a larger cathedral began in 1075, and the work took 150 years.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick’s guidebooks.
Hi. I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the Best of Europe. This time we’re all getting pumped up to run with the bulls in Pamplona…and if I survive that, we’ll join the pilgrims — gratefully — as they hike to Santiago in northwest Spain. Thanks for joining us.
The Camino de Santiago — literally the “Way of St. James” — is Europe’s ultimate pilgrimage route. Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have walked hundreds of miles across North Spain to pay homage to the remains of St. James in the city named for him, Santiago de Compostela. And in our generation the route’s been rediscovered, and more and more pilgrims are traveling this ancient pathway.
In this episode we’ll enjoy a raucous festival, survive a stampede, witness drama in the arena, join pilgrims as they trek across Spain, ponder magnificent Romanesque art, attend a swingin’ Mass, and share in the jubilation of a pilgrimage completed.
During medieval times, Spain became an important pilgrimage destination. Pilgrims from all over Europe journeyed to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain. We’ll join the main route, starting in the Pyrenees at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, stopping in Pamplona, Burgos, León, and on through the region of Galicia to Santiago.
While dedicating a month of your life to walk the Camino may be admirable, it doesn’t work for everyone. But any traveler can use this route as a sightseeing spine and as an opportunity to appreciate some of the joys and lessons that come with being a pilgrim.
Just five miles before the Spanish border stands the French Basque town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Traditionally, Santiago-bound pilgrims would gather here to cross the Pyrenees and continue their march through Spain. Visitors to this popular town are a mix of tourists and pilgrims.
At the Camino office, pilgrims check in before their long journey to Santiago. They pick up a kind of pilgrim’s passport. They’ll get it stamped at each stop to prove they walked the whole way and earn their compostela certificate.
Walking the entire 500-mile long route takes about five weeks — that’s about 15 miles a day, with an occasional day of rest.
The route is well-marked with yellow arrows and scallop shells. The scallop shell is the symbol of both St. James and the Camino. Common on the Galician coast, the shells were worn by medieval pilgrims as a badge of honor to prove they made it. The traditional gear has barely changed: a gourd — for drinking water — just the right walking stick, and a scallop shell dangling from each backpack.
Pamplona, the historic capital of the province of Navarre, with its imposing ramparts, is the first major city pilgrims encounter. Traditionally they enter the city through this gate.
At its peak in the Middle Ages, Navarre was a grand kingdom that controlled parts of today’s Spain and France. Today Pamplona has a distinct energy — with its rich traditions and famous festival.
We’re here in early July for the Festival of San Fermín — and that means the Running of the Bulls — one of Europe’s most exuberant festivals. For nine days each July, throngs of visitors — most dressed in the traditional white with red sashes and kerchiefs — come to run with the bulls and a whole lot more.
The festival, which packs the city, has deep roots. For centuries the people of this region have honored Saint Fermín, their patron saint, with processions and parties. He was decapitated in the second century for his faith and the red bandanas you see everywhere are a distant reminder of his martyrdom. And y’know…I don’t think anyone on this square knows, or even cares.
But at the Church of San Fermín [actually Church of San Lorenzo], it’s a capacity crowd…and there’s no question what to wear for this Mass. To this day, locals look to their hometown saint for protection.
Back out on the streets, it’s a party for young and old. There’s plenty of fun for kids. And towering giants add a playful mystique to the festivities.
The literary giant, Ernest Hemingway, is celebrated by Pamplona as if he were a native son.
Hemingway first came here for the first time for the 1923 Running of the Bulls. Inspired by the spectacle, he later wrote his bullfighting classic The Sun Also Rises. He said he enjoyed seeing two wild animals running together: one on two legs, and the other on four.
Hemingway put Pamplona on the world map. When he first visited, it was a dusty town of 30,000 with an obscure bullfighting festival. Now, a million people a year come here for one of the world’s great parties.
After dark, the town erupts into a rollicking party scene. While the craziness rages day and night, the city’s well organized and, even with all the alcohol, it feels in control and things go smoothly. Amazingly, in just a few hours, this same street will host a very different spectacle.
The Running of the Bulls takes place early each morning. Spectators claim a vantage point along the barrier at the crack of dawn. Early in the morning? Nope, for many of these revelers…it’s still late at night.
The anticipation itself is thrilling. Security crews sweep those not running out of the way. Shop windows and doors are boarded up. Fencing is set up to keep the bulls on course and protect the crowd.
The runners are called mozos. While many are just finishing up a night of drinking, others train for the event. They take the ritual seriously, and run every year.
At 8:00, a rocket is fired and the mozos take off. Moments later a second rocket means the bulls have been released. They stampede half a mile through the town from their pens to the bullfighting arena. At full gallop, it goes by fast.
Bulls thunder through the entire route in just two and a half minutes. The mozos try to run in front of the bulls for as long as possible — usually just a few seconds — before diving out of the way. They say on a good run you feel the breath of the bull on the back of your legs.
Cruel as this all seems for the bulls — who scramble for footing on the cobblestones as they rush toward their doom in the bullring — the human participants don’t come out unscathed. Each year, dozens of people are gored or trampled. Over the last century, 15 mozos have been killed at the event.
After it’s done, people gather for breakfast and review the highlights on TV. All day long, local channels replay that morning’s spectacle.
The finale of the event each day is in the evening when crowds fill the bull ring. Pamplona’s arena, the third biggest in the world (after Madrid and Mexico City) is sold out each day of the festival. One by one the bulls that ran that morning explode out of the gate to meet their matador — first the picadores…then the banderilleros…and finally the matador in his sparkling suit of light.
While cruel brutality to many, others still consider bullfighting an art form. It’s hard for me to appreciate, but to the Spaniards who pack this arena, there’s a nobility to the beast and an elegance to the fight.
Good matadors are like rock stars — they perform with drama, daring, and grace. With each thrilling pass, the crowds cheer until the bull meets his predictable end. If the fight is deemed a good one, the people wave kerchiefs and call for a trophy to be awarded. For this fight, the matador is given an ear from his victim and struts triumphantly around the arena.
The festival’s energy courses through the city. Overlooking the main square, the venerable Café Iruña pulses with music and dance. Enjoying the scene, with its delightful 1888 interior, I’m impressed by the joyful enthusiasm the people of this town have for their festival of San Fermín.
After the commotion of Pamplona, getting back on the pilgrimage trail brings a welcoming peace. From here the hills give way to Spain’s vast high plain. A day’s walk west of Pamplona, the town of Puente de la Reina (or “the queen’s bridge”) retains a pilgrim’s vibe. Its graceful bridge dates from the 11th century, and pilgrims have been crossing it ever since.
Narrow main streets are typical of Camino towns. They were born as a collection of pilgrim services flanking the path — places to eat, sleep, heal, and pray.
This 12th-century church, with a stork’s nest guarding its steeple, is thought to be founded by the Knights Templar, who came to protect pilgrims along the route. Its stark Romanesque interior features a distinctive Y-shaped crucifix — likely carried all the way across Europe to this spot by pilgrims from Germany. I can imagine how, six or seven hundred years ago, the weary faithful would sit right here, gaze up at their savior, and be inspired to carry on.
A five-day walk — or a two-hour drive for us — brings us to our next stop: Burgos. It’s a pedestrian-friendly city straddling its river. Stately plane trees line the riverside promenade, giving shade through the hot days. Its main square seems designed to bring the community together. Today’s Burgos feels workaday, but with a hint of gentility and former power.
Like so many towns here in the north of Spain, it became important during the Reconquista — that centuries-long struggle to push the Muslim Moors back into northern Africa from where they came. Its position on the Camino de Santiago and as a trading center helped it to flourish. For five centuries Burgos was the capital of the kingdom of Castile.
It’s dominated by an awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral — designed by French architects in the 13th century, with its lacy spires added by German architects in the 14th.
The ornate exterior is matched by its lavish and brightly lit interior. In Spain, the final flowering of the Gothic age was the elaborate Plateresque style.
As was typical of Gothic churches, it’s ringed by richly decorated chapels built over the centuries by, and for, wealthy parishioners.
This chapel is dedicated to Saint Anne, the Virgin Mary’s mother. Its 15th-century altar features the Tree of Jesse. A sleepy and apparently very fertile Jesse slumbers at the bottom sprouting a lineage that connects him to the holy child and virgin.
This sumptuous chapel marks the tomb of a regional governor and his wife under a brilliant star-shaped vault. It’s striking for its gracefulness and femininity.
Inspirational as this cathedral is, the pilgrims have a long trek ahead of them. The slow pace and need for frequent rest breaks provide plenty of opportunity for reflection, religious and otherwise. For some, leaving behind a stone symbolizes unloading a personal burden.
The first person to make this journey was Saint James himself. After the death and resurrection of Christ, the apostles traveled far and wide to spread the Christian message. Supposedly, St. James went on a missionary trip from the Holy Land all the way to this remote corner of northwest Spain.
According to legend, in the year 813 St. James’ remains were discovered in the town that would soon bear his name. People began walking there to pay homage to his relics. After a 12th-century pope decreed that the pilgrimage could earn forgiveness of your sins, the popularity of the Camino de Santiago soared.
The Camino also served a political purpose. It’s no coincidence that the discovery of St. James’ remains happened when Muslim Moors controlled most of Spain. The whole phenomenon of the Camino helped fuel the European passion to retake Spain and push the Moors back into Africa.
But by about 1500, with the dawn of the Renaissance and the Reformation, interest in the Camino died almost completely. Then, in the 1960s, a handful of priests re-established the tradition. The route has since enjoyed a huge resurgence, with 100,000 pilgrims trekking to Santiago each year.
Eight days further down the trail is León, a sizable city with an enjoyable small-town atmosphere. Founded as a Roman camp in the first century, León gradually grew prosperous and was the capital of its own kingdom for centuries. Today’s León is the youthful leading city of one of Spain’s biggest provinces.
Its 13th-century Gothic cathedral, towering dramatically over the town center, must have stoked the spirit of medieval Christians.
Through the Middle Ages, the steady flow of pilgrims from all across Europe inevitably resulted in a rich exchange of knowledge, art, and architecture. That’s one reason why today, all along the Camino, you’ll find magnificent churches and exquisite art.
Just down the street, the relatively humble Church of San Isidoro [Museum] houses some of the most sublime medieval art in all of Spain. This “Royal Pantheon,” nicknamed the “Sistine Chapel of the Romanesque age,” is the final resting place of 20 kings of León.
Painted around the year 1100, this is a rare opportunity to see Romanesque frescoes in situ (where they were originally intended). The art shows a realism and movement rare in Romanesque art. Stepping under these vaults, I can imagine the pilgrim centuries ago awe-struck by this mystic beauty.
The angel announces to Mary, with billowing robes, she’ll give birth to the Messiah. All of nature — including goat herders in 11th-century attire — celebrates the news. The story of Christ’s life unfolds from there ending with the events leading up to the crucifixion: After Jesus is condemned, Simon helps carry his cross. Pontius Pilate washes his hands of the whole business, and Jesus is crucified. Finally, Christ returns, triumphant over death, sitting on a rainbow and blessing those 20 royal tombs.
Further along the Camino, the terrain changes. Pilgrims pass through rolling hills blanketed with vineyards. The path leads to the small town of Villafranca del Bierzo, where they reach the 12th-century Church of St. James with its famous Gate of Forgiveness.
The pilgrimage was an arduous trek and not everyone succeeded. Five hundred years ago, thanks to a compassionate pope, it was decided that anyone who made it this far and got sick and couldn’t complete the journey over the rugged last stretch to Santiago could stop here and call it a successful pilgrimage anyway.
Next to the church is a classic Camino albergue. This 80-bed hostel is run by volunteers and provides 10,000 pilgrims a year with nearly free beds.
At regular intervals all along the route, humble hostels like this give trail-weary pilgrims a place to tend their needs — from nursing sore feet, to doing laundry. Volunteers cook and serve communal meals. A wonderful camaraderie percolates, as a multi-national community — young and old and of all beliefs — is created.
The challenging journey encourages introspection and each pilgrim has their own motivation.
Rick: So, why have you taken this journey?
Pilgrim 1: For me, I suppose it’s a bit kind of corny or cheesy but um, to find things like a bit of balance again in life, you know I spend a lot of time in my job working in an office, its sales, it’s stressful, it’s money-money-money, so it’s nice to get out on the open road, live out of a rucksack, just forget about cars and computers and motorways. You know I was getting a bit tired and worn down by all that so for me hopefully, I’ll take back kind of a feeling of regeneration, renaissance.
Pilgrim 2: To learn just to live with the silence of the nature around you. And you really feel ascent into a world that most of the time doesn’t exist in big towns like Berlin or New York or other towns because there is always something around you that distracts you. But when you are in villages like this here, yeah, and you only see the church and there’s nobody on the street, it’s really calming.
Pilgrim 3: I think that you feel closer to God doing this Camino. You feel closer to your own soul because you have time to think about yourself, about your problems, about the things that you left at home and you feel closer to God, closer to your own soul.
The final leg of the journey leads through lush and green Galicia.
And the gateway to Galicia is the rustic hamlet of O Cebreiro, perched high on a ridge. The town welcomes pilgrims with ancient and characteristic stone huts.
The church, founded in the ninth century, is one of the oldest on the Camino route. Pilgrims are sure to stop in for another stamp on their Camino credential.
Green and densely forested Galicia shatters visitors’ preconceptions of Spain. Pilgrims pass ghostly castles, simple farmhouses with slate roofs, and sleepy medieval villages. Here, it’s easy to see the Celtic heritage Galicians share with their cousins just across the sea in Ireland.
After over a month on the trail, spirits are high as well-worn pilgrims reach their final stop: the city of Santiago de Compostela.
Santiago has long had a powerful and mysterious draw on travelers. This neat and sturdy city is built of granite. Its arcaded streets are a reminder that winters here are cold and wet. Strolling across its squares and under its grand churches, you can imagine a time when the city was a religious and cultural powerhouse.
Santiago’s heyday was the 12th century, when the notion of Europe was still in its infancy. It served as a place where people from all corners came together, shared ideas, and then dispersed. In some ways, the very idea of Europe as a civilization jelled during this age. And Santiago played an important role.
Apart from all the pilgrim action and its venerable architecture, Santiago is a workaday town. Its vibrant market offers a fine opportunity to sample the essentials of its hearty cuisine. Farmers sell their produce. The shapely cheeses are enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. And the seafood is as fresh as can be.
A Galician specialty is octopus…prepared local style, or a la gallega. After the tenderized octopus is boiled in a copper pot, it’s snipped into bite-size pieces. It’s topped with a mix of sweet and spicy paprika, sea salt, and olive oil, then served on a wooden plate. Eat it with toothpicks, never a fork.
People here have their own distinct language: Galego — it’s a mix of Spanish and Portuguese. Galicia’s ancient Celtic roots are particularly evident in its music. With wailing pipes and thundering drums, the Celtic heritage announces itself loud and clear.
But nothing can distract the pilgrims as they take the final steps of their long journey. Around the last corner, they reach the destination of a thousand years of pilgrims: the cathedral that holds the tomb of St. James.
As millions of weary and exhilarated pilgrims have done before them, they stand before the cathedral and are filled with jubilation.
But the religious climax for many lies within the cathedral. Imagine you’re a medieval pilgrim: You’ve just walked 500 miles — your journey is done. Worshipping before the altar, you give thanks to St. James for a safe passage, and you reflect on the lessons of your journey.
And, if you’re here on a festival day, the Mass culminates with an enormous swinging incense burner. Gazing at the spectacle of this 120-pound burner flying through the air, you’re awe-struck by the wonder of God.
Finally, you climb the stony staircase behind the altar to the statue of St. James — studded with precious gems. Embracing him from behind, you take a moment to celebrate your spiritual — or personal — triumph.
Our journey across northern Spain reminds me we all have choices. Some will run with the bulls, others will trek with the pilgrims. Whatever path you follow, don’t forget to enjoy the journey. I’m Rick Steves. Till next time, keep on travelin’ and buen camino!
Rick: Hi I’m Rick Steves back with more of the best of Europe. Buenos tardes, buenos tardes!
Rick: Don’t forget to enjoy the journey. I’m Rick Steves. Until next time keep on travelin’.