The Camino de Madrid is a brilliant if obscure camino linking the Spanish capital to Sahagún on the Camino Francés, a journey of 322km that takes about 13 days. While not a historical Camino de Santiago, this route offers several outstanding historic sites, a surprising variety of landscapes, an opportunity to get off the beaten path and an excellent network of small albergues.
Here are the highlights of this fine camino.
The Puerto de la Fuenfria Mountain Pass
For the first three stages after leaving Madrid, the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range looms in the distance as the early focal point of the camino. On the fourth day, it’s a 600m ascent from Cercedilla, partly on a Roman road, to the Puerto de la Fuenfria mountain pass. When we walked in early April, it was below freezing when we left Cercedilla, there was still some snow on the pass, and it snowed heavily the following day.
Despite the cold and early morning fog, we crossed the pass under blue skies and had the trail completely to ourselves. After the pass, the next seven or eight kilometres is in beautiful forest, and the ruins of Casa Eraso, a 16th-century royal way station, are atmospherically situated in the woodlands just off the path. Later, on the open plains, the ruins of a 17th-century albergue of sorts for travellers and shepherds are also well worth exploring.
And after a 30km stage that is one of the most memorable – if exhausting – days you could imagine on any camino, the reward is the fabulous city of Segovia.
Segovia is the most famous destination on the Camino de Madrid and with good reason: its compact medieval core includes an imposing Roman aqueduct, several Romanesque churches, a Gothic cathedral and a fairytale Alcázar. It’s an ideal place to take a rest day on the Camino de Madrid, although preferably not in a snowstorm.
The tourism focus of Segovia is the aqueduct, which runs right through the heart of the city and dwarfs the more recent buildings that surround it in the Plaza del Azoguejo. At nightfall, the floodlit aqueduct is perhaps an even more spectacular sight than it is during the day.
While the aqueduct is Segovia’s most celebrated monument, there is plenty more to discover if you have the energy. The 16th-century cathedral is one of the latest examples of monumental Gothic architecture in Europe, while the enchanting turrets are a highlight of the Alcázar, a medieval residence for Castilian kings.
Beyond these sites, Segovia’s historic centre is a delight to explore, and the city’s charms are so seductive that you may not want to strap on your backpack and start walking again.
Sandy Pine Forests
With the rocky landscape and grazing areas of the pre-mountain stages now a thing of the past, the middle section of the Camino de Madrid regularly takes pilgrims through picturesque pine forests on a sandy two-track trail.
While there is barely any road walking on this camino to begin with, these rural stages are particularly soft on the feet and a world away from the cobblestones of the Camino Portugués. The only drawback of these sandy paths is that, if there’s overnight rain, the trail turns into a dryish mud that creates ‘mud-cake’ layers on the bottom of your shoes.
The middle section of the camino also contains some interesting historical sites, notably the Romanesque cloister in Santa Maria la Real de Nieva and the 15th-century castle in Coca. Quite a few villages on this stretch appear to be virtual ghost-towns that are slowly fading away, however, and, unlike similar villages on the Camino Francés, they don’t have a bustling pilgrim trade to keep them going.
The legacy of the Visigoths, who ruled much of the Iberian peninsula between the collapse of Roman power in the fifth century and the Moorish invasion in the eighth, is rarely felt more than in Wamba. The town itself is named after the eponymous Visigothic king who was supposedly crowned there in 672, and because it’s a Germanic name and not a Latin-derived one, Wamba is the only town in Spain that begins with a W.
The seventh-century Visigothic church in Wamba vies with the aqueduct in Segovia as the most significant historical monument on the Camino de Madrid. Part of the original structure remains in the apse, and there is an even older Roman baptismal font made out of an earlier column capital, but there are also later Mozárabic-Romanesque and Gothic elements. The fact that some of the blue and red colouring of the 10th-century frescoes on the back wall of the church survives to this day is quite remarkable.
Adjoining the church is Spain’s largest ossuary, containing the piled-up remains of over 2,500 people who lived in the area from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Visiting the ossuary is not for the faint of heart, but those who do will discover an eeriness that complements the atmospheric nature of the early medieval church.
Everything that makes the famous stretch of the Meseta on the Camino Francés unique – endless fields, evocative ruins, picturesque towns, beautiful churches and a fascinating canal – is equally present on the last four days of the Camino de Madrid.
Starting after Wamba, the Meseta takes pilgrims on a lonely, shadeless trail all the way to the end of the camino. Along the way, towns such as Medina del Rioseco, Villalón de Campos and Grajal de Campos have plenty to offer and are classic overnight destinations with good pilgrim accommodation, especially the decaying albergue-palace in Grajal.
In between these larger towns, the Meseta is dotted with historic sites. The 12th-century, triple-apse church at Santervás de Campos is as stunning as the more renowned Mudéjar-Romanesque churches in Sahagún, while the ruined 16th-century stone tower with its nesting storks in Tamariz is one of the most atmospheric places on the entire camino.
Equally intriguing as these centuries-old treasures, the more modern Canal de Castilla provides one of the most memorable stretches of the camino for the first eight kilometres out of Medina del Rioseco. Walking on a dirt path alongside the tree-lined canal, it’s hard to imagine that it was once a bustling navigational waterway plied by hundreds of barges. It’s now a peaceful backwater and, in that way, a microcosm of the Camino de Madrid itself.
The Spirit of the Camino Reimagined
Pilgrims accustomed to the bustle of more popular routes such as the Francés or Portugués should be aware that the Madrid is a much quieter and more remote camino. We only met five other pilgrims the entire way, and we only saw one of them more than once.
Although this lack of interaction with other walkers does deprive pilgrims of one of the most pleasurable parts of the popular caminos, the spirit of the camino is still alive and well on the Camino de Madrid. On this route, that spirit manifests itself in the interaction you will have with friendly locals who aren’t as jaded by the presence of pilgrims as they may be on the Camino Francés.
These encounters can last for just a few seconds, such as when a construction worker in Alcazarén saw me walking past and yelled out, ‘Bravo! Bravo! Camino de Santiago!’ Or they can be longer and more meaningful experiences, as you will enjoy if you stay at the wonderful cabin-albergue with Ray and Rosa in Manzanares el Real or if you chat for a while to the librarian-driver of the bibliobús, a mobile library that passes through the remote towns of the region.
Throughout the camino, pilgrims will be welcomed wherever they stop, by wonderful characters such as the lovely Margarita with her stamp and free pastry at Pastelaría Rosana in Nava or Kiki with his thumbs-up gestures and never-ending pilgrim breakfast, including an excellent tostada con tomate, at his bar in Villeguillo.
Being able to speak Spanish will enhance these experiences, but even if you don’t, a smile and a shell will go a long way.