One of the most common questions about the Camino de Santiago is one without a good answer: ‘How on earth do I get to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port?’
The small village in the French Pyrenees, the modern starting point of the Camino Francés, is not exactly an international transport hub and is difficult to reach, no matter where you’re coming from.
The two most common – and exhausting – practical answers for how to arrive in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port are to fly to Paris and take two trains, or to fly to Madrid or Barcelona and take a combination of trains and buses. All of these options take 6-8 hours beyond the flight and hardly leave pilgrims refreshed and ready to embark on an 800km walk to Santiago.
While there are other starting points for the Camino Francés, an alternative for those wanting to hit the ground running is to fly directly to one of the major cities of the Iberian peninsula, soak up everything that city has to offer for a couple of days, and then simply start walking.
Here are five brilliant cities that double as starting points for various routes of the Camino de Santiago.
Camino de Madrid
The Spanish capital bursts with energy, especially once the sun goes down. The Prado Museum is world-famous, while the Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor are vast squares that showcase the rhythm and pulse of life in Madrid.
If you’re into older historical attractions, don’t miss the National Archeological Museum or the Debod temple, a fourth-century BC Egyptian temple remarkably transported stone by stone in the 1960s and then re-erected in Madrid.
Once you’ve savoured the highlights of Madrid, the Camino de Madrid awaits.
From the Church of Santiago in central Madrid, pilgrims can walk to Plaza Castilla and pick up the arrows for this fantastic short camino. The Camino de Madrid offers a bit of everything: a mountain pass, the wonderful city of Segovia, historic churches and castles headlined by Wamba and Coca, the Canal de Castilla and the Meseta.
At the end point of the Camino de Madrid in Sahagún, pilgrims have three appealing options for extending their camino and going all the way to Santiago: continuing on the Camino Francés, switching to the Camino Invierno at Ponferrada, or turning north at León to walk the San Salvador to Oviedo and then the Camino Primitivo.
As the most visited city in Spain for international tourists, Barcelona needs no introduction. While the Sagrada Família and Las Ramblas usually claim top billing, Barcelona also offers attractions for medieval-minded pilgrims, including the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gótic) and the cathedral, complete with geese who live in its cloister.
The city museum (Museu d’Història de la Ciutat) is also well worth seeking out. Beyond the exhibits, which include medieval frescoes, the highlight of the museum is walking through subterranean Roman and Visigothic remains, which help illuminate the layers of history that permeate the lands of the Camino de Santiago.
From Barcelona, the Camino Catalán takes pilgrims past the still-functioning Montserrat Monastery (also an alternative starting point) northwest into the interior of Spain. At Tàrrega, a fork in the path grants pilgrims two options: one heading due west to join the Camino del Ebro and eventually the Francés near Logroño, and the other continuing northwest, joining the Camino Aragonés and merging with the Francés earlier at Puente la Reina.
The former option includes passing through Zaragoza on the Ebro, while the latter allows pilgrims to visit the extraordinary rock-cut monastery at San Juan de la Peña, which dates from the 10th century and serves as an appropriate ending to the Camino Catalán.
The Catalán is the least developed of the routes discussed in this article, which means it can be a lonely but off-the-beaten-path camino experience. It is best attempted in spring when wildflowers abound and the fields are green, rather than the brown of autumn.
Vía de la Plata
The capital of Andalucía is one of the most spectacular cities in Spain, and my personal favourite. There’s something magical about Andaluciá that is on full display while strolling through the neighbourhoods of Seville and exploring its unmissable attractions, including the world’s largest Gothic church and the Alcázar palace-fortress that dates from the period of Islamic rule.
Seville is also home to Spain’s most famous Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) processions, and experiencing these festivities is an unforgettable way to begin a pilgrimage to Santiago. Coincidentally, Semana Santa coincides with the best time to start walking the Vía de la Plata in spring, when wildflowers are in bloom, it isn’t too hot yet in the south and the sunshine will follow you all the way to Galicia.
The Vía de la Plata is a famously remote and challenging camino that takes pilgrims into the depopulated west of Spain through the vast open spaces and inhospitable landscapes of Andalucía and the Extremadura.
Along the way, the most imposing Roman ruins on the Iberian peninsula await in Mérida, while Zamora is a veritable celebration of Romanesque architecture, containing no fewer than 24 churches in that iconic medieval architectural style.
Shortly after Zamora, pilgrims can opt to turn off onto the Camino Sanabrés and follow it to Santiago, or continue on the Vía de la Plata to Astorga, where the path joins the Camino Francés.
Other viable but less common options are to turn west at Salamanca onto the Camino Torres or at Zamora onto the Camino Zamorano Portugués (Vía de la Plata Portugués), both of which head into Portugal before recrossing into Spain for the final stages to Santiago.
Caminho Português (full-length)
The Portuguese capital has become one of the trendiest cities in Europe in recent years and it’s easy to see why: Lisbon is sunny, friendly, inexpensive by European standards, and a riot of light and colour.
The castle, cathedral and tile museum – showcasing Portuguese azulejos – are among the main attractions, but the real charm of Lisbon is to be found in the hilly historical neighbourhoods and their accompanying viewpoints.
Alfama, with its narrow alleys evoking the long-lost Muslim era and its Portas do Sol and Santa Luzia lookouts offering stunning views of Lisbon, is the most atmospheric of these, but Mouraria, Chiado, Santos, Graça and others are well worth exploring.
From the cathedral in Lisbon – or from the nearby Church of Santiago – the first arrows guide pilgrims through Alfama and eventually out of the city and north for 610km to Santiago.
Between Lisbon and Porto, highlights of the camino include the historic cities of Santarém, Tomar and Coimbra, scenic country paths through vineyards and olive trees in the middle section, and, in autumn, as many delicious wild figs as you can hold in your hands.
Caminho Português (central or coastal)
Portugal’s second city is also the second most popular starting point on any route of the Camino de Santiago, with two distinct options for undertaking the pilgrimage. Some pilgrims have been known to begin walking directly from the airport, but Porto is well worth exploring for a couple of days first.
Porto’s charms are similar to Lisbon’s but it is a little rougher around the edges than its southern rival – or less gentrified, seen from another perspective – and it has better wine culture and a more dynamic riverbank scene. The views over the city from the Serra do Pilar monastery are superb, while river trips on the Douro and port tasting in Vila Nova de Gaia are also popular activities.
From Porto, pilgrims have the option of taking the traditional central route or the coastal route, both of which meet up again in Galicia.
The central route passes through picturesque countryside and contains the historic towns of Barcelos and Ponte de Lima, as well as the border posts of Valença (Portugal) and Tui (Spain), both of which have plenty to offer.
The coastal route also passes some interesting towns including Viana do Castelo on the Portuguese side and Baiona on the Spanish side, but the coastal scenery and long walks along the beach are the real drawcard of this camino.
Given that the Portuguese central and coastal routes are the second and third most popular of all camino paths, the most difficult part of this pilgrimage might be deciding which one to take!