Practical advice for the way of Saint James
SIGNPOSTING ALONG THE ROUTE
The route from Montserrat to Alcarràs has been signposted using the system of the Direcció General de Turisme (General Directorate of Tourism): with three-metre high poles, with one or more route indicators, showing which way to go. These direction indicators are blue: the standard colour used to signpost the Camí de Sant Jaume (Way of St. James) throughout Europe. The signs are also marked with the scallop shell symbol.
The Camí de Sant Jaume from Montserrat is also signposted with the typical yellow arrow indicators used along all of the other parts of the Way of St. James. In Catalonia, these signs have been painted by members of the Associació d’Amics del Camí de Sant Jaume (Association of Friends of the Way of St. James) of Sabadell. Given the diversity of the people who have done this work, it is possible to find a range of different sign styles and sizes, but they are all yellow and have an arrow. If you follow the signs, they will lead you to Santiago de Compostel·la.
It is also important to bear in mind the fact that the Way is like a living entity: it is constantly adapting to changing circumstance (new roads and buildings, industrial areas, etc.). As a result, you are recommended to follow the arrows and, when in doubt, to ask local people the way to avoid getting lost.
- Essential Documentation: National Identity Document, Social Security Card and the Pilgrim’s Credential.
- How to prepare your rucksack: Travel light, never carrying more than 10 kg. If possible, your rucksack should not weigh more than 10% of your total body weight. Do not take any unnecessary objects; you will be able to acquire almost everything that could need at one of the towns or cities along the way. Make sure your rucksack is comfortable and comfortably adapted to your body, with waist and chest straps and external pockets. This will allow you to take things out of your bag and put them in it without too much bother. Put things in your rucksack in an orderly way. It is a good idea to use different coloured plastic bags to make things them easy to find and prevent them getting wet.
- What footwear to use: Never use new footwear. Your boots should be adapted to your feet and comfortable. They should fit well around your ankle and have a good sole. It is not necessary to take a change of footwear with you, but you should carry some flip-flops to allow your feet to relax at the end of the day.
- The scallop shell: This is the most significant symbol for pilgrims on the Way of St. James. It was already considered the emblem of St. James back in the 13thcentury. Pilgrims acquire their shells at their destination. On returning to their points of origin, they normally carry them hanging from their waists, hats or bags. Pilgrims returning from Rome and Jerusalem used to do the same with keys and palm leaves, respectively.The origins of the scallop shell symbol are uncertain. The shell is similar to an open hand, which is a symbol of charity, but it could also be a symbol of birth etc.
- Clothing: Pilgrims should take relatively little clothing: two sets of everyday clothes, a pullover and something to give shelter from the wind. You should always have clean, dry socks. You are also recommended to carry some long, all-weather, trousers that are easy to put on and take off without the need to take off your shoes, as well as a wide-brimmed hat to protect your rucksack (if you have a wide-brimmed hat, it is possible to leave behind other weather protection). If your pilgrimage continues as far as Fraga, Zaragoza, or even further, you should carry some soap powder to wash your clothes. You should wear a cap or hatespecially when it is hot and sunny.
- Sleeping bag: Take a sleeping bag if you are thinking of taking advantage of the places where travellers can stay. In summer, your sleeping bad should be quite thin. A foam rubber mat is a good travel companion. Although a good choice of route may mean that you will not need to use it, it is an essential part of your equipment, particularly if your route will take you as far as Santiago. So do not think twice; take it in your rucksack.
- First-aid kit: It is advisable to carry only the bare essentials: sticking plasters, scissors, adhesive tape, cotton and/or elastic bandaging, anti-inflammatory cream, aspirin or paracetamol, a disinfectant (povidone iodine), sun protection cream and a remedy for blistered feet. It is best to buy everything you will need before setting off.
ADVICE IF YOU PLAN TO TRAVEL ON FOOT
- Before setting off: As with other long distance walks, the Camí de Sant Jaume is both a physical and mental challenge that requires careful preparation. The first recommendation is to make sure that you are physically prepared to successfully undertake the pilgrimage. Doing the route on foot is within the possibilities of everyone; it is not necessary to have any special physical preparation to complete it. Even so, it is recommendable to do a few preparatory walks before setting off and to gradually walk a little further every day. If possible, it is also a good idea to do these walks with a full rucksack and in the boots that you plan to wear on the walk. To fully enjoy the route, you should find some information about the route and the history of the Way of St. James. There are a number of published guides to the Way and it is possible to find plenty of bibliography about the art and history of the pilgrimages in order to get the most out of the cultural experience that this route offers.
- When is the best time of year to do the route? The spring and summer months are probably the best times for walking the route, as the temperatures are milder. Moreover, in spring, the days are longer and it is possible to walk in both the morning and evening. In winter, there is often almost permanent fog in parts of the Lands of Lleida and temperatures rarely exceed 5ºC. In summer, the sun mercilessly scorches down on both the route and the pilgrims.
- How many stages? Before setting off, it is recommendable to make a stage by stage route plan. This should take into account the fact that it is normal to cover between 25 and 35 kilometres a day. Bear in mind that with a full rucksack, the average walking speed is about 4 kilometres per hour. It is best to plan short stages for the first few days to allow your body to gradually get used to the physical exertion. In summer, avoid the hottest parts of the day and set off as early as possible. Use protective sun cream and wear a hat to prevent sunstroke. Be careful not to walk too fast on the first few days until you have developed a good rhythm and can walk at a comfortable pace. On the sections next to main roads, walk along the left-hand side of the road. Do not forget that you are the weakest travellers on the road and that motor vehicle drivers often do not notice walkers. If you are walking at night, wear something reflective to make yourself as visible as possible to oncoming traffic.
- Blistered feet: These are due to your feet rubbing against your footwear as you walk. You will probably have at least one blister (and possibly various) on your walk along the Camí de Sant Jaume. If the blister gets bigger and you decide to burst it, take the necessary precautions to make sure that it does not get infected. A good option is to lance a blister with a sterile needle (which can be bought at any chemist’s shop). Then, immediately apply a disinfectant (such as povidone iodine) and make sure that it does not get dirty. If the blister returns, you should repeat the process until it definitively disappears. If you are still worried about blisters, the best way to prevent them is to take your shoes off and air your feet and socks for an hour or two every time you stop; in that way, they will dry up.
- Eating and drinking: You should always carry a little food and drink in your rucksack: dried fruit, fresh fruit, chocolate and water. Bear in mind the distance between service points so that you can make provision for your food and drink requirements during each stage, Walkers should avoid large meals; it is best to eat little and often and therefore maintain a balance between what is consumed and what is worked off. It is important to drink water, even when you are not thirsty, in order to recover the liquids lost through sweating.
SOME ADVICE FOR CYCLISTS
It is not the same to go for a bicycle ride at the weekend as to do more than 100 kilometres alternating between roads and earth tracks. Before setting off, it is important to plan the stages well. The section of the Way from Montserrat does not offer any great variations in altitude, but there are alternations between tarmac sections and harder dirt tracks.
Many cyclists divide the route from Montserrat to Lleida into just two stages with Cervera as the break point. This is the most usual option, but it implies quite a challenging first day, with the descent from Montserrat and then the climb up to La Panadella. From Cervera to Lleida (or Alcarràs, if you prefer) the route is absolutely flat.
- Is it better to do the route on foot or by bicycle? The experiences and memories of the Camí de Sant Jaume are very different travelling on foot and by bicycle. By bicycle, it is possible to cover the whole route from Montserrat to Alcarràs in just 2 days, while doing it on foot requires about 5 days. If you are thinking of doing the whole route from Montserrat to Santiago de Compostel·la, you will need a couple of weeks by bicycle, which is much less than the month or more that the journey will take on foot. Travelling by bicycle has the advantage of allowing people to take occasional detours from the Way to discover neighbouring places of interest. It also makes it possible to stop off for longer at the most beautiful points along the route in order to contemplate their attractions without the need to hurry.
- What type of bicycle is recommended? Many pilgrims use mountain bikes to do the pilgrimage to Santiago. These bicycles offer greater ease of pedalling thanks to their 18 or 21 gears, but they are heavier and less comfortable than touring bicycles when riding on roads because of the greater width and the design of their outer tyres. In theory, it is possible to do the whole route by bicycle without using roads, but the irregular nature of the track surfaces and the weight of the equipment that must be carried mean that, in reality, only pilgrims with a very good level of physical preparation will be able to do this. The majority of the pilgrims who use mountain bikes will therefore no doubt end up doing part of the Way cycling along the roads. The Camí de Sant Jaume alternates small climbs and descents along tracks with sections that follow tarmac roads. A MTB is not the best type of bicycle for this type of route due to the friction of their wide wheels. Similarly, conventional bicycles, often called road bicycles, are not very recommendable for use off tarmac roads. The most recommendable type of bicycle to take is therefore a hybrid (a cross between a conventional bicycle and a MTB bike). These bicycles, also known as mixed bicycles, have larger frames than mountain bikes and wheels with a larger radii and narrower outer tyres and they are designed for combined use. On these bicycles, the cranks are usually mixed and larger than on all-surface bicycles. They are large enough for dealing with climbs that are not too extreme and are also well-adapted for rides across flat terrain.
- It is necessary to be well prepared: If you are not an experienced cyclist, previous training will be required. Although it is possible to do this training on the Way itself, you need to bear in mind the effort that this will imply during the first few days of your ride. The average cycling speed for most pilgrims is about 10 kilometres per hour. This means that it should be possible to cover more than 60 kilometres a day.
- Equipment: Use the type of saddlebag that rests on the front or back wheel. You are also recommended to use a bag that fits onto the handlebars of your bicycle and to keep all your documentation (your route guide and the other material that you will need to hand in) in it. Wear brightly coloured cycling clothing to make yourself easily visible to other vehicles on the road. Always wear a protective helmet.
- Respect the Highway Code: As bicycle routes often partly follow local or district roads, you need to remember that riding a bicycle is subject to Spain’s Codi de Circulació General (General Traffic Regulations). Three articles of this code are particularly important: article 30, which states that overtaking must be carried out in accordance with the general rules for road vehicles; article 133, which forbids bicycles from travelling two abreast on roads and only allows them to overtake on the right-hand side when there is a space of at least two metres between the vehicle overtaken and the pavement; and article 146, which regulates the use of lights at night, stating that it is necessary to have white front lights and red reflectors at the back and that these must be visible in clear weather at a distance of at least 300 metres.
- Is there any accommodation for cyclists? The places that provide accommodation for pilgrims also provide covered parking for bicycles. If you spend the night at boarding houses or hostels, you should ask permission to leave your bicycle in a protected place.
SHELTERS ALONG THE CAMÍ DE SANT JAUME
First of all, you must remember that to use the special accommodation available along the Camí de Sant Jaume you must present the Credential that shows that you are a pilgrim.
When we speak about shelters and hostels along the Camí de Sant Jaume, we are referring to a very different type of establishment from that found along on other routes dedicated to St. James. Unlike along the French part of the Way, which have places exclusively reserved for walkers, the special conditions along the Catalan part of the Way take the form of special discounts at hostels, boarding houses and rural houses, including shelters. At present (2008), there is only one hostel exclusively reserved for pilgrims. Even so, the existing accommodation makes the route feasible as there are more than enough places to stay along the route.
Accommodation can be very affordable along the Catalan part of the route: accommodation is free at Montserrat, while at Cervera a community of nuns allows pilgrims to spend the night for a very reasonable price. At Tàrrega and Lleida, it is possible to spend the night at Youth Hostels that charge pilgrims low season prices throughout the year. But pilgrims should remember that the Lleida hostel is closed in August.
Some other hostels also offer special discounts. This is the case of the rural accommodation at Sant Pau de la Guàrdia and the establishments that offer rooms at La Panadella and El Palau d’Anglesola. At Vilagrassa, Anglesola and Castellnou de Seana, a number of rural houses offer discounts to walkers with respect to their normal prices. Some villages, such as Castellolí, Jorba, Bell-lloc d’Urgell and Alcarràs also allow walkers to spend the night in municipally-run buildings (schools, leisure centres, etc.)
The accommodation offered at Castellnou de Seana merits a special mention as this is the only village along the whole Catalan section of the route that has a hostel exclusively for the use of pilgrims. The rehabilitation of the old dressing rooms at the football ground was carried out in collaboration with the Direcció General de Turisme of La Generalitat de Catalunya (Catalan Tourist Board), the Ajuntament of Castellnou de Seana (Local Council) and the Associació d’Amics del Camí de Sant Jaume (Association of Friends of the Way of St.James) of Sabadell.
If you want to save on expenses, the best option is to programme your route stages so that you spend the night at the following places: Montserrat, Sant Pau de la Guàrdia, Castellolí, Jorba, Cervera, Tàrrega, Castellnou de Seana, Bell-lloc d’Urgell, Lleida or Alcarràs.
There are also places to stay in other cities, towns and villages along the route. You must also remember that there are villages that do not offer any special accommodation for pilgrims but that do provide shelter for tired walkers or those with problems. It is just a question of asking at the local council or parish church and politely explaining your situation, without exaggerating it or asking for more than they can offer.
The Credential consists of a pilgrim’s card and a personal document accrediting who you are. The credential will only be given to people who do the pilgrimage of Sant Jaume to Galicia on foot, by bicycle, or on horseback.
The credential takes the form of a small folding document that states the dates of the pilgrimage and has a number of spaces in which pilgrims can add the stamps obtained at the shelters, parish churches and other establishments of the settlements through which they pass. It is not necessary to add more than one stamp a day. It is usual to collect the stamp at the place where you spend the night, but any other stamp bearing the name of the settlement that you pass through is equally valid.
The Credential can be obtained from bishoprics, some parishes and associations of friends of the Camí de Sant Jaume. In Catalonia, it is also possible to obtain the Credential at the Abbey of Montserrat.
A pilgrim carrying the Credential does not acquire any other rights or obligations, so it is his/her responsibility to make sure that he/she has the means required to carry out the pilgrimage: food, accommodation, etc. No-one can demand any special favours for being a pilgrim, although the Credential does facilitate access to hostels.
The Credential also serves to obtain the Compostel·la. This is a document that accredits the fact that its bearer has completed the pilgrimage to Santiago. This certificate, which is issued by the Cathedral of Santiago, is given to pilgrims who declare that they have carried out their pilgrimage pietatis causa: for religious or spiritual reasons. If this is not your case, you always have the Credential as an accrediting document.
It is possible to request the Compostel·la by presenting the Credential at the Oficina d’Acollida de Pelegrins (Pilgrim Reception Office) of Santiago (rúa do Vilar, 1 · Tel 981 566 577) having completed a minimum of the last 100 kilometres of the Way on foot or the last 200 kilometres by bicycle.
Completing only the Catalan stage of the route, from Montserrat to Alcarràs, is therefore not enough to obtain the Compostel·la; it is also necessary to do the route as far as Santiago.
Would be pilgrims should also bear in mind that from 2009 onwards only Credentials awarded by the Cathedral of Santiago or by one of the other members of the Federación Española de Asociaciones de Amigos del Camino de Santiago (Spanish Federation of Associations of Friends of the Way of St. James) will be valid for obtaining the Compostel·la.
Information provided by La Generalitat de Catalunya