The world’s pilgrimage routes are filled with spiritual seekers – but also with everyday backpacking women or solo travelers fleeing modern life stresses and looking for serenity, or for something else.
What is a pilgrimage, exactly?
A pilgrimage is usually a spiritual journey, often arduous and demanding, that involves travel to sacred sites – most often a shrine or site of religious or mystical importance.
But not always.
Many women undertake cultural pilgrimages with a mundane twist. These can range from music pilgrimages – a visit to Graceland in the footsteps of Elvis, for example, or to Abbey Road in search of Beatles history – to a literary pilgrimage that brings great literature to life.
For the more politically minded, pilgrimages can be to the tombs of leaders like Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square or Mao Tse Tung’s in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
There are even film or cult pilgrimages – in the steps of the Da Vinci Code, for example, or around New Zealand to visit film locations for Lord of the Rings.
A taste of history
Pilgrimage routes have been traced since Antiquity – to Karnak and Thebes in Egypt, to Ephesus in Byzantium and to Delphi in Greece – and once each four years, during the Olympic Games, to the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. But only with Christianity did pilgrimages really take off.
Pilgrims were usually men – pilgrimages were seen as too dangerous for women – and almost too tempting, leading to ‘loose morals’.
But that didn’t stop women.
Empress Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, was already enjoying pilgrimage travel some 1700 years ago between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. A Spanish nun, Egeria, followed in her footsteps a few years later.
In medieval times, literature was filled with stories that served as warnings to honest women: in one, Saracens captured a wealthy pregnant noblewoman on a pilgrimage; in another, a female pilgrim was raped – she ended up in a harem. Enough to discourage any honest female pilgrim!
But no, this didn’t stop intrepid women from tracing their own journeys, but it did ensure only the bravest ten percent did so.
Today, women don’t need to avoid pilgrimages anymore – and no one questions whether we are ‘honest women’ either. Many women, young, middle-aged and more are going on pilgrimages by themselves without feeling unsafe or threatened.
That said, the same rules apply to pilgrimage routes as they do to other travel by backpacking women who want to stay safe: dress modestly, be culturally appropriate, and don’t show off with money or possessions. Yes, there is the occasional scary story, but you’ll find these in every walk of life and in every destination.
Trust your intuition, put your hiking shoes on, and show the world how amazing and empowering being a solo female pilgrim can be!
A renewed faith
Many pilgrimage routes are well-known: the Muslim Hajj, which should be undertaken at least once in a lifetime by all healthy Muslims who can afford it; following in the steps of the Buddha; Catholic pilgrimages such as the pilgrimage to Santiago, or El Camino (Way of St James) in Spain or Lourdes in France; the Hindu Chardham; or the Jewish pilgrimage to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, to name a few major ones.
Some religious pilgrimage routes are best traveled in a specific manner – pilgrims on the Camino, for example, are encouraged to arrive on foot, horseback or bicycle, at least towards the end.
However you travel, what counts is what you experience as a result. Wherever you go, whatever you do, your pilgrimage will always be your special spiritual adventure, to relive and to remember.
Pilgrim routes across Europe
There are hundreds of pilgrim routes across Europe, many of which follow the old religious pilgrim routes taken by monks and nuns who sought spiritual awakening and were seeking a deepened sense of faith and connection to God.
Some of Europe’s most spectacular pilgrimages, like the Pilgrims’ Way that runs between Winchester and Canterbury in the UK, the Via Podiensis in France, the Via Francigena in Switzerland and Italy, and St Olav’s Way in Norway, are otherworldly. However, for many people, one pilgrimage stands above them all: the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.
Why the Camino de Santiago rises above the rest
There are a number of reasons why the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (known as the Camino for short, or the Way of Saint James in English) overshadows the rest for many pilgrims.
1. The Camino has many accesses
There are a number of pilgrimage routes you can take for the Camino, so you can return to it time and time again.
2. The Camino is not overly difficult
You’ll find all ages on the Camino, from toddlers with their families, perhaps covering just a few kilometers a day, to elderly retired women who have been walking parts or all of the Camino for the last 20 years.
3. You can easily follow the Camino
You could easily walk the Camino without a map (though I wouldn’t advise you do that, just in case). The Camino is marked out by shells and yellow arrows that run along its entire length, whichever route you take. So you can forget complex navigating, confusing signposts, and bringing a compass, and just enjoy the road.
4. Accommodation is easy to find
The Camino runs between towns and cities and is lined with albergues (the accommodation of choice for pilgrims) that are affordable, comfortable, and full of other pilgrims. These accommodations tend to be relatively basic, but when you’re paying between €3-€15 a night for a bed, you can’t really complain.
There are municipal albergues, that are often housed in old churches or monasteries, and private albergues. In most towns (except for a few very small villages with overnight stops on some of the routes), you’ll have a handful of options, some of them with private rooms as well as shared dorms.
5. You can get your backpack delivered
Your bag can be transported via a postal courier from albergue to albergue, so – should you choose to – you can carry a small daypack to hike with, big enough to fit some food, water, a first aid kit, and a raincoat. Then, have your larger backpack delivered each morning to your next destination.
6. Information about the Camino is widely available
All the Camino de Santiago routes are handily divided up for you into “stages”. Each stage is estimated to be a day’s walk, with a distance of about 20-35km (12.5-22mi) between each.
There are plenty of downloadable apps with maps, along with information about each village and city along the way (including information about each albergue, with reviews, prices, and a contact number). One possibility is the app Way of Saint James (Buen Camino), with a breakdown of each stage for every possible route.
If you’d rather have a proper guidebook, here’s a selection of Camino guidebooks you can choose from.
Camino de Santiago de Compostela route options
One of the better-known routes is the French Camino. It starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France’s Basque country and stretches across 780km/480mi. It’s one of the longest routes, and it takes about a month to complete. It was used by French pilgrims during the Middle Ages, when Santiago de Compostela was a prominent religious epicenter. In 1987, it also became the first of the European Culture Routes.
The only drawback is that as it’s the most popular route, it can often be a bit crowded with groups of young French pilgrims – so it may not be the best route for those seeking solitude. While you’re bound to find peace and quiet along the way, there are plenty of kilometers to tackle.
Another popular route is the Camino del Norte. It’s 825km/513mi in total, but like all the Caminos, you can join the path anywhere you want. You could easily skip the first 18 stages and just walk the final two weeks, or come for a long weekend and walk for a few days. This trail runs through Spain’s Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia, and is mostly coastal.
One of the increasingly popular Camino trails is the lesser-known Camino Primitivo, just over 300km/186mi long requiring between 14 to 15 days to complete. It’s quiet, mountainous, and tranquil, starting in Oviedo and then onward to Lugo, to join the French Camino. Most of your overnights are spent in small, traditional villages with an authentic feel, under starry skies and with welcoming locals. There are a few bigger cities along the way, but you can walk for hours without bumping into anyone along the Camino Primitivo.
A good option if you’ve only got a few days to spare is the Camino de Finisterre. Unlike other trails, this one actually starts in Santiago de Compostela and ends in Finisterre, although you can do it backwards (just bear in mind you’ll be going in the opposite directions as the yellow arrows). It takes just four days to complete, and is around 100km/62mi.
The trail stretches over some mountainous areas and past gorgeous stretches of coast before ending at the lighthouse in the charming coastal village of Finisterre. The only drawback of this trail is that it involves walking on quite a few roads. This route is usually done as an add-on to other routes, but is also a great introductory route.
Each Camino route is different, but they all end (or start) in the same place, Santiago de Compostela. This stunning city in the north of Spain is enchanting. As you walk in through the large stone archway that leads to the square at the end of the Camino, the sound of bagpipes played by street performers marks the end of your pilgrimage, a tradition that is centuries old. You’ll be greeted by the sight of its spectacular Cathedral, which is built on a grand square where all the routes of the Camino converge, the pilgrim’s final stop before nipping around the corner for the final certificate.
— Updated 25 August 2022