For centuries, thousands of people have flocked across Europe toward a small city in northern Spain, seeking redemption, forgiveness and charity—in this life and the next.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is one of Europe’s oldest and most popular pilgrim routes, drawing nearly a quarter of a million people each year on a spiritual journey to the resting place of St. James, one of the 12 apostles.
St. James the Greater, a fisherman’s son from Galilee who was St. John the Baptist’s brother and one of the 12 apostles, was given the task of spreading the word of the Lord on the Iberian Peninsula.
After some serious evangelizing, he returned home in AD 44, only to be decapitated; consequently, he was accorded full martyr status. His head and body were cast adrift in a boat that miraculously ran aground eight centuries later at a spot called el Padrõn in Galicia, in northern Spain.
His disciples there had meanwhile converted Queen Lupa, who conveniently transformed her palace into a tomb for the relics of St. James. Around AD 813, a hermit named Pelayo, guided by a mysterious star, discovered the tomb and spread the word throughout Christendom.
The spot was named Compostela from the Latin campus stelae, or “field of the star,” and the relics soon became the object of pilgrims’ devotion.
Quite naturally, St. James became the patron saint of the reconquest of Iberia and assumed the legendary character of St. James Matamoros (the Moor slayer). He’s even alleged to have made a horseback appearance at the 844 battle of Clavijo, where the Moors were defeated.
The First Pilgrims
The first French pilgrim was Godescalc, who in 950 was the bishop of Le Puy. Later, kings, knights and soldiers would lead the way from all corners of Europe, with the French generally choosing to start their pilgrimages from four main spots: Le Puy, Arles, Vézelay or Paris.
The routes converge at the foot of the Pyrénées. Once in Spain, the pilgrims’ itinerary would retrace the steps of St. James heading to the land’s end—Finis Terrae.
Following the kings and knights were ordinary men and women of some means who would risk their lives during the six-month journey in search of pardons, forgiveness, the dawn of a new and better life and a guaranteed afterlife.
Apart from the quality of walking boots, improved personal comfort and modern facilities, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela hasn’t changed a great deal since the 12th century.
The traditional attire still worn by many is the wide-brimmed hat, the double pouch used by mendicant monks and the sturdy staff with a gourd attached. Pilgrims are given the modern-day equivalent of letters of recommendation or of safe passage in the shape of the pilgrim’s passport.
The Pilgrim’s Passport
This document identifies the bearer as an officially recognized pilgrim, and is supposed to grant them hospitality at inns, hostels and hospices along the way; only those who do an entire segment of the route continuously on foot, horseback or bicycle are eligible.
Pilgrims are required to ask for a stamp at each of the overnight stops and to respect all rules of good conduct during their journey. In exchange, upon their arrival in Santiago de Compostela, they’ll be given an official document recognizing their accomplishment.
While debates rage over where the Camino route begins, the answer is actually quite simple: it has no set beginning.
Some will argue that the beginning of the trail is in Roncesvalles and that the Camino entails 31 stages. However, in reality, pilgrims from all over what is now Europe have always made their own “way” towards the inspiring sight of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela (more on that below).
Although originally a hiker’s trail, the Association of the Friends of the Camino has now opened its arms to include bikers and horseback riders, allowing all to travel through medieval villages where time, it seems, has stood still since the era of the Knights of Templar and the Moors.
The marriage of Castilla and Léon encompasses a rich and colourful history (and not always an amicable one, it must be said), while Galicia has always managed to retain its proud Celtic heritage. The landscape changes dramatically from the plains of Léon to the lush mountains populated with pine and eucalyptus trees in the Galician countryside.
Along the route, pilgrims will frequently encounter a shell symbol painted on various walls, bridges and other landmarks to indicate that they’re on the right path.
The shell symbol derives from the shape of the scallop shells often found on the shores of Galicia and its origins as the symbol of the Camino de Santiago remain mysterious, as two separate myths exist to explain it.
In the first, St. James’ body was en route to the Iberian Peninsula so it could be buried in the city that is now Santiago. When a heavy storm hit the ship, its body was tossed overboard, but miraculously turned up on shore, covered in the scallop shells.
In the second version, the ship transporting James’ body was piloted by an angel, and the journey was more successful than in the first version. However, there happened to be a wedding taking place when the ship reached land, with the groom mounted on horseback. The ship’s arrival spooked the horse, spilling the groom into the sea. When he emerged, it was he who was covered in scallop shells.
Where Pilgrims Flock
With a current population of approximately 90,000, Santiago has always benefited from the pilgrimage to its cathedral, though it does not rely on tourism as its main source of income.
The University of Santiago provides the city with thousands of students requiring year-round accommodation, entertainment (mostly in the myriad bars in the old part of town), and gastronomic options (which are satisfied by the city’s many restaurants).
It is said that in the year 813, a bright star led Pelayo, a hermit shepherd of Iria Flavia, to the forgotten tomb of St. James the Greater, the legendary apostle of Spain. The place was named Compostela, from the Latin campus stellae – field of the star.
Others argue that the origin of the city’s name comes from the Latin compstum, meaning a Roman cemetery. This theory was compounded by the discovery of Roman graves during the excavation of the cathedral’s foundation.
The Cathedral of Santiago
The Cathedral of Santiago, whose construction began in 1075, is one of the great European monuments from both an artistic and symbolic standpoint. From its Romanesque origin, it evolved through the most varied of styles, with the baroque being the most outstanding. It reached its culmination in the façade that opens onto the Praza do Obradoiro.
The Pilgrim’s Ritual in the Cathedral
Promised 50% off their time in purgatory, Pilgrims who arrived at the cathedral after completing at least 200 km of the Camino usually followed a particular ritual, which included passing by the chapel of the main altar to embrace the Apostle St. James, and then visiting the crypt where his remains are buried.
This was followed by a visit to the Portico de la Gloria, and attendance of mass at noon the following day.