El Camino de Santiago: A Walk Through History

On the Camino Santiago

The Cathedral at Santiago de Compostela is journey’s end for El Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James in English), an ancient pilgrimage that still thrives today. For more than a thousand years, hikers far and wide have trodden this path to pay homage to the apostle St James, and visit the rumoured site of his remains.

The first travellers made the trip as early as the ninth century, and the route has changed remarkably little since then. What’s more, today’s Camino seldom diverges from an itinerary produced in 1140 by the French monk Aymeric Picaud. On the trail you’ll find yourself seeing and doing many of the things that this man recommended so long ago.

St Jean Pied de Port by Patxi64

The traditional starting-point for many pilgrims is at the commune of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, 8km away from the Spanish border in Aquitaine, southern France. At any rate, there is an entire system of hiking routes that span the whole of Europe, and lead straight to the world heritage site at Santiago.

Setting out from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port means following ‘El Camino Francés’, which more or less takes you across the width of northern Spain – from the rolling hills of the Basque country, to the warm flatlands of León, and culminating with the mild and grassy high ground in Galicia. Weary pilgrims can expect to traipse into Santiago after walking this path for a month or more.

Hostels are found at regular intervals along the route, and are supported by volunteers who want to see the pilgrimage succeed in the future. The camino routes and albergues (hostels) were the idea of the Spanish Federation of Friends on the Camino which was formed in 1987 in Jaca. The albergues are maintained by the Church, various confraternities, municipalities and private individuals - not the Spanish Tourist Board as is commonly thought.

When embarking upon the route, Pilgrims are given a passport, and get it validated on the way to document their journey and to make certain that they qualify for the compostela – a certificate issued in Santiago to record completion of 100km or more on foot. However, this only counts the last 100km, or cycling or horseriding the last 200km of the route to Santiago. Even if one walks 5000km, no Compostela is awarded unless you do the last 100km or 200km to Santiago.

Early morning mist in Galicia

The Compostela has nothing to do with time off purgatory! It is merely a certificate, designed in the 1970's, given to those who walk, ride or cycle to Santiago. Indulgences are the 'get out of purgatory' documents - given to anyone who visits the Tomb of St. James, not only walkers who complete the compostela.

To gain a plenary indulgence a person must exclude attachment to sin of any kind, and must fulfill the three conditions of sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father.



The year 2010 is especially important for the Way, as it is a Holy Compostellan year because St James’s Day - the 25th of July - falls on a Sunday.

El Camino de Santiago has always been for everyone, not just the most devout believers of all faiths. A 12th Century hymn, the La Pretiosa, sung at the pilgrims' blessing in Roncesvalles states that:

Its doors are open to the sick and well
to Catholics as well as to pagans,
Jews, Heretics, beggars and the indigent,
and it embraces all like brothers.

For those of a more religious slant, a Pilgrim's Mass is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela each day at noon for pilgrims. Pilgrims who received the compostela the day before have their countries of origin and the starting point of their pilgrimage announced at the Mass. The musical and visual highlight of the mass is the synchronisation of the beautiful "Hymn to Christ" with the spectacular swinging of the huge Botafumeiro, the famous thurible kept in the cathedral.

However, these days it’s a much more secular affair. Many people see it simply as a tough test of commitment; forty days on foot is not to be taken lightly.

Only a portion of travelers now set out on the Way with a spiritual intention, but in the tales they recount after finishing the trek, it’s clear that they learn something about themselves on the long road to Santiago – and return to the everyday lives with a different perspective on things.

Photos by Manu gomi (1), Patxi64 (2), nick.garrod (3) on flickr

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Last updated by Jack on 17 April, 2010 in Travel.

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Comments

Great stuff - Buen Camino to all!

Alex on 30 March, 2010

(1) "The Spanish tourism board dutifully maintains El Camino Francés"

The camino routes and albergues (hostels) were actually the idea of the Spanish Federation of Friends on the Camino which was formed in 1987 in Jaca. The albergues are maintained by the Church, various confraternities, municipalities and private individuals - not the Tourist Board.

(2) The compostela – a certificate issued in Santiago to record completion of 100km or more on foot.

The Compostela is only granted if a pilgrims walks THE LAST 100km, or cycles or horserides THE LAST 200km to Santiago. (Even if one walks 5000km, no Compostela is awarded unless you do the last 100km or 200km to Santiago.)

(3) If the pilgrim is a practising Christian, then the compostela will halve the amount of time his or her soul will eventually spend in purgatory. And ... One of the upshots is that all of a pilgrim’s time in purgatory will be wiped away with a compostela.

The Compostela has nothing to do with time off purgatory! It is merely a certificate, designed in the 1970's given to those who walk, ride or cycle to Santiago. Indulgences are the 'get out of purgatory' documents - given to anyone who visits the tomb of St James, not only walkers.

To gain a plenary indulgence a person must exclude attachment to sin of any kind, and must fulfill the three conditions of sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father.

(4) For centuries, el Camino has been a journey reserved for the most devout Christians.

El Camino de Santiago has always been for everyone. A 12th C hymn, the La Pretiosa, sung at the pilgrims' blessing in Roncesvalles states that:

Its doors are open to the sick and well

to Catholics as well as to pagans,

Jews, Heretics, beggars and the indigent,

and it embraces all like brothers.

Sil on 30 March, 2010

Hi, my name is Thea Hughes. I have recently published my debut novel Buen Camino - beyond the journey. It tells the tale of Ana, rejected by her mother and sexually abused by her father, who has carried the weight of her traumatic experience long enough. At the age of 30, she walks across Spain on the 764-kilometre Camino de Santiago trail, from St Jean Pied de Port to the Holy city of Santiago, discovering its colourful history, myths, legends and beautiful Spanish countryside, on a life changing quest to end her childhood pain.

The overwhelming physical demands of the walk add to Ana's emotional suffering. Through an unlikely friendship with Richard, a gentle, older man in the early stages of Alzheimer's, Ana gains the support and companionship she desires.

Richard teaches Ana to leave the past behind and live in the here and now - as his illness has forced him to do. These two become improbable friends: one who cannot remember and one who cannot forget. Buen Camino is a tale of romance and drama, but most of all, an inspirational one. For Ana, the act of walking the Camino has less to do with visiting a physical place than of finding that empty place inside herself, and filling it with purpose and inner peace.

Buen Camino - beyond the journey is a book to read either before you walk the Camino or during your pilgrimage, as the characters in the novel inspire empathy, allowing you, the reader, to walk alongside Ana on her journey towards personal growth and fulfilment. You can follow the same route as Ana does, stopping in the same towns and villages,leaving your stones of sorrow at the base of the Cruz de Ferro, meeting Tomas Marinez de Paz, the last of the Knights Templar in Manjarin, eating pulpo, cocido marigato and torta de Santiago as she does and enjoying your bottle of red wine (tinto) served with all pilgrim meals in the same way that she does. You can find the 300-year old house which Richard buys and turns into a refugio with Ana's help in the book, as it really exists and is situated right on the trail between Sarria and Portomarin. The man you will find running the refugio, Casa Banderas, when you walk the trail, is the real life person on whom I based my fictional character, Richard.

If you are interesting in securing a copy of the book, contact me at Scintillabooksales@gmail.com and I will arrange to post you one for the cost of the book (NZ$29.00) plus postage. You can make the payment through Paypal.

Buen Camino, to all of you who are planning and preparing your walk in 2010.

Thea hughes on 31 March, 2010

Great photos and information. What a rich history this walk has.

Suzy on 07 April, 2010

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