Camino de Santiago
End: Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella
The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes stretching across Europe and coming together at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.
If you want to walk a Camino with a bit more privacy, there are plenty here to chose from.
The Camino de Santiago is the name given to the many pilgrimage routes from England, France, Italy and elsewhere that all have as their common goal the shrine of St James, the patron saint of Spain, in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia on the Iberian Peninsula. James, the son of Zebedee and Salome, was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, and one of the first to follow him. Tradition says that after the resurrection, James travelled to Spain where he preached tirelessly, before seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary which prompted his return to the Holy Land. His beheading in Judea in the year 44 CE on the orders of King Herod Agrippa is the only recorded instance of the death of an apostle in the New Testament (ACTS 12: 1-2), making him very likely the First of the apostles to be martyred for his faith. His remains, it is claimed, were then taken by boat from Jerusalem back to Santiago de Compostela, where the cathedral of Santiago was built between 1075 and 1211 over the agreed site of the apostle’s remains.
The trail is Europe’s most ancient pilgrimage route, with the first recorded journeys dating to the 9th century. It has survived the Dark Ages, Black Plagues and Protestant reformations to become the most popular pilgrimage trail of the medieval period, and the Galician scallop shell with its many indented lines all coming together at its centre – was then, and remains now, a symbol of the many pathways along which people converge upon this cherished place. And while the many religious houses that once were sprinkled along its route to welcome travelers are now a little harder to find, walkers and pilgrims have little trouble finding more conventional accommodation on a trail that was always designed to pass through towns and villages rather than avoid them for the sake of tranquillity, like so many other long distance paths. On the Way of St James providing comfort and food for weary, hungry pilgrims was always good business.
And nowadays, even better business. More than 200,000 people walk these ancient trails every year, numbers greater than any ancient pilgrim could have ever dreamt possible passing over the same rivers and hills and through the same villages that believers did a thousand years ago. There has been a boom in numbers over the past fifteen years, and gone are the days when farmers would ask pilgrims to enter their houses and share a meal and ask for little in return, Spain’s economic realities have instead led to a huge growth in the number of satellite television-equipped guesthouses that cater for what some disparagingly call ‘phony pilgrims’, those who arrange for their luggage to be ‘driven ahead’ to their next hotel, who choose not to seek out the basic three-course ‘pilgrims’ meals’, or stay in sleeping bag-filled hostel halls with a hundred other wayfarers. Times have changed.
The most popular route without doubt is the Camino Frances, the ‘French Way’, which begins in St-Jean-Pied-du-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and crosses the border into the small Spanish village of Roncesvalles on the Urrobi River, famous as the site of the defeat of Charlemagne in 778 CE. From Roncesvalles it is a further 780 km to Santiago de Compostela via Pamplona, Logrono, Burgos, Leon and beautiful Ponferrada, surrounded by mountains on the Sil River and the last major city before your destination. (Don’t leave without visiting its magnificent 12th-century Templar Castle.)
In terms of landscape, the Camino de Santiago lacks for nothing. The alpine vistas of the Pyrenees, the treeless and windswept Meseta Plateau, the green fertile mountains of Galicia the ‘country of a thousand rivers’, and finally the rugged Atlantic coast. If you decide you want to avoid the crowds and do it from November to April, the trail will be less crowded but shorter days due to fog, rain and the like will result in shorter sections walked and therefore more overnight stays, raising the cost. The pilgrim-like, solitary experience you will have, however, will likely more than compensate if that is what you’re looking for.
The Camino Frances is the most developed of all the Camino routes, has the most extensive trail markers, and a never-ending choice of hostels, guesthouses and hotels.
Walking it will take you through seven provinces and a wealth of human history that is just too numbing to attempt to describe here. Rest days along its 33 stages can be taken in towns such as Pamplona (don’t walk all day, it’s a ‘rest day’!), and if you take the time to get to know some of your fellow walkers representing 130 nations then chances are you’ll barely notice you’ve just walked alongside 90 km of paved roads, 203 km of streets through sleepy villages, and 505 km of ancient, story-laden trails.
The scallop is the shell of a clam found in the coastal area of Galicia. It serves as the symbol and identifies the followers of the cult of Saint James. Some place it on their clothes, others hang it on their backpack and some even use it to drink water from fountains. Many are painted with the cross of Saint James. The ideal place to buy a scallop shell is on arriving in Santiago, but all over Galicia along your Way, you will find various places selling them.
The scallop has a metaphorical meaning for its radiant lines that meet at one point, just as the pilgrim’s routes set off from different places but flow to one single point, Santiago. Its symbolic use is also linked to legends about the body of Saint James arriving in present-day Galicia.
One says that the boat in which he was carried got lost in a storm and landed on the coast clothed in scallop shells. In fact, in times gone by, the scallop for many pilgrims served as proof that they had been in Cape Finisterra, considered the westernmost point of the world, for the existence of the American continent was still unknown. Those who travelled the Route to Santiago continued to Finisterra from which they brought a scallop to prove they had been there. As many pilgrims arriving in Santiago were too sick to continue to Finisterra, the sale of scallop shells was authorized in Santiago and later extended to the Camino, and today is an essential symbol of the pilgrims.
One of the most useful items on the Camino is the staff. Traditionally it had a cross piece or a hook so it could be carried over the shoulder with things hanging from it. It is quite important, mainly for the help it provides going up and down steep hills. In the Middle Ages hazelnut and chestnut staffs were used, because of their resistance and weight. At that time, they also had another meaning, as being the pilgrim’s third leg, and simultaneously an analogy of the Holy Trinity. Nowadays, batons are also popular among pilgrims, although some still prefer the staffs made of natural wood.
The gourd is part of the inseparable image of the pilgrims, although today its function is merely symbolic, for it has been replaced by the water flask. In other times it hung from the staff and was used to carry liquid, namely water.
The name of Don Elías Valiña Sampedro might not ring any bells but you will certainly recognize his most ‘famous’ creation: the yellow arrow showing pilgrims the way along the Camino Francés.
Don Elías was parish priest of O Cebreiro and a Camino visionary. After years studying the Way of St James, he was convinced of the importance of this ancient trail and set himself the challenge of reviving the route we call the Camino Francés. In 1984, he put in motion his mission to rescue, clean and mark the trails along this Camino, starting in Roncesvalles, in the Pyrenees, he began marking the trail with his now-famous yellow arrows.
To anyone who is not a pilgrim the sight of one or more stone cairns along the Way may seem strange. He or she may inquire as to their meaning or simply ignore them. These stones, however, are clear signs of the Way. They are usually built on milestones, stone crosses or at the edge of the Route.
The stones personify the negative things and the problems the pilgrim sheds as he travels along the Way, meaning that from then on he is becoming a “New Man”.
This red cross is sword-shaped at its lower end. The first people to use this cross were the members of the Order of the Knights of Saint James, symbolizing the Apostle who is said to have appeared mounted on a horse brandishing this sword to help the Christians during the Reconquest.
Today it decorates the clothes of the fraternity and of the Knights of Saint James and is represented on tourist souvenirs such as letter openers, key rings or pins. Saint James himself is often shown holding the sword of the cross of Saint James.
The Road to Santiago represents on earth the depiction of the Milky Way, for the route lies under the Milky Way and indicates the route to Santiago. It was used during the Middle Ages as a form of night-time orientation. Together with the legend of the discovery of the Apostle’s tomb by the hermit, this association means that the star is one of the symbols of the cult of Saint James.
Your pilgrim’s passport (aka Credencial) is a document that identifies you as a pilgrim, and provides proof that you have walked, cycled or ridden on horseback, the required distance to gain your compostela. It allows you to sleep in the albergues and hostels at special rates. It can also be used to get access to the low-cost pilgrim’s menus as well as qualifying you for reduced-price entry to certain tourist spots. On a deeply personal note; it provides a wonderful record of the places that you stayed, and makes for a beautiful, soulful reminder of a special spiritual journey.
The “Pilgrim’s Credential” is a unique document that certifies the Camino that the pilgrim has travelled. You must have it stamped at least twice a day in albergues or hostels, churches and monasteries and even in shops.
This practice emerged with the tradition of the letters of presentation or “safe-conduct” which pilgrims in the Middle Ages used to prove the route they had travelled.
It not only entitles you to the Compostela at the end of the Camino, but gives you access to albergues for the exclusive use of pilgrims during the Way.
You may acquire the credential in any Pilgrims’ Association in the world, although each one has a different way of providing it. Many already take online orders, so it’s just a question of surfing the internet to find out.
Your credencial is a long card, folded over a number of times to produce a mini booklet. At the pilgrim’s office, you will receive your first stamp and after that, you will produce it every time you arrive at an albergue or hostel. On payment of your accommodation, you will get a stamp in the passport to prove that you stayed the night in a specific hamlet, village, town or city. Additionally, you can often find stamps for your credential at churches and iconic locations along the way to Santiago. Collecting these stamps is a fun way to document all of the places you visited during your journey.
You can obtain it at the Pilgrim’s Office at the start of your Camino. You simply find the office, register as a pilgrim, and you will be given the passport for a small fee (currently 2 euros). If you start in a town without a Pilgrim’s Office, you should be able to obtain a credencial at the local church, or at one of the municipal albergues. Simply ask around and you should get lucky.
The compostela is the certificate that testifies that you have completed the Camino de Santiago. It can only be granted to you if you can prove that you have actually done the camino journey. The credencial, the pilgrim’s passport is the proof that you need.
The Compostela is a diploma that recognizes that the pilgrim has finished the “Camino” and reached kilometer zero, outside the Cathedral in Santiago. This document is issued in Latin by the Oficina del Peregrino, in Rua das Carretas 33, on presentation of the stamped credential and if you have travelled at least the following distances: 100 km on foot or horseback or 200 km by bicycle. These are the three recognized ways to obtain your Compostela at the end of the Route.’
This document was created in the Middle Ages, due to the rising number of pilgrimages to the Apostle’s burial place and to prove that they had travelled the Camino. It used to be shaped like a scallop shell, but because it was easily forged, it was replaced by probative letters that are the origin of the current Compostela.
There are certain conditions though:
To sleep on the Camino Francés there are many options: either choose a shelter, a hostel or a hotel, you will often find a complete network of accommodation to cover your needs. Accommodations are available on the Camino at a variety of budgets, from as little as €3 for a dormitory bed to €300 for a room in a posh Parador. There are also a few places along the route that you can sleep for free.
Albergues (pilgrim hostels) are the refuge of choice for most people walking that Camino.
Albergues tend to fall into three categories: municipal, private, and parochial. Other than walking along with someone on the trail, the albergues are where you meet other travelers. They are a significant part of the heartbeat of the Camino.
Imagine big rooms with lots of bunk beds, and bathrooms. Something similar to a nice dorm at a campground.
On the Camino Francés route, these accommodations are very frequent, with as little as 5km between albergues and only a few stretches where places to sleep are separated by distances of 15km.
Dealing with snoring roommates is a big part of albergue life and I would say that if you don’t stay in alburgues, you are missing one of the key facets of the Camino experience.
Below are some guidelines of classic pilgrim complaints.
The city of Santiago de Compostela is located in the Northwest of the Iberian Peninsula, 115 km north of the Portuguese border. It is the capital of the Autonomous Community of Galicia, to which Corunna also belongs. This municipality has an area of 220 sq, km and approximately 95,500 inhabitants.
Santiago de Compostela is known worldwide as a pilgrimage centre.
Every year thousands of pilgrims choose this destination, traveling on many of the Ways that extend throughout Western Europe. Since 1985 its historic centre has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The foundation of this city is linked to the discovery of the mortal remains of the Apostle Saint James. Prior to that the area that is now Santiago was thickly forested.
The city developed with the pilgrimages and the creation of its university, from the 16th century onwards.
The sanctuary grew in importance in the Middle Ages and was the
setting for the coronation of several kings of Galicia and Leon, such as Sancho Ordoñez and Sancho I. In 1075 BishopDiego Perez commissioned the construction of the Romanesque Cathedral, which took over the jurisdiction of most of the dioceses of Leon and Asturias.
The city experienced many troubled times, such as the urban revolts against Queen Urraca and Bishop Gelmires, the subsequent social and political conflicts, and the Black Death.
At the start of the 17th century the city and its pilgrimages underwent a less favorable period when, in his work the Italian César Barónico questioned the fact that the Apostle had come on a pilgrimage here.
At the end of the 17th century prosperity reached Santiago, transforming the city into an art centre. In its workshops were the best builders and architects, exalting the Baroque style.
After the Peninsular Wars, the Compostelan church wished to restore the Kingdom of Galicia but with the liberal victory of the First Carlist War (1833-1840), Corunna became the capital of the province to the detriment of Santiago. The situation was altered in 1981, with the end of Franco’s dictatorship, and Santiago became the political capital of Galicia.
This landmark represents the final chapter of what has hopefully been a wonderful journey along the Camino Francés. It is here that the remains of St James are said to be buried. The stunning Romanesque architecture is world famous, and the interior of the building is breath taking.
The Cathedral was built in several stages. The oldest part is more than a thousand years old and is entirely connected with the discovery of the tomb of Saint James the Greater.
When the Cathedral building works began in 1075 they brought to Santiago the best Romanesque artists. Among them was the brilliant Master Mateus, responsible for the last phases of the naves and for the Portal of Glory, the architectural gem of the West entrance.
Consecrated in 1211, the Cathedral gained the privilege of forgiving the penalties and the sins of those who visited in a Jubilee Year and walked through the HolyDoor, a fact that was of huge importance in the Middle Ages. As the years passed the building works extended beyond the Cathedral which embellished the city and produced the most beautiful church for the Apostle. So, chapels and retables were built, to glorify it.
With the appearance of the Gothic style, the Cathedral was transformed into a small fort with towers and battlements. However, the greatest alteration was provided by the Baroque style, which forever altered the high altar, the facade and the monumental piazzas surrounding it. This particular style can be seen in the chimneys and the stylized towers, the stone volutes or the geometrical granite lacework. This Cathedral has witnessed the coronation of kings and archbishops, suffered fires and provided the setting for hard fought battles. It served as headquarters for invading armies but has also hosted millions of men from all over the world who came to kneel here. The Cathedral is the heart of this land and in it you can read its history.
This square is located right in the centre of Santiago de Compostela.
Its name relates to the building site (obradoiro in Galician) which was installed here when the Cathedral was being built. Everyday, thousands of pilgrims arrive here, for in the centre of the square is the scallop of.’ the Kilometer 0 where all the Ways to Santiago converge. All around are examples of different architectural styles, such as the Baroque facade of the Cathedral and the Plateresque (Spanish Renaissance) style of the Hostal of the Catholic Monarchs. On the West is Pazo de Raxoi, a palace in the neo-classical style, and to the south the college known as Colexio de San Xerome, in the Romanesque style, currently home to the University rectory.
This is a fun novelty attraction for the Camino Francés trekkers that made is all the way to Santiago.
After finishing my second Camino, I was reminded by my friend Valentina of a mysterious ‘shadow of a pilgrim’ that appears each night against the wall of the cathedral. I had read about this and had wanted to investigate, but had completely forgotten about it. So off we went like the Scooby Doo Gang to find this mysterious specter.
We found him, and he was PERFECT. An extremely detailed shadow that looks shockingly similar to a medieval pilgrim.
The Legend of the Ghost Pilgrim
One romantic legend claims that the pilgrim shadow is that of a local priest who had fallen in love with a nun of the convent of San Paio, across the plaza. They would regularly meet, traveling through a secret passage under the Quintana stairs that join the convent to the cathedral. The two lovers had planned to elope. He dressed as a pilgrim to conceal his identity, but he waited in the shadows and she never came. Since then, every night he returns, hoping to see her.
Another less romantic legend claims the shadow is the spirit of a French pilgrim who walked to Santiago de Compostela as a penance for poisoning his own father. In Navarra, he committed another terrible crime. Now he waits for the souls of those he killed to arrive in Santiago to finally receive his pardon.