What is the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is the long route that pilgrims have undertaken since the Middle Ages, through France and Spain, to reach the sanctuary of Santiago de Compostela, where there would be the tomb of James the Greater.

To set the context, here is an excerpt from the book The Pilgrimage by Paolo Coelho, to give you a simple explanation of the significance of the Camino for Christians.

Just as the Muslim tradition requires that all members of the faith, at least once in their life, make the same pilgrimage that Muhammad made from Mecca to Medina, so Christians in the first Millennium considered three routes to be sacred. Each of them offered a series of blessings and indulgences to those who travelled its length. The first led to the tomb of St Peter in Rome, its travellers who were called wanderers, took the cross as their symbol. The second led to the Holy Sepulcher of Christ in Jerusalem., those who took this road were called palmists, since they had as their symbol palm branches with which Jesus was greeted when he entered that city. There was a third road which led to the mortal remains of the apostle San Tiago – James in english, Jacques in French, Giocomo in Italian and Jacob in Latin.

He was buried in a place on the Iberian peninsula where, one night, a shepherd had seen a brilliant star above a field. The legend says that not only San Tiago, but also the virgin Mary went there shortly after the death of Christ, carrying the word of the evangelist and exhorting the people to convert. The site came to be known as Compostela – the star field and there a city had arisen that drew travellers from every part of the Christian world 

These travellers were called pilgrims and their symbol was the scallop shell.

Paulo Coelho

“At the height of its fame in the 14th century, the path was traveled each year by more than a million people from every corner of Europe. Even today mystics, devotees and researchers traverse on foot the 700 kilometers that seperate the French city of Saint Jean Pied de Port from the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Spain. The route followed by pilgrims today is the same as the medeival path taken by Charlemagne, St Francis of Assissi, Isabella of Castille and Pope John XXIII.”

The walk was popular in the Middle Ages and became a tradition around the 15th century. It is only recently (1990s) that the pilgrimage to Santiago regained the popularity it had in the Middle Ages. The revival was supported by the Spanish government of Francisco Franco that decided to promote Spain’s Catholic history. Paulo Coelho’s popular book helped too.

In 2017, when I walked 125km from Lugo to Santiago with a few of my friends, we were among the 300,000 + pilgrims to walk to Santiago that year. Almost 50% of the pilgrims were women. Most travel by foot, others by bicycle. Most came from Europe, Australia, Canada and USA, and we were probably among the very few Indians walking the way that year.

This year John and I plan to walk the most popular route to Santiago, called the Camino Frances. Our starting point will be St Jean Pied de Port in France, 780km away from Santiago. We’ll climb the Pyrenees to enter Spain and walk along the path traversed by pilgrims over the centuries, to reach our destination. Being a popular route means that there are many albergues (hostels) along the way to check in to every night. Considering pilgrim traffic was low in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, this year the way is likely to be very crowded.

Can’t wait to start!

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