The Pilgrimage to Santiago

This series of articles was compiled by Johnnie Walker for the Confraternity of St James and with their kind permission they are reproduced here.

Each year 100,000 people walk to Santiago de Compostela in North-west Spain. They take many routes following in the footsteps of pilgrims of the middle ages. The most famous route is the Camino Francés a journey of 778 kilometres from the border of France and Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

The Saint, the priest and the paintbrush

The Saint

St James was Zebedee’s son and brother of St John the Evangelist.

Legend has it that after spending some years in Spain preaching the Gospel, James returned to Jerusalem and martyrdom. His followers are believed to have carried his body down to the coast and put it into a stone boat, which was carried by angels and the wind  to land in the North of Spain. The site of his tomb was lost for some 800 years when a hermit discovered the burial place.  The relics were authenticated by the Church and it became a place of pilgrimage and grew into the city of Santiago de Compostela.

In medieval times the pilgrimage grew in popularity. People set off from their homes and walked from all over Europe to Santiago. Religious Orders provided shelter along the way and there grew up a network of refuges in which pilgrims could sleep.

Such was the growth in numbers that in 1119 the first Holy Year was instituted by Pope Calixtus  – when these are celebrated the Puerta Santa (Holy Door), which gives access to the Cathedral is opened on 31st December on the eve of each Holy Year, and walled up again a year later. A special indulgence is granted to pilgrims during the Holy Year.

The priest and the paintbrush
Over the last 40 years the Santiago pilgrimage has seen a great revival and in the Holy Year in 2004 250,000 pilgrims walked to Santiago. Perhaps the biggest contribution to this revival came from Father Elias Valiña Sampedro. He was a scholar, who following the historical records marked out the many routes taken by the medieval pilgrims by painting yellow arrows approximately every 1000 paces.

Photo by Gareth Thomas

Therefore the modern pilgrim can follow the yellow arrows all the way from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France all the way to Santiago on the Camino Francés, or from La Coruna in the North where the English pilgrims arrived by boat on the Camino Inglés or on the 1000 km route from Seville in the South on the Via de la Plata. These are only a few of the many routes!

The work of Fr Elias and the Amigos de Santiago also helped build up a huge network of modern refuges for pilgrims just like their medieval counterparts and all along each route are refuges for rest and sleep for a donation or a small charge of a few euros. As the saying goes, “Pilgrims give what they can and take what they need”.

All along the routes the pilgrim can expect a warm and generous welcome from the people of Spain.

How long does it take?
There are many routes to Santiago. It can take 5 weeks to walk the Camino Francés, 6 weeks to walk from Seville or 5 days to walk the Camino Inglés and 10 days to walk the Camino Portugués from Porto. But it doesn’t all have to be done at once and many people use their occasional holidays to walk the routes in sections often taking several years to complete.

The Compostela
Everywhere pilgrims stop along the way they obtain stamps on their Pilgrim Record as evidence of their pilgrimage. When this is presented in Santiago they are awarded a Compostela – a certificate from the Cathedral. A proud moment.

How do I find out more?
From the Confraternity of St James in the UK – the largest and oldest English-speaking association of pilgrims which celebrates its 25 anniversary this year.