Santiago de Compostela is home to the tomb of the apostle St. James the Greater, which was discovered in the 9th century. "Santiago" comes from the Spanish for St. James – Sant Iago.
The cathedral in Santiago became a popular destination for pilgrims – in fact, third in importance after Jerusalem and Rome. Thousands walked the Camino until the time of the Reformation, and many cities grew from the trade that flourished along the way.
In recent years, the Camino has enjoyed a renaissance, and today, thousands of people walk, cycle or ride to Santiago each year.
According to Jan Folkegård, author of Vägen till Santiago de Compostela (The Way to Santiago de Compostela), there has been a steady increase in pilgrims in the last ten years, and notably, more Swedes are choosing the Camino.
“Walking has become very modern in Sweden,” he explains, “and once people have experienced walking some of the better trails in Sweden, like Sörmlandsleden, they want to try other routes, especially nicer ones in warmer climates, like the Camino."
There are four pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, but the Camino Francés – or “Camino” – that starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, is the most popular.
The Camino is signposted with yellow arrows and scallop shells, so it’s hard to get lost. Along the way, there are traces of earlier pilgrims in the form of monijoies, small structures of piled stones that showed the way through forests and plains.
Staffs have given way to high-tech walking sticks, and mantles to more modern Gore-Tex clothing, but today’s pilgrims still don the scallop shell, the symbol of the pilgrimage.
They also carry “passports” to collect stamps along the way, since pilgrims walking more than 100 km (or cycling 300 km) receive a ‘compostela’ certificate upon presenting their stamped passport in Santiago.
Accommodations on the Camino are easy to find and range from “refugios” (hostels) and schools to hotels and more luxurious “paradors.” Some of the refugios, such as the one in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, have existed since the Middle Ages.
Many people start the Camino at St. Jean Pied de Port, at the foot of the Pyrenees, and walk or cycle the entire 780 km. We wondered where one should start if time – or energy – are limited.
“If you want to walk one hundred kilometres, then the village of O Cebreiro is perfect. If you want to walk farther, like two hundred kilometres, then Astorga is a good place to begin,” explains Folkegård.
He also points out that O Cebreiro is one of the more scenic places he has been to on the Camino, offering a wonderful view of the Galician countryside.
“I have stood in O Cebreiro – looking at the church and restaurant – and thought to myself: the only things missing here are Asterix and Obelix,” he laughs.
For those who wish to walk or cycle even longer distances, Folkegård suggests starting in Paris, from which there are marked routes to Santiago that have in the last two years have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
No matter how far you walk on the Camino, there’s really nothing like a good hike when you know that a three-course meal and a glass of Rioja are never that far away. Plus you can’t beat the feeling when you wake up one day and realise that you’ve cycled over two thirds of Northern Spain, as I did. Except, of course, the feeling of accomplishment when you finally arrive in Santiago.
The square outside of the cathedral in Santiago was once filled with throngs of merchants and monks who gathered outside of the doors of the Portico de Gloria, selling scallop shells, indulgences and other memorabilia.
Santiago retains much of this commercial feeling and today it’s something of a Catholic Disneyland. Religious objects and T-shirts have replaced indulgences, but the crowds remain and the rituals are the same.
Inside the cathedral, pilgrims queue to place their hands on the Jesse tree, touch their heads to the statue of the Santo del Croques (the head-banging saint) and hug the statue of St. James from behind – all pilgrim rituals. Oddly, few queue to visit the crypt containing the saint’s relics.
Catholic pilgrims who choose to confess at the cathedral are eligible for a special absolution of all sins, which at one time even included those that the pope could not forgive.
There’s also the daily pilgrim mass complete with the swinging of a huge silverbotafumiero (incense burner) that requires eight people to operate it. Ostensibly, it was used to mask the stench of the medieval pilgrim congregation.
No pilgrimage to Santiago is complete without a trip to Finisterre.
Literally the “end of the Earth” and locally called the Coast of Death, Finisterre was the last stop on the medieval pilgrim’s itinerary before journeying homewards, and as Folkegård tells us, where pilgrims traditionally collected their scallop shells. Today, you’re more likely to see modern pilgrims burning their clothes, a more modern ritual.
Finisterre continues to attract modern pilgrims with its stunning sunsets and lighthouse, which is now a stylish little hotel.
In short, if you’re looking for an unforgettable vacation packed with culture and activity, just grab a backpack and a walking stick and follow the yellow arrows on the Camino de Santiago.