Also known as the Way of St. James in English, or Peregrinatio Compostellana (Pilgrimage of Compostela) in Latin, the Camino Santiago has a rich historical background that dates back to the 9th century.
It is a large network of pilgrim routes that spread across Europe and some parts of North Africa and leads to the shrine of St. James the Great. Until his death, which was caused by beheading in Jerusalem, Spanish tales say that he spent most of his time preaching the word of God in Spain before heading back to Judea.
The shrine is located in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, a province in the North of Spain. Because tradition has it that the Saint was buried there, many pilgrims walk faithfully for a lot of reasons. Some are seeking a form of pathway for spiritual growth, others for meditation and self-discovery, or even for plenary indulgence if they do the Camino in a Holy year. The Camino is also seen as a form of tourism and even bike cyclers and hikers make use of the complicated network of roads for their sporting activities.
The Way of St. James is undoubtedly one of the most important Christian pilgrimages of all time, aside from the ones taken to Jerusalem and Rome. Many people who embark on this journey, especially for spiritual reasons, believe that through it, they may gain forgiveness of their sins, so they go on it with utmost serenity.
This pilgrimage dates back to 812 AD, when the remains of St. James body was discovered. Although some years have witnessed a very low turnout because of the challenges prevailing Europe at the time, such as the Black Death, a deadly plague that almost wiped out a third of Europe, the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and several political unrests. It was so severe that by the 1980s, only hundreds of people registered for the pilgrimage yearly. But the turnout has increased amazingly in recent years with over 300,000 people in 2017 alone.
Since ancient mythology has it that scallop shells are heavily associated with the appearance of the body of St. James from the shores in Galicia, it is no wonder that it became the symbol of Camino de Santiago. It is placed on signs and posts showing the Christian pilgrims the path, used as a makeshift bowl because of the sign, and is worn over the neck by pilgrims to serve as a form of badge showing participation and completion of the journey.
Main routes of the Way of St. James
- Camino Frances: Also known as the French way, this is one of the most popular routes that lead to the Way of St. James. It runs from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side all the way to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side. Most routes lead here, such as the Camino De Madrid, Camino Del Ebro, Camino de la Lana, and others.
- Camino del Norte: This is a five-week route that runs from the Basque country at Irun, and joins the northern coastline of Spain that leads to Galicia. This road is popularly known as the Old Roman road; the road Christians took when Muslims made traveling the Camino Frances route dangerous.
- The Tunnel Way: Also known as the Basque Inland Route, it provided a safe place from the Muslim invasion for pilgrims to pass through. It starts from Irun, heads southwest up the Oria Valley, and reaches the San Adrian tunnel leading to the Alavan plains.
- Camino Primitivo: This is the original Camino as the name implies. It starts at Oviedo.
- Camino Portugues: This is the second most popular route. It starts at Lisbon or Porto in Portugal, passes through the Ave, Cavado, Lima and Minho rivers, gets to Padron in Spain before reaching Santiago. Routes such as Camino de Torres link here. See Coastal variant of this Camino.
- Camino Aragones: This route follows the Aragon River, crosses into Puente La Reina from the province of Navarra, then links up to the Camino Francés.
- Via de la Plata: This starts from Seville and goes north to Zamora. It is one of the less frequented routes. The Camino de Levante links up here.
- Camino Ingles: This is for British pilgrims arriving by boat. The English Camino starts at either from La Coruña or Ferrol.
- Camino de Finisterre: Finisterre, which literally means ‘end of the world’ is the starting point of many pilgrims. It is the most western point of Europe and a route leads all the way to Santiago de Compostela.