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Way of Saint James

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Title: Way of Saint James  
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Subject: Abbey, Alfonso Jordan, Galicia, Spain, Iberian Peninsula, Roman roads, Reconquista, Santiago de Compostela, 11th century, Burgos, Navarre
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Way of Saint James

UNESCO World Heritage Site
Route of Santiago de Compostela
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Type Cultural
Criteria ii, iv, vi
Reference UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1993 (17th Session)

The Way of St. James or St. James' Way (Galician: O Camiño de Santiago, Spanish: El Camino de Santiago, Basque: Done Jakue bidea, French: Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle, Portuguese: Caminhos de Santiago, Italian: Il Cammino di Santiago di Compostela, German: der Jakobsweg, Dutch: Sint Jakobsroute) is the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the apostle Saint James are buried.

Major Christian pilgrimage route

The Way of St. James was one of the most important Christian pilgrimages during medieval times, together with Rome and Jerusalem, and a pilgrimage route on which a plenary indulgence could be earned;[1] other major pilgrimage routes include the Via Francigena to Rome and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Legend holds that St. James's remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain where he was buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.

The Way can take one of any number of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, the Way of Saint James began at one's home and ended at the pilgrimage site. However a few of the routes are considered main ones. During the Middle Ages, the route was highly travelled. However, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th-century Europe led to its decline. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago. Later, the route attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe. The route was declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe in October 1987; it was also named one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.

Whenever St. James's day (25 July) falls on a Sunday, the cathedral declares a Holy or Jubilee Year. Depending on leap years, Holy Years occur in 5, 6 and 11 year intervals. The most recent were 1982, 1993, 1999, 2004, and 2010. The next will be 2021, 2027, and 2032.


The pilgrimage to Santiago has never ceased from the time of the discovery of St. James' remains, though there have been years of fewer pilgrims, particularly during European wars.

During the war of American Independence, John Adams was ordered by Congress to go to Paris to obtain funds for the cause. His ship started leaking and he disembarked with his two sons in Finisterre in 1779. From there he proceeded to follow the Way of St. James in the reverse direction of the pilgrims' route, in order to get to Paris overland. He did not stop to visit Santiago and came to regret this during the course of his journey. In his autobiography, he gave an accurate description of the customs and lodgings afforded to St. James pilgrims in the 18th century and mentioned the legend as it was then told to travellers:[2]

I have always regretted that We could not find time to make a Pilgrimage to Saintiago de Compostella. We were informed, ... that the Original of this Shrine and Temple of St. Iago was this. A certain Shepherd saw a bright Light there in the night. Afterwards it was revealed to an Archbishop that St. James was buried there. This laid the Foundation of a Church, and they have built an Altar on the Spot where the Shepherd saw the Light. In the time of the Moors, the People made a Vow, that if the Moors should be driven from this Country, they would give a certain portion of the Income of their Lands to Saint James. The Moors were defeated and expelled and it was reported and believed, that Saint James was in the Battle and fought with a drawn Sword at the head of the Spanish Troops, on Horseback. The People, believing that they owed the Victory to the Saint, very cheerfully fulfilled their Vows by paying the Tribute. ...Upon the Supposition that this is the place of the Sepulchre of Saint James, there are great numbers of Pilgrims, who visit it, every Year, from France, Spain, Italy and other parts of Europe, many of them on foot.

Pre-Christian history

The Christian origin of the pilgrimage has been well documented throughout the centuries, but no historical reference has been found for pagan origins.

The main pilgrimage route to Santiago follows an earlier Roman trade route, which continues to the Atlantic coast of Galicia, ending at Cape Finisterre. Although it is known today that Cape Finisterre, Spain's westernmost point, is not the westernmost point of mainland Europe (Cabo da Roca in Portugal is farther west), the fact that the Romans called it Finisterrae (literally the end of the world or Land's End in Latin) indicates that they viewed it as such. At night, the Milky Way overhead seems to point the way, so the route acquired the nickname "La Voje Ladee" - the Milky Way.[3]

Scallop symbol

The scallop shell, often found on the shores in Galicia, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago. Over the centuries the scallop shell has taken on mythical, metaphorical and practical meanings, even if its relevance may actually derive from the desire of pilgrims to take home a souvenir.

Two versions of the most common myth about the origin of the symbol concern the death of Saint James, who was martyred by beheading in Jerusalem in 44 CE. According to Spanish legends, he had spent time preaching the gospel in Spain, but returned to Judaea upon seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary on the bank of the Ebro River.[4][5]

Version 1: After James' death, his disciples shipped his body to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. Off the coast of Spain, a heavy storm hit the ship, and the body was lost to the ocean. After some time, however, it washed ashore undamaged, covered in scallops.
Version 2: After James' death his body was mysteriously transported by a crewless ship back to the Iberian Peninsula to be buried in what is now Santiago. As the ship approached land, a wedding was taking place on shore. The young groom was on horseback, and on seeing the ship approaching, his horse got spooked, and horse and rider plunged into the sea. Through miraculous intervention, the horse and rider emerged from the water alive, covered in seashells.

The scallop shell also acts as a metaphor. The grooves in the shell, which meet at a single point, represent the various routes pilgrims traveled, eventually arriving at a single destination: the tomb of James in Santiago de Compostela. The shell is also a metaphor for the pilgrim: As the waves of the ocean wash scallop shells up onto the shores of Galicia, God's hand also guides the pilgrims to Santiago.

As the symbol of the Camino de Santiago, the shell is seen very frequently along the trails. The shell is seen on posts and signs along the camino in order to guide pilgrims along the way. The shell is even more commonly seen on the pilgrims themselves. Wearing a shell denotes that you are a traveler on the Camino de Santiago. Most pilgrims receive a shell at the beginning of their journey and either attach it to them by sewing it onto their clothes or wearing it around their neck or by simply keeping it in their backpack. [6]

The scallop shell also served practical purposes for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. The shell was the right size for gathering water to drink or for eating out of as a makeshift bowl.

The pilgrim's staff is a walking stick used by pilgrims to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.[7] Generally, the stick has a hook on it so that something may be hung from it, and may have a crosspiece on it.[8]

Medieval route

The pilgrim route is a very good thing, but it is narrow. For the road which leads us to life is narrow; on the other hand, the road which leads to death is broad and spacious. The pilgrim route is for those who are good: it is the lack of vices, the thwarting of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, sorrow for the penitent, the road of the righteous, love of the saints, faith in the resurrection and the reward of the blessed, a separation from hell, the protection of the heavens. It takes us away from luscious foods, it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, it restrains voluptuousness, constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the haughty, raises up the lowly, loves poverty. It hates the reproach of those fuelled by greed. It loves, on the other hand, the person who gives to the poor. It rewards those who live simply and do good works; And, on the other hand, it does not pluck those who are stingy and wicked from the claws of sin.

The earliest records of visits paid to the shrine dedicated to St. James at Santiago de Compostela date from the 9th century, in the time of the Kingdom of Asturias. The pilgrimage to the shrine became the most renowned medieval pilgrimage, and it became customary for those who returned from Compostela to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell as proof of their completion of the journey. This practice was gradually extended to other pilgrimages.

The earliest recorded pilgrims from beyond the Pyrenees visited the shrine in the middle of the 11th century, but it seems that it was not until a century later that large numbers of pilgrims from abroad were regularly journeying there. The earliest records of pilgrims that arrived from England belong to the period between 1092 and 1105. However, by the early 12th century the pilgrimage had become a highly organized affair.

One of the great proponents of the pilgrimage in the 12th century was Pope Callixtus II, who started the Compostelan Holy Years.[9] The official guide in those times was the Codex Calixtinus. Published around 1140, the 5th book of the Codex is still considered the definitive source for many modern guidebooks. Four pilgrimage routes listed in the Codex originate in France and converge at Puente la Reina. From there, a well-defined route crosses northern Spain, linking Burgos, Carrión de los Condes, Sahagún, León, Astorga, and Compostela.

The daily needs of pilgrims on their way to and from Compostela were met by a series of hospitals and hospices. These had royal protection and were a lucrative source of revenue. Romanesque architecture, a new genre of ecclesiastical architecture, was designed with massive archways to cope with huge devout crowds. There was also the sale of the now-familiar paraphernalia of tourism, such as badges and souvenirs. Since the Christian symbol for James the Greater was the scallop shell, many pilgrims wore one as a sign to anyone on the road that they were a pilgrim. This gave them privileges to sleep in churches and ask for free meals, but also warded off thieves who dared not attack devoted pilgrims.

The pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela was possible because of the protection and freedom provided by the Kingdom of France, where the majority of pilgrims originated. Enterprising French (including Gascons and other peoples not under the French crown) settled in towns along the pilgrimage routes, where their names appear in the archives. The pilgrims were tended by people like Domingo de la Calzada, who was later recognized as a saint himself.

Pilgrims walked the Way of St. James, often for months, to arrive at the great church in the main square of Compostela and pay homage to St. James. So many pilgrims have laid their hands on the pillar just inside the doorway of the church that a groove has been worn in the stone.

The popular Spanish name for the astronomical Milky Way is El Camino de Santiago. According to a common medieval legend, the Milky Way was formed from the dust raised by travelling pilgrims.[10] Compostela itself means "field of stars". Another origin for this popular name is Book IV of the Book of Saint James which relates how the saint appeared in a dream to Charlemagne, urging him to liberate his tomb from the Moors and showing him the direction to follow by the route of the Milky Way.

As penance

The Church employed a system of rituals to atone for temporal punishment due to sins known as penance. According to this system, pilgrimages were a suitable form of expiation for some temporal punishment, and they could be used as acts of penance for those who were guilty of certain crimes. As noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia:[11]

In the registers of the Inquisition at Carcassone...we find the four following places noted as being the centres of the greater pilgrimages to be imposed as penances for the graver crimes: the tomb of the Apostles at Rome, the shrine of St. James at Compostella [sic], St. Thomas' body at Canterbury, and the relics of the Three Kings at Cologne.

There is still a tradition in Flanders of pardoning and releasing one prisoner every year[12] under the condition that this prisoner walks to Santiago wearing a heavy backpack, accompanied by a guard.

Modern-day pilgrimage

Today, tens of thousands[13] of Christian pilgrims and many others set out each year from their front doorsteps or from popular starting points across Europe, to make their way to Santiago de Compostela. Most travel by foot, some by bicycle, and a few travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey (for example, the British author and humourist Tim Moore). In addition to those undertaking a religious pilgrimage, the majority are hikers who walk the route for non-religious reasons: travel, sport, or simply the challenge of weeks of walking in a foreign land. Also, many consider the experience a spiritual adventure to remove themselves from the bustle of modern life. It serves as a retreat for many modern "pilgrims".


Pilgrims on the Way of St. James walk for weeks or months to visit the city of Santiago de Compostela. They follow many routes (any path to Santiago is a pilgrim's path) but the most popular route is Via Regia and its last part - the French Way (Camino Francés). Historically, most of the pilgrims came from France, from Paris, Vézelay, Le Puy, and Arles and Saint Gilles, due to the Codex Calixtinus, and which today are important starting points. The Spanish consider the Pyrenees a starting point. Common starting points along the French border are Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Somport on the French side of the Pyrenees and Roncesvalles or Jaca on the Spanish side. (The distance from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostella through León is about 800 km.). Another possibility is to do the Northern Route nearer the Spanish coast along the Bay of Biscay, which was first used by pilgrims in order to avoid travelling through the territories occupied by the Muslims in the Middle Ages.

Many pilgrims begin further afield in one of the four French cities that are common and traditional starting points or gathering points: Paris, Vézelay, Arles, and Le Puy. Cluny, site of the celebrated medieval abbey, was another important rallying point for pilgrims and, in 2002, it was integrated into the official European pilgrimage route linking Vézelay and Le Puy. Some pilgrims start from even further away, though their routes will often pass through one of those four French towns. Some Europeans begin their pilgrimage on foot from the very doorstep of their homes, just as their medieval counterparts did.

Another popular route is the 227 km long Central Portuguese Way, which starts at Sé Catedral in Porto in the north of Portugal. There are two traditional routes from there, one inland (the Central Way) and the Coastal Way (Caminho da Costa). On the central route, Rates is considered the central site of the Portuguese Way.[14] The way has been used since the Middle Ages and the ancient monastery of Rates gained importance due to the legend of Saint Peter of Rates. The legend holds that Saint James ordained Peter as the first bishop of Braga in 44 CE. One of most tiring parts of the Portuguese Way is in the Labruja hills in Ponte de Lima, which are hard to cross. The camino winds its way inland until it reaches the Spanish border through Valença. The Coastal Way gained importance since the 15th century due to the growing importance of the coastal towns. The route splits from the central way in the countryside of Vila do Conde and enters the town through the Monastery of Santa Clara and the Matriz Church of Vila do Conde was built by king Manuel I of Portugal while in pilgrimage. The rising importance of Póvoa de Varzim imposed this new direction,[15] which also crosses Esposende, Viana do Castelo and Caminha before reaching the Spanish border.


In Spain, France, and Portugal, pilgrim's hostels with beds in dormitories dot the common routes, providing overnight accommodation for pilgrims who hold a credencial (see below). In Spain this type of accommodation is called a refugio or albergue, both of which are similar to youth hostels or hostelries in the French system of gîtes d'étape.

Staying at pilgrims' hostels - known as albergues - usually costs between 6 and 10 euros per night per bed, although a few hostels known as donativos operate on voluntary donations (Municipal albergues cost 6 euros, while private albergues generally cost between 10 and 15 euros per night.) Pilgrims are usually limited to one night's accommodation and are expected to leave by eight in the morning to continue their pilgrimage.

Hostels may be run by the local parish, the local council, private owners, or pilgrims' associations. Occasionally these refugios are located in monasteries, such as the one run by monks in Samos, Spain and the one in Santiago de Compostela.

Credencial or pilgrim's passport

Most pilgrims carry a document called the credencial, purchased for a few euros from a Spanish tourist agency, a church on the route, or from their church back home. The credencial is a pass which gives access to inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation in refugios along the trail. Also known as the "pilgrim's passport", the credencial is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. It provides pilgrims with a record of where they ate or slept, but also serves as proof to the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago that the journey was accomplished according to an official route. The credencial is available at refugios, tourist offices, some local parish houses, and outside Spain through the national St. James organisation of that country. The stamped credencial is also necessary if the pilgrim wants to obtain a compostela, a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage.

Most often the stamp can be obtained in the refugio, cathedral, or local church. If the church is closed, the town hall or office of tourism can provide a stamp, as well as nearby youth hostels or private St. James addresses. Outside Spain, the stamp can be associated with something of a ceremony, where the stamper and the pilgrim can share information. As the pilgrimage approaches Santiago, many of the stamps in small towns are self-service due to the greater number of pilgrims, while in the larger towns there are several options to obtain the stamp.


The compostela is a certificate of accomplishment given to pilgrims on completing the Way. To earn the compostela one needs to walk a minimum of 100 km or cycle at least 200 km. In practice, for walkers, that means starting in Sarria, as it has good bus and rail connections to other places in Spain. Pilgrims arriving in Santiago de Compostela who have walked at least the last 100 km, or cycled 200 km to get there (as indicated on their credencial), are eligible for the compostela from the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago.

The compostela has been indulgenced since the Early Middle Ages and remains so to this day.[16] The full text of the certificate is in Latin and reads:

CAPITULUM hujus Almae Apostolicae et Metropolitanae Ecclesiae Compostellanae sigilli Altaris Beati Jacobi Apostoli custos, ut omnibus Fidelibus et Perigrinis ex toto terrarum Orbe, devotionis affectu vel voti causa, ad limina Apostoli Nostri Hispaniarum Patroni ac Tutelaris SANCTI JACOBI convenientibus, authenticas visitationis litteras expediat, omnibus et singulis praesentes inspecturis, notum facit : (Latin version of name of recipient)

Hoc sacratissimum Templum pietatis causa devote visitasse. In quorum fidem praesentes litteras, sigillo ejusdem Sanctae Ecclesiae munitas, ei confero.

Datum Compostellae die (day) mensis (month) anno Dni (year)

Canonicus Deputatus pro Peregrinis

English translation:

"The HEAD of the Holy Apostolic Metropolitan Church of Compostela, guardian of the seal of the Holy Altar of the Apostle James, to all Faithful and Pilgrims from all the earth who come with feelings of devotion or vowed to a cause to the threshold of the Apostle, both our Patron of Spain and Protector St. James, by authenticating the letters of each and every visitation, makes known that [Name]

has devoutly visited this Sacred Church on a pious cause. In whose strong faith this letter is presented, with the seal of the same Holy Church, conferred upon them.

Given at Compostela on the day [day] month [month] year of the Lord [year].

Deputy Canon for Pilgrims"

The pilgrim passport is examined for stamps and dates. If a key stamp is missing, the compostela may be refused. The pilgrim can state whether the goal of his Camino was 'religious', 'religious and other', or just 'other'. In the case of 'other', a compostelate in Spanish is given asking for blessing of this heathen. In the cases of 'religious' or 'religious and other', a compostelate in Latin is given. The Pilgrim Office of Santiago awards more than 100,000 compostelas a year to pilgrims from over 100 countries.

Pilgrim's Mass

Pilgrims finishing the Camino 1985-

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Green bars are holy years

A Pilgrim's Mass is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela each day at noon for pilgrims. Pilgrims who received the compostela the day before have their countries of origin and the starting point of their pilgrimage announced at the Mass. The musical and visual highlight of the Mass is the synchronisation of the beautiful "Hymn to Santiago" with the spectacular swinging of the huge Botafumeiro, the famous thurible kept in the cathedral. Incense is burned in this swinging metal container, or censor. As the last chords die away, the multitude of pilgrims jostle happily as they crowd forward to reach the spiritual highlight of the Mass, the rite of communion. Priests administer the Sacrament of Penance, or confession, in many languages, permitting most pilgrims to complete the indulgence attached to the pilgrimage upon satisfying the other canonical conditions. In the Holy Year of 2010 the Pilgrim's Mass was exceptionally held four times a day, at 10 a.m., noon, 6 p.m., and 7:30 p.m., catering to the greater number of pilgrims arriving in the Holy Year.

As tourism

The Xunta de Galicia (Galicia's regional government) promotes the Way as a tourist activity, particularly in Holy Compostelan Years (when July 25 falls on a Sunday). Following the Xunta's considerable investment and hugely successful advertising campaign for the Holy Year of 1993, the number of pilgrims completing the route has been steadily rising. Following the Holy Year of 2010, the next Holy Year will not be for another 11 years, in 2021. More than 272,000 pilgrims made the trip during the course of 2010.

Below is a table detailing the numbers of pilgrims recorded as arriving at the cathedral at Santiago each year from 1985. The figures are sourced from the cathedral's records.

Year Pilgrims
1985 690
1986 1,801
1987 2,905
1988 3,501
1989 5,760²
1990 4,918
1991 7,274
1992 9,764
1993 99,4361
1994 15,863
1995 19,821
1996 23,218
1997 25,179
1998 30,126
1999 154,6131
2000 55,004³
2001 61,418
2002 68,952
2003 74,614
2004 179,9441
2005 93,924
2006 100,377
2007 114,026
2008 125,141
2009 145,877
2010 272,7031
2011 179,919
2012 192,488
1 Holy Years (Xacobeo/Jacobeo)

2 4th World Youth Day in Santiago de Compostela
3 Santiago named European Capital of Culture
Source: The archives of Santiago de Compostela.[17][18][19]

In television and film

1969 The pilgrimage is central to the plot of the 1969 film The Milky Way by surrealist director Luis Buñuel. It is intended to be a critique of the Catholic church, as the modern pilgrims encounter various manifestations of Catholic dogma and heresy.

2003 Art critic and journalist Brian Sewell made a journey to Santiago de Compostela for a television series The Naked Pilgrim for UK's Channel Five in 2003. Travelling by car along the French route, he visited many towns and cities on the way including Paris, Chartres, Roncesvalles, Burgos, Leon and Frómista. Sewell, a lapsed Catholic, was moved by the stories of other pilgrims and by the sights he saw. The series climaxed with Sewell's emotional response to the Mass at Compostela.

2004 In 2004 an Australian filmmaker walked the French Way from St. Jean Pied du Port to Santiago, documenting his experiences in a documentary called The Way.[20]

2005 In 2005, The Way of St. James was the central feature of the film Saint Jacques... La Mecque directed by Coline Serreau.

2008 Part of the pilgrimage route is walked and described in the American food and travel television series produced by PBS Spain... on the Road Again, in episode 2, "Pilgrimage to Galicia". It originally aired September 27, 2008.

2010 In The Way, a movie starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez, who also wrote and directed, the principal character walked the Way of St. James. A father learns that his son has died on the route and takes up the pilgrimage in order to complete it for his son. The film was presented at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2010,[21][22] and premiered in Santiago in November 2010.

2011 The Huffington Post featured an article and short documentary video on walking the Camino de Santiago in March 2011.[23]

  • On his travel Europe television series (PBS, US), Rick Steves covers Northern Spain and the Camino de Santiago in series 6. The cited reference contains information about this episode and resources for the trip as well as blog posts and user comments.[24]
  • Danish TV & Radio personality Mikael Bertelsen walked part of the route, from León to Santiago, in the Nordic Christmas calendar series "Bertelsen på Caminoen".[25] Despite early skepticism from the religious community, who feared that the journey would be ridiculed in Bertelsens usual style, the series was very well received.[26]

2013 Lydia B. Smith produced and directed a documentary called Walking the Camino, Six Ways to Santiago about six strangers from around the world who walk the Camino de Santiago.[27]

Name in other languages

The Way of St. James is most often referred to by the names used in the areas it passes:

See also


  • Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage (1987)
  • Kevin A. Codd, "To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim's Journey to Santiago de Compostela" (2008)
  • James Michener, Iberia (1968); contains one chapter about the Camino de Santiago
  • Walter Starkie, The Road to Santiago, (1957) John Murray, reprinted 2003.
  • David Lodge, Therapy (1995)
  • Anne Carson - "Kinds of Water" first published in 1987. A prose poem that traces the narrator's journey, focusing on the philosophical questions it raises, especially with regards to the nature and desire of the pilgrim. The piece can be found in the 1995 anthology of Carson's essays Plainwater.
  • Shirley Maclaine - "Camino: Journey of the Spirit"


External links

  • Camino de Santiago Community dedicated to help pilgrims plan their trip
  •, detailed and accurate information about The Caminos and Albergues (GPS tracks, POIs, maps)
  • Virtual Visit Cathedral Santiago de Compostela
  • Camino de Santiago Backpacking Journals Follow hikers as they walk the Way of Saint James
  • Template:-inline

Coordinates: 42°27′32″N 5°52′59″W / 42.459°N 5.883°W / 42.459; -5.883

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