THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO, the experience of a lifetime
The Camino de Santiago ( Iago: James in Spanish), The Way of St.James or Camino Francés is an ancient pilgrimage route stretching 800 km across northern Spain, from the Pyrenees in the east to the city of Santiago de Compostela in the north-western province of Galicia. Other pilgrimage routes with their destination in Santiago start out from other points in the Iberian peninsula – the Camino Portugues, the Via de La Plata, the Camino del Norte and the Camino Inglés – but the Camino de Santiago has become the most popular pilgimage route, attracting thousands of people every year.
Legend has it that the body of the Apostle St.James was brought to Galicia – the small boat landing at the Roman port of Ira Flavia ( adjacent to modern day Padron) – after his martyrdom in Jerusalem, and that the discovery of his tomb in the 9th century led to the founding of the city of Santiago as a sacred site in the Christian world. In medieval times the Camino de Santiago grew to be equal in importance to the pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem, being a “route to salvation”… a way to earn indulgences and expiate sins.
For many of today’s pilgrims the religious motivation to undertake the pilgrimage to Santiago may not be so relevant, but it is nevertheless a spiritual journey in the broadest sense, a challenge to the physical and moral stamina of those who undertake it, a deeply rewarding experience of reflection and self-realisation. For the majority of pilgrims to Santiago their journey is a life-changing, life-affirming, and unforgettable, experience.
“El Camino comienza en casa”, say the Spanish – the Path begins at your own doorstep. Most European pilgrimage routes converge at St.Jean de Port in France, at the foot of the Pyrenees, but the pilgrim’s camino begins as soon as he or she leaves home… if not before! While some pilgrims do the journey by bicycle and still others on horseback, the majority make their way by foot along the well-beaten pathways over mountain and moorland, hillside and valley, crossing many a Roman and Medieval bridge over rivers that have seen the passing of countless thousands of pilgrims over the centuries.
The Camino de Santiago is attracting more and more people from around the world. The numbers of pilgrims have increased dramatically from around 3,000 registered pilgrims in 1987 ( when the Council of Europe declared the Camino the first Path of European Culture) to 180,000 pilgrims in 2011. In 1993 the Way of St.James was granted the status of World heritage Site by UNESCO.
The publishing of the book “The Pilgrimage” by Paulo Coelho in 1987, and, in 2010 the showing of the film “The Way” starring Martin Sheen ( whose family is Galician) further stimulated interest in this ancient pilgrimage route.
THE SCALLOP SHELL – symbol of the pilgrimage to Santiago.
From the very earliest days, the scallop shell (vieira in Galician) came to symbolize the Camino and is worn by every pilgrim. The form of the shell represents the many European starting points from which medieval pilgrims began their journey, all drawn to a single point at the base of the shell, Santiago de Compostela. The origin of the scallop as the badge of the pilgrim is open to more than one explanation. Found in abundance along north-western Spanish coast, the scallop shell has become closely associated with the Camino de Santiago and its image is found carved into the walls, monuments and churches throughout Europe. Some argue that the shell was adopted merely as a device for sipping water from streams along the way but although this is quite likely the case, it quickly took on greater meaning even to the earliest pilgrims.
AT THE END OF THE JOURNEY…
After arriving at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims present their Pilgrim Passport*, duly stamped at each of their halts along the way, at the Cathedral’s Pilgrim Office, and apply for the “Compostela”, the traditional certificate in Latin confirming their completion of the pilgrimage. To receive the Compostela, a pilgrim needs to have walked a minimum of 100 km (or cycled at least 200 km) along the official route.
*To obtain official status as a Pilgrim one must possess a Pilgrim’s Passport or “Credential” – a document which may be purchased for a small fee from the Pilgrim’s Office in St.Jean Pied de Port or at any church along the Camino. The Credential grants the pilgrim official recognition and gives him access to inexpensive overnight accomodation in shelters, churches or monasteries along the Way. Each stop-over is confirmed with a rubber stamp inside the Credential.