FACTS ABOUT EL CAMINO / CAMINO DE SANTIAGO

Today I want to tell you a bit about the El Camino, as you may know it is known as the pilgrimage route.

WHAT IS CAMINO DE SANTIAGO?

The Camino de Santiago known in English as the Way of Saint James among other names, is a network of pilgrims’ ways serving pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth. It is also popular with hiking and cycling enthusiasts and organized tour groups.

The French Way (Camino Francés) and the Routes of Northern Spain are the courses which are listed in the World Heritage List by UNESCO.

HISTORY

The pilgrimage to Santiago has never ceased from the time of the discovery of St. James’s remains in 812 AD, though there have been years of fewer pilgrims, particularly during European wars.

  • Pre-Christian history

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 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 “Voie lactée” – the Milky Way in French.

  • 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 a variety of meanings, metaphorical, practical, and mythical meanings, even if its relevance may have actually derived 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 AD. 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.

Version 1: After James’s 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’s death his body was transported by a ship piloted by an angel, 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.

From its connection to the Camino, the scallop shell came to represent pilgrimage, both to a specific shrine as well as heaven, recalling Hebrews 11:13, identifying that Christians “are pilgrims and strangers on the earth”.

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 one is 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.

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. Generally, the stick has a hook on it so that something may be hung from it, and may have a crosspiece on it.

MEDIEVAL ROUTE

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 and Galicia. 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 gradually led to the scallop shell becoming the badge of a pilgrim.

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. 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 contributed to the development of the idea itself, some Spanish towns still bearing the name, as Hospital de Órbigo. The hospitals were often staffed by Catholic orders and under royal protection. Donations were encouraged but many poorer pilgrims had few clothes and poor health often barely getting to the next hospital.

Romanesque architecture, a new genre of ecclesiastical architecture, was designed with massive archways to cope with huge crowds of the devout. 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. Pilgrims often prayed to Saint Roch whose numerous depictions with the Cross of St James can still be seen along the Way even today.

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 people’s 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.

Pilgrims walked the Way of St. James, often for months and sometime years at a time, to arrive at the great church in the main square of Compostela and pay homage to St. James. Many arrived with very little due to illness or robbery or both. Traditionally pilgrims lay their hands on the pillar just inside the doorway of the cathedral, and so many now have done it has visibly worn away 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. Compostela itself means the “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.

MODERN-DAY PILGRIMAGE

Today, hundreds of thousands (over 300,000 in 2017) 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 little travel as some of their medieval counterparts did, on horseback or by donkey (for example, the British author and humorist Tim Moore). In addition to those undertaking a religious pilgrimage, many are hikers who walk the route for other 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”.

ROUTES

Here only a few routes are named. For a complete list of all the routes (traditional and less).

  1. Camino Francés, or French Way, is the most popular. The Via Regia is the last portion of the (Camino Francés). Historically, because of the Codex Calixtinus, most pilgrims came from France: typically from Arles, Le Puy, Paris, and Vézelay; some from Saint Gilles. 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
  2. Camino Primitivo, or Original Way, is the oldest route to Santiago de Compostela, first taken in the 9th century and which begins in Oviedo
  3. Camino Portugués, or the Portuguese Way, is the second-most-popular route, starting at the cathedral in Lisbon (for a total of about 610 km) or at the cathedral in Porto in the north of Portugal (for a total of about 227 km), crossing into Galicia at Valença
  4. Camino del Norte, or the Northern Way, is also less traveled and starts in the Basque city of Irun on the border with France or sometimes San Sebastián is considered the start of the route. It is far less popular since the route goes up and down a lot (where as the Camino Frances is mostly flat). The route follows the coast along the Bay of Biscay until it gets close to Santiago. It also does not hit the same number of historic cities and points of interest as the Camino Frances, but is a lot cooler in the summer and most consistently pretty. The route is believed to have been first used by pilgrims to avoid traveling through the territories occupied by the Muslims in the Middle Ages.

 

Most Spanish consider the French border in the Pyrenees the natural starting point. By far the most common starting point on the Camino Francés is Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, with Roncesvalles on the Spanish side also being popular. The distance from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostella through León is about 800 km.

 

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 or parish house on the route, a refugio, their church back home, or outside of Spain through the national St. James organization of that country. 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, and serves as proof to the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago that the journey was accomplished according to an official route, and thus that the pilgrim qualifies to receive a compostela (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 can nearby youth hostels or private St. James addresses. Many of the small restaurants and cafes along the Camino also provide stamps. 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.

COMPOSTELA

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, the closest convenient point to start is 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), and who state that their motivation was at least partially religious are eligible for the compostela from the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago. At the Pilgrim’s Office the credencial is examined for stamps and dates, and the pilgrim is asked to state whether the motivation in traveling the Camino was “religious”, “religious and other”, or “other”. In the case of “religious” or “religious and other” a compostela is available; in the case of “other” there is a simpler certificate in Spanish.

The compostela has been indulgenced since the Early Middle Ages and remains so to this day, during Holy Years.

 It reads:

CAPITULUM huius 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 Dei (year)

Canonicus Deputatus pro Peregrinis

English translation:

The CHAPTER of this holy apostolic and metropolitan Church of Compostela, guardian of the seal of the Altar of the blessed Apostle James, in order that it may provide authentic certificates of visitation to all the faithful and to pilgrims from all over the earth who come with devout affection or for the sake of a vow to the shrine of our Apostle St. James, the patron and protector of Spain, hereby makes known to each and all who shall inspect this present document that [Name]

has visited this most sacred temple for the sake of pious devotion. As a faithful witness of these things I confer upon him [or her] the present document, authenticated by the seal of the same Holy Church.

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

Deputy Canon for Pilgrims

The simpler certificate of completion in Spanish for those with non-religious motivation reads:

La S.A.M.I. Catedral de Santiago de Compostela le expresa su bienvenida cordial a la Tumba Apostólica de Santiago el Mayor; y desea que el Santo Apóstol le conceda, con abundancia, las gracias de la Peregrinación.

English translation:

The Holy Apostolic Metropolitan Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela expresses its warm welcome to the Tomb of the Apostle St. James the Greater; and wishes that the holy Apostle may grant you, in abundance, the graces of the Pilgrimage.

The Pilgrim’s Office gives more than 100,000 compostelas each year to pilgrims from more than 100 different countries. However, the requirements to earn a Compostella ensure that not everyone who walks on the Camino receives a Compostella. The requirements for receiving a Compostella are:

1) make the Pilgrimage for religious/spiritual reasons or at least have an attitude of search

2) do the last 100 km on foot or horseback or the last 200 km by bicycle. Wheelchair pilgrims also have a minimum distance

3) collect stamps on your Credencial at least two per day for the last 100 km

PILGRIM’S MASS

A Pilgrim’s Mass is held in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela each day at 12:00 and 19:30. 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 Botafumeiro, one of the largest censers in the world, is operated during certain Solemnities and on every Friday, except Good Friday, at 19:30. Priests administer the Sacrament of Penance, or confession, in many languages. In the Holy Year of 2010 the Pilgrim’s Mass was exceptionally held four times a day, at 10:00, 12:00, 18:00, and 19:30, catering for the greater number of pilgrims arriving in the Holy Year.

 

SOME FACTS:
1. Camino de Santiago means The way of Saint James referring to different routes leading to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, the routes start from either France, Spain or Portugal

2.Most pilgrims start their “Camino” from their own home
3.If you ever get lost watch out for the yellow scallop shells and the yellow arrows, juts be wary that the scallop might be facing a different way in regards of the region you find yourself in
4.The oldest route is Camino Primitivo from Oviedo, while the most famous Camino route is Camino Frances or French way starting from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees
5. In order to receive your certificate you need to walk at least 100 kilometers into Santiago, or if you are doing your pilgrimage by bike, you need to bike at least 200 kilometers
6.Over 200 thousand pilgrims arrive in Santiago each year and receive their Compostela Certificate, to obtain the Compostela you need to walk for either spiritual or religious reasons
7.Fear not if you walk for any other reason and you walked over 100 kilometers or biked for 200 kilometers you will receive a certificate of welcome
8. KM 0 is not in actual Santiago but in Cape Fisterra, it is considered to be the end of the world and a place of magical powers for pre-Christian communities
9. Santiago de Compostela old town is a UNESCO-listed heritage site since 1985 and its University dates back to 1495. The Council of Europe named the Camino de Santiago as the first European Cultural itinerary in 1987 for its important role encouraging cultural exchanges since the Middle Ages
10. 25th July is St James Day, a holiday in Santiago and Galicia. If 25th July falls on a Sunday, it will be considered to be a ‘Holy Year’ or Ano Xacobeo
Did you already walked El Camino?
I’m planing to do it, so if you have any tips, please share them with me! 🙂

36 thoughts on “FACTS ABOUT EL CAMINO / CAMINO DE SANTIAGO

  1. Ivan Jose says:

    I have heard a lot about this famous pilgrimage site. My mother planned to go there when she was in Spain but it did not push through. Your article is so detailed and well-written. Lots of valuable information.

    Liked by 1 person

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