Shells, Credencials, Compostelas and Way-marking

Shell - symbol of the Camino. Torres del Rio to Viana Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

In the Middle Ages those walking to Rome were called romero, those travelling to Jerusalem, palmero, while pilgrims going to Santiago were named pelegrino. As proof of reaching their destination pilgrims on their way back from Rome carried crossed keys of Saint Peter, those walking back from the Holy Land – palm branches, while pilgrims from Compostela brought home shells. The modern pelegrino no longer walks back home, so he/she attaches a shell to a rucksack or pannier at the starting point of the pilgrimage. A shell is an attribute of a pilgrim walking/cycling/horse-riding to Santiago and that’s how he is recognized as one along the way.

In the Middle Ages, pilgrims carried letters of reference; today you will use a pilgrim passport called a credencial. It allows you to use a network of cheap hostels along the way and gives you discount in restaurants and bars. Every day you will need one or two additional stamps in your credencial, besides the one you get from the albergue you stayed for the night. Stamps are available in bars, albergues and churches along the way. When you stop somewhere for a drink or sandwich, just ask for a ‘sello’. You can obtain shells and credentials from the Pilgrim’s Office in Saint-Jean-Pied-du-Port. If you start somewhere else, ask for a passport in any albergue or big church.

A credential is essential not only because of the benefits it brings you along the way, but it also forms the basis for receiving the compostela, an official document issued by the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela that I will describe in greater detail in the last chapter. The compostela will be proof of your completing the Camino de Santiago and a very personal souvenir of that trip. To receive it you must walk or ride on horseback at least the last 100 km to Santiago (it must be the last 100 meaning starting in Sarria) or cycle the last 200 km (again it must be the last 200 km, so Ponferrada will be your starting point).

The Camino de Santiago (walker’s trail) is waymarked by yellow arrows →→ and occasionally in bigger towns (Carrion de los Condes, Leon among others) by decorative shells on the pavement. The last kilometres of the Way in Galicia are marked by small pillars with shells. Recently in some places Camino waymarking for cyclists also appeared; a very good sign for the future. When I write ‘Camino’ in this guidebook, I always mean cycling the walker’s trail.