The Way of Saint James: Camino de Santiago

Hontanas - a town hidden in a small basin. Province of Burgos Photography: Katarzyna Kostrzewska

The pilgrimage called ‘The Way of Saint James’ started soon after the grave of Saint James was discovered. The first known pilgrim from beyond the Pyrenees was a German monk who reached Santiago before 930. The first fully documented pilgrim to go to Santiago de Compostela is known by the name of Godescalc, bishop of Le Puy, who set off on the journey from Aquitaine to Galicia during one cold winter, Anno Domini 951. In 1866 a Parisian archivist discovered a 10th-century manuscript written by a monk called Gomez from an abbey near Logrono, who while copying a book of Saint Ildefonso for the bishop, included a note about Godescalc’s pilgrimage. According to Gomez, Godescalc wanted to complete the Way because of his great devotion to Saint James on whose feast day he was born and later ordained a bishop. A century later, thousands of low and high ranks from all over Europe were making the pilgrimage to the grave of Saint James. Among them were Kings like Alfonso VII of Castile in 1138, Alfonso II of Aragon in 1195-96, future Carlos III de Navarra in 1381-81, Fernando and Isabel in 1486, as well as saints like Elisabeth of Portugal (14th century), Francis of Assisi in 1214 (in 2014 the church of Saint Francis in Santiago de Compostela issued a special document for those who completed the Camino de Santiago in that year in memory of the 800th anniversary of the saint’s pilgrimage) or artists, such as Jan van Eyck (15th century). Kings and nobleman built roads, bridges, and hospices for the pilgrims. Many of these structures remain today, representing first-class art. Some people spent their whole life serving the pilgrims like St Gregorio Ostiense, Santo Domingo de la Calzada or Saint Juan y Ortega.

Over the centuries people from distant corners of the continent met on the Way of Saint James so there is no exaggeration in what Johann Wolfgang Goethe said that the idea of Europe was born along the road to Santiago.

The pilgrimage was at its peak in the 11th and 12th centuries. Later the number of pilgrims gradually dropped because of the geopolitical situation, but they never disappeared completely regardless of the political turbulence or religious scepticism. In the 1970s less than one hundred pilgrims a year made it to Santiago. The situation changed diametrically in the Jacobean Holy Year of 1982 when Pope John Paul II visited Santiago. Soon after his visit, the Council of Europe called for the reconstruction of Saint James’ Way. In 1987 the route you are just about to follow was proclaimed the first European Cultural Route; in 1993 it was made a UNESCO Heritage Site.

From the 80s onwards, the number of the pilgrims began to increase and today we are experiencing a renaissance of the pilgrimage. Suffice to say that between the years 2004 and 2014, 1, 7 million people visited Santiago de Compostela; 215 856 pilgrims in 2013 alone. Most of the pilgrims walk the Way; around 10 percent cycle, less than one percent go on horseback or travel with a donkey and several dozens a year manage it in a wheelchair.