Camino de Santiago. Routes and Pilgrims.
The Camino de Santiago (“Road to Santiago”) scarcely needs introduction; the millions of entries you can find through Google are a testament to its fame. In addition, there is a bewildering amount of guide books as well as volumes chronicling personal reflections.
A detail to keep in mind is that there are in fact several caminos leading to Santiago, many of them secondary and added to the list fairly recently. Some pilgrims have travelled more than one route at different times or have completed a camino in stages over more than one year.
What is the Camino de Santiago?
Briefly, the term Camino de Santiago (“Road to Santiago”) most frequently refers to the best known and by far the most widely travelled pilgrimage road that runs about 790 kilometres (490 miles) inland along the north of Spain westward from the Pyrenees to the city of Santiago de Compostela, capital of the Autonomous Community of Galicia in North West Spain. Its history goes back to the Middle Ages.
The pilgrims’ destination is Santiago’s magnificent Romanesque cathedral where the remains of one of Christ’s closest disciples –St. James the Greater, or Santiago in Spanish– are believed to be enshrined.
The Camino de Santiago is also commonly called the Camino francés owing to the large number of French pilgrims in the early days, many of whom settled permanently on the route. In France, they travelled along four major routes starting at Arles, Le Puy, Vezelay and Tours/Paris. In Spain, the roads converged at Puente la Reina (Navarra), after which the pilgrims headed west through Logroño, Burgos, Frómista, León, Astorga, Ponferrrada, Villafranca de Bierzo, O Cebreiro, and Portomarín.
But there are other Caminos!
Of course, not all caminos crossed France; there were pilgrims who began their journeys from different points in Europe. There is no total agreement as to the number of routes, but the following figure in most overviews of the roads, in addition to the Camino francés:
1. The Camino portugués, approx 613 kilometres (380 miles), beginning in Lisbon, travels through Porto (also considered a starting point) and enters Spain at Tui, 107 kilometres (66 miles) south of Santiago.
2. The Camino del Norte, approx 830 kilometres (521 miles), runs from Irun/San Sebastian along the beautiful north coast to Ribadeo before cutting inland and southwards to Santiago.
3. The Camino primitivo, approx. 320 kilometres (204 miles) starting out in Oviedo, runs through mountains, then passes through Lugo and on to Santiago. It is called the primitivo (“original” or “first”) because it supposedly follows the journey made by Alfonso II, the Chaste, of Asturias (r. 791-842). Often called the first pilgrim to Santiago, he apparently walked the route shortly after 813, the year St. James’s tomb is said to have been discovered.
4. The Vía de la Plata, (“The Silver Road”). Approx 1,000 kilometres (621 miles), it sets out from Seville following an ancient Roman road northward via Merida, Cáceres, Salamanca, Zamora. It is considered by some to be the most difficult route because the travel infrastructure is not as well developed as the northern routes. Despite its name, the route is more likely named after the Arabic word al-balat (“the cobbled way,” or possibly the Latin lapidata” (“stone road”).
5. The Camino inglés, approx. 110 kilometres (68 miles), surely a surprising name and more so since it goes from the Galician port of El Ferrol (or A Coruña) to Santiago. Explanation? It harkens back to the days when pilgrims from Britain and Ireland (most of whom were English, hence inglés) found it easier and quicker to travel by sea than the demanding walk all the way through France and northern Spain.
Nowadays, the term “camino” has such resonance in the pilgrimage world that it has even been appropriated by lesser-known routes heading for different destinations. So, we can find pilgrims journeying along the Camino de Roma to the Italian capital, or a short Camino inglés (from Finchale priory, via Durham cathedral to the Saxon church at Escomb in north-east England. See https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2021/mar/28/secular-pilgrims-why-ancient-trails-still-pack-a-spiritual-punch )
For modern pilgrims, the camino roads, besides serving personal or spiritual needs, are also architectural treasure troves, from ancient villages with typical, locally-styled gems to large towns with medieval and later quarters. Houses of worship –predictably– figure prominently. These range from small Romanesque village churches in the north to the superstar, appropriately the destination of the pilgrims: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
The Camino francés boasts two of Spain’s great Gothic cathedrals, Burgos and León. Oviedo’s cathedral is the star of the Camino primitivo, while the Via de la Plata claims the world’s largest Gothic cathedral with a Moorish belltower and stunning Moorish/ Alhambra-styled Royal Residences –Reales Alcázares (Seville), magnificent Roman ruins (Mérida), an extraordinary Old Town virtually untouched since the 16th century (Cáceres), and one of the most beautiful Renaissance squares in Europe and a venerable university quarter (Salamanca).
Who were the pilgrims?
Many of the motives propelling Medieval pilgrims were similar to many of those that drive modern travellers, but there were some that reflect the customs and values of that period: e. g. convicts could avoid prison sentences by undertaking the journey (although wealthy criminals could circumvent the trip by paying someone else to do it); some travellers might be sent by their community to pray for relief from plagues or appeal for rain; some looked to escape feudal obligations. Or there was the fulfillment of a vow or an act of penitence, or the hope for miracles to heal various ailments.
There were also cutthroats and thieves who travelled looking for easy pickings among the weak, which was why many pilgrims banded together for mutual protection.
Although the journey was fraught with dangers, pilgrims entertained each other elaborating tales or picking up local stories they heard on their travels, e.g, The Rooster and Hen of Santo Domingo de la Calzada (La Rioja), the Mystery of Obanos (Navarra), the Legend of the Holy Grail of O Cebreiro (Galicia).
Gradually, many pilgrims settled down along the route as it became more established. They built churches, monasteries, hospitals and hostels, enriched themselves on the pilgrim trade and helped create a cultural and architectural highway leading to Santiago from various parts of Europe.
Since a pilgrimage could take years, depending on the point of departure, it was incumbent on pilgrims to set their affairs in order. Theirs was a journey of spiritual cleansing which they prepared for by making amends with their enemies, paying off debts, confessing their sins to their parish priest or bishop and seeking a blessing on themselves and even on the clothes they wore which, by the 13th century, had reached something of a recognisable form: tunic, pouch, large broad-brimmed hat and staff. Badges and tokens were gathered from shrines visited on the journey, the most significant of course being the emblem attached to the destination, in the case of Santiago, the scallop shell.
Such preparations are most unlikely nowadays, or they have a different emphasis. Santiago de Compostela is now a major travel destination not only for pilgrims on a holy mission but also for a wide variety of travellers –including non-believers– undertaking the camino trek for an equally wide variety of reasons: adventure and curiosity, spiritual (though not necessarily religious) renewal, a search for meaning, encouragement or recommendation from books or by someone who has already done the trip. In this secular age, simply the draw of history and/or architecture might be sufficient stimulus.
Irrespective of motive, many if not most find that the experience has changed them or will admit that the journey has enriched them in some way. Some pilgrims have travelled more than one route at different times or have completed a camino in stages over more than one year. There is a degree of satisfaction in completing the journey or a part of it on foot or horseback; it’s sometimes accompanied by a feeling of superiority in some over those who have driven, cycled or taken a coach for substantial parts. The caminos were made for walking they argue although travel by horseback or on a donkey is acceptable given their widespread use as transport in medieval times.
Indeed, to claim the much sought-after certificate (la compostela in Spanish –sometimes erroneously called la compostelana), nowadays, pilgrims must have walked or ridden on horse/mule/donkey the last 100 kilometers or cycled the last 200 kilometres. To ensure that these requirements have been observed, pilgrims must also collect stamps from hostels, churches, monasteries, even cafes on their pilgrim’s passport (Credencial del Peregrino) issued by the Cathedral itself or authorised Camino de Santiago organisations). For the last 100 kilometres (for those on foot) or the last 200 kilometres (for cyclists), the Credencial must be stamped at least twice a day.
If you want brief history of who St. James/ Santiago was and how his remains allegedly ended up in Santiago de Compostela, click here.
And if you are interested in learning how Santiago de Compostela became such an important pilgrim destination (the most important in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome in the Middle Ages), see the role of royalty in popularizing the camino francés.
I must admit that I have not travelled any of the caminos myself, and am therefore not in a position to offer advice to would-be travellers. My wife and I have covered some stages of the Camino francés, but by car!!
Of the numerous guide books I have consulted, I have found the following very useful:
Brierley, John A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago, Forres, Scotland: Camino Guides 9th ed. 2013.
Davies, Bethan and Cole, Ben Walking the Camino de Santiago Vancouver: Pili Pala Press 3rd ed. Updated by Daphne Hnatiuk 2009.
Gitlitz, David M and Davidson Linda Kay The Pilgrimage Road to Santiago: The Complete Cultural Handbook, New York: St. Martin’s Griffin 2000.
Jacobs, Michael The Road to Santiago de Compostela, London: Penguin 1992
For an excellent introduction and summary of some of the tales –three are mentioned above– associated with the Camino francés, see https://www.memoirsofspain.com/post/st-james-and-other-curious-legends-of-the-camino
Map of The Way of St. James: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camino_de_Santiago_(route_descriptions) This detailed Wikipedia page covers all the major routes plus numerous secondary ones.
For another detailed and excellent coverage of numerous routes, including secondary ones, see: https://www.pilgrim.es/en/routes/
Photo of Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor: By Turol Jones, un artista de cojones from Villanueva del Cascajal, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36044795