A BRIEF HISTORY
The Camino was one of the most important pilgrimage routes undertaken by Christians during medieval times. It was regarded as the third most significant route, after those to Rome and Jerusalem. All of these routes were ones where a Plenary Indulgence could be earned.
Its background is that the Apostle St James reputedly travelled to Northern Spain preaching the word of Christianity. However he met with limited success and returned to Jerusalem, where his reward was to be beheaded by King Herod in 42AD! He was subsequently martyred and his remains were taken by his followers by boat from Jerusalem to Spain. However as their enemies tried to kill these disciples they dispersed and St James’ remains were buried somewhere in Galicia in the North Western part of Spain, in an unmarked grave. Legend has it that in 813AD a shepherd was drawn to a field by a sky full of stars where the remains of St James were discovered.
These remains were taken and buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela (meaning St James of the Field of Stars). Word quickly spread and people flocked on a pilgrimage to visit the remains from all over Europe and from Spain itself. The most popular route by far was the Camino Frances – from France along tracks across the north of Spain, which became known as El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James). Most of the routes trailing across Europe linked in to this route at St Jean Pied de Port, in the foothills of the French Pyrenees. This is the most popular starting place today of the Camino de Santiago.
The distance from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compestella is 800km/500mls. Many people continue on walking westwards from Santiago out to the sea at Cape Finisterre, a further 87km of hilly terrain. This is a spiritual climax to their Camino as it ends on a very picturesque outcrop of rock hundreds of feet above the sea. People feel they have truly traversed the whole of Spain and the Atlantic Ocean has now ensured their Camino has come to an end. That said, some also do a final trek northwards from Finisterre to Muxia, a small but famous seaside down 30km from Finisterre, on the North west coast of Spain – recently made more famous as the finishing place of a Camino undertaken in Martin Sheehan’s film “The Way”. In completing this full route from St Jean Pied de Port, to Santiago, and on to Finisterre and Muxia, walkers (or “peregrinos” – Spanish for “pilgrims” ) complete a total distance of approximately 920km.
Traditionally, the Way of Saint James began at one’s home and ended at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Literally millions walked to Santiago every year, and then back to their homes. Many thousands died in the process from lack of protection from the elements, attacks by robbers or wild animals,or the spread of disease, as well as normal natural causes. As a result, over the centuries, many pilgrim hospitals were built along the route, (some of which are now the sites of hostels used by today’s pilgrims), and small settlements grew wherever the route crossed a larger local route between towns.
During the Middle ages, travelling along the Camino de Santiago was at its peak, with hundreds of thousands completing it each year. However, the Black Death, the Protestant Reformation and political unrest in 16th-century Europe, amongst many other reasons, led to its decline.
RECENT GROWTH IN POPULARITY
Despite the start of easier means of travel in 20th century, when General Franco siezed power in a bloody civil war in 1936, he did little to encourage the revival of the Camino and only small numbers of people tackled it each year. By the 1980s, only a few pilgrims per year arrived in Santiago. However after the takeover by King Carlos in 1975 reforms were on the way, and in this new relaxed age, pilgrims started to return to undertake the pilgrimage to pay their respects to the remains of St James, buried in a crypt under the cathedral in Santiago de Compestella. Many of the sites of the old pilgrim hospitals, became hostels, to cope with these pilgrims.
More recently, the route attracted a growing number of modern-day pilgrims from around the globe due to a number of things :
1987 – Declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe
2012 – Named a World Heritage Site by Unesco