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WHAT IS THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO? HOW DID IT START AND WHY HAS IT GROWN TO ITS PRESENT LEVEL OF POPULARITY?

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.

DISTANCE

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 :

  • The encouragement of the Friends of The Camino in local towns – each area has its own committee whose job it is to keep the painted road markings, waymarks and signs in good order so that pilgrims can find their way along the route.
  • Ernest Hemingway’s book THE SUN ALSO RISES written in 1926 was about a group of friends travelling to the San Fermin festival to experience the running of the bulls in Pamplona. This festival became world famous as a result, and people travelling to it also became aware of the Camino de Santiago.
  • Paulo Coelho,  a Brazilian writer, undertook the Camino, and published his book THE PILGRIMAGE in 1986. A respected author, Coelho wrote about the mystique and inner challenges to be overcome on the Camino. Coelho has said that undertaking the Camino de Santiago changed his life. His book has since become famous worldwide.
  • In 1994 the actress Shirley Maclaine, apparantly going through a tough period in her life, decided to undertake the Camino, and completed it in full, (at the age of 60). A book written about her pilgrimage, THE CAMINO – A JOURNEY OF THE SPIRIT  in which she highlighted the intense spiritual and physical challenge that is the Camino de Santiago, became a bestseller
  • In 2009, Hape Kerkeling – a German comedian, very well known on television in his home country,  who by his own admission was “overweight, overworked, and physically unfit”,  set out to undertake the Camino. Whilst walking, he started to write a daily journal and upon his return turned it into a book –  I’M OFF THEN: LOSING AND FINDING MYSELF ON THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO. He has said that by struggling with lack of fitness each day, and the general impact that a long-distance pilgrimage like this had on him,  he discovered a deep sense of peace that transformed his life and allowed him to forgive himself and others, more easily. His book, a humorous and self-deprecating publication, was a best seller in Germany and has since been translated into many languages, including English. Its effect has been a  significantly increased level of awareness of the Camino De Santiago, across Germany in particular, and Europe in general.
  • In 2010, the film THE WAY, starring Martin Sheehan was released. This has been viewed by millions of people who had never heard of the Camino de Santiago, all around the world. It has been responsible for the arrival of many new people to undertake the pilgrimage to Santiago, in particular from the US and Canada
  • Finally, the recession across Europe has encouraged  many people to take “time out” for reflection, or to take the opportunity to experience a holiday with a difference that can be extremely cheap, and physically/mentally/spiritually rewarding at the same time

 

ACCOLADES

1987 – Declared the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe

2012 – Named a World Heritage Site by Unesco

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