The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage to the sacred tomb of Saint James
located in the Northwest corner of Spain. Over a thousand years separate
those first faithful footsteps and the steady stream of 21st-century pilgrims
that currently wander the streets of Santiago de Compostela. The key to
survival is adapting to change and over the last millennium the Camino
and pilgrims have transformed in many ways.
In 1993, UNESCO declared the Camino de Santiago a world heritage site.
It starts from the boarder of France and works it way west to the city
of Santiago de Compostela covering some 750 kilometers. Originally, pilgrims
had to navigate their way using the sun, moon, stars, and even the Milky
Way. Getting lost was part of the journey. Today, the trail is so clearly
marked that losing your way is not really an option. With shinny traffic
signs, brass and tile scallop shells, and the distinct yellow arrows you'll
always be pointed to Santiago.
The oldest documentation of the Compostelana, the official certificate
of having completed the pilgrimage, was delivered to André le Breton in
the Capilla del Rey de Francia and dates back to 1321. Almost 700 years
later, you can still request the Compostelana certificate, complete with
your name in Latin. To be eligible you must have either walked or ridden
a horse for the last 100 kilometers or bicycled the last 200 kilometers.
The demand for this document has grown such that there is now a special
Pilgrim's Office that will attend to your petition.
In the 12th Century, a French Monk named Aymeric Picaud wrote a comprehensive
book detailing the route from the French border to Santiago de Compostela.
This was actually the first guidebook ever written and recommended safe
havens to sleep and eat, warned of potential dangers, such as thieves
and bandits, and described the various monuments, relics, and holy sites
that were along the way. The Codex Calixtinus broke up the Camino into
13 convenient stages that covered the entire 750 kilometers in less than
2 weeks. Today, you still see pilgrims thumbing through their guidebooks
looking for all sorts of practical information regarding accommodations,
restaurants and explanations of the countless sights. The books are also
filled with more modern conveniences, such as Internet cafes, pharmacies,
and swimming pools! However, the biggest difference now is that most books
recommend the crossing of Spain in a less exhausting 30 days to reach
To accommodate for the faithful and weary in the middle ages, albergues
or shelters were created along the route and sponsored by the Church,
nobles, and royalty. Here travelers could rest their tired bones on a
bed of straw, perhaps warm themselves by a fire, and have a sip of wine.
In the 21rst century, there continues to be a network of public albergues
run by the government and private associations related to the Camino.
These places are in high demand in the summer and are fitted with rows
and rows of bunk beds, showers (some even with hot water) and perhaps
a small kitchen to receive you after a long day of walking. And, yes,
you'll still find a sip of wine!
Upon arriving to the great Cathedral of Santiago, medieval pilgrims would
break down with tears of joy as they finally reached their destination.
Overwhelmed from surviving their journey, they would embrace the statue
of Santiago and give thanks for their arrival. Today, the emotions still
run high. Pilgrims, who were previously strangers, hug and cry as they
make their way into the Plaza Obradoiro and share that first look of the
Cathedral's ornate Baroque façade. Together they wait nervously in line to give the Apostle a hug and perform the required pilgrim rituals, just as millions of pilgrims have done before.
Despite a thousand years, the Camino de Santiago remains and its pilgrims
continue to flow into Santiago. The Camino is an unforgettable experience
that creates a special bond and camaraderie among all those who have walked
it. In a world where things change so quickly, the Camino de Santiago
is so refreshing as things really haven't changed so much after all!
About the author: Since 1999,
Alex Chang has led over ninety groups and nine hundred pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago. Born and raised in
the United States, he is lucky to call two places home as he has been
living in Spain for over seven years. He currently owns a tour company
based in Bilbao, Spain that offers small group walking tours along the
Camino de Santiago, the
Basque Country, and Andalucia, Spain.