The Camino de Santiago, better known in English, as The Way Of St James or St James Way ( Santiago being the Spanish name for James) is for many, a pilgrimage that for centuries been a source of personal renewal and reflection as they walk the many routes that lead to the reported burial place of the apostle St James in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela in North-Western Spain.
Like all things – the annual pilgrimage that centres around the feast day of St James on the 25th July, has been hit by the pandemic and freeze on international travel.
However this year, with most, if not all hotels, hostels and other accommodation open for booking, organisers and devotees of the trail are hoping that the walkers and pilgrims will be back.
The most famous though,are the northern routes of Spain and that from France ( Camino Frances) and Portugal – these were established during the middle ages, attracting pilgrims for hundreds of years and which are now on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Once on the UNESCO list, the pilgrimages took on a new lease of modern life – indeed in 1985 when the routes were added there were just 600 pilgrims – by 2019 some 340,000 had walked the route and received their compostela ( stamp of accomplishment.)
All end up at the magnificent baroque cathedral of his name, and last resting place of James the Apostle who, according to Catholic tradition, brought Christianity to Iberia in the immediate aftermath of the crucifixion of Jesus.
According to legend and tradition, James left the Holy Land and came by boat to the northwest part of what is today Spain, to Finisterre ( literally lands end), where it is said, he preached the gospel of Jesus.
At the time, the iberian peninsular was the Roman province of Hispania and the local populace would have been worshiping Roman or Pagan Gods.
He is believed to have been executed in Jerusalem in AD 44, but legend has it, that his body was borne by his disciples and taken to Hispania, where it was buried.
The 9th century discovery of which, and subsequent erection of the cathedral to house his remains, is the root of the medieval pilgrimage which started in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Medieval pilgrimages were an important component of society and whether for penance or indulgence, those that could show their Christian devotion did so.
As an early form of tourism it attracted people who hoped to profit, and the routes provided a handsome income for inn-keepers as well as relic sellers – along the way.
In the main, the pilgrimages were to centres where holy and venerated relics were kept – very few could afford to go to Jerusalem – especially after its fall to Saladins army in the 12the century, but there were imporant pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, Cantebury, Maastrich, Aachen as well as Rome itself.
In the case of the reveration of Santiago, his importance was magnified after he became a symbol of Christian inspiration in the fight against the Moors – with the most un-Christian of nicknames – Matamoros – slayer of Moors.
The Berber Moorish amries had crossed the Strait of Gibraltar from North Africa in 711 and had quickly overun the Visigoth kingdoms who had established themselves in the peninsular after the fall of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century.
The Moors reached the far north of modern day Spain, indeed crossing into southern France before being stopped by the Frankish king Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.
Santiago´s emblem which carried the Christian armies that pushed the Moors south in the Reconquista, was him atop a charging white horse cutting down the Moors in battle.
He is credited with providing the Christians a victory over them at the mythical Battle of Clavijo, reputed to have been in 9th century that saw his apparition leading an outnumbered force to defeat the Moorish army and their subsequent expulsion from the region.
He was made the patron saint of the Spaniards in the 17th century.
The cathedral of Santiago, is an immense Romanesque building, with later Gothic and Baroque additions. The present structure dates back to the 11th century ( an earlier was destroyed by the Moors) and is also one of the only three churches in the world built over the tomb of an apostle of Jesus.
Now that travel is again permitted, the hope is that many will once more join a route through some of the most scenic countryside in Spain.
The most popular still being the French route. This runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, talking pilgrims through the Roncevaux Pass across the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side before making its way to Puente del Reina, then passing through the capital of La Rioja, Logroño before tilting northward to Burgos, Leon and reaching Compostela de Santiago.
From end to end the route the French route takes about 30-35 days.
The numbers of pilgrims walking the roure is expected to rise after Pope Francis extended the 2021 holy year dedicated to St. James through to 2022.
For believers who take part in the pilgrimage, walking it during a Jubilee Year will give them the opportunity to receive the plenary indulgence, granting them the full remission of the temporal punishment for their sins.
So whether pilgrim or walker – our top 3 tips for a safe and enjoyable trip are:
1. Wear in your walking shoes before departing
2. Learn basic Spanish / French / Portuguese
3. Build up your stamina – bearing in mind that at 5 km an hour, walking 8 hours a day for 30 days is likely to be quite a shock for most bodies used to netflix sofa life and car commutes!