Camino History


Camino de Santiago

The remains of Saint James, the patron saint of Spain, are entombed in Praza Obradioro Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.  His journey to this spot is as interesting as it is was circuitous.  He first traveled to Spain to spread the word of Jesus but his mission here was brief.  He was recalled to Jerusalem in 42 AD and there beheaded by Herod.  His disciples managed to return his body to Spain and bury it in what is now Finisterre (End of Land).  His body was moved several times, lost, and found again over the centuries.  There is a famous painting of him on a white charger fighting against the Moors in the mythical battle of Clavijo in 844 with his head intact on his shoulders!

St. James, San Tiago, or Santiago has been calling pilgrims from all over Europe to the northwest corner of Spain since as early as 950.  There were a great many routes used over the years and many are still in use.  The symbol for the pilgrimage is a scallop shell indicating that numerous routes lead to the same destination. (This is how the culinary delight Coquille St Jacques was named)   In the 12th century the French priest Aymeric Picaud published the 5th volume of Codex Calixtinus documenting the route from the French Pyrenees town of  St. Jean Pied de Port, making it the very first travel guide.

There is much mythology, legend, and history associated with St. James and the many routes.  But it is  the Camino Frances which has become the most popular of the ancient pilgrims’ paths.  Recent popularity can be attributed to the author Paulo Coelho’s books “The Pilgrimage” and “The Alchemist.”  More recently, the 2012 Martin Sheen & Emilio Estevez movie “The Way” has attracted huge numbers.  In 1985 only 2,491 pilgrims received a Compostela which means they either walked the last 100 kilometers (60 miles), or the rode a bicycle or horse the last 200 kilometers.   The numbers have since skyrocketed. In 2016, which was a Holy Year, 277,915 people received the Compostela certificate.  Every day at noon the cathedral hosts a Pilgrims’ Mass with often more than 1,000 attending to give thanks and to witness the spectacular portion of the ceremony, which is the swinging of the Botafumeiro, a giant incense burner originally used to cover up the stench of all the unwashed pilgrims.

Many pilgrims elect to complete their journey by continuing another 90 kilometers to Capo Finisterre in order to finish at the shores of the Atlantic where St. James entered Spain.

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