The Way of St. James
Nuts and Bolts
When: Anytime of year is possible. The most popular time is in summer, however hostels can be overcrowded. Spring and fall are a bit quieter with better walking temperatures.
Where: Any path that leads to Santiago de Compostela is considered a pilgrimage, but the most popular route is the Camino Frances running through northern Spain.
The way of St. James
or El Camino de Santiago in Spanish, refers to any pilgrim route that culminates at Santiago de Compestela, a church in northern Spain. Traditionally, pilgrims make this by non-motorized means, either hiking, biking or even by horseback. There are many routes all over Europe that can be taken; some marked paths start as far off as Italy and Austria. Some still start their trek from the doorstep of their homes as ancient pilgrims did. This is made possible by the network of routes that funnel together much like a river system, where smaller routes meet up together to form bigger ones. Still others decide to make their way to the border between Spain and France and start their journey there. If you wish to start the Way of St. James at the border, there are two main trails that you can take. The French Way, unarguably the most popular route, starts at St Jean Pied-de-Port and runs 800 km through the Pyrenees, the vineyards of Rioja, the Castillian meseta and the mountains of Galicia. The Northern way(s), which hugs the north Atlantic coastline passing through the cities of San Sebastian, Santander, Bilbao and Oviedo, is less popular allowing for a quieter hike. Some even start on the Northern way and then cut down to finish the pilgrimage on the French Way. (Map source: Wikipedia)
of the Way of St. James is as follows. St James was a disciple of Jesus and was given the realm of Spain to evangelize after his death. Eventually, James’s luck ran out and he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in Judea, becoming the first apostle to be martyred. After his death, his body was placed in a stone boat on the Mediterranean which was then “carried by Angels” to northern Spain. Here the local queen, Lupa, found the body and had it placed in a tomb and carried inland. Subsequently, the tomb was forgotten until a hermit, Pelayo, found the tomb 800 years later and it was transported to present day Santiago. Spain was facing a war with the Moors, so the discovery of the body was made at quite a fortuitous time. The American, John Adams, on a trip to Europe recounts what the locals told him about the origin of the pilgrimage:
In 1987, the Way of St. James was named as the first European Cultural Route by the Council of Europe (UNESCO). The popularity of the Way of St. James has increased steadily since then. The website of UNESCO goes on further to say “There is no comparable Christian pilgrimage route of such extent and continuity anywhere in Europe: the other two pilgrimage routes, to Jerusalem and Rome, are only recognizable in a very fragmentary fashion… It passes through five Comunidades Autónomas and 166 towns and villages, and it includes over 1,800 buildings of historic interest; in many cases the modern road runs parallel to the ancient route.” In 2013, 215,880 pilgrims were registered with Santiago de Compestela as completing at least a 100 km trek to the church, 4.7% of which were US Citizens (the spikes are due to Jubilee years). The most popular arrival months are May through September, where the number of pilgrims ranged from 25 to 46 thousand in 2013. In comparison, April last year saw only 11,533 pilgrims arrive at Santiago de Compostela. Furthermore, the Northern Route has only about 1 pilgrim for every 11 on the French way (13,393 pilgrims vs. 151,761 pilgrims in 2013).
Officially, the church requires each pilgrim that wishes to receive a Compestela or certificado to select between three different reasons for their pilgrimage: “Religious”, “Religious and other” or “Other”. However, it may be more beneficial to seek out the reasons from the pilgrims themselves. Many set off with the intent of a spiritual connection. Others, like the German comedian Hape Kerkeling, have used it as a road to self discovery. Still others, like Brazilian author Paul0 Coehlo, found universal platitudes about the human experience. If you are looking for further reading, try I’m Off Then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago by Kerkeling or The Pilgrimage (Plus) by Coehlo.
Follow my Path on el Camino de SantiagoIn March, I will be walking over 500 miles in 35 days on the Northern Way. Pretty pumped to get started. Click Subscribe to get updates of my adventure.
About the Author: Andrew Delmenhorst
Whatever the reason for completing the Way of St. James, you should inform yourself on the physical requirements before you set-off. Below is a short video that gives a good idea of the physical task that awaits those along el Camino de Compostela.